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Singapore powers up to a future of remote work

Ming Teck Kong
Ming Teck Kong8/7/2020 07:00 AM GMT+08  • 6 min read
Singapore powers up to a future of remote work
April 7 is now an infamous date in Singapore’s history as the day on which the nation’s circuit breaker was triggered in response to Covid-19. That event also provided a catalyst for a remote working transformation that will persist long beyond the cu
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April 7 is now an infamous date in Singapore’s history as the day on which the nation’s circuit breaker was triggered in response to Covid-19. That event also provided a catalyst for a remote working transformation that will persist long beyond the current crisis.

Even before Singapore entered its own remote working transition, an estimated 300 million office workers globally were working from home (WFH), according to Boston Consulting Group (BCG). Now the nation has joined a global community aiming to power up for the rebound.

The sparks of this transition were undoubtedly triggered by remote work through necessity. In the next stage of transformation, optimised remote working stands poised to unlock deeper benefits that include a potential 40% increase in employee productivity. Now, businesses must choose to take the final leap towards that future.

Sparking an accelerated transition

Remote working opportunity was weaving its way through business ecosystems even prior to the current crisis. Singapore’s circuit breaker has provided a jolt that jumped that transformation perhaps a decade ahead.

This enforced transition has not been perfect. Yet it provides a template for a more optimised future which could follow. The question remains whether Singapore’s business leaders are ready to embrace this transformation.

BCG’s recent report —”Remote Work Works – Where Do We Go From Here” — makes clear the opportunity at hand. In an optimised WFH setup, productivity is enhanced by 15%–40%, with absenteeism down 40%. Staff turnover is likewise reduced up to 10%–15%. Businesses can also benefit from as much as 20% cost reduction in real estate and resource usage. Even in a pre-Covid-19 world, those benefits would be welcomed by most businesses. In a post-Covid-19 reality, it may be even more critical.

Singapore is perhaps uniquely positioned in the region to leverage this opportunity. The nation has a history of embracing digitisation, with a commitment to investment in digital transformation and business flexibility. The recent Fortitude Budget put this policy front and centre, with a deepening of support under the SMEs Go Digital policy. The country was also ranked first in Cisco’s recent Digital Readiness Index. Those are good foundations to build an effective remote working landscape.

The circuit breaker has revealed the nation’s ability to adapt. While some businesses and organisations rapidly transitioned to remote working, others evidenced the flexibility to quickly shift to online or on-demand service delivery. Educational institutions such as Singapore Institute of Technology revealed this flexibility with a swift transition to comprehensive e-learning during the Covid-19 pandemic. Meanwhile, innovative companies such as delivery platform Grab accelerated the digital transformation of Singapore’s traditional food and beverage merchants.

Not every corner of Singapore’s economy is positioned to fully embrace this opportunity. The nation’s vital manufacturing industry, contributing over 20% of GDP, would find it impossible to transition all roles. Yet even within these sectors, there exist functions which could benefit from an optimised remote working environment — finance, HR, marketing, to name but a few. There are some key areas to assess when considering the scope of your remote working opportunity:

  • The need for on-site interaction
  • Requirements for specialised equipment or facilities
  • Supervision or regulatory oversight requirements
  • Collaboration and interaction enablement
  • Importance of internal innovation

Understanding where these requirements may be, helps businesses analyse where opportunities might lie. That is an important step to an effective bespoke remote working model.

Working models for remote work by choice

Companies can adopt a range of models for remote working, from fully remote operations through to a hybrid model that combines on-site and off-site practice. This makes for a system which can be adapted to meet your own business needs.

When we think about remote working, we perhaps think about the recent “remote by necessity” transition. Yet what Singapore’s businesses should be aiming for is an optimised “remote by choice” future. That is the transformation which can unlock real business opportunities.

As remote work became necessary, companies quickly shifted to introduce new routines and procedures. It was a case of learning while doing. Software was introduced and infrastructure was cobbled together to ensure a safe, connected collaboration. Coaching quickly shifted, as leadership worked hard to maintain culture in the face of business continuity pressures. Hiring and on-boarding has been an off-the-cuff process at a time of adversity.

DBS Bank was forced to change operating hours and practices in-branch to maintain business continuity, but at the same time supported at-home staff with new training through e-learning opportunities. The iconic Zouk nightclub transitioned to offer its space as a livestreaming venue for marketing efforts by big name brands such as Lazada. These are just two of numerous examples showcasing innovative transformations towards more virtual opportunities.

In a “remote by choice” world, businesses must take an extra leap towards opportunity. It is about scaling up and understanding where the greatest benefits lie; adopt the tools and infrastructure that enable efficient, integrated operations. Leaders need to recognise and embed development pathways within an optimised environment. Performance and productivity management will continue to evolve as you go forward.

There is often a sense of reinvention in this period of transformation. In retailing, this has entailed an accelerated shift towards online and mobile. Respected fashion brand FJ Benjamin launched an online-only label of its products. In banking, digital transformations accelerated new capabilities in everything from customer service to automated compliance pathways.

This is not one single great leap, but a series of jumps forward. The first was sparked by the circuit breaker. The next jump is about recognising the opportunity. The final leap forward is adopting the systems and processes to optimise remote working potential. Progressive companies are already working on that third transformation.

Choosing the final leap

Remote working provides a flexible working opportunity that can unlock real benefits for Singapore’s business community. The jump forward inspired by Covid-19 has rapidly accelerated that transformation.

Singapore enjoys perhaps the greatest support per capita for digital transformation in the region. At the same time, the nation boasts a regionally connected business ecosystem that already necessitates an element of remote operations. These realities provide a springboard to boost companies forward on the next leap.

Assess your areas of operation, understand where and how remote work might be implemented, and build a strategy to embrace the tools and procedures to make it work.

It is time to go beyond an enforced transition, and choose remote working as a valuable business opportunity moving forward. We have taken the hop, sparked the next step, and now is the chance to take the final leap towards optimised remote working practice.

Ming Teck Kong is a Managing Director and Partner at Boston Consulting Group. He also leads the People and Organization Practice in Southeast Asia.

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