Implementing work-life practices in SMEs can start with something as simple as flexible lunch hours

A culture that supports the physical and mental well-being of employees is more important than fancy staff benefits, say experts

Simple practices such as introducing flexible work arrangements can empower employees to take charge of their own schedules, hence bringing about better work-life harmony and boosting morale and productivity. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES

What does work-life harmony look like? For one SME (small- and medium-sized enterprise), it’s letting employees schedule their lunch hour any time of the day.

Another SME gives staff who have to attend to clients’ queries after office hours the flexibility to break up their work day, while providing them with the equipment to set up a comfortable home office.

At another company, employees who return from overseas work trips on overnight flights are automatically given the next morning off. No questions asked.

Business consultants cite these examples to show that by putting themselves in the shoes of their employees, SME owners are able to support work-life harmony and boost employees’ morale and productivity. It all boils down to simple practices that empower employees to take charge of their own schedules, allowing them manage personal life alongside work.

And these steps do not involve costly human resources audits or expensive management tools – all potential barriers to implementing work-life practices for SMEs.

Ms Tang Mun Har, director at Resource Consulting, shares: “SMEs often think that introducing flexible work arrangements would increase their business costs, cause further strain to their manpower shortages, or impact their employees’ performance. But this is a misconception."

Ms Jacqueline Gwee, director and founder of aAdvantage Consulting Group, adds that initiatives such as staggered work timings and flexible lunch hours do not require additional resources. 

In particular, implementing flexible lunch hours has always been a morale booster as it gives employees the freedom to manage their own time, Ms Gwee explains.

In addition to running their own business consultancies, Ms Tang and Ms Gwee are also Work-Life Ambassadors under the Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices (Tafep), where they advocate work-life harmony among fellow SME business owners.

Employers Ms Jacqueline Gwee (left) and Ms Tang Mun Har (right) believe that by taking care of their employees' well-being, they will benefit from a more engaged and productive workforce. PHOTO: MOM

A more engaged, motivated workforce

In late April 2022, the Ministry of Manpower, together with the National Trades Union Congress and Singapore National Employers Federation, called for employers to permanently offer flexible work arrangements, even with the easing of Covid-19 workplace restrictions.

"Flexible work arrangements help employees achieve better work-life harmony and promote a more engaged and productive workforce," said the tripartite partners. 

According to Tafep, work-life harmony is a state whereby an individual is able to achieve both professional and personal goals as a result of being empowered to manage the two interdependent elements according to one’s priorities. Over the last two years, it has also become one of the top expectations employees have of companies.

A poll conducted by IT research and consultancy company Gartner of 4,000 people last year revealed that 55 per cent of employees say their ability to work flexibly will impact whether or not they stay with their employer. 

“One of the biggest pain points when an employee leaves is the amount of time and effort needed to train replacement employees and the consequent loss in productivity,” explains Ms Gwee.

She adds: “Employers who believe in taking care of their employees' well-being will reap the benefits of a more motivated and engaged workforce.”

Says Ms Tang, who started Resource Consulting in 2008: “I’ve always believed in work-life harmony, and was among the pioneer batch of trainees to undergo work-life training back in 2005. Nevertheless, it has been challenging to meet both professional and personal obligations, especially when I decided to set up my own consulting practice.”

“When TAFEP invited me to be a Work-Life Ambassador, I agreed as this would give me a chance to share my own experiences and lessons learnt with other business owners.”

Ms Gwee, whose company turns 20 this year, echoes the sentiments: “I hope to help other business leaders see that if we can do it, so can they.”

Finding the right fit

Both Ms Tang and Ms Gwee agree there is no "one-size-fits-all" solution to implementing work-life practices. Instead, a company’s work-life policies need to meet the needs of both employer and employees. 

Ms Tang’s company, for example, had done away with a physical office even before the pandemic. Instead, staff meet virtually or physically at different locations to discuss projects. 

As a result, the company has been able to attract what Ms Tang describes as an "alternative" workforce, or “very capable individuals who, due to personal commitments, are not able to work full-time”. 

“We focus on results and performance rather than the hours worked. Because of this flexibility, our staff have stayed with us for a very long time.”

Likewise, flexible work arrangements are a permanent feature at aAdvantage. To ensure that the senior management team is fully on board with its work-life practices, managers would discuss and align on the intent, guidelines and processes. This provides assurance to the senior management team that flexible work arrangements can be implemented effectively and will benefit the organisation.

An example of its work-life balance practices is to have aAdvantage staff update their work calendars and make them accessible to their teammates. This ensures transparency, which allows team and client meetings to be organised quickly and smoothly.

Moving forward, Ms Gwee says the company plans to continue refining its work-life strategies, such as providing employees with learning opportunities and engagement sessions to equip them with skills to cope with stressors at work and at home. 

Changing mindsets

In many SMEs, it is not a lack of resources that makes adopting work-life initiatives a daunting task. It is more about mindsets and management practices.

“SME business leaders tend to feel more assured when they are able to ‘see’ their employees at work,” says Ms Tang. 

Ms Gwee says SME owners also need to move beyond the notion that work-life harmony is only about telecommuting. Businesses that are unable to allow their staff to telecommute due to the nature of their work could still offer other forms of work-life support. For example, SMEs can offer other flexible work arrangements such as flexible or staggered hours, or part-time or compressed work weeks.

“It's about the combination of practices that supports an individual’s work-life interests and priorities – like how it supports staff on sick leave or caregiving duties, or to manage stress and health,” she says.

“As an SME without deep pockets and budgets for staff benefits like an office coffee bar, it’s not always easy to attract the best talent. We can, however, be true to our purpose and create a culture that supports work-life harmony.”

Passionate about work-life harmony? Join the Work-Life Ambassador Scheme, an initiative by Tafep that unites business leaders, human resource practitioners and everyday working individuals to promote a healthier work-life culture in Singapore workplaces. 

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