Amid all the disruption that the Covid-19 pandemic is wreaking on people's lives, one thing is certain - the crisis is set to trigger profound changes in the way we work.
As more economies, including Singapore's, start to reopen gradually in the coming weeks, we need to look towards the light at the end of the tunnel and envision how things could look like on the other side.
In particular, we need to rethink employment in the post-Covid era.
As with most crises, it is almost certain that the Covid-19 outbreak would bring about unique opportunities with unexpected benefits for individuals and organisations that are able to adapt.
The pandemic has already accelerated many changes to workforce structures.
Remote working and the rise of contract jobs rank among some of the most defining changes.
Business leaders will need to evolve and adapt their human resource (HR) strategies to ensure that their staff adjust well to these changes and remain engaged in their work.
In Singapore, the most immediate and visible structural change at the organisation level is the quicker adoption of flexible work arrangements.
In our study of the Asia-Pacific workforce last year, only 38 per cent of Singapore-based respondents had indicated that their jobs allowed for flexible work arrangements.
Today, over 80 per cent of Singapore's workforce is currently working from home since circuit breaker measures were implemented early last month.
The workforce in Singapore is also experiencing a new degree of mobility as people search for alternative and temporary employment to supplement their livelihoods.
The Singapore Government and companies have also worked hand in hand to facilitate this.
In these unexpected times, many companies are relying on temporary workers to help balance their overheads against productivity. This has resulted in an increasing recognition and acknowledgement that the diverse experience and knowledge of these workers are often transferable across industries, and a stable mix of contract workers and permanent employees would allow businesses to scale their workforce in bouts of uncertainty.
Recently, affected employees in the tourism sector were offered alternative work via temporary positions under the #SGUnited Jobs initiative.
Kelly Services worked together with the Ministry of Manpower and the Singapore Hotel Association to help match customer service officers from various hotels to temporary jobs such as survey interviewers.
More of such initiatives could be introduced even after Singapore emerges from the worst of the pandemic, to quickly address the issue of unemployment.
Contract work would be an agile solution for this, as companies will likely continue to experience cost pressures in the near future.
However, a key challenge to the adoption of contract work is the lack of recognition of its value by Singapore employers and employees alike. This needs to change.
VALUE OF CONTRACT WORK
Contract work has traditionally been plagued by misconceptions both by individuals and organisations.
It is often seen as a lesser option as it provides less valuable work experience and less job stability, when compared with permanent positions.
Additionally, contract workers are often cast in a negative light - being viewed as either "lost", not ready to commit to anything long term or not motivated to fight for their careers.
Covid-19, however, has provided us with another lens to rethink the value of contract jobs.
In these unexpected times, many companies are relying on temporary workers to help balance their overheads against productivity.
This has resulted in an increasing recognition and acknowledgement that the diverse experience and knowledge of these workers are often transferable across industries, and a stable mix of contract workers and permanent employees would allow businesses to scale their workforce in bouts of uncertainty.
In Singapore, HR departments' efforts to build acceptance of contract work are also paying off.
Contract workers now have more benefits and recognition in the legislative sphere.
This has sparked a new target consumer group for service providers to offer work benefits that traditionally came only with permanent positions. For instance, insurers are offering coverage for contract workers such as for long-term medical leave.
THE 'NEW NORMAL' WORKPLACE
Over the past years, many have tried to imagine what the future of work would look like.
Now, it is quite certain that this future will carry the impact of Covid-19. In Singapore, as we approach the end of the circuit breaker period on June 1, now may be a good time for us to consider how our new workplaces would look like.
First, social distancing and contact tracing would likely be a big part of the day-to-day operations for the long haul, particularly for those workers allowed to return to their workplaces.
The maintenance of these existing measures is key to preventing any second wave of infections. As a result, we should see the widespread adoption of contact-tracing apps, such as TraceTogether, and regular reporting of a company's "essential staff" numbers to the authorities.
Given the lead taken by notable multinational corporations, such as Facebook and Google, to continue to allow staff to work from home until next year, telecommuting in non-essential sectors is likely to stay until a stable state is reached.
It is now apparent that the workplaces we knew so well just months ago no longer exist. The speed and extent of these changes have undoubtedly created feelings of stress and social isolation among employees, and caused major disruptions to formal organisational processes.
While business and HR leaders would be best placed to lead this charge, an engaged workforce is needed to bring these efforts to life.
HR professionals, therefore, will have their work cut out for them in helping their management and colleagues transition into this Workplace 2.0.
It will be important to put employee welfare at the forefront.
Leaders will need to have a good grasp of the realities of the new "typical" working day for their staff in order to formulate effective workplace policies and strategies for a resilient workforce.
• The writer is the managing director and Singapore country head of Kelly Services, which specialises in human resources and recruitment.
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