By Thalif Deen
UNITED NATIONS, Sep 6 2019 – With the rapid leap in digital technology – including increased access to conference calls, e-translations, skype, text messaging and emails—more and more offices in the United States are providing employees with an option to “work from home”.
The new concept was frivolously illustrated in a recent cartoon in the Wall Street Journal where the waiter at a restaurant tells an impatient customer: “Your order will be up in another 45 minutes. Our chef is working from home today.”
The option to work “from another location” – euphemism for working from home—has now spread to the United Nations where it is categorized as “flexible working arrangements”—and described in official circulars either as “staggered working hours”, “compressed work schedule”, “working away from office” or “alternate work place” .
Ian Richards, President of the 60,000-strong Coordinating Committee of International Staff Unions and Associations (CCISUA), told IPS “home-working can be a great way to find focus and concentration, and avoid the stress of the daily commute. However, experience shows it is best kept within reasonable limits”.
With home-workers fearful of colleagues’ suspicions about their work activities, many have reported it harder to define the start and end of the work day, and separate their private and work lives, he said.
He pointed out that some also feel pressured to work when ill and make use of sick leave. Lack of interaction at the office means they are less aware of developments at work and more likely to miss out on career advancement, Richards argued.
A recent circular by the UN Under-Secretary-General for Management Strategy, Policy and Compliance, says “the normal working week is subject to exceptions when staff members have been authorized to avail themselves of flexible working arrangements, in accordance with the Secretary-General’s bulletin on flexible working arrangements.” (ST/SGB/2019/3)
The new working arrangements have been prompted primarily by a shortage of work space in the 38-storeyed UN Secretariat building which houses more than 2,000 staffers. ST/IC/2019/15
And more so, by the UN opting out of renewing leases on several rented offices in the neighborhood – due to a growing cash crunch — and thereby forced to re-locate staffers to an already over-crowded Secretariat.
More worryingly, said Richards, the organization has been known to refuse cover for work-related accidents at home. And in times of tight budgets, some managers have argued that those who work extensively from home could be replaced by consultants.
At the same time, supervisors who work from home when not travelling are less able to supervise.
“For this reason, no-one should be pushed to work from home and neither should it function as a pressure valve for the UN’s inability to provide staff with an office and a serene work environment,” he declared.
A UN staffer told IPS that not only are they given the option to work from home— “maximum of three days during the work week” – but also, in some cases, “forcing” staffers to do so, much against their wishes.
Currently, some UN offices do not have even designated work spaces which are now doled out on a first-come, first-served basis.
“I was working on my desktop computer when I was summoned to an office meeting,” one staffer recounted, “but when I got back an hour later, my computer and my desk had been taken over by another staffer— leaving me stranded momentarily while I had to hunt for another work space.”
Samir Sanbar, a former UN Assistant Secretary-General and head of the Department of Public Information, told IPS it will be interesting to find out who precisely prepared that circular; certainly not someone with a credible U.N. record.
There may be financial reasons to save cash on non-renewal of rentals. “Yet it seems like an attempt to display an emerging work practice more attuned to market business than the U.N. spirit. It would erode further the credibility of a dedicated international civil service,” he noted.
“During my tenure, we spent more time at the office than at home. I recall leaving the Secretariat building one evening, after meetings with colleagues, to discover it was 11 p.m. Working at home meant at weekends or during holidays”, he said.
“Once when the Secretary General called while I was in Southampton, continuing the discussion meant returning immediately to the building”, said Sanbar, who worked under five different Secretaries-General during his tenure at the UN.
“Working for the United Nations is not like in a business enterprise or government post. In my belief, that means being seen there — whether at headquarters or in the field.”
Drawn from equitable cultural and geographic backgrounds, dedicated staff displayed human dignity, almost pride, in observed productive work, he noted.
A visible presence openly confirmed a central relevance, said Sanbar. Lack of visibility would undercut its perception and play into the determination to erode further the role of its challenged leadership.
Iftikhar Ali, a former UN staffer who worked as Director of UNIC in Tehran (1994 to 2000) and in UNMIK’s Public Information Department in Kosovo (2001 to 2003), told IPS there are both pros and cons in the current flexible working arrangements.
Some American and European companies have been successful in letting their workers operate from their homes, and in most cases, it has improved efficiency.
“But I don’t know how it will work for the UN. After all, the UN is not a company selling goods or services; it is an international organization struggling to achieve higher goals: world peace, security and economic development that would benefit all,” he said.
To promote those ideals, UN staffers must remain dedicated and work together to meet those tasks, however difficult.
In this regard, he noted, UN staffers need to interact with each other more closely and also with representatives of member states.
“Therefore, the best places to develop and remain imbued with the spirit and dedication to serve the cause of peace are the UN offices and complexes where staffers meet each other face-to-face.”
Staying away from the places of work, he pointed out, would gradually erode those linkages and their international outlook, thus weakening the peace movement.
“The atmosphere at home, with lots of distractions, is not very conducive to building global mindset. The UN carries ideas, not cargo,” said Ali.
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