Fewer firms opting for flexi-work conditions


Reasons include local work culture of needing staff to be seen in the office

Flexi-work arrangements, where staff get to choose where and, sometimes, when they work - to help balance work with family life - is growing in popularity.

But hopping on board this bandwagon has backfired for sports team-building company Playlor!.

Founder Felix Sim introduced flexible arrangements for his staff six months ago but noticed sliding productivity and difficulties getting in touch with staff at times.

Playlor! sales staff were given "flexi-place" arrangements - they could work from anywhere, as long as they could be contacted from 9am to 6pm on weekdays.

Mr Sim thought it could work.

"All our sales systems are online, so it doesn't matter to me whether they are in the office as long as they are making progress in their sales efforts. I track this online daily," he said.

But he was wrong and has since stopped the arrangement.

The 2013/14 Randstad World of Work Report found 27 per cent of employers cited concerns about employee productivity as a barrier to introducing flexible working arrangements such as variable work hours, job-sharing or working from home. What happens when such concerns become reality?

Mr Sim found, quite simply, that his staff performed worse than before.

"Due to the lack of face-to- face interaction with the rest of the team, they went into a silo and lost touch with what was going on in the company," said Mr Sim, whose company employs 10 full-time staff.

He added that the sales staff's lack of interaction with other staff and himself "caused their morale to fade faster than before this was implemented because there wasn't peer support".

The Randstad report also found that just 20 per cent of organisations here intend to hire more people on flexible working arrangements "to combat talent scarcity in the next five years".

The report stated that this is "a dramatic decrease from last year's figure of 32 per cent", and lower than other developed regional economies, such as Australia at 35 per cent and New Zealand at 39 per cent.

Singapore has talked about the option for some time but these arrangements are still far from being widely accepted here.

For instance, only a reported 84 firms applied for government funding to set up flexi-work arrangements last year.

Such funding includes the Work-Life Grant, offering firms up to $160,000 over three years when introducing flexi-work.

Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Manpower Hawazi Daipi said earlier this month that the Ministry of Manpower is also looking to improve the Work-Life Grant to meet the needs of a diverse workforce.

The Republic's business and work culture is one of the biggest reasons why local firms are reluctant to implement such moves.

Mr Michael Smith, country director of Randstad Singapore, said: "Many employers still believe in Singapore's traditional business culture, where job commitment is demonstrated through long hours and a culture of presenteeism - the practice of being present at one's place of work for more hours than is required."

Mr Cliff Loke, managing director of Mech-Power Generator (MPG), which assembles diesel- powered generators and also provides design and consultancy services, agreed.

"I can work for three days and not come into the office for two because I'm the boss, but it's difficult for a full-time worker.

"I know one American multi- national corporation, where the staff don't go into office and work from outside. But for local companies, our culture or mindset doesn't allow that. Work part-time and still get salary?"

However, for some of MPG's services, such as sales or design, the staff already work onsite or away from the office. But mandating it would be a different matter.

Mr Alvin Ang, managing director of Quantum Leap Career Consultancy, said: "Allowing for paid flexi-arrangement is very hard, because bosses in Asia like to see employees work. It's an issue all Asian cultures face."

Mr Smith added that "business leaders need to be aware that presenteeism due to a lack of flexibility might be a bigger drain on productivity, through poor employee engagement and collaboration".

But in industries where flexibility does not work, it may lead to the opposite, as was the case for Mr Sim. He said: "Obviously, most of them did not turn up to work in the morning and ended up staying till night, which was completely unproductive because the sales team needed their help most during office hours."

He also could not predict when all his staff would be in for meetings, and "I ended up having less face time with my team, and lost employee engagement".

Still, other local firms, such as CTC Travel, are giving it a try, an example cited by Ms Claire Chiang, chairman of Employer Alliance, a network of more than 1,700 member companies.

"For those who have children in primary school, they work only half-days in the mornings so that they can return home and spend time with the family in the afternoons."

She added that many small and medium-sized enterprises are already practising flexi-work arrangements on a case-by-case basis for individual staff.

Still, Mr Ang noted that Singapore's economy does not allow employees to simply do certain functions at different times.

With a low unemployment rate here, he noted that some are already performing two to three functions in their jobs, making it difficult to allow for flexi-work arrangements.

Mr Ang believes the Government can lead by example. He said: "Most of the flexi-work arrangements I've seen come from banking, especially foreign banks. They have quite a lot of these kinds of arrangements but I seldom see those in government agencies."