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  • 10th Jun 2024

Helping employers transition to flexible working

Lessons from Singapore

From December all employers in Singapore will have to fairly consider staff requests for flexible working arrangements

This is a big step for the country’s companies – a recent survey found that more than half still maintained a traditional, full work-from-office policy. 

Some have already begun to raise concerns, worrying how teams will collaborate with individuals working different hours, or how they can ensure fairness across different roles in a company. Many of these concerns are rooted in real-world constraints – after all, a bus driver cannot work from home and a clinic receptionist has to be present during fixed opening hours. 

But the issue looks very different to Singapore’s workers: one in two say they would leave jobs that required them to be in the office more often. 

The new mandatory Tripartite Guidelines on Flexible Work Arrangements Requests (TG-FWAR) come at an opportune time to align employers’ and workers’ expectations and behaviours. It will also broaden out the perspective that FWAs are just about working from home – showing that there are many other possibilities to suit different workplace and worker needs, such as flexi-time, flexi-place and flexi-load arrangements.

However, implementation science tells us that it takes time to shift behaviour, even with a supportive rules framework. It can prove challenging when guidelines are released but people aren’t able to see how they can be implemented within their specific context. 

But we know that educating and supporting people to make use of guidelines effectively can help this process.  

In this spirit, BIT worked with Singapore’s National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) to develop actionable recommendations for employers to successfully implement FWAs. We understood that it wasn’t enough to tell employers to adhere to the guidelines – we wanted to show them how to implement FWAs well, so that adhering to the new guidelines for handling requests would not be challenging.

Step One: Listen

When introducing any new initiatives, it’s imperative to hear directly from those who are most affected or involved, so our first step was to listen to both employers and employees

We conducted 23 interviews with employees, HR staff, and senior management personnel from five companies within different industries. We supplemented this with the findings from earlier NTUC research: six focus group discussions with 32 female company leaders, and a survey with 2,711 Singaporean employees. 

This was an opportunity for us to catalogue employers and employees’ perceptions of FWAs, and their individual concerns and barriers.

Step Two: Examine behaviours and biases

Next, we examined the behaviours and behavioural biases involved. 

Implementing flexible working involves behavioural change across multiple aspects – encouraging employees to make requests, prompting managers to consider such requests, persuading companies to change work processes and many others. 

But employers and employees alike – and even a company’s clients – experience behavioural biases that influence these FWA-related behaviours. 

For example:

  • Managers experience availability bias: The way they perceive and assess their staff often relies on the information that most readily comes to mind. It’s often easier for a manager to call to mind a staff member who is visibly staying late at the office than one who is quietly working at home. This may make managers hesitant to approve flexible working requests and employees concerned that they won’t be judged fairly if they are on an FWA, especially during performance appraisals.
  • Employees experience pluralistic ignorance: Staff can misjudge the social norms within their workplace, and may mistakenly believe that they’ll be negatively perceived if they take up an FWA – even if their managers and colleagues are actually supportive. This can make them hesitant to put in flexible working requests.
  • Clients experience status quo bias: Companies may find that some clients prefer to persist with the traditional work arrangements they are familiar with, such as preferring face time with a service provider or designating fixed timings for delivery of work. When this happens, particularly if such expectations are embedded in contracts, it can be difficult for companies to implement FWAs.

Identifying the relevant behaviours and the biases affecting each stakeholder helped us to better understand each party’s experiences on the ground, and the behavioural barriers to implementing flexible working.

Step Three: Develop actionable recommendations

Finally, armed with this understanding, we developed actionable recommendations to address the behavioural barriers companies faced, based on both behavioural science and the strategies used by companies that have already successfully implemented FWAs. 

  • Companies should review key operational needs and job outcomes. This includes determining the kinds of flexibility that are feasible, as different roles will have different operational needs. Companies could also redesign jobs to ensure that they can be completed by flexible workers, such as by cross-training employees to be able to cover different roles.
  • It is also important to prioritise good management and communication. This includes communicating FWA policies and practices clearly and fairly, such as through an official policy. Supervisors also need to be equipped with the skills to manage flexible employees, adopting an outcome-based and people-centred approach. 
  • Finally, companies should adjust workflows and processes through new technology and seeking advice. When workflows and processes are able to accommodate flexible work (e.g. digital scheduling systems to manage staff deployment), this reduces the restrictions that managers and employees can face.

The TG-FWAR is a step in the right direction, signalling the prioritisation of flexible working within Singapore’s workforce. 

Nonetheless, companies face genuine challenges and constraints in implementing the changes and we need to be grounded in reality by listening to them, examining the root of the issue and the behaviours involved, and providing practical and realistic advice.

Companies do not need just guidelines, but also guidance.