For a long time, flexible working arrangements allowing staff to work from home have been seen as a privilege, to attract late-rising millennials, boost workplace diversity and retain staff with family commitments, especially new mothers.
Yet because of the spread of the novel coronavirus, such arrangements are no longer a bonus but a necessity for businesses striving to keep up operations while implementing segregation of critical business units to minimise the risk of a contagion.
For weeks, companies had to square away fresh challenges arising from the spread of this infectious disease, including reviewing business trips to and from China, and complying with Leave of Absence requirements.
Those who did not, like the four work pass holders caught at their place of employment who were repatriated and banned from working in Singapore permanently, saw employers being held responsible.
After Singapore raised its Disease Outbreak Response System Condition (DORSCON) last week, more firms got into action to postpone conferences and events.
But all was not smooth. Raffles Place and Suntec City were filled with long queues on the first day of temperature screenings on Monday (Feb 10).
Many major buildings in the Central Business District did not have designated entry points to control the flow of people coming in through their many carpark and other side entrances.
WORKING FROM HOME DURING THIS PERIOD
Companies can segregate teams but the simplest business continuity plan is to allow staff to work from home so as to minimise congregation and the transmission of this human-to-human pathogen.
The Hong Kong government has asked some staff to work from home to help prevent the further outbreak of the Wuhan virus.
Many MNCs, including DBS, Rio Tinto Group and UOB, have begun such arrangements in Singapore.
More companies should follow suit. The risk of transmission is a cause for concern when the virus looks more infectious than the flu thought it is less fatal than SARS thus far.
Such flexible working arrangements should be easier to implement for hyper-connected cities such as Hong Kong and Singapore that have the supporting information communications, cybersecurity and cloud technology infrastructure.
With virtual private networks, chat platforms, video conferencing, call diversion apps and project management tools, it isn’t a huge leap for companies to transition the bulk of their workforce to telecommuting.
Roles in analysis, design, content creation and web development, which have seen a jump in freelancing in recent years, may be best suited for work-from-home arrangements.
Sectors, especially the information and communications, financial and insurance, and administrative and support services may be better suited too.
CHALLENGES FOR SOME FIRMS
Employers understandably worry about lower productivity, but the evidence suggests the opposite.
Flexible work arrangements in Singapore have resulted in better employee engagement, reduced turnover and increased productivity, studies show.
A 2018 Manpower Ministry survey also reveals that the availability of flexible work options have had a positive impact on staff retention.
Singaporeans are also a responsible bunch and can be entrusted to work remotely. About 70 per cent of respondents to a Michael Page 2019 survey said they respond to work calls and emails even outside of office hours, when most of their roles require them to be contactable.
Despite the merits, working from home may be an impossible task for some companies to consider given the nature of their business.
An F&B outlet could allow administrative, warehouse and accounting staff to work from home but not frontline workers, the same dilemma facing firms running operations, logistics and retail outlets.
GETTING EMPLOYEES AND SUPERVISORS UP TO SPEED
Research suggests Singapore firms and workers should be more than prepared to engineer this work-from-home shift.
Singapore firms have more support for flexible work arrangements in recent years, especially after the expansion of the Work-Life Grant in 2018.
Today over six in 10 Singaporeans say they work remotely on a weekly basis, with half doing so for at least half the week, according to the 2018 IWG flexible Working Survey.
The key challenge with work-from-home arrangements might lie instead in ironing out the kinks after they are implemented.
Much of the success of these arrangements hinge on the comfort level of bosses who now have to exercise command and control remotely.
I would recommend that firms set clear boundaries and expectations before they move staff to remote working en masse.
Supervisors should set specific goals and targets, and outline how staff will work together and communicate with external collaborators during this period, as well as which channels will be used.
Clear and continuous communication within business units can be facilitated by instant messaging workplace apps like Slack.
Digital tools such as Trello or Asana also allow workers to collaborate on a virtual dashboard to add, edit, and amend ideas and concepts of any given projects.
Platforms such as Zippi enable cross-functional, cross-departmental and remote teams to communicate in real-time in either one-on-one or in group settings.
Supervisors should also touch base with their staff regularly in the first few days to troubleshoot and find out what new needs spring up in the course of working from home.
Support and ownership from top management is crucial to ensure those who work from home know that the initiative is taken seriously by all. Messages from top leadership can help set the tone for employees.
Most of all, supervisors must remember that remote working works best if there is a high degree of trust and communication among the team.