SINGAPORE: Wanting to create a parent-friendly workplace, Ms Joerin Yao, managing director of human resource consultancy Enable Group, has been allowing employees to work from home since the business started seven years ago.
But telecommuting was largely unheard of back in 2013 and some likened the idea to “giving people time off for no reason”, Ms Yao recalled.
Fast forward to 2020 with the world in the midst of a global pandemic, and working from home is no longer an alien concept.
In Singapore, many companies and workers have done so for nearly two months since a “circuit breaker” shut down non-essential workplaces. For most, the experience is a first and consultants like Ms Yao have been busy helping firms to navigate the shift.
Through the process, some are seeing proof that the idea of working from home may not necessarily mean time off or less work done.
“This pandemic has accelerated a change in perception in employers,” said JLL Asia Pacific’s chief research officer Roddy Allan. “Some have become more accepting of remote working.”
A growing list of major firms, such as Facebook, Google, Twitter, Mastercard and Shopify, are now planning a permanent shift to remote working even after dangers of COVID-19 fade and cities lift shutdowns. For instance, Twitter has given the go-ahead for its employees to work from home “forever” if they wish and Shopify’s CEO said “office centricity is over”.
Does this mean that work from home is here to stay?
GOODBYE OFFICE, FOR NOW?
The answer seems to be yes, at least in the near term.
Apart from changes in some employers’ attitudes, there are more practical reasons.
For one, authorities have signalled that work-from-home arrangements must continue even if Singapore exits the circuit breaker as planned on Jun 1, so as to minimise the risk of community spread.
“We expect the vast majority of the workforce to continue to work from home,” National Development Minister Lawrence Wong said in a Facebook post on May 23, while urging employers to adjust their mindsets and embrace telecommuting as the “new normal”.
If not, employers must ensure safety measures such as good ventilation and hygiene standards, as well as having workers seated apart, are put in place.
Complying with these norms will incur costs – a move that most firms will want to avoid in anticipation of a prolonged economic slump, experts said.
“For companies that want to have all staff physically present at work, they will need to weigh the costs and benefits as they will have to increase office area or location to comply with safe distancing measures,” said Ms Linda Teo, the country manager of ManpowerGroup in Singapore.
“But this may not be prudent as most employers are trying to contain costs and drive revenue now.”
“The expected cost pressures that organisations will be under post-COVID-19 may increase the appeal of maintaining an element of remote working,” echoed CBRE Singapore’s managing director Moray Armstrong.
Global technology firm HP said it sees the benefits of flexible work and had, even prior to the pandemic, rolled out work-from-home policies at its Singapore office. In fact, “most” of its staff were already based at home before the circuit breaker, said Ms Vivian Chua, HP’s managing director in Singapore.
The firm, which employs more than 3,000 people in Singapore, does not expect a return to the traditional way of doing things immediately after the circuit breaker.
“As we make plans to eventually return to work, we anticipate this will be a gradual process as we prioritise the well-being of our people and the communities that we serve,” Ms Chua said.
It is a similar strategy over at confectionery giant Mondelez International, which has an office in Harbourfront and a technical centre in Jurong.
Almost all of its office-based staff have been working from home since March, while a “small team” involved in laboratory work and the running of its cocoa processing plant is allowed to return to the centre in Jurong with the recent easing in restrictions.
“As we plan our return, we won't go to having 100 per cent of our colleagues in the offices and technical centre straight away but will use a phased approach developed to safeguard our colleagues’ health," said executive vice-president and president of Asia, Middle East and Africa (AMEA) Maurizio Brusadelli.
IT’S NOT FOR EVERYONE?
But in the long run, firms and employees might prefer being back in the office, according to the experts that CNA spoke to for this article.
“Although the pandemic has shifted perceptions around the effectiveness of remote working, it is not for everyone,” said Mr Allan.
“Working from home has worked to a large extent during the pandemic, because it has had to work. That does not mean it presents a sustainable and optimum long-term solution for all corporates.”
Ms Yao, an early advocator of working from home, shares the same view. Not all jobs can be done from home, she explained, citing her clients in industries such as retail, food services and transportation.
She also reckons that small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) will find it hard to embrace telecommuting, with reasons ranging from a lack of infrastructure to “multi-dimensional” job roles.
An accountant in a typical SME, for example, may also be overseeing facilities management which can only be done on site. “When the role is broader than what it’s supposed to be, SMEs may not know how to scope it for a home-based environment,” said Ms Yao.
An office culture that prefers “more direct interaction and line of sight” could also stand in the way, and changes will take time.
“If I have to speak from the perspective of the SMEs, two months won’t be enough to change their mindsets,” said the human resource consultant, adding that while SMEs may be open to staggered work hours or split teams, they are unlikely to fully embrace work from home.
Meanwhile, offices are more than just a place for work. They fulfill human needs for social interactions and for some, serve as “a badge of honour” that provides purpose, according to experts.
Dr Sam Yam, assistant professor of management and organisation at the National University of Singapore (NUS) Business School, said: “People who say offices are no longer important are coming from a business operation perspective. From a psychological perspective, the social interaction you get from going to an office is what humans require to be functional and psychologically well.”
Firms like HP have rolled out initiatives to help employees stay connected.
It had a “HP Print, Play and Learn” initiative for employees to download craft projects to work on with their children or with other employees. HP also partnered DreamWorks Animation to roll out movie nights and held a dance party for its offices around the world last month.
But experts like Dr Yam do not think that technology can fully replace face-to-face interaction.
Various surveys thus far have showed different perspectives towards working from home.
While a joint study last month by EngageRocket, the Institute for Human Resources Professionals and the Singapore Human Resources Institute found eight in 10 employees here wanting to continue working from home after the circuit breaker, another recent survey by research firm Forrester threw up some mixed feelings.
Forty-six per cent of those polled by Forrester in late-April said they prefer telecommuting, a drop from 60 per cent in an earlier survey done a month ago. On the other hand, more people said they could not wait to go back to the office, an increase from 34 per cent to 50 per cent.
Some reasons for the change in sentiment include difficulties in managing work and family, especially parents who have to supervise their children’s learning, as well as a lack of proper workspaces at home.
Work from home also works better for some personalities, observed human resource experts who noted feedback from some people about better work-life balance. Yet, there are others who have clocked longer working hours as the lines between work and home become blurred.
SO WHAT’S THE FUTURE OF WORK LIKE?
As companies attempt to strike a balance between well-being and work productivity, there seems to be no one way out and the future is shaping up to be a “hybrid” model, experts said.
Mr Armstrong thinks companies will likely have split teams – one working remotely and the other being based in the office, or in some cases a hybrid group that will split time between the office and home. This could mean two trends in terms of office strategies, with one being a “hub-and-spoke" model.
“This is where the company will have a client-facing office and another office in, most likely, suburban areas, where the support departments would operate from,” said Mr Armstrong, noting that this is already being adopted by big firms to “equalise rents”.
Otherwise, firms could opt for a “core-and-flex" model where the main team heads to a permanent office and teams that are more mobile, such as sales, report to co-working spaces when required.
Mr Allan said the way people view and use corporate real estate will change.
“CEOs will rightly re-examine business models. They will also be discussing the level to which they may consider recalibrating the amount of space dedicated to traditional leased office space upon lease expiry, or even before."
Apart from the amount of space or office locations, companies will also be looking at re-designing or re-purposing office spaces. This could include taking away desks to space out work areas, or converting them into wellness spaces or collaborative areas with tele-conferencing facilities so as to enable collaboration.
IMPLICATIONS ON RENTS, PEOPLE
Against the backdrop of a weak economy, demand for office space will remain subdued which means that office rents are set to face downward pressure for this year.
Mr Armstrong from CBRE expects Grade A office rents in the Central Business District (CBD) to decline by up to 13 per cent this year, given the confluence of negative factors such as a recession, corrections in the stock market and job losses.
Will this also mean changes afoot in the CBD? Associate Professor Sing Tien Foo, director of the NUS Institute of Real Estate, said if businesses adjust their office space footprint after the COVID-19 outbreak blows over, landlords may be pressed to act.
“We may see the transformation of the CBD from a single-use district dominated by office use to a more diversified and mixed-use district,” he wrote in a commentary.
Human resource experts like Ms Teo said firms will also have to revise their staff engagement policies if any form of remote working is to be continued. They can, for instance, consider issuing a “work-from-home allowance” to help workers with higher electricity and mobile bills due to telecommuting.
How employees are assessed will also have to be reviewed. Dr Yam said managers will have to be conscious of the bias that working from home means less productivity, while Ms Yao said trust between employers and employees is key.
HP said its managers have had regular check-ins with their teams to talk about work goals and challenges. Focus groups are also organised for employees to share their thoughts on how to improve work-from-home environments and kickstart thought processes around returning to the office in the immediate future, said the company’s head of human resources in Singapore Shelly Rajpal.
Over at DBS, its managers have received guidance on how to better engage their teams remotely, including actionable tips on building team morale.
Mondelez International is closely monitoring global trends and will make adjustments when necessary.
Its CEO Dirk Van de Put said recently that the company is looking for efficiencies, after the COVID-19 crisis showed different ways of work. “Maybe we don’t need all the offices that we currently have around the world,” he had said.
Asked what that means for the company’s plans in Singapore, Mr Brusadelli said early feedback from its employees about work location preferences have been “varied”.
“But it's a conversation that we want to explore further … What's the level of interest? Does the legislation allow for it? What people processes do we need to have in place and how do we keep engaged and connected when we aren’t face to face?
“Any changes to how we work would influence what our office of the future might look like.”