Telecommuting amid Covid-19 pandemic paves way for new workplace culture

Restrictions on returning to the office have been gradually eased, but many firms have continued to adopt flexible work arrangements.
Restrictions on returning to the office have been gradually eased, but many firms have continued to adopt flexible work arrangements.PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - As the threat of contracting the coronavirus on public transport and in densely packed office spaces loomed, employees from all over the globe bade their workplaces goodbye and hunkered down at home to work.

Lights in office towers went out, and business districts fell silent. Office desks were swopped for makeshift studies at home, and meetings replaced by teleconferencing calls.

Such work-from-home arrangements were mandated in Singapore for most workers - except those in the essential services - when a circuit breaker was imposed from April to June.

Though restrictions on returning to the office have been gradually eased since then, many firms have continued to adopt flexible work arrangements.

But not everyone coped well with the unexpected transition.

In a survey of 1,407 respondents conducted from May to June by the National University Health System's Mind Science Centre, 61 per cent of people working from home reported feeling stressed, compared with 53 per cent of workers on the front line of the pandemic.

The change affected women more, a greater proportion of whom reported feeling stressed at home. A possible reason was that they continued to shoulder the lion's share of household and parenting duties, even though men carried out more domestic chores and childcare than before.

As a consequence of the unequal burden, women's mental health and work performance were affected, some studies found.

Living round the clock with family also exacerbated tensions for many.

The Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF), in a June submission to the United Nations' special rapporteur on violence against women, noted that there was an increase in referrals and calls related to domestic conflict and violence during the circuit breaker.

The restricted personal space and privacy even forced some young people who live with their parents to begin making plans to move out, noted Mr Asher Low, executive director of Limitless, a non-profit organisation that works with young people.

MSF's Adult Protective Service and Child Protective Service also saw a 40 per cent rise in the average monthly number of inquiries between January and October, compared with the same period last year (2019).

MSF said a number of these calls were related to tensions in the family as well as marital conflict and dispute that did not involve incidents of violence, and were thus not investigated. Cases which required further support were referred to community agencies for help.

The average monthly number of new cases investigated by the protective services between January and October remained stable at 120, similar to the monthly average last year.

These were the dark clouds of living and working at home together. But there was also a silver lining to so many people telecommuting. There was less load on the public transport system, and time and expenses saved as well.

It also allowed for more family time, said Mr Ishak Ismail, chairman of Families for Life, a people-sector council under MSF. "Families became closer because they saw more of one another during the work day," he noted.

Some firms in Singapore could follow in the footsteps of global ones such as tech company Fujitsu and social media giant Facebook, for which telecommuting could become a cost-saving permanent option for staff.

Fujitsu will halve its office space in Japan by the end of fiscal year 2022 and encourage 80,000 office workers to work remotely for the most part, while Facebook announced that up to half its workforce are likely to be working from home within five to 10 years.

In Singapore, eight out of 10 workers said in an October survey commissioned by The Straits Times that they prefer to work from home or have flexible work arrangements.

A number of MPs and activists are also calling for flexible work arrangements to be adopted as standard practice, citing the positive experiences that have emerged from the pandemic.

Ms Shailey Hingorani, head of research and advocacy at the Association of Women for Action and Research, also hopes this can lay the ground for the Government to legislate the right for workers to request flexible work arrangements.

"(These) can go a long way in helping women to balance work and care responsibilities, and thus help to close the gender pay gap," she said.

At the same time, employees should be protected from common pitfalls even as they reap benefits from this new world of work, said labour experts.

A new tripartite advisory was released last month regarding the mental well-being of workers, who face greater mental stress and risk of burnout from juggling work and personal commitments while telecommuting.

One recommendation in the advisory is for employers to state clearly what after-hours work communication is allowed.

Ms Hingorani stressed that flexible work arrangements alone "are not a panacea to the entrenched problems of unequal gender roles at home".

Some work is already being done to address this. A comprehensive review of issues affecting women was launched by the Government in September, with the aim of bringing about a mindset change on values like gender equality and respect for women.