Coronavirus: Situation in Singapore

Bosses need to adjust to new hybrid model: Experts

They should give staff autonomy and not micromanage their work hours

To keep employees connected, 3E Accounting founder Lawrence Chai is keeping the year-end dinner and dance function, but taking it online.
To keep employees connected, 3E Accounting founder Lawrence Chai is keeping the year-end dinner and dance function, but taking it online. ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN

Five months after working from home became the default, Singaporeans are beginning to return to the office.

But this return will entail a second adjustment period and bosses will have to change the way they work, especially now that hybrid working arrangements are part of the new normal, say the experts.

The dos: Measure daily productivity by giving workers specific tasks, and give them the autonomy to manage their work.

The don'ts: Micromanage your employees' work hours and ignore their need for direct human interaction.

"Granting autonomy is not something employers should shy from in the modern workforce," said Dr Brandon Koh, a lecturer in the human resource management programme at the Singapore University of Social Sciences, adding that research has shown giving autonomy to committed employees often boosts productivity and creativity.

On the other hand, exercising control over uncommitted staff rarely turns them into high performers, he said.

A survey of nearly 1,800 people commissioned by The Straits Times found that one of the top complaints people had about working from home was that it was difficult to convince their bosses about their productivity.

Four in 10 respondents said they would like some flexibility between working in the office and at home, while slightly more than four in 10 did not want to return to the office. One in 10 wanted to go back to the office full-time, while the remainder said they had already returned to the office before the Government gave the green light to do so on Sept 28.

Mr Martin Hill, associate director of human resources at recruitment agency Randstad Singapore, suggested that managers create a list of clear short-term goals for each employee, rather than attempting to micromanage their work.

The rate at which employees complete these tasks can be used as a daily indicator of how productive they are at home, he said.

Mr Hill added that managers may also need to change their communication style and set clear boundaries between work and personal life, as these lines can get blurred when people are working from home.

Dr Koh said that as for those returning to work, they may find that they have to adjust once more to the office environment.

This transition could be more difficult for some, as returning employees lose some autonomy. Employers must therefore clearly communicate the reasons they want their staff to return, he added.

"If the reason is to manage them by work hours, that will not be well received," Dr Koh said. Instead, bosses could capitalise on the fundamental human need to forge genuine connections with others.

"People desire genuine and warm interpersonal connections with others," he said. "For that reason, working from home can sometimes really feel like 'just work' in the absence of direct human interaction with others."

Alternatively, Mr Matt Seadon, Asia-Pacific general manager of employee engagement platform Achievers, advocated for employers to host informal catch-ups online - with one important caveat.

"Employers need to make sure that the communication around these activities is light-hearted, and does not become an additional task or chore for someone to be present," Mr Seadon said.

For 3E Accounting, this means keeping the year-end dinner and dance function, but taking it online. Its 50 employees are looking forward to the annual lucky draw, said founder Lawrence Chai.

With most people working from home, having clear performance indicators - such as tracking the number of letters processed on a monthly basis by its administrative staff - have become very important, he added.

The company is also investing in a new offsite data centre to serve as a backup in case the existing system goes down.

This is even more important now that most staff are working from home, said Mr Chai, who is also the firm's chief technology officer. "We realised that investment in technology is so important because you really need this tech. If it's down, there's really nothing you can do."

Asked about the future of work, he added: "The whole thing is changing. There's no way we can go back."

Respondents sorted into three groups

For this survey conducted by crowdsourcing platform OPPi, participants were sorted into three broad groups.

They were those who wanted to work from home, but were worried about being penalised by their bosses if they voiced this opinion; those who wanted to work from home but did not share this fear; and those who did not mind returning to the office but hoped for some flexibility.

OPPi's artificial intelligence tool groups people according to the similarities in their thinking while preserving minority opinions.

Those who took the survey were able to see what proportion of participants shared their views, and the statements on which they shared the most common ground.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 12, 2020, with the headline 'Bosses need to adjust to new hybrid model: Experts'. Subscribe