Once Unheard of in Asia, Flexible Work Practices Gain Traction

In its struggle to attract and retain talent, Singapore-based KH Security decided in 2006 to implement a new set of employment guidelines. The company introduced job sharing roles, part time jobs and flexible hours, as it sought to reduce the high turnover rates endemic in the security industry — as well as to draw more women to a male-dominated sector. The firm received two grants worth about S$22,600 over two years from Singapore's government to hire work-life consultants, pay for training workshops and buy laptops for office staff who telecommute.


The move paid off. Staff turnover has fallen to around 2 percent a year from 10 percent in 2006, the number of women on staff has gone from zero to 16 percent. Overall employee satisfaction has also shown significant improvement, says Gary Haris, senior business development manager at KH Security. A happier staff, it turns out, is a more productive one — the company's revenue rose 30 percent to S$2.1 million in 2009 over 2008, even as many customers cut back on security manpower during the global financial crisis.

"Clients are saying that customer service has improved and so has productivity, and they appreciate that," says Haris. "During the crisis our sales slipped, but revenue actually rose - and that's because of the increase in productivity," he says. "Customers were willing to pay more for our services."

Flexible work arrangements, uncommon in Asia in the past, are gaining traction in the region as countries like Singapore battle with a falling fertility rate and a greying population. The city state has introduced a raft of measures over the last five years, including two funds that have together dispersed grants to nearly 800 companies like KH Security. Companies are slowly warming up to the idea: the number of firms in Singapore with flexible work arrangements has increased from 19.1 percent in 2000 to 27.5 percent in 2008, according to the Ministry of Manpower. Singapore's rapid recovery from the global financial crisis and falling unemployment rate - which has now hit 2.2 percent - should lend more steam to this trend, the country's leadership says.

"During the crisis our sales slipped, but revenue actually rose - and that's because of the increase in productivity." -on flexible work arrangements enhancing productivity  , Gary Haris, senior business development manager at KH Security

Singapore's push makes it something of a pioneer among Asian societies. In Australia, some 90 percent the country's top 100 companies offer a range of flexible working arrangements. Banking giant Westpac, for example, offers women employees on maternity leave the option to work part-time until their children reach schooling age. Practices like this are virtually unheard of in places like Hong Kong, where only 23 percent of local companies allow telecommuting and just 13 percent offer staff the option of part time hours, according to a latest State of Work Life Balance in Hong Kong survey.

Experts say Asia's work culture, where office "face time" is the typical gauge of an employee's performance, has been the biggest barrier to flexible work practices. "In Asia, we haven't offered these practices because there is an implicit view that if you're not working permanent and full time, you're not motivated and lack ambition," says Dharma Chandran of Ernst & Young, who is based in Hong Kong.

"It's born from the fact that we were primarily developing countries for many decades and the only way to get ahead was to get lots of education and work very hard. Even in countries that are now developed, where the next generation have more and wants for less, these attitudes linger on in our culture," he added.

There is, however, data which show an increasing number of workers disgruntled about the lack of flexible work arrangements, which could put pressure on companies to start dangling incentives. A recent study by The Community Business in Hong Kong showed that 40 percent of employees in Hong Kong would consider quitting, in the quest of better work-life balance.

But the adoption of more life-friendly work practices could ultimately be about dollars and cents.

In Singapore, for every S$1 invested in a work-life program, S$1.68 flows back into the company in the form of higher productivity and reduced turnover, according to a study done by the government. On a global basis, an average firm faces an imminent 7 percent productivity loss from a departing top talent, a survey by businss advisory firm Corporate Executive Board showed.

Singapore is making headway by appealing to companies' bottom line with its subsidies, says Yeo Miu Ean, a director at The Employer Alliance, a Singapore-based CEO network that supports work life integration.

"Singapore definitely has scarce human capital, so talent retention is a major reason why companies are starting to allow flexible work arrangements," says Yeo. "When you lose an employee, you may also lose an entire customer base."