Flexible working – where are we now in APAC and what does the future hold?
It has now been well over 12 months since the start of the global pandemic and many of us in the region have been in and out of our office environments more times than we can remember - WFH was probably the most used acronym of 2020. In December 2019 there were around 10 million participants in Zoom meetings globally per day. Four months later this had jumped to 300 million. What it has given us is a lot of time to reflect on what works for us personally - whether we would like working from home (WFH) to be the new normal, or whether we miss the buzz of the office when we’re not there. Although it has been one of the most written about topics since early last year most articles and blogs are focused on other parts of the world, particularly Europe and the US. But what are people thinking in Asia Pacific, and are there differences within the region? Since COVID-19 started to spread across the region, we conducted two surveys focusing on areas in which our working lives have been affected by the pandemic, one in April 2020, and a follow-up survey in March this year. For the latter we had 2,000 professionals fill in the survey - click here to see the breakdown of the respondents, a very similar population to the survey from last year. What we saw from the survey a year ago is that there are big differences regionally. In mainland China, for example, people flooded back to offices in June last year and very few staff worked from home after that. In Australia however, appetites have been whetted and it looks like flexible work, in general, will be adopted more broadly than it was pre-pandemic. Hong Kong and Singapore on the other hand seem to be in the middle of these two when it comes to adopting more flexible working practices in the future. From multiple conversations that I’ve had with professionals based in mainland China on this topic over the last few months, I have noticed that certain reasoning comes up again and again as to why WFH hasn’t proved particularly popular in China. Many of the points revolve around productivity, or the lack of it whilst WFH. Lack of space, multi-generational households and poor internet speeds have all been mentioned, and these have come up also in Hong Kong and Singapore as reasons to head back to the office. In Australia, these issues tend to be less of a problem. From our April 2020 survey the following graph illustrates this point well: If you have been working from home because of COVID-19, how productive do you feel you’ve been in comparison to if you were working in an office environment? Another factor is that WFH, and indeed flexible working generally, weren’t as highly adopted in mainland China before COVID-19 broke, with its hard work, ‘996’ (9 AM to 9 PM, six days a week) culture centred around the office, and not at home. Flexible working was on the rise several years before the pandemic in other parts of APAC. To what extent does trust play a factor in all of this? In our March 2021 survey, we asked respondents, rather cheekily, “To what extent do you feel your co-workers, when working from home as part of your company’s COVID-19 contingency plan, have taken advantage of their flexible arrangement and haven’t fulfilled their responsibilities as expected?” The results were quite revealing and could go part of the way to explain why WFH doesn’t hold too much of a future in China, and to some degree, Hong Kong and Singapore. With less experience of WFH, pre-COVID, in China this might not be surprising. But what is surprising is the fact that, according to multiple studies including our own data from last year, we are working longer hours when we WFH. In fact, according to one global survey, we are working, on average, 50 more minutes a day. One extensive study in 2014 carried out by Stanford University of call centre workers in China found that staff worked longer shifts and had a 13% increase in performance when they WFH. Despite this data, the common perception remains that when you work from home you are skiving off. This seems to be particularly prevalent in Asia. In case you’re wondering, we did ask respondents themselves about their propensity to shirk their responsibilities while working at home and 32% confessed to taking advantage to a large or to some extent, across the region. When commenting on their colleagues the average in Asia Pacific was 46%. In the US, although the pandemic is likely to act as a catalyst towards more staff WFH and more flexible working generally, there are some companies that don’t seem to be following that track. In February this year David Solomon, the CEO at Goldman Sachs, labelled WFH as an “aberration” and not the “new normal” that many have predicted it will be. The CEO of Netflix, Reed Hastings, called remote working “pure negative” late last year and called for his staff to return to the office “12 hours after a vaccine is approved.” These approaches have very much gone against the grain in the US and Europe. Think of Microsoft letting their employees know, in October last year, that they will have the option of WFH permanently, with manager approval, if they so desire. Facebook, Spotify and Twitter have done the same. PwC announced recently that staff could start work as early or as late as they wanted, and work from home a couple of days a week. It seems though that, in Asia, the contrary views of Messrs. Soloman and Hastings may not be far from the post-COVID reality here. Distrust and poor home working environment aside, there are other factors at play that will mean that Asia will boomerang back to the “old normal” post-COVID, as we have already seen in China, many of which are culturally orientated. Dig deeper into David Solomon’s thought process and this becomes evident; “I do think for a business like ours, which is an innovative, collaborative, apprenticeship culture, this (WFH) is not ideal for us.“ Simply put there are ways that offices can create a corporate culture that certainly can’t be done WFH, working through a screen. Communicating an organisation’s values is done far more easily face-to-face. The office also offers myriad other benefits from straightforward things like providing structure and routine to one’s day, to providing a source of friends and fun, to real purpose. Some have seen it as a source of comfort and refuge when life isn’t going their way in other areas. For managers, it’s harder to pick up on how staff are feeling when interactions aren’t in person. Brainstorming / problem-solving tasks are harder to do remotely as shared ideas, energy and creativity can be lost. Yes, WFH does circumvent the need to commute and you certainly get fewer interruptions but going to an office and interacting with others does provide variety and a chance to leave work behind at the end of the day, unlike WFH, which offers no escape. Zoom fatigue has been on the rise too. With key non-verbal communication lost, video call attendees tend to exaggerate their facial cues, and also speak 15% louder than they do in person, both of which are tiring. Video call transmission gaps of just 1.2 seconds have been shown to make attendees seem less friendly, attentive and conscientious. It has also been stressful for many being forced to lock eyes with other meeting attendees as well as being close up to them. Research by Stanford University compared the experience to being in a lift that’s at full capacity where you are not allowed to avert your gaze. People’s faces on video calls are the same as if you were standing half a metre apart from them according to the study. A survey by Washington University found that People spent 40% of their time looking at their own face on the video call screen, which hasn’t been good for people’s self-esteem. Another study pointed to the fact that a third of women said they were talked over, interrupted or ignored more frequently during a virtual meeting than in face-to-face ones. WFH might also affect people’s promotional prospects. When some team members are developing in-person relationships with managers in the office, will remote workers feel disadvantaged? As IBM’s chief executive Arvind Krishna put it, “When people are remote, I worry about what their career trajectory is going to be. If they want to become a people manager, if they want to get increasing responsibilities, or if they want to build a culture within their teams, how are we going to do that remotely?” As evidenced, we are also working longer hours if we choose to WFH. I doubt very much that organisations will compensate for the extra hours worked and quite frankly it’s hardly surprising that bosses are keen for staff to work at home - not only are their subordinates working harder, but it also saves on rent. Steering employees towards WFH may not be a sign of altruism and good feeling on the part of the organisation, it might well have a sharp commercial edge to it. Although China seems to be very much at one end of the spectrum when it comes to where employees prefer to work, Hong Kong and Singapore seem to be headed towards a more hybrid approach where people have the option of working in an office or WFH. From a survey we conducted just before the pandemic, in January 2020, within which we serendipitously asked questions about flexible working, we found that people were simply very keen to have the freedom to choose where and when they did their work. Not that many wanted to work from home permanently, but many simply wanted more fluidity. Which flexible working options are the most important or appeal most to you? (Data gathered pre-COVID-19) What has become very evident during the last 12 months is that we are all very different in our thought process when it comes to working in an office versus our homes, as well as understanding what makes us more productive and happier. Individual needs can vary broadly within an organisation so companies that listen to their staff will be the ones to retain them. This will become key as job markets around the world continue to pick up.