The Future of Work

Before the Circuit Breaker, anyone who works between 9am and 6pm would probably get up one to two hours earlier to get ready for work. Time is allocated for morning routines like showering, a light breakfast, wearing the appropriate attire, self-grooming, exercising (for some) and then the daily commute to work. For the lucky few, the commute to work would not take too long. However, for the rest, the commute to work might be an ordeal in itself, with crowded trains and/or buses to contend with. On a weekday in 2018, there are on average some 3.5 million commuters taking the MRT and some 4.3 million commuters taking the bus[1].

This usual morning routine will always carry the risk of some of us being a few minutes late for work. Some managers or bosses will overlook employees being late by a few minutes but not everyone gets a break all the time. This, no doubt, will add to the stress of work.

When in the office, there is then the added concern to be productive and for some, to look productive when, for whatever reason, there is not much work to do for the day. The office manager is always watching. When the day ends, the worker must contend again with the rush hour crowd in the evening before getting home, partially or fully exhausted, one hour later or more. For some, the work only continues at home with assignments, projects or reports to finish.

This scene is repeated every weekday, Monday to Friday.

For the employer, the story is not any less difficult. The bottom line determines the survival of the business and for the business owner, it determines his/her livelihood. The bottom line is a function of the productivity of workers, and workers need office space and equipment. They must have a place to sit and do their work, preferably in close proximity with the owner of the business or the manager-in-charge. Therefore, offices must be rented and in land-scarce Singapore, the cost of rental is not cheap anywhere. This inevitably affects the bottom line. Employers must then ensure that workers justify their position. This is done by assessing the worker’s attendance at work and whether they can produce results. It is not good enough to just turn up every day, nor is it good enough to produce good results but have a terrible attendance record. For most employers, the employee must have a good attendance record and be productive at work.

Part of our work culture is the need to be physically present at the workplace. This need incurs costs for both employees and employers, some of which were explored above.

However, the COVID-19 pandemic forced us to relook the way we work, particularly the need to be physically present in the office. Beginning of late March this year, employees were required to work from home or work remotely to stem the spread of the virus. The Circuit Breaker then commenced on 7 April and continued till 1 June 2020.

By the end of the Circuit Breaker, Singapore had effectively undergone a nationwide experiment, testing the feasibility of remote working. If anything, Singapore should not end remote working with the Circuit Breaker. Instead, given today’s technology, how work has continued despite the Circuit Breaker and the scarcity of land in Singapore, it might actually be long overdue for Singapore to adopt remote working as a new work culture.

Today’s technology allows many of the administrative work of businesses and office processes to be done remotely. With cloud computing technology, employees and team members can share information and work progress, as well as access the company’s information and network anywhere in the world.

For one, it is already commonplace that office processes such as applications for leave or applications for office facilities like booking of meeting spaces are done through forms – whether online or paper-based. It is not a major leap for such processes to be digitised and for the approval processes involved to be done through an online platform. Take for instance the management of human resources. Employee profile and records can now be safely stored in a cloud database. Human resource management and processes can also be done online. In many firms today, leave applications are done online. Even job applications are done online. When considering other office processes, it is likely that many of these processes can be digitised and done online without the need for administrative officers to be in the office physically to service the employees.

For work that requires team meetings or meetings with clients, video conferencing technology like Zoom, Microsoft Teams and BlueJeans allows for communications without the need for a physical meeting. Cloud databases also allow collaboration without needing team members to be present at the same location.

Even if some types of work require physical meetings to optimise collaboration, there is little reason for office spaces to be rented or built permanently by firms for such work to be done. Such meeting spaces can be rented on a short-term basis to suit the need for that particular project. Firm’s representatives can also meet with clients in more intimate settings at times suitable for one another without the need to be confined to office hours per se. Such meetings can be done over coffee or meals and work can resume remotely thereafter.

Ultimately, with today’s technology, an employee’s productivity need not be measured by attendance record and physical presence but by the actual output each employee can produce in the work they are entrusted with. All it takes for an employee to be effective is an active internet connection and the ability to be available when they are needed. With today’s technology, a lot of office processes can be done by personnel working remotely. Likewise, project-based businesses such as web-designing, some legal work, consultancy and advisory services can be done remotely.

That being said, how should the future of work post-Circuit Breaker look like given the nation’s experience with remote working?

For one, there will definitely be fewer spaces in Singapore designated for offices. Instead, work spaces available in the market will cater to short-term rents where firms can rent on a project or as-and-when-needed basis.

Firms will also find it cheaper to have the majority of its workforce working remotely as opposed to having a substantial part of its operating costs going to the cost of renting spaces to run and operate its business. Already the costs of adopting cloud computing technology and signing up for an account with telecommunication technologies like Zoom are becoming affordable. Eventually, the costs of adopting technology and processes to allow for effective remote working will be cheaper than renting office spaces.

With remote working, firms will need to rethink whether they will require as many employees as they do before adopting remote working. By adopting cloud computing technology and digitising work processes, some jobs will no doubt be rendered obsolete and some jobs may not really require some employees to be on-call or on-standby all the time. A possible employment model firms can adopt is flexible work arrangements for workers such that employees are allowed to take up more than one job concurrently provided that they are able to meet certain work targets and they do not engage in employment that competes with their employer’s business. Firms can also explore hiring on an as-and-when-needed basis. This will allow firms to streamline their workforce thus saving costs.

In such an environment, employees will enjoy the benefit of greater flexibility in choosing the number of hours they choose to work, and the nature of their employment contract (on a project, permanent or part-time basis). With more flexible working options available in the job market, employees can choose the type of jobs they wish to do and the level of commitment they are willing to undertake to suit their life’s priorities.

Another possibility of adopting remote working is that it frees up employers to explore hiring internationally without incurring the expense of immigrating the worker to Singapore. Likewise, if remote working picks up around the world, Singaporeans can also consider working for a firm situated anywhere around the world without the hassle of emigrating.

Overall, firms will be able to focus their hiring policy on employee productivity instead of conflating the assessment of its workforce productivity with its workforce attendance.

In light of the foregoing, it bears mentioning the potential benefits and relevance remote working as a work culture has for Singapore, a land- and manpower-scarce nation.

With the majority of the workforce working remotely, Singapore will be able to free up more land spaces for more beneficial uses such as housing developments, parks and recreational spaces, or for specialised industries to grow and prosper in Singapore. Also, with remote working, the strain on our public transport system will definitely ease up. There will no longer be that rush hour every morning and evening as employees commute to and from work.

Finally, with remote working comes the possibility of flexible work arrangements. This frees up more time and bandwidth of Singaporean workers to pick up new skills or take up more than one job at the same time. As such, this will unlock the productivity of our manpower as they can do more at the same time.

The Circuit Breaker in Singapore has shown that Singapore is ready to adopt remote working and flexible work arrangements as a work culture. Doing so will only allow the Singapore economy to achieve more than it currently can, unrestricted by the amount of manpower available and the land space we have.

With today’s technology, there is little reason why we cannot be at the forefront of changing the employment landscape and redefining what it means to work and to have a job. ⬛



Muhammad Taufiq Suraidi is an Associate in the Litigation, Arbitration and Dispute Resolution Department in Dentons Rodyk & Davidson LLP. He was formerly a Deputy Public Prosecutor and State Counsel with the Attorney-General’s Chamber, as well as former Justices’ Law Clerk of the Supreme Court of Singapore. He is a member of the Executive Committee of the Centre for Research on Islamic and Malay Affairs (RIMA). He graduated from the Australian National University in 2015 with an LLB degree (First Class Honours) and a Bachelor’s degree in Economics.

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