It's no secret that the pandemic has turned our working life upside down. But against all odds, we pushed through and settled in our work-from-home routine. Once we got past the challenge of figuring out how to work in a makeshift desk and finding the best quiet spot for a conference call, we began to appreciate the simple pleasures this setup offers — more time with family, the company of our pets, no commute time and so on.
But as movement restrictions are being eased bit by bit, we're once again going through another phase of work-related adjustment: going back to the office safely during the pandemic. With the looming threat of catching COVID-19 around the corner, what was then a simple task of reporting to the workplace is now a complicated mission.
New normal, new problems
With active cases below a hundred, Malaysia is one of the first countries in Southeast Asia to get a glimpse of life in the "new normal". As early as June, workers have been permitted to go back to the office. Tamy Ganes, who works for Kuala Lumpur-based coworking space Found8, believes that given the improved current situation, it is quite safe to report back. "Cases in Malaysia peaked at the beginning of April, but then quickly dropped and kept dropping due to the ongoing movement control order," she shared, citing that Malaysia's success in keeping cases down is due to the right measures taken by the government and the cooperation of the people which includes wearing a mask even if it can be quite uncomfortable at times. "It’s difficult to breathe in the mask while commuting to the office, but otherwise it’s alright," she said.
Across the border, Singapore has also eased restrictions and entered Phase Two of the circuit breaker where public spaces are starting to open up including office buildings. Charlotte Phua of Touch PR & Events shared that despite this, precautions are still a must and she only reports back for essential work. "If there are tasks that can be done at home, we are encouraged to work from home whenever possible unless we are required to be in office for essential work such as packing press kits and doing the necessary inventory check," she shared. Going to work can sometimes be a stressful experience for her as there are times that social distancing in public transportation isn't observed. "Keeping my immunity strong through taking Vitamin C supplements and regular exercise is a priority for me," she said.
While Malaysia and Singapore residents are more or less quite at ease with commuting for work, the sentiment in the Philippines couldn't be more different. With the country holding the record for having the most active cases in the Southeast Asian region, public sentiment is filled with worry about the reopening of the economy. For many local workers who are on the "no work, no pay" scheme and are offered no alternative — not even a work-from-home arrangement — going to the office is a literal risk they have to take every day to make a living. "I honestly think that the current situation is not good enough for people to start working in offices," said a designer working in the country's capital region; she prefers to remain anonymous.
She shared that, aside from the high possibility of contracting the virus due to high cases in the area, the commute has become an extra burden. "Commuting during this time is more expensive than before because, for example, buses have limited specific pick-up or drop-off points so if you live far from those pickup or drop-off points, you have no choice but to ride a taxi, book a Grab, or wait for a free ride offered by the military," she said. "It's scary. You don't know if someone around you is infected so you will become paranoid but you have no choice but to go to work because you need money to live." She added that the anxiety and stress of taking public transportation have taken a toll on her mental health and she's become prone to overthinking and being "paranoid" about getting infected and potentially spreading it to family members.
The new work environment
There's no question that a work from home situation is incredibly convenient. But camaraderie between workers is something that's missed during the quarantine period. "It feels good to be back actually! Being able to work in the office for essential tasks once a week makes me look forward to catching up with my teammates. I really missed the social interaction with them. Virtual calls are just different," Charlotte shared. Tamy echoed the sentiment. "I missed the great energy, all the amazing members and the colleagues that create it. It feels great to be in the office again," she said.
Upon going back, a new office environment greeted them. One where temperature checks are a routine, disinfection is done 'round the clock, office layouts are designed to put a distance between workers and one where smiles and frowns are covered by masks and only shown through the windows of our souls.
New technology has also made its way in the workplace. One that's being used in Touch PR & Events' office is the SafeEntry feature where you scan a QR app, input your details and log whether you're checking in or out. This will help ease the labour of manual bookkeeping of entry and exit logs and is a good tool for efficient contact tracing.
Which is better: work-from-home or reporting to the office?
The consensus is a combination of both. It seems like a flexible work-from-home and workplace hybrid style is the most favourable. "Our new schedule splits our team into two, covering alternating weeks. So I get to interact with my colleagues and members for a week, and then I spend a week working from home — I get the best of both worlds," Tamy shared. Meanwhile, Charlotte shared: "I like the balanced combination of both. Being able to work at the office once a week works really well for me because there are just tasks that really require us to be physically at the office."
Even the Metro Manila-based designer we interviewed acknowledge that although she prefers a work-from-home setup due to the high volume of active cases in the city, sometimes reporting to the office is still necessary. "I prefer working at home. I think that working from home saves time because you don't have to commute and you will be safe. But there are cases when we have tasks and we really need to be physically present at the office so I think a blended set up of working from home and reporting to the office will be better."
These days, it feels like we're in a perpetual state of adjusting; fighting so hard for the lives we once knew. But moving forward, life will never be quite as we know it. Our best bet is to stay resilient amidst this ever-changing situation.
Does fashion still have a place in the new normal? Find out here.