Boss wants to speak – where's everybody?

SINGAPORE – Hybrid or remote work is here to stay. That means less office gossip and fewer lunches with colleagues. We have also reinvented the office dress code: You know, below the starched collar or smart polo, many of us are wearing the same bottoms we wore to the coffee shop this morning to Zoom meetings.

Worldwide, employees are speaking up against returning to the office full-time, if at all. In Singapore, 60 per cent of workers in a YouGov survey commissioned by Channel NewsAsia in April said they wanted hybrid work. In addition, some 17 per cent said that they wanted to work entirely from home.

Bosses who can no longer keep an eye on their workers are being spooked by visions of their hungry, elite and highly ambitious regiments turning into out-of-shape, unshaven troops. Without the same rituals, etiquette and values, they wonder if their organisation is fated to fade into a plain vanilla business.

That fear of seeing his organisation lapse into mediocrity was enough to make one of Wall Street’s most famous CEOs warn in May that those employees who “want to hustle” had better move their bottoms into the office when permitted. By that, I reckon, Mr Jamie Dimon meant Everybody.

“It doesn’t work for spontaneous idea generation. It doesn’t work for culture,” said the JPMorganChase & Co chief executive at a Wall Street Journal conference on the concept of working from home. It does not work, especially, for “young people”, he added.

For HR heads in young companies that are still trying to inculcate a common set of values, work speak and etiquette within workers, it is hard to do without the pantry talk, office walkabouts and chance encounters.

“Without face-to-face interaction and shared working spaces, it has been a challenge to emphasise and implement our cultural values among the team,” says Ms Karen Lee, director of people and strategic planning at start-up talent platform, Glints.

This new way of working is also a headache for Human Resources: How do you get consensus for the split hours between home and office?

Take me, for example. Last Monday, I sneaked out at midday for a date with Mr Bond at off-peak ticket prices. I like going to the gym at late-morning “retiree” hours. Then, I need to nap if I have been to the gym.

Remote hours work for me. Despite being in my new job for just three weeks, I don’t feel FOMO (fear of missing out) at all. Having worked for 25 years, I have shared enough food and bad jokes with plenty of the people in my industry to build enough trust and understanding to get my work done rather smoothly. I, in short, love working away from the office.

It is a different story for young workers. Four months into her new job in an Internet trade association, fellowship executive Kelyn Tng, 33, feels isolated. “My networking opportunities are limited to those whom the company is willing to introduce me to due to the nature of WFH (work from home).

“My superiors might not know I have a specific interest unless I tell them, and that might seem like overstepping because you would have to ask for a call instead of walking over to their table. Even though my company is willing to work with me and help me, it is difficult because everyone’s time is so stretched, everything needs to be arranged, that even a five-minute call might be difficult to set up.”

There is also the difficulty of playing fair to colleagues who have to be on site, essentially the “essential” co-workers who keep the business humming while the rest enjoy workouts, take naps, and order bring-in.

Mr Raj Raghavan, the head of HR at Indigo airline and a panellist at the Economist Impact Innovation  @  Work Asia conference said: “The 5 per cent that can work from home like to work from home and the remaining 95 per cent say these guys are getting undue advantage and taking advantage of what that flexibility offers.”

Dealing with this disparity will test the levels of trust and resilience within companies, he said.

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Trust, the word suspected to be most in short supply between workers and their employers, could end up deciding how long this new working style will last. Even though experts, academia and HR practitioners are entreating bosses not to micro-manage, and to empathise and trust their workers more, Fortune magazine reported in September that surveillance software use has surged 50 per cent since the pandemic.

Whereas some bosses used to eye which subordinates came in late and which left early, they now do so by tracking their workers’ keystrokes, Internet usage logs, e-mails, call recordings, social media and activity trackers.

Yet, even with the paranoia and challenges, companies need to meet what employees want.

Japanese technology firm Fujitsu said that in a survey of its 40,000 workers when the pandemic hit, nine in 10 wanted a choice on working from home or the office. Speaking at the Economist Impact conference, its chief HR officer Hiroki Hiramatsu said the overwhelming statistic convinced initially reluctant bosses to “energetically” embrace the new normal.

“Young people look forward to this type of work model,” he said. “They believe they could handle it very well. However, board directors and general managers were concerned about productivity and whether this will lead to negative effects on business.”

It turned out that there was little to fear. About 80 per cent of its workers reported a more balanced lifestyle, and 75 per cent saw no fall or change in productivity. The 86-year-old firm, one of the oldest in the IT industry, now plans to expand its Work Life Shift plan which frees workers to “focus on creating real value, with no online or offline boundaries”.

New recruits do not even have to be full-time employees. They could just be hired for projects. To compensate for the loss in face time, each worker gets individual time with his manager once a month.

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Ms Chloe Choo, 21, an undergraduate preparing to start in one of Singapore’s Big Four law firms next year, is willing to settle for a relatively staid start to her career. “Fresh graduates are not prioritising company culture over the prospects of getting a job at all in the midst of a pandemic,” she said. “I will take what I can get with this refreshed concept of office culture.”

In the long run, however, she wants the firm to make her feel valued and being part of a team.

“There is definitely an obligation on bosses to increase workers’ morale or at least find another way to ensure company loyalty for the sake of retaining workers,” said Ms Choo.

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