SINGAPORE: With the advent of low-cost or free-to-use task management systems, video-conferencing technologies and cloud services, it has become easier for people to work remotely, like from home or from cafes. And in turn, recruitment firms say they are seeing more companies embrace flexible working arrangements.
According to Adecco, five in 10 private sector employers in Singapore today offer a form of formal or informal flexi-work arrangement, up from three in 10, five years ago. Meanwhile, Robert Half says 60 per cent of companies here have a formal policy in place to manage employees on flexi-work arrangements, higher than the global average of 47 per cent.
As more companies introduce some component of flexible or remote working, two Singapore-registered firms have taken a step further, ditching physical offices completely. Design studio Melewi and remote working marketplace MomoCentral are both fully remote, meaning their employees - based all over the world - work from home, or pretty much anywhere they want.
“Remote working means you’re location independent. You can work from a beach in Bali, or from the comfort of your home. This works for industries like tech for instance, because you don’t actually have to be anywhere in particular,” said Melewi founder and lead designer Melissa Ng.
“I think people feel like they are trusted, they have more flexibility and autonomy. Being in a fixed location like an office doesn’t mean you’re more productive, or have more energy.”
MAKING IT WORK
Besides having technologies and communication channels in place to enable collaboration between employees in different time zones, both firms say there needs to be clear workflow processes and expectations established right from the start.
For Melewi’s eight-person team - from seven different countries across four continents - this means spending extra time planning, and setting task goals before embarking on each project. And because communication is crucial, they make sure their working hours overlap by four hours each day, of which half an hour is dedicated to a virtual team meeting.
The arrangement makes for odd hours for some employees - Los-Angeles-based project manager Nicole Cord-Cruz starts at 6pm and Brazilian UI (User Interaction) designer Tiago Gerstheimer wakes at 3am - but Ms Ng says outside of that four-hour window, employees have full control over their own time.
Singaporeans Melissa Ng, 26, and Chin Su Yuen, 30, both helm companies with a fully remote workforce. (Photos: Linette Lim)
For MomoCentral, a web platform which matches freelance developers and designers to clients, the key is to hire competent and disciplined people.
“Developers wanting to join our platform have to pass our interviews and online code tests. And when they are matched to a client, there are clear processes in place - like to give an update on work progress every two hours, and write a report at the end of each day,” said co-founder and CEO, Chin Su Yuen.
MomoCentral has 40 full-time staff and 250 freelancers - all of whom work remotely. And within less than a year of operations, Ms Chin says it has already amassed a global client list of 150 companies, underscoring the market demand for remote developers and designers.
ACCESS TO TALENT
“Say you want to build a really high quality iPhone app. A California-based developer who built an iOS app that sustains 15 million daily users is freelancing on our platform. You’re talking about a skill that you probably can’t find in Singapore,” said Ms Chin, 30.
“Or say you can’t find the talent you need in your country, and it’s hard to hire a foreigner due to visa issues. Hiring a remote developer on a per-hour basis allows you to bypass these problems and get stuff done.”
Remote working also opens up opportunities to qualified individuals who may be disadvantaged or discriminated against in a traditional office setting, according to Ms Chin.
She said: “We have freelancers who are new mothers - this gives them opportunity to work and care for their newborns. We also have a visually-impaired coder - he can make a living from home instead of having to navigate traffic to get to the office.”
MomoCentral co-founder Jason Lim, and Herwin Haliman, a visually-impaired developer who freelances on MomoCentral's platform. Herwin uses a screen reader to help him code. (Photo: Chin Su Yuen)
Besides getting access to a global talent pool, MomoCentral and Melewi say there are other advantages of remote working. It eliminates the stress of office politics, the hassle of commuting, and best of all, there are no office rents to pay.
But without a physical office, recruitment firm Randstad says employees may miss out on an important aspect of work - a strong positive workplace culture and team collaboration.
“If we look at some of the big tech companies who are paving the way of work-life balance, we can see that by giving the employees complete trust through benefits such as unlimited holidays and no fixed work schedules, they are more likely to want to head to the office and work with each other and enjoy the creative and positive workplace culture that has been created there,” said Daljit Sall, Associate Director, Randstad Technologies.
Melewi founder Melissa Ng working from home. (Photo: Linette Lim)
Ms Ng believes culture can be built and sustained even though Melewi is fully remote. One way this is done is through team trips, which is funded by the cash the company saves on office rents. The team went to Japan this February, and will be heading to Greece in September.
“I think in this day and age, you can build a relationship with just about anyone - as weird as it sounds - just through Skype, especially if you talk to them every single day. You know so much about them. It’s less to do with proximity, and more about the consistency of communication,” said the 26-year-old, who works out of an apartment in the Clarke Quay area.
“I have housemates whom I’ve lived with for the last year and a half, and I don’t know them anywhere as well as I do my team.”
Melewi's team trip to Japan earlier this year. (Photo courtesy of Melewi)
Similarly, MomoCentral builds its company culture - one which revolves around knowledge sharing - with communication platforms and channels like a private Wiki.
“You can copy and paste 25 lines of code for others to see where you’ve gone wrong. The nature of the work lends itself to text-based communication,” said Ms Chin.
NOT ALL COMPANIES CAN GO REMOTE
Melewi and MomoCentral acknowledge that remote working does not suit everyone, particularly extroverts who enjoy water-cooler banter, or post-work drinks with colleagues. And more importantly, it would not work for every job function and industry sector.
Robert Half noted that the use of flexible work arrangements is less feasible for manufacturing and retail roles, although they are increasingly common in the technology and financial services sectors.
DBS for example, is currently piloting the use of cloud-based productivity technology among 1,000 staff in Singapore. By the end of the year, the bank wants all 22,000 employees across 18 markets to make a shift to cloud, with Microsoft’s Office 365.
In a statement issued on Monday (June 27), the bank said it was responding to the increasing threat posed by fintechs, by “empower(ing) its people with a set of productivity tools that enable them to be more nimble and responsive”.
While technology is enabling greater productivity and collaboration, recruiters warn that it is also giving rise to greater work-life integration, which can be detrimental to personal well-being if not managed well.
“This increased connectivity has allowed unprecedented collaboration between people from all around the world and at the same time, caused work to start growing into a 24 hour per day affair due to an ‘always online’ culture and shifting time zones,” said Randstad’s Mr Sall.