Skip to main content

Advertisement

Advertisement

What would our future workplace look like?

More Singapore employees will be allowed to return to the workplace from April 5. Rather than a return to the traditional office, however, the announcement signals a shift to a more flexible, hybrid working model.

What would our future workplace look like?

Realistically, there may never be a one-size-fits-all solution, as every organisation faces unique challenges. 

More Singapore employees will be allowed to return to the workplace from April 5. Rather than a return to the traditional office, however, the announcement signals a shift to a more flexible, hybrid working model.

The Covid-19 pandemic helped set the stage for a global work-from-home experiment.  The sudden shift to remote working and flexible working arrangements have highlighted numerous benefits for both employers and employees, gaining wider acceptance globally.

Workers in Singapore also may not want to return to the office. A survey commissioned by The Straits Times late last year found that eight out of 10 workers prefer telecommuting or flexible arrangements.

Benefits include an alleviation of the burden on public infrastructure, less personal carbon emissions, a happier workforce, higher productivity, and potential cost savings for companies and employees.

For some, however, remote work may mean struggles to maintain work-life balance and an increased risk of domestic abuse. Collaboration and teamwork may also deteriorate due to the lack of proximity among coworkers.

HYBRID MODELS AS A COMPROMISE?

Given the pros and cons of remote working, new hybrid working models are being explored to improve the future of work.

One model that is re-trending is the four-day work week which has been studied since the 1970s. 

A shorter work week may increase workers’ focus, efficiency and happiness, reduce burnout, and is estimated to shrink carbon footprints by 37 per cent.

The idea has gained traction in Spain, with the government reportedly approving a small, nationwide experiment to cut the work week to 32 hours over three years, without reducing compensation. 

A recent study also found that a five-hour reduction of the work week in 2017 would have created 560,000 jobs and a 1.4 per cent increase in Spain’s gross domestic product (GDP).

In June last year, a four-day work week was also suggested in the Singapore Parliament as a potential solution to help workers improve work-life balance.

Companies around the world have also announced their own trials. For example, Unilever New Zealand is testing this model by cutting working hours by 20 per cent without a reduction in pay.

Another is the 3-2-2 model proposed by academics Lauren C. Howe, Ashley Whillans and Jochen I. Menges from Harvard University and University of Zurich.

It seeks to empower employees to choose schedules that are compatible with their lives.

The idea is for the worker to work three days in the office, two days at home, and with two days off. 

This model prioritises flexibility, honouring the employee’s personal preferences and also taking pandemic safety precautions into consideration.

Following last week’s announcement, Singapore’s public officers are encouraged to work three days in the office and two days at home as a general guideline, although officers can continue to telecommute for more than two days a week if their agencies allow them to do so.

THE OFFICE REIMAGINED

Perhaps one of these models, or another that is yet to emerge, may just become the perfect compromise. Regardless, the favoured solution seems to be a hybrid structure that prizes flexibility and adaptability.

The office can be reimagined as a space primarily for collaboration and networking. Rethinking office design can help optimise performance and cultivate a culture of innovation and creativity. 

Future offices might even have more breakout rooms and collaborative spaces than individual work stations.

Especially for those whose job scope allows for telecommuting, employees may prefer to return to the office on a want-to or need-to basis, instead of a have-to basis. At the same time, workers may choose to work from home for solo tasks, when full concentration is necessary.

Additionally, some researchers are proposing for workers to be distributed throughout cities into smaller workspaces, in a hub-and-spoke model.

Having satellite offices could increase organisational resilience in times of disruptions such as natural disasters, as employees would have more working spaces to choose from. It will also shorten commute, if there are options nearer to their homes.

In Singapore, co-working spaces are slowly becoming more in demand, and the sector is expected to grow if the pandemic stays under control.

Importantly, workers would need to feel safe in the office, and thus hygiene and social distancing standards mandated during the pandemic should be maintained. 

Future workspaces should be well-ventilated to minimise spreading of germs, without compromising energy efficiency.

The emphasis on flexibility is also timely, in preparation for a generational shift in the workforce – millennials and Generation Z are more likely to expect flexible hours.

NOT WITHOUT CHALLENGES

Hybrid solutions, however, also face challenges. There are even suggestions that hybrid models could be the “worst of both worlds”.

A hub-and-spoke model is likely to create power imbalance – employees working in the head office will get more opportunities to be given important tasks and credits due to better visibility and closer access to leaders.

Similarly, the employees going to the office more frequently are likely to have a competitive edge over those who prefer to telework, and affecting female workers disproportionately since they are expected to take on more parenting and household responsibilities.

Moreover, employees who are more adept at building relationships and recognising new power dynamics will find themselves able to navigate hybrid environments easily, while others may find it more difficult to stay engaged with their managers and teammates and may end up feeling left behind.

To make hybrid structures sustainable in the long run, corporate leaders need to assess power balances and policies frequently, and intervene whenever necessary. 

They also need to allow resource redistribution and actively avoid an in-group versus out-group dynamic.

Some companies may prefer to fix certain rules to create an equaliser – by mandating the number of hours, for instance, that every staff member has to clock in the office on a monthly basis.

Nevertheless, such equalisers might not address the root of the issue. 

It is pertinent to develop a culture of trust and fairness through open communication and transparency about the challenges of power imbalances and visibility in the workplace.

During performance evaluations, emphasis should be on results-driven output, rather than office attendance.

Cost savings for companies from increased remote working can be redirected into the workers themselves to boost productivity, communication skills, and staff happiness, or by investing in their reskilling and upskilling. 

Team leaders and supervisors should also be trained to manage and motivate virtual or hybrid teams effectively.

Resources can also be reallocated into upgrading IT and cyber security infrastructure that can better support hybrid working schedules.

A long-term forward-looking strategy that recognises these new challenges can maximise the benefits of flexible structures, as well as strengthen work culture and practices.

Rather than a return to pre-Covid-19 normal when many organisations were caught unprepared, employers can take this opportunity to revamp the workplace into one that is more future-ready, and equipped to deal with disruptions such as potential outbreaks caused by Covid-19 variants or new viruses. The current pandemic will likely not be our last.

Realistically, there may never be a one-size-fits-all solution, as every organisation faces unique challenges. 

While the impact of the current pandemic is still unravelling, it might be helpful to pause and review future challenges, and evaluate what models might be the best for each organisation.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: 

Tan Ming Hui is an associate research fellow in the Policy Studies Group at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University.

Related topics

Covid-19 work workplace office telecommuting

Read more of the latest in

Advertisement

Popular

Advertisement

Stay in the know. Anytime. Anywhere.

Subscribe to get daily news updates, insights and must reads delivered straight to your inbox.

By clicking subscribe, I agree for my personal data to be used to send me TODAY newsletters, promotional offers and for research and analysis.

Aa