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The debates about work rage on

As the COVID-19 virus becomes endemic around the world, organisations around the world are mired in debates about the future of work. In June, Elon Musk famously sent an email to all employees, telling them, in so many words, to come to the office or else; on the other side of the spectrum, Airbnb recently announced a generous “work from anywhere” policy for all employees.

Though the conversation about working arrangements rages on, it’s important to remember that it is simply one part of a larger discussion — one that seeks to answer, “What is the best way to maintain and improve employee performance?”

During the active seasons of the pandemic, organisations provided answers through leave policies, home-office stipends, and rapid restructuring to minimise retrenching. But now that the COVID-19 virus is receding, working arrangements — whether hybrid, remote, or fully in-office — have come to the fore of the discussion.

Regardless of which initiative or aspect of HR is in the limelight, one thing is clear. As economic volatility, political uncertainty, climate change concerns, and technological advancements continue to disrupt daily routines and inspire employees to reflect carefully about their life choices, employee performance and satisfaction can no longer be an afterthought for businesses that want to succeed.

Employees are exploring other options

Workplace unhappiness and struggle have tended to be the default part and parcel of adulthood. Even in the cartoons, books, and movies used as an escape from daily living, work is portrayed more often than not as an exploitative, soul-sucking grind.

Status quos regarding work can feel especially dismal in Singapore. One study by American security solutions company Kisi reports that Singapore is the fourth most overworked city in the world, behind only Dubai, Hong Kong, and Kuala Lumpur. And UK bedding manufacturer Sleepseeker recently crowned Singapore as the most fatigued country in the world.

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Several years ago, most people would have resigned themselves to this fate. But the pandemic was a pause of world affairs, the humdrum of a years-old routine, the scramble of a daily commute — and that pause revealed cracks in the status quo that could no longer be ignored.

In past months, many employees have shared anecdotes of how the pandemic became a time for deep reflection and reconsideration. For some, a health crisis was the impetus for change. For others, it was the newfound freedom and increased time available with loved ones thanks to remote working arrangements. Many quit their jobs, spent less time on work, pursued higher learning, or even entered a brand new industry in middle age.

Either way, compared to the pre-pandemic era, not only have worker values shifted away from single-minded capital accumulation towards more holistic priorities — employees have also gained bargaining power when it comes to what they perceive as unfair treatment or unhealthy working conditions.

A 2022 survey by recruitment company Michael Page revealed that a whopping 74 per cent of Singaporean professionals are thinking about quitting their current job this year in hopes for better compensation and better work-life balance. Something has shifted, and it is time to pay closer attention.

Something has to change

Faced with reduced productivity, drops in performance, and the threat of overwhelming attrition and turnover, what is a company to do?

In prior years, companies that made a point of caring for employees were seen as an outlier. The “Google approach” to human resources seemed quirky and interesting, but certainly not applicable or useful for the vast majority of companies.

Now, though, that sentiment has begun to change. Employees are increasingly seen as a precious and finite resource that needs careful planning to manage, much like clean air or fresh water. To safeguard that resource, employers have tried all manners of initiatives, from permanent WFH to subsidised therapy to wellbeing check ins, pulse surveys, and the adoption of wellness apps or counseling programmes.

No matter the initiative, these attempts to safeguard mental health and happiness at work — and essentially, to improve the employee relationship with the employer — don’t just improve productivity and performance. Such initiatives can help businesses to attract top talent in situations where they can’t compete on base salaries. Here’s an interesting fact: many employees are willing to accept a lower pay for a fully-remote job over an in-office role that pays more.

A good start, but still a long way to go

Businesses are making tremendous inroads towards employee wellbeing simply by becoming more aware of the powerful role that employee satisfaction plays in long-term performance and productivity. But they must also take action.

The process is simple enough: gather employee feedback on a regular basis and use the knowledge gleaned to implement, then iterate positive change. Data related to OKR performance, turnover, the frequency of sick leave, and more can also help HR departments gauge how their employees are doing and where they need the most help.

Feedback and criticism is often collected through an anonymised poll or qualitative 1:1s. Now that tech has become commonplace, HR departments may also look to wellbeing apps, some of which can provide data about a workforce’s spiritual, physical, and emotional conditions to inform better decisions. Even a simple Slack plugin for daily employee check-ins can serve as a source of much-needed workforce data.

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When companies track feedback and wellbeing in concrete ways, they can implement relevant changes that lead to measurable improvements. For example, qualitative employee feedback might help HR managers discover that their employees are spending too much time on rote task management, causing them to invest in an automation tool or data entry platform. A pulse survey may indicate that workers are in desperate need of sleep, inspiring HR departments to implement strict off hours or restructure workloads to prevent overwork.

Trust, empathy, and kindness will be necessary for the future of work and an ever-more competitive talent market. No matter how you tackle the challenge of employee performance, the battle can only be won with honest dialogue between employers and their employees.


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