Ralph Maraj

political analysts Ralph Maraj 

An early theme of this column has been the future of work.

I have recommended that Trinidad and Tobago, in the public and private sectors, must implement telecommuting for improved national efficiency and productivity. Wikipedia says that, “With telecommuting, employees do not commute to a central place of work, like an office building, but use telecommunications technology—laptops, desktops, tablets or smartphones—to work from coffee shops or home, going once or twice a week to the office to maintain social relationships.” Such persons are known as “telecommuters”, “teleworkers”, or “work-at-home” employees. A new mantra has emerged that “Work is something you do, not something you travel to; work is what we do, not where we are.” This is happening all over the world. According to Reuters, “one in five workers around the globe, particularly in the Middle East, Latin America and Asia, telecommute frequently and nearly ten per cent work from home every day”.

The coronavirus pandemic has brought remote work into greater focus. In response to calls for “social distancing” to reduce spreading the infection, workplaces everywhere, including the US federal government and Amazon, have instructed many workers to work remotely from home. This global emergency could generate greater acceptance of remote work as a norm of modern life.

Trinidad and Tobago should take advantage of the opportunity. For years we pursued public service reform, introduced information technology and talked assiduously about electronic government. How much has been achieved? We are still shackled by the rigidity that working necessitates being physically in the workplace. But so many employees can now work and communicate from computers wherever they are. The critical thing should be getting the task done and on time, whether you work at night in your pyjamas, or during the day in shorts, at home or elsewhere. The infusion of information and communication technology (ICT) into the society must bring a world liberated from the humdrum, stressful traditional workplace, giving workers the time and space to better manage work and family obligations, improving performance in both areas.

This is where we must go. Think of the time and energy saved, the giant steps in productivity and competitiveness, the liberation from frustrating traffic that renders most commuters weary by the time they get to the workplace. Telecommuting will become the norm this century. A study by Switzerland-based office provider IWG surveyed 18,000 business professionals across 96 international companies and found that 70 per cent of professionals work remotely at least one day a week, while 53 per cent work remotely for at least half of the week. At present 25 per cent of the US workforce telecommutes for a part of the working week and more Americans now work from home than commute to the workplace using the mass transit system. In Britain, by the end of this year, the forecast is that 50 per cent of employees will be working remotely. According to Global Workplace Analytics, telecommuting numbers have grown by 115 per cent since 2005, with 36 per cent of people even preferring the option to telework over a pay rise,

The management of teleworkers is also being addressed. A Regus Global Economic Indicator surveyed over 26,000 business managers across 90 countries and found 48 per cent work remotely for half their working week, with 55 per cent of managers stating that effective management of remote workers is an attainable goal: “Trust and freedom play a key role in remote management, and once these are in place, the benefits are clear for all to see: greater productivity, improved staff retention and lower operating costs.”

With our small population, telecommuting will bring transformational change to Trinidad and Tobago. Surveys have shown that, for business, less personnel in the workplace means reduced overheads and less expenditure for office space; for the employee, working at home means less money for wardrobe, meals, commuting and more; and telecommuting results in a happier, more productive work force, reduced absenteeism and less burn-out among employees, liberated from overbearing supervision. And imagine 60 per cent or more of our national workforce not having to hustle to and from work every day. It all makes for a less stressful environment, freedom from daily crawling traffic and reduced road rage. It means more stable homes, healthier, happier lives. It points to a new society.

We must get on the telecommuting train. After billions spent over the last 58 years, we have an utterly laughable public transport system, necessitating almost one million vehicles on the road daily, set to increase by about 40,000 annually, wasting precious man-hours and energy in traffic, devastating productivity.

Besides, as has been found, people are more effective working from home than at the office where they face endless interruptions like co-workers stopping to chat, or conversations carried on at the water cooler; telecommuters are more productive when they can schedule work during their most effective periods, some individuals being morning people, others more productive at night; they can also plan their work around other demands, like time with family or running personal errands, not taking days off to attend to these.

According to an In Magazine poll, telecommuters put in more than 40 hours per week; and 90 per cent of managers believe telecommuters are more productive.

Also, Global Workplace Analytics estimates telecommuting would increase national productivity in the US by five million man years or US$270 billion, and every year the US would save about 90,000 lives from traffic related injury or death. We too would reduce the horrific carnage on our roads!

See the silver lining in the COVID-19 pandemic.

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It is a well-established truism that a crisis is a terrible thing to waste.

On the basis of and in recognition of this reality, conversations are taking place among various professional and sectoral elites about how not to let this moment pass without taking advantage of it.

The action taken by the Government over the past two or three weeks with respect to control and containment of the COVID-19 virus, which has been in line, by and large, with the action taken by other countries, ought to be supported if we are to weather this virulent epidemic.

The T&T public is generally satisfied with how the government has handled this Covid-19 crisis to date. On the other hand, one senses a reluctance, if not open fear, to express a contrary opinion or suggestion. Why risk being called divisive or inappropriate?

Speaking recently in New York, the state governor, Andrew Cuomo, said: “The stress, the emotion, is just incredible, and rightfully so. It is a situation that is one of the most disruptive that I have seen, and it will change almost everything going forward. It will. That is a fact. It’s not your perception. It’s not just you. It’s all of us and it’s true and it’s real. Nobody can tell you when this is going to end... It will change almost everything.”

Nerves are frayed, tempers are on the edge, patience is dissolving. In any prolonged period of stress, the psychological toll is amplified. Even those who are generally composed—the Unflappables—can slip into a crack.