Transitioning to a new work-from-anywhere reality

THE post-Covid-19 working world will be increasingly borderless, where work can be done anywhere and for anyone. Individuals, organisations and governments should prepare for the opportunities and risks of this new reality.

Since April 5, 2021, Covid-19 workplace measurement rules have been eased, allowing up to 75 per cent of a company's workforce to return to the office. Nonetheless, some employers plan to continue offering flexible work arrangements such as working from home, staggered work hours and virtual meetings. This reflects how new and hybrid ways of working that arose as a response to the pandemic could well be the new norm in the future of work, where the delivery of work is no longer constrained by the physical location of the workforce.

This new paradigm of "work-from-anywhere", where individuals can work anywhere and for anyone, including for employers based outside of their home country, is not far from reality. Workforce trends such as remote and virtual work arrangements, contingent workers and the gig economy, have surfaced a few years ago. Technological advancements have enabled the ability to work from anywhere, while the need to address "shelter-in-place" laws and global travel restrictions during the pandemic has made work-from-anywhere a necessary consideration for many companies.

Potentially, this new paradigm will create an increasingly borderless working world and an open talent marketplace in the future. This presents both opportunities and risks - at the individual, company and national levels - that must be addressed now rather than later.

In a world where companies can hire from a global talent pool, this opens up opportunities for Singaporeans to explore work opportunities abroad, but also puts local employment at risk. To secure and improve their employability, individuals will need to proactively reskill and upskill to acquire competencies that are in demand - and these could be industry-specific or sector-agnostic. In other words, a mindset of lifelong learning will be needed to stay relevant.

The attributes required to thrive in the future of work - characterised by virtual, distributed and cross-cultural workforces - are also different. The EY Physical Return and Work Reimagined 2020 Study revealed that flexible working creates challenges for individuals in managing work-life separation, disrupts team collaboration and mentoring relationships, impedes social connectivity and engagement, and limits access to work resources such as networks, tech support and office workspaces.

Even as employees work on adapting to these new work norms, these issues need to be addressed at the organisational level through plans to drive cultural and technological transformations that enable and embrace remote teaming, productivity and engagement.

As organisations work to enable work-from-anywhere, they will need a robust framework to manage risks and regulatory issues, as well as the implications for their talent strategy. According to an EY poll of 5,000 business and HR leaders worldwide, 95 per cent of them desire a work-from-anywhere framework, but only 21 per cent currently have one in place.

The normalising of virtual working means opportunities for local organisations to tap talent pools from new markets. However, the organisation's local talent policies and programmes may not be tailored to the needs of a more globally diverse workforce. More strategically, organisations should understand how they can leverage a potentially expanded global talent pool to drive growth and internationalisation. Organisations also need to be mindful of competition for their local talents, who may be drawn to overseas opportunities. Building belonging and engagement within an increasingly diverse workforce will be key.

GRASPING THE RULES

From a regulatory compliance standpoint, when employees work in a country that is different from their "home" country, organisations must have a good grip on compliance requirements in the areas of immigration and employment laws, ranging from dealing with visa requirements to minimum wage laws. Further, more complex issues such as individual and corporate tax risks; registration, payroll withholding and reporting obligations; as well as tax exemptions or tax credit, must be duly considered.

Local companies that have less experience navigating these issues, unlike multinational corporations (MNCs) that have been dealing with assignees and business travellers, may face a steeper learning curve. Regardless of their level of experience, all organisations will need a system to stay updated with local legislations and establish a robust tracking system to monitor not only the company-level employment activities in the markets where they are physically present, but also the activities and mobility of their employees to help reduce exposure to these risks.

For Singapore's workforce and companies to remain competitive in an open talent marketplace, the government will play a critical role in enabling transformation. The government will need to lead efforts to identify and invest in jobs and skills of the future, while anticipating manpower demand and supply trends. While improving the workforce's competitiveness globally is crucial, continuing to create and sustain good jobs locally by attracting foreign companies to set up operations in Singapore is equally important. To some extent, existing initiatives such as SkillsFuture and Industry Transformation Maps, as well as government investment promotion efforts, are already helping to address the above.

Local companies should also tap available grants and incentives to digitalise and innovate so as to prepare their organisations for a work-from-anywhere future. By leveraging technological solutions to offer remote working and other new ways of working, local companies can offer potential hires a more compelling proposition.

From a regulatory perspective, the government will need to re-evaluate and refine employment, labour, tax and immigration laws to align with future work models. There is a fine balance between supporting Singapore-based individuals and companies in their transition to the new normal, while maintaining an attractive proposition for investments into the country.

The Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown measures have forced organisations to adopt virtual working - albeit predominantly in the form of work-from-home arrangements. What is needed now is a more radical shift in the way we think about work and the workforce. Clearly, work-from-anywhere is not just work-from-home; it holds possibilities and implications that go beyond just doing more of the same from home.

  • The writers are people advisory services partners from Ernst & Young Advisory Pte Ltd and Ernst & Young Solutions LLP, respectively. The views here are the writers' and do not necessarily reflect the views of the global EY organisation or its member firms.

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