When the Covid-19 pandemic hit Singapore in early 2020, Mr Abraham Chong, 45, a design consultant in the financial services industry, was in the midst of preparing to relocate with his family to Johor Bahru, where his then six-year-old daughter would attend an international school in the following year.
His plans hit a roadblock overnight; Malaysia announced movement restriction measures in March that year. He and his family – wife and daughter – were unable to travel freely across the border to make arrangements for their move.
But thanks to technology, the time taken to hit the ground running – choosing the house, completing paperwork, renovations, shipping furniture across the border, and onboarding his daughter at school – was relatively quick. It was all arranged virtually.
“We did house viewings and worked with our interior designers to renovate the house over Zoom and video calls, right down to colour samples and furniture placements,” says Mr Chong. “We never felt out of control, even when I was juggling the logistics of moving and working remotely.”
Mr Chong and his family settled down in Johor Bahru soon after and today, he works three days or more from home.
“For me and my colleagues, technology has empowered us to be agile, whether we’re offsite or onsite, and no one needs to tell us how or when to work.”
Who owns whose time?
Today, work from home, remote, hybrid, work in office – commonly referred to as flexible work arrangements (FWAs) – are now mainstream choices for employees.
Still, there is a greater push globally for employees to return to the office, with 72 per cent of companies having mandated office returns, says a report by workplace strategy and design firm Unispace.
Released in May, the report, which covered 9,500 employees and 6,650 employers from 17 countries, also revealed that 79 per cent of the Singaporeans surveyed said that they have returned to the office on mandated days.
FWAs, however, are nothing new, says Mr Dean Tong, head of Group Human Resources at UOB. He shares that the bank has offered such arrangements to staff even before the pandemic.
“But the pandemic accelerated the adoption and gave us the platform to implement them on a group-wide scale,” says Mr Tong. “Post-Covid, the challenge is for companies to analyse what arrangements work best for their employees, and the corporate culture. There is no one-size-fits-all.”
Post-Covid, the challenge is for companies to analyse what arrangements work best for their employees, and the corporate culture. There is no one-size-fits-all.
MR DEAN TONG, head of Group Human Resources, UOB
So, is office captivity more important than productivity? Is there a magic formula that creates a win-win for employers and employees?
A new tripartite workgroup has been set up to develop a set of guidelines on FWAs. It met for the first time on Thursday.
The workgroup – which includes representatives from the Government, NTUC, and the Singapore National Employers Federation – will craft the Tripartite Guidelines on FWAs. It will be launched in 2024.
The thrust: To build mutual understanding and trust between employers and employees. “The tripartite partners also recognise that it is important to take a calibrated and enabling approach so that FWAs are implemented effectively and responsibly,” says the Manpower Ministry.
UOB’s Mr Tong shares that the starting point for the bank on FWAs is not about the business pros and cons of the different arrangements, or how to compute the time spent.
“We start by asking how employees can achieve purpose and balance,” he says. “Being too driven by purpose can lead to overwork and negatively impact one’s health. Being too focused on striking a balance will affect your work and output.”
AI a tool, not a takeover
Mr Tong observes that while it is possible for robots and generative artificial intelligence (AI) to replace repetitive manual jobs, the bank does not see technology as a threat to jobs, but as an enabler for its employees.
For example, the UOB call centre has an 80-page manual that guides staff to answer customer queries in real time, and a call centre staff has to refer or cross-refer, to tackle different permutations of customer queries.
“It is very difficult to train an employee to master the manual to tackle queries promptly and accurately,” says Mr Tong. “But generative AI can prompt the staff on where to find the answers, quickly and accurately.”
Results over hours
Technology and FWAs aside, one oft-asked question in future-of-work discussions is: How does one measure productivity, or performance?
For Mr Tong, the question is not unique to post-Covid and FWAs, but a perennial challenge faced by all employers.
“Performance management cannot be a surprise for your direct reports at the end of the year. Along the way, you must give constant, regular feedback,” he says. “This is good performance management in general, and not just for people who are on FWAs.”
Country manager of ManpowerGroup Singapore Linda Teo points out that FWAs are a trend that will not go away.
“FWAs during the pandemic forced employers to rethink how their staff should be appraised, as it was challenging to apply conventional metrics during that exception period,” says Ms Teo.
“Emerging out of the pandemic has not changed that, as firms shift away from traditional metrics, such as face time, to more output and key performance indicators-based metrics.
“As such, appraisals have become more focused on productivity and output of deliverables and not simply presence in the workplace.”
No one has a crystal ball on what the future of work looks like, UOB’s Mr Tong points out.
Instead, he adds, the future of work is about equipping employees, regardless of age and qualification, with the soft skills that make them adaptable to the evolving demands of work.
While employers evolve and adapt to new ways of working, how do Singapore employees feel about flexible work arrangements? UOB’s 2023 Asean Consumer Sentiment Study (ACSS) provides some insights.
Conducted in June, the ACSS involves a 35-minute online survey, about a month’s fieldwork, covering 3,400 interviewees aged 18 to 65, in five countries – Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam.
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