The Business Times

Bend the rules, so that workers don't break

Till today, managers still care more about facetime than the end result

Published Fri, Jun 1, 2018 · 09:50 PM
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DURING yoga class, I tend to ignore all the platitudes that my teacher spouts, especially when I'm trying to make it out alive. One of my very few takeaways from her class (aside from aches and pains) was a rather offhand remark she made as she watched us struggle.

"Bend, so that you don't break," she said. I'm sure she was referring to more than just our ability to touch our toes.

Flexibility is not something you really notice or appreciate, until it's no longer there.

You realise its value only when you can't reach for something without straining your back, or when you are unable to rearrange your schedule when your child falls sick.

And it's not just individuals who need to be flexible - employers should also take heed.

Nothing new

The debate about workplace flexibility, or the idea of a three-day week in the office (note: the other two days working from home), as recently suggested by veteran public servant Tan Gee Paw, distinguished adviser to the government think-tank Centre for Liveable Cities, is not a particularly new one.

Back in 1930, economist John Maynard Keynes had even loftier ambitions for the future of work, predicting that future generations would need to work only 15-hour weeks, thanks to productivity gains from technology.

Fast forward to today: While it seems on paper that employees are working less (Singapore residents worked 43.2 hours a week in 2017 compared to 46.6 hours in 2010), I can't say in good conscience that workers now have more leisure time than ever.

In fact, most people I know still need to clock their second or third shifts after their full-time job - not just family commitments, but skills upgrading so that they won't become irrelevant, as the national narrative goes.

And with a rapidly ageing population, I see instances where workers are torn between caring for their elderly parents and going to work.

If Singapore wants to take its manpower shortage seriously, it's about time we push for flexibility at work. We may never get to a three-day work week, but a three-day work week in the office should not raise eyebrows.

Flexible work practices can help solve many issues that are present in the workplace today, ranging from employee engagement to burnout to family commitments. With fewer commuters will also come less traffic and congestion, which is a win for everyone.

To be fair, more employers are taking steps to introduce some measure of flexibility. For example, working mothers are sometimes offered a flexi-work arrangement to keep them in the company.

Delivery matters

Frankly, no matter how many schemes are dangled, it is how the message is filtered down to the rank and file that counts. HR might have a list of flexi-work options in its manual somewhere, but if one's boss is against it or if the department has a culture that emphasises facetime, then such arrangements are unlikely to be taken up even if available.

On the other hand, even if the company has no official policy on flexi-work but has a progressive manager, then there is certainly more room for give and take.

In most organisations, work-from-home arrangements are on a needs-only basis to be agreed upon by supervisors. This usually means people with childcare or parentcare issues.

Would it be so bad if that was scrapped to allow staff to simply work from home on days when they want to focus on their tasks without being interrupted? Till today, managers still care more about facetime than the end result.

In an age where everything can be done online instead of in an office cubicle, we need to throw out the idea that we just want warm bodies in the office, never mind whether they are functional or not.

There is this fear that if you cannot see your employee with your own two eyes, he or she is probably slacking off somewhere, taking a nap or having a beer by the pool.

Knowing this, workers also hesitate to go on flexi-work arrangements, as they believe that they will be sidelined for promotions. Even if they are extremely efficient to end at six on the dot, they worry about what their bosses will think. Very few bosses reward productive staff for leaving on time - most would give them more work to do instead.

If my parents are anything to go by, it seems that old mindsets really die hard.

On days that I actually do work from home, my dad would urge me to go the office to show my face and my mum would tell me I'm not doing "real work" and could I please go fold some laundry.

Every time flexi-work is mentioned, I hear snide remarks of how entitled Millennials are. But I think the young people of today are not afraid of hard work - they're afraid of pointless work. The complete meaninglessness of facetime and the flawed notion that work can only be done in an office are not able to stand under scrutiny.

Of course, not every type of work allows for a work-from-home arrangement. But flexibility at work goes beyond that.

For a start, I propose that workers be allowed to call in sick even without a medical certificate, for up to half of their entitlement.

Many workplaces already have such a policy. Sometimes, there is no need for employees to queue for hours at a clinic when all they have is a simple cold which can be treated with over-the-counter medication and rest.

This also gives employees leeway to take a day off for other kinds of ailments, such as mental strain or even debilitating period pains for women.

I have a friend who goes to work even when she's physically sick. Why? So that she can save her medical entitlement for times when she really needs a day off because of her mental health.

If leaders really believe that people are their best assets, it's time to stop pretending that they come without needs or issues. Instead, give them some wiggle room to juggle their various commitments as long as they get things done.

I suppose the ultimate question is this: do you trust your staff to be responsible for their work?

If the answer is yes, then there is really no need for workers to push themselves to their breaking point when all is needed sometimes is for employers to bend.

READ MORE: Flexi-work arrangements - good idea hurt by mindsets and stigma

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