Going flexi-time can be tricky, say experts

BOSSES are keen to make changes at the workplace to help their staff better manage work and personal demands but introducing such flexi-time arrangements can be tricky, say experts.

A company has to harness technology, build a culture of trust and set up a robust system of assessing workers' performance that does not penalise those on flexi-work, they add.

A recent survey commissioned by The Straits Times and work-life integration advocacy group Employer Alliance showed that some companies could use a tip or two on how to make the system work for them.

The survey conducted by Degree Census Consultancy was detailed in a Straits Times report last Saturday.

It took in responses from 1,000 employees and 500 employers and found that more than 80 per cent of bosses supported initiatives that would help their staff better manage their work and personal or family demands.

But 65 per cent were also concerned about running the business efficiently while addressing their staff's work-life needs.

And 56 per cent added that they would worry about whether employees on a flexi-work arrangement such as teleworking were really getting the job done.

Having a robust appraisal system would help in such cases, noted Ms Tan Wei Leng, the South-east Asia head of marketing at video-conferencing firm Polycom.

Her company trusts staff to work from home and on flexi-work schemes because everyone knows what is expected of them, she said.

"You need to be detailed and transparent about the targets to set your staff so that everyone is on the same page."

Managers set clear targets in talks with staff at the start of the year and then review the situation at the half-year mark.

Staff also have to regularly update their bosses on their work, even if it is through instant messaging and video calls.

Sociologist Paulin Straughan noted that the absence of proper target-setting and performance appraisal is what causes supervisors at many local firms to rely on face time as a proxy for whether an employee is working hard or not.

But having such a structure in place is not enough. Arguably, the more important step is to foster a culture of trust so that employees feel confident about tapping flexi-work and will not worry that their supervisors will mark them down for it.

"Management needs to walk the talk. Some organisations have their middle managers try out the different flexi-work arrangements themselves.

Others encourage their employees across ranks to regularly tap the various options so it becomes the norm within the organisation," said NTUC Women's Development Secretariat director Sylvia Choo.

Employer Alliance chairman Claire Chiang believes another way to make flexi-work a success is for companies to have a "work-family manager".

This could be a person within the human resource division who studies the makeup of the company's staff and figures out what kind of flexibility different groups of staff might need, depending on their stage of life.

Relevant work-family programmes could be developed and ways found to make the workplace a more sensitive environment for employees to better integrate work and family needs.

If hiring a work-family manager is out of the question, the company could embed such practices into existing human resource policies, Ms Chiang added.

For example, job interviews and annual appraisals could include questions about the employee's life circumstances, to find out whether he is undergoing any stress at home.

"For example, if you find out this person is taking care of a wife in depression, you can recommend that he shouldn't travel.

Or this other person has a sick father - you can ask if he wants to have a more flexible schedule."

While these tips could be applied to many firms, there are some companies where flexi-work can be almost impossible to implement.

Take a hospital that has to be operational 24/7.

Teleworking is not an option for most staff and, without a big enough pool of employees, the hospital would not be able to offer flexi-work options such as part-time work or job sharing.

Such firms may have limited options, but there is still much room for improvement for many others here, noted Ms Foo Mee Har, MP for West Coast GRC and an advocate for work-life integration.

"It's true that not all jobs can be made flexible, but there are so many more jobs in Singapore that could be done on flexi arrangements which are not. We are very far from the optimal level," she added.

NTUC holds flexi-work workshops for companies keen to learn more about flexi-work, Ms Choo noted.

These free, four-hour workshops are being held each month until the end of the year.

Over 80 per cent Bosses who support initiatives that would help their staff better manage their work and personal or family demands 65 per cent.

Those who are concerned about running the business efficiently while addressing their staff's work-life needs 56 per cent Those who worry about whether employees on a flexi-work arrangement are really getting the job done.

Supervisor support helped exec make switch to flexi-work

OCBC Bank began offering flexible work arrangements to its staff in 2004 but an employee - from the human resource division, no less - admits that it took some courage to go "flexi".

Ms Sheila Sim, the vice-president of group human resources, said that when she began thinking about switching to a flexi-work schedule, she had concerns about how the move might affect her career and whether it would have an impact on her colleagues' workload.

The support she received from her immediate supervisors, however, gave her the confidence to proceed.

"I shared my concerns with my supervisor and managers and they were very understanding.

They not only supported my idea but also helped me lay out all my options and work out the best flexi-work arrangement for me," she added.

Ms Sim has been working three full days and two half-days a week since March last year so she can spend more time with her children, aged 11 and 12.

"My daughter is undergoing the PSLE this year so I wanted to support her through this stressful period.

I will likely remain on this flexi schedule until the end of next year as my son will be taking the PSLE next year - I want to be there for him, too."

The flexi-work schedule, far from making a dent in her career, has actually made her a more efficient worker as she has a clear sense of her performance targets, she said.

"I know what my responsibilities are and I feel obliged to fulfil them despite being on flexi hours, so in fact it has taught me to better manage my time.

"As long as I know I've done what I need to do, I don't think I'm taking a back seat in my career."



I know what my responsibilities are and I feel obliged to fulfil them despite being on flexi hours, so in fact it has taught me to better manage my time.

- Ms Sheila Sim, vice-president of group human resources at OCBC

This article was first published on July 22, 2014. Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.