News @ AsiaOne

Firms try work-from-home system

It offers better work-life balance but there are pitfalls to be avoided. -DL
Tan Chong Yaw

Fri, Mar 22, 2013
Digital Life, The Straits Times

SINGAPORE - Allowing employees to work from home sounds like the mark of a progressive company. Double points if it is a small and medium-sized enterprise (SME) that supports a better work-life balance.

The Infocomm Development Authority (IDA) is now spearheading a pilot programme to encourage companies to let their staff work from home by using infocomm technologies and the nationwide high-speed fibre broadband network.

While working from home can improve work-life balance, it is fraught with pitfalls. Ascentis, a Singapore company that develops customer relationship management systems such as customer loyalty programmes has experienced such pitfalls.

The company stopped offering a work-from-home option in 2008 after trying it for two years because it led to problems in tracking work progress. "As orders increased and we added more staff, we started losing control of work progress. This is especially with staff who lacked the discipline needed for home-based work," said Ascentis chief operating officer Bryan Tan.

But, recently, it decided to review the decision, because more of its staff are starting families. "We will be taking baby steps to reintroduce this flexibility," he said.

The company, which is almost 10 years old and has 45 staff, is trying again in April by allowing two employees to work from home.

This time around, it is better prepared. It has put team leaders in place to supervise work progress.

It is working with SingTel as a partner in the IDA pilot programme for home-based work. It will use the telco's conferencing tools for its two software developers to better work with each other.

SingTel heads the pilot project to help companies use infocomm technology to facilitate working from home. The one-year programme also involves two other SMEs, the retail interior specialist IDV Concepts and the education centre Rainforest e-Learning.

Apart from the IDA-SingTel effort, other companies are also allowing their staff to work from home. One such company is the Web design and development company Tinkerbox Studios. Using a variety of free tools, including GitHub - a collaboration service - WhatsApp and Skype, the staff can share data and communicate.

A critical service is the Basecamp project management tool for which Tinkerbox pays US$99 (S$124) a month. This logs progress on projects and allows the company to track the workflow.

Of the company's eight full-time staff, about a quarter work from home at any one time. They do not require permission to do so, but they must all attend progress meetings at its office in Farrer Park twice a week.

"Staff are free to return home to work there if they wish after the meetings," said partner and project manager Kelvin Tham.

The formula seems to work for the company. Only one employee has quit since it was set up in 2007, said Mr Tham.

Communication is important, to prevent work-from-home staff from being isolated from the rest of the business. Recruitment agency Robert Walters' IT commerce division manager Pri Sandhu said: "Always have open lines of communication with managers and co-workers by keeping them in the loop and maybe checking into the office at least once a week."

At Xmi, the Singapore company known for its X-mini capsule speakers, about a third of its 30-strong team here work occasionally from home.

Xmi chief executive Ryan Lee said: "Building a responsible culture with staff is important... We put in the effort to create a culture that is conducive for this arrangement where we all know that we are responsible for our work no matter where we are."

The staff may spend a couple of days at home so that they can hold video conferences with people in different time zones or to concentrate on a project. The team uses a private Facebook group to let the rest know if they are working from home.

The networking company Cisco with 1,100 staff here is far from being an SME, but it has a useful perspective on setting clear targets for staff, for work flexibility to work.

"It's not about where you do your work but how our employees are clear about the results and work they need to generate. They then manage themselves," said its managing director for Singapore and Brunei, MrJoshua Soh.

All Cisco staff here can work from home or on the move. At its office at Changi Business Park Avenue 1, there are workplaces and rooms for working alone, making private calls and conducting meetings but "no one has a fixed workplace, including me", said Mr Soh.

"This flexibility removed the angst and frustration in commuting to work. Our staff can better manage the demands of their family," he said.

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