Primer

Silly not to lock in gains of remote and flexi-work arrangements

This is the third of 12 primers on current affairs issues under the news outreach programme by The Straits Times and the Ministry of Education

A smartphone app being used by a Vodafone staff member to check and book slots for workstations at the firm's office in Marina Bay. With fewer workers in the office, companies may choose to downsize and save on rent. Some are also redesigning the wor
A smartphone app being used by a Vodafone staff member to check and book slots for workstations at the firm's office in Marina Bay. With fewer workers in the office, companies may choose to downsize and save on rent. Some are also redesigning the workplace to facilitate collaboration and support those who wish to - or are asked to - return to the office.ST FILE PHOTO

The latest announcement on the relaxation of workplace restrictions by the Government was greeted with a sigh of relief by some workers and a feeling of dread by others.

Three in four respondents now working from home do not wish to return to the workplace, according to a poll by The Straits Times after the announcement last month.

The new rule means that from today, up to 75 per cent of employees can return to the office at any one time.

It appears that some who still want to work from home may get their wish. More than three in five businesses polled recently by the Ministry of Manpower said that post-Covid, they intend to continue to allow employees to work from home at least half the time.

Employers will have to manage changes in workplace culture and in the structure of the economy.

WORKPLACE NORMS

Several global firms such as Spotify, Facebook and Microsoft have announced work-from-anywhere policies that are here to stay.

Yet, other companies are eschewing the trend. Amazon plans to return to an office-centric culture. Google will test a flexible work week where employees work in the office at least three days a week. Singapore's largest employer, the Government, is encouraging public servants who can work from home to return to the office three out of five working days, from today.

The impact of remote working on productivity remains up for debate.

An oft-cited study by Stanford University economics professor Nicholas Bloom, carried out in China in 2010 and 2011, found a 13 per cent increase in performance among call centre employees who worked from home for nine months.

But in an interview with online news site Vox last year, Professor Bloom noted that people in the experiment were working from home by choice - unlike during the pandemic when they were forced to. They were also able to go to the office one day a week, which he said helps with creativity and being connected to the workplace.

This supports the idea that offering workers the option to work from home can be a boost to the company as well.

In an article in Harvard Business Review late last year, Associate Professor Prithwiraj Choudhury from Harvard Business School highlighted his research findings that work-from-anywhere programmes led to happier and more productive employees.

  • About The Straits Times-Ministry of Education News Outreach Programme

  • For 12 Mondays until Aug 2, in the Opinion section, this paper's journalists will address burning questions, offering Singaporean perspectives on complex issues.

    The primer articles are part of The Straits Times-Ministry of Education News Outreach Programme which aims to promote an understanding of local and global issues among pre-university students.

    The primers will broach contemporary topics, such as ethical issues in vaccine development and the economics of modern cities. Other issues include the changing landscape in special education and the role of the arts during crises.

    Each primer topic will give a local perspective to help students draw links to the issues' implications for Singaporeans.

    This programme is jointly organised by The Straits Times and the Ministry of Education.

Still, some key challenges remain, he said. These include how to evaluate employees' performance - especially on metrics like interpersonal skills - and data security and regulation. Communication and knowledge sharing is another issue. One solution, he said, is to get used to asynchronous communication such as shared documents.

With fewer workers in the office, companies may choose to downsize and save on rent. Some are also redesigning the workplace to facilitate collaboration and support those who wish to - or are asked to - return to the office.

Mr Toby Rakison, Unispace's managing director for Asia, said 27 per cent of the commercial interior design firm's clients seek to decrease their footprint, while 30 per cent seek ways to optimise their existing spaces to cater to more hybrid ways of working.

The future of work will also see more rapid economic transformation as industries and jobs are disrupted - a trend which has been accelerated by the pandemic.

Some industries such as e-commerce, telemedicine, and online streaming and entertainment have taken off. Others such as travel and tourism may be permanently impacted.

The McKinsey Global Institute has warned that the mix of occupations across eight major economies it studied may shift by 2030, with the largest negative impact of the pandemic expected to fall on workers in food service and customer sales and service roles, as well as less-skilled office support roles.

"Because of the pandemic's impact on low-wage jobs, we now estimate that almost all growth in labour demand will occur in high-wage jobs. Going forward, more than half of displaced low-wage workers may need to shift to occupations in higher wage brackets and requiring different skills to remain employed," its report noted.

PERSONAL LIFE

A culture of remote working has a number of tangible benefits for employees, such as fewer hours spent commuting and more flexibility in managing the time spent with family or on personal pursuits.

But for some people, less clearly defined boundaries between work and personal life have the opposite effect of impacting their mental and physical health.

Chiropractors and hospitals told The Straits Times recently that they have seen more cases of physical injuries from prolonged work-from-home hours. There are also challenges if employees cannot access a conducive work environment, for example, if they share a small living space with many others.

Another key benefit of hybrid work arrangements is making work more accessible, which bodes well for groups such as self-employed people and caregivers. Singapore Human Resources Institute president Low Peck Kem said work can now range from part-time to virtual to decimalised components which can be done by different people, leading to a more diverse workforce besides just the traditional full-time worker.

But there are concerns about how the rise in remote working may lead to greater competition from overseas talent.

Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat acknowledged this in his Budget speech in February, saying that Singaporeans may find more opportunities as the best firms source globally, but will also face stiffer competition from talent who may not even set foot in Singapore.

"But Singaporeans should not be fearful. There are many strengths in Singapore that will enable us to create good jobs here. But to access these, we have to learn and adapt," he said.

As Singapore's population ages, there is also a growing need for new leave options to support workers who care for their elderly parents.

WAY FORWARD

Post-pandemic, the challenge is to sustain flexi-work arrangements while also meeting business targets and enhancing organisational culture. Microsoft recommends that employers be proactive in team building and for workplace teams to seek out diverse views from neighbouring teams, share learnings, and check for groupthink often.

That is important, as social capital is linked to successful business outcomes such as productivity, sales, creativity and innovation, Microsoft noted in a recent report.

For employee well-being, Mr Adrian Tan, the Institute for Human Resource Professionals' future of work strategist, said firms may need to create guidelines on when to communicate or take breaks and when not to. Employers may even want to build into the system non-delivery of instant messages and e-mails during non-work hours.

As for appraisals, he added that employers will need to move away from the annual performance review exercise and towards more regular performance management based on frameworks such as objectives and key results, or OKRs.

For those who do repetitive work and are thus more easily replaced by machines, Ms Low recommends that they acquire adjacent skills and perhaps strive to be a "robot whisperer", the term for a worker who controls a band of robots. That is one way to pivot towards higher value-add work.

Challenges remain, but Ms Low says: "After we have learnt the benefits of hybrid working arrangements, it would be silly not to lock in the gains and go back to traditional office-based work."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 05, 2021, with the headline 'Silly not to lock in gains of remote and flexi-work arrangements'. Subscribe