COVID-19’S IMPLICATION ON MYANMAR CORPORATE WORK
THE CURRENT SITUATION
Initially uncovered in the Province of Wuhan, China last December 31, 2019, the uproar prompted by the SARS-COV-2 virus has now escalated as a mass threat, with hundreds of thousands of people and their communities affected. The World Health Organization (WHO) now recognizes the outbreak as a global pandemic and the state of affairs continue to evolve briskly, as stakeholders of respective economies fast-track their relief actions to the crisis.
In a bid to poleax the contagion curve, the Myanmar government has respectively declared and imposed nationwide lockdowns and restrictions. In this light, academic institutions, public entities, and private sector companies were decidedly advised to work remotely. By this time, we are beholding shifts demanding firms and organizations to changeround their operations and go from physical to virtual in an instant. This sudden switch resulted in confronts for many businesses in the country as not everyone had suitable equipment or settings, and as new working habits and culture needed to be formed.
While nothing is certain as of present, what Colliers can be sure of is that a formerly unrealisable number of companies now operate in an almost utterly virtual working biome. Though the assumption is that this will be a short-lived, passing change, it has raised a number of critical queries: Is this going to modify the nature of work? How is this going to affect employee-employer dynamics? How is productivity measured? Can folks continue to find value in work if so much of it becomes digital? Will this be the new normal?
RETRACING THE OLD NORMAL
More people than ever have tied up in remote work. In a recent study led by Boston Consulting Group (BCG), it was assessed that there are approximately 300 million office workers who have started operating remotely across the world. As theorized, the number may perhaps be higher, with more than four billion people already fronting levels of restrictions and lockdowns.
While the pandemic indisputably prompted a voyage away from the customary place of work, the fruition of remote work began long before. Conferring to previous studies piloted by labour economists and academics, the history of remote work is seen to be closely linked to the progress of information transfer and advancements in technology. Though both developments initially prospered independently, scholars believe that the conditions of these two significantly influenced each other’s maturity. It wasn’t until 1970s when remote work and cutting-edge machineries locked arms and transformed the workplace side-by-side.
While remote work is presently seen as a modern-day convenience, work-from-home arrangement used to be the normal way of life for laborers back then. According to Virtual Vocations, before 1800s, different walks of life such as blacksmiths, carpenters, weavers, gunsmiths, saddlers, and even barbers would partition their living space or build a separate structure on their land to carry out their work. Many farmers who raised livestock added lofts above their produce or blocked off a part of the barn for living quarters.
However, the first actual work-from-home experiment was conducted in 1970s. The simulation involved 30 federal government workers, when the oil supply predicament occasioned in long gas lines and costly fuel. Visionary proprietors deliberated ways to curtail commutes, such as building outpost offices instead of everyone travelling to the head office, or excluding commutes altogether.
Moving to the 1980s, giants like J.C. Penney begun employing home-based call center agents in order to minimise costs and offer employment incentives. Businesses similarly began to see the importance of computers and incorporated such into their daily operations. At that time, Bill Gates launched his renowned Windows operating system, which modernized business computing forever.
In 1990, such work arrangement further flourished after the enactment of the Clean Air Act in America. Six years later, the federal government carried out the National Telecommuting Initiative to exhibit its support to more remote working prospects. In that same year, phones went digital and gave birth to the second generation (2G). Texting was made known to the world, personal digital assistants (PDAs) became widely held, and Blackberry proven itself as a leader of business communications technology.
As reported by Virtual Vocations, by the 2000s, remote work models floriforate and became more mainstream. Social media, third generation (3G) mobile devices, and streaming technology made communication easier and faster. Broadband service for mobile phones was introduced in 2001 and evolved quickly to enhance data transfer and connect more devices to the internet. Apple also released its first iPhone in 2007, which paved the way for handheld devices and user experiences. In addition, more software applications like Slack, Hootsuite, and Skype were started to enable dispersed teams to collaborate and work from remote locations. Advancements in cloud-computing similarly made remote teamwork more effective and accessible. Likewise, co-working spaces began popping up left and right to offer individuals and startups alternative work environments.
As have been established, remote working carries a rich history. Colliers believes that as more companies embrace and harness the potential of this concept, its legacy will further evolve and should benefit more organisations and institutions going forward. At present, Myanmar’s continuing advancements in communication and networking capabilities will certainly give way for more remote work opportunities and better collaboration among dispersed teams, especially now with the health crisis at the forefront. However, the question lies as to how Myanmar companies can gainfully pilot their way into the current situation. Can this arrangement be sustainable on a massive scale?
A GLIMPSE OF THE WORK HORIZON
Given these trying times, it is imperative to note that every crisis comes with an opportunity, and it may be that distinguishing the potential for home working will be a strategic business consideration emerging from the virus with companies further upgrading this work scheme as part of their operational model.
However, as we know, not all functions in the company fits this concept. Some functions are well-suited than the others. Customer support can be readily provided remotely with the right tech infrastructure in place. Services such as remote automobile repairs, on the other hand, are undoubtedly a long way off yet. Several backing functions can be delivered in a remote work assembly, without significant changes necessary. Research, legal, sales support, marketing activities, human resources and alike all offer cases of such functions.
It is not quite clear how far this transition might take root beyond the crisis period. However, Colliers is certain that this will be dictated by just how long and how much the crisis evolves.
It seems practical for Myanmar companies to expect a model where remote practice is involved as part of a flexible working arrangement for many organisations. This could include job roles that adopt part-time work at home alongside regular office attendance. Such measures may perhaps complement the traditional office space, not entirely replace it. This new normal may inspire an adaptive office model, potentially embracing a more dynamic hot-desk concept with social distancing measures and fluid seating structures.
Despite the doles and benefits posed by remote working, the demand for proper, dedicated office spaces in Myanmar is and will persist to stay.
As we have reported in our most recent office report, Colliers is not anticipating a sizeable decline in demand for office spaces, albeit domestic and foreign firms alike will be prudent in relocation or expansion activities. Likewise, the impact is expected to be less severe, buoyed by the awaited entry of new foreign banks in the country. While the actual relocations may take some time, planning phases of these institutions have already begun and movements are likely to emerge in H2 2020. A number of companies are similarly anticipated to increase their office space requirements per employee. For traditional occupiers, they typically require 2-3 sq metres per employee. However, given the current situation, we can expect companies to seek for 5-8 sq metres per employee. Overall, most occupiers will likely postpone major relocation decisions in the near-term as they address the more immediate impacts to their business from the pandemic.
Nonetheless, more than ever before, remote work scheme is seen to be entrenched more deeply in the corporate and operational environments in the foreseeable future. However, there are key attentions for companies bat the back of this decision and in managing this shift. Irrespective of whether teams are working remotely or in-office, employers have a duty to guarantee that a safe working environment is sustained.
Indeed, COVID-19 elicited the disruption. It is now up to firms and businesses to steer the office space evolution to follow. This is a crucial time to shape a fair and sustainable future of work. More than ever before, the message for policy-makers, employers, workers and their representatives is straightforward: Prepare for tomorrow by taking action now.