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Is the Always ON Culture Creeping Up on Us?

08 September 2010

Technology-driven mobility and connectivity is freeing us from our desks. But when work is not limited to the office space, does the line between work and life become blurred? - by Sheralyn Tay

It is 10am on a Thursday and Mr Song Kian Yong is busy at work. He is rushing a report on his laptop, but the e-mails are streaming in so he stops typing from time to time to attend to the urgent messages. His mobile phone rings – a colleague wants to check on some meetings later in the week. All in all, it is a typical work day, except that Mr Song is in T-shirt and shorts, working from the comfort of his bedroom and soothed by the soft strains of his radio.

When Ms Seow Yien Ping was considering working part-time to care for her newborn son, her director extended informal flexible hours so she could leave the office early some days of the week and work remotely from home – and still be on a full salary.

For Mr Francis Kwa, an IT consultant, work is anywhere he can plug in his laptop.

If you feel a twinge of jealousy that these arrangements are for the lucky few who run their own companies or are part of a non-traditional local start-up, hold on. Mr Song, Ms Seow and Mr Kwa are public officers just like you. They are part of a new wave of workers lending credence to the saying that “work is something you do, not some place you go”. “It’s just geography,” noted one public officer who telecommuted daily for about five years.

The Changing Workplace

Undoubtedly technology has been catalytic in transforming the way we work, said Lynda Gratton, Professor of Management Practice at the London Business School and the head of the Future of Work Consortium, a research team seeking to envision how people will work in 2025.

But just as crucial has been the changing motivations of the workforce as it seeks greater flexibility, work-life balance and autonomy, she said. Prof Gratton is working with the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) and other leading organisations to understand the changing nature of the workplace. She will be speaking at the MOM-organised Human Capital Summit on September 30, 2010 to discuss how organisational architecture and culture, and people practices and skills will change in the next 20 years due to globalisation, technology, demography and societal change.

A few things are clear, she said: the traditional nine-to-five work day, top-down management and “the office”, as you know it, are on their way out. Replacing these will be barrier-free virtual teams and workspaces where quality of life, rather than menial tasks or monetary gains, takes precedence.

This will be key in attracting and keeping talent, said Singapore based consultant, Mr Iain Ewing, who is Chief Executive and Principal Trainer of Ewing Communications.

“Companies that can’t offer the best connectivity will not be able to attract and keep the best workers… [and will] fall behind in connectivity and competitiveness,” he noted.

All this has resulted in an evolution in work culture. And for some organisations, such as United States- based retailer Best Buy, the transformation has been revolutionary. It turned the notion of “face-time” on its head with a Results-Only-Work-Environment in 2008, something Bloomberg Businessweek called a “post-face-time, location-agnostic” way of working.

This means employees can do whatever they want whenever they want, as long as they meet job expectations. Goodbye clockwatching. The bold experiment saw employees leaving work in the middle of the day to watch a movie, pick the kids up from school and, in the case of one, go hunting, armed with a shotgun and mobile phone. This turned the tide on the high turnover rate and low staff morale, increasing productivity by some 35% in the departments that were on the scheme.

Another trend is the “working beyond walls” movement initiated by the United Kingdom government service in 2008 where public officers, including Permanent Secretary Ian Watmore, give up personal workspaces for “hot desks”, a pool of fully equipped desks that staff occupy as and when required. This has generated a more dynamic work environment, Watmore told The Public Servant. “There have been all sorts of hidden advantages: accessibility to staff; being able to interact with people, learn how the policies work, identify more with what is really going on in the department. It makes a massive difference culturally.”

Never Without Her Berry Shahrany Hassan, who works at the Subordinate Courts, is never without her Blackberry – “baggage” from her private sector days.

Never Without Her Berry - Shahrany Hassan, who works at the Subordinate Courts, is never without her Blackberry – “baggage” from her private sector days.

New Ways Of Working

The same momentum within the Singapore Public Service is also building, with flexible work options such as telecommuting, part-time work or staggered work hours. A flexible schedule also allows staff to take time off when needed and make up for it on another day. According to MOM, more than 75% of its staff have benefited from these options since they were made available in 2008.

Declining to be named, a manager with the Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts (MICA) noted: “There have been some changes even in the short time I’ve been here (about a year), such as an increase in the number of telecommuting days we’re allowed to take each month. The fact that this has been officially done shows that there is an understanding that technology has made it easier for people to work from outside the office”.

At the Ministry of Transport, there is no cap on the number of days that Division I officers can telecommute, as long as supervisors are agreeable. Mr Henry Foo, Deputy Director of Land Division said this allows his staff to telecommute “whenever they do not feel like slipping on their office outfits, hopping onto the packed public transport system and stepping into the office."

He added: “The flexibility seems to have worked wonders to [raise] the motivation levels of the employees and… [has made] the overall office environment... productive and positively charged.”

His staff, Ms Pamela Goh, an Assistant Director, said almost all her colleagues have opted for flexible work arrangements, and this is “a paradigm shift towards more outcome-based work performance, rather than based on a physical presence”.

Flexibility for Ms Seow, who is an Assistant Director of the Centre for Culture and Communications at Republic Polytechnic, meant that she was “free to juggle my own time. For example, I would work at night when my son’s asleep to ensure that I’d be able to complete my work in a timely manner”.

Subtle Shifts

Apart from formalised initiatives, the undercurrents of change are already making themselves felt.

You would have seen it in having a mobile number printed on your name card (instead of a landline), being issued a laptop, and getting remote access to your work e-mail. Open workspace concepts are being rolled out to ensure greater mobility for officers who are usually on the move, while wireless hotspots mean officers can work in meeting rooms or sofa corners.

“Hot desking”, for example, has begun making inroads in organisations such as the Public Service Division (PSD).

“Government work is still more deskbound in comparison [so this] is quite a ‘daring’ move for the Public Service,” said Mr Kwa, who is from PSD and had previously worked at multi-national IT companies where hot desking was the norm.

“Most people do prefer their own cubicles and some may feel the ‘loss’ of their personal space, but there’s a lot more room for collaboration now. It also creates a shift in mindset that work can be done anywhere.”

Some supervisors also offer “off the book” flexible arrangements to those who have family commitments or other pressing personal emergencies. Ms Yeo Suat Lay, Assistant Director of Human Capital Cluster at PSD, noted that supervisors may grant time-off to staff that have put in extra hours, and it is common for staff to telecommute on an ad hoc basis.

Said one officer from the Central Provident Fund Board: “My boss allows me to count [the day that I work from home] as a working day instead of it being recorded as sick leave. This way, I’m still productive.”

Managing The 24/7 Worklife

But even as the workplace becomes less venue-centric, tensions abound.

While technology has enabled us to become more connected, productive and efficient, it is also a double-edged sword. There is a sense that the more we un-tether ourselves from our desk, the longer the leash of work.

“A sort of ‘always on’ culture has a tendency of creeping up on people,” the MICA officer noted.

Ms Seow agreed. “There is increasing pressure to be checking e-mail or Messenger and to respond to queries 24/7. I try my best to reply e-mails in a timely manner (though not necessarily immediately), and of course, I would always pick up calls from my colleagues in case there is an urgent work matter that needs my attention,” she said.

A United States-based study of midlevel managers and technologically supported work connectivity found that even as workers had more flexibility with increased connectivity, working hours rose in tandem and allowed “work to more easily permeate the non-work (particularly family) areas of life”.

Ms Shahrany Hassan, Assistant Director of Training at the Subordinate Courts, is all too familiar with this. She carries a Blackberry – “baggage” from 10 years of working in the private sector – even though it is not an official work phone. She uses it to take notes as she goes about the various court offices to meet people, sending notes back to her office e-mail.

Having a laptop and remote access means the mother of two can bring work home and avoid staying back late at work. But she admits that she can get “carried away” sometimes and just feel compelled to bring work home.

“I feel compelled to check my e-mail, even over the weekend when I know I shouldn’t. But checking e-mails on weekends means making my Mondays more manageable,” she said.

Ms Bernadette Sim, Director, Careers & Attraction at PSD, recognised and noted that heightened connectivity creates perceived pressures so agencies do need to communicate and manage expectations. In fact Challenge understands that at least one ministry is clearing the air on issues over laptop, e-mail etiquette and after-hours with focus groups. And protocols concerning mobile phones have already been clearly communicated to staff.

Deskbound No more - Armed with his laptop, senior executive Song Kian Yong is able to work anywhere, anytime.

Deskbound No More - Armed with his laptop, senior executive Song Kian Yong is able to work anywhere, anytime.

Mutual Trust And Integrity

This new workplace also means new leaders – those who are able to work in a more collaborative way and who can offer workers a high level of trust and empowerment, said Prof Gratton. Managers must also formulate new ways of assessing performance not in terms of physical presence, but in terms of outcomes and deliverables.

It’s a question of having clear targets, said Ms Seow.

“Work is still work, no matter whether one is on a flexible work arrangement or not. Personally, I still evaluate staff according to how well he or she has achieved the targets for the year. That’s what my own RO (Reporting Officer) does as well.”

Staff also have to be responsible with their new-found flexibility, added Ms Seow. “[Employees] still have to be accountable and show their supervisors that they can deliver results even when on a flexible work arrangement.”

Ms Yeo of PSD agreed that trust and personal responsibility are important qualities for the new workplace.

“We need to [also] try and respect everyone’s preferred style of working as long as productivity is not compromised,” she said, noting that flexible work hours should still centre around the typical 9am-to 6pm schedule.

The bottom line to all this? It is all about trust between supervisors and their staff, said those that Challenge interviewed. “Without trust, productivity will remain low no matter what scheme we have,” said Mr Song.

Mommy Works From Home - Working from home gives Seow Yien Ping, a staff from Republic Polytechnic, more time with her children.

Mommy Works From Home - Working from home gives Seow Yien Ping, a staff from Republic Polytechnic, more time with her children.

The Right Balance

Overall, the evolving workplace has generated a lot of advantages – better quality of life, work satisfaction and connectedness. Still, vestiges of the “old school” remain, as some have observed.

“People are not taking up the [telecommuting] options even though they are ‘allowed or supposed’ to,” said Mr Song, who is a senior executive at PSD. Instead, colleagues tend to relegate the scheme to an “MC-like” mechanism, telecommuting only when they are ill. This reflects the “traditional” mindset that one should always be in the office, unless unwell.

It sometimes also boils down to not wanting to be seen as different, Mr Song added. “One challenge is managing (or rather, not being bothered by) what others perceive of you for being on an alternative work style.”

Ms Renuga Johan, a senior executive from the Health Promotion Board, takes two half-days off from work each week to bring her 14-month old son from home to his playgroup. While she has a supportive team, Ms Johan is also fully aware that her flexi-arrangement may inconvenience her colleagues.

“I try to make up for my time away from the office by being more productive and efficient. I am conscious not to be a ‘burden’ on my team.”

And as the boundaries between work and life blur, there is also a need for balance between organisational and employee needs, said Ms Seow. “[As supervisors] we are mindful that staff have a life outside of work, and supervisors are careful about encroaching on our employees’ family time… unless it is an important matter or an emergency.”

Meanwhile the individual also needs to know where to draw the line. “We spend so much time at work so it becomes an extension of my life,” said Ms Shahrany, who wrestles with being a career mum.

“It’s hard to compartmentalise work and non-work life, and if you have passion at work, it becomes part of you.”

Mr Song said: “The inability to say ‘no’ is chronic, whether work culture changes or not (i.e. telecommuting versus fixed hours)... The challenge is to manage and live with the tension (between work, connectivity and personal life) in the hope that we can reach a compromise. We always have to remember work never ends!”


Editor: How has mobility and flexibility in the Public Service affected you? Share your thoughts and tips with us at psd_challenge@psd.gov.sg

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