Singapore: Prolonged pandemic tests trust between bosses and workers — and the picture isn't pretty for some

Nearly two years after work-from-home was foisted upon many organisations amid an unprecedented coronavirus pandemic, issues such as ensuring productivity and developing mutual trust from a distance continue to dog both employees and employers alike. — TODAY pic
Nearly two years after work-from-home was foisted upon many organisations amid an unprecedented coronavirus pandemic, issues such as ensuring productivity and developing mutual trust from a distance continue to dog both employees and employers alike. — TODAY pic

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SINGAPORE, Sept 26 — While working from home, Cheryl (not her real name) was not required, at least officially, to be at her desk all the time. Yet, she still felt pressured to give her then employers that very impression.

To prevent her status on communication platforms such as Microsoft Teams or Skype for Business from turning “inactive”, the marketing professional would go back to her desk to move her mouse every 10 minutes or so even though she had to step away for a while.

In order for her managers to monitor what she was doing, she also had to make all her work calls, including to external parties, through Microsoft Teams. Such a practice, as well as her managers’ throwaway remarks during virtual meetings, made her feel like she was being tracked.

“From the things that they said — like ‘nowadays, we don’t hear anything from this person, is she even working?’ — it made me paranoid about myself, even though it was not directed to me,” said Cheryl, now 29, who left the company in November last year after about 12 months on the job.

Then, there was Ms Wong, who had to constantly update her employer on what she was working on via a designated group chat, after she requested to work from home when tighter Covid-19 restrictions were reimposed during a state of heightened alert in May.

The 31-year-old, who declined to give her full name, was part of the marketing team in a food and beverage company at the time. She said that her then supervisors would send her messages reminding her to report to them every day since she was being paid a salary.

Such negative work-from-home experiences — arising from either the workers’ own insecurity or their bosses’ penchant to micromanage, or both — have led some employees whom TODAY spoke to to quit their jobs despite the uncertain economic outlook.

For Michelle (not her real name), a graphic and web designer in her 30s, she actually changed jobs twice within the last 18 months as she felt that both of her former employers had little regard for staff well-being.

When work-from-home was first implemented at the company she worked at during the circuit breaker from April to June last year, Michelle said her supervisors would keep tabs on whether the staff were online or not through Microsoft Teams.

“They kept hyperfixating on the red dot (inactive) and green dot (online)... And they would use that later on during group meetings where they could verbally scold people: ‘Your work is only this much because you haven’t been online you know’,” she said.

According to Michelle, during one virtual meeting, one senior manager said: “I know you all at home actually have nothing to do. Very free.”

She resigned at the tail end of the circuit breaker — only to join another company that did not adhere to the Ministry of Manpower’s (MOM) advisory for work-from-home to be the default arrangement when the heightened alert was imposed.

The frustrations with the firm’s disregard for Covid-19 rules built up to a point where Michelle had a mental breakdown one night and started crying non-stop. She later went to see a doctor to get anxiety medication.

“The doctor said to me: ‘Is this medication going to help solve your problem or do you need to get to the root of the problem and think about leaving your job?’ That night, I realised I couldn’t keep doing this to myself.

“Honestly, there I was sobbing away. The company didn’t have a single clue and probably wouldn’t care even if I told them,” she said.

Nearly two years after work-from-home was foisted upon many organisations amid an unprecedented coronavirus pandemic, issues such as ensuring productivity and developing mutual trust from a distance continue to dog both employees and employers alike.

And it looks like something they will still be grappling with in the foreseeable future.

Negative work-from-home experiences — arising from either the workers’ own insecurity or their bosses’ penchant to micromanage, or both — have led some employees whom TODAY spoke to to quit their jobs despite the uncertain economic outlook. — iStock pic via TODAY
Negative work-from-home experiences — arising from either the workers’ own insecurity or their bosses’ penchant to micromanage, or both — have led some employees whom TODAY spoke to to quit their jobs despite the uncertain economic outlook. — iStock pic via TODAY

From tomorrow, work-from-home will once again be the default arrangement in Singapore until Oct 24, as the Government introduced new restrictions to halt a surge in Covid-19 infections, which have climbed to more than 1,000 cases on some days.

Human resource experts told TODAY that more than ever, it is important for employers to focus on “trust” issues, such as incorporating building trust in their approach to leadership and management.

Ms Rachele Focardi, a future of work strategist, said: “As far as Singapore organisations (are concerned), if the last 15 years have shown us anything, it is that they are not moving along with the times, creating the best possible environment for employees and adapting to the needs of the new generations is not an option.”

Dr Michael Heng, director of People Worldwide Consulting, said that the power difference between employers and employees tends to be greater in Asian economies than in Europe or the United States.

“We are not very warm people. Bosses don’t walk up to your desk and ask ‘how are you doing?’... You may say it’s due to reserved Asian culture,” he added.

Firms’ initial challenges

While remote work has proved to be a boon for many — such as savings in commuting time for employees and office space rental for employers — some companies told TODAY that they were initially concerned about how such a work arrangement would affect organisational results and productivity.

Mr Lim Hong Zhuang, chief executive officer of blockchain start-up ShuttleOne, said one major concern he had was keeping his employees engaged and ensuring they collaborated with one another while working from home.

“Also, how do we get the attention of our employees with so many things that may distract them, like having WhatsApp open on the browser, during calls et cetera,” he said.

Mr Leong Chee Tung, chief executive officer of human resources start-up EngageRocket, said he had been worried about integrating new hires, ensuring there was clarity and immediacy in communication, as well as getting staff to stay creative.

Mr Dutch Ng, chief executive officer of technological security firm I-Sprint, had to deal with teething problems such as providing remote access to staff, communicating with backend staff and sharing data.

While Mr Douglas Abrams, the chief executive officer of venture capital firm Expara, had initially resisted the idea of working from home, he now sees it as a future trend.

“When this situation was forced with Covid, having experienced it myself and seeing the benefits, it’s correct. Definitely the way to go,” he said.

This embrace of work-from-home did not happen overnight, as companies shared how it was a process of trial and error as they searched for the optimal arrangement.

Even now as the dust settles, some employers told TODAY that they are still tweaking their workflow by remote processes.

Mr Leong, for example, has developed people management processes suitable for his company by taking a leaf out of other tech companies’ books.

Something as simple as using emojis more often is one communication technique he had picked up along the way.

“When you don’t have non-verbal feedback, when the boss asks a question, it could be an innocent question, but they may look at it and think, ‘Are they questioning me? Is it a threat?’... Emojis are there to help to convey more than just text.”

His company had initially held video meetings quite regularly, thinking that such sessions were important to prevent its employees from losing touch with each other and “switching off”.

However, over the months, Mr Leong realised that his employees found it draining and detrimental to their mental health. As such, the management has decided that attendance at most video meetings is no longer mandatory.

For Mr Lim, his company took about one year to settle on what would work for them.

“We were evaluating all the tools available and being nimble in changing. We changed email dashboards, many tools,” he said.

The embrace of work-from-home did not happen overnight, as companies shared how it was a process of trial and error as they searched for the optimal arrangement. Some were initially concerned about how such a work arrangement would affect organisational results and productivity. — TODAY pic
The embrace of work-from-home did not happen overnight, as companies shared how it was a process of trial and error as they searched for the optimal arrangement. Some were initially concerned about how such a work arrangement would affect organisational results and productivity. — TODAY pic

At home appliance company Electrolux, daily or weekly huddles with team leaders were used as a form of feedback channel for the management on how staff felt about work-from-home arrangements, said Ms Joanna Bilewicz-Porzycka. She is the vice-president of human resources and communications at Electrolux’s Asia-Pacific, Middle East and Africa division.

The management realised that their staff needed to have more space to recharge, so they revisited their workloads and meeting schedules in the last two months. They also tried to ensure that limited calls took place in the evenings with other employees based outside of Singapore, and that it only required relevant staff to be in attendance.

“It’s really these small things that make a difference and give room for our employees to decide for themselves — when to step in to join a meeting and when to focus on other things of their choice,” Ms Bilewicz-Porzycka said.

Some other companies, especially non-tech ones, found the transition to work-from-home to be harder, however.

A staff member from the human resource department of an architecture firm, who did not want to be named as he had not been authorised to speak to the media, said that the nature of architectural work is best done face-to-face given that it is highly collaborative and discussions often involve looking over drawings or material samples.

“I’m not saying it can’t be done. But there are a lot of hurdles,” he said.

After 18 months of working from home, Ms Koh Qin Wen, a general manager at an education company, said she still wonders whether more could be done to increase the productivity of her staff.

While Ms Koh said she does not micro-manage, and will accept it when her staff tells her that they don’t have the time or resources to take on additional projects, there is a part of her that still questions such responses at times.

“There is always the thought of ‘could they do more, could they do better?’ At the end of the day, if the results show, then it is fine. But I always wonder whether they are actually working the full 40 hours per week or not,” she said.

Policies and practices in place

To compensate for the lack of human interaction, some companies have implemented various measures, such as weekly or daily virtual meetings for staff, to provide work updates.

Team bonding events are held virtually, such as group exercises or discussions on mental health, or virtual coffee breaks.

Several firms have also incorporated several software tools that they had not used pre-pandemic into their workflow processes.

Mr Lim’s blockchain firm uses a tool where each employee’s task is listed on a virtual board that can be seen by everyone, and staff can check off each task when they are done, after which a report would be sent to him for review.

Work calls and tasks are also organised into strict 90-minute sessions as that is the maximum duration people can stay focused, said Mr Lim.

Mr Vincent Wong, director of research and advanced engineering at the Singapore division of automotive firm Continental, said that his company employs visualisation and analytical tools that bring transparency to project performance.

Some companies also set their own unique requirements for work-from-home staff.

For Mr Leong’s company, there is an understanding that staff should ideally respond to messages within 10 minutes, though it is not mandatory.

At Multiverse, another blockchain start-up, there is an unspoken rule that everyone needs to turn on their cameras during virtual meetings, said its co-founder Cliff Szu.

While Mr Chionh Chye Kit, chief executive officer of regulatory tech firm Cynopsis, does not place restrictions on where his staff could do their work, they are discouraged from heading to food and beverage outlets.

“I would rather my people not work in the cafe because they are exposed to a mask-off environment for an extended period of time,” he said.

Even as they tweak further their internal processes, some companies told TODAY that they will continue with their current hybrid model of work — where staff can choose to work from anywhere outside the office, or go back to the office when needed or when they feel like it, subject to the government’s prevailing rules.

As for Ms Koh, she has started a pilot trial of getting her team back into the office three days a week, and this arrangement is likely to continue.

Mr Oo Gin Lee, the managing director of public relations firm Gloo, said that he is exploring options with a co-working space operator, where his staff will be able to work at co-working spaces near their homes just by booking a hotdesk or a meeting room via a mobile application called Switch.

“We have (an office in) central location, but people who live in Tampines, Jurong cannot go back to work, so they can use Switch to go to a nearby hot desk,” he said, adding that such an arrangement will also benefit staff who can’t work from home for various reasons.

Ms Focardi called such a work arrangement as “hub and spoke”, where companies provide employees with the ability to work from anywhere, including outside the home.

She said companies are increasingly looking at the option of having membership with a number of co-working spaces throughout the city, where employees can choose one that is the closest to their home.

This could also help improve employees’ mental health, since the lack of separation between work and home has been one of the major complaints about working from home.

Ms Focardi also said that there may be more cafes pivoting to some sort of membership-based co-working space to cater to this need.

Mr Michael Sim, the head of co-working operator JustCo, said that it has seen an increase in demand for flexible workspaces from many new clients.

“These large corporates are pivoting towards hybrid work arrangements and are embracing flexible workspaces where they get a highly customisable mix of office solutions for different purposes, such as temporary headcount (and) workforce decentralisation,” he said.

The occupancy rates of JustCo’s workspaces currently ranges between 80 and 85 per cent, which is similar to levels before Covid-19, said Mr Sim.

Justco’s latest workspace at Razer SEA HQ. Mr Michael Sim, the head of co-working operator JustCo, said that it has seen an increase in demand for flexible workspaces from many new clients. — Photo: JustCo/Facebook
Justco’s latest workspace at Razer SEA HQ. Mr Michael Sim, the head of co-working operator JustCo, said that it has seen an increase in demand for flexible workspaces from many new clients. — Photo: JustCo/Facebook

As for WeWork, its general manager for Southeast Asia, Mr Balder Tol, said that it has expanded its space in response to the increasing need for flexible and hybrid work arrangements.

It also launched a monthly membership for companies to enjoy access to workspace and meeting rooms in WeWork buildings, as well as one for individuals where they can pay for each use.

On Friday, the Tripartite Alliance for Fair & Progressive Employment Practices released a series of guides, which contain best practices that companies can implement to foster better work-life balance, even as these two spheres have been increasingly blurred with work-from-home becoming dominant.

Mr Victor Mills, chief executive of Singapore International Chamber of Commerce, said that the guide on work-life practices which his team developed lays out how the management should set the broader strategy of what values the company stands for, how middle-level managers should implement it and how employees should exercise self-responsibility and make an effort to look after themselves.

Among the series of guides is also one on how companies can limit after-hours communication. One example is to implement a rostering system for staff who are in roles where they have to be contactable all the time, said Mr Daniel Chia, head of human resources at Samsung Electronics, who was also involved in drawing up the guides.

Both Mr Mills and Mr Chia are members of the Alliance of Action on work-life harmony.

While the best practices are not mandatory, Mr Chia said they will encourage businesses to adopt them for commercial success.

However, Mr Mills recognised that a mindset change is the hardest to bring about. What they can do, along with the unions, employers and Government, is to provide the resources, he said.

Building a workplace culture where employees feel appreciated and respected would be key in developing a set of best practices for one’s company, said Dr Heng, from People Worldwide Consulting.

And these can be small actions, such as praising employees when they perform well, or passing on the contact of a babysitter if any staff is facing problems with childcare.

Dr Heng said that other work-from-home best practices include providing laptops for staff, redefining methods to measure job performance, giving feedback and discussing ideas more regularly and being transparent with how the company is doing.

Employees’ experiences

While some employees have to deal with micromanaging bosses owing to a lack of trust, there are others with more positive experiences.

Mr Elston Aw, 31, who works remotely in Singapore for a start-up based in New York, said that his managers do not track how long he works as long as he makes himself available for meetings late at night here due to time zone differences, and completes his task.

The software engineer said that the flexibility afforded by his company is one reason he decided to take on this role full-time after interning and part-timing for them while he was an undergraduate.

“I want to work feeling like I am a creative, rather than being monitored and being a cog in the machine,” he said.

Another remote employee, Mr Hamren Misai, who works in the maritime industry, said he just has to make sure he is responsive to emails.

“They (bosses) keep tabs on us, no doubt about it. But as long as I respond to emails, they have nothing to say,” said the 34-year-old.

Rachel (not her real name), a 32-year-old working in the finance industry, said that the trust her bosses have for her has been built over the pandemic.

When work-from-home just started, she received a morning greeting just one minute after her official start time, which she felt was a way for her bosses to check whether she was online.

But this stopped over time and she is appreciative of her managers who don’t require face-time.

“I feel Covid-19 helped with that because employers were forced to, so no choice. It took some time,” she added.

Apart from trust, one other issue that has cropped up when work-from-home started was concerns over employee productivity.

Mr Ong Bo Xian, 31, said subconsciously, he has this feeling that any time of the day can be used for work due to the lack of separation between home and the office.

“There is this psychological lure, a seduction into being more relaxed and not so hard on yourself during the work day because you know you can catch up later,” said Mr Ong, who works as a legal counsel.

While he is taking a longer time to complete his work, he said his output has not been affected, as it is offset by the fact that he saves time on commuting.

For others like Ms Ashley Chen, 31, having blurred boundaries has, in fact, turned out to be more productive for her.

Ms Chen, who does marketing for a travel agency, said that the flexibility of work-from-anywhere means that she has been able to work without being part of a routinised environment. This has helped her complete the travel guidebook her company is working on as she can work on it over the weekends and at night.

She works mostly at a cafe in Chinatown, which is run by her employer, but she has the flexibility to be constantly on the move.

“It really depends on my mood Most of the time, it’s just finding places that allow me to stay longer as there are a lot of dining-in restrictions.. It’s always nice to have a change of environment,” she added.

Ms Ashley Chen, who does marketing for a travel agency, works mostly at a cafe in Chinatown, which is run by her employer, but she has the flexibility to be constantly on the move. — TODAY pic
Ms Ashley Chen, who does marketing for a travel agency, works mostly at a cafe in Chinatown, which is run by her employer, but she has the flexibility to be constantly on the move. — TODAY pic

Isolation, however, is one common downside cited by employees interviewed.

Rachel said it can feel lonely without colleagues around and the small size of her house has also made her feel very claustrophobic.

Mr Aw, on the other hand, misses the presence of a mentor whom he, as a fresh undergraduate, can constantly turn to for guidance.

When he gets stuck at work, he often has to wait until the end of the working day to contact his manager who is in New York.

Like it or not, the future is here

Whether they like it or not, companies have no option but to embrace work-from-anywhere arrangements. There is no way they can return to the traditional work arrangement even after Covid-19 is fully brought under control, human resource experts told TODAY.

Hence, allowing staff some degree of remote or flexible work is the only way forward, they noted.

Ms Focardi said younger cohorts who join the workforce want to feel trusted and empowered, and they will not want to work for organisations that seek to monitor them.

“(Companies) have had enough time to realise by now, that if you don’t move with the times, you can’t be successful. You’re just gonna trail behind,” she said.

Whether they like it or not, companies have no option but to embrace work-from-anywhere arrangements. There is no way they can return to the traditional work arrangement even after Covid-19 is fully brought under control, human resource experts told TODAY. — TODAY pic
Whether they like it or not, companies have no option but to embrace work-from-anywhere arrangements. There is no way they can return to the traditional work arrangement even after Covid-19 is fully brought under control, human resource experts told TODAY. — TODAY pic

Even so, unfortunately, many companies still seem to think that things are going to return to pre-pandemic days, said Mr Mayank Parekh, chief executive officer of Institute for Human Resource Professionals.

“What will happen is that if you want to have good talent, if you want to position your company well in particular for the younger workforce, then I think you need to accept this as a given,” he added.

Nevertheless, it takes two hands to clap. Employees also need to exercise self-responsibility.

“So I think there is a limit to what the company can do. Opportunities are there, but individuals also have to step up,” said Mr Mayank.

“If, for instance, you are someone that wants to be around people but you can’t go to the office, maybe you can work in Starbucks or a workspace somewhere where you can be around people,” he said.

Dr Heng said employees need to be trained to take control over their own performance management and also speak up to inform their managers about any difficulties which they are facing.

Ultimately, experts said that both companies and employees need to find ways to adjust to the new reality, and it is normal for both parties to take the time to find the sweet spot that works for them.

As Ms Koh pointed out, it is about finding the balance between what the staff want and what is best for the company. — TODAY

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