Making WFH work

Businesses in Singapore face similar working from home (WFH) issues as businesses here and are looking to some interesting solutions their NZ counterparts could learn from, writes the Foundation's director business Alistair Crozier. Thanks to the generosity of the New Zealand Institute of Directors, Alistair recently attended the Singapore Institute of Directors' Conference where he gained insights into some of the ways businesses in Asia are tackling the WFH conundrum.
A toddler sitting on a stool with a woman working on a laptop in the background

Business leaders and staff alike have had to come up with some novel ideas to make WFH work

Staff working from home struggling with work-life balance pressures; fears that organisational culture will break down if teams are not together; home Wi-Fi constraints; mixed with some unexpected increases in productivity. These issues have become common topics of conversation for New Zealand business leaders steering their companies through the COVID-era employment environment.

However, this list of WFH issues don't come from a New Zealand source but from a panel discussion at this year’s Singapore Institute of Directors’ annual conference. The WFH rollercoaster ride in Singapore is proving to be just as complex and unpredictable as here. In fact, possibly even more so – those who have visited the beautiful island nation will remember the forests of high-rise apartment towers filled with local families. Space is at a premium, inside and out.

Although the fundamental challenges are similar, discussions at the conference offered some fresh takes on how companies can manage the move towards a more dispersed workforce.

As in many other areas, Covid has merely accelerated a pre-existing trend towards flexible work arrangements in Singapore – it was being actively debated before it suddenly became unavoidable. One speaker suggested not thinking about the current situation as the ‘new normal’, but rather the ‘next normal’ – this is the latest continuum change, and it will be followed by more. Business leaders need to adopt this ‘next normal’ mindset to be ready for future disruptions, whatever they may be.

Related to this, no-one should assume the WFH model is here to stay. So far, it’s an emergency phenomenon, and there hasn’t been time yet to assess the long-term social costs.

Governance leaders mentioned weakening of organisational culture, communication breakdowns amongst colleagues unable to read body language, and the loss of chances to generate innovative ideas during water-cooler chit-chat, as losses that were hard to replicate on Zoom. (Of course, this is one level of perspective only – it would be interesting to hear the views of Singaporean employees as well, I suspect that – as here – there would be a spectrum of views.)  

Five people sitting at a table and looking at a computer screen

Some employers worry that office culture will break down if working from home becomes the new normal

At the conference, the term “working from home” was critiqued as encouraging the wrong mindset, and it was suggested “working from anywhere” (WFA) would be better, encouraging companies to experiment with flexible arrangements that do not assume a zero-sum choice.

Some Indian employers have successfully hired space in co-working spaces close to employees’ homes, for example. Hybrid models, and extended off-sites, could also help to counter feelings of isolation across a workforce when the pandemic allows.

Ten per cent of Singapore’s workers are now in freelance or self-employed situations, and 68 percent of Gen Z graduates want to start their own company because they don’t think they can have the impact they desire in large corporates. However, the pandemic has hastened generational change in some Singapore companies. Whereas previously millennials were criticised for their ‘entitled’ desire to work remotely, this is now viewed as a skill, with the playing field for senior and junior staff more level.  

In turn, this change in working structures is affecting the hierarchal nature of companies, including those founded in local Chinese culture, which have always promoted strong Confucian respect for elders. In some Singapore companies five generations work alongside each other. 

A man working at a laptop in a cafe

“Working from home” was critiqued as encouraging the wrong mindset – “working from anywhere” would better encourage companies to experiment with flexible arrangements

The ‘shadow board’ idea is currently a hot topic in Singapore (as elsewhere), allowing non-executive employees to contribute their diverse insights and perspectives to their company’s strategic planning. 

In a WFH environment, retention of top talent has gone next-level, as local employees can increasingly work from anywhere for anyone. 

Although SMEs don’t have the ‘label brand’ attractiveness that large corporates and multinationals do in Singapore, and therefore find it harder to attract top young talent, often they are better at retaining talent for a range of reasons, including the variety of work tasks within each role.

For a highly connected economy like Singapore, remote work and increased digitalisation has also made it more feasible for companies to attract and hire global talent across the world. But speakers sounded caution, advising local businesses to view expertise sourced overseas as an interim solution and to continue to focus on globalising local talent (both mindset and soft skills) rather than ‘importing’. 

An all-encompassing final point from the discussion is that the human capital agenda has become a more important topic in Singapore boardrooms due to COVID. This is more than the ‘personnel issues’ of the past, it’s about recognising and championing soft factors that contribute to employee attraction, retention, purpose and wellbeing – at all levels. Perhaps this will be one outcome of the pandemic that will endure into the ‘next normal’.