If these unusual circumstances brought about permanent change in terms of remote work and digitalisation, we might see benefits for our work-life balance and the environment.
There does not seem to be any reliable data yet on how many people switched to working from home due to the COVID-19 pandemic – whether by their own decision or because they had no other choice.
A survey conducted by Instant Research for the Sazka company based on a little over one thousand Czechs, shows that around 35 per cent of them are currently working from home – the Czech news agency ČTK reports.
Péter Virovácz, ING Bank’s Senior Economist for Hungary, told me that his back-of-the-envelope calculations would point to 22-23 per cent of Hungarians working remotely. He added that the last official data shows that in 2018, only 3 per cent of Hungarians were working from home.
Another survey, conducted for the Polish news site Wirtualna Polska, states that 29 per cent of Poles were working from home in March.
The digital invasion
After governments started urging companies to send their workers home, societies got divided into three groups: those who can and do work from home, those who cannot and therefore are not working, and those who have to go to their jobs despite the pandemic. This division, for the most part, follows familiar lines of socioeconomic categories.
But class divisions aside, the sudden shift to remote work comes as a test, especially to big companies, of their technological and mental readiness to allow employees to telecommute. A smooth transition requires not only the tools to be in place or ready to be implemented but also an open mindset. Some have neither.
I talked about this with Alek Tarkowski, President of the board of Centrum Cyfrowe, an NGO that promotes open access in technology, education and culture, and co-founder of Creative Commons Poland.
“The average Polish company is not ready for this transition at all,” he told me. “Eurostat data shows only about 12 per cent of enterprises use cloud computing services. That number makes you think. It means that a great number of companies in Poland do not know how to organise a video conference, how to set up a good file exchange system, they have no idea what Slack is. In the long run, those issues will start to show.”
The data he mentioned was collected in 2018, and that percentage has almost certainly increased by now. But it shows a scale – the European Union average at the time was 26 per cent, and Poland was a clear underperformer among V4 countries. In Hungary, 18 per cent of enterprises used cloud computing services, in Slovakia it was 21.1 per cent, and Czechia slightly exceeded the EU average with 26.5 per cent.
This means that IT service providers are becoming even more necessary than before – which is good for their business. But Orsolya Nyeste, a senior macro analyst at Erste Bank in Hungary, thinks this might be a one-time boon.
“The IT sector might capitalise on increased demand for its services and solutions in connection with the intensifying role of the home office. Later, however, prospects of the sector will rather be dependent on the general economic outlook and business expectations”, she said in an emailed comment.
The importance of being open
Tarkowski points to a different aspect of this turn to technology, one that he is an expert on.
“Suddenly, ‘open source’ is the term of the day. Most people understand it in a simplistic way, as 3D printing medical visors – it is very important, of course, but also conceptually very simple. Although it might not be so simple from the point of view of industry theorists, who could be baffled by the fact that this weird network of 3D printer owners just started printing, not giving a second thought to patents or trade secrets,” he said.
“But this model goes way further. Polish developers are creating apps for tracking contacts in an open-source model, which is not only about open access to source code but also about how they cooperate. The programmers are working in a very horizontal structure. This is happening not only within organisations but also between them. My bet is that such models could become more prevalent, which is very important because they are models that allow for very quick reaction times. We see this happening in science, where researchers have abandoned the usual rules of publishing and competing for points. They are simply creating knowledge and sharing it, even on Twitter – because it is efficient”.
A handbook to video calls
This change in mentality is also occurring among (former) office workers. Despite the difficulties and shortcomings, those who switched to online work are on their way to form new habits and a new work culture.
Most of us have no fixed rules of video conference etiquette, other than “do not show up in your pyjamas”. The formal constraints of a Google Hangout or a Zoom call, such as the slight delays and overlapping sound problems, are forcing workers who depend on these virtual meetings to develop a new culture of technological politeness.
Turning off your mic when you are not speaking quickly became an expected common courtesy, and not minding slightly longer pauses when taking turns speaking or after asking a question on a group call is a sign of home office proficiency.
Such small adjustments could be a sign of bigger work culture changes, which will come as soon as we realise we cannot keep relying on our old office habits.
All this might become more complex when it comes to business relations. “Video calls have an entirely new etiquette, but also entirely new opportunities for gaffes. There are new rules for negotiating and building your image in front of a partner. It is all fascinating”, said Alek Tarkowski.
But however impactful this moment feels, it is in fact not a technological revolution, at least for now. When we think about it, most of us are using tools and solutions that have existed for years, even if many workers were not familiar with them.
The burden of e-government
This new reality of lockdowns and social distancing is also bringing up grievances about the insufficient level of digitalisation in government services.
Michal Palenik from the Slovak Institute of Employment told me in an email exchange that, in his opinion, Slovakia has not been successful in implementing e-government solutions.
“For a citizen, it is extremely hard to take care of any administrative matters without physically visiting a government office. You need a special ID card and a specialised card reader,” he said. “When it comes to companies, some services are available online, while others are not.”
In fact, V4 countries did not fare exceptionally well in the 2018 United Nations E-Government Survey. Out of 193 countries, Czechia was ranked 54th, Slovakia – 49th, Hungary was 45th and Poland – 33rd.
Online access to government services has become crucial because administrative offices are either closed or their staff and hours are reduced. Some matters can be postponed until after the lockdown, but life became more difficult for those with urgent matters that cannot be processed online.
But even if a lot of services are digitalised and can be done entirely online, as has been my experience in Poland, the technology is often outdated and far from user-friendly.
Benefits from a digital cure
If we fantasise for a moment about what our personal and professional lives could look like if these unusual circumstances brought about permanent change in terms of remote work and digitalisation, we might see benefits for our work-life balance and the environment.
ING’s Péter Virovácz is an optimist. “I expect that the labour market will not be the same as it was in the pre-virus period. It will have implications for the environment – commuting and energy usage will drop, driving down pollution. The housing market will see a change too, as more and more people will remain in home offices and consider moving to the countryside.”
While digitalisation will certainly not save our economies during this crisis, it has an undeniable role in alleviating the consequences of lockdowns, and perhaps even plays a role in taming the epidemic by keeping office workers in the safety of their homes.
The significance of this situation for how we work in the future depends on whether we want changes to happen – it was forced upon us in the first place, but what we do with it when going forward is every organisation’s own decision.