November 11, 2020 / Opinion

View from the Edge: Post-Covid, this is here to stay

View from the Edge is a monthly column by Lee Han Shih, Founder of the Potato Group, featured in the CompassList newsletter. The Sailor’s Log offers analysis, insights and coverage of noteworthy trends from up-and-coming startup ecosystems. It goes out the first and third Wednesday of every month. Get the CompassList newsletter here.

Overshadowed by Covid-19, a powerful new trend has emerged largely unnoticed.

It is WFH. This three-letter abbreviation has become a household word for the untold millions who are consigned to Work from Home by lockdowns, social distancing and other virus-avoidance measures.

Working from home is almost as old as human history. But it has been practiced only by a small minority – writers, philosophers, those in cottage industries and (until the 19th century) scientists.

Today, it is widespread in the developed nations and among white-collar workers. It is made possible by the advent of technology, which has managed to duplicate many essential functions of office work.

In 2003, the world had gone through another pandemic – SARS, a cousin of Covid-19. Though 20 countries put up red alerts and there were attempts at WFH, the majority still went into work daily, albeit in different teams to minimize the risk of contagion. And most were happy, at least willing, to return to the workplace once the crisis was over.

Today, many surveys have found that a large percentage of workers want to stay WFH. Some would even consider quitting if their employers do not provide such an option. Their reasons range from better work-life balance to increased productivity, even simply to escape the drudgery of daily commuting.

And many companies, led by Big Tech, are open to, or even encouraging, this trend. Apart from having happier employees, there are other benefits, such as lower costs and a much-needed (but often much-delayed) restructuring that is now ripe for implementation.

Moreover, even if Covid-19 were gone one day (a big if), the world will continue to be plagued by other and possibly more virulent pandemics. This will be the state of global affairs until and if governments and companies wake up and put biosecurity ahead of unfettered profitability (an even bigger if).

The tech that made WFH possible today is working hard – there are huge amounts of money in this – to make it enjoyable. Not to mention trying to eliminate the many problems that have arisen from remote working; the most famous being the so-called Zoom fatigue, a catch-all term for prolonged staring and interaction via a computer or phone screen.

The term WFH, however, is a misnomer. It implicitly suggests the continued link between workplace and home – millions may work from home, but their homes are still in the same locality as their workplaces, as it has been for millenniums.

The reality is there is no longer any good reason to do so. Why not move to better locations – cheaper, with better education for the kids, closer to parents and relatives, etc. – if the conditions are right?

From this perspective, WFH should be reclassified as WFA – Work from Anywhere. We are now witnessing the first large splitting of work from home locations in human history, and the trend will continue as tech continues to push in this direction (virtual reality meeting in a few years?) Welcome to the world of digital nomads, a by-product of Covid-19.

About the author

Lee Han Shih is Founder of the Potato Productions group. He sees things from the edge and tries to stay ahead of the curve. He has been a teacher, a civil servant and a journalist. Now he’s trying to prove startups can do good and still make money.