Talent & Tech Asia Summit 2024
Remote working: Yay or nay? 8 leaders tell us when it works best and its pitfalls

Remote working: Yay or nay? 8 leaders tell us when it works best and its pitfalls

In this first part of a two-part special feature, Priya Sunil seeks to find out the pros and cons of remote working, and more specifically, the situations which it is ideal or non-workable for. Leaders from Siemens, Schneider Electric, Luxasia and more share their views. 

The uptake of remote working has been catalysed by years owing to the pandemic, and we suddenly find flexible working arrangements have become the norm rather than the exception. But have organisational leaders had enough?

In this first part of a two-part special feature, we seek to find out the pros and cons of remote working, and more specifically, the situations which it is ideal or non-workable for. Leaders from Siemens, Schneider Electric, Luxasia and more share their views in this industry exclusive.

Are you for or against remote working, and if so, in what format? 

Karen Lim, Cluster Director, Head of Human Resources, Singapore, Malaysia & Brunei, Schneider Electric

          karen lim

I support remote working, and Schneider Electric has globally deployed the new way of working, and the Singapore, Malaysia and Brunei cluster has adopted the two-day work-from-home arrangement with effect from 1 Jan 2021. All business leaders and people managers are fully empowered to decide and work with their team members to ensure the remote working arrangement is rolled out and integrated into daily operations without disrupting customers’ services and requests. As part of the deployment, the company also provided a one-time work-from-home subsidy to support office set-ups at home.

Sharon Seet, Regional HR Director, APAC World Courier

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I support remote working and believe it is here to stay in the long-run, whether before or after pandemic. However, face-to-face interactions are equally important especially those who are in the service line. Research has revealed that prolonged remote working will trigger a rise in mental health and well-being issues. A vast majority of workers surveyed (80%) would consider quitting their current position for a job that focuses more on employees’ mental health. That’s according to a recent survey of 1,000 Americans, published by TELUS International.

I used to work from home for one to two days a week in most of the organisations I have worked in, however the pandemic has caused me to work from home full-time since February 2020 and it will continue until further notice. I personally, do miss the physical interactions with my colleagues, peers and clients.

People and teams can achieve surprising positive results, even when working from home. However, the uncertainties of this pandemic have created spikes in anxiety, stress and mental health issues.

We cannot forget those front-line workers who do not have an option for remote working. Perhaps, companies can look into ways of creating a safer work environment for these essential workers to be on-site such as wearing masks, providing appropriate PPE and face shields, arranging for frequent cleaning in the office premises, routine temperate checks, and implementing safe distancing in the workstation arrangement.

Ailani Wan Ibrahim, Head of HR, Siemens ASEAN

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I’m personally for remote working because it allows me greater flexibility to juggle between work and situations at home.

I’m proud to say that Siemens strongly supports remote working as well. It is an option that we provide for some employees around the world but last year, we took it a step further with the 'new normal'. Our new mobile working model which will be a permanent standard during the pandemic and beyond. It enables employees worldwide to work on a mobile basis for an average of two to three days a week. This mobile work policy goes beyond the working from home culture, as we want to provide greater flexibility to our employees. In consultation with their supervisors, they can choose to work at locations where they’re most productive.

We have put in place a cloud-based IT structure that has enabled us to scale our services quickly and smoothly to put 300,000 employees in a position to work from home. With more than 800,000 online meetings conducted daily, we are already advocating our employees to collaborate digitally without needing to be in the same location.

Darius Liu, Co-Founder and Chief Operating Officer, iSTOX

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The pandemic has significantly altered the way we think about workplaces. Remote working has been normalised. As a technology company, iSTOX adapted seamlessly to full remote working during the circuit breaker, after making a few upgrades to our suite of digital tools. We have since moved to a flexible arrangement, with fewer than 50% of employees in the office.

We are all remote workers now, to an extent. The question is: what is the right mix between working from home and from the office? The answer is different for each employee. HR departments must therefore understand the circumstances of each individual – what role they play, whether they have had time to establish strong work relationships that will contribute to successful remote working, the life stage they are in, the nature of their current projects and their access to a suitable workspace at home. There is no cookie-cutter solution.

Ang Sze Pheng, HR Director for APJ, World Wide Technology

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At WWT, we’ve fully embraced remote working as we’ve seen the positive ways it has changed the way we work and interact with each other. We’ve seen our employees delivering work that is of better quality and maintain a more balanced work life. We’ve seen drastic improvements in employees’ productivity and satisfaction levels. I think remote working has allowed for more autonomy in employees’ hands which has resulted in better workplace morale as employees are now more empowered than ever to work at their most ideal capacities.

Wing Git Chan, Group Head, Talent & Excitement, Luxasia

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I am for a hybrid arrangement, where there is flexibility to alternate between remote work and working in the office. This offers the best of both worlds – allows the convenience and flexibility of working from home, but also facilitates teamwork and collaboration in a communal working space.

Ji Yoon Chung, HR Director Southeast Asia, Taiwan and North Asia, GSK Consumer Healthcare

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I am for remote working given the flexibility it provides to our employees. The ideal arrangement would be a combination of being able to work (1) in the office when the needs arises and (2) in the location of employees’ choice catering individuals’ needs, which can bring ‘flexibility’ to life in full.

Especially going through COVID-19, we learnt a lot on what enables (or stops) us to be the best version of ourselves and being able to choose where we work can be one of the solutions to our enhanced productivity at work and in life.

Wong Keng Fye, Head of Human Capital, Maybank Singapore

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Even before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Maybank had established a flexible working arrangement (FWA) initiative, which included remote working and other individuated work schedule arrangements. An extension of the Bank’s people-first Work Life Excellence (WLE) framework, FWAs are part of a lifecycle approach that aims to support staff through the different stages of their life and career. Reflecting the ethos of the Bank’s mission, 'Humanising Financial Services', the initiative is geared towards providing staff the means to better balance their personal and professional demands.

This longstanding commitment to fully supporting our workforce enabled a seamless transition at the nadir of the pandemic, allowing the majority of our staff to work remotely. The Bank will continue championing WLE as we step further into the new normal, enabling our workforce to remain agile, adaptable and future-ready.

Pros: Enabling a more agile workforce, better flexibility, increased productivity, and more

Ang Sze Pheng, HR Director for APJ, World Wide Technology

One of the main pros of remote working is that it enables us to create a more agile workforce. We’ve allowed much more flexibility with regards to workers’ preferences to either come to the office to work or work remotely instead, and I think many businesses and organisations have started to embrace remote working as employees could feel more content, productive and just as efficient working at home. Our productivity levels and quality of work life have improved dramatically. I believe it’s becoming increasingly important to ensure that we offer our employees flexibility and more options for balancing work and their personal lives. 

Wong Keng Fye, Head of Human Capital, Maybank Singapore

Allowing the majority of our staff to work remotely during the pandemic ensured not only the overall health and safety of our workforce, but also contributed towards the preservation of business continuity during a time of crisis. This also saw the acceleration of a group-wide push towards digitalisation and the creation of an agile, future-ready workforce adept at navigating a business world increasingly reliant on technology.

In order to engender a digitally-savvy workforce, the Bank subsidised mobile device usage with a monthly data allowance that was extended throughout Singapore’s Circuit Breaker period.

Finally, through the Bank’s pre-established FWA initiative, management confidently oversaw the transition to remote working - knowing that alleviated safety concerns amongst our staff would translate into overall increases in productivity, work-life balance and resultant customer satisfaction.

Wing Git Chan, Group Head, Talent & Excitement, Luxasia

We sometimes forget that the remote work arrangement was driven primarily by the need to manage the COVID-19 pandemic. By having our teams work from home, we help to keep them and their families safe, while ensuring business continuity. Team members have found that remote work cuts down on travelling costs/hassle and also provides flexibility for them to balance work and personal priorities (e.g. childcare, parent care). In a way, the embracing of remote work has also deepened the collaboration with regional teams in other countries. 

Ji Yoon Chung, HR Director Southeast Asia, Taiwan and North Asia, GSK Consumer Healthcare

It unblocked our perception of ‘how things can get done’. Flexibility in work arrangements did arise before COVID-19 but the application of it was rather limited. There was also concern/doubt that remote working can jeopardise an organisation's effectiveness/productivity.

The ability to work remotely become a must, not a nice-to-have, with COVID-19, which enabled all employees not to have any choice but to embrace it in order to make it work! Literally everyone was expected to explore remote working in full (be it as a manager OR as an employee) and to find the solution that works for them.

As a result of massive scaled exploration/experimentation, people started to realise and to live the fact that there are just so many different ways of getting the job done (a lot of a-ha moments!). The journey to find the solution also allowed the managers and employees to have more in-depth conversation on what works and what doesn’t work, which generally raised a self-awareness on themselves.

Ailani Wan Ibrahim, Head of HR, Siemens ASEAN

With the introduction of this new mobile working model, we see increased productivity in our employees at work and for us, we value their work’s outcome rather than the time spent at the office. By empowering them to shape their work themselves so as to deliver the best possible results at work, they have developed a greater sense of ownership for their work.

We also find that many of our employees are happier working from home as they can cut down on commute and therefore can spend more time with family and/or themselves. This way, we are also positioning ourselves as a flexible and attractive employer. We’re happy to share that this new model applies to more than 140,000 of the company’s employees at over 125 locations in 43 countries.

 Karen Lim, Cluster Director, Head of Human Resources, Singapore, Malaysia & Brunei, Schneider Electric

It certainly eases out and provides more enhanced flexibilities to all our employees during this pandemic period. As an example, working parents at Schneider Electric who had to pay extra attention to ensure their school-going children’s safety in the public/ school environment, are able to dedicate the time spent on public commute/ transportation on selected days they choose to work from home.

Darius Liu, Co-Founder and Chief Operating Officer, iSTOX

The clearest advantage of remote working is employees not having to commute. We can all appreciate the extra time to rest, to be with our family and friends or to engage in hobbies, leisure activities and exercise. At iSTOX, we have observed an improvement in employee wellness as a result of the additional time they have.

Most kinds of work can be done equally well at home and in the office. Some projects do benefit from remote working. If the project requires you to spend long blocks of time in deep concentration without distraction, then working from home might be helpful, since you are less likely to be approached impromptu by colleagues. This assumes, of course, that you do not face similar distractions at home – say, from young children.

Sharon Seet, Regional HR Director, APAC World Courier

In my current organisation, some of the employees were already working remotely (in Western countries) before the pandemic, hence there is minimal impact. However, to others (mainly in Asia), remote working is very new to them and they really miss the office environment and cannot really focus well at home as their home environment is not as conducive. We have mixed feelings on remote working as it needs to be a balance. It has helped us to embrace trust, work-life flexibility, and cut down commuting time. On the other hand, we need to think of creative ways to engage our employees virtually and it has limitations.

We need to intentionally connect with our teams and clients so that we will not suffer online meeting fatigue.

For instance, one of our senior executives has organised surprise snack deliveries to his co-workers and their families, and sending birthday wishes and gifts on his own accord. This gesture has cascaded down the leadership line to energise and motivate our employees. Personally, I have organised virtual lunches, tea parties and team-building games. I am planning to create more team engagement activities on a monthly basis.

Our company has also emphasised to employees to take time or days off to recharge and be open to share their own feelings and the challenges they may be facing, to their business leaders or to HR.

We see more empathy and care coming out from remote working. It will be good to start planning virtual learning workshops and wellness classes to set important priorities for your organisation.

Cons: Blurred boundaries between work and personal life, a toll on mental wellbeing, and more

Darius Liu, Co-Founder and Chief Operating Officer, iSTOX

There are still benefits to interacting face-to-face with colleagues, so we should not be hasty in declaring the end of the workplace.

At iSTOX, we have seen how spontaneous conversations between colleagues working together in the office have sparked creative ideas and encouraged a greater level of camaraderie and collaboration between and within teams.

Even as tech solutions for remote working improve rapidly, communication in an office is still of a higher quality. It can also be calibrated to your needs – ranging from a tap on the shoulder for a quick question to a longer and deeper conversation in which meaning is projected not just through words, but also body language and micro expressions. When one works from home, these forms of communication can be replicated to an extent. But it is harder to express tone and emotion, which means we must be more mindful of the potential for misunderstanding.

Wing Git Chan, Group Head, Talent & Excitement, Luxasia 

A remote work arrangement is not possible for certain roles especially at the frontline, e.g. retail advisors, or warehouse operators. For office employees, their home environment may also not be conducive and properly set-up for work. The blurring of boundaries between work and personal life may have led to more stress for certain employees. The lack of face-to-face interaction also hinders relationship building in a meaningful way.

Ang Sze Pheng, HR Director for APJ, World Wide Technology

It’s nearly impossible to let work emails and chat messages go unnoticed, and the line between work and life has become increasingly blurry. It is crucial for employers to ensure that their employees can disconnect. Managers should encourage their employees to establish clear boundaries and be given the space needed to disengage from work in their leisure time. The pandemic has caused immense stress for many and with flexible working, it has also become difficult for team leaders to detect noticeable signs of an employee who may be struggling.

I also think that flexible working has taken a toll on employees’ mental wellbeing which is why I believe it is imperative for HR leaders and managers to have regular check-ins with their teams to ensure they don’t lose their sense of work-life balance, compromise their job performance and experience burnout. 

Karen Lim, Cluster Director, Head of Human Resources, Singapore, Malaysia & Brunei, Schneider Electric

The physical interactions that employees are missing out at the coffee machine or water cooler chats, and camaraderie bonding that used to be present at office work environment. These informal social interactions are important to drive engagement with co-workers especially if it involves a global team collaboration. During this period, where we are missing out on global travels, by having flexible working arrangements, it is a challenge to nail down common physical meetings with flexible work arrangements. 

Sharon Seet, Regional HR Director, APAC World Courier

There is always a flipside about flexible working. Unfortunately, the work day has gotten longer. More meetings, not less, are driving zoom fatigue and pulling workers in multiple directions. Obligations are on the rise: are you keeping your cool around home school? A joint study by Harvard and New York University analysed over three million responses since the coronavirus began. On average, the workday is nearly an hour longer because of the pandemic.

The misunderstanding around flex time is one held by most micromanagers, and it’s this: monitoring the journey is the only way to control the outcome. What happens when owning the outcome is the employee’s responsibility? We need to exercise trust and allow employees to take ownership of their work. Ultimately, it is the work results that will reveal their commitment, contribution and productivity.

We need to be very disciplined when coming to flexible working, to have a clean home office desk and monitor, conducive home environment and to set reasonable working hours in order to take care of our own and our family's wellbeing. Leaders need to exercise more compassion and empathy if email responses are not immediate or when the employees need to switch around their working hours due to valid reasons.

Ji Yoon Chung, HR Director Southeast Asia, Taiwan and North Asia, GSK Consumer Healthcare

It requires a more conscious effort to bring the team together than before. When everyone works in the same office, it’s so easy to get connected to one another for coffee chats, lunches and so on. We now learnt that all those micro interactions which we took for granted did have an immense impact on instilling a sense of belonging, and to prevent people from feeling lonely.

That said, it wasn’t that flexible working has made it impossible instill a sense of belonging, but that it requires us to see/do things differently to bind us together, which took more conscious effort in the beginning! Who would have imagined having a team lunch over Zoom call can also be entertaining! Now we all know it’s fun and it works!

Wong Keng Fye, Head of Human Capital, Maybank Singapore

The inadvertent downside to remote working was the decline in overall workforce connectivity. This was especially apparent in the early stages of the pandemic and Circuit Breaker period, when staff required an adjustment period to their new working arrangements.

The COVID-19 pandemic altered the manner in which company cohesion and community were cultivated, as staff and management alike needed to adapt before beginning to thrive. To assuage the move away from face-to-face training, engagement and team building activities, an increasingly comprehensive communication plan was developed to keep the Maybank community connected and in touch. This went a long way to supplementing the Bank’s ability to encourage camaraderie and company culture.

While telecommuting helped bridge the gap when it came to maintaining a close-knit and unified workforce, it did not fully replicate the social and communal aspects of traditional work and office life.

Ailani Wan Ibrahim, Head of HR, Siemens ASEAN

Mobile working isn’t for everyone, especially certain job profiles in Siemens where their work requires them to be present at a fixed location or customers’ sites. Not only that, our New Normal Working Model requires a huge amount of trust between employees and their superiors. I must say it is not easy for everyone, but by fostering open and transparent communication, it allows both parties to work optimally.

Additionally, teamwork can be challenging when done virtually. We have to admit sometimes nothing beats a face-to-face brainstorming session in the office. That’s why even with our mobile working arrangement, we encourage employees to come into the office periodically for team days and physical meetings.

Is flexible working here to stay, as part of the future of work? 

Wong Keng Fye, Head of Human Capital, Maybank Singapore

As part of our Business Continuity Plan, we will maintain split operations and WFH arrangements for the foreseeable future. Plans are in place to permanently adopt a hybrid model, which will include options for staff to ‘Work From Anywhere’ and the possible creation of satellite offices.

These new working arrangements will be subject to operational needs and the personal needs of our staff. The goal will be to provide staff with greater flexibility to balance work and personal commitments, while simultaneously achieving business goals.

The Bank will continue to build on the structures and tools already in place to ensure business continuity regardless of external circumstances. The future promises increased automation and digitalisation that will necessitate a technologically-savvy workforce. It is the Bank’s belief that giving our staff the autonomy to choose the working arrangement that best suits their personal and professional needs will translate into an empowered workforce.

Karen Lim, Cluster Director, Head of Human Resources, Singapore, Malaysia & Brunei, Schneider Electric

Yes, flexible working is definitely here to stay, and part of the future of work. For it to be integrated into the day-to-day operations without comprising business/ customers’ needs, leaders and people managers will have to lead remote collaboration by engaging their people in a different way in this new way of working. It is about an agile work environment ensuring 100% connectivity digitally for seamless communication.

Wing Git Chan, Group Head, Talent & Excitement, Luxasia 

Yes, partly because COVID-19 will not be going away anytime soon, and mostly because many people have come to accept it as a feasible arrangement that if managed properly, can even improve productivity and employee satisfaction.

Ailani Wan Ibrahim, Head of HR, Siemens ASEAN

Absolutely yes! Our mobile working model is based on transformation of leadership and corporate culture and we are among the first large companies to adjust working models permanently. Siemens’ worldwide employee surveys confirmed that employees support greater flexibility pertaining to deciding where they work. Our focus is on productivity and results, rather than time spent in the office.

By doing this, we are also attracting and retaining the best talent while building a diverse team for the company. As a leader in technology, the New Normal Working Model also fits seamlessly into Siemens’ concept for the future of work by developing and leveraging on new ways to work together on a mobile, digital basis.

Sharon Seet, Regional HR Director, APAC World Courier

Stanford study of a 16,000-employee Chinese travel agency found that remote work increased employee satisfaction and helped halve the agency’s previous employee attrition rates.

Flexible working is already here and will be staying in the long run. I believe most organizations are paving the way for this. This will entice many younger generations to work in a company who allows flexi working. They consider this as part of the benefits package to attract them to join the organization. I can envision future way of work will be more towards home office based, and physical work office will be more on hot-desking arrangement and it can be redesigned and reorganized by getting rid of cubicles and creating more collaborative meeting spaces while some organizations might even have a policy where employees can work from anywhere.

Darius Liu, Co-Founder and Chief Operating Officer, iSTOX

Remote working is here to stay, and each company must consider how it can be executed most productively. There is a parallel here between what iSTOX does for investing and for remote working. As a fintech company, iSTOX uses blockchain technology to fractionalise private market securities so each individual investor can participate to the extent that it makes sense for his portfolio – because the minimum investment threshold has been reduced from $1mn to $10,000. In short, investing is personalised.

Similarly, employees face different circumstances. We want to help them find the right blend of working remotely and in the office so they are most effective. This too requires personalisation. By and large, new joiners and those with less work experience benefit from slightly more time in the office because they can observe and learn more easily. Roles that require less collaboration benefit from slightly more time spent working remotely.

Ang Sze Pheng, HR Director for APJ, World Wide Technology

Undoubtedly, flexible working has been a major game-changer for many and has completely revolutionized the way we work, and I believe it will become a new and welcomed norm as we readjust to a post-pandemic work landscape. Flexible working has presented us with unbounded possibilities in terms of business growth and employee engagement. It has also improved the way we communicate within our respective teams and provided us with innovative ways to collaborate and be more inclusive as a whole. I envision this will continue to be a part of the future of work.

We’ve always strived to create a positive work environment for our employees, and we have encouraged them to collaborate and build high-performance teams so that we can do our best work during this crisis. The future of work will now revolve around inclusiveness, productivity and connectedness, and it is an imperative for the management to introduce more flexibility for employees. 

Ji Yoon Chung, HR Director Southeast Asia, Taiwan and North Asia, GSK Consumer Healthcare

Yes! The needs of flexible working will continue. Moreover, the continuous needs of flexible working, I think, will continue challenging leaders on the fundamental question of ‘how we want to get the job done’. Answers to this question can be of a variety, in addition to flexible working/remote working.

Whatever the future of work will bring us, it’s absolutely critical for us to stay positive and open-minded by having a benefit of doubt till it proves otherwise. Historically, we human beings have gone through a lot of changes and transformations and we always, really always found a solution to make it work. Having that faith, trying out something new and learning from our trial and error will enable us to move forward.

Lead image / 123RF

Interviewees' images / Provided 

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