Working from home: Curse or cure?

Working from home / Photo: Shutterstock, Shutterstock.com

A government report sees many benefits from remote working, but recent experience has not left everyone happy.

Has the coronavirus crisis, which has forced millions of people to work from home, helped or hindered the cause of remote working? The general impression is that the crisis will accelerate the process, but some experts are doubtful.

A team of experts that compiled a special report on the subject at the behest of the Ministry of Environmental Protection and the Ministry of Transport sees the possibility that the crisis will actually lead to a slowdown in the trend towards working from home, because of growing resistance on the part of employers and employees who were not happy with the great experiment of the past couple of months, despite the fact that the "experiment" was carried out in poor conditions, such as the shutdown of the education system and other constraints, which made life difficult for people trying to work at home.

"The prevailing stance on the possibility of a full or partial transition to remote working is negative among a large proportion of employers," the experts state in a special appendix attached to the report during the crisis. "The reasons for this were mainly the difficulty in supervising the ways in which employees used their time, and the fear that their productivity would be impaired." Not just the employers, but also some employees "preferred not to work from home but physically to go to the workplace and take part in the milieu of the enterprise and in social relationships with colleagues."

The concern following the crisis is over the group of employers and employees dissatisfied by the remote working experience, whether because of a decline in productivity or because of the lack of boundaries between different areas of life. "It may be that this group will develop a negative approach towards future implementation of remote working in the organization," the experts write, "even though conditions during the emergency are different from routine conditions, when the education system is operating and there are fewer distractions in the home."

"A suitable workspace"

The experts raise their concerns in a special report shortly to be presented to the government, recommending a national program to encourage remote working. The main recommendation is to encourage work from neighborhood or district employment centers, and not from the home itself, in order to allay fears that distractions in the home will affect workers' output. Working from home, the report says, will only become possible when the existence of a suitable workspace is assured.

The report calls on the planning authorities to include remote working centers in the design of new, or renewing, residential neighborhoods, in planning integrated transport hubs, and in developing settlements in outlying areas of the country.

The report was written by a panel of experts set up by the Israel Society of Ecology and Environmental Sciences, and was commissioned by the Ministry of Environmental Protection and the Ministry of Transport and Road Safety. Professionals in the fields of transport and traffic congestion management, air pollution, and the Israeli labor market, together with national and local government officials, participated in the compilation of the report. According to the panel, this is the first in-depth professional discussion of its kind in such a forum on the advantages and disadvantages of working from home and on what government policy is desirable in this area.

The experts conclude that expanding remote work to the 800,000 workers in the public sector could save the economy NIS 850 million net annually.

Few work from home

The Central Bureau of Statistics' not very up to date numbers indicate that the proportion of the Israeli workforce that works from home is on the rise. According to the Bureau's 2016 Social Survey, 3.4% of Israeli workers work from home. In 2008, the proportion was 2.8%, and in 1995 it was just 2.6%.

These figures put Israel in the lower half of the table of countries and their rates of remote working. The table is headed by the Netherlands and Finland, where no fewer than 14% of people work from home. Israel is after Italy (with 3.6%), and ahead of the Eastern European countries, Turkey, and Greece. In the US, the federal government has for years been encouraging home working, and about 20% of administration employees work from home at least one day a week.

As the teachers discovered during the coronavirus crisis, the wage agreements in the public sector do not permit widespread remote working without consideration for the nature of the job and its suitability to working from home. As an exception to this rule, in 2012 a small pilot scheme was introduced in the Patents Office in the Ministry of Justice, which began employing patent examiners who worked remotely, with the aim of making it easier to recruit people for this job.

"In the light of the positive results of the pilot, in 2014 the Patents Office decided to establish remote working as a permanent employment arrangement, a move that could serve as a test case for remote working in the civil service," the report says.

Although they point out that remote working creates many management, technological, cultural, and even psychological challenges, the experts find that the advantages are also many. "Remote working boosts job satisfaction and thanks to that also boosts productivity, makes it easier to recruit new employees, reduces employee turnover, and reduces costs of employment. Remote working can also promote equality of opportunity and improvement in social welfare, and make workplaces accessible to additional population groups," they write.

A further benefit of remote working is supposed to be at the macro level. "Remote working has the potential for great economy-wide benefit, such as savings on external costs of travelling and real estate, power and parking, higher productivity, and strengthening of the periphery of the country and weak populations groups," the report says. "A cost-benefit analysis of implementing remote working among civil servants shows an expected net benefit of some NIS 80 million annually. Expanding work from home to all public sector workers would dramatically raise the potential net benefit to NIS 850 million annually."

The use of the term "potential" is deliberate, as the case of road congestion demonstrates. According to Ministry of Finance estimates, the total damage to the economy caused by the congestion on Israel's roads at present amounts to some NIS 35 billion annually, and it is expected to mount in the coming years to reach NIS 74 billion annually in 2030 and NIS 100 billion in 2040. This is without taking into account the environmental impact of the transport sector, such as air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, noise nuisance, and damage to habitats of plants and animals from the expansion of infrastructures.

Not travelling?

But does remote working reduce road congestion? "On the face of it, remote working should have an effect on road congestion, if the assumption that remote working obviates the need for some daily commuters to travel at peak times turns out to be correct," the researchers write. They point out, however, that the gain is liable to disappear if other people seek to take advantage of the emptier roads and make greater use of private vehicles, or if those working from home themselves use their vehicles more for other purposes.

Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on May 11, 2020

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2020

Working from home / Photo: Shutterstock, Shutterstock.com
Working from home / Photo: Shutterstock, Shutterstock.com
Syvanne Aloni and Avishai Ostrin
 
 
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