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Work in office, from home, or both? Hybrid work has potential and pitfalls, say experts

SINGAPORE: Come Monday (Sep 28), more people will be allowed to return to their workplaces as  COVID-19 safety measures will be eased further, but some workers in Singapore may not be ready to ditch their pyjamas for officewear just yet.

Mr Chris Woon, 39, a telco executive, said that he has been working from home since March and hopes this can continue.

“I am pleased with the company's arrangements so far,” he said, adding that it feels safer, he can squeeze in more sleep, and he is more productive.

Ms Kong Man Jing, 26, who works at a tuition centre, said that she’s worried about restrictions at the workplace which would make working in the office uncomfortable - such as mandatory mask-wearing and regular temperature logging. 

While she prefers to teach classes in person as she finds it more effective, she would prefer to have the flexibility to do her other work at home.

READ: COVID-19: More people allowed to return to workplace, subject to conditions like capacity limits

Being able to scoot from bed to computer in seconds instead of commuting daily is another oft-cited advantage of working from home.

“I think my colleagues and I are all used to working from home already!” said Ms Kong, who has moved her entire desktop setup from her office to her bedroom.

They are in the majority: July data collected by human resources tech firm EngageRocket from more than 2,600 respondents found that 72 per cent of workers in Singapore are keen to continue working from home at least 50 per cent of the time.


However, there are people who welcomed the announcement on Wednesday night that employees can return to the workplace, subject to conditions. 

The first condition is that the employees must continue to work from home for at least half their working time, and the second is that, at any point in time, there should be no more than half of such employees at the workplace.

Ms Lau, who is in her 30s, said that going back to the office would be “perfect” - she felt more productive in the office as face-to-face meetings were shorter and more effective compared to virtual alternatives.

“Especially if there are new projects, when you need everyone to come up with ideas, it’s better to meet in person,” said the shipping industry executive, who did not want to reveal her full name.

READ: With the coronavirus still in our midst, what does the future hold for the workplace?

Mr Christian Sng, 26, a content designer said that the discussion on whether to return to the office has come up at his workplace. 

"I mean aside from feeling safe and whatnot, it's largely based on preference and personality,” he said.

"For me, it really depends on the nature of work. If there's a large emphasis on discussion and collaboration, I'd much rather we gathered around a whiteboard. However, with the implementation of digital tools, there's always a working from home option."

Organisational behaviour expert Associate Professor Trevor Yu said that employers and workers need to come together to work out a set of flexible work arrangements that satisfies all the key stakeholders.

“Employers will definitely have to reconsider how essential is it for the job role to have their workers physically collocated in a specified workplace. 

“Workers themselves also have to be proactive and self-assess what are the conditions that allow them to be most productive performing their job,” said Assoc Prof Yu, who is from the division of leadership, management and organisation at NTU’s Nanyang Business School.


Dr Marco Minervini, an expert on organisational design from INSEAD Singapore, said that whether a person thrives while working from home could depend on factors such as the person’s reliance on social interaction at work and one’s tolerance for ambiguity.

“The office is a very effective place to solve ambiguities because you have more social cues - It's easier to talk with someone else … the people who are stressed out by ambiguity will struggle a lot in this new normal,” he said.

He added that working remotely requires the ability to structure work and put limits on it, and people who are able to do that will do better. While some workers feel more in control of their time, others feel unable to separate work from their personal life.

In the EngageRocket survey, the top three challenges respondents faced when working at home were not having the tools and resources they had in the office, having practical issues such as space constraints or distractions, and working longer hours than usual. 

03:09 Min
Most firms have adapted well to work from home arrangements, according to the Singapore Business Federation, but for others, nothing beats being able to do work in person. From underpowered laptops to maintaining business interests overseas, these are some of the challenges that people are facing when working from home.

Ms Lau and Ms Kong both said that they now work longer hours, and feel the need to respond to emails late into the night.

“I see the line between my work life and my personal life blurring,” said Ms Lau.

Associate Professor Joshua Gooley, principal investigator of the Chronobiology and Sleep Laboratory at Duke-NUS Medical School, said that achieving separation between work time and personal time, which includes sleep, can be difficult to achieve when working from home. 

“Don't check your work email before going to bed unless it is necessary. Before you know it, you may find yourself going back to work at the exact time when you are trying to shut down for the night. Even if you don't need to shoot off a reply, you might be thinking about that email and what you need to do the next day, instead of going to sleep,” he said. 

“It is well established that screen time before sleep is associated with later bedtimes and shorter sleep.”


Another implication of this week’s announcement is that more people may end up straddling working remotely with working in the office.

When announcing the latest measures, Minister for Education and co-chair of the multi-ministry task force for COVID-19 Lawrence Wong said that the new work arrangements do not have to be "binary" and can be a combination of both.

He also suggested that employers should allow workers to travel outside of peak hours to minimise crowding on public transport, for example, by letting them work in blocks from 10am to 4pm, or 1pm to 5pm in the office, then working the rest of the day at home.

Whatever the practical arrangements, experts agreed that a re-thinking of how we work is required if remote or hybrid work arrangements become the norm.

READ: The future of work is a hybrid model, not a completely remote one, says Zoom CEO Eric Yuan

READ: Commentary: How not to be a Zoom bore

EngageRocket CEO Leong Chee Tung said that organisations are already rethinking their investments to enhance home offices and improve access to resources so as to solve one of the main challenges of working from home - the lack of tools and resources.

“We will likely see office spaces evolve to become more fit-for-purpose: collaborative work, focused attention, or social interactions, rather than a uniform open-concept or cubicle model with a fancy-looking pantry,” he said.

Some have estimated that companies and employees have accelerated the use of technology and remote working arrangements by up to five years due to the COVID-19 pandemic, he said.

“The ‘work place’ will also start extending into the home through technology, and a new mix of hardware and software will be required to enable this,” he said.

Assoc Prof Yu said that individuals will have to be better equipped technologically and psychologically to manage themselves in such an arrangement.

Although technology is likely to play an even bigger role in the new hybrid workplace, employers have to be “judicious” in how they use it, he said.

“For instance, having a day packed with Zoom meetings simply because it is convenient is likely to have a deleterious effect on the efficiency and physical and psychological well-being of employees.”


Instead, they should determine exactly what can be used to enhance the efficiency of communication, and plan projects with a combination of synchronous and asynchronous work.
Dr Minervini said that before, work had been designed for people to come together in the office and this has to change. 

Taking the cue from companies that were working fully remotely before the pandemic, more work can be designed to be done independently and asynchronously, he said. 

“Before there was no need, they were all in the office. What we can do now is to ‘decompose’ the tasks as much as possible, to ensure that everyone can work independently without the need of coordinating simultaneously with the others.” he said.

“The idea is that we work asynchronously and that grants a lot of flexibility for your life ... if there's someone that has a need to take care of kids between 2pm and 4pm, which would be the usual working hours, they would have the freedom to not work at that time and maybe working later.”

Commentary: Let’s face it. Zoom meetings are exhausting

READ: Goodbye office: Is the future of work in our homes?

But he cautioned that certain hybrid work arrangements may create two subgroups of workers, with those working from home and those in the office forming their own cliques.

“My suggestion is to be very intentional on how to design these hybrid work arrangements and try to create a level playing field,” he said.

Besides ensuring productivity, EngageRocket’s Mr Leung said that companies should also invest more in developing and maintaining a culture of belonging, and engage their workers more frequently to calibrate the approach as they move into a hybrid work arrangement.

“Without setting up this feedback loop, leaders will have a lot of difficulty understanding why their team isn't productive, and may fall prey to cognitive biases that make them assume that the drop in productivity is due to remote working, when it may actually be a result of poor management practices,” he said.

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Source: CNA/hm


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