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Finding Flexible Work: How the workplace is changing

Sitting at an office desk from nine to five (or much later than five, as the case may be) is great if you love what you do, and if an office-centric lifestyle works for you. But what if you’d like something different? KATIE ROBERTS investigates what the brave new world of flexible work looks like, and how can you enter it.

While flexible work schemes are common in many countries, Singapore has been slow to embrace them. The past few years have seen a significant change, though, led primarily by large multinational companies (MNCs) and new government initiatives. Companies like IBM, 3M and Dell now offer flexible work, with employees and organisations reaping the benefits.

Pooja Arora, founder of talent supply business FlexTalent, worked at MNCs P&G and Unilever for years. It was there that she experienced the advantages of flexi-work at first hand. At P&G, employees were encouraged to work from home one day a week, while at Unilever flexible work was an often-utilised benefit.

Woman working on a laptop
Flexi-work allows organisations to manage change through innovation and creativity

According to Pooja, multinationals from Australia, Europe and the US have particularly led the way on flexi-work. “In the UK, around 40 percent of work is now carried out under flexible conditions; it is ingrained in the culture of MNCs and pretty much commonplace,” she says. These organisations consider it a win-win situation, too; benefits include an enhanced ability to attract and retain talent, greater employee engagement and productivity, lower staff turnover and less time wasted at work.

A recent employment survey by Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower (MOM) showed that one in two firms now offers at least one kind of formalised flexible work arrangement, and the MOM has moved to encourage more of this; grants of up to $40,000 are available for companies who provide these types of work options.

“The initial trend was to offer flexi-work options to more junior positions,” says Pooja, “but it’s now available at a higher level – for example, to women in mid-level positions after they have children. Why lose well-trained people because you can’t be flexible? Flexi-work allows organisations to manage change through innovation and creativity.”

Pooja started FlexTalent a year ago to match companies seeking people for project work with skilled individuals from her talent database who want flexible working conditions. Many of her customers are parents, though she also taps into entrepreneurs who want to work on the side while they nurture a new business; or people who semi-retire at 45 or 50 having made their money, and only want or need to work part-time or on contract.

How can I make it work for me?

In many countries, the right to work flexibly is enshrined in legislation, and it’s a question of putting up your hand for it, rather than having to tentatively negotiate an individual agreement. Pooja suggests that, if the onus is on you to start the conversation without the backing of government regulations, the first thing is to understand why you want flexi-work, and also to be aware of the possible repercussions, such as a slowing of your career progress and the financial implications of a possible salary drop. The outcomes will depend on where you are in your career, and the policy of your company.

If your company has a flexi-work policy, you should talk through your situation with your HR manager to find out if and how the policy fits your needs. After an honest conversation, it’s the actual implementation that is important, though – for example, would working two half-days be more efficient than one full day?

It’s a tougher sell if your company has no clearly defined policy. One way is to introduce best practices from other companies. “Work with your boss, HR and colleagues to explain how you will deliver the work under flexible conditions. Sometimes it will be accepted and sometimes it won’t; my advice is to start by suggesting small changes.”

What are some of the potential drawbacks?

It’s true that flexi-work is not always as straightforward as it sounds; issues can arise around self-discipline, for example, and there can be resentment among colleagues. Are you the type of person who may be tempted to check and reply to work-related emails outside of your allocated work hours?

Pooja says the key is to know yourself and your habits, and stick to defined work boundaries. “If you find that you are receiving calls and requests for meetings outside your allocated work hours, then you should check in with your supervisor, re-examine each other’s expectations and discuss what’s happening within the organisation,” she says.

Morale can also be a problem if there is a perception among colleagues of favouritism or concerns over your commitment to work. “It boils down to company policy. It’s an easier conversation if flexi-work is available to everyone under a clearly defined policy,” she says. “That’s something companies should be aware of because, in the end, they need to be fair to all employees.”

Handshake at work
Many people enjoy going to a workplace because it gives them a sense of purpose, and also for its social aspects

Looking ahead

Some view work as the glue that holds society together – moreover, many people enjoy going to a workplace because it gives them a sense of purpose, and also for its social aspects. But it’s clear that conventional methods of carrying out work have been changed – by technology, for example, and increasingly by the influence of the millennial generation.

Pooja believes that while traditional employer-employee relationships won’t completely disintegrate, they will continue to change. “People will increasingly plug into a work project on the basis of their skills, then move on to the next thing. I envisage more fluidity in work contracts globally, and ultimately it will be up to the individual to find what suits them within an open, flexible working environment. The demand for flexible work is undoubtedly on the rise.”

The Lingo

For those already in a job, the most common flexi-work options are “part-time”, “flexible hours”, “job sharing”, “flexible location” and “sabbatical”. For those who are not on the staff of a company, there is “project work” or “contract work”, with fixed start and end dates.

Specialist recruiters offering part-time and contract positions:

BY KATIE ROBERTS

This article first appeared in the January 2017 edition of Expat Living. You can purchase a copy or subscribe so you never miss an issue!

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