I live in the urban jungle of Metro Manila, Philippines. The metropolis is divided into seventeen cities and municipalities, the largest of which is Quezon City in the north, the city I call home. Its distance of at least 20 kilometers from the key business districts of Makati and Taguig makes the air I breathe largely soot-free, but traveling that distance also means at least 2 hours of driving in traffic. My health is in a bind wherever I go.
But as with every problem, there is a solution, one that is effective, counter-intuitive and less accepted by industries used to the traditional 9–5 grind. That solution is telecommuting or remote work, which could help this country lower its estimated loss of P3 billion ($ 58 million) in potential income daily due to traffic.
Telecommuting refers to employees who work remotely from their office, and communicate by email and instant messaging either daily or occasionally. According to a Reuters poll, it is a work option that is already popular in emerging markets and is less popular in developed countries such as Hungary, Germany, Sweden, France, Italy, and Canada where less than 10% of people work from home.
This makes sense to someone like me who is part of that emerging market demographic that is perennially stuck in traffic.
Fifteen years ago, I was a communications executive at a 5-star hotel in Makati, which is an easy 40-minute drive from Quezon City if I leave the house at 5:30 AM. Today, if I leave the house at 5:30 AM, I arrive in Makati at 7:00 AM.
Wages do not increase as the volume of vehicles on the roads rises. They remain static for years and do not immediately adjust for inflation. So after doing a cost-benefit analysis, and comparing the amount of money I make versus the amount of stress daily traffic yields, I decided to go it alone, work from home and consult for a few clients, accepting lower pay with no benefits.
Finding a job in my city is possible, but the best companies to work for with competitive wages are in certain business districts outside of my city. With traffic, they could take hours to get to. It is similar to living in a New Jersey suburb and having to commute for work in New York City. The difference is, Manila does not have a reliable railway system, and the one that it does have merely traverses major highways with no stops in the outskirts like the Hoboken or Newport PATH stops. There is also no dependable ferry service like the one that goes to Staten Island, even when we have a 27-km Pasig River that cuts through Metro Manila and can alternately ferry passengers who are not in a hurry. The company culture here is also quite traditional, still predominantly 9–5, and very hierarchical, nevermind that there is a telecommuting law permitting companies to voluntary allow some of their staff to work from home.
Many of these traditional companies dominate the health care, airline, construction, logistics, and banking industries, whose products and services ensure our welfare and survival. But times are changing. We are at the height of the digital age and at the cusp of the next environmental disaster, and yet organizations are still promoting a work culture that is a remnant of the industrial age. The 9–5 grind may still work for the decision-makers, but not for everyone in their company, not when traffic, pollution, and stress are compromising the health and wellness of their employees. Why can’t people work at the office for only four hours if that is the only time they need to finish their work? Why is the value of their output still measured in hours? Do companies really make more money when their employees are always stuck in traffic?
For poor countries like the Philippines, some form of remote work (i.e. once a week, hiring a person from another province) is attractive because there is no sign of traffic congestion in the main cities like Manila and Cebu easing up soon. The risk of traffic accidents is high when driver education is minimal at best, and new private vehicles and motorcycles are sold each year. This elevates pressure on outworn transportation infrastructure that requires frequent road repairs paid for by taxpayer’s money and cause more traffic to the commuter’s dismay. More cars on the road also exacerbate air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.
The ones who qualify comprise a substantial portion of the population we can get off the streets and into their thinking zones, wherever that may be.
The trend favoring telecommuting or a combination of both office and remote work looks promising in the United States.
- According to a 2017 Gallup poll, 43% of employed Americans had spent at least some time working remotely.
- A US census data released in 2018 reported that 5.2% of US workers were based entirely at home.
- The Global State of Remote Work 2018 reported that in 2017, only 15% of US companies did not allow remote work.
- A Stanford University study in 2017 also found that “the average worker is willing to give up 20% of wages to avoid a schedule set by an employer on short notice and 8% for the option to work from home.”
The rest of the world seems to encourage telecommuting, which has grown 159% since 2005, 11x faster than the rest of the workforce. In Asia, the top reason that people choose to work remote is increased productivity and better focus. Not having to commute is in a close second.
Workers in the Philippines and other developing nations such as India and Indonesia dread their daily, time-wasting, stressful commute. I know because I live it, and I detest any form of waste, from water, food, talent and time. I believe that the need for telecommuting here is far more urgent than in the United States, where working remotely is already widely accepted.
If you are working in an emerging market, and have been considering a remote work arrangement, make a compelling case for it to your supervisor by laying out, ideally with numbers, how a few days off-site can be beneficial to the organization in the long run.
Telecommuting can help the company expand its talent pool and make it more inclusive. It opens up opportunities for people performing tasks online but are located in another state or province, have disabilities or are retired but would like to share their wisdom from decades of experience. It also helps retain more women who look after young children and the needs of a household.
Telecommuting lowers absenteeism and turnover. When you get a day of rest that allows you to roast the chicken or do the laundry while you answer emails, you are not frantically trying to squeeze in errands during the weekend ideally spent with your family. It minimizes the incentive to call in sick even when you are not, and you appreciate your company for giving you that leeway.
Telecommuting health expenses and the spread of illness. When you are less stressed by not having to commute or having to wake up early every day, you are less prone to getting sick. This significantly reduces the co-payment that you and your employer will incur. On the rare occasion that you do have the sniffles, but can still check and respond to email, you can rest up and work from home and avoid contaminating the office.
Telecommuting increases productivity. Most desk jobs require concentration, which is best achieved in the more silent sanctuary of your own home. Even if you like your colleagues, it can be annoying when they unnecessarily bother you with a question while you are rushing a report. You keep this to yourself because you do not want people to think you are the stern curmudgeon down the hall.
Telecommuting reduces energy usage, utilities, office rent, and even coffee. When an employee is working from home, he or she takes on the costs of a good Internet connection, electricity, coffee and printing services, if necessary. It saves the organization money that could be better spent on upgrading the skills of its workforce.
As a remote worker, one of my main costs is logistics. I hire a motorcycle rider to deliver certain documents, have them signed, then brought back to me. The rider can do in 2 hours what I would have done in 4 hours because he can criss-cross his way through traffic. The benefit far outweighs the cost.
Telecommuting minimizes office politics. There is some likelihood that your colleagues will talk negatively about you in your absence, but real politics is when they try to remove any chance of you getting promoted in your presence. It takes two to tango, and in this case, you don’t have to dance.
If you are an employer or C-Level executive, you are probably driven around in your comfortable vehicle where you make your calls while stuck in traffic. Do take a moment to think about your staff who are enduring the long, painful and polluted commute in a bus or are driving through rush hour traffic after a long day at work. Their reality is not similar to yours. They could be stuck not just on the road but also in life, just because hours in traffic kept them away from the people who matter the most: their kids who are already asleep when they arrive. With telecommuting, you can help reverse the situation by permitting an arrangement that will help your team compensate for that lost time through increased productivity and flexibility.
If you are an employee, and you get permission to work from anywhere, you will feel the benefits instantly. You will save on transport costs such as bus and train tickets, gas and parking fees substantially. You will experience fewer interruptions from your colleagues. You will accomplish far more than what you are able to in the office if you do not let inevitable distractions from home get to you. You will also be attending meetings less frequently, which, unfortunately, could render you vulnerable to an “out of sight, out of mind” management behavior which could cost you your promotion. Do not let this happen, especially if you work remotely full-time. Demand that career advancement decisions be based on your KPIs and hard data.
Furthermore, ask the HR specialist at your organization for an appointed day for remote workers to reconnect at the office or at some cafe in the city where your company has hired several employees with flexible work arrangements. That modest investment in employee engagement is still much more affordable than the free food and coffee that they serve you at the office cafeteria every day.
Innovations in technology and communications have enabled people to work effectively and efficiently whether at home or at a surfing resort in Siargao.
The basic tools for digital nomads are a working laptop, electricity for charging, and a decent Internet connection. Anyone can choose from a wide selection of device-agnostic applications: Google Suite, Facebook Messenger, Viber, WhatsApp, Trello, Dropbox and OneDrive. Since these workers travel frequently, it is best that they keep the hardware light. You may also ditch the laptop altogether. I regretted having to carry a laptop during my 6-week vagabonding adventure when most of my work email had been responded to through my phone.
For workers that have negotiated at least 2 days a week of remote work, the same basics apply. But depending on how vital your role is in the organization, you may have to upgrade your videoconferencing tools and get your computer connected to your company’s Intranet.
For full-time remote workers who may be residing in a different country, they should have all the tools mentioned plus access to virtual private networks.
The needed investment for these tools is modest, while the savings on overhead costs and travel time are significant if you compare hiring remote workers versus setting up an office in a new country. This allows startups and companies in a poor country like the Philippines to compete globally, especially if the largest segment of the workforce is 20-something healthy millennials who speak English.
Employers can get creative. For employees who do like being at the office, work hours can be adjusted. Instead of the usual 7 or 8 AM arrival, why not clock in at 11 AM or even after lunch so that not everyone is clogging up the streets during rush hour? Staff can do emails in the morning at home and then meetings in the afternoon at the office, and that is just one example.
Legislators should explore ways to incentivize companies that innovate and make life more tolerable for their commuting workers. Any corporate initiative to get more cars off the road complies with the Clean Air Act. Company volunteers who plant trees are compliant with the Green Building Act. Companies that implement flexible work arrangements are obsequious to the recently passed Telecommuting Law. Can these companies earn more than just mere brownie points for that?
This should also apply to the national government with over 1 million workers in its bloated bureaucracy. As a public servant for ten years, I can assure you that not everyone deserves to be at the office every day and could waste less of the taxpayer’s money already spent on them by staying home.
Not all organizations are created equal, so the best thing your company can do for you now is to at least be open to some experimentation. From my experience, the sweet spot is in combining telecommuting and office work, so go ahead and ask for it. But have a clear vision of why this arrangement is important to you and why it is a proposal your company cannot ignore. Do the math and write it up as succinctly as possible. It just might do your company a lot of good, especially if it is a promising startup bootstrapping its operations while trying to solve problems in developing countries.