After COVID-19: Work Life Post-Quarantine

April 22, 2020
Emerald Jay D. Ilac, PhD

Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) is a newly discovered infectious disease that primarily attacks the respiratory system. Its outbreak became a global health pandemic early in 2020. The World Health Organization (WHO) states most people affected by the disease will experience mild to moderate respiratory illness and may recover without requiring special treatment. However, those with underlying medical problems such as diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, and cancer are more likely to develop severe illness. What is known is that the virus is transmittable via saliva droplets or nasal discharges when an infected person sneezes or coughs. Once affected, common symptoms would include dry coughs, sore throats, fever, tiredness, and in extreme cases, difficulty in breathing. There are no developed vaccines or medical cures against the virus, and what is highly suggested is to stop the infection and slow down its transmission. 
Apart from washing hands, not touching the face, eyes, and nose, and maintaining social distance of at least two meters, governments all over halted travel, suspended classes, and required people to stay at home. 

This forced organizations to immediately adjust, profoundly affecting the world of work. Though essential businesses have continued to operate such as supermarkets, pharmacies, gasoline stations, and banks, majority shifted from office work to working from home. People who were used to face-to-face interaction, handshakes, and lunch gatherings now had to work in their homes, facing computer screens and doing online meetings, disrupting usual patterns of worker behavior. The International Labor Organization (ILO) called for an immediate human-centered response to the pandemic. It hopes governments, workers, and employers will play a crucial role against the virus, and will ensure safety of individuals alongside sustainability of businesses and jobs. 
Global Impact of Covid-19 on Work 

In its April 2020 report, the ILO gave estimates and analysis on the impact of the virus on the world of work. 

Their estimates show workplace closures have increased rapidly within weeks of the pandemic. To date, 81% of the global workforce operate in countries with mandatory or recommended closures. Employment in these represent 87% of the workforce of upper-middle-income countries and 70% of the workforce in high-income countries.

The pandemic is affecting a global workforce of 3.3 billion, where the most affected industries are those from the arts, entertainment and recreation, transportation, accommodation and food services, real estate, and manufacturing. Employees from these sectors represent 1.25 billion workers, almost 38% of the global workforce.

Working hours have also declined 6.7% in the second quarter of 2020, equivalent to 195 million full-time workers. 

Mental Health Toll of COVID-19 

Aside from the economic strain, the global pandemic caused anxiety and stress. People are operating differently from what they are used to, causing serious disruptions. 

Reasons abound for anxiety in quarantine lockdown due to a pandemic: risk of infection, fear of becoming sick, losing loved ones, as well as financial hardship. In a country such as the Philippines, the financial repercussion of procuring food for one’s family results in heightened stress, especially for informal workers whose livelihood remains suspended.

Institutions such as the Psychological Association of the Philippines, Ateneo Center for Organization Research and Development (Ateneo CORD), and the Ateneo Bulatao Center for Psychological Services released tips and guidelines how to handle anxiety and stress during these troubling times. Coping and maintaining a healthy psychological well-being for those affected by the pandemic is of prime value in the midst of uncertainty. 

Work Life After Quarantine 

Though hope springs that the pandemic will end in the next weeks or months, the question remains: what will be the new normal in how people work after quarantine? 

Changes to the workplace as a result of the pandemic would undoubtedly stay. One vital realization of the changes currently happening is that there is no going back to normality as we used to know it. Social distancing might still be the status quo as long as the virus is present in asymptomatic individuals, with vaccination still distant. Wearing masks may still be required once people step outside their homes.

These will alter the way individuals, organizations, and society operates, and a new mindset will take into effect once quarantine is lifted. Human Resources will have to be in the forefront of this new mindset to ensure employees remain mentally healthy amidst the change.

Seven elements can become the new standard in the world of work after quarantine. These are summed up as REBUILD. 

Remote Work 

While working at home during the pandemic may not have been smoothly transitioned, it gives people a taste of what could be the new normal. Given social distancing may remain in affect until vaccines become available, working from home may become the continued necessary step in ensuring community health, national security, and economic productivity.

Organizations need to analyze their practices and policies in this sudden plunge of working from home. Employers must learn how this set-up can be beneficial to both the organization and employees. Organizational flexibility and agility will be needed in this scenario.

As Aaron Hotfelder mentions, flexible work arrangements save employers on expenditure and overhead costs, attract and retain employees that can remain productive at home with the help of videoconferencing. Of course, this will have an impact on the collectivist nature of Filipinos who prefer to maintain positive interpersonal relationships with co-workers through face-to-face interaction. 

Employee Support 

In Philippine collectivist society, face-to-face interaction is foundational, but has been temporarily removed by working from home. In addition, Verbeemen and D’Amico noted the immediate introduction of homeworking had employees blur the boundary between work and home life which can impact productivity.

Organizations will need to create a stronger culture of solidarity despite the dissipatedness of employees due to remote working. Anxiety and stress because of economic, social, and health uncertainties will still be imminent, and organizations through Human Resources must have mechanisms and interventions to ensure mental health and employee well-being remains protected. Companies need to stimulate cooperation between colleagues, create awareness of psychosocial issues, and monitor a sense of togetherness.

Ateneo CORD’s PROTECT model highlights how organizations can provide employees necessary and relevant needs during and even after quarantine. As Mactal mentioned in an ANC interview, it is important for companies to keep in touch and express support to their employees.

Business Contingency 

Without a doubt, governments, businesses, and health institutions did not foresee the immensity of the pandemic.

Moving forward, businesses will need to have a plan for a public health emergency. Organizations have done their part on earthquake and fire drills for instance, but not for pandemics.

A crisis management team may need to be created per organization to ensure readiness; if this is in place, focus on health emergencies may need to be developed. Stocking on protective equipment is recommended (such as masks, alcohol, sanitizers, disinfecting agents). Highlighting the importance and process of proper hand washing is fundamental in sanitation and safety. Human Resources and the crisis management team have to be more alert at the first sign of health emergencies to prevent spreading infection.

These have to be in sync with government policies and a heightened integrated health system for the country.
Upskilling on Technology 

Though there are workers who do their businesses from home, majority were caught off guard on how to shift from office to remote work. For instance, the academe had to instantaneously shift from the classroom to videoconferencing, resulting in added stress to the already stressful situation.

Organizations have to train and develop employees to transition as digital immigrants as smoothly and quickly as possible. In adopting to this new work system, training must be organized for employees, spreading them over several days in staggered format. Human Resources must listen to the feedback of employees from the upskilling, and adapt when and where necessary. Support and collaboration in learning is essential in organizational digitalization.

One way to speed up the process is having digital natives assist other members of the organization in learning. Tech-savvy workers can provide the inputs necessary for learning, increasing solidarity, connection, and togetherness. 

IT Infrastructure 

Technological savviness in this pandemic will also mean improving the organization’s technological infrastructures. In a country where internet speed is considered slowest in South East Asia, the Philippines needs to bump up its facilities to address the needs of working from home. Automation will increase as work becomes heavily partnered with technology, requiring employees to diversify skills and become creative as traditional jobs become replaced.

Organizational efficiency post-COVID will not only be reliant on a stronger IT infrastructure, but in a more competent IT staff as well. A virtual workplace will likely mean a change in operational models. Apex Director of Technology Matt Hughes said IT will become more crucial in addressing the challenges of remote work, and IT staffs have to be strong in supporting in- and out-of-office employees. Human Resources has a strategic role in ensuring systems of the organization are adapting to the needs of the times. Leaders and HR therefore need to strengthen both the structure and people skills, respectively, to ensure business needs are met. 

Leadership Adaptiveness 

Thomason and Williams mentioned organizational leaders have the opportunity to stop rewarding the faster response over the better response, or the longer workday over a more productive workday in these times. Put differently, trust issues also abound because employees are not physically visible as they work, a situation organizational leaders must navigate through.

In this light, micromanaging will not be fruitful in a work from home scenario. If employees are to work from their home for longer periods, organizational leaders have to learn to be output based, collaborative, and trusting. Organizational leaders have to provide the necessary support for their employees so they can produce the required deliverables of the company autonomously.

Leaders must adjust their ways of keeping remote workers engaged to ensure productivity does not taper off. Touch base sessions are important, as well as what Kouzes and Posner mentions as ‘encouraging the heart’ in transformational leadership practice. 

Design Thinking for the Future 

With the work from home scenario that might extend after quarantine, communication is vital. For a culture prioritizing physical interaction, the Filipino worker has to continue interacting, even virtually, with colleagues.

With output based performance, employees must relay to superiors their productivity levels and capacity as they work from home. Realistic targets have to be put in place as in-home productivity is remarkably different from office productivity. For instance, productivity henceforth can be measured by quality of output, not by quantity. 

The continued use of videoconferencing platforms and messenger applications provides the connection needed by employers, organization leaders, and employees to interact and discuss ways in improving corporate systems and work restructuring. Now is a time for employers and employees to step back and reexamine the traditional ways of working, and discuss which ways are needed and which can be altered. This would engage employees in scenario building and eliciting possibilities for the future. 
Organizations will need to adapt further in the coming weeks and months as the pandemic continues to affect human life. Leaders and HR have to face the challenges head on as adapting to the new normal becomes reality. Formal and informal workers need to feel physically, mentally, and economically secure and safe during this troubling time, and even after quarantine. Though government may have an indispensable role in combatting the pandemic, organizations are essential in this fight, not just to save their business bottomline and national economy, but to ensure the safety, mental health, and well-being of their employees. 

About the Author
Emerald Jay Ilac is an Assistant Professor of the Ateneo de Manila Loyola Schools Psychology Department, and currently the Director for Consulting of the Ateneo Center for Organization Research and Development. He was a manager over ten years in various institutions where he focused on business management and talent development. His researches on leadership, culture, and industrial psychology has been published in local and international journals, and is bonafide member and peer reviewer in various Philippine and international associations such as the International Leadership Association, Administrative Sciences Association of Canada, and the Psychological Association of the Philippines where he is the current Chair of the Industrial Organizational Psychology Division. A psychology undergraduate from the Ateneo de Manila University, a licensed psychometrician under the Philippine Regulatory Commission, and Certified Specialist in Industrial-Organizational Psychology, he finished his doctorate degree in Leadership Studies also in the same university. Questions can be addressed to 

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