COVID-19 SPECIAL

Firms seek to keep up productivity as staff work from home

Some use software for tracking, while others focus on impact rather than quantity of work

ST ILLUSTRATION: MANNY FRANCISCO

Companies have had to adjust to new ways of keeping the work rate up with most staff now toiling away at home, well out of sight of the boss.

While expectations of employees' work are the same during the circuit breaker period, there is a greater emphasis on virtual communication between staff and bosses to make up for the lack of physical interaction, companies told The Straits Times.

They also acknowledged that they need to be considerate about the distractions employees face when working from home, such as greater responsibilities given children are now home-schooling.

"We have observed in the past few weeks that our employees feel more empowered when we work with them to come up with an arrangement that enables them to balance their family and work," said Mr Abhijit Kumta, head of operations and technology for Singapore and Asean at Citi.

Several firms are using software tools for target setting and keeping track of employee productivity.

Blockchain firm Tribe Accelerator is using an app called Notion, which allows teams and individuals to plan projects, work and their goals in real time.

Employees at energy management start-up SensorFlow use software called Lattice to update their work targets or progress. Managers and employees also have weekly one-to-one meetings.

Law firm Withers KhattarWong said it has a traditional time recording system that allows it to track employees' billable hours.

But productivity goes beyond billable hours, and comes in the form of sharing ideas and contribution to business development activities as well, said Mr Shashi Nathan, the firm's partner and regional head of dispute resolution.

Some firms have chosen to forgo monitoring tools, placing the onus on employees to take charge of their own productivity.

Manulife Singapore chief human resource (HR) officer Angie Ng said: "(Instead of using tools for monitoring), regular interactions between managers and their teams are key to ensuring that our employees are working and coping well through these challenging times."

KPMG has also chosen not to use productivity monitoring tools.

FAMILY-WORK BALANCE

We have observed in the past few weeks that our employees feel more empowered when we work with them to come up with an arrangement that enables them to balance their family and work.

MR ABHIJIT KUMTA, head of operations and technology for Singapore and Asean at Citi, on staff working from home.

"There is mutual trust among employees to deliver the necessary for our clients, and we would also discourage micromanaging at a time like this when everyone is trying their best to adapt and thrive," said KPMG Singapore partner and head of people Ang Fung Fung.

Aviva Asia people director Anuradha Purbey said productivity is not a challenge when employees have clear, defined goals and ample communication with team members on their progress, noting that the company is more focused on the impact rather than quantity of work produced.

"Some managers connect with their team members at the start of the week or day to ensure that there is full clarity on what needs to be delivered, especially in more operational roles with time-sensitive deliverables," she said.

The shift to remote working has also meant the need for firms to beef up technology infrastructure both internally and for staff.

Standard Chartered Bank's virtual private network capacity is now 11 times greater, said Ms Charlotte Thng, head of HR for Singapore, Australia, Asean and South Asia cluster markets.

Citi's Mr Kumta said the bank is providing additional benefits such as claims on expenses incurred from increased use of home Internet or cellular data.

The notion of productivity could shift to focus on what employees deliver rather than time spent after this period of remote working and the Covid-19 pandemic, said KPMG's Ms Ang.

Mr Adrian Ole, Deloitte Singapore's executive director of human capital consulting, added that some longstanding HR policies must be revised to align with the new realities of work, such as employee allowances that support the costs of working from home.

"The HR function will also need to focus its expertise on critical talent retention, modified compensation and reward programmes, performance management and, importantly, employee wellness initiatives," he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 11, 2020, with the headline 'Firms seek to keep up productivity as staff work from home'. Print Edition | Subscribe