Time for local SMEs to adopt a flexi working policy

Google ’flexible work’ and you’ll see a stream of related articles in the UK, with most focusing on its positive impact to both employees and businesses, as well as its continuous development; but none which highlights such practices in Asia, let alone Singapore.

Granted, if you have friends working in MNCs, you’ll hear of such norms ie P&G employees can work from home once/twice a week with initial set-up tech support. While the ‘flexi-work’ concept is practiced more frequently and positively amongst our western counterparts, Singapore local companies are only starting to see the benefits of this practice.

In light of the recent free travel scheme for MRT commuters, some local entities are taking the opportunity to amplify their flexi-work options. For instance, law firm Rajah & Tann is considering having staggered work hours, and is even providing free breakfast for early workers in line with the free travel scheme. National Library Board and SingPost are also offering adjusted working hours.

In UK, the public sector is urged to embrace flexible working; in Australia, the trade unions are lobbying for more flexible working hours. At the very basic, the term ‘flexible work’ may only involve different starting and ending work times, which indicates that companies still require daily face-time – or at least in the case of Singapore. What about the idea of working from home?

Last year, while a survey showed that Singapore has one of the highest percentages of employees working from home, it does not indicate whether flexi working is widely practiced amongst SMEs. In fact, the option of flexi-work may still carry a negative connotation, perhaps stemming from the simple perception that Asian bosses still want to see their employees physically clocking hours as an indication of productivity as opposed to real work output regardless of where the employee is working from.

One can argue that a successful flexible working policy will require a high cost in implementing good quality technology, but the long-term benefits of increased workforce motivation and productivity will far outweigh the cost of that. In essence, with Singapore’s limited land space, working from home may just be an ideal option for small businesses to reduce the cost of space rental.

Singapore’s pro-family policy and support for returning workforce should also set the direction and affirmation that flexi working would not only help retain talent, but also create a win-win situation for both the economy and national agenda. In fact, a local survey shows that women are more likely to return to the workforce if there is greater flexibility ie increased use of video-conferencing tech, job-sharing etc.

There is an increasing social demand such as paternal involvement, elderly care in line with the ageing population – all of which speak strongly for the need to have concrete flexi working schemes if employees were to effectively manage both personal and work commitments. This, however, should not be at the expense of colleagues with no kids or elderly parents to care for who end up absorbing the bulk of the work.

During UK’s 2012 Olympics, fearing that the large number of visitors would disrupt transportation, it provided an opportunity for companies to experiment with flexible working, which has proven to work well. Inclement weather would provide another impetus for tele-commuting. For example, when floods hit a town in the UK, working remotely ensured that local digital marketing agency We Love The Web continued to function even as many businesses had to shut down.

While Singapore is not a hotbed for natural disasters, it would be still be worthwhile for SMEs to consider flexi-working schemes not only for the benefit of employees but also for the organisation as a whole. Fewer people in the office means less resources and space being used, which would translate to cost savings. For a start, SMEs can consider implementing these steps.

Singapore’s very own WorkPro programme, in which a total of $170 million will be made available to local companies by Singaporeans or PRs over three years, can help address cost concerns related to creating flexi working initiatives.

A new rule in UK, which will be effective in 2014, will allow close relatives and friends to apply for flexi working to help out with childcare and looking after the elderly. So if leaving your child in the hands of domestic workers is less than ideal, perhaps Singapore lawmakers could explore this possibility in the near future?

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