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The First Word: Is HR facing a back-to-the-office problem?

COMMENTARY: Paul Howell, Managing Director of Chief of Staff Asia warns that getting staff back to the office and pre-Covid-19 levels of productivity may still be a challenge in 2023.

Almost three years on now, and even with most travel and distancing requirements shelved, the Covid-19 pandemic continues to reverberate throughout the economies of Southeast Asia. Some of the most impacted industries are pushing slowly into recovery, while others are taking advantage of a New Normal that rewards online sales engines and services that can be delivered via the internet.


But it’s not just consumer preferences that have placed businesses in a quandary through much of last year. They are also facing pressure from within their own work forces to avoid a full 180-degree back to traditional work styles.


Professionals from Jakarta to Hanoi and all the way back to Singapore all got a taste of remote and flexible working during the last three years. They experienced the challenges but also remember the advantages in terms of reduced commuting times, personal autonomy, and the ability to focus on the people and tasks that really mattered. Now that the pandemic-suppressing need for work-from-home arrangements are fading, many are questioning the automatic return to the office.


The dilemma for business

In Singapore, capacity limits on offices and other workplaces have been lifted since April 26, 2022. Vaccination mandates have also been removed, though mask-wearing is still encouraged in indoor spaces.


For many employers, this has come as a welcome relief, and a chance to get back to the “normal” way of doing business that they all knew from 2019. For many professional workers however, what has been a promised land for employers is really the “old normal”, and there is great hesitancy to return to some of the traditional workplace policies that existed even just a few years ago.


If this really was 2019, that hesitancy wouldn’t be so much of a problem for businesses. The less appealing aspects of work back then — long commutes, aimless meetings, unnecessary administration, and office politics — were part and parcel of almost every workplace and “employee experience”. Staff just had to take the hits and move on.


But there is something different, and much bigger, at play now, and employers should consider carefully before attempting to wind the clock completely back to pre-Covid times. While it has its most famous origins in the US, the so-called Great Resignation, with its wave of professionals all leaving their jobs, is also very real in Singapore and Southeast Asia.


Time to talk

Employers here do not want to be on the wrong side of this phenomenon. With skilled talent already hard to come by, and inflation pushing up the wages demanded by even non-tested professionals, the power dynamic has shifted in favour of employees.


Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be a combative exercise. Employers should look to evaluate their staff on a team by team, or even on an individual basis, to come up with best-fit work packages that offer something for everyone. Investing in effective internal communication strategies will further help to keep the most productive personnel doing what they do best, from wherever works best for both business and the staff member involved.


Good talent is good talent, whether it is working from home, the office, or a beach shack in Bali. And now, more than ever before, employers should take care not to alienate their most valued assets ahead of an extended period of talent scarcity.


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