THE onslaught of Covid-19 cases since early 2020 forced many industries to shut down or encouraged those who could to work from home (WFH). However, as many countries lift rules and lockdowns amidst positive vaccination rates, companies are looking at other ways for employees to get the best of both worlds.
Earlier this year, Ipsos Malaysia in its study on the pandemics effect on the Malaysian workforce revealed that Malaysia had more people working from home than the global average.
In fact, more than a third of Malaysians had to take leave of absence, and either reducing or increasing their number of hours since the outbreak.
“About 17 per cent of Malaysians claim to have left or lost their job increased anxiety with regards to job security has been a common experience. As a matter of fact, Malaysians report the highest level of anxiety among 28 countries surveyed for the study,” it said.
“Stress from change in routine and family pressure are other concerns.
“Women, people below 35 years of age and lower income employees experience the negative effects significantly more than the rest.”
Work life balance remained a challenge for about two third of Malaysian employees, as Ipsos noted that homes were generally unequipped to get the work done. More than half of employees felt lonely and isolated while working from home.
Ipsos Malaysia managing director Arun Menon commented that the negative effects of the pandemic related changes are uneven.
“Female employees are more likely to be impacted by the changes than their male colleagues,” he added.
“People under 35 and lower income employees feel more anxiety and stress related to job security. Business owners/Decisions makers face much pressure on the choices that they make.
“Even after months of working from home, a majority still struggle to cope with the balance of work life, inadequacy of home setup, and severe loneliness/isolation.
“Anxiety related to job security, stress due to change in routine and family pressure has impacted Malaysian employees more than their global peers. Pandemic related work changes will have a lasting negative effect on workforce.”
Mixing up work plans
As Corporate Malaysia looks to enter either Phase 2 or Phase 3 of the National Recovery Plan (NRP) – depending on the Covid-19 situation in respective states – the question now is whether it is essential to maintain the practice of hybrid workplaces over a longer period to accommodate the constant disruptions brought about by the pandemic.
In Hays’ report titled ‘Uncovering the DNA of the future workplace in Asia’, it was found that accelerated digital adoption brought welcome changes to many in Malaysia with regards to flexibility, upskilling and employee wellbeing – issues that have dogged the workforce and prompted a brain drain for some years now.
This comes as Hays conducted two surveys, during the pre-Covid-19 period of January to February, 2020 (Study 1) and between August to September, 2020 (Study 2) for its report.
“Most respondents in Malaysia remain unsure (40 per cent) if they could describe their organisation as future-ready; but they are sure about what will get them there – digitalisation of processes (81 per cent), openness to change (77 per cent) and the option to work remotely and flexibly (68 per cent), with the latter being the highest such score in Asia by some distance,” Hays said.
“Increased training and development opportunities (64 per cent) along with redesigning existing roles (into hybrid or part-time for example), were also high on the list, with the latter again being the highest in Asia by some distance.”
On whether the pandemic has changed the expectations of employees, Hays gathered that Study 2 showed 41 per cent of respondents in Malaysia are actively looking for new opportunities, with a further 47 per cent who are passively open to new opportunities – the latter being the highest such score in Asia.
“A high number of passive jobseekers is a threat for any organisation looking to retain top talent and serves as an indicator for organisations to continuously review and update their retention strategies,” the report read.
Striking the right balance
When comparing Study 1 and 2 sentiments on what respondents in Malaysia find important when looking for a new employer, Hays saw that the route to successful retention becomes apparent.
“While the increase in the importance of job stability is a region-wide trend likely triggered by recent events, flexible working has remained a consistent top priority.
“The rise in importance of compassionate and engaged management, as well as identifying with company values and culture, would appear to feed into this while also indicated a shift in demand towards more humane and connected workplaces.”
On flexibility, Hays highlighted that 85 per cent of respondents in Malaysia said that remote working options had become more important to them after the pandemic, with a further 81 per cent saying flexible hours had become more important and 60 per cent who said structured hours had become less important to them.
“But while more employers have ramped up their remote working offerings from pre-pandemic (31 per cent) to following (54 per cent), our results show only a moderate increase in the number of employers who offered flexible hours pre-pandemic (47 per cent) and post (51 per cent).”
It further highlighted that the latter is the lowest such score in Asia after Singapore (49 per cent).
“Additionally, 75 per cent said employee wellbeing had become more important to them, but only 31 per cent of organisations currently offered this, indicating a large gap.
“This is even more apparent when we note that Malaysia scored the highest in the region in terms of deeming work-life balance as important or very important (96 per cent), as well as the highest percentage to say flexible working options (92 per cent) and remote working options (81 per cent) contributed to better work life balance.
“Respondents in Malaysia were also most willing to compromise on work-life balance for increased salary or benefits (67 per cent), indicating that the value they sought was more tangible than learning (42 per cent), job security (41 per cent) or feeling purpose and connection to their role (46 per cent).”
Malaysia’s readiness to adopt flexible working arrangements
TODAY, workplace flexibility is no longer simply a “perk” to attract and keep employees, given that it has become the expectation for both employees and employers, opined Mercer’s Talent Strategy lead in Malaysia Natasha Yusof.
“According to Mercer’s 2021 Global Talent Trends report, flexible working policies is one of the key priorities for organisations across Southeast Asia in 2021,” she recapped to BizHive in an email interview.
“Findings from a 2021 survey conducted by TalentCorp and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Malaysia, employers are responding to changes in employee expectations and the lessons learnt from the Covid-19 experience but they lack the know-how and the tools.
“While it is true that not every employer can offer remote work, they can identify opportunities that exist in their own workplace, and what version of flexibility offers the most help to their employees.
“Deeper conversations need to happen between managers and their team members to determine which roles can turn into remote-working roles, as a permanent option.”
Yusof opined that employers in Malaysia also need to shift from monitoring employee inputs (facetime in the office, perceived concentration on work) to employee outputs (quantity and quality of deliverables).
She also highlighted that the work-from-home (WFH) experience during the highly disruptive Movement and Control Order (MCO) period confirms the benefits of flexible work arrangements to employee well-being and productivity.
“When flexible work arrangements are implemented well, they will increase organisational resilience to workplace disruptions beyond the Covid-19 pandemic.”
On whether it is s actually more economical for organisations to permanently enforce remote working for employees where possible or for companies to maintain their office work spaces but with enforced SOPs in place, Yusof replied that organisations who are looking to move to a hybrid work model can consider downsizing their office space to accommodate more meeting or collaboration hubs for team or client meetings instead.
However, she noted that based on client insights from Mercer’s recent webinar on flexible work arrangements with companies in Malaysia like TalentCorp and Prudential BSN Takaful (PruBSN), most companies still prefer to maintain an office work space so that their employees who are working remotely now, have the option to return to the office as and when needed.
“Personally, I am a firm believer in the importance of maintaining some level of physical interaction with my colleagues which can’t be emulated over video conferencing on Zoom or Microsoft Teams.”
Striking the right balance
ON whether there has been improvement in productivity among employees who worked from home, Yusof gathered that many companies in Malaysia have maintained the status quo and in some cases, even reported increased productivity levels.
“Despite initial concerns over their employees’ ability to adjust to remote working, many companies in Malaysia have maintained and in some cases, even reported increased productivity levels, all of this while taking care of their children and household commitments,” she revealed.
This was supported by a 2020 study by TalentCorp and UNDP Malaysia, which included 1,021 employees and 231 employers, 60 per cent of respondents reported their productivity increased or remained the same, and remote work has improved their quality of life.
“In particular, women (who often assume a caregiver role at home, felt their quality of life improved because working remotely helped them better manager work and family commitments,” Yusof added.
Despite the numerous benefits that come with remote working arrangements or WFH, there are downsides to adopting this practice, particularly over a long-term period.
Yusof highlighted that remote working has blurred work-life boundaries and going virtual has thrown the spotlight on mental well-being.
“Like in many countries, the pandemic has caused a surge in rates of mental health issues in Malaysia. According to the 2019 National Health and Morbidity survey, roughly half a million people in Malaysia reported symptoms of depression.
“Isolation and burnout are two key triggers for mental health issues, as a result of the lack of interaction with people and the blurring of work-life boundaries as a result of the pandemic.
“Some employees may even find it a struggle to maintain a work-life balance, due to the ‘guilt’ of shutting down even after working hours.”
She went on to note that without the right policies in place, serious issues such as employee fatigue and deteriorating mental health can have a significant impact on businesses.
“Workforce exhaustion often leads to more human errors, lower productivity levels and high employee turnover.
“Fatigued employees are also less likely to embrace reskilling or organisational changes, and their perception of the competitiveness of their pay or career perspectives may be skewed.
“This is where support from their organisations is crucial – and more can be done in this regard.”
Prevention is better than cure
Yusof shared that providing greater support away from work can be in the form of allowing flexible working hours, giving employees more room to juggle their work and personal commitments.
She recommended that in terms of prevention, employers can consider digital solutions that build skills in areas such as resilience and mindfulness or launch educational campaigns on behavioural health topics.
“Lastly, to provide greater access, treatment and coverage, companies can consider new Employee Assistance Programs or health plan networks that address psychological needs of their employees.
“The shift to remote working, if done well, will be a win-win outcome. It can bring a multitude of benefits, from increased productivity and more meaningful roles for employees to greater access to diverse talent pools for employers.
“Employees find a greater sense of work-life balance which leads to increased employee satisfaction and improved morale. In turn, organisations benefit from lower staff turnover and absentee rates.”
In comparison to other countries, Yusof observed that Malaysia still has some way to go.
“Insights from our recent webinar show that there is a greater need for a mindset change, for flexible work arrangements to work in Malaysia.
“There are employers who still insist on scrutinising and keeping track of employees who are working remotely, either through monitoring software or demanding their employees to always turn their video cameras on.
“This results in employees feeling penalised for working remotely and they will be demotivated by the lack of professionalism and trust.”
On another note, Yusof gathered that in Malaysia, there is a lot more success with flexible work arrangements in larger MNCs.
“For small to medium enterprises (SMEs), many are still struggling to transition to remote working because of the increased pressure on cost containment to keep their businesses afloat.
“For instance, flexible working arrangements involves having the right infrastructure in place as well as ensuring that employees have the right tools like laptops and internet access to support remote working.
“SMEs simply don’t have the luxury of time and the resources to come up with long-term plans and answers before they have had a chance to try things out and see what works.”
Looking ahead, Yusof opined that for workplace flexibility to be feasible as a permanent option, the government needs to play a more proactive role to support flexible work arrangements.
She noted that apart from tax incentives to encourage workplace flexibility, more guidelines can be provided to help employers better assess their readiness, identify the gaps and customise solutions fit for their organisations.
“A fair and consistent framework at the national level will pave the way for the successful implementation of remote working arrangements in Malaysia.”
Recommendations for employers in Malaysia
1. Make flexible working hours a reality
Malaysia’s workforce has long made a case for remote and flexible working, with many owing this sentiment to the long and often tedious commute to workplaces over large distances. That this opinion has only been exacerbated by the pandemic shows little doubt over what the workforce wants from a workplace of the future.
With the acceleration of digital adoption, it may be difficult for respondents in Malaysia to imagine a workplace that does not offer flexible working hours, if not remote working entirely.
2. Digitalise processes quickly
The majority of respondents in Malaysia have taken a digital-forward mindset and envisioned a workplace of the future to have digitalised processes.
With a large majority also saying that an organisation’s digital journey was important to them regardless of their role, technology will be a major and continual area of focus for organisations to not only develop their capabilities but to keep staff motivated and engaged.
Considering the speed at which employers are implementing changes, an organisation of the future would be expected to have faster processes and implementations to keep up with employee needs.
3. Improve company facilities
The high importance of company facilities may also indicate why remote working has become more important, as they go hand in hand with providing safe and connected workplaces in times of crisis. A workplace of the future will provide enough facilities and maintain standards that can provide their employees with a feeling of security, particularly if it cannot offer flexible or remote working.
4. Have compassionate leaders who reward staff
Not only do respondents in Malaysia consider compassionate and engaged management important when considering a new employer, but also as an important element that brings meaning to their work. The continuity of this uncovered in both studies indicates that this sentiment is here to stay.
The lack of rewards and recognition reported, as well as the willingness to compromise on work life balance for pay or benefits also indicated that a workplace of the future will not only have compassionate leaders, but leaders who will reward and recognise their staff more frequently.
5. Develop remote skill sets
The resounding push from respondents in Malaysia for more flexible and remote working is compounded by the rising importance of soft skills, digital skills and remote skill sets of remote orientation and remote leadership.
A workplace of the future will not only offer flexible and remote ways of working but also have training and measurement in place so skills can not only be imparted but developed and evolved with the times.