First of two parts

For many organizations trying to regain their footing post-pandemic, it can be quite a paradigm shift to make decisions on adopting hybrid work models, especially since health alert levels continue to be lowered as a means of stimulating economic activity. Hence, under the new normal, corporate leaders will have to address new challenges and questions in managing hybrid teams.

There can be great reluctance on the part of organizations to come to terms with the need for a flexible workforce post-pandemic. While opinions vary on the actual productivity that remote work has delivered in the past two years vis a vis pre-pandemic operations, flexible work arrangements offered an avenue for many organizations to remain operational despite the lockdown. There is also anecdotal evidence in support of how various organizations remained productive with telecommuting. However, each organization will need to gauge productivity for themselves given the scale and nature of their operations.

A look into worker sentiment points to a general preference for an arrangement that involves flexibility in when and where employees perform their duties. The recent EY Future Consumer Index shows employees “losing interest in pre-pandemic work patterns,” a finding that reinforces those made in the EY 2021 Work Reimagined Employee Survey that showed the majority of surveyed employees in Southeast Asia preferred not to return to pre-COVID ways of working.

In the case of the business process outsourcing industry, which employs an estimated 1.4 million workers, there has been overwhelming preference on the part of the talent for a balanced, hybrid work arrangement. This has prompted industry leaders to propose that the government reconsider its order for the outsourcing companies to prepare for a return to full office operations lest they lose their tax perks that are contingent on full on-site operations.

Over the past two years, hybrid teams have attracted an abundance of attention. Employees generally favor the opportunity to distance themselves from the workplace — both geographically and emotionally. Filipinos working in the National Capital Region and key cities notorious for traffic congestion found great relief from the hassles of the daily commute. In the human resources domain, the conversations these days among experts often gravitate to the paths that organizations plan to take post-pandemic.

The idea of hybrid work models being in the forefront of conversations in human resources did not happen by chance though, even with the lockdowns providing the impetus for organizations to stay agile and quickly find ways to keep operations going amid the restrictions on mobility especially in the first few months of the community quarantine. If you look at legislation related to hybrid work models, telecommuting was a concept already found in our legislative bills before health authorities detected the first COVID-19 case in the Philippines.

REMOTE WORK POLICYRepublic Act 11165 or the Telecommuting Act was signed in Dec. 2018 or more than a year before the pandemic. The law formalizes the option for employees to work from home and declares telecommuting as an alternative work arrangement that both employers and employees may implement upon mutual consent. The law also sets out the rights and duties of both employers and employees and promotes employee welfare.

Telecommuting and other alternative work models have since become an important subject for legislation and policymaking.

A look into our evolving policy regime on flexible work models brings to mind the Department of Labor and Employment’s Labor Advisory No. 09 Series of 2020 which seeks to assist and guide employers and employees in the implementation of “various flexible work arrangements as alternative coping mechanism and remedial measures” during the pandemic. This may not, however, bolster the narrative for hybrid teams because its use of the term “flexible work arrangements” can actually worry employees; “arrangements” referred to in the policy are reduced work hours or workdays, rotation of workers, and forced leave — so-called “better alternatives than outright termination of the services of the employees or the total closure of the establishments.”

Responsibilities of employers to their employees are likely to evolve as well if hybrid work models were indeed to become the norm.

The experience with telecommuting during the pandemic has, in fact, called the attention of lawmakers to the issue of rest hours as employers’ control over employees now extends beyond work hours through the use of phone, email, and messaging apps. With technology and the ease of communication that it brings, it is easy for lines to blur between work and home. Employees can easily fall into the trap of voluntarily keeping lines of communication open and their devices switched on beyond work hours even if not required by their superiors.

Senate Bill 2475 or the Workers Rest Law proposes penalties on employers who intrude on workers’ rest hours to prevent work from depriving employees of their personal time.

COMPRESSED WORKWEEKThe government’s economic managers have also considered a proposal for a four-day workweek to help businesses cut costs. There are still no clear signs on whether this proposal will lead to a new law or a department order since the government is likely to present this as management prerogative rather than a mandate for companies to follow.

Two years of telecommuting has also given rise to a host of concerns on the part of employees who are responsible for staying available for tasks and meetings during work hours. While remote work saves them the costs and hassles of the daily commute, in return they carry the burden of logistics, internet and utility expenses. Senate Bill 1706 seeks to ease this burden by providing a tax break equivalent to a P25 reduction from the taxable income for every hour worked from home.

There have been companies that have opted to extend financial assistance to specific teams within the organization, whose continued productivity weigh more than the cost of any internet connectivity subsidy.

OFFICE SPACEOther practical considerations that many companies choosing the hybrid team path will have to tackle include the use of leased office space. Some have had to contend with being unable to negotiate significant discounts on office lease contracts despite the extended lockdowns in the Philippines that kept most workstations unoccupied. A decision to pursue a hybrid work model post-pandemic will mean reconsidering an organization’s pre-pandemic need for space.

As organizations explore options to adjust their use of space and optimizing every square meter, some have looked into the hoteling concept (telecommuters reserve a workstation or desk for their in-office days) or hot desking (an employee finds and works at any open seat when in the office). Hoteling is seen as a way of cutting an organization’s office space requirements and costs while also ensuring that social distancing can be managed should employees physically enter the workplace. This can offset investments in equipment and technology that may be needed to support a hybrid team and keep members collaborating as well as responsive to client needs.

There can be many more challenges to learn along the way as most organizations take this route, and leaders’ responses can vary from one company to another. As organizations devise their own mix of work arrangements that are suitable to their business models, this direction cannot be seen as a partial return to the old “normal.” Instead, this charts a new path forward that acknowledges the changes in workforce needs and the opportunity for leadership to reimagine the future of work.

In the second part of this article, we will talk about the challenges of keeping employee well-being at the forefront in the hybrid work environment.

This article is for general information only and is not a substitute for professional advice where the facts and circumstances warrant. The views and opinion expressed above are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of SGV & Co.

Czarina R. Miranda is the People Advisory Services Leader of SGV & Co.