From tech to jobs, the future of work needs thought

More businesses seek to permanently implement remote working, but a total rethink of contemporary work is easier said than done.

REMOTE working has largely been viewed as a boon for employees, but it could also yield advantages for employers.

These range from seeing a spike in employee productivity, to office rationalisation and tapping into new pools of talent, some firms that are considering making permanent changes to the workplace have said.

Still, a total rethink is easier said than done, with aspects such as employee management and technology adoption needing further thought, the firms noted.

The Business Times speaks to:

  • Adeline Sim, executive director and chief legal officer, HRnetGroup Limited
  • Ronnie Lee, general manager, Lenovo Singapore
  • Tan Su Ching, general manager, corporate services, Goldbell Group

What are some issues that the current experience has uncovered for your company? Which have been overcome and which still remain?

Adeline: Virtual engagement and management was a challenge. The team in the corporate office is typically on the road, such that the standing joke was that for some of us, our address is an SQ (Singapore Airlines) plane. When all that globetrotting was halted by Covid-19, we still had to continue operating in 13 cities across Asia and engaging with stakeholders in the UK, US and Canada.

So, earlier in the year, we would have 120 people on five-hour Zoom calls as we tried to replicate our usual quarter-end meetings. We quickly learnt that the protocol for virtual meetings needed to be quite different in order to be effective. To that end, we detailed instructions on how to manage calls on the various videoconferencing platforms and restructured the year's calendar of events and programmes.

At the same time, some aspects of our roles still require a physical presence. This has pushed us to hire in-market, as there is no visibility on when we will be able to travel freely again. We also don't want to accept work of inferior quality or feel compelled to jump on a plane despite misgivings.

Ronnie: Despite having policies in place to support work-from-home (WFH) arrangements, we still faced some challenges - we believe many companies face similar issues.

One of the biggest ongoing concerns is over the mental, emotional and physical well-being of our employees. In a recent survey Lenovo did, workers cited "doing more work than in office", "difficulties separating work-life and home-life" and "difficulty collaborating with others" as key challenges.

In Singapore, we've since introduced a number of measures, such as Drop Everything and Run (Dear) Fridays, where employees are encouraged to leave work early at 4pm. This enables employees to enjoy a longer weekend and spend more time with family.

Su Ching: The main challenges that we uncovered revolved around suitability and trust. For instance, how do we help the supervisor decide which roles are suitable for flexible work arrangements, and to what extent? Also, how do we get supervisors to trust that employees will still be as productive and, on the other hand, assure employees that they will continue to be recognised?

Some guidelines we've introduced include a toolkit to help supervisors objectively assess suitability and govern WFH arrangements to prevent unnecessary misunderstanding or disputes between supervisors and employees. We also conduct training where best practices, such as open communication and goal setting, are shared with employees.

But there is no quick way to build trust. It will require regular communication between supervisors and employees on working habits, desired results and performance.

Were there also any unexpected benefits that resulted from the current experience?

Adeline: Many companies in this current situation have realised that they need to hire better for tough times, meaning hire people who are driven, reliable, disciplined, who know their work well, and who are able to size up situations and run with it. Clients have thus come to us to seek such talent out, to build a stronger bench of workers and increase their chances of succeeding in this challenging climate.

Previously, there was a presumption that we needed to be in the office in order to get work done. Now, like everyone else, we are looking at rationalising office space and reducing rental cost.

Finally, remote working has allowed employees to balance work and family life better. There are many parents in our company who are relishing being able to work from home and spend meal times with their children, instead of spending time on the road or on planes.

Ronnie: We think remote working has yielded two main benefits for organisations and employees. First, in a global study that Lenovo did, about three in five employees polled said they felt more productive working from home compared to working in the office. Hence, while the massive shift to remote working took many by surprise, it had turned out more positive than they had expected.

Second, the experience has pushed employees to be more self-reliant in tackling technical or technological issues, which could prove useful as remote working will likely persist. About four in five employees polled in our study agreed that they have somewhat become their own information technology (IT) person, solving technical challenges on their own instead of relying on IT personnel.

Su Ching: Employees' morale and productivity improved as they enjoyed better work-life balance and saved time from not having to commute to work daily. For the business, it sped up digitalisation and automation in multiple workflows.

This experience has also created a paradigm shift when it comes to employment. For instance, those who were initially resistant to remote working have now found that such arrangements are feasible with the help of proper governance and technology. And as we get better at managing remote work performance, we could hire freelance workers or people from different geographies, potentially saving costs.

How open will your company be to a rethink of the workplace eventually? How might the future of work look like for your firm?

Adeline: Covid-19 may have made change even more inevitable and necessary, but it still doesn't make change easy. Recently, someone told me that there were some aunties and uncles working in supermarkets who were leaving their jobs because they were unable to adapt to using mobile time-sheets. When companies rework their processes, stakeholders are affected. We have to be conscious of it and work around it.

For instance, rhythms of meetings must be in place; a conducive space at home to get meetings and work done has to be consciously curated. In the offices, there would be more "Zoom rooms" for when you need stable internet, good lighting and big screens.

It will also be more critical than ever to manage the work culture. People need to work together to tackle a difficult macro environment while being physically apart. There has to be an even greater sense of accountability; co-workers need, more than ever, to be able to trust in the quality of each other's work.

Ronnie: We have an existing culture and policies to encourage remote working. Being at the forefront of technological innovation also helps our employees to stay agile and adapt to the tech requirements and challenges of the new normal.

Employees' safety will still remain a top priority for many companies as they implement safe-distancing measures should employees be allowed to go back to the office.

We will also see organisations implementing creative ways to engage and communicate with employees to ensure that they receive ample guidance and support from management. This remains important to us in ensuring the welfare of our employees are well taken care of, even while separated.

Su Ching: In June, we added a new "flexible working arrangement" to our human resources (HR) policy to encourage employees to work from home when possible; with the exception of our workshop operations and customer-facing frontline roles that require staff to be physically present.

In future, Goldbell may move towards remote work arrangements for most of our support functions and hot-desking when they need to visit the office. Notably, the shift will allow us to engage and tap onto talent that we were previously unable to, either locally or overseas.

But we will need more internal branding and employee engagement initiatives to maintain Goldbell's close-knit, family-like corporate culture.

How can technology help ease businesses into new ways of working?

Ronnie: We see technology continuing to be crucial in four main areas: risk and crisis management, customer experience, employee experience, as well as health and safety.

In managing risks and crises, for instance, businesses will need platforms that help them assess and manage their business continuity planning, crisis management and communication, risk intelligence and supply-chain mapping solutions.

When it comes to employee experience, productivity solutions that enable collaboration, virtual meetings and content sharing - such as Microsoft Teams and OneDrive - have been critical to businesses so far, and will continue to be vital in order to support the workforce's changing needs.

Su Ching: Technology can help in many ways, from increasing productivity through automation to ensuring the safety of our employees by reducing the need to travel both domestically and overseas. It can even boost employee morale by providing them with the flexibility to work at their preferred time and location.

Are there any concerns when it comes to adopting new technology?

Adeline: I can appreciate what technology has to offer, but I'm also very aware that how it is implemented and weaved into work processes is what really matters. Technology is only valuable when it can positively impact business.

Also, technology adoption should not end up creating more work. While certain products can look very attractive, they have to be assessed in the broader context of whether it makes practical sense to implement them. For example, in one of the jurisdictions in which we operate, the authorities still require us to keep hard copies of certain forms. In this case, it wouldn't make sense to use software to generate soft copies of the form, as hard copies still need to be filed.

Cost is also a consideration, as we operate across 13 different markets. What's considered an acceptable cost in one market may be regarded as wildly expensive in another.

Ronnie: Employers and employees tend to be concerned about cybersecurity, such as with the organisation's networks and personal work devices. We've found that one in three employees worry that technology adoption makes them more vulnerable to data breaches and hacking. This concern is warranted, as more than 90 per cent of businesses globally have reported an increase in cyberattacks during the pandemic.

But it can be eased with the right tools, such as Lenovo's end-to-end ThinkShield security platform. Some of the key features in ThinkShield are a built-in ePrivacy screen that protects sensitive data from passers-by and a secure Wi-Fi access point solution that secures the network from suspicious access point behaviours.

In this future of work, how might job scopes and roles be affected?

Adeline: It's become part of everyone's job to be comfortable and willing to adopt new technology. Even chief executive officers (CEOs) are now getting out of the boardroom and into studios to hawk their wares on LiveStream.

Split teams across different jurisdictions will also become more prevalent, as borders and offices could close at a moment's notice. Collaboration across different functions would increase as well.

Ronnie: Given that technology adoption has been key for individuals to mitigate WFH arrangements, there will be a demand for workers who have successfully used tech-enabled productivity and communication tools during this period.

This could also lead to a higher acceptance of candidates who are seeking more flexible work arrangements, which has gained popularity in recent years, given that the concept of work hours and physical offices could be obsolete.

Su Ching: It will demand a better employee management process. In particular, it will prompt supervisors to craft more goal-oriented job scopes and create standard operating procedures so as to regulate and ease governance, and lend transparency to work evaluation.