Regular testing, hybrid work models the new normal for businesses

The government firms should be prepared to factor in testing costs as part of normal business operations after March 31. PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - Businesses in Singapore are taking the Omicron curveball in their stride, given the high vaccination rate of the workforce and the adoption of hybrid work models.

Firms are encouraged that Singapore's calibrated reopening is going ahead despite the new coronavirus strain, with more employees allowed to return to the workplace from Jan 1.

But the multi-ministry task force tackling Covid-19 has said that even as the work-from-home stance will be eased, the Government is considering removing the concession for unvaccinated persons to return to the worksite with a negative Covid-19 test.

Mercer Singapore corporate wellness leader Krystal Tang said the removal of the testing concession is unlikely to have much impact on business operations, given that some 97 per cent of Singapore's workforce is fully vaccinated as at early December.

The Manpower Ministry told The Straits Times that only about 75,000 employees are unvaccinated as at Dec 5, a one-third decrease since Oct 17.

Dr David Leong, managing director of human resources firm PeopleWorldwide Consulting, said that the move, if it happens, will encourage such workers to seriously reconsider their choice not to get vaccinated.

"If these unvaccinated employees can still operate off-site and can function from home, employers may still employ them with restricted benefits and insurance coverage," he said.

Singapore International Chamber of Commerce chief executive Victor Mills said that businesses are building on their experiences and lessons learnt since the pandemic started.

Ms Tang said: "Employers should also be ready to develop emergency work plans to address the potential need to work from home, plans for essential business functions, and employee engagement during this time."

At the same time, firms with staff who are required to undergo mandatory regular Covid-19 testing are also preparing for the eventuality of having to bear the full cost if subsidies are rolled back.

The Government said last week that while subsidies for mandatory rostered routine testing (RRT) will be extended for three more months until March 31, firms should be prepared to factor in testing costs as part of normal business operations after that.

The Restaurant Association of Singapore said it is supportive of the regular testing strategy to ensure a safe dining environment.

Still, testing costs could impact overall expenses greatly, adding to other cost increases such as for labour, food supplies and energy.

"We hope that the government can continue to support our members as well as all the F&B operators with the cost of the ART (antigen rapid test) kits, so long as RRT is legally required," a spokesman said, noting that such support would provide some "breathing space" for firms.

Scanteak Singapore chief executive Jamie Lim said that while any additional costs would be of concern for firms, especially since inflationary pressures have been more pressing than ever, it is a worthwhile trade-off if it means avoiding another circuit breaker that would have a more devastating impact on the country's economy and companies.

"We are grateful that the cost of ART kits has gone down already, that is helpful," she said, adding that the company has been ensuring it has ample test kits.

As for work from home, Mr Mills said most people now accept the future of work is hybrid.

"I doubt very much we will ever go back to 100 per cent of people working from the office. There is no need and there is no wish to either. However, people do want to be able to make the decision themselves of when they work from home or from the office."

Mercer's Ms Tang said employers can support staff and encourage them to get vaccinated through means such as providing additional time off when they get their jabs.

OCBC Bank, for example, is encouraging unvaccinated staff to get their jabs by covering the pre-event testing cost for those who get their first shots by Dec 31, until the completion of their vaccination regime. About 97 per cent of its 10,000 staff in Singapore are fully vaccinated.

Several firms told ST that flexible work arrangements will continue to be the norm.

Ms Janice Foo, head of people at KPMG in Singapore, said that from January, its employees would be adopting a hybrid work model where staff return to the office primarily for meetings, team-building and collaboration activities.

"Adopting a hybrid work model for the future will allow us to strike a balance between flexibility and the need for face-to-face, quality human interaction, so that employees are able to stay productive and connected," she said.

Business services provider TDCX is taking a phased approach, with 10 per cent of its staff going to the office at first, before it progresses to having half its workers on-site.

Those in operations roles will be prioritised for return to the workplace ahead of those in support functions, said Ms Angie Tay, TDCX group chief operating officer and executive vice-president for Singapore and Thailand.

Follow ST on LinkedIn and stay updated on the latest career news, insights and more.