Published on 28 Aug 2023

Most S'pore workers returning to office; HR reskilling urged

Discord persists over number of days of remote work employees and bosses expect

Most workers in Singapore have begun trudging back to their workplaces,but there remains a gap between how many remote days employees expect and bosses are willing to offer. About 79 per cent of Singapore workers are showing up on mandated days, more than the global average of 75 per cent, according to a report by workplace strategy and design firm Unispace. Public transport journeys to the Central Business District during weekday morning peak hours in the first half of 2023 have hit 75 per cent of 2019's volume, according to Land Transport Authority figures.

But for most workers, return to office, or RTO, as it has come to be called, will never rebound to the pre-pandemic frequency of five work days, say workplace experts. Still, the discord between employers and workers over the call-back in the past year continues to simmer. Associate professor of organisational behaviour at business school Insead, Dr Mark Mortensen, said: "Conversations are going past one another."

Workers and bosses need to get aligned on goals, whether it is to boost productivity, attract and retain talent, or to preserve the social fabric of the organisation, he added.

"Each of those may lead to very different choices when it comes to how you design the work and the policies." Ms Lauren Huntington, a solutions strategy leader at experience management firm Qualtrics, said organisations tend to obsess over what the "golden number of days" in the office should be. What they should focus on instead is reskilling managers to lead teams in the new work environment. "The old way of thinking, where time in the office is a reflection of dedication, loyalty and competence is no longer valid, and businesses need to focus on the outcomes of work," she said.

The reasons for wanting to stay in, or out of, the office are often misunderstood by both sides. From its survey, Unispace reported that a majority of Singapore respondents – 53 per cent of employers and 51 per cent of employees – expect to be called back to the office for at least four days a week by 2025. But of the 40 per cent who now troop into the office more than four days a week, just 26 per cent said they were happy to do it. In the report, 68 per cent of employees also said they struggled to do their core job in the office, with the lack of privacy and quiet interfering with their productivity. But bosses believe that employees are resisting the return because of the commute and the lure of healthier meals at home, the report found. In the United States, a strike at Amazon, a public petition at Apple, dedicated anti-RTO Slack channels and in-your-face resignations have played out in defiance of RTO calls.

Such drama is unlikely to happen in Singapore.

Associate Professor Trevor Yu, who teaches management and organisation at Nanyang Technological University, said: "We do not have a strong history of public industrial action in Singapore." Still, employers will face challenges, he said. For one thing, workers will create their own version of flexible hybrid arrangements, causing coordination and collaboration woes. "Implementation of these (RTO) policies will fall more onto middle management and supervisors, who are largely currently ill-informed and poorly supported to handle these additional responsibilities," Prof Yu added. In the long term, bosses advocating working from the office have to consider whether this appeals to talent. Ms Siew Mee Chew, the Singapore managing director of employment portal JobStreet, said recruiters have nearly doubled the use of the word "hybrid" in their ads in the past year. "Recruiters which provide flexible working arrangements tend to attract two to three times more applications." Pay and career opportunities play a part, but recruiters insisting on face time in the office are likely to draw fewer applications than those offering hybrid or remote work, she added.

Some employers are wondering how remote work has come to be seen as an employee entitlement.

Apple and Google are among companies that started tracking staff days in the office, warning employees to expect their career prospects to dim along with any decline in visibility. Mr Hardeep Matharu, who heads business growth for Asia at workplace strategy consultancy Veldhoen + Co, said: "It is understandable that employers feel they have this right, but I would strongly advise monitoring the return to office. "This is a step which can enhance the feeling that the employee is being watched, and can ultimately lead to a breakdown in trust, reduction in retention and increased attrition in an organisation." Ms Sher-Li Torrey, founder of Mums@Work, would like to see hiring managers allowing home-based or hybrid work arrangements for employees who need it across the board.

"Work-from-home or hybrid work helps anyone who is a caregiver," she said. Already, more working mothers are turning to its portal for home-based jobs as summons to the office intensify. "Most are quite grudging," she said. "One mother shared with us at a networking event, 'Why must we be back five days a week when we were doing just as well with three days?' Mr Anshul Jain, a managing director at real estate services firm Cushman & Wakefield, expects office usage to continue to rise into the rest of 2023. A study by the firm shows that Singapore is the most expensive city in the region to fit out offices for the new ways of working, but now, it is a matter of making workplaces attractive enough for workers to want to return, he said. Even then, he agreed that providing workers with the choice of location and flexibility to choose leads to the best productivity outcomes.

Referencing the study, he said: "We saw the biggest leap in the way employees felt more energised when they were able to choose where they worked from and had the freedom to do so."

Source : The Straits Times