, Singapore

How the Coronavirus Crisis is Changing Our Approach to Work and Leadership in Singapore

By Aurelie Saada and Katia Melazzi

Even before the coronavirus crisis struck, the way businesses are run had begun to change. A growing focus on sustainability, diversity and inclusion was already bringing about a new era of conscious leadership. Now, with flexible, remote-working arrangements becoming a necessity whilst social distancing measures are in place, the structure of work is being changed forever. Senior executives’ leadership style must evolve along with it.

Flexible Working Arrangement (FWA) is commonplace in Singapore, according to the 2019 Ministry of Manpower’s Conditions of Employment report, the proportion of firms offering at least one formal FWA increased from 50% in 2017 to 53% in 2018 whilst firms offering at least one ad-hoc FWA went up from 75% to 84% in the same period. But like every country in the world, no one could predict a total shutdown forcing an extended hiatus from the office like we are seeing now.

As we navigate the current crisis, even the most rigidly traditional of leaders have been forced to rethink the structure of work, embrace new ways of doing business and managing teams. Companies that have resisted digital transformation and modern distribution methods such as e-commerce have had no alternative but to adapt. Leaders who’ve long held fast to the belief that employees need to be centrally located in an office to effectively collaborate, network, perform and undergo sufficient supervision are fast learning this is not necessarily the case.

Business leaders are coming to realise, as never before, that working from home can be executed effectively and may indeed have numerous advantages insofar as employee satisfaction, productivity and profitability go.

In Singapore, where rents are high and space is at a premium, in the near future, companies will seize upon the cost savings that having staff working remotely can ring. Flexible work arrangements, including the ability to work part or all of the day from home, will be used as recruitment tools to secure a better standard of personnel and facilitate the hiring of more diverse, balanced workforce.

The present situation is demonstrating to business leaders that although there are challenges in having a team spread across a variety of locations, the skills required to communicate with and manage a remote workforce involve ramping up those traditionally used in an office setting. It’s a matter of showing respect; being affable; promoting ethical behaviour; fostering mutual trust; being transparent; and openly communicating. Whether meeting in person or chatting over Zoom, Slack, email or FaceTime, the same rules apply.

Budding leaders who have not internalised these values will be deeply disadvantaged, in terms of career advancement, in years to come. Equally, employees will be expected to display the same flexibility and openness as their leaders, and companies will almost certainly have to invest in training staff and management alike in the soft skills that are going to become ever more important in the new working world.

To promote a sense of cohesion and teamwork amongst a group of people who may be situated in different locations, it is soft skills that will prove most effective in motivating, engaging and recognising the value of employees. This calls for a gentler style of leadership than the ‘commanding’ approach that has long been typical — especially here in Singapore, where a strict hierarchical structure has traditionally been the dominant paradigm. Rather than simply issuing orders, the future leader will guide, mentor and empower their team, helping staff develop, grow and achieve their best.

A leader does not gain these skills at school. They are learned through experience, from role models who are able to advise us, shape us, coach us. Nowadays, few companies offer mentorship programs of this sort internally.

Individuals must develop skills of this nature of their own accord. Ideally, this can be achieved by tapping into a community where mentoring is liberally offered by people committed to sharing their knowledge. In assessing remote staff’s performance, leaders must respect and trust their employees —and staff will have to earn that trust and respect. When an employee works off-site, their diligence cannot be measured by whether they’re punctual or not, or how often they work late, which were always poor yardsticks of performance in any case. Presence does not equal productivity.

The assessment of an employee’s efficiency will hinge on what they deliver in the most efficient / impactful way, rather than the number of hours they spend at a desk. Whilst it is proving more practical than many imagined, the current isolated, work-from-home situation is far from ideal. For parents, there’s the burden of home learning and childcare (and though many men are doing their part, much of this workload is being assumed by women). Plus, at present, there’s the stress for both leaders and employees of worrying about the future of their businesses and jobs with a recession looming, whilst also gravely concerned about their health and the wellbeing of loved-ones. Being obliged to work from home because of a global health crisis is very different than choosing to do so, and employers need to factor this stress into appraisals of employee performance.

One ‘silver lining’ of this crisis is that, by forcing leaders to acknowledge the viability of remote-work arrangements, and in many cases, literally bringing home the difficulties encountered by working parents and others in need of flexibility, more and more senior executives are gaining valuable new perspectives on work and life. The conscious leader understands they can be successfully, seamlessly combined — and in the midst of this unprecedented crisis, they are quickly learning key lessons on how to do so.

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