September 16, 2021

Navigating the brave new world of hybrid work in Singapore

This article was first published in The Straits Times.

This week's spike in Covid-19 cases across Singapore is another setback for companies trying to get their employees to return to the office. While social distancing measures will eventually disappear, questions about the future of office life are here to stay.

While bosses say they want their people back face-to-face, employees want more flexibility deciding where they work, and this is leading to more businesses taking a middle path commonly called hybrid work. But this approach can be harder than bringing people back to the office or having them work fully remote.

Welcome to the complicated world of hybrid work.

Getting hybrid right will be especially important in Singapore because of the tight labour market and growing war for talent. A recent EY survey across Southeast Asia found that only 15 percent of respondents would prefer to return to the office full time and a massive 60 per cent said they would quit their jobs if not provided post-pandemic flexibility. Companies that get their hybrid model wrong will quickly pay the price when dissatisfied employees leave for better working environments.

Change in decision making needed

Hybrid work is challenging because there is no one-size-fits-all answer. Even within organisations where different business units have diverse requirements, one group may need to work from an office while others do not. This often leads to “us-vs-them” silos that can quickly become problematic.

Partial returns to the office can lead to favouritism with office workers getting noticed and promoted faster than their work-from-home counterparts. Statistics point to women staying at home more frequently to help with family matters and this may amplify pre-existing gender imbalance across the workforce. Hybrid, in other words, can lead to unwanted consequences.

What to do? Apple’s recent attempt to mandate workers return on three specific days per week - a common hybrid approach - fell flat, leading to an embarrassing public relations storm. This decision came from top executives and left employees feeling unheard, unappreciated, and untrusted. The company has delayed their decision on returning to the office until 2022.

When it comes to hybrid work, businesses both large and small in Singapore should proceed, but with caution. Apple’s experience teaches that decision making approaches may need to change when employees are given more autonomy.

Working remotely tends to flatten workplace hierarchies and returning to office attempts to re-establish those traditional power structures. Apple’s employees pushed back on a top-down decision that most likely would have been acceptable before the pandemic.

Creating a new balance

A hybrid approach requires a shift in decision making that acknowledges this change in power dynamics. Deciding when to go back to the office may be best made at the team level rather than the boardroom. This may not be the way things have been done in the past and that is exactly the point.

Hybrid work is about creating a new balance between collective organisational goals and individual choice. To add to this challenge, not only does each business need to find and maintain this balance, over time, the answer may evolve. This means conducting ongoing re-assessments of working norms.

Leadership’s new roles

Leaders will need to navigate this power shift. It does not necessarily mean losing control, but it does mean crafting and managing a more distributed decision-making process. Skills here include practising empathy (the most important and difficult for many), deploying enhanced communication, and embracing organisational experimentation.

One structure gaining popularity is to allow teams to choose their own mix of office and remote work. EY’s survey found employees wanted to work remotely two to three days per week, which is similar to Apple’s failed mandate. In Apple’s case, the problem wasn’t the answer but how they came up with the answer. The lesson is that distributed teams expect distributed decision making.

One point that both executives and employees seem to agree on is having country or regional multi-day events that bring everyone together several times each year. Expect events like these to become more common once travel restrictions get lifted.

Mid-Level managers priorities will shift

Additional responsibility will also fall on mid-level leaders who will need to rewrite the rules and norms for their own teams while managing this in a partially remote setting. Helping to manage, and ideally prevent, employee burnout and building inclusive working cultures should become priorities. Coaching employees on ideas to optimise their time will also be critical. Recent studies have found employees working up to 30 per cent more when remote with little-to-no productivity gains. For example, virtual meetings are easier than ever to attend, but it does not mean they are an effective use of time. There are opportunities for improvement here.

Online collaboration tools combined with new norms on how teammates communicate are helping drive productivity. The mid-level leaders who step up to these challenges will find they have happier and healthier teams.

Finally, individual contributors will need to find a stronger voice and learn how to handle problem solving on their own. One bit of advice is for employees to think more like entrepreneurs when it comes to managing their own hybrid work situation. No longer can an employee wait for someone else to solve home office problems, for example. The IT department in the office may be able to fix a printer but that is not how it works at home. Setting up a proper camera and lighting for virtual meetings are other examples of taking responsibility. These small upgrades make a difference both internally and with clients. Distributed power means increased individual responsibility.

None of this is easy, especially if it is not the way things have been done in the past. In the EY survey, 70 per cent of respondents said that hybrid work options will increase productivity and creativity, but this will not simply happen on its own. It will take a mindset shift across all levels of organisations to make these new working arrangements successful.

Hybrid work creates difficult growing pains for employees at all levels but when managed well, organisations can thrive with stronger employee engagement and enhanced productivity and profitability.

Kyle D. Hegarty is a business consultant and author based in Singapore. His book The Accidental Business Nomad: A Survival Guide for Working Across a Shrinking Planet won the 2021 Axiom Business Book Award.

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