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Commentary: Are flexible work arrangements only possible in large organisations in Singapore?

The suggestion to provide guidelines on flexible work instead of making it mandatory is reflective of how challenging it may be for small companies to have these policies. But it is not just a matter of resources, says IHRP CEO Mayank Parekh. 

Commentary: Are flexible work arrangements only possible in large organisations in Singapore?

FILE PHOTO: Working at home and in the office in a hybrid work arrangement. (Photo: iStock)

SINGAPORE: One striking statistic quoted in the recent White Paper on Women’s Development is the sharp drop in women’s Labour Force Participation Rate (LFPR) from their mid-20s onwards. Men start leaving the workforce only in their 50s. 

Married women leave earlier than single women, driving down their income levels and retirement savings.

Against this backdrop, a key proposal in the White Paper is to entrench Flexible Work Arrangements (FWAs) as a “pervasive and sustainable workplace norm” with a new set of tripartite guidelines by 2024.

This will require employers to consider employees’ FWA requests fairly, even if they have the prerogative to accept or reject requests based on business needs. 

Currently, there is no legislative right for an employee to request FWAs, nor are current Tripartite Standards on FWAs mandatory. The imminent guidelines are a signal of widespread differences in how companies approach this.

Certainly, the biggest difference is the size of the company - a large organisation with more resources and scope can absorb the costs and challenges of FWAs. 

But what about the many smaller companies that might dismiss it as undoable or find it too daunting to implement even if they wanted to? What might it take to normalise FWAs despite the challenges? 

Two parents work from home as their child plays in the foreground. (Photo: iStock/monzenmachi)

FLEXIBLE WORK IS NOT AN 'EXTRA'

A common misconception is that FWAs largely involve working from home and therefore apply only to white-collar, office-based work.

In fact, other flexible options can be considered: Flexi-time (such as staggered hours or a compressed four-day workweek) and flexi-load (usually job sharing, permanent part-time or weekend work). With this in mind, we can see how FWAs can contribute to a conducive work environment and benefit employers. 

FWAs can better attract and retain employees, including back-to-work mums or employees fed up with rigid employers during this pandemic, and help companies become nimbler in manpower deployment. 

Employees satisfied that their organisation does a good job providing work flexibility are 2.6 times more likely to be happy working there and 2.1 times more likely to recommend others to work there, according to a global survey by LinkedIn.

Having the option to work from home or choose working hours allows employees to reduce interruptions and increase productivity on projects that require their full concentration. One study found that a Chinese company saw a 13 per cent increase in productivity for employees allowed to work remotely in a nine-month work-from-home experiment. 

Other business benefits include lower operational costs and a smaller carbon footprint from fewer commutes. Ideally, employees should help determine the elements of the work environment and schedule that are most conducive to their circumstances. 

Taken together, FWAs shouldn’t be seen as an “extra” but as part and parcel of the value proposition that a company provides.

WHAT CAN COMPANIES DO?

Even if companies see the benefits of FWAs, some may find it hard to make the changes that such a shift requires. But there are a few things they can keep in mind. 

First, break down work into smaller, detailed tasks. We can learn from fast-food operators that have long refined their strategy for deploying their many part-timers and flexi-workers. 

A key differentiator is assembly-line production based on teams, and a minute division of tasks governed by elaborate rules (“25 rules for frying”). The product or customer experience is standardised globally using tight specification of input sourcing, franchisee controls and even consistent interactions with customers (“Would you like a shake with your fries?”). 

Managers can thus assign tasks according to skills and experience. In KFC, for example, new workers are assigned basic, repetitive tasks, such as breading chicken pieces, to help ease them into the work.

This efficiency, predictability and control help the fast food industry rely on temporary or part-time workers, especially students and seniors.

Businesses can learn how to adapt their manpower strategies. When work is clearly defined, standardised and guided, it is easier to fit people with specific skills. You can see straight away the discrete bite-sized tasks that can be done, even remotely, that don’t affect the entire value chain.

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Second, for smaller companies to experiment with FWAs, a strong system for on-the-job training is important. Such a system must include tasks codified in training manuals and taught to managers who, in turn, teach them to new employees. 

Structured on-the-job training allows flexi-workers to skill up systematically and take on more duties over time. This way, service levels are not compromised with a greater pool of part-timers. 

Third, companies concerned about the complexity of managing a diverse composite workforce can consider HR software with smart algorithms to first schedule full-time employees, then flexi-workers, based on their availabilities within prescribed constraints such as man-hour costs. 

NEW JOBS, NEW HABITS

But the key to change is in thinking of the kind of jobs that companies offer in the first place. When Henry Ford implemented eight-hour shifts in his factories in the 1920s, little did he realise that workers reporting to a physical location for eight hours (or longer) will persist well into the 21st century. 

Companies today have the opportunity to not only think about what tasks get done, but also where and when they get done, and ultimately, how work can be deconstructed so that it’s done in an optimal manner. 

Unravelling this requires process re-engineering that goes beyond simply cutting up a job so that different people can do it. There are repercussions on supply chains, service levels, accountability and even governance.  

For instance, a marketing executive, who opts for part-time work to care for their family, may end up with the same volume of incoming emails but less time to respond if supervisors do not change the way they assign tasks. So companies have to factor in what they can absorb or not when staff go on FWAs. 

While many companies are championing flexible work arrangements, some are concerned that collaboration and creativity may be much more challenging online than face to face. (Photo: iStock/Weedezign)

New work habits need to be formed when employees are no longer able to work synchronously. Companies like Twitter have an “async-first” policy, replacing meetings with the use of cloud-based technology to upload notes and collaboratively edit a document or resource. 

In an industry well-known for long hours and a six-day workweek, local restaurant chain The Soup Spoon has a steady permanent part-time scheme that allows employees to work a committed number of hours across a five-day workweek. This helps attract people with childcare or study commitments or are transitioning into retirement and looking for part-time work. Today, the company relies on part-timers to meet 50 per cent of its total workforce needs. 

Our labour force has finally peaked this year. Without net migration, the overall labour force in Singapore will likely decline from this year onwards from the combined effects of an ageing population as well as declining cohorts of new entrants. 

To keep talented people in the system, companies must think far more deeply about how to adopt FWAs in their HR policies. The White Paper proposes to increase the adoption of the voluntary Tripartite Standard on FWAs by employers, covering 27 per cent of all employees currently, to 40 per cent by the end of 2022. 

Part-timers and temporary workers have already become a significant part of our workforce. The specific focus on FWAs as part of a broader set of work-life strategies, including leave and employee support schemes, will go a long way to help women (and all employees in general) better manage work responsibilities alongside their personal needs and boost our LFPR further.

Mayank Parekh is the CEO of the Institute for Human Resource Professionals (IHRP) which aims to professionalise and strengthen the HR practice in Singapore.

Source: CNA/geh

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