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More than WFH: Staggered hours keep home-grown bakery chain staff happy and productive

Work-life harmony is within reach at Polar Puffs & Cakes, which has been rolling out flexible working arrangements since 2013

Customer service executive Patsy Xie (left) enjoys the benefits of flexible work at Polar Puffs & Cakes, a home-grown bakery chain led by chief executive Francis Looi. PHOTO: WEE TY

Since joining local confectionery chain Polar Puffs & Cakes last year, Ms Patsy Xie has grown closer to her teenage son Jared.

This is thanks to a company policy that lets her pick from one of five start-and-end times. Ms Xie, 39, opted to report at 7.30am so she can send her 14-year-old to school, and clocks off at 5pm to pick him up and prepare dinner.

This was not possible at her previous job, says the customer service executive. But now, she enjoys bonding with her son on car rides, and benefits from a quieter office environment to handle tasks in the morning, when she is at her most efficient.

“It helps provide work-life harmony,” Ms Xie says of Polar’s flexible work arrangements, which include the option to work from home two days a month. “My productivity has improved, and I have more time for my family.”

Staggered working hours have been adopted by many companies in Singapore since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020. But at Polar, employees have been enjoying this perk for nearly a decade.

“Our head office is in Woodlands, which is very far from the homes of many staff,” says Polar chief executive officer (CEO) Francis Looi. 

Around seven in 10 of his 330 employees are women, and over the years, he has observed that many of them are their families’ main caregivers, having to take care of elderly parents and children. There are also times when some employees wake up feeling unwell and need “a couple of hours to get themselves oriented”.

“So I said to them: ‘Don’t worry, come in late, and you can pay back the time later,’” he says. “We formalised the policy in 2013 after realising that staff appreciated it, as it allows them to be less stressed about rushing to work.” 

Today, staggered working hours have enabled Polar to extend its office hours from 7.30am to 7pm, compared with the previous 8.30am to 6pm. 

According to survey data compiled by research firm Statista in partnership with The Straits Times, Polar is ranked among Singapore’s top 20 firms in 2022 in terms of working conditions.
 

Two-hour shifts? Why not

Polar’s staff fall into three categories. One group works at its head office, and another in its manufacturing facility, which produces pastries, rolls and decorative cakes. The third group mans the brand’s 30 outlets in shopping malls and hospitals.

Staggered hours are available to all staff in the head office, as well as workers at the production facility whose jobs are desk-bound. The company is also exploring the use of automation to reduce bakers’ hours.

For its retail staff, it is testing flexible scheduling using algorithms, which will allow them to decide when they work. “A 12-hour shift may be manned by not one, but multiple staff who are able to commit to certain hours,” explains Mr Looi, adding that part-time staff at outlets near Housing Board estates can often commit only two-hour blocks of time. 

These part-timers are usually secondary breadwinners in a dual-income family, with greater caregiving responsibilities, he adds. Some of Polar’s full-time staff have also transitioned to part-time roles for the same reason. 

“We need to find ways to help the secondary income earner take care of their obligations while being able to earn income,” says the CEO. “What we are doing is designing processes that allow someone with a two-hour slot to come in to work for the two hours.”

For all its efforts to accommodate flexible work, Polar is reaping handsome rewards. For one, it is one of the few small and medium-sized enterprises in Singapore able to attract and retain a significant number of young staff. Turnover is also relatively low, Mr Looi says.

“People join us because of the flexibility and the way we do things. We changed from using attendance as a benchmark, to looking at results,” he adds. “People realised they can work flexibly and not get penalised.”

In fact, attendance has improved and staff are more punctual as they become more conscious about time, the CEO adds.

Older staff in their 60s and 70s have also grown fluent at using communication platforms like Zoom and online chat, as they need to connect with colleagues working different hours or across locations. This primes them to be comfortable as operations grow increasingly automated.

In the long run, Mr Looi is clear-eyed about how flexible work benefits his firm’s bottom line and talent retention. 

“If people demand work-life harmony, then we have to cater for it. The earlier you accept that, the easier it is to hire,” he says. “At the end of the day, the results will speak for themselves. Happy staff, happy customers.”

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