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Coronavirus: Will flexible work practice be the new normal?

Above view of mom working on the laptop computer while her daughter reading the e-learning resources on the digital tablet in the workspace at home
(PHOTO: Getty Creative)

By Sam Yam Kai Chi

SINGAPORE — Singapore’s economy is gradually reopening after exiting a two-month-long Circuit Breaker in late June, and employees are gradually returning to the office. Still, the government and many organisations continue to encourage their employees to work from home, if possible, amid the ongoing pandemic.

There is no doubt that such flexible work practices (FWPs) can curb the spread of COVID-19. FWP refers to arrangements including work from home, flexi-time, and compressed work days. Pundits forecast that some organisations are likely to adopt these new practices even after the pandemic. Social media service providers Twitter and Facebook, as well as e-commerce platform Shopify have even adopted a “remote-first” approach, allowing their employees to work from home for the long term.

In a People Continuity Survey conducted by EngageRocket in Singapore between March and June, 92 per cent of the 18,705 respondents were keen to incorporate some semblance of working from home after the circuit breaker period.

It is not difficult to imagine why – these FWPs give employees greater control over their lives, leading to higher levels of job satisfaction. For example, some employees can save time commuting, as well as have a more flexible and comfortable work space at home. Organisations also stand to benefit as these practices tend to increase employee productivity and reduce staff turnover.

But the question is, should employees choose to adopt them? While the short to medium-term benefits are apparent, there is research that indicates doing this long-term may be detrimental to careers.

Perceptions

My research suggests there is a career penalty associated with those who adopt the use of flexible work practices. In three separate studies, I found that supervisors tend to rate such employees as lower performers, even if they remain objective throughout.

In one survey study, employees who had adopted flexible work practice were rated as lower performers, by their direct supervisors, compared to their counterparts who did not. In a follow-up controlled lab experiment, participants rated the performance of a fictitious employer lower when that person is on FWP versus someone who is working from the office, even though the data was exactly the same.

There are at least two explanations for this finding. First, it could be that supervisors may have personal biases against employees who use of FWPs. Second, it could be that supervisors still want to have “face time” with their employees to ensure that they are in fact working.

This can be especially problematic for parents, and especially working mothers, who adopt flexible work practices.

What can be done?

There are steps that employees and their managers can take to avoid such perceptions from hurting performance and evaluation.

  • Focus on outcomes and innovation

With COVID-19, employees more than ever need to demonstrate that they can deliver, regardless of work arrangement. The pandemic has evened the playing field with everyone working from home. Attention will be on who achieves their targets and project goals, as well as the innovative ways they take to get there given the current constraints.

  • Engage as a team

It takes discipline and digital capability to work remotely as an individual contributor as well as a team. Have an open and honest discussion with your colleagues about the individual ways of working and what would work best in delivering outcomes. Be flexible and understanding, both in work and mindset.

  • Be seen and heard

Maintain a regular line of communication with your manager and talk about your accomplishments and challenges. This is especially important if your work is not visible. This is to reassure your management that your projects are on track. For those that are not, you have an open channel of communication to work out a solution together. Also, do not be afraid of sharing your successes with a broader audience, especially if they are against goals set as an organisation.

Sam Yam Kai Chi is an Associate Professor and Dean’s Chair with the Department of Management & Organisation at National University of Singapore Business School. The opinions expressed are those of the writer and do not represent the views and opinions of NUS.