Calling it a day at 3.30pm: Firms help employees strike work-life balance

Some companies are helping their employees strike a work-life balance by introducing measures such as early-release days and birthday leave

Every Friday at 3.30pm - a time many cubicle rats are still working off the post-lunch food coma - staff at Singapore architectural and design firm Ministry Of Design are calling it a day.

Released from work, some people such as architectural designer Angie Ng, 30, use the time to run errands before the bank closes for the weekend.

She says: "Getting off early is great because it lets me do crowd-free shopping. If I'm travelling, it lets me catch an earlier flight, so I essentially get an additional half day of holiday time."

Other employees such as senior architectural designer Darren Yio, 36, visit museums, bookshops and cinemas before the crowds descend in the evening.

As the saying goes, all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.

Architectural designers Angie Ng and Darren Yio leaving the Ministry Of Design office at 3.30pm. PHOTO: ALICIA CHAN

Companies are catching on to the importance of work-life balance as a way of keeping employees happy and productive.

Some, like Ministry Of Design, have designated early-release days. Other organisations introduce measures such as flexible hours, telecommuting and extra leave days on occasions such as employee birthdays.

This may seem counter-intuitive, especially in a time when technology is making workers accessible 24/7.

However, some companies realise that going the extra mile to help employees maintain a healthy and balanced lifestyle pays off.

A 2003 study by the Singapore National Employers Federation on 11 Singapore-based organisations found that for every $1 spent on family-friendly programmes, the organisation reaped a return of $1.68.

Organisations with work-life strategies saw higher productivity, improved employee engagement and satisfaction, as well as higher retention of talent.

Social media company Facebook, for example, has allowed its full-time working fathers at its global offices - including those here - up to four months of paid paternity leave since January.

Different companies have different ways of promoting employee work-life balance.

In Singapore, workers covered under Part IV of the Employment Act are entitled to between seven and 14 days of paid annual leave if they have worked for at least three months.

But many companies provide more types of special leave days, although they are not required by law to do so.

A Conditions Of Employment survey conducted by the Ministry of Manpower in 2014 found that 89 per cent of employers provide compassionate leave, 71 per cent provide marriage leave and 37 per cent provide study or examination leave.

The proportion of establishments which provided at least one formal flexible work arrangement also rose from 38 per cent in 2011 to 47 per cent in 2014.

From interviews with organisations, the most common practice is flexible working hours. Some organisations that offer such an arrangement include DBS, OCBC, Citibank and Standard Chartered; property groups such as Lendlease and CapitaLand, as well as National University Hospital.

Several companies also release their staff early on certain days.

At public relations company Word Of Mouth Communications, staff may leave the office at 1pm on the last Friday of the month.

Public relations manager Cindy Foo, 29, uses the afternoon to have lunch with her parents or friends, or read a book at a library or cafe.

She says: "My working friends are envious of me because I get to leave work early every month, but I treat this as a reward for a month of hard work."

OCBC Bank allows its staff to leave work an hour early every Friday. On that day, for example, vice-president for consumer financial services Evon Lee, who is in her 30s, leaves work at 5.30pm instead of the usual 6.30pm.

She says: "I like that I can spend more time with my family over a good dinner on Fridays."

Employees at Standard Chartered are encouraged not to organise any internal meeting or conference call after 3.30pm on Fridays.

Office hours at DBS main offices end at 5pm on Fridays instead of 6.30pm, and the lights are automatically switched off at that time.

In addition, some companies grant their staff extra leave days to promote their well-being.

Property group Lendlease, for example, lets its employees take three days of well-being leave every year, on top of the regular 22 days of annual leave.

This new leave, introduced last year, can be used to attend a yoga class, go on holiday or pursue personal interests. The company does not have to be informed of what the employee does.

Deputy fund manager Joey Gabbani, 39, spent her well-being leave last year with her sons Luca, 2½, Marco, one, and mother, Madam Lim Cheng Khee, 70.

Home-grown telco Singtel also gives its staff five days of flexi-family leave a year, seven days of study and examination leave for those pursuing approved courses of study and a day of voluntary service leave to do community work.

If it is the employee's birthday, some organisations also give extra perks.

Ministry Of Design allows an employee to take the whole day off if it is his birthday, while DBS gives half a day which can be taken any time during the birthday month.

DBS assistant vice-president Jeanette Kwek, 30, spent her half-day birthday leave at home with her family last year.

She says: "I was glad because although the celebration was simple, it was meaningful. Birthdays aren't complete without family."

For employees who are parents, OCBC Bank lets them carry forward 15 days of annual leave to the following year if their child is sitting the PSLE that next year.

The bank's head of customer insights, Mr Ken Wong, 42, for example, carried forward nine days of leave from 2014, to spend with his son, Keane, for his PSLE last year.

Keane, 12, did well in the examination and has started school at Raffles Institution.

Says Mr Wong: "Being able to carry forward my leave definitely made a huge difference to my son. During that stressful period, I could make sure he stayed focused and I was there if he needed someone to talk to.

"When he needed a break, I would take him for a swim, so he could take his mind off studies.

"The experience made him feel as if we were in it together and helped us bond."

Agencies in the public service offer arrangements such as staggered working hours and telecommuting, depending on the nature of work.

At Nanyang Polytechnic, for example, about 19 per cent of its 1,500 staff work staggered hours and 33 per cent telecommute. Since 2013, the polytechnic has also let all staff take a day off each year to do community service.

However, for some occupations, there are limits as to how much employees can benefit from such practices.

A spokesman for Khoo Teck Puat Hospital, for example, says telecommuting "may not be entirely possible" for workers such as doctors, nurses and healthcare assistants because they work directly with patients.

Some nurses, however, choose to work a permanent night shift, which fits better with their family lives, adds the spokesman.

Benefits should also not be at the expense of productivity, organisations say.

Mr Lim Teck Kiat, director of human resource policy at the Public Service Division, says: "As a general approach, the flexible work arrangements in the public service must support organisation and workplace effectiveness."

Nonetheless, Singapore Human Resources Institute president Erman Tan, 51, feels encouraged that more organisations are implementing practices to improve work-life balance among their staff.

He says: "We are heartened to see more organisations shifting from the one-way-street mentality of getting more out of people, to investing in meeting people's core needs, so that they are inspired to give 100 per cent to their jobs.

"This will ultimately contribute to a happier and more productive workforce and ensure long-term competitiveness for the nation as a whole."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 06, 2016, with the headline Calling it a day at 3.30pm: Firms help employees strike work-life balance. Subscribe