Thinking Out of the Office Box
By: Richard Moya
The poverty of time
Today is not a typical day for me. I woke up just after 5AM in order to make it to a 9AM meeting in Bonifacio Global City a mere 16 km distance. The one-way commute took me more than 2 hours – more than the time I spent to help with the kids’ homework the day before. During the commute, my mind imagines a surreal image of urban folks feeling poor inside their luxurious cars.
Poverty is “the state of being extremely poor” or “the state of being inferior in quality or insufficient in amount.” In the search to combat financial poverty, citizens in Metro Manila willingly expose themselves to another form of poverty, the poverty of TIME.
Consider this: if your conservative average commute time to go to and from work is an hour in a half, then your daily commute time is about 3 hours. That’s 15 hours per week or roughly 780 hours per year…. every year. For business establishments, that translates to 97.5 man days – that’s more than 4 months’ worth of productive work days per year!
In human terms, 780 hours per week translates to 32 and a half days of your life spent just commuting every year. That is more than twice the average vacation or sick leave benefits given by companies!
.. And all just to commute to and from work.
The problem is our perception of the problem
Commute time in the Metro is generally a function of traffic congestion. A dated (2012) Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) study found that the time lost by people stuck in traffic and the additional cost of operating vehicles in traffic-congested Metro Manila and surrounding areas amounted to ₱2.4 Billion ($51 million) a day.
Our problem is that we are stuck with how we define the problem. Traffic congestion is caused by a HEAVY VOLUME of vehicles passing through a LIMITED road network. Framing the problem this way will lead you to just two possible solutions: limit the number of vehicles OR increase the provision for roads. The second solution is ultimately capped by the supply of space and the right to land ownership. The first solution involves distributing car volume (number coding) and/or optimizing passenger capacity (mass transport and carpooling options).
But what if we attack the problem from the DEMAND side… the NEED to travel because of the NEED to commute to work? What if most of us can be productive WITHOUT having to go to the office? THEN we would effectively remove the need to commute to work, reducing the volume of vehicles on the road significantly, thereby improving travel time, freeing up a huge block of our limited and therefore extremely valuable time.
The Henry Ford legacy
During the industrial/manufacturing era, the primary economic driver is the production site: the manufacturing plant or the assembly line as innovated by Henry Ford in the 1950’s. The success of this innovation influenced many business models as well as labor laws. Under this model, in order to optimize production, everyone needs to converge at the appointed place at the appointed hour. This is likely the reason for the near-universal labor statute of severe penalty for absence without leave (AWOL) and tardiness. To this day, the legacy of Henry Ford continues to shape our lives.
Now, we live in the digital era or the information age or the sharing economy empowered by frequently evolving disruptive technology. As traditional business models are being transformed, our production models must also remain relevant. The digital revolution has created new tools that enable workers to communicate and collaborate without the need to be in the same space. Work-from-home is becoming a viable alternative business model from both the employers’ and employees’ perspective. I understand some forward-looking companies like Procter and Gamble Philippines have been doing this for some time. Philippine Science High School has also started an experiment this school year (2017-18), wherein they schedule one day a month when students will be required to study from home.
Ask yourself this, inside the office when you need some information from a colleague, do you walk over and ask or do you pick up the office phone or send an email or a short message? With cloud-based email, chat conferences, video conferences, online collaboration tools, it now takes very little disruption to remove the workplace altogether.
There are, of course, jobs that require workers to regularly converge at a common place at a common time. Plant workers, front line service workers, security providers, most health providers and personal aides to name a few. I refer to these jobs as “waiting jobs”: they need to physically wait for clients in order to do work. Typically, we pay them for the time they make themselves available. However, the new economy has created a huge group of knowledge workers that are mostly output-based, i.e., the value they provide is directly tied to the output made, independent of the time it took to produce the output. This group goes beyond the usual suspects of researchers and consultants and includes knowledge workers like accountants, marketeers, software developers and lawyers, workflow processors like logistics staff, creative artists, and service support workers that do not require on premise presence. This group would easily rival the “waiting job” group in terms of number.
Same number of workers; less commuters
Let’s compute. If companies can allow their employees to work from home once a week, the effect is the same as the current number coding system implemented by MMDA – that is, to reduce car volume by 20% during rush hour commute.
Now, imagine if half the current employees at any day need not report physically to a physical office, then half the commuters need not traverse the limited road network in the Metro, allowing for better productivity for the cargo and logistics sector, not to mention the reduction in air pollutants, leading to a reduction in related respiratory illnesses. Mobility can then be contained in smaller communities, allowing for better neighborhood communities and local small scale enterprises.
The enabling environment
In the Philippine context, the environment to enable work-from-home can be improved if we address two issues: our labor laws and our digital information infrastructure. We must revisit and revise our labor laws that still view the ecosystem from an industrial era perspective. We must remove daily wage as the de facto basis for remuneration and incorporate compensation policies on an output basis rather than time.
We must also significantly improve our digital infrastructure and make it reliable, resilient and cost effective. Like public roads and ports, government should come in and develop the digital infrastructure on a developmental basis when the market can not yet sustain it. Another idea is to embed communication conduits as part of the public roads’ specification effectively synchronizing the country’s’ road reach with its digital reach.
It does not have to be an “OR” argument
For many of us, the current economic order has resulted in a “life oxymoron” where our actions to build better homes and comfortable lives push us to spend less time at home and endure uncomfortable situations. Clearly, we need to veer away from this environment. The work-from-home environment allows us to remedy the current quagmire we find ourselves in: to enable women to be present mothers and at the same time be economic contributors, to allow men to be quality fathers and be sufficient providers, and to carve out a little more time for a little more living.