How Singapore firms are ramping up employee perks in fight for talent

21 May 2022

Straits Times, 21 May 2022, How Singapore firms are ramping up employee perks in fight for talent
Even though the entire workforce has been allowed back to the workplace, the jury is still out as to whether the Great Return to the Office will take place across the board.

But one thing is for sure: Working from home during the pandemic has brought about a shift in the balance of power, away from bosses towards employees, human resources experts, employers and sociologists tell The Sunday Times.

Top employers here are betting on flexible work arrangements as the future of work.

Some firms are making their workplaces more attractive than before the pandemic, despite having fewer employees permanently on-site.

It is not just about waving goodbye to cubicles and saying hello to hot-desking.

With a premium placed on collaboration and bonding with colleagues, employees are enjoying perks such as newly renovated spaces, wine evenings and Friday afternoons spent playing racket games.

Going remote or hybrid
At Meta, the company formerly known as Facebook, offering flexibility is part of efforts to attract top-tier talent following the upheaval of the pandemic.

Ms Rachel Burton, Meta's Singapore-based human resources director for the Asia-Pacific, says in a video call from London: "For all companies, there has always been a reliance on having people live, and want to live and work, in cities where offices have been based.

"So when you adopt a remote and hybrid strategy, it allows more flexibility and broadens the talent pool."

In June last year, Meta announced that the future of work involved expanding its remote and hybrid work options. Most of its more than 77,000 employees worldwide can choose to work remotely permanently, or in a hybrid form, where they are in the office half the time. Flexi-work is not suited for certain functions, however, such as the company's data centres.

According to a Wall Street Journal report in March, chief executive Mark Zuckerberg has been spending less time at the company's headquarters in Silicon Valley, California, and more time at his home in Hawaii, as well as his other homes.

Chief marketing officer Alex Schultz plans to relocate to Britain, while Mr Guy Rosen, Meta's vice-president of integrity, is moving to Israel soon.

Listen to your staff
In "this new chapter of work", Ms Burton says, employee feedback is important.

"Employee participation is critical in our culture of work. We're going to have to learn what it is like to be a full-time remote or hybrid employee and how to continue building relationships," she says.

"It's part of how people feel connected - whether it's the names of meeting rooms or the snacks we serve."

Meeting rooms at Meta's Singapore office in Marina One, which opened in 2018, have names suggested by staff members, such as "Kueh Pie Tee", "Win already lor" and "TBC" (to be confirmed).

Staff bonding is also fostered via community groups dedicated to pursuits such as dim sum, sneakers or tea.

Some communal spaces in the Meta office reopened recently with the easing of Covid-19 measures. There is a games room, where employees can play arcade games, darts and table soccer, as well as a music room with electronic guitars and drums for jam sessions.

Ms Burton says: "We know relationships and a culture of inclusion is at the heart of people doing fantastic work."

Working from home during the pandemic - often with productivity unaffected - has empowered workers, who have also been grappling with work-life balance issues.

Sociologist Nilanjan Raghunath says: "Companies are now starting to care a lot more about what their employees want. There's been a shift away from more traditional, top-down set-ups. Research has shown that people are more willing to work for companies that listen to them."

Mandating a return to the office may not be optimal in this new era of work, notes the assistant professor of sociology at Singapore University of Technology and Design.

But, she says, "how flexible a company should be" also depends on its requirements.

Appealing to Gen Z
Some companies are looking to address other expectations of younger workers in their hunt for talent.

Ms Jasmmine Wong, chief executive of automotive group Inchcape Greater China and Singapore, says: "The pandemic has given people choices. If you don't try to innovate, you may be seen as obsolete and might not get the best out of your people."

Inchcape's portfolio includes local Toyota agent Borneo Motors.

Ms Wong adds: "We need to revitalise our image to be young and trendy. We have a lot of conversations about gender, diversity and green issues. The new generation, especially, is talking about sustainability."

The company has put in place a number of initiatives to cultivate team-building and staff-bonding.

For instance, it installed an indoor eco-farm growing hydroponic vegetables at its Pandan Crescent office earlier this year, which has been popular with staff who harvest the greens to make sandwiches for their colleagues.

Part of the Inchcape office has been renovated. Pre-Covid-19 cubicles have been replaced by more collaborative spaces and sound- absorbent decor to facilitate discussions and cross-department mingling. A new, 1,088 sq ft pantry is more than double the size of the original, with discounted snacks like 50-cent tom yum-flavoured instant noodles available from a vending machine.

Meanwhile, at DBS Bank, permanent hybrid work was mooted as far back as June 2020.

Ms Lee Yan Hong, managing director and head of group human resources at DBS, says: "We thought flexible work would enhance our EVP (employee value proposition), especially for the Gen Zers and millennials. And this was confirmed by our polling across our workforce, which showed that the No. 1 concern for these employees was flexible work arrangements."

Besides increasing the frequency of internal surveys calling for employee feedback during the pandemic for its more than 33,000 staff worldwide, DBS also focused on mental wellness. Employees have access to counselling services and psychiatric treatment as part of the medical insurance coverage provided by the bank.

Other benefits introduced during the pandemic include job-sharing roles, where part-time employees enjoy full medical benefits.

The bank also launched Focus Friday Afternoons in the middle of last year.

Ms Lee says: "One unfortunate outcome about working from home for too long was the blurring of lines, which resulted in mental stress and isolation.

"We encourage our colleagues to keep Friday afternoons free from internal meetings from lunch-time onwards - save for emergencies or urgent external calls. A lot of people take that time for self- directed training."

The DBS Academy offers more than 10,500 free courses for employees, ranging from personal effectiveness classes to technical ones.

Off to acroyoga
The Singapore office of KPMG, a global firm providing tax, audit and advisory services, has a similar focus on downtime on Fridays.

Its Blue Sky Fridays programme, launched in February, takes place every last Friday of the month.

Employees are encouraged to utilise their free time from 3pm that day to "decide how they wish to invest in themselves", says Ms Janice Foo, the Singapore office's head of people.

Employees have so far taken up activities like coding, acroyoga (which combines yoga and acrobatics), baking, squash and hiking at the Henderson Waves on Blue Sky Fridays.

Earlier this week, the company announced salary adjustments for the majority of its Singapore employees, with entry-level pay rising by up to 20 per cent.

On top of the $25 million it is spending on salary increments, the firm will also pay out market-competitive bonuses and invest in a $30 million lifelong learning programme for its 3,200-strong local workforce.

Competing with rivals based on financial incentives is not always possible.

Mr Charles Viggers, partner at law firm Watson Farley & Williams, which has several offices around the world, says: "In the legal world, there is a fight to get the right team members and it is often focused around pay. The top firms in the United States, for instance, are offering huge sums of money."

Benefits such as offering flexible work, a focus on team spirit, a conducive work environment and even flexible use of office spaces can be brought to bear as well, he adds.

The firm moved into a new office near Raffles Place in February, which included more open spaces to encourage interaction, areas for focused work and height-adjustable desks.

Partners like Mr Viggers have given up their own offices, with staff using an app to book a desk. The vast lounge area comes with movable furniture that allows for various layout permutations.

Movie nights for staff are in the works, to be held in the lounge, which also has a big screen.

Another of the firm's partners, Mr Damian Adams, says: "It's almost like the novelty of networking has come back again."

Mr Douglas Thompson, joint managing director (South-east Asia) at design consultancy Space Matrix, which specialises in workplace design, says: "A big part that's been missing from the whole work-from-home idea is socialisation. A question that comes up regularly is, how can companies get people back to the office?"

Current buzzwords like choice, flexibility and agility provide some suggestions, he adds. "What doesn't work is not changing your approach to your workplace and assuming it will be the same, pre- and post-Covid-19."

At RealVantage, an online real estate fractional investment firm, Friday evenings flowing with wine, cheeses and cold cuts made a comeback last month.

Hybrid work and activities to foster camaraderie are ways to make the firm's culture attractive, says co-founder Mao Ching Foo.

Compliance director Lynn Wong adds: "We are working with friends, to the point that it's fun to be in the office."