Published on 16 Dec 2021

Work from office capacity may never hit 100% again

Employers should decide what type of return-to-office schedule their companies need to operative effectively

Business owners are relieved at the option to have staff back at the workplace - but the flexibility of working from home is also set to stay, even as Covid-19 restrictions are eased in the new year.

Ang Yuit, vice-president of the Association of Small and Medium Enterprises (ASME), described the mood among small businesses as relief over a move that "will at least go some way to a better level of synergy" in workplace interactions.

In its latest relaxation of tough curbs, the multi-ministry taskforce on Covid-19 decided that half of those who can work from home (WFH) will be allowed in the office from Jan 1, 2022 onwards.

Hsien-Hsien Lei, CEO of the American Chamber of Commerce in Singapore, remarked that "WFH as the default at close to 100 per cent for most business made sense" when vaccines were still not available - yet, at this stage, "there is no scientific way to determine whether return to office should be ... any other specific number".

Associate Professor Trevor Yu, from the Division of Leadership, Management and Organisation at Nanyang Business School, said "the more important question would be whether businesses and workers would be willing to totally do away with the flexibility and other adjustments that have been made due to WFH". Citing the practices at "progressive organisations", he said that "I would expect WFH and similar flexible work arrangements to feature more prominently".

Indeed, just because employers can ask more workers to return does not mean that they will do so.

Victor Mills, chief executive of the Singapore International Chamber of Commerce, said that 50 per cent capacity "is probably about right as I doubt very much we will ever go back to 100 per cent of people working from the office".

"There is no need," he added.

Prof Yu argued that WFH has not had "that much of an impact" on the ease of doing business locally, despite initial uncertainty and disruption. He said: "With almost 2 years to adapt, some firms have now managed to navigate these challenges quite successfully."

Still, business concerns about drawbacks of WFH have been raised since the taskforce called for WFH to be the default mode of operations in March 2020, when the number of virus cases stood at 385.

Rashimah Rajah, lecturer in management and organisation at the NUS Business School, noted that remote work has short-term positive effects such as more hours worked and lower operating costs for firms - but “might come at a productivity cost in the long term", as employee mental wellbeing also declines.

But employers told The Business Times that they would rather go with more flexibility on manpower allocation in the future, instead of a full return to the workplace.

Lei told BT that - with a highly vaccinated population of working adults here - "it's time to let employers decide what type of return-to-office schedule their organisations need in order to operative effectively and efficiently".

In end-September 2020, employers were allowed to bring back up to half of its telecommuting staff at any point. The cap was upped to 75 per cent on Apr 5, 2021, but rolled back to 50 per cent on May 8. Employees were sent home again on Sep 27, as daily infections spiked.

Dr Rashimah noted that organisations will differ on how long it takes for offices to hit full capacity.

"Where the culture emphasises physical presence and employees are evaluated by the amount of hours they put in - as opposed to the amount or quality of output they produce - we might see employers calling their employees back to the physical offices as soon as restrictions are lifted," she said.

At firms that value autonomy, "a hybrid model of working will tend to be the new normal... 100 per cent physical capacity will not be a long-term objective", she added.

The ASME's Ang acknowledged that small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) may prefer face-to-face interactions as "we all know SMEs are laggards in terms of adopting digitalisation and technology".

"That being said, many employees have enjoyed the flexibility of WFH, and SME owners have to take that into consideration," he added.

"Covid has accelerated remote work and I don't think we're going to go back, so SMEs have to take that reality into consideration as they transform their businesses."

Ultimately, Mills told BT “People want to be able to make the decision themselves (as to) when they work from home or from the office", while Lei added: "Employers know best what their businesses need and should be empowered to determine how their workforce can return to the office safely."

"Covid has accelerated remote work and I don't think we're going to go back, so SMEs have to take that reality into consideration as they transform their businesses." - Ang Yuit, vice-president of ASME.

Source: The Business Times