Twenty-eight days before the first Covid-19 case was confirmed in Finland, a new law called the Working Hours Act came into force. Aiming to provide Finns with a more sustainable work-life balance, the act gave eligible employees the right to work remotely for at least half the work week. The legislation isn’t just progressive, it’s indicative of the importance that Finns assign to flexible working. Even before the pandemic, almost a third of residents occasionally worked from home. This tradition of remote work came in handy during the initial waves of the Covid-19 pandemic, when almost 54% of the Finnish population worked remotely – which was one of the world’s highest proportions.
It seems as if Singaporeans too have gotten used to the flexibility that remote work has awarded them. According to a study done by the ADP Research Institute in 2022, 60% of respondents in Singapore said that they would look for a new job if their employer insisted on a full-time return to on premise work. Another survey found that close to 41% of workers in Singapore would rather continue working remotely than receive a bigger bonus. Given the growing support for remote working arrangements in Singapore, is remote work something that the state should encourage? Should Singapore follow Finland’s lead and guarantee a right to work remotely?
We look at whether remote work is beneficial for employees, employers and society at large to find out.
Are Remote Workers Less Productive?
Studies suggest that output isn’t adversely affected by remote work. One paper written by doctoral students at Harvard found that employees of a large online retailer didn’t complete any less work because they were forced to work remotely. Another paper, which tracked the applications and websites active on the computers of more than 10,000 employees at an Asian technology company concluded that output didn’t change substantially. However, the same paper states that total hours worked increased by 30% as compared to before the pandemic – including an 18% increase in over-time work. In other words, while output remained the same, productivity might have dropped.
An explanation for this could involve communication. Since employees don’t interact as much as they used to, more meetings have to be called to convey information. This is supported by the aforementioned study of the tech company, which concluded that meetings and calls accounted for most of the extra time spent working. Workers are also communicating differently. According to an extensive study by Microsoft, which looked at more than 60,000 of its employees, people are interacting with employees from other teams and divisions less. The impromptu interactions you’ve had at the cafeteria, at the watercooler, or over a coffee are way less likely to happen when you’re staring at a screen. This lack of spontaneous interaction could hinder multidisciplinary solutions to problems and innovation in general.
All of this doesn’t mean that remote working is inherently bad. Companies could be more proactive by ‘forcing collaboration’ through meetings consisting of people from different departments, for example. Hybrid work – or a mix of remote and in-person work – could also make communication more effective and encourage spontaneity.
Is Remote Work Good for Mental Health?
A recent survey of 1,039 people, conducted in collaboration between the Singapore University of Technology and Design and the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC), found that mental health and well-being was one of the biggest challenges faced by young workers in Singapore. There is some evidence to prove that remote work might aid in the betterment of mental health. Research conducted during and after the 2020 Circuit Breaker found that re-opening increased self-reported stress and poorer evening mood levels in individuals. In addition, those enrolled in the study slept earlier and less. In other words, since there is no need to commute, workers might be able to use that time on activities that they find enjoyable.
At the same time, however, it is important to note that remote work might not be a positive experience for everyone. During the pandemic, lower quality interactions with peers and supervisors meant that some experienced professional isolation and loneliness. The feelings of isolation, in turn, contributed to stress and reduced productivity for these individuals. In addition, while remote work allows employees to work in a ‘flexiplace’, research has shown that individuals more effectively adjust to remote work when they have an adequate workspace at home. This means that one’s workspace must have good physical conditions and be free from distraction and noise. Since not all remote workers have the privilege of having a dedicated home office or room designated to work, some workers are more likely to adapt to remote work better than others.
The Unequal Consequences of Remote Work
Any promotion of remote work must consider the unequal consequences of the policy. Firstly, multiple studies conducted in Singapore and abroad show that mothers and caregivers report less satisfaction with remote work. There isn’t a physical separation that keeps their roles as caregivers and employees segregated for them. Some studies also point out that remote work negatively affected women’s productivity more – which might have implications for their prospects.
Younger workers might also be disadvantaged more by remote work. The NTUC commissioned study talked about earlier showed that issues with career opportunities and prospects are already the topmost challenges faced by younger Singaporeans. Since mentoring, guidance, and networking are reduced under remote working – due to reduced communication – these issues might become more prevalent in a completely remote future. In addition, younger workers are less likely to have conducive work environments at home since they are less-well off relative to their more senior colleagues.
So, Should Singaporeans Have the Right to Work Remotely?
Well, the answer isn’t that clear-cut. Any policy decision that is implemented must consider the unequal consequences of remote work and try to equalize outcomes. It also must be conceded that not everyone’s work can be done remotely. In particular, many rank-and-file workers would not be able to enjoy this privilege – meaning that the ‘right’ is only accorded to some in society and not others. Thus, it might be wise to start instead with regulations that protect remote workers. This could be potentially in the form of a right-to-disconnect (as we’ve explored in a previous explainer) or legislation that compels employers to provide their remote workers with equipment of stipulated standards. These might be worthwhile endeavors considering that surveys show that Singaporean employees and employers are already tending towards hybrid work.
The NTUC Youth Taskforce
On May Day this year, NTUC announced the formation of a taskforce that focuses on young workers under the age of 25. At its core, the taskforce aims to tackle some of the issues explored in the article – be it issues with career opportunities or mental well-being. Ng Chee Meng, NTUC’s secretary-general, said that the taskforce hopes to reach out to 10,000 youth workers to “understand their hopes, challenges and needs”. From these consultations, NTUC aims to present concrete proposals within the next year or so.
In 2021, suggestions from a similar NTUC taskforce focusing on issues related to Professional, Manager and Executive (PME) workers were accepted by the government. This resulted in the implementation of a points-based system for Employment Pass applicants in March 2022.
Stay tuned for updates on the NTUC Facebook and Instagram page.