HR & EDUCATION | Contributed Content, Singapore
Matthew Kay

Singapore's flexible working revolution – on paper only?


It’s been almost a year since Singapore’s Ministry for Manpower launched the Tripartite Standard on Flexible Working Arrangements. Arguably enough time to take a step back and assess the impacts of this initiative and more broadly, how flexible working is taking root in Singapore.

When the standard was announced last October, it was to “ensure that employees are better able to benefit from flexible working arrangements (FWAs), whilst addressing their concerns.” Whilst this wasn’t mandatory for businesses, 250 companies signed up as early adopters – mostly larger companies but some SMEs too. It was reported in March this year that 330 employers had bought into the initiative.

Whilst this development is certainly very positive, statistics suggest that the flexible working revolution isn’t quite catching on like the government hopes. And it’s not necessarily about companies offering these options, but cultural change and acceptance of this ‘new way’.

According to The Randstad Workmonitor, three in four employees in Singapore have the flexibility to work from home, or outside office hours and this feeling of autonomy means that 87% of those surveyed agreed it helps boost productivity and job satisfaction. When it comes to flexible working, Singapore does compare quite favourably with nearby Asian countries. In the same survey, workers in Hong Kong are least likely to be offered any options to work differently – with 85 per cent not having the option. And in Malaysia, the attitude towards flexible working is quite different, with almost two thirds of workers surveyed believing that they wouldn’t be able to disconnect from work.

However, despite the ability to work flexibly and the acceptance it is a good idea, 76% of Singaporeans agreed with the statement: “At my employer, we still work in a traditional manner; everyone works at the office during opening hours.” This is creating a conflicting picture – it seems that although flexible working is increasingly being offered through initiatives like the Tripartite Standard, employees aren’t embracing these options.

From my position – providing legal consultants to businesses across Singapore, the traditional office working model is certainly alive and well. Sometimes it’s easier for huge multi-nationals to offer flexible working – their culture takes cues from other countries and often, employees are already working flexibly to a degree – by travelling around the world and constantly moving from meeting to meeting. The technology infrastructure needed to support flexible working is already in place and employees are used to a half empty office. One example is Germany-headquartered Feinmetall, a technology company with offices in Singapore and around the world. This company is a signatory of the Tripartite Alliance and allows flexible start hours, as well as working from home, which has helped strengthen staff morale, according to general manager Sam Chee Wah.

It can be some of the more traditional, Singapore headquartered businesses which don’t have this culture which could find a switch to true flexible working more difficult. Although we’re seeing more and more local companies signing up to the Tripartite Alliance, such as Lita Ocean, a Singaporean shipping company which is one of the most recent signatories.

But what is required to facilitate this switch? Changing work cultures is difficult and a slow process – simply offering more flexibility isn’t going to mean employees change their working habits overnight.

One thing which can help shift perceptions is if the senior team at an organisation starts embracing these policies and working more flexibly themselves. The next step is to speak openly and positively about the benefits of these new ways to work.

A trickle-down effect is then likely – employees will see that flexible working is both accepted and effective and will be more encouraged to explore the option for themselves.

Open communication is also essential – I’ve seen some companies pay lip service to flexible working arrangements, but the reality is a traditional working environment prevails – the polices are there on paper, and that’s where they stay. Without open communication, employees are unsure of what is available to them or if other people are asking about working differently and how it could practically work for them. People usually don’t want to rock the boat and be the first person to ask.

Of course flexible working is hugely beneficial – as the Ministry for Manpower recognises, “FWAs make a supportive and conducive work environment. Implementing FWAs benefit both employees and employers. Employees are better able to meet their work-life needs. Employers are better able to attract and retain talent and improve the productivity of their workforce.”

A recent study by recruitment agency Robert Half also showed that 25 per cent of Singaporean professionals said they would leave their current job for a better work–life balance.

There is certainly positive change in the air – but no-one should be expecting seismic changes to Singapore’s working habits overnight. The benefits of flexible working have been recognised and are being promoted – it will just take time for employees to embrace this and feel comfortable enough to make real change. But it will happen, and the region’s workplace will be more productive as a result. 

The views expressed in this column are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect this publication's view, and this article is not edited by Singapore Business Review. The author was not remunerated for this article.

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Matthew Kay

Matthew Kay

Matthew is the Director of Vario and has overall global responsibility for the strategic direction, management and growth of Vario. Since joining Pinsent Masons in 2015, Matthew has led Vario on a rapid programme of development, more than doubling in size and expanding the business into new jurisdictions across Asia Pacific. Under Matthew’s leadership, Vario has become the leading law firm led provider of flexible legal solutions. Vario now represents almost 500 lawyers across numerous jurisdictions. Matthew is passionate about how the Vario approach solves real business problems for some of the world’s leading organisations, and offers alternative working patterns to talented legal professionals.

Prior to joining Pinsent Masons, Matthew worked internationally for a global management consulting organisation, specialising in major business process outsourcing (BPO) projects.

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