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After a year of hybrid working, companies and workers grapple with possible return to daily office life

SINGAPORE — After a year of working from home most of the time, hybrid work arrangements have not only become a norm but an expectation among workers, some of whom told TODAY they would quit or turn down jobs that would require them to work rigid hours in an office five days a week.

After a year of hybrid working, companies and workers grapple with possible return to daily office life

Seven of eight workers who spoke to TODAY said they would not want a return to the old way of working, as they have seen the many benefits of being able to mix working from home and the office.

  • Workers have a strong preference for hybrid work arrangements that mix working from home and office
  • They say the flexibility has made them more task-oriented instead of being chained to a clock
  • Some employers say they plan to move to a permanent hybrid work model
  • Others are still undecided about whether to continue allowing workers to work from home 

 

SINGAPORE — After a year of working from home most of the time, hybrid work arrangements have not only become a norm but an expectation among workers, some of whom told TODAY they would quit or turn down jobs that would require them to work rigid hours in an office five days a week. 

“To be honest, I would not join an organisation that mandated five days of work from office,” said Mr Ashutosh Ravikrishnan, 29, who works in corporate communications. “Seems a bit backward in this day and age, and makes you wonder about the people at the top.”

The return of the typical 9-to-5, five-days-a-week has become a looming prospect since the Government announced on March 24 that more workers will be allowed back in offices from Monday (April 5). 

Seven of eight workers who spoke to TODAY said they would not want a return to the old way of working, as they have seen the many benefits of being able to mix working from home and the office.

But whether companies agree is another question: Eight of 15 firms that TODAY spoke to said they are formally making hybrid work arrangements the new norm, while the rest would not confirm whether they would allow such arrangements to continue permanently. 

‘I AM THE MASTER OF MY TIME’

For Mr Ravikrishnan, the hybrid work arrangement has allowed him to become more task-oriented rather than feeling “chained to a clock”.

Before the Covid-19 pandemic he had to report to the office by 9am each day and he used to splurge on ride-hailing services sometimes just to clock in on time. 

Now, he might start working from home at 7am or 10am, or he might head to the office if he prefers. The hours no longer matter, as long as he gets the job done. 

“I am the master of my time, which is ideal,” he said.

A 27-year-old executive working in the maritime sector who only wanted to be known as Ms Wong rues the possibility of her bosses asking her to return to the office five days a week, as she would have to start waking up earlier and spend more than an hour on her commute again.

“I think I would feel a bit tired two weeks in.”

Mr Ethan Wong, 33, a manager working in a local firm, said he would dread a daily return to the office too.

“I really appreciate the flexibility that comes with working remotely,” he said. “I can run errands, do chores, and schedule appointments during my work day, as long as I give my teammates a heads up and I do not have any clashing work commitments.”

SOME EMPLOYERS TAKING HEED

Some employers seem well aware of the change in preferences and are making hybrid work arrangements the new standard. 

Ms Charlotte Thng, Standard Chartered’s head of human resources for the Singapore, Australia and Asean markets, said that although flexible work arrangements had been available in the bank for many years, it took the pandemic to break down the social stigma surrounding them.

From Thursday, the bank began piloting a programme to have up to around 80 per cent of its Singapore employees take on flexible work arrangements.

Mr Stéphane de Montlivault, the Asia Pacific president for elevator firm Otis, said the company plans to continue with hybrid work arrangements and is looking at using technology to create a first-come-first-serve system for employees to book a slot to work in the office.

It will also redesign the workplace to make it “more modular” and suitable for more collaborative activities.

Local banks DBS and UOB said they also plan to redesign their offices as they move towards a permanent hybrid work model.

Mr Dean Tong, the head of group human resources at UOB, said: “At the heart of our new hybrid model are the lessons we have learned over the last year as people adjusted to prolonged work-from-home arrangements.”

This new hybrid model is also backed by research, which found that two days of remote working a week is the maximum for employees to maintain a sense of connection with colleagues and the company to achieve optimal performance, he added.

Meanwhile, DBS employees will be given the option to work remotely up to 40 per cent of the time, its spokesperson said. 

To support that, the workplace will be redesigned to cater for a “more distributed, flexible workforce model”. Changes will include integrating virtual collaborative tools to ensure that all employees have an equal share of voice in meetings.

A RETURN TO THE OFFICE FOR OTHERS

Other companies that TODAY approached either said they wanted workers to return to the office, or could not confirm whether hybrid work arrangements would become the new norm for them. 

Google, for example, said staff around the world can continue working from home until September, but declined to comment on whether they would be allowed to do so beyond that.

Still, Google chief executive Sundar Pichai said in a recent blog post that the company  is “looking to develop more overall flexibility in how we work”.

HSBC’s head of human resources, Mr Brandon Coate, meanwhile, said that given the Government’s announcement, the bank believes “now is the right time for our employees to start turning their attention to how they can re-engage with their team and perform their roles in the office.”

Changi Airport Group (CAG) noted that staff with responsibilities for operations have been working in the airport based on a split-team arrangement.

“For the rest, their return to the office will be stepped up gradually, as we monitor the situation in Singapore and adjust CAG’s work arrangements as needed.”

‘LET’S ALL BE ADULTS ABOUT IT’

One of the big four accountancy firms, PriceWaterhouseCooper, announced on Thursday that its employees around the world will be able to work from home a couple of days a week and start as early or as late as they like. 

Its chairman Kevin Ellis said this lets workers “feel trusted and empowered”.

But will this breed a generation of ill-disciplined workers? 

National University of Singapore Business School associate professor Lawrence Loh said companies might find it a challenge to ensure that workers do not take advantage of the flexibility and go “missing in action”.

But he noted that on the flip side, many workers have reported that working from home has led to burnout, as the boundaries between work and life have blurred so much.

Mr Daniel Choo, the chief executive officer of medical concierge firm The Medical Concierge Group, said it is time to let go of past preconceptions.

“You can be at the beach, but still get the job done. You can be in the office and spend 80 per cent of the time on Facebook, Instagram, social media, chatting with colleagues,” he said.

Companies will also have to grapple with the issue of how to compensate workers for "workplace injuries" if the injuries happen at home.

The issue was raised in Parliament in June last year, with Minister of State for Manpower Zaqy Mohamad saying that work-from-home arrangements do not change an employer's responsibility for work injury compensation. 

He noted that the firm will have to ascertain that the injury arose while the employee was performing work activities at home.

Mr David Ang, the director of corporate services at Human Capital Singapore, said it is important to not be too rigid when coming up with new work rules, and old policies such as travel allowance can be reviewed and replaced with other work benefits.

“If you don’t need people to work from the office, so be it. You don’t want to force it,” he said. 

“People managers should give proper recommendations rather than rush into new measures, crowding the workplace and causing a problem,” he added.

CLARIFICATION: A previous version of this article stated that beyond September, Google staff who wanted to work remotely would have to apply for an extension to do so based on exceptional circumstances or hardship. Google has since clarified that this applies to staff who are working from a different country than the one they are employed in.

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