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Will flexible working survive COVID-19?

Uttama Patel, Regional Business Intelligence Manager with Profile, A WilsonHCG Company, examines the trends in flexible working across APAC during the COVID-19 outbreak.


The COVID-19 pandemic, having disrupted the familiar in a multitude of ways, forced working lives to change. Regardless of what organisations had already established, or believed, about an agile workforce, working from home, or telecommuting as it’s formally called, arrived as an enforced norm, on short notice and with no certainty on an end date. But this sudden move to large scale flexible working revealed more about organisations than just adaptability.

We recently surveyed a large set of working professionals in APAC -- 2,685 people based mostly across Singapore, Hong Kong SAR, China and Australia -- on the effects of COVID-19 on working life in the region. (Click here for an infographic summary of who filled in the survey)

Not only did we want to find out if remote working was working, but also what the expectations were for after the outbreak, and how current challenges might inform that future approach.

The outlook was clear: people view flexible working as the future. Seventy-three percent of all respondents felt their organisation would adopt a more agile way of working even after COVID-19 is under control. Most striking was this held true across all industry sectors, size of organisations, countries, generations, and gender.

But do decision-makers agree? Broken down by level of seniority, the finding strengthens, with senior management showing stronger agreement than other respondents. Eighty percent of Board Director-level professionals, 75% of CEO/CFO/MD level, and 75% of Senior Managers agreed or strongly agreed that their organisation would adopt flexible working post-COVID-19.

73% of all respondents felt their organisations would adopt a more agile way of working even after COVID-19 is under control.

One of the drivers for telecommuting is the finding that remote employees are more productive than their office counterparts, with recent studies in the US and Europe producing conclusive evidence. In APAC, however, the productivity of a remote workforce is still in question.

Our survey demonstrated a split in people’s perceived productivity levels when comparing home and office environments. Some felt they achieved more working from home (31%), others felt they achieved less (34%), and a significant number (35%) felt their productivity remained the same whether they were in the office or at home.

Variation here could be attributed to the range of people’s home working environments, as well as the accompanying domestic responsibilities many are juggling due to COVID-19 shutdowns. And not every job lends itself to working remotely, even temporarily. What can be said across all industry sectors and levels of seniority covered in our survey, is that over 65% of respondents felt working from home kept their productivity levels the same or more. As organisations consider the cost savings of reduced real estate, they may also reevaluate what office space is crucial for, and whether limiting it to teams for whom in-person collaboration is paramount, is a more advantageous arrangement.

One key differentiator in the findings on productivity was location. In Australia, where agile working has been established for longer, 43% of respondents felt they achieved more working from home. And in China, where flexible working is still in early stages of adoption, the exact same percentage of respondents felt they achieved less working from home. However, perception may play a key role in this. A robust two-year study by Stanford professor Nicholas Bloom, based on the results of a work-from-home experiment with a 16,000-person NASDAQ-listed Chinese company, showed a productivity boost in remote workers that was equivalent to a full day’s work, compared to office workers, for whom commuting delays, leaving early, taking multiple mid-day breaks, led to lower productivity levels.

By Country: 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?

Where productivity may be in question, it seems the number of working hours is not. Sixty percent of all respondents said they worked a longer number of hours while working from home, with 32% indicating they worked “a lot more”. The longer hours could be due to a lack of commute, with people extending work time on either end of the day. Only 16% felt they worked less at home. 

Overall: If you have been working from home, how do your number of working hours compare to if you were working in an office?

So why, if professionals are working more hours across countries, industry sectors, and levels of seniority, is there this lack of confidence in productivity? With the economic peril the pandemic has brought, it could be that professionals are putting higher expectations on themselves as a result of job insecurity, feeling a heightened pressure to over-perform and to compensate for lack of physical visibility. Many survey respondents commented on feeling the need to respond to work communications right away, regardless of hour of day, for fear not doing so would threaten their demonstration of commitment.

Herein lies the danger of flexible working, and particularly in APAC, where significant effort remains to be made. Where the region was previously more resistant to telecommuting, with the exception of Australia, now it’s had to reconcile with the fact remote working cannot be ignored. What that has brought to the forefront is a question of trust.

Our survey asked to what degree people felt their colleagues were taking advantage of flexible working arrangements and not fulfilling their responsibilities as expected. Over 50% of respondents felt their colleagues were slacking off “to some extent” or “to a large extent”. This held true across all levels of seniority, industry sectors, and generations, with slightly higher levels of mistrust from Gen Y respondents, 23% of whom felt their colleagues were not fulfilling responsibilities to a large extent.

By Generation: To what extent do you feel your coworkers are taking advantage of their flexible arrangement and not fulfilling their responsibilities as expected?

That this is the view despite most professionals working longer hours from home, reveals an imbalance. If flexible working is what professionals expect of the future, what may be critical in the long term is the level, or lack of, trust organisations place in their employees who they can’t meet in any capacity but virtual. As it stands now, most leadership teams seem hesitant to conduct critical business or make key decisions at a remote level.

One of our survey respondents shared an example of a deep level of mistrust at their organisation: all employees working from home were required to log on to a live webcam and be at their home desk, dressed in work attire, for the duration of the day, constantly observed by managers from a distance.

Perhaps what needs to shift, in addition to the stigma around telecommuting, is the view that remote working mimics working in an office, merely at a different physical location. Agility is more nuanced than that, and we may lose out by ignoring that subtlety. Leaders will have to diversify management styles, office politics could take on a new meaning or reduce in prevalence, and office-driven motivation will seek a replacement.

What’s promising is the foundation is strong; professionals in APAC currently working at home are working longer hours and harder. But adding pressures of mistrust and rigidity refute the advantages flexibility allows. Recent Gallup research showed professionals who worked even a few days offsite were significantly more engaged in their jobs, as greater flexibility and control allowed them to optimise their work-life balance.

As more organisations in APAC plan on a continuation of flexible working post COVID-19, turning a forced circumstance into a strong employee engagement tool, it may be pertinent to take a view on trust, adaptability, and culture--elements that transcend physical location.  

As remote working cannot be fully addressed without consideration of its effect on mental health, look out for the next in our blog series on how COVID-19 has impacted the emotional well-being of working professionals across the region.


Uttama Patel, Regional Business Intelligence Manager, Profile, A WilsonHCG Company


May 2020

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