Flexi-work the hallmark of Denmark?
COPENHAGEN: Florian and Elaine Friss are married with a son and have a baby girl on the way. They said having two children was an easy decision, simply because of where they are. The couple lives in Denmark, which was ranked top in 2015 for work-life balance in the developed world.
The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) study compared the number of hours spent at work with the number of hours devoted to personal time and leisure per day in 36 countries.
Florian and Elaine often thought about moving to Singapore, the country of Elaine’s birth.
“What I’ve experienced (here) is a lot of acceptance and flexibility. Every now and then we consider moving to Singapore or elsewhere, (but then) we remind each other that we would have to let go of a lot of that flexibility.
“It’s a very easy life in a sense. You’re allowed to do a lot of things that I believe in other countries are considered a very bad move career-wise.”
Flexi-work is a hallmark of Denmark, and one that the Singapore Government is studying to encourage people to start families. The National Population and Talent Division (NPTD) recently travelled to Copenhagen and Seoul to explore ways to enhance work-life balance with an eye on boosting the fertility rate in Singapore.
Danes work 37-hour work weeks on average, the shortest among developed countries. In fact, only 2 percent of Danish employees work 50 hours or more a week.
Florian and Elaine said this has allowed them to be more hands-on parents.
“If you want to be involved, Singapore will not allow you to do that,” said Elaine. “By the time you get home, it’s 7pm or 9pm and you don’t even get to see your baby.
“(Here) we leave work at 3pm and pick up the kid by 5pm. Actually, we’re always the last to pick him up – it’s really amazing how the Danish parents are there before us! Then we can have dinner, bathe the baby or kid, read stories to them and spend another one or two hours together before they go to bed.”
In contrast, Singaporeans typically work 46 hours per week on average, according to a Singstat report for 2014. That is nearly on par with South Korea (47 hours), which the NPTD also visited on the study trip.
Senior Minister of State Josephine Teo, who oversees population matters, said after the study trip that it is a conversation that will happen between the Government, employers and labour movement.
The Singapore Government recognises the link between time spent at work and the chances of people getting married and starting families, and it has pledged to have a “conversation” with employers and the labour movement on the possibility of getting more to adopt flexi-work arrangements.
ISSUE OF FACE TIME
One expert said such efforts, if successful, would be “game-changers” for Singapore’s birth rate prospects. Singapore’s birth rate in 2014 was 1.25, way below the ideal rate of 2.1.
“When there is work-life balance, it frees (Singaporeans) to attend to other aspects of their personal life that are equally important,” said National University of Singapore sociologist Paulin Straughan. “These include getting to know other peers, expanding social networks and making decisions that involve family formation at an earlier stage.”
For some professions, flexi-work arrangements are a lot harder to implement. Due to the nature of the work, it is practically impossible to work from home or have staggered hours. For jobs in which it is possible, there is the issue of face time, a feature that Singapore firms still value.
“The fear is always, ‘if my employees are not where I can see them, they’re going to be cheating on their hours, they’re not going to be working when they’re supposed to be’,” said Associate Professor Straughan.
“(But) there are many studies in HR which have demonstrated that when you allow flexi-work, it actually increases productivity because it reduces a lot of waste,” she added. “Organisations continue to work based on very traditional principles and the principles that are not conducive to the pro-family initiatives have to do primarily with a lack of trust and also perhaps the way the work processes are mapped out.
“We have to relook our evaluation practices. I think very rarely now will we have situations where face time is still an effective indicator of work performance. So how do we then have a better gauge of output at the office? This is something that needs a lot of work.”
Flexi-work is an area that the South Korean government is also trying to promote. It is still calling it “an unmet need” for work-life balance, but companies are coming around.
Some, such as government-linked financial technology firm, Kotec, are adopting arrangements like reduced working hours for parents and an automatic shut down of company computers by 7pm.