Commentary: Employees on flexible work arrangements shouldn’t be seen as slacking off
More employees want remote work but may hesitate to ask, out of concern it could have an unfavourable impact on their career, says HR writer Adrian Tan.
SINGAPORE: In an interview on the podcast Diary of a CEO, bestselling author Malcolm Gladwell declared that remote work is terrible – for society, for companies and for the people doing it.
"I know it's a hassle to come to the office. But if you're just sitting in your pyjamas in your bedroom, is that the work life you want to live? Don't you want to feel part of something?" he said.
The negative response to Gladwell's comments was swift and forceful, because as it turns out, many people do want to work from the comfort of their homes. Almost 80 per cent of Singapore employees value the importance of remote work, to the point that two in five workers would not accept a job if they’re unable to work from home, a recent Randstad survey revealed.
The pandemic demonstrated that workers not only remain productive off-site by working from home, but also get more out of their personal lives. In April, the tripartite grouping of the Ministry of Manpower, the National Trades Union Congress and the Singapore National Employers Federation urged employers to make flexible work arrangements permanent.
However, only 52 per cent of the Randstad survey respondents said their employers provide remote working options. Moreover, according to an Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) survey, 37 per cent of respondents polled in April felt pressured to return to the office.
So why is there still hesitation to fully embrace flexible work arrangements, when it is clearly what employees want?
HYBRID WORK A WIN-WIN FOR EMPLOYERS AND STAFF
When done right, hybrid work is a win-win for employers and their staff.
Since employees make decisions based on what will make them most comfortable, efficient and happy, the freedom to choose whether to work at home or on-site, and on which days, is empowering.
More flexibility leads to a balanced workload, participation in team activities and higher work-life satisfaction. According to Gallup research, engaged employees produce better business outcomes and can lead to a 23 per cent increase in profitability. They also tend to stick around their workplaces more.
It is thus in companies’ interest to give workers the flexibility to create their own schedules.
CONCERNS ABOUT THE STIGMA OF FLEXI-WORK
There are, however, legitimate concerns from workers about flexi-work. The resulting loss in facetime with bosses, for instance, can have an unfavourable impact on their career.
Academics call this phenomenon “proximity bias”: An unconscious tendency to give preferential treatment to those in our immediate vicinity.
This bias can be unwise when remote workers can achieve just as much, if not more, than those on-site. A 2015 study by Stanford economists showed that remote workers at a Chinese travel agency had higher performance levels but lost out to in-house staff on performance-based promotions.
Flexi-workers risk getting overlooked not only by bosses, but by peers too. A poll by corporate training company VitalSmarts in 2017 found that remote workers are more likely to report feeling their colleagues mistreat them and leave them out.
They worry coworkers say bad things behind their backs, make changes to projects without advance notice, lobby against them and don’t fight for their priorities.
When remote workers are limited to email or messaging apps in interacting with colleagues, they miss out on observing body language, subtle cues and tone. Miscommunication is therefore rampant.
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PLAN YOUR ASK FOR FLEXI-WORK
Still, there are legitimate reasons for choosing flexi-work. Top reasons outlined by the IPS study include greater flexibility in incorporating personal life needs with work schedules, the ability to attend to family needs, and less money and time spent on commuting.
If flexi-work is not the norm at your company, you might be afraid that asking for special arrangements will burden your colleagues or make you appear entitled. Here’s how you can plan your ask to avoid this.
First, figure out the details. Think about how you will maintain connectivity to the office, acquire special software to assess the company’s systems, and what your new mode of communication and supervision might look like.
This shows you're serious about your request and takes the guesswork out of the situation. The more details you cover, the more prepared you'll appear and the more confidence your manager will have.
Second, list the benefits of your flexi-work arrangements. The benefits should not be just about you – say what’s in it for the department and the company. Show them how flexi-work will improve your work performance and your team’s dynamics and output.
Third, craft your proposal. It should explain your reasons for requesting flexi-work and contain references to your track record to prove you can handle such an arrangement.
Outline a schedule you plan to follow during your flexi-work, such as the hours you will work and your availability via email, phone and other communication channels used by your company.
Fourth, forecast scheduling conflicts. If you are a caregiver, there may be situations that you have to work around, such as when the kids are back from school or the regular dialysis treatment for elderly parents.
Plan your work times and meetings around your commitments so you won’t be caught in between a rock and a hard place. Providing this calendar to your colleagues and supervisors would be helpful too.
Despite Gladwell’s criticism of remote work, he is known for toiling in his apartment or at fashionable eateries in Manhattan. A large portion of his book Blink was written in the now defunct restaurant Savoy. It went on to sell over 2 million copies.
Flexi-work may just be what you need to complete your own bestseller, or any other project that is meaningful to you.
Adrian Tan is a former HR entrepreneur turned marketing strategist who writes about the future of work.