Working from home, Singapore and the COVID-19 productivity factor

Singapore is trying to keep business running as close to normally as possible during the COVID-19 emergency. That means a high percentage of workers being required to work from home with the complexity and adjustments that entails. How can companies retain productivity during this turbulent time?

Singapore was perhaps better prepared to adapt to the COVID-19 enforced new normal than many other countries. Many Singaporean workers have become used to mobile working in recent years, and Singapore has always had a very work-centric culture. People in Singapore work an average of 45 hours per week, making it the second hardest-working city in the world.

Singaporeans are also generally responsible employees who can be trusted to work remotely. According to a 2019 survey, around 70% of people said they are happy to respond to work calls and emails outside of office hours. Traditionally, home working has been difficult to measure: some companies have found that remote working actually raises employee productivity, others have found the opposite.

In situations like today, where working from home has become the enforced normal, companies that have not already digitized their ways of working may struggle to adjust, and many companies still have particular systems that can only be accessed in the office. Companies need help and guidance on what to do and what lessons they can learn to stay productive.

The need to adapt quickly

At Orange, when initial reports of the COVID-19 virus outbreak emerged from Wuhan in China, we formed a crisis management team, with senior executives in key leadership positions. We established regular review meetings a few times a week to monitor where we were in terms of keeping the business running as effectively as possible.

We’ve used unified communication and collaboration (UC&C) tools for a long time, both in the office and on the move, to make our employees more productive. Working from home has been a standard practice for many workers for some time, too. We use remote access VPN for most of our client-facing teams, which is around 67% of our organization. This meant that in the face of the COVID-19 enforced changes, we had to enable the remaining 30% or so of our workers to be able to work from home quickly. Having this experience made us well-placed to advise our customers on what to do themselves.

The advantage of preparation

Some Singaporean companies were better prepared to make the shift to mass homeworking and continued productivity than others. According to research conducted by Forrester, companies’ technology capabilities were stretched by the COVID-19 outbreak. Only just over half, 54%, of workers said they believed their “company has the technology resources” required to support working from home. This was perhaps a little surprising given that at the time of asking, companies had had over two months to prepare for their employees needing to work remotely.

So as remote work becomes the enforced new normal, companies will need to provide the necessary digital tools for employees to work from home and remain productive. However, being productive while remote working is not only a matter of technology; employees need to feel their employers are caring about them, too, as the emergency continues. Only 49% of workers say they have the flexibility in their working from home schedule to look after family members if they need to. It is something for employers to factor in.

Some companies affected differently than others

Singapore is home to some of the world’s leading financial services organizations, an industry that has quite traditional ways of working. Orange customers I have spoken to, whose employees are largely information workers, have been doing relatively well in terms of adapting and productivity. For financial services companies, there has been more of a challenge, since many of their workers are used to working in branches and dealing with customers face to face. Naturally this has an impact on their productivity levels, since they are dealing with both a shift in where they now work and also how they work.

The need to scale rapidly also varies by company. One Orange customer reacted quite rapidly to the COVID-19 emergency and asked us to help them ramp up their working from home capacity by five or six times their usual level, immediately. We were able to do it, but it meant a change in our own productivity, too. We increased their remote working capacity and gave them a new cloud solution that would enable them further, and we did it in just two weeks. Ordinarily, productization of that kind would take months. The current situation incentivized us to work differently and faster.

The role of HR

Looking longer term about how people will work from home and how they will stay productive means factoring in human resources (HR). HR can help with workers’ social well-being while they are locked down, and HR is responsible for training, too – with lots of new apps to learn how to use when working from home, which also impacts productivity.

Employers have a responsibility to help remote employees with work-life balance, and mental health in general. HR is at the forefront of how we manage our people during COVID-19, and there’s a lot of thought gone into how we measure well-being. For example, people who live alone have different needs and care than people who live with partners and children.

What comes next?

According to Gartner, 74% of companies expect some of their employees, who have been forced to work from home because of the COVID-19 pandemic, will continue working remotely after the pandemic ends. In ASEAN, we’ve already started preparing for that – in 6 or 12 months’ time, I expect to see a higher percentage of staff working from home and also wanting to work from home. So companies will need to be in a position to offer that to existing and new employees.

Productivity has always been a key element of business strategy but will become even more so in the near future, albeit from a slightly different angle. With more employees in Singapore working from home, companies will have to adapt processes and traditional practices. Offices will likely need fewer permanent desks for example, as more “traditional” office jobs, like administration and accountancy, become homeworkers. There will likely be a mental shift away from physical interaction in the workplace and to people getting used to working in isolated ways, and companies will need to account for that without letting productivity drop.

In Singapore, a poll of 350 workers between March 27 and April 2 found that around a third of them believed they have been more productive since they started working from home, and 80% of Singapore employees want to continue working from home after the circuit breaker ends. The new normal will require employers to work continuously to help them stay productive.

To read more about best practices for remote working and tips from Orange on a fast, seamless transition to remote working arrangements, please see our e-book: Be Resilient at All Times: Best practices for effective remote working.

Tuan Le
Tuan Le is General Manager for ASEAN at Orange Business Services. He has been in the role since Jan 2011, and as ASEAN Head of Sales and Operations Tuan provides the leadership and strategic direction to ensure that Orange Business Services stays competitive in line with its focus on growth in the emerging markets. Tuan is responsible for operations in Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Philippines and Thailand and he is based in Orange Business Services Asia Pacific headquarters in Singapore. Prior to this role Tuan was the Asia Pacific Director of Channels at Orange and before he joined Orange in 2009, Tuan was General Manager at F5 Networks. His career also includes nine years in Microsoft in sales and management positions.