Will the post-pandemic era have more optionality?

OCTOBER 4 — If there’s something the pandemic has shown us, it’s that necessity is the mother of invention which, in turn, is the daddy of options.

Restaurants cannot open? No problem, call Grab (or any of the other food delivery providers). Cannot go gym? Use workout apps. Cannot go cinema? Takpe, watch Netflix.

In many ways, optionality is the elixir of life. 

We cherish people who open up worlds of alternatives and possibilities for us; likewise, we despise those who take them away from us.

Can post-pandemic Malaysia be a society of greater options? 

In many areas, this already is a given. As mentioned, check out all the options in the food business. In fact, some food chains have put forth so many options for their customers that they must include “value meals” or “lunch specials” to simplify decision-making.

Almost every company serving a vibrant consumer market cannot survive without offering huge options in product or service offerings. Look at the tons of choices you can make opening any bank account or booking a flight ticket or using a streaming service or just making payment for an utility.

The ubiquity of optionality really makes those organisations who do things the “old fashioned” way look bad (but see note 1 on the “option” of not being vaccinated). 

Seriously, banks who still require you to physically go to the branch to sign or collect something need to rethink their customer strategy.

Or consider education. One of the most critical institutions in any country, sadly enough, remains “bound” to physicality. Notice how in Malaysia classroom teaching remains the “baseline” without which many schools cannot endure.

But there’s hope. 

Notwithstanding the situation of public schools which still lack broadband facilities, many private schools already give students the option of either coming back to physical class or continuing taking lessons online. 

Yet, therein lies a complexity. Sometimes giving clients the option of A or B entails removing the related optionality for employees. Eg, if a school gives students the option of coming back to class, it means not all teachers will have the option of working from home (WFH). 

Then again, it shouldn’t be too hard to create some rotation system where teachers can work from home on some days and come back to the campus on others.

Still, optionality remains abstruse in some sectors.

Isn’t it ironic that providing optionality for employees was something some corporate leaders only considered when they no longer had the option of getting them back into office?

Passengers don face masks during a ride on the LRT train in Kuala Lumpur June 1, 2021. — Picture by Firdaus Latif
Passengers don face masks during a ride on the LRT train in Kuala Lumpur June 1, 2021. — Picture by Firdaus Latif

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Some companies who’ve had 90 per cent of staff work from home for more than half a year continue to find it hard to give their employees the option to continue with WFH. 

Of course, some roles (hotel receptionists, bank tellers, etc.) require the individual to be back in the office, but there are also many roles which don’t. 

Especially in our much-hyped epoch of “contactless operations”, even quite a few tasks which formerly required seeing people face-to-face will soon be converted 100 per cent online (eg. HR, banking, counseling, etc.).

I’m guessing that technology and policy won’t be the key issue here; it’ll be the corporate mindset. Do we want to give our employees and clients more options? 

Sad to say, some companies or corporate leaders will continue to have a micro-manage or macro-control mentality; these are the folks for whom overarching control has become a way of life and hardly something a pandemic-related lockdown can modify.

We can only hope that the job market gradually shifts towards favouring employers who recognise the value of granting greater flexibility and alternatives for their workers.

* Note 1: Optionality — like freedom — is never absolute. The value of optionality lies, in huge part, in its low cost or lack of downside. Hence, we do not give people the “option” to smoke in hospitals or to drive like a speed demon in residential areas or to sell narcotics. You should not be entitled to an option if that option creates risks or problems for other people. Hence, I’m of the view that taking the vaccine should not be “optional.”

** This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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