COVID-19 SPECIAL

Working from home: Productivity, staff engagement likely to be hit

Firms not ready for remote work will struggle to adjust under mandatory situation: Experts

Companies forced to operate remotely during the four-week circuit breaker period will likely experience a fall in productivity, human resource (HR) experts and business association leaders told The Straits Times.

Although studies have shown that flexible work arrangements, such as telecommuting, can raise employee productivity, compulsory work from home will see those firms that have not already digitised struggling to adjust.

Singapore National Employers Federation (Snef) executive director Koh Juan Kiat said some companies may have particular systems that can be accessed only in the office. These could be accounting systems which would mean finance staff cannot work from home.

"The main challenge would be that some employees cannot be assigned work while at home, leading to a loss in productive capacity," he said.

Multinational companies are likely better prepared for this than small and medium-sized enterprises, as they already have the IT infrastructure to communicate with their overseas offices, noted Institute for Human Resource Professionals (IHRP) chief executive Mayank Parekh.

Firms that do not provide essential services or do not operate in key economic sectors have to close their workplaces until May 4. Those that can continue operating remotely are encouraged to do so.

Mr Parekh said most studies on the impact of flexible work arrangements have concluded that working from home leads to better productivity and engagement.

But these studies were carried out during times when working from home was not compulsory.

"In the short term, I expect a negative impact on productivity and engagement levels as both employers and employees adjust," he said.

A study by Stanford University economics professor Nicholas Bloom, carried out in China in 2010 and 2011, found a 13 per cent increase in performance among call centre employees who worked from home for nine months.

However, in an interview with online news site Vox earlier this year, Professor Bloom said that the difference with Covid-19 is that the people in the experiment had volunteered to work from home. They were also able to go to the office one day a week, which he said helps with creativity and being connected to the workplace.

In Singapore, a poll of 350 workers between March 27 and April 2 this year found that a third of them felt more productive since they started working from home.

On the other hand, the survey by experience management firm Qualtrics found that 20 per cent of them felt less productive. It also found that the main difficulties respondents faced working from home were having too many distractions and difficulty focusing, while the two best things were saving time and money by not commuting.

Some experts noted that employee engagement could suffer during this period as well.

Snef's Mr Koh said managers should hold e-meetings regularly to update all employees on the state of the business and check in on them virtually through means such as video-conferencing and messaging.

On a positive note, more help is being made available to firms.

IHRP is curating learning resources and toolkits to better equip HR professionals to manage sustained remote working, while the Singapore Business Federation (SBF) plans to introduce more enterprise capacity-building programmes on business continuity and business resilience.

The Infocomm Media Development Authority and industry association SGTech have curated technology solutions for remote working, e-billing and e-commerce, among others, which are listed on SGTech's website.

Companies that use this period to invest in IT and good human resource practices can reap the benefits when the economy recovers, said the experts.

"As this becomes the 'new normal' mode of operating, workers and businesses will adjust and go back to the same level of productivity or an even higher level of productivity as we save time used for commuting," said Singapore Human Resources Institute president Low Peck Kem.

Mr Koh said there can be many positives, such as companies being compelled to re-examine core operations, use IT more widely and improve communication and engagement with employees.

SBF chief executive Ho Meng Kit said: "It is an opportune time to address age-old misconceptions that working from home will result in lower work output and results."

Mr Philip Kia, managing director of precision engineering solutions provider Ichi Seiki, said that productivity at his firm is affected because even though his engineers can continue servicing clients in essential services, his sales staff cannot meet clients.

"We can contact them through the telephone, but we don't have the face-to-face opportunity to build rapport and a relationship," he said.

Technical support work also has to partly stop, since necessary software is available only in the office.

"Even though it may affect us, we have to absorb it. We have to balance our national responsibility, looking after our company's interests and keeping the staff's families safe," he said.