Working from home works, but the office has its place too

Remote working looks set to stay, but the challenges it poses means offices will still play a key function

Some companies had to make radical changes after Covid-19 broke out in Singapore in order to allow staff to work from home.

Curtains and blinds retailer mc.2, for instance, quickly put together new product demonstration videos to help its sales staff conduct consultations with clients via video calls rather than at the showroom.

Others that already had some experience with remote working had to scale up their systems.

Standard Chartered Bank, which employs about 10,000 people in Singapore, boosted its virtual private network capacity by 11 times, said Ms Charlotte Thng, its head of human resources for Singapore, Australia and the Asean and South Asia cluster markets.

It also provided staff with up to US$100 (S$138) each so that they could buy extra IT accessories, such as monitors and keyboards, to boost productivity at home.

Now, even as companies ensure staff can return to the workplace safely as the economy reopens in phases, remote working looks set to be a big part of working life.

Firms and observers say some practices, such as greater flexibility for telecommuting and more efficient meetings, are here to stay.

Singapore Human Resources Institute (SHRI) president Low Peck Kem said not needing to "apply" to telecommute is something that will remain in the new normal, along with good meeting habits such as being concise, sending in materials to pre-read and using technology to engage with participants.

Ms Jane Lim, assistant chief executive for sectoral transformation at the Infocomm Media Development Authority, said at a recent virtual dialogue organised by the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy that the jury is still out on what the optimal blend of face-to-face and remote working is. "We're not going to go back to pre-Covid, nor do I think will it be absolutely possible to do completely remote all the time."

As organisations hire, establishing company culture and norms may require some face-to-face interaction. "I suspect a lot of what we're drawing down now is the social capital that was forged and the relationships that were established when we were all doing face to face," Ms Lim said.

Some global firms have already committed to making work from home a permanent option for staff. Earlier this month, Fujitsu said it will halve its office space in Japan by the end of fiscal year 2022, encouraging 80,000 office workers to primarily work remotely. It will switch completely to a hot desking system and improve infrastructure at satellite offices.

In May, Twitter said that if employees are in a role and situation that enable them to work from home and they want to continue to do this, they may.

 
 
 

Facebook also said that month that it expects as many as half of its over 48,000 staff to be working remotely within a decade. But they may need to take a pay cut based on lower costs of living in some cases.

Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing has said there is high potential for more people here to work from home regularly, as 57 per cent of the jobs in Singapore are done by professionals, managers, executives and technicians.

A report released in May by consultancy Eden Strategy Institute identified 11 job groups, out of the 30 major ones here, that score high in "teleworkability". This means digitalisation and automation tech enable the work to be performed remotely in the near future. These jobs employ around 336,000 resident workers, such as customer service officers and quality checkers.

As firms gear up for new ways of working, tech use is becoming more important. Accenture Southeast Asia market unit lead Teo Lay Lim said: "From a technology perspective, the pandemic is consolidating 10 years of digital transformation efforts into six months."

The work-from-home trend is also changing office design.

"A lot of companies are reviewing their lease agreements to potentially shrink office sizes, as more look to set up hybrid work arrangements," said Institute for Human Resource Professionals (IHRP) chief executive Mayank Parekh.

Design firm Unispace said it has started using a new design principle it calls the propeller framework, where offices focus less on the individual desk and having space to concentrate, which workers can achieve at home. Instead, space for collaborative problem-solving and innovation, as well as community building, will be provided.

"Employees will continue to split their time between home and the office, as they will still require the emotional, psychological and professional benefits of tightly woven teams and a strong corporate culture found in the workplace," said Mr Toby Rakison, Unispace's managing director for Asia.

PROS AND CONS

Experts say the benefits of telecommuting include less load on the public transport system, time and expenses saved on commuting, and more family time.

Service has also become more convenient in some ways. A spokesman for the Public Service Division said that since the circuit breaker, many government agencies have delivered citizen services digitally to reduce the need for people to visit service centres, and it will be boosting videoconferencing as a mode of service delivery.

Still, remote working is not without its challenges for employers and workers. Mr Gary Khoo, managing director of eyewear retailer Spectacle Hut, said it is hard for his non-retail staff, such as those in accounts and marketing, to work from home because some systems can be accessed only in the office.

SHRI's Ms Low said there tends to be no clear separation between work and rest, so many people tend to overwork. Their mental well-being may also suffer if they are deprived of social interaction.

Young parents may have to manage work while looking after children, with working mothers tending to take on the additional load of caring for family needs, such as meals and chores, she said.

A research report by employee engagement platform EngageRocket in collaboration with SHRI and IHRP, based on data collected from April to June, revealed that 40 per cent of working parents found their stress levels unacceptable, double the proportion among all respondents. The top two challenges they faced were working longer hours than usual and dealing with practical aspects, such as family presence and space constraints.

Going forward, the office is not going away entirely despite the advantages of working from home. Singapore National Employers Federation executive director Sim Gim Guan said: "Whatever the changes may be, a workplace should continue not just as a place to work but also a place where employees feel that they belong."

SEE LIFE!

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 26, 2020, with the headline 'Working from home works, but the office has its place too'. Print Edition | Subscribe