Over the last 22 months, the global Covid-19 pandemic has affected every facet of our daily lives, including the way we work.
Prompted by the rapid spike in the number of cases in the country up until October 2021, the Malaysian Government had implemented several Movement Control Orders (MCOs) to curb further widespread, including shutting down all government and private premises, except for those involved in “essential services”. The travel ban has also been imposed on Malaysians and the country’s borders are closed to inbound foreigners.
These MCOs have forced most employers to have their employees work from home (WFH) as part of their collective efforts to mitigate Covid-19 risk exposures. For the first time in history, millions were put on WFH, and this has led many to ditch their daily commute and to start working from sofas, dining room tables and even beds.
Under such dire circumstances, we’ve made our work works for us in the best way we can. But, this may not be an isolated shift, as the outbreak has triggered an anxious trial-run for remote work on a grand scale.
As a consequence, hopefully, when the pandemic subsides and we slowly return to what used to be normal, many companies would then have the tools and infrastructure, as well as the options, to implement true flexible working location as part of their way of work.
The question is, will flexible working be the default position for all employees, rather than an individual request?
Flexible Working by Default?
What if the country amends the Employment Act 1955, and makes all jobs fall under flexible working by default, rather than putting the onus on employees to request for flexibility.
Would you agree that all jobs should be considered for “flexible working by default”?
It may not sound like pushing the envelope too much to have flexible working as the new normal but to make it a default position is another thing altogether.
Nevertheless, flexible working could become the default position for all employees under new rules planned by the UK Government as part of its Employment Bill, which would give employees more say over the hours they are required to work.
This comes after Tory Member of Parliament, Helen Whately, introduced a Flexible Working Bill in July 2019, arguing that the change would help close the gender pay gap and help parents share childcare.
“Flexible working is good for business, the economy and work-life balance, but it must be offered as standard, not haggled for, later down the line,” said Whately.
The purpose of the Flexible Working Bill is to make all jobs flexible by default unless the employer has a sound business reason why particular hours in a particular place are required.
Some may argue that, currently, employees in the UK can apply for flexible working if they’ve worked continuously for the same employer for the last 26 weeks.
Meanwhile, a flexible working arrangement is still one of the proposed amendments in the Employment Act 1955 in Malaysia. Currently, the Act neither prohibits nor allows flexible working arrangements.
This is where Malaysia may skip the flexible working by application phase and implement the flexible working by default unless employers have a good reason not to.
If Malaysia implements flexible working by request, as you say, employees have to request it, and this will be a very formal structure. Employees have to prove how they could make it work – and this inevitably shows there exist a trust issue between the employer and the employees.
I believe flexible working should shift from being a very formal and formulaic approach of “Will this work?” to “We must make it work”.
Hence, if it becomes available to everyone and an option that’s considered as part and parcel of every job, there will be more creative. There will be more openness in terms of “How can we make this work?”.
Flexible working might not work for many people, but the status quo is already failing millions of employees. There are probably certain jobs where it will be incredibly difficult to implement, but taking an approach to amending our employment laws means that the starting point is “Can we make it work?”, as opposed to “Malaysians have never done it before and it’s not doable”.
It will transform the mindset of employers, who will, consequently, see it more as something that should be considered as opposed to “Let’s wait and see if somebody requests for it”.
For certain jobs, particularly in an office environment, it is always possible to implement flexible working, but still, a host of managers resist the idea of WFH.
For default flexible working to work, there should be mutual flexibility where employers and employees compromise, where the work-process design will allow a job to be a little bit more flexible. It may not lead to full acceptance, but there could be some compromise.
Employers will have to get better at improving productivity by being more result-oriented, rather than task-oriented, or mere presence at the office, dubbed “presentism”. Employees have to develop new habits, such as planning their day into work deliverables, office communications, personal time and social or family life.
For years, TalentCorp Malaysia has been campaigning for flexible working arrangements, but it took a global pandemic to show that it is possible. From this perspective, it has proved that Malaysia can make flexible working a default. Notwithstanding, a global pandemic is not an appropriate time to determine what kind of working arrangement is the best to enhance productivity in the country.
Instead, this global pandemic is a stepping stone for companies to quickly embrace the digital culture. When the economy returns to normal, employers could make remote work easier for employees – for those who want to commute less and spend more time with family.