Lack of trust among reasons some workers in S'pore told to return to office despite Covid-19 curbs

Employers believing workers would be more productive at the workplace and a lack of flexibility in company policy are two other reasons cited.
Employers believing workers would be more productive at the workplace and a lack of flexibility in company policy are two other reasons cited.ST PHOTO: JASON QUAH

SINGAPORE - When Ms Alex, a trainee at a design company, entered her office last week, 11 of her colleagues were there and not wearing masks nor observing social distancing.

When she voiced her concerns about the situation, her worries were dismissed and she was told by her superiors that working from home made people lazy - and hence they could not be trusted to stay away from the office.

Ms Alex, who is in her mid-20s, spoke to The Straits Times on condition of anonymity, as did six others who told ST that they were being asked to go back to the office despite Singapore's latest Covid-19 rules.

They cited three main reasons - employers not trusting them to work from home, employers believing they would be more productive at the workplace and a lack of flexibility in company policy.

The latest restrictions - aimed at reducing community spread of the virus - require that only those who need to be at the workplace for reasons such as needing to access specific equipment housed there should be allowed in.

On Monday (May 24), the Ministry of Manpower said it had fined 11 firms $1,000 each for not ensuring that their employees stay home.

An engineer at a large manufacturing firm who wanted to be known only as Henry said that even though his job mainly involves coding and other desk-bound duties, he and his colleagues have been asked to go back to the office on rotation.

"The only reason we were given for being asked to go back is that they say we have higher project productivity when everyone is in the office," he added.

Since May 16, the start of tighter Covid-19 curbs, he and his colleagues have been on a 14-day split-shift system.

Henry, who is in his mid-20s, said while safe distancing measures are in place in the office, he is concerned about being exposed to the virus during his daily commute on public transport.

Others cite inflexible company policy as the reason that they are asked to go into the office every working day.

For instance, Mr Wang's company in the oil and gas industry provides an essential service - equipment repair - so the employees have been told they are required to be in the office.

But the sales and service engineer, 49, said his role does not need him to be on the ground.

He added: "My work can be done 50 per cent at home and 50 per cent in the office."

Mr David Leong, managing director of  recruitment company PeopleWorldwide Consulting, said some employers' insistence on a return to the office is probably a failure to respond quickly to the shift in workplace policy. Just last month, companies were told that working from home was no longer the default, with up to 75 per cent of staff able to return to the workplace at any one time, from 50 per cent before.

Under the latest restrictions, the default is back to working from home.

Mr Leong said for most firms, however, "the short reprieve where workers were allowed back was quickly reversed with the beginning of heightened alert".

He added: "There are technically no benefits for employers to urge workers to return since they have been working from home for almost a year".

He said employers need to understand the situation and repattern their work flows.

"Trust between employers and employees cannot be the only way to have a good work-from-home relationship. Employers must have other means to supervise work based on calculable deliverables," he added.

Mr Leong said employees should continue to raise their issues to their human resource teams, and failing that, file reports with the Ministry of Manpower.