Should you implement a permanent remote work policy for your organisation?
To remote work or not to remote work? That is the question for most businesses as we transition back into ‘normal life’. It’s been about a month since the Singapore government greenlighted a return to workplaces, but it’s hard to say whether it’s led to a drastic change in the way companies worked here.
The news saw mixed reactions in workers: some dreaded or were even fearful of going back to the office, while others welcomed it after enduring a year of isolation or chaos in their crowded family homes. Leaders similarly shared differing views on the issue and many have been vocal about their opinions about the global 'work from home experiment’.
Read more: How to create a remote work policy
Some companies announced that employees can now choose to work from home forever. This includes global firms like Atlassian, Dropbox, Facebook, Reddit, Salesforce, Spotify and Twitter. Of course, the policy only applied to job roles that can be done fully remotely.
Salesforce even declared the 9-5 workday ‘dead’, a view shared by many leaders, though it should be said that implementing a permanent flexi-work policy can support that same declaration without the need to go fully remote.
Are offices a ‘waste of real estate’?
The tech firm’s opinion is something that HSBC’s top rank can agree with. The bank’s CEO told media that being in the office five days a week is “unnecessary”. Having a physical office is a “waste of real estate” as he reflected on how underutilised the space was even pre-COVID, when senior staff used to travel all the time.
Post-COVID, HSBC has scrapped the executive floor, with the CEO giving up his prime ‘corner office’ in London to make way for hotdesking employees. The bank will is planning to turn the offices of the ‘big bosses’ into client meeting rooms and collaborative work spaces.
Over in Asia, Fujitsu has simultaneously introduced a permanent remote work policy for its Singapore-based staffers and announced a an office redesign to support flexible working. Starting this year all employees based in Singapore can spend up to 90% of their time working from home. Their existing office will be transformed into a collaborative space for those who want to go back in.
Offices are key for collaboration and innovation
Then there’s Big Tech honcho Tim Cook with his ‘gut feel’ that physical offices will be a mainstay in our work lives for a long while. He's said that he ‘can’t wait’ to return to the office. Apple has shifted to remote working amidst the pandemic, but he assured the media that the company is still “very much an in-person team”. The CEO is not averse to flexi-work but believes being in a shared workspace is critical for collaboration and innovation because both aren’t “always a planned activity”.
Leaders in the same camp as Cook are advocates for teammates “bumping into each other” in the office to bounce ideas and brainstorm ways to problem solve work issues – something that’s difficult to achieve while working virtually.
Read more: Why remote work isn't for everyone
Remote work is unsustainable
On the other end of the spectrum, there are the naysayers and ‘haters’ of working from home. Sergio Ermotti, UBS’s Group CEO told Bloomberg last year that having the bulk of their organisation work from home was just not sustainable. Ermotti was only comfortable with having about a third of their workforce working remotely on any given day.
Jamie Dimon, JP Morgan’s CEO said that working from home for too long would cause both social and economic damage. Dimon drilled it down to a productivity issue, something the firm’s analysts noticed as well. Consultants told clients that the work-from-home “lifestyle” particularly affected younger staff, “and overall productivity and ‘creative combustion’ has taken a hit”.
At the outset it may seem like the bulk of the haters are in the financial industry, but Netflix boss Reed Hastings has also famously that he simply “don’t see any positives” in remote work. Hastings believes that not being able to get together in person “particularly internationally, is a pure negative”.
No ‘one-size-fits-all’ in remote work
It's clear then that going fully remote might not be for every organisation. The pandemic may have given everyone a chance to experience what it's like to work from home, but it doesn't necessarily signal a immediate shift to becoming an entirely virtual world of work. And if you're considering to make the massive change for your organisation, your leadership team would have to first weigh factors like:
- Feasibility of going fully remote: Key considerations include capabilities for tech support, logistical issues, and whether job roles are suited for remote work
- Company needs and culture: Does going remote align with your values and culture? Can it help sustain a productivity boost in the long term?
- Legal risks: Are employees’ home office setups ‘safe’ and conducive for long-term remote work? Can you still meet all aspects of duty of care to staff? Will it result in legal risks such as discrimination or unfair practices by managers?
Legal risks may not be an immediate consideration for companies after a seemingly smooth transition to going fully remote. But if you’re seriously considering a permanent policy, leading employment lawyer Goh Seow Hui, partner at Bird & Bird said it’s something that needs to be top of mind.
“For example, how do you ensure that the employees’ home is a safe workplace?” she told HRD. “It’s not really feasible for employers to go and conduct an inspection, so, they usually rely on employees to fill out a checklist of how safe their house is. Do they have any hazardous things lying around? Do they have proper table and chairs to work on?”
So, if you do decide to go partially or fully remote, besides stating clear expectations for the employee like their work hours and who to report to, you need to figure out “how we can be mutually accountable to each other”.
It requires a mindset and culture shift
While remote working is something that predates the pandemic and is commonplace in other parts of the world, employers in Singapore have struggled with it in the past. The lawyer said that it may just boil down to culture and societal norms. Hence, local work culture is something that should be considered as well, because you may offer staff to go fully remote but they may be more interested in a flexi-work plan or to head back into the office.
“Without wanting to generalise, I think Singapore companies tend to prefer employees returning to work physically,” she said. “For whatever reason, whether it is accountability or a preference for having a culture where people work together, collaborate and they’re not in silos. The response to remote work can be quite varied across different companies and across different managers.”
She shared that even within her firm there are partners who have completely dispensed with the need to come to the office because the team functions well while working from home. She, on the other hand, personally prefers to go into the office three or four times a week, though she hasn’t imposed that on her team.
As for the notion that companies would rather do away with the high rental costs of office spaces, the lawyer shared personal insights from a pal in real estate. “If you look at real estate trends, most people assume that because of COVID and the rise in work-from-home, employers are starting to give up their office leases because there’s no longer a need for it,” she said.
“But I’ve got a friend in real estate who told me that the demand to invest in corporate real estate remains high. Investors have been choosing to put their money into corporate real estate because of the belief that in the long run, people will still want an office space. Business owners will still want a proper office location, maybe just for the credibility or the way you market your business. So I think in the long run, my sense is physical working might still prevail for most of our industries.”