If there is one thing that has emerged as the talk of the town in the post-COVID-19 corporate world, it is the Work From Home (WFH) concept. Undeniably, economies around the world are reeling from subdued activity owing to lockdowns in significant cities of the globe in the wake of the infectious coronavirus. But the only silver lining in this dark hour is business continuity backed by desktops and internet, not in the office space, but at the homes of the employees. Singapore too hasn’t remained untouched from this wave, and only those businesses that could ensure continuity of work by assigning tasks to employees at home are the ones that can minimize the adverse impacts. Now that COVID-19 has left employers, big or small, with no other choice than to have a robust WFH infrastructure, let’s discuss this scenario in detail.
WFH Culture – Global Scenario before the Outbreak
Let’s take note of the ground reality of WFH in the world’s largest economy, the United States. Federal Reserve suggests the share of people working from home increased at least three times in the past 15 years. There are at least two key elements that fuelled this growth. One is Tech – Solutions that can help people to work and collaborate even without having to visit the office premises have gained traction. The second is – Cost-Benefit that can be derived by working from outside of office premises. Leasing an office has become unaffordable, hence it is becoming more profitable to have an employee work from home. In the UK in the last 10 years, more than 1.5million people have opted for Work from Home. Researchers have noted decreased stress levels and exhaustion, higher productivity, jog satisfaction, and increased organizational commitment as a result of this change. Some economists even conducted a detailed study on the feasibility of WFH in China. For this, a trial was carried out by a travel agency, Ctrip, which involved allowing a section of employees in the call center division the freedom to work from home. The results did not disappoint. Benefits were multi-faceted. This experiment also reflected that the employees were happy, and there was a significant rise in their productivity. The attrition rate too dipped, and the company also saved on rents.
In 2017, the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) of Singapore, introduced the Tripartite Standard on Flexible Working Arrangement, where the employers were encouraged to practice staggered working hours and telecommuting. Despite this, more than 70% of Singaporeans believed in traditional ways of working from the office. Remote Working and Flexi work arrangements did not gain acceptance.
Epidemics like Covid-19, rising real estate prices in urban clusters and visa restrictions in a de-globalizing world may all make remote collaboration more valuable than ever.
– says Insead Professor Phanish Puranam.
However, with the outbreak of COVID-19, remote working has become a new norm globally. It has indeed forced companies of all sizes and sectors to implement WFH policy for its employees, barring the few exceptions like essential services. Currently, about 17 percent of the total workforce in the city-state is commuting to work, and the rest have no choice but to work from home. Employers and employees engaged in non-essential services have to have a robust WFH infrastructure to stay afloat in this hour of crisis.
While understandably, this shift has been relatively more accessible for large corporates, for SMEs, it has been a daunting task.
Pain Points for SMEs to implement WFH:
To successfully adapt to the new normal, proper infrastructure is required to implement a flawless and smooth transition from a physical office to virtual space. SMEs had to redefine the framework and tools to measure the productivity of the employees while working remotely. Most of the SMEs weren’t equipped to adapt to these changes. Concerns that kept Singaporean SMEs from taking the lead were:
- Cyber Security – While in the office space, computers have the latest version of anti-virus installed besides having a secure VPN and data security infrastructure in place, but these elements go for a toss when employees work from home. Personal computers are more often than not exposed to threats of cybercrime, and SMEs that weren’t fully prepared for such large-scale WFH exercise were at risk.
- Access to Business Data – Employees need to be discreet about using the company’s confidential data and protect the proprietary company information. Hence data privacy is a matter of concern for SMEs.
- Setting Clear Guidelines: Employers had to clearly define the daily work schedule, self-service reporting tools to assess employee performance, overtime policy, communication, and collaboration policy for regular reporting, progress of employees at a time while undertaking tasks from home and interaction with internal and external customers. Enabling video conferencing and instant messaging with proper project management software was a challenge for small enterprises.
- Other Challenges: Reduced interactions between colleagues. Employees miss social banter and camaraderie with their colleagues. It is entirely understood that no visits to the physical workplace, no face to face interaction with peers and seniors, and no fixed hours to complete the assigned task can be the driving force behind any employee’s aloofness from the office that can cultivate a feeling of indifference.
Despite the challenges, SMEs have to adjust to the WFH scene. It is because the circuit breaker has been extended at least until June 1. Even after the circuit breaker, it will be gradual and calibrated easing. The authorities will retain social distancing measures, health protocols like maintaining health records, temperature scanning, and wearing face masks to prevent a surge of cases. The workplaces will have to install a digital check-in SafeEntry system. Also, majority of the workforce will still be required to either WFH and/ or have staggered working hours if in office. The tech giants like Google and Facebook have already announced, that most of its employees will continue to work from home for the rest of the year.
Pros of Working From Home for Enterprise:
Although, traditionally Singapore might have shown resistance to Work from Home policies, but studies have indicated that flexible work arrangements can benefit employers.
- Increase Productivity: Offering flexible work arrangements enables the employees to save commute time. It reduces absenteeism and helps in better work-life balance.
- Boosts Employee Moral: WFH helps to lift the employee’s spirit, as they can take a break at their will without being intimidated by the seniors. It reduces the employee burnout rate due to work overload.
- Workforce Retention: As per MOM’s Conditions of Employment report 2018, the reason for the higher attrition rate was due to a lack of Flexi Work arrangements. More and more SMEs should opt for telecommuting, staggering work hours, and part-time work to reduce employee turnover rate.
- Minimize Overhead Cost: With escalating real estate costs, it is wise for SMEs to move to virtual spaces and remote working options.
- Enhance Business Continuity: Business continuity can be maintained in the current situation of Covid-19 if Flexi work arrangements are in place. Home-based employees will be less affected, and business can remain as usual.
To further assist companies with implementing of WFH practices, Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) and Enterprise Singapore (ESG) have pre-approved remote working solutions, and the scheme will offer as high as 80 percent subsidy from Productivity Solutions Grant. SMEs Go Digital scheme is targeted at giving three laptops and online tools, for example, MS Office software to SMEs. The program is specifically for ensuring the smooth transition of SMEs from the physical workplace to remote working arrangements.
Changes Required by SMEs:
As uncertainties lie ahead, it is essential for businesses to stay ahead and have forward-thinking in terms of preparedness from such catastrophe. They need to further develop their business continuity plan in case of the second and third wave of the pandemic. It is become extremely cruial for businesses to revisit their weak links, realign the priorities, and have contingency plans in place.
For SMEs, it might seem like a herculean task but they need to adapt to some of the Best Practices for remote working such as:
- Creating organizations without walls which has full transparency, cohesive work environment, and no political exercise
- Outling rules and regulations for complete compliance. Important to set clear expectations, outline remote working rules, comply with cost requirements for the employees
- Creating a safe and secure remote working environment. In case of any injury during the remote working hours, the employees need to intimate the company and claim workers’ compensation. The policies need to be spelled out clearly to employees in writing.
- Offering the right communication tools: Providing employees appropriate hardware and software tools for effective communication and collaboration.
- Implementation and use of AI and machine learning for data manning, which will lead to a faster decision making process.
Moving forward, if the SMEs can tackle the various challenges, and have a proper and well-defined remote working model in place, to ensure minimal disruption to their businesses, WFH can be the future for many companies. However not all work can be performed remotely, hence the organisation will have to embrace and find the right balance of the hybrid model where work can be either performed remotely or from office.