This article was first published on 2 June 2020 and has been updated with additional reporting.
As Singapore progresses towards Phase 3, companies have to consider any restrictions that are not lifted for the long-term. This is because Health Minister Gan Kim Yong stated in parliament that “we must prepare ourselves for a Phase Three that could last for a prolonged period – potentially a year or more.”
Essentially, Phase 3 will be the new working norm until COVID-19 is under control globally and/or a vaccine is found.
For businesses, rethinking how workspaces should be like when everyone returns to the office is necessary. Or employers may also be considering if offices are needed at all, especially if working-from-home has been productive in the past months.
With phase 3 expected to be announced before the end of the year, employers need to start envisioning the new norm for their businesses. Here are some workplace trends are already discernible after the work-from-home experimented that started in April.
#1 Telecommuting Will Become A Norm
The pandemic has forced many businesses to take that leap into remote working. Companies may have had their reservations about telecommuting before, but now there’s no longer a choice.
Even as circuit breaker measures are gradually lifted, employees whose job scopes allow them to work from home are required to be able to continue working from home for “at least half their working time”.
It may not even be that farfetched to think that phase 3 will continue with some of these requirements, and in the longer-term businesses may see the value of permanently implementing work-from-home policies in some form or for a group of employees.
The experiment that forced virtually all companies to adopt remote working has shown that work can be done away from the office. Many companies may also emerge from this crisis seeing remote work as a part of their operational model.
#2 The End For Open Plan Offices
Open floor plans may be a popular arrangement, but its incompatibility with social distancing guidelines will pose a challenge as employees return to the office. A call centre in South Korea had a COVID-19 outbreak due to its crowded office settings, where 43.5% of workers on one floor tested positive for the virus. It suggests how such workspaces can be risky and potentially a source of further transmission.
In Singapore, workplaces have to adhere to safe management measures stipulated by the Ministry of Manpower. That includes a 1-metre spacing between people at all times, marked out by either visual indicators or physical means such as high barriers between workstations or relocation of workstations.
Currently, no more than half your workforce, who are able to work from home, should be in the workplace at the same time. This is to encourage social distancing and split employees into a minimum of 2 teams. Companies are also required to stagger starting hours and allow flexible workplace hours to limit employees travelling into office at peak hours during the day.
Common spaces such as canteens, pantries, or water coolers must not have employees socialising or congregating. To reduce transmission in the workplace, these common spaces might remain shut for the time being, or need to be re-configured.
With Phase 3, some of these restrictions may continue, requiring a rethink about your office layout.
#3 Adjustments To Employee Salary
The National Wage Council (NWC) has encouraged employers to adopt a Flexible Wage System – paying a base salary, a monthly variable component, an annual variable component and an annual bonus.
This should mean companies pay employees a better wage during good years, and, more importantly, are able to rapidly scale back salaries during an economic crash. This will also put companies in a better position to retain more employees in a downturn.
Another trend in this area could be the use of freelancers to supplement your company’s manpower. With the uptick in number and quality of freelancers over the years, companies may also be more open to access freelancers for cost efficiency. By outsourcing projects to a freelancer instead of filling a full-time position, companies can stay similarly nimble and taper costs rapidly during a downturn.
Companies may also be more open to the idea of working with remote freelancers than before, given that the pandemic has forced us all to work from home for a substantial amount of time.
#4 Reshaping Employee Perks
With the adoption of remote work, and the need for safe distancing measures in the workplace, some celebrated employee perks seem no longer relevant, such as a large pantry, catered food or transportation allowance.
Some employees at MNCs enjoyed free gourmet food and gym classes at the office, but have been told they are not allowed to expense such costs when working from home.
The shift in workplace dynamics might mean a need for more practical necessities, such as stipends for home office equipment, household utility or meal delivery expenses.
What Will Happen To The Ecosystems Built Around Office Work?
As companies stick to remote working arrangements, we can only wonder what will be of our business districts and commercial areas that are reliant on the foot traffic of office workers. Restaurants and retail stores in the neighbourhood depend on workers for their survival, who pour in every day, be it grabbing lunch, a coffee run, or an afterwork tipple.
Rookery, a casual dining restaurant offering Western food, has three outlets in the CDB area. Revenue is down by 85%, and the owner has decided to close its Capital Tower branch when its lease runs out next month. Downtown cocktail bar, Jekyll & Hyde, has also had to call it quits after sales plunged as much as 70% during the Circuit Breaker period. Many more have followed suit.
Without the throngs of office workers, it might impair the ecosystems that rely on such traffic, so much so that when business operations fully resume, we might not see the same business district again.
(Additional reporting by Dinesh Dayani)
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