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Conference calls are the new miserable punch clock

As digital facetime escalates, flexiwork this season gets a bad rep for the wrong reasons

More employees are naturally seeing the line of work-life balance crumble. Calls are done nearing midnight, e-mails must be answered over the weekend. Little wonder then that some are itching to return to their cubicles.

Like a long-legged fly upon the stream
Her mind moves upon silence. - W.B. Yeats

I'M LATE to the party that is The Marvelous Mrs Maisel, an American dramedy centring around an upper-middle-class Jewish woman who takes on stand-up comedy in the late 1950s. Besides juxtaposing her corset-bound lifestyle against her potty-mouthed humour, the show tells of a woman who was forced by circumstances to find work, and in doing so, reclaimed her independent spirit.

In recent times, I've been reminded of this scene where she arrives at her first day on the job at a department store and discovers the punch clock. Her first expressions of delight at having to clock her hours naturally give way to weary expressions as the clunky metal recorder becomes a reminder of the routine that governs her wages.

Funny then, that a dramedy set in the 1950s bears such similar parallels to this modern age. In 2020, as work-from-home arrangements force us out of offices, digital communications have escalated as an attempt to replace face-to-face interactions.

The problem is that they've become punch clocks of the times. Even as Singapore rolls back lockdown measures, most office workers are expected to continue working from home. And these days, they clock in their office hours with their permanently arranged facial expressions on long-drawn-out video calls.

The badge of honour, some say, is to clock in back-to-back conference calls before lunch hour - and to proudly declare this to managers.

It is heard that more one-upmanships are taking place over digital communication. Every tiny task is amplified as a task well done, a part of a brutal box-ticking exercise to present a varnish of productivity (even if it's not been lost).

And more employees are naturally seeing the line of work-life balance crumble. Calls are done nearing midnight, e-mails must be answered over the weekend. Little wonder then that some are itching to return to their cubicles. Rush-hour traffic and expensive lunches be damned, they'll soon get to clock in like before.

Part of the reason for this behaviour is that the pandemic has threatened jobs. Against this backdrop, there is heightened anxiety from those who still hold on to a job, to emphasise the worth of their job title.

Georgetown University professor Cal Newport said too that face-to-face interactions had been useful for office workers in streamlining chaos in the knowledge economy.

"The knowledge work pursued in many modern offices - thinking, investigating, synthesising, writing, planning, organising - tends to be fuzzy and disorganised compared to the structured processes of, say, industrial manufacturing. In many offices, tasks are assigned haphazardly, and there are few systematic ways to track who is working on what or find out how the work is going," he wrote in The New Yorker in May.

"In a remote workplace, in which co-workers are reduced to abstract e-mail addresses, it's easier for them to overload each other in an effort to declare victory over their own rapidly filling in-boxes. This may be one of the reasons that, in our current moment of coronavirus-induced telework, so many people - even those without kids underfoot - feel busier than before, despite the absence of time-consuming commutes."

Another reason is that corporations may have adopted technology to bridge communication gaps, without adapting to a more progressive attitude towards flexible working hours.

If employees are using lull periods to handle household chores, before returning to work tasks, they would not be open to admitting it at workplaces that perceive this as them skiving off. Yet, it is also unlikely that these very same workplaces would admit to taking away rest hours from their employees when working hours are being stretched thin.

Productivity gurus will say that it isn't the clocking-in of hours that boosts efficiency. It is better time management and learning how to be good at deep thinking and creative problem-solving that do the trick. Staff who can get more quiet time away from colleagues can commit to thinking more meaningfully about the tasks at hand, rather than lean heavily on bureaucratic workflow.

An NUS study in 2016 explored the barriers to companies here adopting more flexi-work arrangements. It showed that the most common misperception for part-time workers to overcome is that "face time is a reflection of one's commitment to the organisation". Those who were interviewed in the NUS study said they felt a pressure to compensate for their absence to make up for their missed presence in the office.

This comes even as the idea that flexi-work arrangements impede productivity is a perception.

StanChart Singapore told The Straits Times in 2019 that the take-up rates for flexi-work arrangements tripled over three years because committed employees on flexi-work arrangements continued to see good performance ratings. This is as managers of employees on flexi-work arrangements were taken through the process of such arrangements, and have seen that projects set out in performance objectives are completed.

Sadly, there may be a rise of passive-aggressiveness from managers who now use the working-from-home option as a test of loyalty. There are managers who make veiled threats of poorer performance ranking for those who choose to work from home, instead of returning to the office. To add, for women who bear more household responsibilities, the threats read as microaggression against their gender. That's regressive behaviour reflecting the 1950s.

A Gallup article from 2017 likewise pointed to the bad behaviour that impedes flexible work schedules - for example, there are leaders who claim to allow flexible work schedules but then respond negatively when employees don't work the exact same hours every day. Work cultures that succeed in building flexibility into their workflow reflect that they value trust, transparency, and accountability for performance.

Professor Newport noted that bringing more structure and clarity to the tasks is one way to sort out long-standing challenges in knowledge work. These have held back the quicker adoption of remote working, way before a health crisis took hold.

The pandemic offers workplaces a chance to reimagine work, an opportunity to strengthen trust and promote accountability. It's a pity then that not enough leaders are embracing an enlightened way of looking at an organisation. The irony is in them dwelling on unproductive tasks, chief of which today is in enforcing the misery of more digital facetime.

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