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New guideline restricts rejections of flexible work arrangement requests to business factors

By December this year, employees whose requests were rejected based on bias can seek union aid.

Employers can no longer reject an employee’s request for a flexible working arrangement (FWA) based solely on disbelief in such setups or traditional office work customs.

Data from Reeracoen Singapore revealed that more than half (56%) of companies in Singapore still maintain a 100% office-based work policy and that only 7%, offer fully flexible or remote working options.

Under the Tripartite Guidelines on Flexible Work Arrangements, effective 1 December 2024, employers can only reject FWA requests based on business-related grounds such as cost, feasibility, practicality, and impact on productivity or output.

“If an employer does not properly consider the employee’s formal FWA request or rejects an FWA request based on personal bias against FWAs, the employee can raise his concerns through his organisation’s grievance handling process,” Edric Pan, joint deputy managing partner and co-head of employment and insurance practices at Dentons Rodyk, told Singapore Business Review.

Alternatively, employees can seek assistance from their union. If necessary, employees can consult the NTUC Workplace Advisory and the Tripartite Alliance for Fair & Progressive Employment Practices for further support with their employer.

“In cases where employers are recalcitrant or wilfully refuse to comply with the guidelines, the Ministry of Manpower may issue a warning and require them to attend corrective workshops,” Pan said.

Preparing for the FWA

To prepare for the guidelines’ implementation, Tricia Tan, HR director for South East Asia & Greater China at Robert Walters, advised companies to consider the “various roles in the business and bring line managers early in the conversation and equip them in the consideration of such guidelines.”

“Considerations include established work practices, workload, impact on costs where relevant, and also to align performance reviews to output and outcomes, rather than presentism,” Tan said.

She also emphasised the importance of discussing with line managers the available types of flexible work arrangements, identifying roles that might be suitable, and providing examples of feasibility.

Under the guidelines, there are three types of FWA: Flexi Place, Flexi Time, and Flexi Load.

READ MOREGovt approves guidelines for flexible work arrangement requests

Pan explained that Flexi Place enables employees to work from various locations besides the office, whilst Flexi Time allows workers to choose different working hours without altering their total work hours or workload.

Meanwhile, Flexi Load allows for employees “with different workloads and with commensurate remuneration.”

Though firms related to F&B and healthcare may find it challenging to implement a FWA, e-pharmacy Glovida-Rx (GRX) is a shining example of the ability to do so.

Winthrop Wong, pharmacist and co-founder of Glovida-Rx, said the company offers flexi-work to its employees. For example, employees who are mothers can start working after dropping their kids off at childcare or school.

“[They] leave at 1 p.m. to collect their kids and then work from home in the afternoon so they can combine their work and childcare commitments,” Wong said.

Glovida-Rx also allows their employees to work remotely. “Recently we had a valued employee come to us because he was in a long-distance relationship and wanted to spend some time with his partner in Japan. We were very happy to facilitate his request to work from Japan for a few months. After all, a happy employee is a productive one,” Wong asserted.

“Of course, Japan is at the extreme end of working remotely – but we also encourage our employees to work from home on Friday’s,” he said.

Glovida-Rx has also eliminated the requirement for employees to provide a medical certificate to qualify for sick leave.

“We do not require our staff to present an MC for medical leave of up to three days… We believe this practice needs to change, there should not be a burden of proof for staff. Sick leave should be reliant on trust and empowerment between an employer and their employee,” Wong said.

However, he emphasised that the granting of flexible work arrangements is nuanced and specific to each employee’s situation, requiring careful consideration to devise a suitable arrangement. Given these factors, he believes that the two-month period given to employees to accept or reject an FWA request is sufficient.

Dentons Rodyk’s Pan and Robert Walters’ Tan agree, stating that the two-month period is “reasonable.”

“The employer should also use this period to clarify the FWA request with the employee, if necessary, and have an open discussion with the employee about the employer’s expectations on work performance and deliverables. If the requested FWA results in a change in the work scope and/or responsibilities, the employer and employee should have a candid conversation on the feasibility of this option, expectations and deliverables,” Pan said.

Tan, for her part, underscored that the review of FWA requests will vary from role to role and needs to be aligned to the demands of the role.

Applying for the FWA

For employees seeking to request an FWA, Pan emphasised that the request must be submitted in writing to formalise it.

The tripartite guidelines provide both employers and employees with a sample formal request.

Generally, Pan said a formal request must include the date of the request, the type of FWA requested for, including its expected frequency and duration, the reason for the request; and if relevant, the requested start date and end date.

“If an employee merely speaks with her supervisor in the office about changing her daily working hours so that she can fulfil her family responsibilities, this is not considered a formal request as it is not made in writing and lacks some of the key information,” Pan told Singapore Business Review.

He said companies who already have a process for making a formal FWA request may also stipulate certain requirements which employees should follow.

Whilst the guidelines do not specify eligible worker types, it states that all employees who have completed probation can request FWAs formally.

A freelancer, however, would not be in a position to seek FWA, Pan said.

Trust and mutual understanding

For FWAs to work, Pan underscored that employers and employees must have “a high degree of trust and mutual understanding” between them.

“The employer should communicate to the employee his expectations, and trust that the employee will perform his duties competently and diligently. On the other hand, there needs to be reciprocity on the employee’s part to not breach that trust and not abuse FWAs, so that ultimately the employees’ and the organisational needs are met, and there is no compromise in work quality,” Pan said.

Tan also stressed the importance of maintaining clear communication channels regarding expectations, supervision, and scheduling for various flexible work arrangements.

Successful implementation of FWA will bring reduced absenteeism, increased retention, improved well-being, reduced overhead costs to companies, amongst others, she said.

Pan shared a similar sentiment saying those who offer FWAs “are better able to tap on a greater pool of manpower and retain good employees.”

“FWAs also help to ensure business continuity and resilience in the face of a global pandemic, like what was experienced during the Covid-19 pandemic where workers (in some sectors) were forced to work from home,” Pan said.

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