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Goodbye, work-life balance; Hello, work-life harmony



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We’ve all heard about work-life balance, but what do we know about work-life harmony and its importance in today’s workforce? To find out, Priya Sunil interviews a wide range of stakeholders – from MDs to HR directors, line managers, working parents and Millennials – for their take on what integrating work and life really means.

Look around you and ask someone what work-life balance means to them, and they’ll think about achieving balance between their work and life responsibilities.

That said, employers are increasingly phasing out ‘balance’, in favour of integration, or even ‘harmony’, defined by the Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices (TAFEP) as: “A state in which an individual is able to achieve both personal and professional goals in a combination that is uniquely satisfactory.”

In line with this, Human Resources Online decided to delve into what this really means – not just to employers and line managers who have to implement policies that support this concept, but also to Millennials and working parents who are benefitting from these policies.

After all, these two demographics are taking up more places in today’s workforce and will continue to grow in importance.

Hence, in this feature, we present the views of four demographics – employers, line managers, Millennials and working parents, in two separate organisations – to present you with a holistic viewpoint. Before that, to get the ball rolling, we share with you some of the key findings of a wide-ranging survey on the work-life landscape in Singapore.


Evolution of the work-life landscape in Singapore

The Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices (TAFEP), in collaboration with The Straits Times, conducted a survey on work-life harmony and flexible work arrangements (FWAs). The survey results, released in June, captured the responses of 511 employers and 1,000 employees.

This survey, which was first conducted in 2014, aimed to understand the current state of work-life harmony in Singapore, the challenges of implementation, and to gain insights of views and concerns of both employers and employees.

What has changed in the past five years?

An ageing and shrinking population is having an impact on the workforce.

Juggling work responsibilities while managing caregiving duties of both children and ageing parents can take a toll on the ‘sandwiched’ generation in the workforce.

Many of them rely on external resources for support such as childcare centres for their children, or senior centres for their parents, due to fewer or no siblings to share the responsibilities with.

Meanwhile, extended families have also shrunk, further straining alternative caregiving resources.

The multiple responsibilities, as an employee, parent and child, will also intensify time stress and possibly increase mental, emotional and financial pressures as well. All these can lead to burnout if not managed properly.

These factors point towards a much greater need for work-life harmony among employees today. As all employees juggle multiple roles, their needs cut across different age groups, genders and life and career stages.

Note: Work-life harmony is defined as a state in which an individual is able to achieve both personal and professional goals in a combination that is uniquely satisfactory. This differs across individuals as different people have different needs, responsibilities, values and priorities. 

What are the key findings from the survey?

Shift 1: Work-life programmes are being implemented more strategically and formally, resulting in greater alignment between employers and employees.

Employers are increasingly recognising the value of work-life programmes in managing manpower needs – 82% agreed they enhanced their company image and 80% agreed they were important in attracting and recruiting top talent, up from 68% and 74% respectively in 2014.

The survey also showed a shift towards formal channels in communicating available work-life programmes to the organisation, suggesting that policies and practices are becoming more structured and formalised.

chart1

 

These shifts have resulted in employers and employees being more aligned in their views towards work-life harmony.

The survey revealed that 83% of employers, up from 80% in 2014, believed that employees should have the flexibility to manage their time and schedule as long as they were able to meet work targets, converging with 82% of employees, up from 76% in 2014, who believed their supervisor provided them the flexibility to do so.

Shift 2: Middle managers recognise their role as facilitators

The results showed that a growing proportion of supervisors are beginning to understand and accept the role they play in facilitating the organisation’s work-life strategy. In fact, 72%, up from 64% in 2014, saw it as their responsibility to ensure their employees achieve work-life harmony.

Meanwhile, 81% of supervisors were aligned with the organisation’s communicated policy on work-life harmony, up from 68% in 2014. Their increased support is felt by employees, where ‘support from supervisors’ was highlighted as the top key enabler that helped employees achieve good work-life harmony.

With the implementation of FWAs becoming more prevalent among workplaces today, supervisors are managing teams who may be on a combination of flexible work arrangements within their team, resulting in greater operational concerns. Supervisors were concerned about equity in workload in their team when a team member requests to be on a flexible work arrangement.

Notably, the percentage of supervisors who were concerned that employees were not getting his or her job done fell from 56% to 28%, which indicates that supervisors might be putting in place more effective ways to measure performance.

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Shift 3: A more inclusive approach in work-life strategies

Organisations are adopting a more inclusive approach towards employees. While working mothers with young children continue to be key beneficiaries, working fathers with young children are now utilising FWAs as much as working mothers with young children, and are expressing their need for work-life harmony. They are not afraid to highlight the value and impact a pro work-life organisation has on them.

A significantly larger proportion of them also leverage on FWAs, such as staggered start and end times (34% in 2018, up from 15% in 2014) and telecommuting (26% in 2018, up from 15% in 2014).

Working mothers with young children continue to receive strong support – 82%, up from 69% in 2014, agreed their supervisor provides them with the flexibility to manage their own time and schedule as long as work targets and deadlines are met, and 78%, up from 66% in 2014, feel their supervisor is open towards FWAs when required.

As dual income families in Singapore become more common, both genders increasingly have to deal with the interests of both work and family. An equilibrium in parenting, where both father and mother are actively involved in parenting, has strengthened the need for work-life harmony, regardless of gender.

Shift 4: FWAs as a sustainable option

FWAs have been recognised as a means to manage employee work-life needs more sustainably, as indicated by an increase in the provision of FWAs and a drop in leave benefits in TAFEP’s survey results.

There seems to be a growing understanding that some work-life needs, especially those that are longer term or life-stage related, can be more sustainably managed through the use of FWAs. For example, providing an employee with the flexibility at work to deal with regular or chronic medical needs of a family member is likely to be more effective in the long-run, as opposed to a day’s leave or a few hours off intermittently.

These findings are validated by the employee respondents themselves, who ranked FWAs as more beneficial than leave benefits. Likewise, the results showed an increase in the utilisation of FWAs and a decrease in the utilisation of leave benefits.

And it seems organisations are moving in the right direction, as the results showed that employees with various caregiving needs expressed greater satisfaction with work-life programmes provided by their organisation.

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What does this mean for Singapore’s workforce?

The changing employment and demographic landscape calls for new perspectives and a change of mindset from the way we approached work-life harmony before.

As the need for work-life harmony becomes increasingly urgent, the importance of work-life programmes cannot be understated.

When used strategically, it becomes a powerful and effective attraction, retention and engagement tool that enables you to facilitate employees’ needs through different life stages, regardless of age, gender or stage of their career. Only then can we remain agile and thrive in the ever-changing employment landscape.


Moving ahead with flexibility: Go-Ahead Singapore

At public transport operator Go-Ahead Singapore, employees are offered the flexibility to choose a work schedule that best suits them. Wang Poon Liang, Human Resources Director, who represents the employer’s demographic, has observed that having such an arrangement in place has positively impacted employees’ lives and attitudes towards work and the company.

One such employee is Jane Lim, Senior HR Officer, who once had to take care of her critically ill father, and most recently, her newborn son. In those days, Go-Ahead Singapore had standard working hours and due to the inflexibility of this, Lim was constantly faced with the challenges of being there for her father, and son, while committing to work as well.

However, with the flexible work scheme in place, Lim, who represents the working parent’s demographic, is now finally able to successfully fulfil her duties at home and in the office.

She shares: “For example, I have the option of reporting to work later and making up for it by ending work later in the evening to tend to my son’s needs when necessary. I was also able to be there for my late father when he needed me and ensured that he always had someone present to look after him.”

Like Lim, Michelle Ng, Senior Executive, Marketing & Communications, is also able to better plan her schedule with the new scheme.

She comments: “I find myself being more productive when I come into the office earlier and I can plan out my daily tasks better. This helps to free up more time after work to have an evening meal with family members or pursue a passion that I am interested in.”

Weighing in on the impact of the scheme on employees such as Lim and Ng, Human Resources Manager Maggie Shek, who represents the line manager’s demographic, says employees do feel positive about the company being understanding and flexible towards their personal needs, allowing them to focus and give their all at work.

In turn, the company has been able to successfully retain talent within and attract new candidates to join the company.

“From the reduction in staff turnover, we achieved effectiveness in cost and resource. It is a win-win situation as it allows us to remain competitive in the industry with a sustained and dedicated workforce,” says Shek.

Having said that, with every new implementation comes its own set of concerns – in this case, when Go-Ahead Singapore first embarked on this flexible work scheme, some managers were not used to their team members adopting different work hours and feared losing control over managing their team. Employees also started raising concerns about being penalised for leaving work earlier.

Addressing these issues did take the leadership team some time, as Wang shares, but he stresses:

Our appraisal system is an objective-based evaluation, measuring the quality of work and achievements of an individual instead of the amount of face time in the office.

This has, as a result, helped alleviate some of the fears.

The flexible working scheme aside, Go-Ahead Singapore also makes it a point to encourage work-life harmony by organising wellness activities such as brisk walks, sports interest groups, and festival celebrations to foster a community spirit. There is also a part-time work scheme in the works, catered to employees who have reached retirement age, but are still fit enough and interested in working.

Going forward, Wang says the company plans to introduce the option to work from home “progressively and whenever possible”, although he admits it may not be applicable to all job scopes.

Apart from that, Lim and Ng share their wish list for the top three work-life programmes that could help employers attract and retain the different generations, and working parents in today’s workforce.

First, Ng, who represents the Millennial’s demographic, suggests the concept of telecommuting, which would allow employees to work in a remote location and connect with their teammates over communication technologies.

She says: “It is not to be assumed the employee does not want to be in the work environment, but rather, provided as an available option on a situational or regular basis. The employee can be made known of his or her role in ensuring a workable telecommuting arrangement.”

This way, she adds, employees are able to retain more time in their day, instead of spending it commuting, while also choosing how to be at their most productive.

Next, Lim “strongly believes” a compressed work-week arrangement would be beneficial to employees with varied responsibilities, such as working mothers like herself. In such an arrangement, employees work full-time hours in fewer days a week, freeing up one or more days for other non work-related activities.

She adds: “What a respite this would be, especially for employees juggling multiple roles.

I know this would save me some dilemma when my child’s vaccinations need to be scheduled, schools are closed or simply for a family day out!

Delivering a culture of output over input: foodpanda

Over at foodpanda, the on-demand international food delivery service, Managing Director, Luc Andreani, who represents the employer’s demographic, believes that in the company’s fast-paced tech/e-commerce environment, it is crucial to have the right measures to ensure employees achieve a balance between their work and personal lives.

If not, they are at risk of experiencing burnout and the company could potentially lose its best employees.

In line with that, the company has implemented a series of initiatives. It offers benefits such as flexible working hours and two days of work-from-home per month.

He shares: “What we are proud of is that these benefits do not just apply to full-timers, but are also available to part-timers and interns. Beyond that, we also organise interdepartmental team bonding activities to encourage employees who usually wouldn’t work together to get to know each other.”

Further, employees tenured for more than a year are entitled to courses under its ‘Panda Learns’ programme, which are paid for by the company.

HR Manager Sri Hadisti, who represents the line manager’s demographic, notes the importance of such initiatives, as they prioritise work-life balance as one of the key ways to improve organisational productivity, competitive advantage, morale and even efficiency.

She adds: “With the right strategies in place, employees will be able to enjoy an enhanced sense of job satisfaction and increased motivation at work. This, in turn, will translate into creating a workplace environment that your employees enjoy coming into, and strengthening their loyalty and commitment to the organisation.”

However, maintaining work-life harmony hasn’t always been easy for staff. Take Darryl Chua, Regional Operations Manager, for example, who represents the Millennial’s demographic. In the past, he faced challenges managing the expectations of different stakeholders, which in turn, took a toll on his mood and ultimately affected his work performance.

“It took me a while before I realised that there was nothing wrong in asking for help or advice when managing my workload or when I feel like my personal needs are also being affected, as it will ultimately affect my work as well. This a vicious cycle that is not easy to break out off, but acknowledging it and getting the right advice is key,” he says.

In such cases, he reinforces the importance of being more involved in the programmes, and leading by example. He explains:

Even when a company might have a good programme in place, it will fall through because the managers are not adopting it or playing an active role in it, even though they are encouraging the employees to do so.

“It doesn’t send across the right message that it’s OK for more junior staff to take part in these initiatives.”

Talking about the priorities ahead, Andreani says the company is looking to overcome the matter of people working “systematically long hours”. In order to address this, the team has identified two root causes – employee inefficiency and organisational inefficiency, with the former being an immediate priority.

For tackling employee inefficiency, foodpanda is planning to put in place time-management training for all employees, not just for individuals that might be facing this issue.

“You’ll never know when you might feel overwhelmed at work and we want to make sure that our team has the resources to make them feel empowered at what they are doing,” he explains.

The company has also done away with employees having to clock-in or out, removing unnecessary stress on employees.

As for organisational inefficiency, he foresees a slightly longer period for changes to take effect, but the team is nonetheless committed to making them. For a start, the leadership team has made it a point to expand the tech team in anticipation of the support needed for the six to 12 months ahead – a strategy that it is looking to apply to all teams.

Last, he shares that the company is also inculcating an office culture that values output more than input, or hours, so as to focus on results rather than the amount of time taken to achieve that desired result.

Through these conversations, it is apparent that work-life harmony can be achieved in many ways, but not through a one-size-fits-all policy.

In fact, these policies should be tailored to both the organisation’s and overall employees’ needs.

Flexibility is also favoured across the board, and ultimately, it cannot be stressed further that at the end of the day, with each implementation, it all boils down to output over input – the quality of work produced, over the number of hours clocked in.


Both foodpanda and Go-Ahead Singapore are adopters of the Tripartite Standards (TS). TS consists of a series of good employment practices that are important for all employers to implement and allows organisations to differentiate themselves as progressive employers.

Visit TAFEP’s website to find out more on the Tripartite Standards.


This feature has been published in Human Resources magazine. Read the August edition of Human Resources, Singapore:

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Lead photo / 123RF

Interviewees’ photos / provided



Human Resources Online is heading to Bangkok with the Accelerate HR conference on November 26-27.
HR leaders from Agoda, DKSH, Fonterra, FWD, Kasikornbank, Minor Food, Nissan Motor and more have already confirmed to speak.
Bring your team for additional group discounts.

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