Article: The secret to greater work flexibility? More rules.

Employee Engagement

The secret to greater work flexibility? More rules.

As Singapore embraces flexible work, will its new guidelines strike the right balance between employee desires and business needs?
The secret to greater work flexibility? More rules.

Working remotely from home, a cosy cafe or a new city for a change of scenery is no longer just a fantasy. Globally, many employees now seek the autonomy to decide where and when they work, and employers are increasingly inclined to accommodate this desire for greater flexibility.

While Singapore has made some strides towards a more flexible workforce, the need for flexible work arrangements is now more critical than ever due to the nation’s unique demographic challenges. These include slowing workforce growth and rising caregiving responsibilities associated with an ageing population.

According to a Randstad survey, two-thirds of Singaporeans engaged in significant life changes, such as relocating or adopting pets, and now expect workplace flexibility as the norm rather than a temporary adaptation to the pandemic. Notably, 42% of Singaporeans would reject a job offer if it lacked sufficient flexibility.

Within this landscape, the announcement of the Tripartite Guidelines on Flexible Work Arrangement Requests could not be more timely for Singapore. However, questions linger about whether they tilt in favour of either employees or employers.

Flexible work is more than a perk

Businesses often view flexible work as a perk, while employees perceive it as a fundamental right – and there's truth in both perspectives. Establishing a more adaptable workplace benefits both parties, fostering higher labour force participation, enhancing talent attraction and retention in a competitive market, and supporting better work-life balance.

However, for flexible working arrangements to be effective, they must be underpinned by clear rules and guidelines. A good starting point is understanding that flexibility does not mean that employees have the complete freedom to come and go as they please.

But what goes into building a successful flexible work policy? Here are a few key considerations.

Foster a culture that prioritises productivity rather than presenteeism. Employers used to having their teams in the office every day might find it hard to see the benefits of flexible work. It requires a shift in company operations and letting go of the ability to physically oversee employees.

Their apprehension is understandable, as the level of change in their operations and culture, as well as the trust they must instil in their employees, can be daunting. Requests for asynchronous working hours, for example, might affect employee availability and response times. Most of all, employers might also be concerned about how flexible work can affect productivity. But here’s the thing: following a traditional 9-to-five schedule in the office isn’t a guarantee of productivity, either. In fact, a Slack report found that 36% of workers in Singapore spend most of their time in the office on "performative work" – looking busy instead of being genuinely productive – ranking third globally.

Instead of mandating traditional working arrangements, employers can instead set clear goals and objectives for employees, and evaluate them based on results, rather than how many hours they work. This approach doesn’t only boost productivity; it gives employees the freedom to work in a way that suits their individual needs and preferences.

Compromise and communicate. Creating a fair and productive work environment starts with setting clear boundaries and expectations right from the beginning. Both employers and employees need to agree on working hours, workloads, pay, work location, and the "right to disconnect."

Each FWA request should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis to ensure it is viable from a business perspective. For example, a working parent might request to start their work hours earlier to better align their schedule with their children's school activities, allowing them to be more present for their family while still ensuring that they are productive at work. In the process of making such a request, both the employee and the employer could discuss how to mitigate the impact on their workload, schedule, team, and customers by reviewing work processes or reassigning tasks to other team members as needed.

Employers should also avoid denying requests without valid business reasons. It’s unfair to reject requests simply because a supervisor prefers employees to be in the office, especially when their performance is consistently satisfactory. Similarly, employees should refrain from seeking arrangements that place excessive strain on the company.

Clear, reasonable grounds for refusal should be based on factors such as detrimental effects on productivity, reduced work quality, or the organisation’s ability to meet customer needs. Achieving a win-win outcome requires effective conversations and a willingness to compromise from both sides.

Ultimately, the issue is not really about who occupies the office and when, but rather fostering a robust sense of trust between employers and employees. Both sides must go the extra mile to ensure alignment among distributed team members. This involves establishing clear objectives, delineating the necessary steps to achieve them, and keeping company goals in an easily accessible repository. Once this is done, trust your teams to figure out their schedules and collaboration methods. A hands-off approach can build confidence and empower them to meet their goals and produce high-quality work.

Choosing the right digital tools. A successful flexible working arrangement relies heavily on the tools you have in place. This means using dedicated communication platforms, project management tools, and employee management systems that can support a distributed workforce and asynchronous work.

Different types of communication work best for different tasks, so it is important to offer a variety of channels. Instead of restricting employees to just one platform, consider integrating tech solutions that provide high-quality video calls and instant messaging.

However, using multiple platforms can lead to confusion if there's no centralised source of truth. It is therefore also crucial to document the decision-making process clearly so team members can easily share progress, findings, and expertise. This reduces redundant discussions and enriches the collective knowledge base.

While there might be initial challenges, collaborating with employees to choose the best platforms or partnering with the right organisations can help manage the employee lifecycle effectively, streamline HR processes, and adapt to flexible work arrangements seamlessly.

Provide a framework that considers data security. A remote work environment is flexible to a certain extent. Working from anywhere sounds great in a job description, and in theory, people can work from anywhere as long as they have a working Wi-Fi connection. However, this is where many companies get it wrong.

Imagine a customer service representative setting up their office for the day in an open workspace. They may be on the phone all day, discussing sensitive information in a public place. Similarly, a backend developer working from a coffee shop will not be able to guarantee a stable and secure Wi-Fi connection unless they are provided with a secure VPN.

Employers and employees alike need to be more mindful of what they share publicly in exchange for their work flexibility. Companies should also evaluate and determine which positions are suitable for remote work and create a framework for employees to work in a way that is not only comfortable but also keeps sensitive data secure. They should also consider whether there are any locations or countries from which employees are not allowed to work in order to protect company data.

At the end of the day, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Each company needs to determine what works best and establish its own rules, with both companies and employees collaborating to define what flexibility means and how it can work for everyone. Ahead of the tripartite guidelines coming into effect in December of this year, the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) has encouraged employers to prepare by establishing a clear process for FWA requests, including a system for submitting such requests, the evaluation criteria, and a reasonable timeframe for responding to these requests.

However, beyond these processes, it’s equally important for employers to ensure that company culture and infrastructure – including communication methods, digital tools, and data security – are also adequately prepared to fully embrace these new guidelines. Ultimately, the onus is now on employers and employees to work together and define what flexible work means, and how it can work for everyone.

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Topics: Employee Engagement, Culture, #Flexibility

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