From Singapore to Malaysia, in Asia’s work-from-home tug of war, have Gen Z got the upper hand?

Much of the change stemmed from pandemic-era remote-working practices that forced employers across Asia to become more flexible. Adaptable and forward-thinking companies embraced this new paradigm, meeting workers halfway and ushering in a dramatic cultural shift in employment.

Others kicked back against this new way of working, corralling employees back into offices and onto old schedules. Ong knows he doesn’t want to be among them.

“I definitely feel happier not having to adhere to traditional corporate arrangements,” he told This Week in Asia from his current base in South Korea.

“The time I’ve saved on travelling is around two hours a day … close to 20 days [a year], which can be used for your own personal activities like going to the gym.”

Freed from the constraints of office life, Ong spends about one-third of the year jet-setting to different countries – sightseeing or exploring by day and working by night.

It’s a balancing act that requires immense self-discipline, but Ong says it’s one he’s more than willing to strike in the name of discovery and greater control over his time.

“There are days where I definitely feel burnt out … but overall, I feel happy.”

Working from a beach in Bali will seem less of an impossible dream for hundreds of thousands of Singaporeans from December, when new flexitime guidelines kick in. Photo: Shutterstock

Working from a beach in Bali or a coffee shop in Vietnam will seem less of an impossible dream for hundreds of thousands of people in Singapore from December, when new guidelines allowing employees to request more flexible work arrangements come into effect.

The so-called Tripartite Guidelines on Fair Employment Practice require companies to establish procedures for employees to formally request a change in working hours, work location or the number of days that they work each week. And while there are grounds given for rejection, such as a significant increase in cost or worsening of productivity, company culture isn’t among them.

Employers in the city state are already grumbling about potential problems – despite the guidelines not being legally binding.

“I am concerned whether Singapore employers and workers alike are truly ready for such a flexi-work arrangement,” said one Singapore-based business owner, who declined to be named, raising concerns about being unable to prevent staff “slacking off” during office hours.

Commuters take the Woodlands Causeway to Singapore from Malaysia’s Johor state. Will Malaysians be more willing than Singaporeans to forgo flexible working hours? Photo: Reuters

Companies could even start tapping deeper into Malaysia’s labour pool as they seek out workers willing to forgo flexible working hours – provided that Singapore’s employment law permits it.

“Some may be hesitant especially if these arrangements are either not meeting their business outcomes or they find employees abusing these arrangements,” said Sherwin Ignatius Chia, a human resources lecturer at the Singapore University of Social Sciences.

“Another concern is also whether these arrangements cause more perceptions of unfairness due to the nature of certain jobs within the company that do not allow flexible work arrangements.”

The deeper issue is a lack of trust in employees – especially at smaller businesses with tight margins, according to the founder and CEO of human resources advisory services firm Carmen Wee & Associates.

“They don’t really trust the employees, they think that employees will be skiving off if they are not present or seen to be working in the office,” Wee said.

“Human capital is seen as a cost rather than an investment. Fundamentally, this is an issue of trust.”

Culture clash?

The pandemic banished the long-held belief, dating back to the industrial revolution, that productivity is at its highest when workers are on-site for fixed hours.

Singapore, once an outpost of Asia’s endless-hours work culture, is choosing to embrace rather than resist the change.

“It’s more important for us to focus on enabling and equipping workplaces and employers, as well as workers, so that flexible work arrangements can be implemented in a sustainable way,” said Gan Siow Huang, Singapore’s minister of state for manpower.

Requiring companies to accept flexitime requests will ensure that they remain “competitive” when hiring, said Gan, who is also one of the three co-chairs of the tripartite working group behind the guidelines.

“By and large, I believe, employers in Singapore will know what to do. They will want to be good employers … for the interests of the business.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, most workers in the city state say they’re on board with greater flexibility – even if their bosses aren’t as enthusiastic.

A recent survey of workers in the city state found that more than half of respondents would quit their jobs if they lost work-from-home privileges. Gen Z respondents were the most likely to feel this way, according to the survey of around 760 Singapore workers conducted late last year by human resources company Randstad.

The Petronas Twin Towers and skyline of Kuala Lumpur. Malaysia’s laws already permit employees to apply for flexible working arrangements, but critics say most Malaysians don’t how to exercise their rights. Photo: Bloomberg

Inflexible work arrangements and a poor work-life balance were among the top deal-breakers cited by Southeast Asian jobseekers in last year’s The Future of Recruitment report from JobStreet, a subsidiary of regional online employment marketplace Seek Asia.

Embracing a new work culture may prove more of a challenge for smaller businesses who face higher operating costs, but the flexitime moves by Singapore – widely seen as a regional bellwether for policymaking – have already made waves in other parts of Asia.

Malaysian Human Resources Minister Steven Sim responded to Singapore’s announcement with a post on X pointing out that Malaysia’s Labour Act already permits employees to apply for flexible working arrangements to modify their “hours of work, days of work or place of work”.

But such laws may not do much good when most Malaysians “hardly know about their labour rights, let alone how to exercise them”, in the words of one X user replying to Sim’s post.

Experts say employers will find it a challenge to change their ways in much of corporate Asia, where rigid work hours and inflexible workplace cultures have been the norm for decades.

Evening commuters cross at an intersection in Tokyo. Japan is infamous for its strict work culture, office hierarchies and long working hours. Photo: Bloomberg

In Japan, infamous for its strict work culture, office hierarchies and long hours, the pandemic played a role in shifting perspectives, with more young workers looking for a better work-life-balance.

“It was very inflexible in that the work had to take place at the office and long hours were standard,” said Hiroshi Ono, a professor of human resources management at Hitotsubashi University in Tokyo.

“People worked long hours as a gesture to illustrate that they are working hard,” he said. “I see the pandemic as a blessing in disguise in some ways … now that the pandemic is over, a lot of people don’t want to return to that way of working. And employers have realised they can be more flexible too.”

A recent survey conducted by Japan’s interior ministry found an uptick in young Japanese opting to work part-time and prioritising flexibility to allow them to pursue their interests outside work.

Workers are becoming a bit more demanding than they were in the past … and that’s not necessarily a bad thing
Hiroshi Ono, human resources professor in Tokyo

Last year, around 730,000 Japanese workers aged 25-34 opted for “non-regular” employment – an umbrella term for part-time or agency work, temporary employment and on-call jobs – an increase of 140,000 over the past 10 years.

“Workers are becoming a bit more demanding than they were in the past … and that’s not necessarily a bad thing,” Ono said. “The old way was that you join a company and you submit to all the company’s demands … even things like working overtime.”

Another issue facing Japan is the dwindling number of working-age people as society rapidly ages – forcing employers to adopt more flexible conditions if they want to attract and retain employees.

“Young workers especially can be a bit more choosy about which companies they want to join,” Ono said.

Still, an increasing number of Japanese have been heading back to the office with the end of pandemic-era teleworking practices, he said, citing data from the Nomura Research Institute.

A survey by the economic research think tank found that in May 2020, at the height of the pandemic, 39.3 per cent of Japanese employees had the option of working remotely. But by December of that year, the percentage had dropped below 30 per cent – and it has been trending downwards ever since.

The advantages of flexiwork have been more obvious to employers elsewhere, who see it as an opportunity to access a broader pool of highly skilled personnel.

“Flexible work arrangements have allowed us to expand our talent pool by attracting candidates with specialised skills who prefer remote or flexible work options,” said Paul Thomas, chief human resources officer for Asia at online employment marketplace Seek.

“This flexibility has allowed us to reach and engage with talent who might have otherwise been inaccessible due to geographical constraints or specific work preferences.”

And it’s not just about attracting talent, either. Workers who feel like their employer is responding to their needs are much more likely to go the extra mile, experts say.

“Companies who embrace flexible work models will not only stand to increase their attractiveness as an employer, but can also expect to benefit from increased employee productivity and engagement,” said Paul MacAndrew, Asia-Pacific regional senior vice-president at workspace provider IWG.

Staff attend to babies at a confinement centre in Singapore. Much of Asia is contending with dwindling birth rates. Photo: Bloomberg

Paying for the past

From Japan to South Korea, which consistently has the world’s lowest fertility rate, much of Asia is contending with a dwindling number of births each year. A lack of work-life balance, particularly among women, is thought to be partly to blame.

In South Korea, “two-thirds of women in their 30s participate in the labour market”, according to Park Yoon-soo, an economics professor at Sookmyung Women’s University in Seoul.

“I believe that it is impossible to overcome the problem of low birth rates without a flexible work environment that mitigates the disadvantages women face,” she said, citing the failure of society and cultural norms to evolve in lockstep with the country’s rapid economic growth of recent decades.

Heavy traffic, extreme weather and pollution are among the other factors driving employees to demand increased flexibility in their working arrangements – especially in Southeast Asia, where commutes through traffic-snarled cities can take multiple hours and temperatures have soared to record highs in recent months.

Heavy traffic in Pasay city, Metro Manila. The Philippine capital has some of the worst traffic congestion in the world. Photo: EPA-EFE

In the Philippines, lawmaker Joel Villanueva in March called for the country’s private sector to adopt flexible working practises to ease congestion in major cities like Manila.

“Companies and employees should be allowed to arrange for flexible work arrangements instead of having employees report physically in the office every day and losing working hours due to traffic,” he said in a statement.

Flexible working models such as hybrid work are reshaping cities across Asia, reducing employees’ commutes while offering a comfortable work environment away from home.

“Many employees prefer to come into a well air-conditioned office … their homes are getting too hot to comfortably work from,” said Michael McCullough, co-founder of KMC solutions, a company providing flexible working spaces in Manila.

A co-working space run by KMC Solutions in Makati, Metro Manila. Co-working spaces provide a place for employees from different companies to work closer to home. Photo: Handout

Demand for flexible office spaces co-working – where employees from different companies share a rented space – “is at an all time high”, he said, with occupancy rates as high as 85 per cent.

But for some, the promised land of flexiwork still seems a distant dream.

Surya Pranata, 29-year-old programmer in Indonesia’s traffic-clogged capital of Jakarta, found he could spend much more time with his family when his company switched to a hybrid work policy amid the pandemic.

“I would only have to go to the office one or two times a week, and that saved a lot of time and money in petrol and all the time I used to spend sitting in traffic … I could spend that [time] with my family,” he said.

“But now that has been reduced to one day a week, and I have a bad feeling that we might all be back to the office every day soon.”

Tight control over employees may paradoxically be counterproductive
Tan Ern Ser, National University of Singapore sociologist

Employees who have to care for both their children and elderly relatives – members of the so-called Sandwich Generation – can also benefit greatly from more flexible work arrangements.

“In Singapore, everyone multitasks,” said Winthrop Wong, co-founder of Singapore e-pharmacy Glovida-Rx, which introduced flexible working amid the pandemic.

“I believe everyone has a spirit of excellence in general, wanting to do their best at work for their employer, and at home for their loved ones. By enabling our employees to carry out their dual roles, they can make a very valuable contribution to the workforce and to society.”

That’s certainly the case for Bhavik Vashi, Asia-Pacific and Middle East managing director for equity management platform Carta in Singapore, who has found that more flexible hours and remote working have transformed his personal life.



How companies can use staff benefits to win the ‘war for talent’

How companies can use staff benefits to win the ‘war for talent’

He can now cook for his 3-year-old son, help out more around the home and look forward to welcoming his second child into the world without having to dash off to the office all the time.

“The ability to work from home – but also the flexibility for the start to finish time every day – has allowed me to be present as a father,” he said. “I like to get my son ready for school and have breakfast with him so that I have that connection.”

Despite Singapore’s efforts to promote a healthier work-life balance with its new flexitime guidelines, some say the lack of legal enforcement remains an issue.

It will take “more than just publishing the guidelines” for companies to embrace flexible work arrangements, said Sugidha Nithi, director of advocacy at gender equality advocacy group Aware, in a letter to national broadsheet The Straits Times.

“The only real and quick way to normalise them is to legislate them.”

Academics expect companies to follow suit with rivals who implement flexible working practices, if these result in improved employee satisfaction and productivity. Photo: Shutterstock

Ada Wong, an associate professor of marketing at the Singapore University of Social Sciences, said the government could set clear expectations for compliance with the guidelines by issuing warnings to promote change.

“Over time, as more businesses observe the benefits – such as improved employee satisfaction and productivity – from peers who have implemented flexible working arrangements effectively, even resistant employers might be persuaded to reconsider their stance,” she said.

Since introducing flexible work arrangements over a decade ago, global telecommunications company Telstra International has seen an increase in employee engagement and performance, according to its South Asia Managing Director Geraldine Kor.

“We recognise that true agility requires more than just providing remote working essentials like laptops and other peripherals, video conferencing software and collaboration platforms. It also requires a shift in mindset and organisational culture,” she said.

But for such arrangements to work, a “climate of trust” must first exist between employers and employees, said Tan Ern Ser, a sociologist at the National University of Singapore.

“Employers would need to create a climate of trust, set clear goals and expectations, and be able to equip and motivate their employees and strengthen a sense of ownership and common purpose,” he said.

“Tight control over employees may paradoxically be counterproductive to the organisation.”

Such organisational dynamics couldn’t be further from the mind of workers like 26-year-old Aqil Lim, however, who says that flexible hours and the ability to work from home have become non-negotiables.

“With a house renovation going on, being able to work from anywhere while still being able to attend to my renovation and siblings have been extremely useful to me,” he said.


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