The forced remote working experience is showing employers that the WFH arrangement is a viable module for many corporate jobs and that this is likely to be true even after the pandemic is over
A communication officer at International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Rayhan Sultana Toma is responsible for producing media content based on the organisation's humanitarian activities.
She updates ICRC social media platforms as well as reports to her superiors.
Since March 26, Toma has been working from home instead of going to the ICRC office in Dhaka.
Globally, working from home, or WFH, is not a new practice, but in Bangladesh, most offices require employees to be physically present during working hours.
However, the recent Covid-19 outbreak has prompted many employees like Toma to work from home, and they have found it to be agreeable.
"The type of work I do can be conducted from anywhere with the help of a laptop and cell phone. I start working from the morning and continue till afternoon. Instead of face-to-face meetings, I join group discussions over Skype. So far, it has been going well," Toma told The Business Standard.
Shubho (alias), a computer engineer under a third party IT firm, works at the Central Procurement Technical Unit of the Planning Commission.
During the shutdown, like Toma, he too is working from home.
He trouble-shoots problems in e-tendering and addresses other technological deadlocks like he used to at his office one and a half months ago.
Shubho said that performing his duties does not require his physical presence at the office.
Before the pandemic, many employers did not approve of working from home. They were doubtful about whether work would get completed if employees were not onsite.
But the forced remote working experience is showing them that the WFH arrangement is a viable module for many corporate jobs and that this is likely to be true even after the pandemic is over.
On one hand, WFH practices require flexible working hours and employees have to respond to urgent emails whenever they arrive and complete assignments so that no work is left for tomorrow. On the other, there is no rush to reach the office on time.
In that sense, if WFH culture is adopted partially in city offices, pressure on traffic movements could be significantly reduced. Furthermore, it could potentially cut costs dramatically in terms of the expenditure of maintaining huge office spaces.
What are employers and human resource managers thinking about the future of working environments?
"Our HR department occupies a 5000sqft space. There are separate spaces for individual executives and there is a large conference room. But now, all of us are working from home and meeting virtually through Microsoft 365. The IT team that handles the gateway also works from home," said Md Ariful Islam, Head of HR at Expo Group.
He continued, "The changed situation raises a new question – do we really need such a big space for work? Perhaps we do not. I think a 1500sqft space with an open meeting table would work well. Executives could be physically present whenever needed."
Mahboob Zaman, managing director of DataSoft, one of the country's leading software companies, said that the post-pandemic world will witness many changes.
"I deeply believe that we will not go back to normal. We will embrace the new normal. Business pattern, economic order, social behaviour, working environment and other– everything will change. The pandemic has shown us that many work can be done from home, thanks to advanced technology," he said.
According to Zaman, around 70 percent of the DataSoft workforce is working from home. "In particular, those who develop software are showing excellent performance."
Still there are huge challenges for the company's marketing and administration executives whose physical presence is crucial for running the business. Zaman said, "We are working on transforming our entire working system."
Since March 18, seven days before the government announced the shutdown, Banglalink, one of the largest telecom companies in the country, started practicing WFH.
Banglalink's Chief Human Resources and Administration Officer Monzula Morshed finds WFH to be an effective working modality under the existing circumstance, as it ensures productivity as well as health safety.
"Moreover, it demonstrates the importance of building a digital work culture at a large corporate organisation like ours. Since our efforts to build such a work culture at Banglalink were already underway, we could successfully switch to WFH modality within a significantly shorter period of time," Morshed told The Business Standard.
She sees no serious disadvantages of following WFH modality, except that she misses being around her colleagues and her office work environment.
"We are striving to create that collaborative environment virtually," she said.
However, issues with WFH that have come up are also a major concern for managements.
Many interactions and meetings work better if they are held face-to-face.
Some employees lose engagement with their workplace, and technical problems can be a real hassle.
"Sometimes it becomes difficult to manage a large number of employees remotely, especially when neither the supervisor nor the team is accustomed with this model," said Mohammed Ferdous Yusuf, chief human resources officer at bKash Limited.
However, he finds that fintech companies like bKash are working well with the WFH module.
With the help of digital communication and through collaborating in virtual spaces, bKash is working flexibly and efficiently amidst the current global crisis.
"We are continuing our regular business operations in a secure and collaborative way with limited impacts. As far as alternatives are concerned, adopting WFH is working better than we thought," Yusuf said, adding that WFH has become a new normal for the fintech industry specifically.
Along with other fintech ventures, bKash facilitates contactless money transaction. But what have banks done where physical presence of workers is important?
United Commercial Bank Limited's Company Secretary ATM Tahmiduzzaman said, except for bankers who deal with cash payment, all the other UCB staff are now working from home.
Almost all of the banks closed their head offices. But everyday money transaction, which amounts to a huge number, is being managed at the workers' homes.
Both Bangladesh Bank and the Securities and Exchange Commission have approved conducting bank official meetings through digital gateways.
During the shutdown, UCB has conducted a number of successful and well participated training sessions virtually.
Still there are some legal obligations that require banks to maintain hardcopies of documents. "The pandemic has pushed us to continue working without paper documents. The ongoing practice will motivate us to fully digitalise our system," Tahmid said.
For adopting the WFH module in future, Tahmid emphasised on changing workplace practices as many offices still do not accept digital documents.
"We should have realised earlier that exchange of documents could be digitised, which we are now compelled to do due to the pandemic."
Therefore, ensuring digital security is a must. More advancement of digital technology increases the risk of hacking.
"We will need to make our digital communication systems stronger. At the same time, service providers as well as service takers need to be educated on technology. Otherwise, online-based work could lead to catastrophes," he said, hoping that someday traditional offices would be transformed into virtual ones.
"It will lower the transportation cost and time, and also create scopes for employees to spend more time with family members," Tahmid concluded.
Economists, however, point out that the working from home module won't work for most sectors in the country.
"Firstly, manufacturing activities will not work at all. Secondly, service-related activities - meaning those who sells services to others through interaction – also cannot work well," says Dr Khondaker Golam Moazzem, Research Director of Center of Policy Dialogue.
"You can remotely maintain only those sectors whose planning, product development and delivery can be done through online. But unfortunately, the work from home module will not sustain in the long run if the whole economy does not start to move. Because working from home is also interconnected with the whole economy," he added.
Additional reporting by Azizur Rahman Anik