Jensen La Vende
Trinidad and Tobago Newsday
The Ministry of Planning is currently drafting a national policy to keep one of the add-ons of the pandemic on a permanent basis – working from home (WFH).
Since mid-March last year, the private and public sector have been up-ended by the restrictions imposed by the government to combat the spread of covid19; however, the sectors have seen an increase in productivity from employees working remotely.
While significant segments of the private sector were closed, public servants operated on a rotation system, some worked from home while some services were shelved for months.
According to Andre Blanchard, acting director of statistics at the Central Statistical Office (CSO) for the second and third quarters of 2020, there were small but notable increases in productivity during work from home periods. Blanchard said the data collected is all that they have now.
“During the second quarter 2020, productivity (all employees) increased by 2.2 per cent over the first quarter, and (in) the third quarter productivity (all employees) increased by 0.5 per cent over that of the second quarter.”
He noted that a fall in production accompanied by a similar fall in the hours worked will leave productivity unchanged, which means that falling production may not lead to falling labour productivity. Based on data collected, he added that during the WFH periods, manufacturing and extractive industries were largely unaffected.
Sunday Newsday reached out to the Planning and Development Minister Camille Robinson-Regis for data on productivity levels during the work from home periods in a bid to identify the pros and cons. In an e-mailed response she said a WFH policy will target both the public and private sector.
Asked if WFH, which is being used now in both public and private sector could, remain in effect post-pandemic, Robinson-Regis said: “My government is giving urgent attention to the best methodology that can be applied to facilitate increased productivity, stimulate the economy, enhance the lives of our citizens and residents while simultaneously doing what is needed to eliminate the spread of the virus. To this end, we, at the Ministry of Planning and Development commenced the process for the development of a national work from home policy. A consultant will be hired to undertake the project and it will involve consultation with various stakeholders, including public officers and their unions to determine the way forward. “
She said the International Labour Organisation (ILO) pledged its support. Public Servants Association president Watson Duke said the union, being one of the biggest stakeholders in drafting such a policy, must play an integral part in it. Duke said if there is no meaningful involvement with the union then the policy will remain a useless document unless it is made law.
“Work from home, as you can appreciate, would require a robust digital environment, including infrastructure, skill redevelopment and systems redevelopment. The recent creation of the Ministry of Digital Transformation will be instrumental in such a transformation of the Trinidad and Tobago work environment,” the minister said.
Chairman and managing director of Personnel Management Services Diana Mahabir-Wyatt said while a national WFH policy is a good thing, there will be a need for training for supervisors to be able to monitor productivity.
“What will have to be developed is a system where you work by task. There will need to be qualitative and quantitative measurements. There is technology now that is a bit expensive, but possible to cover the public service.”
She said apart from the training to use technology during WFH, employers will have to ensure that their employees have the devices and connectivity to allow for that to happen.
Ministry of Planning officials said a deeper study will have to be done to calculate the level of productivity lost as a result of traffic, which is eliminated by WFH. This will hopefully be unearthed during the research as the policy develops.
Blanchard said productivity has been increasing gradually over the years, likely because of technological changes. However, this needs to be confirmed by a specialised study.
Asked about the stress employees endure in traffic heading to and from work and the effects on productivity, the minister said: “The fact that we have engaged the ILO and are seriously embarking on developing a work from home policy gives indication to government’s intent to seriously explore this as an option to reduce the stress on workers while enhancing productivity across all sectors in the country.
“WFH must be addressed at several levels, policy, systems development, legislative amendments, culture change, even terms and conditions of employment.”
Apart from the WFH policy, the government started instituting mechanisms to ensure the consistent collection of data on and the measurement of productivity. Robinson-Regis said the National Tripartite Advisory Council (NTAC) recommended a special unit be formed to address productivity and work ethic in TT.
“My government deems this initiative as critical to the country, especially in light of the threat posed by covid19 to livelihoods and output level across all sectors and the negative implications for economic growth and continued development of the country.”
Last March, at the beginning of the pandemic, Mahabir-Wyatt encouraged employees to adopt WFH initiative. She said then that there was no “textbook guarantee” that WFH will achieve profitability and productivity.
Speaking to Sunday Newsday on Saturday, the industrial relations consultant said there are stresses that come with WFH that must be addressed in the policy. These include social interactions that will be decreased that can lead to increased levels of stress.
In May, business psychologist Ornella Wheeler warned that working from home creates its own stress. She said then that while it was evolving into the new normal for many, it blurred the lines between work and private lives. This, Wheeler said, caused some to (unconsciously) work tirelessly, longer hours, seldom fully logging off creating an atmosphere of burnouts.
Mahabir-Wyatt also warned against such scenarios and highlighted that some work longer hours because they are at home. Some skip breakfast and spend hours staring at a computer screen, both unhealthy habits adopted because of the familiarity of being at home.
She suggested that workers take it upon themselves to take breaks and develop a healthy work/home relationship while working at home.