Myanmar & COVID-19

For Many in Myanmar, Working From Home Amid COVID-19 Poses Unexpected Challenges

By Lwin Mar Htun 14 May 2020

In response to the spread of the coronavirus in Myanmar, many companies have adopted work-from-home policies, leaving some employees struggling with how to stay productive in their “home office” during the pandemic.

“Working from home is a new thing for many of us. It’s not that easy to complete all our tasks in a new working environment that is already so comfortable for us. But we need to focus to remain productive because our company still uses KPIs [key performance indicators] so we have to act responsibly,” said Ko Aung Kyaw Oo, 28, a social media manager at Hello Sayawon Healthcare Media.

He has been working at Hello Sayawon for over two years. His work from home period started in the second week of March.

“My job is online based, so it’s not such a big deal to work from home. But I need to manage a team and communicate with others online; it’s not as effective as [interacting] face to face,” he added.

Other problems Ko Aung Kyaw Oo faces include an unreliable internet connection and occasional power blackouts. Those things have caused delays, but his workload has not changed.

“There’re too many distractions while working at home and I struggle with them. But it reduces the chance of catching coronavirus when we don’t need to go [outside] to work. Staying at home and working from home is safer for us and our families, and saves time,” he said.

Another person who is staying productive during the COVID-19 outbreak is Ma Yin Min Tun, communications manager at Grab Myanmar, who started working remotely at the beginning of April.

“Before the transition, Grab’s regional human resources management sent all Grab staff in eight countries information about the virus, telling them to cancel work trips abroad and explaining how to stay safe via frequent emails,” she said.

She added, “And they also shared information on the difficulties, both physical and psychological, that we might deal with while working from home, and how to manage them. So we were able to prepare in advance.”

In reality, however, the adjustment has been easier said than done, and she admits she faces many problems working from home.

“The main problem for me is [a lack of] facilities. When I shifted to using my home as a workplace, I had nowhere comfortable to sit and work for the whole shift. The change in environment is disruptive when it comes to holding meetings, and there are problems with the internet connection and loss of electricity,” she said.

At the office, when she needed to talk to people in different departments, she could stop by their desks for a brief chat. Even on busy days she didn’t feel tired, she said, because the interaction with colleagues energized her.

As part of the new arrangements, her team decided to hold chat sessions before their daily meetings. They share what they’ve been doing and whether they have ventured outside or not.

“Every Friday, we eat lunch together—I mean on a video call. We are physically distancing but still keeping in touch in daily life. We need activities like this to build our team spirit during this time—I think it’s important,” Ma Yin Min Tun said.

But she still longs for face-to-face communication, and often finds herself chatting to Grab drivers and restaurant delivery staff.

“I love to hear what kinds of problems and challenges they’re facing, and we try to find a way to deal with them together. Now, I don’t get much opportunity [to interact with people] during this period of social distancing,” she said.

Digital communication has become indispensable for many businesses. And for many employees the COVID-19 outbreak is providing a good opportunity to learn about the importance and complexity of digital systems.

“The more we learn, the more we realize the advantages [of technology]. We understand that keeping distance between people is not easy, but it is not so hard to communicate through different channels and get things done,” Ma Yin Min Tun said.

However, if a colleague is not responsive or the company can’t find a way to deal with the emotional and physical challenges experienced by their employees, work-from-home policies may be difficult for some to sustain, she added.

Ma Yin Min Tun lives with her 15-year-old son and her younger sister, so it’s just a small family in her home.

“While I’m working we don’t talk very much, and they haven’t interrupted me. All the news about COVID-19 was stressing me out, so I limit the amount of news I read and focus on work with the support of my team. So, working from home is not easy but I have remained productive; mainly it has affected my social life,” she said.

Ko Ye Aung Min, who works as a senior employee in the digital department at Prakit Advertising Company, finds that working from home is more complicated than in the office, and requires more steps to finish the work.

“For me, working from home is busier than normal office hours. Sometimes work arrives suddenly, even on Saturdays and Sundays, so I’m always on stand-by,” he said.

The nature of his job requires him to deal with company clients and work as part of a team, so communication is essential.

“Some things just can’t be discussed properly on the phone or via the internet; there’s a delay and it’s less effective. So, not being able to communicate properly with team members is the main challenge of working from home,” Ko Ye Aung Min added.

Some people assume working from home is great, because the hours are flexible and the working environment is familiar. But those flexible working hours can turn into extra-long days, and not getting distracted by non-work-related things is a struggle, he said.

“Ultimately we have to be responsible as individuals and get the work done, but it’s more stressful. I hope this situation is over quickly so I can get back to my normal life,” he said.

Journalist Ma Yee Ywal Myint, who writes on property and current events for The Myanmar Times, said she is also struggling with communication problems while working from home.

“Journalism by its nature requires attending press conferences, interviewing sources and meeting lots of people. So, working from home and contacting sources by phone is not ideal, especially when you’re trying to interview government officials,” Ma Yee Ywal Myint said.

She added, “Many people aren’t picking up the phone. Some decline to give interviews.”

This has required her to adjust her story ideas or come up with new angles for stories. “It’s not always easy,” she said.

“I’m staying at a hostel, so I don’t have a quiet environment in which I can concentrate on work; that is the main problem, and the [unreliable] internet connection is another. For me, working from home is a disaster,” she said.

So, she still goes into the office when she has a lot of work to do.

“My office is not very far from my place. It is a bit risky but I try to stay safe by wearing a mask and using hand sanitizer. The workload is the same as in normal times, and I still have to get my stories done before deadline,” Ma Yee Ywal Myint said.

Ma Yin Min Tun said, “Everyone is facing similar challenges and anxieties today, but there’s nothing we can do about it. So, it’s best to get through this by doing what we have to do. I hope we all get through this situation together as best we can.”

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