A recent survey has revealed that around half of employees in Singapore indicated they would quit their companies if they were not guaranteed remote work and flexible working hours, while around the same proportion of employers expressed their desire to return to pre-coronavirus working conditions instead.

Commissioned by digital workflow firm ServiceNow and conducted by market research firm Wakefield Research, this survey spans 11 countries and provides some insight into what is potentially the world’s first large-scale experiment (by necessity) on employees working from home.

Of the employees polled in Singapore, a whopping 91% said that they liked the new digital changes such as remote working, 52% believed it is essential to be provided flexible working hours, and 45% considered it paramount that their companies guaranteed remote work.

Meanwhile, 46% of executives considered it a priority to revert to previous modes of working before the pandemic, and 47% felt it would be more challenging to establish the current mode of work as a permanent feature than it was to cope with the initial blowout caused by Covid-19.

So, why are employees and employers at odds over their perspectives on the current state of work?

The pros of working from home

The results of this survey suggest that employees would stand to benefit more from remote work while employers would lose out. However, that might not necessarily be true. Remote work has its pros and cons for both parties, and it is not evident that one outweighs the other for either party.

Take employees, for instance. The survey identified the top benefits of working remotely for them: saving commuting or travelling time, more flexibility in managing responsibilities, and being able to improve work efficiency through better use of technology. All fairly clear and obvious points.

However, common sense dictates that these factors will have a positive knock-on effect which benefits employers as well. After all, which company would not be keen to let workers have more time and improve work efficiency?

In addition, companies stand to enjoy an obvious financial advantage too; more employees working from home means less demand for office space. Even if employers do not downsize to smaller premises to save on operating costs, rental fees are already going down due to decreased demand.

What issues does remote working bring?

On the flip side, the survey also shares the problems employers have with remote working. 91% of them pointed out that many routine business functions – document approvals, performance reviews, IT asset requests and approvals, as well as check or cash transactions – still need to be conducted offline.

Coupled with the fact that 60% said they do not have a fully integrated system to manage digital workflows across all business functions, and it becomes evident that businesses do not believe they can operate well enough without their staff physically present at the workplace.

Interestingly enough, while 80% agreed their company will experience cost savings due to the current change in operations, only 68% were of the opinion that these savings should be prioritised towards digital transformation. This implies that while employers are willing to adopt these changes as a means to deal with the Covid-19 crisis, a significant portion of them are somewhat sceptical that further digitalisation would be effective in helping their enterprise, suggesting a certain unwillingness to move with the times.

Perhaps their concerns are rooted in the intangibles. And this should similarly be something that employees themselves need to be wary of. A good example to showcase the manifestation of this problem would be an experiment conducted by the Chinese travel agency CTrip back in 2010.

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Do bosses believe employees work better from home?

CTrip had decided to allow some of its Shanghai call centre staff to work from home for 9 months. This produced some astounding results: work performance increased by 13%, worker satisfaction soared, and the attrition rate was halved. Meanwhile, CTrip itself amassed an impressive US$2,000 annual savings per employee.

There was a significant snag, however. Those who were working from home had their promotion rate fall to approximately half that of those who continued to work in the office.

The implication is clear. Despite increased productivity, executives did not rate the employees who were not present in the workplace above those who were. An employee that is out of sight is out of mind. Working in continued close proximity to superiors most likely facilitated better communication and more opportunities to showcase one’s competence.

Moreover, bosses might feel more in control of the staff that are physically present and be inclined to trust them more. Certainly, there would always be the suspicion that employees who were working from home were skiving off, even if they were meeting their deadlines and actually being more productive. Employers are only human, after all, and just as susceptible to psychological biases.

As such, perhaps employers feel uncomfortable about letting the bulk, if not all, of their staff work from home, with all the insecurities that this would bring. Meanwhile, employees might do well to be mindful of the fact that people are naturally geared towards trusting the people close to them, and the geographic distance that remote working brings is the antithesis of that.

A mutual lack of trust

As a final twist to this story, trust must work both ways. That of employees towards their companies should also be taken into account. The survey indicated that nearly three-quarters of employees felt their company would prioritise business continuity over workplace safety.

To simplify this line of thinking down to its essentials: during a global pandemic, workers value their lives more than they value their careers, and actions taken by employers which do not reflect this sentiment will be roundly rejected.

A Difficult Balance To Be Sought

When all is said and done, the advantages and disadvantages of remote work do not lend themselves to easy solutions when it comes to bridging the divide between employers and employees. This is further exacerbated by the Covid-19 predicament, which is both a health and safety issue and an economic problem.

What may help is for both parties to recognise each other’s perspective better, and understand that ultimately everyone may need to brace for an inevitably less than optimal outcome. There are rarely any winners in a global crisis.

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