SINGAPORE: The Ministry of Manpower (MOM) will not "rush into" legislating work-from-home arrangements as this may hinder economic recovery, said Minister of State for Manpower Gan Siow Huang in Parliament on Tuesday (Jan 11).
"We should not rush into hasty legislation that unintentionally creates workplace rigidity that may impede our economic recovery at this time," said Ms Gan.
She was responding to parliamentary questions from MPs Yip Hon Weng (PAP-Yio Chu Kang) and Louis Ng (PAP-Nee Soon) on manpower policies for working from home.
To Mr Yip's question on whether MOM keeps track of the number of employees with remote working arrangements and the number of hours spent working remotely, Ms Gan said that in 2020, three in four employees worked in firms that provided some form of remote work arrangement.
"The number of hours spent on remote work would vary depending on the type of businesses and workers’ needs, and MOM does not track this," she said.
Mr Ng asked whether, beyond tripartite standards or guidelines, MOM intends to retain existing COVID-19 work-from-home legislation and make the right to work from home "the new normal".
Currently, safe management measures stipulate that up to 50 per cent of employees can return to the office.
Ms Gan said that authorities expect work-from-home arrangements to become a more mainstream option. A majority of employers have said that they would allow their workers to continue to work from home for at least a quarter of the time, she said.
But the approach to workplace flexibility should be inclusive and not just about working from home, she said.
For example, the needs of frontline workers differ significantly from that of office workers and working from home is not practical for most of them. Thus, a "holistic" approach for "flexi-load, flexi-time or flexi-place" will be more useful, she said.
There have been efforts by tripartite partners to reach out to employers and unions to promote standards on flexible work arrangements, she said.
"We are continuing this ground-up effort by growing a community of Work-Life Ambassadors to champion and support these efforts at the workplaces," said Ms Gan.
Mr Yip also asked whether MOM will look into introducing new legislation to improve the welfare of employees working from home, including barring employers from contacting employees about non-critical work matters outside of their working hours.
To this, Ms Gan said that the ministry is "mindful of the risks from blurred work-life boundaries".
One of the key recommendations in the Tripartite Advisory on Mental Well-being, introduced in 2020, was for employers to set reasonable expectations of after-hours work communication. This includes not requiring employees to respond to non-urgent work-related messages and emails after certain hours, she said.
Companies can refer to an after-hours communication policy template, developed by an alliance of HR professionals, to help them establish and communicate "progressive" after-hours communication practices, Ms Gan added.
"The Government will continue to work with our tripartite partners to expand the provision of flexible work arrangements in a sustainable manner."
In a follow-up question, Mr Ng asked what is stopping MOM from legislating the right to work from home while also giving employers the right to reject such requests for work-related reasons, given that COVID-19 has shown that such arrangements are possible.
Ms Gan said that the number of workers with access to flexible work arrangements has increased steadily over the years. From 2014 to 2019, the proportion of employers who offered at least one form of flexible work arrangement regularly rose from 47 per cent to 53 per cent.
"As we look at other countries that have ... introduced legislation to allow employees to request to work from home ... the outcomes are actually rather mixed on whether this legislation makes a substantial improvement in work-life, and also the flexibility that employees have," she said.
"What I think we should focus on is enabling employers and employees with resources and with guides to help them implement work-from-home and flexible work arrangements in a practical manner and a sustained manner."
"NEW SOCIAL COMPACT"
Mr Melvin Yong (PAP-Radin Mas) said that he thinks employers and employees need to come to a "new social compact" when it comes to telecommuting, to "reset expectations" on what working hours are and how to define productivity.
"Can the ministry study this issue in detail and provide recommendations on how workplaces can come to a consensus on such a new social compact, and provide both employers and employees tools to manage the unique challenges posed by such telecommuting work arrangements?" asked Mr Yong, who is a director at the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC).
He also asked how many companies have adopted some of the tripartite advisories on flexible work and work-life harmony.
Ms Gan said that the tripartite standard on the flexible work arrangements now covers one in four employees and the number is "steadily increasing".
"Certainly, there's room for us to encourage more companies to come on board," said Ms Gan, adding that small companies or SMEs may need more help on this.
On a "new social compact" and safeguarding employees while they are working from home, Ms Gan said it's important to take a "practical approach".
"We should be mindful that a single guide or a single solution may not suit every sector and may not suit every job out there," she said.
"Even amongst employees, there are diverse needs. There are people who may find that work-from-home suits them very well, but we also know of individuals who prefer not to work from home, maybe because the home environment is not as conducive."