IN FOCUS: Thinking out of the cubicle - what lies ahead for hybrid working?
While more workers can return to the office as COVID-19 workplace safety rules are relaxed, many people still prefer to work remotely for at least part of the time. CNA takes a deeper look at how offices could evolve in a way that accommodates personal preferences and business needs.
SINGAPORE: Like most office workers, economist Song Seng Wun used to spend his workdays behind a desk at his bank and never questioned it. Now, after being forced to work from home during the “circuit breaker” period last year, he has adjusted to a new rhythm.
His mornings are spent at the office, then he may have meetings outside or travel around the island to check on any economic developments that piqued his interest - taking him to a manufacturing plant in Tuas or an airfield in Seletar.
Later in the afternoon, he settles down at a pub near his home in Tanjong Pagar to go through reports and other reading material – washed down with a gin and tonic or a beer. He thinks he gets more done now, with the flexibility to structure his own time.
“Technology essentially allows us to be more mobile … then the mindsets of companies and bosses were forced to change. If not for the pandemic and workers being stuck at home, most employers would have been reluctant to let workers out of their sight,” said the 61-year-old analyst from CIMB.
READ: With easing of workplace COVID-19 rules, firms make adjustments while others take wait-and-see approach
It’s one example of how workers have become creative with their work routines after the COVID-19 pandemic hit - and if the majority of workers have their way, this hybrid way of working will be here to stay.
A YouGov survey conducted this week for CNA found that 60 per cent of the workers who took part want a mix of working remotely and at the office. In addition, 17 per cent want to work entirely from home.
The percentage of those preferring hybrid work has increased from a similar survey done in early April last year, when the circuit breaker started and the great remote work experiment began in Singapore. Then, 48 per cent said they would mix working from home and from the office, if given a choice.
Meanwhile, the proportion of people who would choose to return to the traditional nine-to-five routine has shrunk from 38 per cent last April to 24 per cent. More than 1,000 people responded to each survey.
Most of those who prefer hybrid work arrangements said that they want to return to the office two or three days a week. A number of other surveys corroborate this trend.
"WE NEVER THOUGHT TO RECREATE THE WAY WE WORK"
"The wish for people to be less tied to a nine-to-five job existed before the pandemic, it was only because of the pandemic, that suddenly, employers needed to make changes to the way people work,” the founder of HRTechRadar Anita Lettink told CNA.
Digital tools for video calls and remote work such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams and Slack were not “invented last year”, she said.
“All these applications to collaborate were there, we just still made people come to the office because we never thought to recreate the way that we work,” she added.
After a year of mostly working from home for many, the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) allowed more employees back to the workplace from Apr 5. While working from home is still encouraged, up to 75 per cent of staff can be in the office at a time. Split teams are also no longer mandatory.
READ: Back to the office: 7 things you need to know as Singapore shifts to more flexible way of working amid COVID-19
A week after that change, the YouGov survey found that 39 per cent of respondents said they were still working from home. Numbers from the Land Transport Authority (LTA) indicate that there hasn’t been an immediate rush back to offices.
For the week of Apr 5 to 9, morning peak ridership on public transport was at about 68 per cent of pre-COVID levels, said the Land Transport Authority. The number of commuters who exited MRT stations in the CBD on a weekday morning remained at about 40 per cent of pre-COVID levels.
Since many office workers need only a laptop, a connection and a mobile phone to do the majority of their work, the office as a space to sit at a desk and type – the norm just a year ago – may seem outdated to some. And while the workplace is still useful for those who do not have conducive work environments at home, some have decided that the daily commute is not necessary or desirable.
But the physical office lives on, even though some companies no longer see it as the default option.
This is what law firm Allen & Overy has seen at their office at Collyer Quay, where about 30 to 40 per cent of their 170 workers are back.
While they were beginning to implement remote working options before COVID-19, such that employees could choose to work from home when required, the firm is now looking to expand their flexible working policy, said COO Emiley Yeow.
“I get the sense (that) when I reach my own steady state, it might be Monday and Friday at home and three days … in the office, and then I will build my meetings around that,” she said. “I think our (flexible work) policy will actually need to adapt and be changed over time.”
ENTICING WORKERS BACK TO THE OFFICE
As it is, most of their employees are choosing to continue to work part of the time at home. Mr Benjamin Moult, who works in the HR department there, prefers to work in the office but still chooses to work one day from home.
“I like the idea that I could be flexible, if I had a delivery, if there was something that needs to be done in my flat, or if I went to the gym,” he said.
But he also likes going back to the office and having the chance to talk to people in person, and have chance meetings at the pantry.
To entice workers to return, Allen & Overy is supplying free lunches for the month of April and hired a barista to come in at teatime.
In a project that was already in the works before COVID-19, but which Ms Yeow said came together just in time, the office has been redesigned to expand open spaces for interaction and discussions, and increase the natural light in the office.
It now has a large, airy pantry as well as a café area where people can eat and drink, as well as hold discussions and training sessions. This seems to be the way forward, for larger firms at least.
DBS Bank, for instance, said last November that it will give employees the flexibility to work remotely up to 40 per cent of the time. It also started a job-sharing scheme that allows two employees to share the responsibilities of one full-time role.
DBS further said that it will modify its workspaces to enable “greater collaboration and ideation”, launching a 5,000 sq ft “Living Lab” to test different work space configurations.
“To support these new norms of working DBS has been redesigning workspaces to create a more balanced hybrid work environment,” said a spokesperson from the bank.
“This will take into consideration DBS’ shift to a more distributed, flexible workforce model by blending the best of physical and virtual workspace configurations to provide a seamless employee experience.”
Ms Narita Cheah, co-founder and director of Paperspace Asia, which Allen & Overy consulted for its redesign, said that more clients are coming to them to rethink how their office space is used and how to draw workers back.
In the past, the priority when it came to designing offices was the number of desks the company needed, while other spaces were sometimes seen as “frills”, but this will no longer be the case, she said.
“The desk will no longer be the cornerstone of the office. That's going to have to give, to make space for amenities, human connections that they cannot get at home. What are you doing to draw them back? That will be the new focus.”
Besides a need for more collaborative spaces, companies are also installing creature comforts people can’t get at home, ranging from hammocks and massage chairs to meditation rooms.
WORK FROM ANYWHERE?
But it’s not just the offices that are being renovated, many workers are now revamping their work life to build in more flexibility - what Ms Lettink called a "work from anywhere" model.
Ms Olivia Ang, 25, joined technology firm Arcstone in January, and has been going to the office once a week. This will increase to two days a week from May. She is quite sure she doesn’t want to go back to an office-bound, nine-to-five working life.
The 25-year-old has tried working from different spaces, and even experimented with working at Sentosa from the beach (Tip: It's tricky as sand can get into your laptop).
“I feel like when you're tied to your office, then you don't get to do other stuff that you could have done if you were at home,” she said. “I basically have more time to live my life.”
Assumptions that flexi-work would lead to lower productivity have generally been upended. Most respondents to the YouGov survey (85 per cent) said that they were more productive or as productive working from home as they were from the office.
Seven in 10 managers responding to the survey also said that they felt their teams were more productive or as productive.
Instead, companies have warmed up to the idea as they think that it can help them weather future crises and help save fixed costs, according to a Future of Talent Whitepaper commissioned by LinkedIn.
MOM’s Job Vacancies Report 2020, which tracked job opportunities for remote work for the first time last year, found that 35 per cent of job vacancies last year involved work that could be done remotely. These were mainly jobs for PMETs or Professional, Managers, Executives and Technicians.
HYBRID WORK WILL EVOLVE
While the COVID-19 situation in Singapore has improved and many aspects of life are returning to a normal state, hybrid work-life models seem set to continue to evolve. What would this transition involve?
Human resources professionals and experts CNA spoke to said that due to the lack of face-to-face contact, consulting closely with employees is crucial, as is making sure guidelines and expected outcomes are explicit and communicated.
Mr Mayank Parekh, CEO of the Institute for Human Resource Professionals in Singapore, predicts that only a small percentage of companies here will revert to traditional office-based work practices.
He thinks that new skills and behaviours are required of leaders to create a culture of openness and trust.
“Organisations that engaged in frequent touchpoints with employees - both formal and informal - were better able to maintain high levels of employee satisfaction,” he said.
“Employees are often suspicious and can become unmotivated when decisions are made in a 'black box' with inputs and outputs obscure and inconsistent. Moving people's decisions closer to supervisors is another opportunity to build trust and buy-in.”
Ms Lettink said that managers should manage workers’ output and results, while letting them “figure out” for themselves how to organise their work – within certain limits, such as making sure they attend meetings, meet deadlines and are contactable at certain times.
“Just because you don't see them, or they're not coming to the office doesn't mean that you don't set the rules, you still have to provide people with guidelines,” she said.
But she added that employers can also consider setting hours where employees can disconnect and not send or answer emails, as the flip side of flexible working is that some people end up working much more.
FOCUS ON MENTAL WELL-BEING
A Microsoft report, the 2021 Work Trend Index, has found that workers are having longer meetings on Microsoft Teams and sending more work chat messages. More than 50 per cent reported feeling overworked.
All the experts said that with hybrid work, organisations will need to focus on new areas like mental well-being and building up rapport that used to come about naturally at the water cooler.
One example is how HR tech startup EngageRocket has been using bots to randomly pair up people in teams for non-work, virtual “coffee chats”. This is to promote interactions across teams and replicate opportunities for “serendipitous connections”, through video calls, said co-founder and CEO Leong Chee Tung.
“The blurring boundaries between personal and professional life have increased the need for line managers to pick up skills in detecting and addressing mental health issues like burnout within their teams,” said Mr Leong.
“Demonstrating genuine care for their team was seen to be one of the most important drivers of employee engagement and motivation.”
Regular meetings, in teams or one-on-one, are still important to build rapport and engagement, he said. On the other hand, he also recommends blocking out time without meetings, Zoom calls, or other interruptions for “deep work” that requires greater concentration and creativity.
Mr Asif Upadhye, Director at work culture consultancy Never Grow Up, recommends sensitising managers to acknowledge that employees need to divert their time for wellness, family and relaxation.
One option is to have employee calls once or twice a month where there’s no work talk, but is used as a time to unwind, he said.
“This can be spent chatting, playing fun and easy online games or even just do a session of charades while you speak about anything under the sun, except work.”
Ms Dion Thai, global employer services tax partner at Deloitte Singapore, said that the high productivity in the past year for many companies tends to have a hidden, human cost attached.
“It has been especially challenging for those that are early in their careers and those that are just starting out; to start their careers in a completely remote environment,” she said, as she recommends a “rethink” of how to improve wellness programmes and the onboarding process.
Ms Thai, and other experts, emphasised that there is no “one-size-fits-all” model for any workplace. A transition to remote or hybrid work is not just about changing where we physically work, but will require a rethink about how we do our work, she said.
“The core values, corporate culture, and the circumstance surrounding each company must be taken into consideration,” she said.
“Given the challenges and uncertainties ahead, an experimental and flexible approach at this point would be a necessary attribute to a company’s success.”