'As important as a high and attractive salary': Why more firms are trying to boost work-life balance
SINGAPORE: Despite officially ending work at 6pm each day, “shutting off” afterwards was often difficult for Mr Karlson Kim, an assistant director of sales at the Royal Plaza on Scotts.
“It's human nature … Basically, we just want to get things done,” said Mr Kim, adding that working from home (WFH) further blurred the boundaries between his work and personal life.
But now, an emoji – a smiley wearing sunglasses – is helping him and other hotel employees switch off more easily. Under a new company policy, workers can use the emoji to tell those who are trying to contact them after hours: “I’m done for the day.”
But for emergencies, employees can send three shocked expression emojis to flag the urgency of the matter and continue to explain more. The hotel said this is part of its efforts to improve work-life balance and “allow employees ample rest while they take their mind off work”.
“What we have heard a lot from our people is, especially with COVID now, with technology … we are always on our iPhones or tablets, so it's so easy to just send an email and expect a reply immediately, even after 9pm in the evening or very early in the morning.
“We said we should try to stop this because people are already very stressed,” said Mr Patrick Fiat, the hotel’s general manager.
Other measures the hotel has rolled out include banning meetings on Fridays, in the name of improving employee well-being and work-life harmony. For its efforts, it won a Work-Life Excellence award from the Tripartite Alliance in August.
More adopting work-life harmony practices
The Royal Plaza on Scotts isn’t the only company making these moves.
More are in the process of setting up policies that support better work-life balance, especially with the sudden shift from office to remote work, said Ms Jaya Dass, recruitment agency Randstad's managing director for Singapore and Malaysia. Some of these policies include WFH stipends for employees to purchase home office equipment and mental health support.
Indeed, changes amid the pandemic have also precipitated a wider societal push towards work-life harmony: Last month, an industry-led coalition focusing on the issue also launched resources for companies to improve their practices.
Ms Dass added that for the first time in a decade, Randstad’s research showed that employees and job seekers now rank "having a good work-life balance as important as a high and attractive salary". This means that employers who can offer good work-life balance will likely be able to attract more talent, she said.
Hybrid work as the "Happy Medium"
While the conventional model of working in an office five days a week may create an “unhealthy culture of presenteeism", a fully remote arrangement cannot replicate the human aspect of work, said Ms Dass. This is why the “happy medium” is flexible or hybrid work, and employees can choose when and where they work instead of a traditional 9-to-5, she said.
One company that has chosen this model is business consultancy firm aAdvantage Consulting Group, which has also won a Work-Life Excellence award from the Tripartite Alliance. Its 30-plus employees can start and end work anytime and are free to work from anywhere, as long as they update their shared calendars. Transparency is crucial in making the flexibility work, said the firm’s director Jacqueline Gwee.
“Everybody puts everything in a calendar, it doesn't matter what – there's nothing to hide for us. If you're going to see a doctor and it takes you a couple of hours, put in the calendar.
“And actually, a lot of our people practise this. (This is so) that there is no doubt ... there is no suspicion,” said Ms Gwee.
This trust is also why the company does not see a need to formalise extra leave entitlements beyond statutory requirements.
“We noted that actually a lot of (employees) don't see the need to apply for leave, if let's say for example, they want to take some time off because it's their child’s birthday … or if they don't really have childcare leave … or they want to take some downtime.”
Promoting work-life harmony this way is also an important part of their retention strategy, said Ms Gwee. The average length of service in aAdvantage Consulting is four to five years, which is above the industry standard, noted the Tripartite Alliance.
"Walk the talk"
Analytics firm SAS has also put in place a hybrid working arrangement, believing it will result "in higher retention and improved productivity", especially during the pandemic, said its human resources director Diana Lee.
To facilitate the transition, it is rolling out workshops and online training for managers – on topics such as coaching and providing appropriate feedback in this new way of working. The company also has an Employee Assistance Programme where staff can seek services such as counselling. Employees also have access to virtual well-being resources ranging from stress management classes to fitness workshops.
Overall, employee satisfaction has been generally positive, Ms Lee said, adding that the firm received three HR-related accolades last year. A key factor in the success of these initiatives is leadership, said Randstad's Ms Dass, noting that leaders must build trust and empathy.
Royal Plaza on Scott’s Mr Fiat echoed that senior management must “walk the talk”. On an employee level, Mr Kim said he was initially hesitant about how the communication policy might work, as he has to deal with external clients.
“But I think communication is the key, so as long as you share (this policy) with your clients, eventually the respect will be there … Of course if there are any urgent matters that need to be seen to, we are still always on hand to help.”
Mindsets on measuring productivity must also change.
“Even if companies offer remote or flexible work, company culture may not actually encourage it – one such indicator is if employees who come into the office are favoured for promotions over the ones who work remotely," said Ms Dass.
How firms can start
For firms that have not implemented such practices, Ms Dass recommended regular surveys and virtual town halls to gauge employee sentiment. HR leaders should also review and update their employee benefits packages, she said.
“Some benefits such as commuting allowances may no longer be of value when the employees are working from home half the time.
“Instead, employers could consider offering new benefits such as mental or physical healthcare or caregiver benefits.”
This article was first published in Channel NewsAsia on 8 October 2021.