Return to office: Is there ever a good time?

·Contributor
·12 min read
As vaccination rates increase, infections decrease, and most COVID restrictions eased across the globe, businesses are calling back their employees to return to office. (Photo: Getty Images)
As vaccination rates increase, infections decrease, and most COVID restrictions eased across the globe, businesses are calling back their employees to return to office. (Photo: Getty Images)

WFH and RTO. These are just two of the corporate-related jargons that the pandemic had introduced. The former means "work from home" – when COVID shut the economy and thousands of companies forcing millions out of jobs. The latter means "return to office" – the proverbial light at the end of a very long and dark tunnel.

Without a doubt, the past 25 months have incredibly changed the way we work. Because if you thought about WFH prior to the pandemic, would you know already that it was possible? Unless you were a freelancer, most probably, never in your wildest dreams did you imagine yourself working from home.

But here we are! While many companies, businesses, and employees have suffered, let us also acknowledge that many have survived, too. The past 25 months have been an important chapter in the history of work. Certainly, it has changed our working life forever.

But as the cases of coronavirus infections have subsided and the vaccination rates across the world have increased, many employers are already requiring their employees to return to work – complete with parties, concerts, games and prizes, welcome kits, and overflowing food and booze. Isn't this fun? Are these enough reasons to be happy and excited about returning to the office?

BPO’s significant contributions to the economy

Call center agents work overnight daily to cater to United States clients in Manila's Makati financial district February 6, 2012. The number of Filipinos who work graveyard shifts to answer calls on behalf of big multinational companies like Citigroup and JPMorgan Chase is now greater than India's 350,000, earning the Philippine's the title - Call Centre Capital of the World. By 2016, the Philippines wants to double the size of the local BPO market to $25 billion, employing 1.3 million workers from 640,000 at the end of 2011. But to be able to that the Southeast Asian nation must convince investors it has more to offer than a huge pool of english-speaking talent. Picture taken February 6, 2012. To match Analysis OUTSOURCING/PHILIPPINES   REUTERS/Erik De Castro (PHILIPPINES - Tags: BUSINESS EMPLOYMENT)
FILE PHOTO. The BPO sector in the Philippines is one of the true economic pillars of the country. The sector employs 1.4 million Filipinos who bring almost $30 billion to the economy. In the past two years of the pandemic, the sector is also one of the industries that grew, as it had 123,000 more jobs in 2021. REUTERS/Erik De Castro

There is one particular industry that is at the receiving end of pressure and scrutiny to return to the office first: the IT-business process outsourcing (BPO) industry.

In the past couple of months, the Philippine Economic Zone Authority (PEZA) urged IT-BPO companies to follow the Fiscal Incentives Review Board's (FIRB) return-to-office order on April 1. FIRB previously thumbed down requests from many IT-BPO companies to extend their remote-work arrangements.

For Jack Madrid, President and CEO of the IT & Business Process Association Philippines (IBPAP), there are three main reasons why the Philippines's BPO industry has become the center of the region's attention with regards to return-to-office (RTO).

The first reason, according to him, is the size of the industry. "We happen to be one of the true economic pillars of the country. We have 1.4 million Filipinos employed in our industry who bring almost $30 billion to the economy," he said. "Now, is that a big deal? Yes, it is certainly a big deal because in the past two years of the pandemic we are one of the few industries that grew."

At the height of the pandemic, the industry grew by 123,000 more jobs in 2021 alone, according to Madrid. "Now, I challenge anyone to name me an industry that provided an increase in jobs for Filipinos," said Madrid.

The second reason is the nature of the industry's work. Madrid explained, "What we do is not the same as everyone else. We serve customers in 24 different time zones. Some people say, 'Oh, let us just do a four-day workweek.' That does not really fit us very well because we cannot tell our customers, 'Hey, guys, we are going to go on a four-day workweek. Can you adjust?' We have customers in each and every global time zone on the planet."

He added, "This is the single biggest export-generator of the country. I would say more important than overseas Filipino workers (OFWs). If you look at the numbers, we generate almost as much revenue as the OFWs. But we have one big difference: we are in the country. We cannot leave."

Call center agents work overnight daily to cater to United States clients in Manila's Makati financial district February 6, 2012. The number of Filipinos who work graveyard shifts to answer calls on behalf of big multinational companies like Citigroup and JPMorgan Chase is now greater than India's 350,000, earning the Philippine's the title - Call Centre Capital of the World. By 2016, the Philippines wants to double the size of the local BPO market to $25 billion, employing 1.3 million workers from 640,000 at the end of 2011. But to be able to that the Southeast Asian nation must convince investors it has more to offer than a huge pool of english-speaking talent. Picture taken February 6, 2012. To match Analysis OUTSOURCING/PHILIPPINES   REUTERS/Erik De Castro (PHILIPPINES - Tags: BUSINESS EMPLOYMENT)
FILE PHOTO. BPO companies are located in special economic zones such as PEZA, a government agency attached to the Department of Trade and Industry that helps promote investments in the export-oriented manufacturing industry in the country by assisting investors in registering and facilitating their business operations and providing tax incentives. These tax incentives are the main reason why many companies decided to build their offices in PEZA. REUTERS/Erik De Castro

The last reason, according to Madrid, is because many BPO companies are located in special economic zones such as PEZA, a government agency attached to the Department of Trade and Industry that helps promote investments in the export-oriented manufacturing industry in the country by assisting investors in registering and facilitating their business operations and providing tax incentives.

These tax incentives are the main reason why many companies decided to build their offices in PEZA; the agency specified that the work of those enterprises that are enjoying the incentives has to be performed physically inside the economic zone.

"I think it is worth mentioning that the BPO industry is not a manufacturing industry where our heavy equipment are inside the economic zones," noted Madrid. "The nature of our work can be done from anywhere and we proved that in the pandemic. We were able to do this work very satisfactorily in the past two years without sacrificing productivity and customer satisfaction ratings. Those did not go down. In fact, we even added 123,000 jobs."

Madrid said that IBPAP and many BPO companies are never negotiating for a permanent work-from-home setup. All they want is to be given enough time to properly approach the RTO scheme.

"When there was a lockdown and we had to work from home, we obeyed. We migrated more than 1 million people from on-site to their homes. Was that easy? No, it was not easy; we moved the employees and their equipment and we had to pay for their internet connectivity so that they could serve our global customers," he recalled. "And now, two years later after experiencing all that, they say, 'You all go back to the office.' It was unfair for the employees."

‘The power is now with the employees’

Commuters wear protective face masks as they queue to get into a train amid new cases of coronavirus in Manila, Philippines, March 11, 2020. REUTERS/Eloisa Lopez
The worsening situation of public transport especially in Metro Manila, Philippines is one of the major reasons why many employees do not want to return to the office anymore. REUTERS/Eloisa Lopez

Anthony Padilla, 26, has been working in a BPO company for nearly four years now. Asked what he hopes his future at work will be, he said it should be anything but returning to the office.

“My employer has been very indirect with regards to RTO. I personally do not want to return to the office anymore because I live in Lucena, Quezon already. To go back to Manila and to endure the exhausting commute every day does not seem very exciting,” he shared. “Especially that public transport in Manila is not exactly as commuter-friendly and that the rental fees have gone up again, I do not see any practical reason for me to live there again.”

Asked what he will do if his employer decides to require him to return to the office already, Padilla said, “Honestly, I would not want to leave but I might resign instead. There must be some other work that can be done at home. Like, I know for a fact that a lot of good-paying freelancing work have become available, so I might try those instead.”

This is why, Madrid emphasized, employers must now acknowledge that their people see more of their value now than ever before. People, too, have loved working from home and will no longer want to leave their work-from-home lifestyle because of its many benefits.

"Employees have more flexibility now and I think employers need to get real and decide, 'What can I offer?' And then everyone will find their place,” he said.

If BPO companies do not value and support their employees and listen to their demands, we might see more people leaving the industry and, in the bigger picture, impacting the economy.Jack Madrid, President & CEO, IBPAP

Madrid also noted that non-traditional BPO locations have been emerging and are now competing for the same business that used to be dominated by the Philippines and India. As a result, there is now a war going on for talent globally; these new BPO companies in non-traditional locations are looking for talent to do the jobs that most Europeans and Americans no longer want to do.

"So, they are looking for people to do those same jobs and most of them are hoping that those jobs will be filled by Filipinos," said Madrid.

Filipinos hold huge advantages in the global workforce, according to Madrid, which makes the Filipino talent more in demand. For one, Filipinos are known to have excellent listening skills, empathy, patience, and adaptability.

"We must remember where we are strong. We managed to deliver services during 2020 and 2021 despite all the surges and variants of COVID-19," noted Madrid. "Despite natural disasters on top of COVID-19, we were able to continue serving our customers through the worst of Typhoon Odette, for example. We are famous for this."

He added, "Now, we have lived through work-from-home and we are beginning to transition back to the office. I mean, talk about agility and our survival instinct and our flexibility!"

Call center agents wait for calls from their United States clients as they work overnight daily in Manila's Makati financial district February 6, 2012. The number of Filipinos who work graveyard shifts to answer calls on behalf of big multinational companies like Citigroup and JPMorgan Chase is now greater than India's 350,000, earning the Philippine's the title - Call Centre Capital of the World. By 2016, the Philippines wants to double the size of the local BPO market to $25 billion, employing 1.3 million workers from 640,000 at the end of 2011. But to be able to that the Southeast Asian nation must convince investors it has more to offer than a huge pool of english-speaking talent. Picture taken February 6, 2012. To match Analysis OUTSOURCING/PHILIPPINES   REUTERS/Erik De Castro (PHILIPPINES - Tags: BUSINESS EMPLOYMENT)
FILE PHOTO. Filipinos hold huge advantages in the global workforce, which makes Filipino talent more in demand. For one, Filipinos are known to have excellent listening skills, empathy, patience, and adaptability. REUTERS/Erik De Castro

Clearly, now is not a good time to lose talent as there are many other foreign companies willing to provide remote work to Filipinos.

As the demand for Filipino talent is already there, Madrid said that we must now maintain the competitiveness of the Philippines in the industry by creating more jobs and inviting more investors because the BPO industry is a very big part of the Philippine economy.

“If BPO companies do not value and support their employees and listen to their demands, we might see more people leaving the industry and, in the bigger picture, impacting the economy,” said Madrid.

"I think our industry deserves more respect and appreciation for being a pillar of the economy, for being an indispensable part of our export revenue, and for giving jobs to Filipinos, especially now with the increased demand," added Madrid.

Given the increased demand, Madrid said that there becomes a demand and supply misalignment for talent, as there is more demand than supply. Because of this, more employers must value their talent and do everything to keep them.

"The power is now with the employees," he said.

What does the ‘Future of Work’ look like now?

CHICAGO, ILLINOIS - APRIL 05: Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot greets employees returning to work at the Chicago Google offices on April 05, 2022 in Chicago, Illinois. Google employees began returning to work in the office this week for three days a week following a two-year hiatus caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot greets employees returning to work at the Chicago Google offices on April 05, 2022 in Chicago, Illinois. Google employees began returning to work in the office this week for three days a week following a two-year hiatus caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

But how should an employer approach the RTO scheme? Some companies have their gimmicks to entice their employees to smile as they enter their offices. Google employees, for instance, are treated to a month-long performance by American singer Lizzo at an amphitheater near the company's headquarters in Mountain View, California, while there are other gimmicks in their other offices. Microsoft, meanwhile treated their employees with music from local bands, beer and wine tasting, and even classes for making terrariums in their Washington headquarters.

“These celebrations and perks are a recognition by companies that they know employees don’t want to come back to the office, certainly not as frequently as before,” said Adam Galinsky, a professor at Columbia University’s business school, in a New York Times report about RTO.

But when, then, is a good time to return to office?

Approaching the RTO, according to Madrid, must go beyond perks and fun. While there is no one-size-fits-all solution to RTO, each company must properly identify who among their employees must report to work every day, who among them must go on a hybrid work setup (where some days are spent in the office and some are spent at home), and who among them can permanently work from home.

For example, he said, "Some customers are more concerned about data privacy. So they might prefer that the agents serving their customers should be on-site because it is safer and more secure. I am talking about industries like banking, insurance, healthcare – you know, the data that are being handled by the Filipino agents that are more sensitive. So those industries would prefer that they be served in the office rather than at home."

KRAMATORSK, DONETSK, UKRAINE - 2021/10/22: Medical workers seen busy at the call centre of Donetsk Oblast Emergency Medical Care and Disaster Medicine Centre in Kramatorsk.
Ukraine ranks as one of the top three countries in the world by daily number of deaths from Covid-19 and is first in Europe by hospital admissions. A new coronavirus wave has hit Ukraine leading to a shortage of hospital beds in some regions. (Photo by Andriy Andriyenko/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Medical workers seen busy at the call centre of Donetsk Oblast Emergency Medical Care and Disaster Medicine Centre in Kramatorsk. Ukraine ranks as one of the top three countries in the world by the daily number of deaths from COVID-19 and is first in Europe by hospital admissions. (Photo by Andriy Andriyenko/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

But others – like those with IT jobs or even those in marketing and sales departments, for example – can do their jobs very safely at home as long as there is internet connectivity that is secure. "So why should you force an employee to commute three to four hours every day to do the same nature of tasks that they can do at home, right?" he said.

At this point, given all the major changes that have happened in the workplace, the value of the employees has become even more significant, hence employers must listen to their people because they are their most important stakeholders.

The BPO industry, after all, would not be what it is today if not for its 1.4 million employees.

Juju Z. Baluyot is a Manila-based writer who writes in-depth special reports, news features, and opinion-editorial pieces for a wide range of publications. He covers cultures, media, gender, and the 2022 Philippine elections.

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