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Remote Control

Benefits And Challenges Of A Hybrid Work Model
BY ISCA

TAKEAWAYS

  • Remote working has been part of Singapore’s Smart Nation initiative, first announced in 2016.
  • The pandemic was the impetus for organisations to look seriously at remote working.
  • Today, some organisations have embraced hybrid work arrangements, where employees are not required to be physically present at the office every day.
  • Remote working is associated with increased productivity, reduced costs and improved employee satisfaction.

What is your office for today? This might have been a baffling and nonsensical question a decade ago, but it is a pretty reasonable one today. Working professionals are all familiar with the daily grind of struggling to get to the office, putting in a full day of work – interrupted by a feeding frenzy at lunch – and then struggling to get back home. And getting ready to do it all over again the next day. In 2020, the realities of rush hours, the 9-to-5 grind – and even work culture itself – were completely upended by the COVID-19 pandemic. Soon enough, governments, the media, technology firms and experts all began expounding on something called “the future of work”. If nothing else, a certain degree of flexibility seemed inevitable for both employees and employers in the post-pandemic era and, central to this is the concept of remote working.

When the pandemic triggered global lockdowns, the immediate impact on workers was the sudden absence of the office. Virtually every organisation – large, small and everything in between – pivoted to remote working. The speed with which this happened obscured the fact that digital transformation initiatives had been preparing the workforce across a variety of firms and industries since at least 2016 for remote working. Remote working, also known as telecommuting or working from home (WFH, as it came to be called during the season of lockdowns), had become increasingly popular in Singapore since the mid-2010s. This was driven by advances in technology, changing work cultures and the need for greater flexibility in the workplace. One key factor in this development was the government’s efforts to promote telecommuting as part of its Smart Nation initiative.

In Singapore, the official story on remote working began in 2016, when the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) launched the WFH programme which encouraged employers to allow their employees to work from home at least one day a week. The programme was intended to reduce traffic congestion and improve work-life balance for employees. The pandemic made this initiative look positively prescient, but it simply recognises the fact that a lot of work can be done outside the confines of the office. This, more than the pandemic, reflects the reason that remote working remains popular with the workforce at large. The pandemic, in this sense, was merely an accelerator of something that was already on the cards.

CONSEQUENCES, BOTH VIRTUAL AND OTHERWISE

The concept of remote working has also become intertwined with virtual reality ideas, including some headline-grabbing ones by Microsoft, Meta and Spatially, which paint scenarios of people meeting one another as avatars in an “office” in a virtually constructed world, much like characters in a Massive Multiplayer Online Game. Technology companies thus stepped up during the pandemic to provide business solutions, showing that extended reality (ER) went far beyond gaming and leisure pursuits. “People are more productive working at home than many would have expected. Some people thought that everything was just going to fall apart, and it hasn’t,” said Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Meta, as the impact of new technologies in facilitating the normal productivity of companies everywhere became evident. Of course things have changed, as far as the technology component outlined here goes (this will be addressed later).

With the lockdowns in the rear-view mirror and the global health emergency of COVID-19 now officially over, companies and employees are taking stock of the lessons learned. In the business sector, remote working has been embraced by many companies as a way to increase productivity, reduce costs, and improve employee satisfaction. By leveraging digital tools and platforms, employees (while working from home or another space outside of the office) can collaborate with colleagues, access data and resources, and communicate with clients and customers from anywhere in the world. This has enabled businesses to operate more efficiently and effectively, while also reducing their carbon footprint. All these have been amply demonstrated from 2020 onwards.

In addition, remote working has become an important part of business continuity planning, in anticipation of future challenges that might be similar to a pandemic, but also to a more localised challenge, such as periodic flu outbreaks. The COVID-19 pandemic showed that of the many companies forced to close their offices and shift to remote work, those that had already invested in digital infrastructure and remote work policies were better able to adapt to the changing landscape.

A NEW DESIGN FOR LIFE

On the other hand, for Singapore, the move away from the traditional office work model continues to be part of the country’s Smart Nation initiative, which seeks to leverage technology to improve the quality of life for citizens and businesses. The government has implemented a range of measures to support remote work, including the provision of digital tools and resources to government employees. In other countries, remote working has also been seen as a way to increase access to government services and information, particularly for those who live in remote or underserved areas. By leveraging digital technologies, governments can provide citizens with a range of services and information online, from applying for permits to accessing healthcare.

Of course businesses adapt whatever works, independent of government initiatives, and some have kept what they liked about WFH. “We don’t work 100% from home; we mandate being together in the office twice a week,” said Jaime Lim, Partner at Blauwpark Partners, a family office based in Singapore. “Our full days in the office are for specialised internal meets. We also have team lunches (on those days) that nobody skips. These are all important for coming together as a team. On the other hand, I feel like WFH forces me to structure my meetings and work better … I can structure my work day such that all external meets can take place on specific days, or even one day. I am more disciplined now in how I spend my time (versus prior to the pandemic).”

Flexibility in the work day is not only limited to one sector and, done right, it can allow one to explore other projects. For example, this writer can report that in his primary role as the editor of a watch magazine in Singapore, he has maintained the flexibility advanced during the pandemic and also expanded on it. “As the sole full-time editor at my magazine, I am required to travel extensively, especially once borders opened. I had the idea of working on every stage of production, except printing, remotely. The magazine has always used contributors from all over the world, as well as Singapore, so managing a variety of time zones is nothing new. Furthermore, since cloud-based services allow easy sharing of files, there is absolutely no task that requires me to be at my desk in the office, except to check the proofs from the printer. With the time savings here, I am able to work on other personal projects.”

Overall, this new mode of working is an important part of the digital transformation landscape in Singapore, as it enables businesses and government to operate more efficiently, reduce costs, and improve the quality of life for workers. However, going digital also comes with its own set of challenges which must be addressed, such as cybersecurity risks, social isolation, and the need for effective communication and collaboration.

“The evolution of WFH is also about team welfare because now, people don’t have to check into the office between meets (or just because management or HR expects it). Everybody, from seniors to juniors, appreciates this change,” said Ms Lim, who also agreed that those who need to work with multiple time zones are best served by a hybrid work model.

On that note about the welfare of workers, over 50% of Singapore workers are willing to accept less pay or a lesser work role in favour of better work-life balance, according to a new survey by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS). Younger workers were, however, less willing than their older counterparts to make this trade-off. In addition, younger respondents were less concerned with job security compared to older workers. The IPS survey of 1,010 workers also revealed that pay adequacy, workplace ethics and work conditions were the top three concerns, while recognition, career advancement and task variety were the least important.

Underpinning this was the prospect of transitioning to “true hybrid”, that is, the new balance of in-person and remote work. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, about 90% of organisations have embraced a range of hybrid work models that allow employees to work from off-site locations – which include co-working spaces, some of which may even offer perks such as breakfast buffets, and gym passes – for some or much of the time, as noted in the examples cited earlier in this story. For this arrangement to succeed, organisations must put in place the proper structure and provide support around the activities best done in-person as well as remotely. “We were ahead of the curve when we launched several flexible work arrangements in 2020, including hybrid work and a 100% work-from-home option for six months for employees with caregiving responsibilities or parents with newborns,” said Yan Hong Lee, MD and Head of Group Human Resources, DBS (via McKinsey 2023).

How then can employees prepare themselves for a future of work that may include more flexibility, given that there are probably downsides that have not yet been examined? Related to all of the above, it is perhaps too early to reflect on permanent changes to the work culture, given that we are likely to be assessing the impact of lockdowns and WFH for some years to come.


REDEFINING “REAL”

The use of virtual reality (VR) in the workplace is still a relatively new and emerging phenomenon. However, some surveys and studies have tried to estimate the current and potential use of VR for work purposes. According to a report by Statista, the global market size of VR for enterprise applications was estimated at US$4.26 billion (S$5.7 billion) in 2022, and is projected to grow to US$12.6 billion by 2025. The report also states that VR headsets are expected to be used by 82 million people worldwide for work-related activities by 2025.

Another report by IBM suggests that extended reality (XR), which includes VR and augmented reality (AR), can boost workforce performance and deliver better employee experiences. The report cites a survey of 1,500 executives across 21 industries and 36 countries, which found that 19% of organisations are currently using XR technologies, and another 65% plan to do so in the next two years. The report also identifies some of the benefits and challenges of using XR in the workplace, such as improving collaboration, training, customer service, and innovation. A third report, by Enterprise Apps Today, provides some more statistics on VR usage and impact in various sectors and domains, such as education, healthcare, entertainment, tourism, and gaming. For example, the report claims that VR can reduce the risk of injury at the workplace by 43%, and that 39% of big companies have access to VR for training their workers in a simulated environment.

Therefore, there is some data on people using VR for work, but it may not be very accurate or representative of the actual or potential use cases and outcomes of VR in the workplace. At present, it would appear that “traditional” remote working tools such as video-conferencing software are proving adequate, given that face-to-face meetings are now possible and, in the case of the higher echelons, often preferred. More research and experimentation may be needed to understand the benefits and challenges of VR for work purposes.

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