Commentary: Why do some bosses still want their workers to come back to the office?
Eleven companies have been taken to task for insisting their employees come back to the office. Adrian Tan gives his take on what's behind this slew of cases.
SINGAPORE: As community cases rose worryingly over the last few weeks, putting the brakes on human movement became important.
As a result, schools went into full home-based learning mode. Employers were told to ensure their staff resume work-from-home.
Yet, despite having experience of ensuring that all but essential workers stay home, we still saw breaches.
The Ministry of Manpower (MOM) inspected more than 530 workplaces over May 8 to 21 and issued fines to 11 companies for breaches of Safe Management Measures (SMMs).
READ: 11 firms fined for not ensuring work-from-home as default arrangement; authorities to increase workplace inspections
All 11 had failed to ensure work-from-home (WFH) was the default arrangement for employees able to do so.
They were not the first group of companies to be penalised. Since the start of the pandemic, numerous firms have been fined, warned or told to temporarily cease workplace operations following breaches of COVID-19 measures.
Ultimately, these breaches happen because business owners and the management team are still stuck in an industrial-age thinking.
BAD HABITS START AT THE TOP
Sometimes, all it takes is one bad egg. When COVID-19 first broke, the wife of a friend related how almost every department in the local enterprise she worked at decided to go remote, except hers.
And because her department was not rendering an essential service, staff were not actually required to head into the office either.
But the department head could not stand working at home for a range of reasons and ended up ordering the team to the office.
It was tough for employees worried of exposing themselves unnecessarily to the virus – in commuting and congregating in a shared office.
Collective complaints to the human resource department did little at first, then a couple of anonymous calls to the MOM hotline helped change things.
READ: Employees, companies adjust as more return to the workplace
What’s going on in the minds of such supervisors?
In his 1960 book The Human Side of Enterprise, American social psychologist Douglas McGregor proposed his famous X-Y people management theory.
McGregor's X-Y theory is a salutary and simple reminder of the natural rules for managing people, which under the pressure of day-to-day business are all too easily forgotten.
In Theory X, the average person is assumed to dislike work and will avoid responsibilities if they can. Managers who subscribe to this school of thought assume the threat of punishment is needed for workers to get cracking and work towards organisational objectives.
Such micro-management means managers need a physical line of sight of workers, an impossible task when people are working remotely.
Many such managers find it impossible to give up the urge to manage their staff in a physical setting.
WHAT ACCOUNTS FOR UNENLIGHTENED MANAGEMENT?
We have already seen poor management at play even before COVID-19. Arguably, the pandemic has been a bright dose of sunlight, bringing bad managerial habits under the spotlight.
Just think about the managers who don’t respect boundaries, where after-work hours emails and messages are a norm, with the expectation that workers operate at the same tempo.
READ: Commentary: Why employers should cover WFH expenses
READ: Commentary: What if people don’t want to return to the office?
It’s little wonder the average Singapore worker is putting in 44 hours per week, according to the figures from the Ministry of Manpower.
A separate study by tech company Kisi showed that Singapore was at the bottom 10 for work-life balance and ranked the second most overworked in a study of 40 cities.
With WFH as the default, these same managers have to find other means to maintain their old approach of measuring performance.
Hence, you get video calls deliberately organised around lunchtime (so employees cannot go for long lunches), expectations of team members hollering “good morning” over WhatsApp greetings (to ensure one is already awake) or having the whole team connected via webcam turned on for the entire day (on the pretext that is brings the people together and become more connected).
These are just a handful of the stories I have come across of what some bosses in Singapore expect as part of WFH.
Extreme as these are, at least they keep workers at home and safe. Harder are those who have to contend with their bosses asking them to illegally come to work. Hopefully that fine reminds them they need to change their ways.
READ: Commentary: Let's review our assumptions about work-life balance
In this WFH world, we should demand more of supervisors. For instance, does your employer provide you with time off to manage pandemic-related events like the quarantine of close family members or even downtime to deal with the vaccination side effects?
With the rise of mental fatigue working from home, are these companies providing support for their workers to better manage their stress levels?
Parents are especially in the eye of this storm. I have four young children with three sporadically requiring help with their home-based learning while I juggle my work demands and meetings.
Employers attuned to the shifting and demanding multiple roles workers play should check in on staff to ensure they are coping and if not, to find ways to ease their difficulties.
(Can you say no to returning to the office? We posed this question to Adrian and one CEO in our Heart of the Matter podcast recorded in October 2020.)
LOOKING ON THE BRIGHT SIDE
But let’s stop looking at the glass half empty. The 11 companies only amounted to 2 per cent of the companies that MOM inspected.
The majority are obeying the law, managing well and have in place clear practices, with clearer communications.
One example is Singapore-based Henatenn Holdings, a supply chain solutions provider of beauty and lifestyle brands. They work with training providers to convert classroom training into online learning so employees can continue their WSQ course without disruption.
Or Beam Suntory Singapore who started a Growing for Good programme - an enhancement to their healthcare employee assistance programme. They provide their employees with counsellors trained in diverse areas of mental health and wellbeing, advisors on legal, financial and other issues.
Another firm, Integral Ad Science Singapore, started hosting virtual happy hours, meditation and yoga sessions, lunches, coffee chats and jam sessions to help their people stay connected.
These initiatives are not rocket science but their practices are well worth emulating for the simple reason that they put their people first.
They not only understand their employees are their most valuable assets but also know that the longer-term challenges of attracting talent will suffer if they acquire a reputation for being unempathetic or have unrealistic expectations of work in a pandemic setting.
Adrian Tan is a Strategist at Future of Work at the Institute for Human Resource Professionals. A former HR entrepreneur, he produces relevant content on his blog, podcasts and YouTube channel.