Flexible bosses can mean more babies, says OECD man

Dr Olivier Thevenon, who was invited recently to Singapore to advise on family and fertility policies, said a "soft law" that gives parents the legal right to ask for flexible working arrangements can help change norms.
Dr Olivier Thevenon, who was invited recently to Singapore to advise on family and fertility policies, said a "soft law" that gives parents the legal right to ask for flexible working arrangements can help change norms.ST PHOTO: CHEW SENG KIM

S'pore should consider 'soft law' to help change norms, suggests social policy expert

In the pursuit of the stork, Singapore is slow in one important area, said a visiting population expert.

It is in offering flexible work arrangements to all, an approach that is often linked to higher birth rates in places like the Nordic countries.

But its success also hinges on colleagues and bosses backing it, said social policy researcher Olivier Thevenon of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, a grouping of 35 developed nations of which Singapore is not a part.

"When people are working from home, they are often more likely to work a little bit more. It is not always at the expense of employers," said Dr Thevenon, who was invited recently to Singapore by the Prime Minister's Office to advise civil servants on family and fertility policies.

He noted that Britain found a way to make flexi-work arrangements work, by granting carers or those looking after children the right to ask for it in 2003.

But Mr Kurt Wee, president of the Association of Small and Medium Enterprises (Asme), was not convinced of the need for such a law as businesses are already constrained by manpower shortages and high costs.

"We understand the value of work-life balance, but there are realities that businesses face in Singapore. The economy is very demanding," he told The Straits Times.

HAPPIER WORKERS

When people are working from home, they are often more likely to work a little bit more.

It is not always at the expense of employers.

DR OLIVIER THEVENON, who was invited recently to Singapore by the Prime Minister's Office to advise civil servants on family and fertility policies.

Flexible work practices were championed by almost all the 18 MPs who debated in Parliament last week on how to support women's family and work aspirations.

These practices include part-time work, working from home and flexible working hours like taking an hour off in the middle of the day.

Singapore has rolled out a series of measures to support young couples who want to have children, including doubling government- paid paternity leave to two weeks since the start of the year.

But Singapore has workplace practices that are much less flexible than in Britain, the Nordic countries and Germany, said Dr Thevenon.

Childcare services help mothers, who are typically the primary carers of children, return to work after they give birth.

But once parents are back at work, they also need workplace flexibility to manage their work and family duties, he added.

Singapore can look at adopting a legal right to ask for flexible working arrangements, which Dr Thevenon described as a "soft law".

While employers may not be so keen on the idea, having such a law can help change norms, he said.

The British government states on its website that an employer can refuse an application if it has a good business reason. Employers, however, must deal with requests in a "reasonable manner", like discussing it with their employees.

"It forces employers and employees to discuss the issue, and it is from this discussion that minds start to change," said Dr Thevenon.

He noted that Britain extended the right to ask for flexi-work arrangements to all employees in 2014.

But Asme's Mr Wee said that even without this formal arrangement, employees already get some flexibility in scheduling their work.

"Employers are aware that you cannot expect working styles to be like in the old days, with workers strapped to their desks from 9 to 5," he added.

But Tampines GRC MP Desmond Choo said legislation may be the push society needs to change minds about flexi-work.

"It is fairly tough for professional women who have been away for a while to ask their boss for flexi- work arrangements.

The boss may think they are not so committed to their work," said the unionist. "But nearly everyone we meet would like it. Why not make it easier?" he added.

Mr Choo noted that the workforce adapted after maternity leave was raised from 12 to 16 weeks in 2008.

"Real change will happen only when companies need to abide by certain standards," he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 17, 2017, with the headline 'Flexible bosses can mean more babies, says OECD man'. Print Edition | Subscribe