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Employees, companies adjust as more return to the workplace

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SINGAPORE: Despite having worked with his current employer for almost a year, it was Mr Ariff Ab Bakar’s first time meeting his colleagues – in person – on Monday (Apr 5). 

He joined the company in April last year, just a few days after Singapore’s “circuit breaker” period began, and had been working from home since. 

“It was quite awkward meeting everyone for the first time almost a year after I joined the company, but being able to put a face to the people was a good change,” said the 32-year-old digital media manager.  

It was announced last month that work-from-home arrangements – which came into place last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic – would no longer be the default, with workplaces allowed to shift to more “flexible and hybrid” ways of working.

Co-chair of the COVID-19 multi-ministry task force Lawrence Wong said on Mar 24 that up to 75 per cent of employees would be allowed at workplaces at any one time, up from 50 per cent previously. 

Mr Ariff – who now has to come to the office twice a week for five hours each time –  said the train was packed on his morning commute from Tampines to one-north, though he estimates it was at about 70 to 80 per cent capacity of the pre-pandemic crowd. 

READ: COVID-19: More employees may return to the workplace, split teams not required from Apr 5

Public transport ridership has already been increasing since the circuit breaker period, when it fell by about 80 per cent

Though it did not provide figures for Monday’s ridership, the Land Transport Authority said overall ridership on public transport was at about 72 per cent of pre-pandemic levels for the week of Mar 22 to 26. 

For the same period, the agency noted the number of commuters who exited the MRT stations in the Central Business District during the weekday morning peak periods was at about 40 per cent of pre-pandemic numbers. 

It reminded commuters that mask wearing remains mandatory for all, and that commuters should refrain from talking on public transport, continue to practice good personal hygiene and avoid commuting if unwell. 

“Employers need to meaningfully stagger arrival times of their employees, and continue to adopt arrangements such as flexible working hours and staggered start and end times for their employees,” said the LTA. 

Transport operator SMRT, which runs four of Singapore’s six MRT lines, said it is “supporting various measures announced by the authorities”.

Last week it announced a campaign where SMRT station staff members would hold “Please refrain from talking” placards, as part of efforts to remind commuters not to talk on trains, in a bid to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission. 

“In addition to our recent initiative to nudge commuters not to talk during travel, we are closely monitoring and reviewing bus and train services and making adjustments accordingly,” said SMRT chief communications officer Margaret Teo. 

READ: Back to the office: 7 things you need to know as Singapore shifts to more flexible way of working amid COVID-19

WHAT WILL THE NEW ‘NEW NORMAL’ LOOK LIKE?

As more workers return to work, employers are also making adjustments to the new normal. 

Singtel said it would transition to a one-week per month remote work arrangement from Apr 12, with 75 per cent of staff members at the workplace on any given week.

“This hybrid working model will facilitate greater employee engagement and collaboration while still offering employees the flexibility to work remotely,” said Singtel group chief human resources officer Aileen Tan.

Ms Tan said the telco would continue to implement safe management measures such as flexible and staggered start and end times for work and meals, as well as regular disinfection of communal areas. 

UOB said it plans to gradually increase the number of colleagues working onsite, but noted its “end goal” is to move towards a permanent hybrid work model. 

“In November last year, we were the first bank in Singapore to announce our two-day-a-week remote work policy which would be rolled out once COVID-19 restrictions are lifted,” said UOB Group human resources head Dean Tong. 

“The new workplace rules give us scope to pilot elements of our hybrid work model ahead of wider implementation when restrictions are eased further,” he added, noting about 65 per cent of roles at the bank are eligible for the remote work policy. 

Mr Tong also noted that Singapore’s third-largest bank is investing more in onsite conferencing facilities, given the increase in online meetings.

He pointed to UOB’s Boat Quay clubhouse, which is equipped with tools such as video conferencing capabilities and built-in multidirectional microphones. These are being rolled out across the bank’s network progressively. 

COVID-19 workplace measures Mar 24


READ: Goodbye office: Is the future of work in our homes?

Although he appreciates being able to communicate face-to-face with his colleagues in the office, Mr Ariff said he would like to continue working from home as he feels he is able to better focus on his tasks there. 

“As my work requires me to communicate with people in different timezones, being able to log in from home later at night does help,” he said. 

“Also, the time spent commuting seems like a hassle now after working from home for a year.”

PeopleWorldwide Consulting’s David Leong said that with more than a year of experimenting with flexible and work-from-home arrangements, firms may now appreciate that such setups have not significantly affected work output and efficacy.

This provides firms with the opportunity to reevaluate the costs associated with office space, such as rental, as well as assess whether work can be decentralised, said the human resources firm’s managing director. 

“This one year of work-from-home proves that it can (be decentralised),” said Dr Leong, adding that remote and hybrid work arrangements are likely to become the new normal. 

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