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The future of work in S’pore: No-work weekends and self-planned schedules?

Under the Alliance for Action on Work-Life Harmony, the country aims to move beyond flexible work arrangements to good work-life practices

Alliance for Action, work-life harmony, Covid-19, Singapore
Kavickumar Muruganathan (above), 33, is working with other Alliance for Action members on an index that scores firms on their work-life harmony policies. PHOTO: COURTESY OF KAVICKUMAR MURUGANATHAN

The value of work-life harmony has come under the spotlight this past year as Singaporeans hunkered down and worked from home or adapted to a hybrid working arrangement. Some thrived with the added flexibility; some have struggled to balance work, leisure and family.

Three members of the Singapore Together Alliance for Action (AfA) on Work-Life Harmony (WLH) discuss the need for more supportive workplace cultures. The AfA on WLH is one of 25 cross-sector AfAs set up to address a range of issues raised during the Emerging Stronger Conversations launched in June last year.

He works on an index to help S'poreans relax

At Finnish renewable energy giant Neste, Mr Kavickumar Muruganathan's team can take two hours off work each week to exercise, go for a stroll or simply relax.

He and his colleagues have been working from home since last February. They can also take group work calls on the go if they are not giving presentations, and get about $2,500 each year that can be used for personal enrichment classes.

"Work-life harmony is very important to Neste," says Mr Kavickumar, 33, an Asia Pacific supply chain compliance team lead who is married with no children.

"Our chief executive reminds us to spend more time with family and take breaks when necessary, and my supervisor has a strict 'no work on weekends and after-work hours' policy."

As Singapore looks at the future of work, the Government has taken steps to increase public awareness of work-life harmony and promote initiatives and practices to achieve it.

In February, tripartite partners announced a new Alliance for Action on Work-Life Harmony (AfA on WLH), spearheaded by the Ministry of Manpower (MOM), National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) and Singapore National Employers Federation (SNEF).

Members include employers, employees, human resource practitioners and other key community stakeholders passionate about and committed to driving ground-up action on work-life harmony in Singapore.

The AfA has been running Communities of Practice sessions where members discuss how to implement work-life harmony practices and overcome difficulties in doing so.

Tripartite partners also launched a Tripartite Standard on Work-Life Harmony in April, urging firms to provide employee support schemes and initiatives such as flexible work arrangements, family days, and more leave days for those with caregiving responsibilities.

AfA members are developing initiatives and resources to support work-life harmony in several areas. Their projects will be launched at the AfA's showcase in August.

Among these is an index that Mr Kavickumar is working on with other AfA members to score firms on their policies to support work-life harmony.

"We hope that this index will create friendly competition among employers, and eventually lead to benchmarks that move the needle on work-life harmony and mental well-being," says Mr Kavickumar, who joined Neste last year.

She helps draw the line on phone lines

Alliance for Action, work-life harmony, Covid-19, Singapore
Yeo Miu Ean (above), 58, is helping to develop guidelines for companies on communications beyond normal working hours. PHOTO: COURTESY OF YEO MIU EAN

Ms Yeo Miu Ean, founder and chief success officer of Charistal, a local consultancy that focuses on work-life matters, believes that flexible work arrangements, comprehensive leave systems, and policies and infrastructure to support employees are keys to work-life harmony.

"Flexible work itself goes beyond just telecommuting," says the 58-year-old, who won a 2012 Work-Life Excellence Leadership Award from the Tripartite Committee on Work-Life Strategy.

"You can have staggered work hours to give employees more choice, or let them set their own work hours during the week, as long as they fulfil their work-hour requirements and deliver results."

When she worked in the information technology sector about two decades ago, her bosses gave her the freedom to spend time in the afternoon with her two young children and work later in the evening.

"That was prime time with my children. If I worked normal hours, I would be tired and my children would have homework or be sleepy when I came back from the office," she says.

She adds that flexible work includes enabling employees to work remotely, whether from home, satellite offices or co-working spaces, and allowing them to take extended leave from work, for example if they have to care for elderly parents who are ill or have undergone operations.

"As Singapore's population ages, we also need more appropriate leave systems that include eldercare, bereavement and other kinds of leave days."

Policies and infrastructure to support employees' well-being, such as private rooms that can be used as nursing rooms for new mothers, are crucial too. As part of her work in the AfA, Ms Yeo is helping to develop guidelines for companies on communications beyond normal working hours.

"As more people work from home after the Covid-19 pandemic, the line between work and home will become increasingly blurred. We need some clarity about when bosses can call and text after-hours, or when employees are expected to respond. There are some jobs and situations when this is unavoidable, for instance if there is a crisis at work.

"Flexible work arrangements that give employees more autonomy on their work hours will also mean that we need to think about communications beyond traditional work hours, and have guidelines to implement these and and other policies."

Work-life harmony not a luxury but a baseline

Alliance for Action, work-life harmony, Covid-19, Singapore
Stephen Tjoa (centre), 57, chief talent strategist at consultancy Influence Solutions, with his wife and daughter. PHOTO: COURTESY OF STEPHEN TJOA

Companies need to continually adjust work-life harmony policies to meet evolving needs, says Mr Stephen Tjoa, 57, chief talent strategist at consultancy Influence Solutions and former partner of people, performance and culture at professional services firm KPMG.

"You have to take climate surveys, organise focus groups and do more to figure out if you are going in the right direction," he says. "It's also essential to share the results of these efforts openly within the firm. Transparency builds trust and inspires people to speak up."

He notes that work-life harmony means different things to different people, and individuals' obligations and priorities change over time. When he became a partner at KPMG, he was able and willing to work long hours.

"Now that I have a young daughter, I make sure that I dedicate enough time to her as a father. I bring her to school every day and consider the weekend to be family time," he says.

"When firms conduct performance reviews, most focus on competencies, such as whether the employee has met key performance indicators. What we've seen is that supervisors who have discussions about the employee's work-life challenges, and how to resolve them, build far more effective and stronger bonds. We should include this as part of the regular, formal process of evaluation.

"Companies that practise this sort of empathy will have a competitive advantage in attracting and retaining employees, and have happier and more productive employees."

Mr Tjoa is part of a group within the AfA reviewing the effectiveness of work-like harmony messaging and advertisements.

He pointed to the AfA and the new Tripartite Standards as signs of Singapore's determination to forge ahead on work-life harmony.

"I think we recognise that Covid-19 has given us a rare opportunity, with more firms open to flexible work arrangements even after the pandemic, and investing time and effort into checking on staff's well-being.

" We should build on this, so that work-life harmony is not a luxury or sign of a progressive firm but a baseline for all."

Have a question about the AfA on Work-Life Harmony or Singapore Together? E-mail your questions to askST@sph.com.sg. Look out for the answers on July 25.

This is the second of a four-part series in partnership with the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth. Click here to read the first article on the Youth Mental Well-being Network Alliance for Action.

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