An ADB economist who specializes in the areas of education, skills development and jobs, answers questions about which jobs are best suited to work-from-home arrangements, based on a recent study in Southeast Asia.
As we gradually learn to live with COVID-19, employees are returning to offices in some parts of the world. It will be a very different world of work. Characterized by evolving policies and guidelines, the new normal of work ranges from on-site work to full work-from-home set-ups to hybrid arrangements.
Manual tasks, outdoor work and physically assisting and caring for others cannot be done remotely, according to a recent study. Tasks that can be done fully or partially using information communication technology can often be done remotely. The study found that out of the 427 occupations examined, only 8% to 10% have all tasks classified as remote; 35% to 37% cannot be done remotely; and the rest are a combination of onsite and remote tasks.
Jobs that are primarily manual, like driving a truck or waiting tables at a cafe or restaurant, cannot be done from home. But jobs where most of the tasks are cognitive can be done from home. These jobs often require analysis and interpretation of data and information and some creative thinking, and are more prevalent among higher educated and more skilled workers and in more developed countries. Occupations that can be done remotely range from middle-skilled job such as a call center operator at an IT-BPO company to a high-skill job such as a product designer or a software developer.
Occupations such as accounting or back-office operations can also be done from home but are at risk of automation as labor-saving technology becomes more sophisticated and cheaper.
Service sectors such as retail and wholesale trade, food and accommodation, transportation, and personal services were hit hard by containment and social distancing measures, according to our research in Southeast Asia. Workers in sales and service occupations also suffered severe impacts, while plant and machine operators struggled to cope amid disruptions to manufacturing and construction.
Jobs in finance, information and communication, professional, scientific and technical services, and education, were relatively less affected by lockdowns. The pandemic’s interaction with technology may have accelerated trends such as digitization, automation and near-shoring, or reshoring, with negative implications for skilled worker demand in Southeast Asia.
Most self-employed workers tend to be in the informal sector where remote work is not an option. Indeed, our study revealed that the ‘teleworkability’ of occupations is positively associated with wage and salaried work and negatively related with the share of low-skill workers and temporary workers in Viet Nam, the Philippines, and Thailand. This suggests that wage and salaried workers in permanent work arrangements are more likely to shift to teleworking than their self-employed, lower skilled, and temporary employee counterparts.
These lower-skilled self-employed people face a higher risk of unemployment and income loss during times of crisis, and our research shows they’ve accounted for larger shares in job and income losses during the pandemic.
Incentives are being provided to support the shift to teleworking in Southeast Asia. For instance, Malaysia has offered a range of tax incentives to employers offering flexible work arrangements for employees. In the Philippines, cash aid has been provided to workers when workplaces implement flexible work arrangements.
Governments can make it easier for businesses and employees to navigate regulatory hurdles facing remote work such as laws governing salary and benefit payment. Business registration processes can be simplified for businesses adopting hybrid workplace arrangements.
Businesses can speed up hybrid work adoption by adapting their own regulations. They can introduce boundary-setting to prevent overwork, and take steps to ensure managers have the right skills and tools to manage tasks and staff regardless of location.
In order to avoid ‘forcing employees’ to return to work, employers need to think of ways to make it more attractive to return to work, for at least a few days a week. They can provide training or skills development opportunities and team meeting activities during the days at the office. This would improve productivity and cohesion.
Moving beyond the pandemic, hybrid work arrangements are likely to play a major role in how people work. To harness the potential of teleworking jobs in Southeast Asia and elsewhere, adequate ICT infrastructure is imperative. Remote work is not possible without connectivity, so governments need to prioritize investments in infrastructure that allow workers to be productive in a hybrid setting.
Skills training and social protection policies for workers can support this transition. All remote work demands basic digital skills, for example. Perhaps the most important thing governments can do is make sure workers have such basic skills, to allow them to take their first steps into the new world of work.