Response to Adjournment Motion “Flexible Work Arrangements for All” by MP Louis Chua
Ms Gan Siow Huang, Minister of State for Manpower, Parliament
1. Mr Speaker, I thank Mr Louis Chua for agreeing with the Government and Tripartite Partners that flexible work arrangements (FWAs) are important for helping employees better manage work and family commitments. Many Members of this House also recognise this and have given useful suggestions over the years on how we could support greater adoption of FWAs, including ex-MP Dr Lily Neo, and current MPs Mr Yip Hon Weng, Mr Louis Ng, Dr Wan Rizal, Ms Yeo Wan Ling and many more.
2. For more than a decade, the Labour Movement has also championed for FWAs to better support working caregivers, and to help caregivers return to work. In fact, this is one of the recommendations in NTUC’s renewed Workers’ Compact which was released last week.
3. Clearly, FWAs are an important issue that many are concerned about, as it affects all of us. During the pandemic, many of us also had to explore alternative ways of working, and more employers and employees have realised that FWAs can bring about benefits, if done in a sensible manner. Workplace flexibility has become an increasingly important factor influencing employees’ decisions on whether to stay in their jobs. In 2022, a survey by Randstad Singapore found that over 4 in 10 local employees said that they would consider changing their jobs for better flexibility.
4. Many enlightened employers are thus thinking hard about making FWAs work for their companies, in order to recruit and retain talent. We are seeing good progress. The proportion of employers offering FWAs on a sustained, regular basis in 2022 was 71%, much higher than 53% in 2019.
Tripartite Efforts to Support FWAs Thus Far
5. To support FWAs, the Government has been working closely with Tripartite Partners to introduce various initiatives. As early as 2007, former President Mdm Halimah Yacob who was then-Deputy Secretary-General of the NTUC chaired the Tripartite Workgroup on Enhancing Employment Choices for Women, which developed some of our earliest measures to support FWAs at the workplace. The importance of FWAs as a progressive employment practice was further elevated in 2017 when the Tripartite Standard on FWAs was launched. The Singapore National Employers Federation (SNEF) and the Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices (TAFEP) have also been running monthly workshops to guide employers and employees in implementing FWAs.
6. While different stakeholders may have different perspectives, we share a common desire to make workplaces more inclusive, and help employees achieve better work-life harmony. From various initiatives such as the Citizens’ Panel on Work-Life Harmony in 2019 and Alliance for Action on Work-Life Harmony in 2021, we have heard consistent feedback on the importance of building organisational and HR capabilities to support the adoption of FWAs.
7. The Tripartite Partners have since broadened our partnerships with more stakeholders with the relevant expertise. For example, we have partnered with the Institute of Human Resource Professionals (IHRP) to develop implementation resources such as a Playbook for Hybrid Workplaces, as well as sector-specific resources. Companies can also tap on the Productivity Solutions Grant to re-design jobs and make FWAs part of the company’s strategy to improve overall productivity.
Keeping FWAs Flexible
8. While we step up efforts to make FWAs more accessible, we need to resist the simplistic tendency to think that all forms of FWAs can be implemented for every job. After all, every worker’s and every team’s needs differ, and the nature of work differs across sectors. Let’s take a broader view of FWAs. Apart from work-from-home, FWAs also include options like staggered work hours, flexi-shift, part-time work, and others.
9. For FWAs to be sustainable, we also need to consider the impact on individual productivity and team productivity. More international literature on the business impact of FWAs have emerged in recent years and they have found that the impact of FWAs on productivity differs across sectors and job roles. The key is to make sure that we identify the right forms of FWAs for different job needs, and ensure that communication between management and employees, and within teams, remains strong. There is no one-size-fits-all approach.
10. FWAs, if implemented well, can help companies retain and attract workers amidst a tight labour market. However, turning FWAs into something rigid could be detrimental to businesses, and even to workers themselves. We have seen that happen elsewhere, such as in Apple and Amazon in the US.
11. We encourage employers to see how FWAs can benefit their businesses as a competitive advantage, facilitate employer-employee communication so that mutually beneficial arrangements can be found, and most importantly, maintain workplace trust.
Tripartite Guidelines on FWA Requests
12. It is in this spirit that we are introducing the Tripartite Guidelines on FWA Requests in 2024, which will set norms and expectations on how employees can make requests for FWAs and use them responsibly, and how employers can manage requests for FWAs properly and fairly.
13. The Tripartite Workgroup will study international practices and consult widely with employers, HR practitioners and employees in the upcoming months as we formulate the Guidelines.
14. The Workgroup will also develop recommendations on how to equip employers, HR, line managers and employees with the necessary skills to implement FWAs in an effective and sustainable manner.
15. We believe this is the right approach to take, which will help more workers access the FWAs that they require in a sustained manner. Even for jurisdictions that Members of this House often compare us to, such as the UK and New Zealand, the objective is not to guarantee that every worker will have FWAs, but rather, to establish a process for employers and employees to shape the right balance of workplace flexibility. And while they have introduced legislation to achieve this objective, it is not yet clear to us that this is the best approach to take.
16. As an op-ed by SNEF Council Members Dr Bicky Bhangu and Ms Rachel Eng have cautioned, we must be mindful of the risk of creating a more acrimonious workplace culture, if both parties can easily take their FWA disputes to court or tribunal, instead of working out mutually suitable arrangements amicably. In the case of the UK which implemented a right-to-request FWA legislation since 2003, the actual take-up of FWAs did not change significantly in the past decade, with the exception of telecommuting during the pandemic.
17. Mr Speaker, even as we rally tripartite efforts to make FWAs more accessible at the workplace, FWAs on its own, is not the silver bullet to achieving the larger goal of work-life harmony. It is merely one aspect of a more supportive ecosystem we seek to build in helping employees manage both their work and family responsibilities. Other initiatives such as subsidised care services and caregiver support networks are also important. The Government will work with employers and other community partners to strengthen these.
18. Each of us also has a role to play in showing understanding and support to our co-workers who may need flexible work arrangements so that they can give their best both at work and to their families. At the same time, those who take up FWAs should do so responsibly to maintain trust with employers and fellow co-workers. This will help to create the truly inclusive workplace culture that we all hope to build.
19. Mr Speaker, we take pride that in Singapore, employees and employers seek to understand each other’s perspectives and co-create solutions to resolve issues. If we want to help employees have access to FWAs, we need a practical, enabling approach that addresses barriers at each workplace. The Government will continue to work closely with the Tripartite Partners and other stakeholders to make FWAs a win-win for all.