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One Year into the Remote Life: Redefining Work from “Home”

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The past year impacted many aspects of our life, especially work. It gave us a glimpse of the future of corporate work — remote, with flexible time and highly digitalized.

With the pivot to the virtual world of work, life for some has become boundless and for others the opposite. For many online-based workers, more business opportunities seem to open up as more companies adopt a more digitalized setup, with freelancing opportunities available. Many labor workers, however, have faced unemployment or intermittent jobs and have had to look for other employment outside of their expertise.

The remote work setup saw us these past months living in the age of virtual everything from corporate meetings, classes, therapy sessions to friendly hangouts and even tourism. But it’s not only the work setup that’s changed — from physical to digital — and continues to change.  Our routines also evolved and even the way we converse: We now start meetings and digital meetups with “Can you hear me?” or “Can you see my screen?” Of course, the term new normal is almost always part of the conversation as well.

Yet, many of us are still just getting used to the new setup. How can things be easy when at the background is a deadly pandemic? Needless to say, it has been a strange year of adjusting and readjusting to an ever-changing world.

As a writer and researcher in a PR agency, my work essentials are a laptop, good internet connection and a cup or two of strong black coffee — all of which I can access anywhere. One year of remote working and I am only beginning to feel comfortable about the new work setup and exploring further the possibilities of what ‘remote’ could mean. When the travel restrictions were eased, I was able to work in Zambales for a few weeks after being holed up in Bulacan, our hometown, for so long. This after our Makati office announced a work from home scheme in March 2020 until further notice. The trip doubled as a much-needed vacation as well.

Zambales was quieter and safer. When we walked from our house to the beach, which was 5 kilometers away, we only saw five to ten locals walking around. The town plaza, which is usually the most crowded part of the town being the initial landing spot of most tourists, was quiet even though the wet and dry market and other shops are still open. On a regular day, a sleeping town like this probably isn’t where you would want to spend your vacation, but this is the kind of safe but still vibrant atmosphere you’d want to find yourself in today. In place of coffee shops for long conversations, there’s the beach; with cousins and locals instead of friends and coworkers, sharing their countryside musings instead of work concerns. Instead of malls, tall buildings and flickering city lights, there are mountains and stars you could actually see.  

Pundaquit beach 5 kilometers away from our Zambales home

Having a family home in the province, I didn’t have to pay for rent, electricity or food, and for the internet, I used my phone’s hotspot. This is privilege, and it’s important to acknowledge that it may not be for everyone, especially with the recent news about the extremely high unemployment rate in the country. I didn’t do a lot of adjusting to the environment and the people, having spent many summer vacations there, back when I was a student and vacations lasted for months instead of a weekend. It’s the same white noise you’d expect from a close-knit family except it’s in Ilocano instead of the Tagalog I’m used to. There are no jeepneys in that town, so the primary mode of transportation is either a bike or a tricycle. But we opted to walk when we go out to make the most of the sun and the crisp wind.

When you go to a place with the intention to ‘escape’ a vague, dark cloud that’s been hovering over your head since the start of this dystopic time, you start to realize that you need very few things to feel less scared about the uncertainties of the future and have a renewed sense of life. I remember thinking Zambales is only a few hours away from Bulacan, and yet, it’s so different — it’s almost as if COVID-19 forgot to include Zambales in its devastation or it didn’t arrive here at all.

I felt less excited about Friday nights and weekends as well. I didn’t feel the need to compile all of my plans and wait for the weekend to do them. The beach is right there, and if somehow, you’re bored of the ocean, there’s the nearby river or falls. And even if I’m not physically dipping my feet in the water, just the thought of it being near me — surrounding me — is enough to feel less caged and live even for a few minutes like I’m in high school again, with assignments and other school work my only concern. The clock moves the same but life is somehow slower and more intentional.

Home is where your heart is, and right now, it’s also where your career is. But home, as this short trip has proven to me, is not a physical place but a collection of things that gives you comfort. Working in Zambales for a few weeks has reminded me that life and work can co-exist and that, indeed, they are interconnected — the life choices I’ve made have led me to this job and this job lets me work remotely and travel at the same time. It has reaffirmed to me that work can and will be too stressful to handle sometimes, and it’s up to me to find ways to keep my head in the game. And sometimes you find it in working in a different place than your usual ‘home.’  

The last time I went to Makati, the city had grown eerily silent — same bright lights, but less vibrant without its people. Other friends working in the city have gone home to their respective provinces to resume work, and Makati, which used to be the center of life for people in corporate jobs, became a once-a-month destination to meet friends who are still office-bound. It’s only reasonable to move out of your city home, which you chose because of its proximity to the office, and opt for a different place to live in — less crowded and with a lower risk of contracting the virus. After pay cuts, layoffs and furloughs, it’s harder to find a reason to stay in an expensive condo or apartment.

Working in a place that doubles as a tourist spot is a product of the new world we are living in. But would it become more mainstream post-COVID? Does it fit the Filipino lifestyle? And will more companies continue their WFH setup even after the pandemic is over?

Well, this is only the first year since the pandemic. After COVID-19 changed a lot of norms and concepts we’ve known, who’s to say which trend will caught on or which will be old news by next year or the year after that? Maybe this concept of work merging with a short respite and even tourism is one answer to the search for work-life balance. Maybe this will become more attractive for Filipinos in the future as more options get developed by the tourism industry and private businesses.

The changes in the way of life that we’re seeing right now are nothing but a small glimpse of what the future could be like. We don’t know yet the extent of the changes or how these would affect us in the long run. The post-COVID-19 world is hard to predict. We are the guinea pigs, and not only are we tested on but we also have to formulate the remedies for going back to ‘normal’ or ‘the new strange,’ as author Rishad Tobaccowala said. Nevertheless, we beat on, boats wherever the current may take us, ceaselessly into the future.

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