16 October 2012, by Dannie Cho
In my previous post, I shared that I was an advocate for flexi-work arrangements. I believed that it was a win-win situation for both the employer and employee. And when both win, I suppose the Government wins too, because there is one more set of willing parents-to-be in the country.
Well, somewhere around June this year, my advocacy was put to the test. My direct report approached me. “Dannie, I would like to discuss something with you.”
Naturally, the solemn tone and her serious expression sounded off all sorts of alarms in my head. “Okay. What’s up?”
“I’d like to work from home.”
Well. It turns out that her daughter, who is now in Primary Six, will lose access to student-care facilities when her school moves to a new location after the June holidays. My colleague showed me the school’s letter. Hurray, the new campus was ready earlier than expected. Rather than wait till the end of the year, the school will move now, now, now! Unfortunately, the current arrangement where the school’s teachers bring enrolled students to the nearby student-care facility will be discontinued, since the new campus is now somewhere on the other side of Singapore now. And if your PSLE-taking daughter needs the facility? Well, too bad. Sucks to be you.
I guess I was disappointed that nothing could be worked out with the school. There apparently wasn’t a significant group of parents who were similarly affected like my colleague. Nonetheless, it was time to give serious thought to how we can work things out.
“My girl,” my colleague explained,”is having her PSLE this year. Student-care was supposed to make sure she revises her work and prepare for the exams. But now there is no such facility any more.”
Together, we also checked out nearby student-care facilities. I was willing to let her have a longer lunch break, so that she could also pick up her daughter from school to drop her off at a suitable establishment. Alas, none were to be found. There were either unwilling to accept adhoc arrangements for a 3-4 months, or just did not cater to the Primary 6 age group.
In the end, I sat her down and explained the situation as I saw it.
The company does not have an official work-from-home policy. But I would support her request and push for it to be approved. BUT, she has to understand this goes on the company’s records. When the performance appraisal exercise rolls along next year, it is going to be near-impossible for her to score well against the other colleagues who are physically there and seen to be working all the time. For this one year, at least, she will have to accept that any performance bonuses and/or increments may not be as rewarding as what the others will get. It may seem unfair, since she is still working full-time, but that is the pragmatic, realistic view of what is going to happen.
She accepted my view and said she would still go for it. I supported her as promised, and together, we got it approved by our superiors.
Case closed? Not quite.
End July. She came to me again. “Dannie, this work-from-home thing is not working out.”
“I’m getting too tired to do my work properly. I come in to office in the morning, rush off at 1pm, pick up my daughter, bring her home, and I supervise her work all the way till the evening. Then I start putting in the 4 extra hours of work that the company pays me for. By the time I finish my work, it is way past midnight, and the whole cycle begins again the next day. This is too tiring.”
“You know that I am being very accommodating about when you complete each item of your work right?”
“Yes. But I would feel bad if I don’t complete my work on time. I think it would be better for me to leave, and you hire someone else. Here’s my letter.”
Well. THAT was a bombshell. The arrangement that I pushed for was not working out. We were going to lose a valuable staff anyway. I felt a little dazed, because despite my best efforts, I could not help my staff balance her work-life versus her family responsibilities.
My manager and I spent the month hiring possible candidates. But all the while, I kept mulling over what could be done. Finally, I suggested to my manager that we retain my staff by offering her a full-day arrangement in place of a work-from-home arrangement. That means she only works half a day everyday, while her children are in school. After that, pick up her kids, go home, spend time with them and don’t think about work till the next morning. In exchange for this arrangement, the company only gives her half her normal salary for the duration of this arrangement.
By the time my colleague completed her one month notice period, it was end-August. Her daughter’s PSLE was in mid-October. It was ridiculous to lose a staff because we could not cater to her needs over a 2.5 month period.
And you know what? My manager agreed with me. We offered the new package to my colleague, and she accepted it without reservations. And this week, she’s back with us full-time. Crisis over.
In closing, I would like to share a few points on what I THINK made this work. Hopefully, this is useful to those who are looking for similar arrangements, or even managers like me who are faced with such situations in future.
1. As an employee, it definitely helps if you have shown yourself to be a solid and dependable staff. Any arrangement where you are not under the watchful eye of your employer requires your employer to trust you.
2. If possible, maneuver yourself into a role where deadlines are a little more flexible. If your role requires that you follow deadlines strictly, there is less leeway for the company to trust that you will continue to meet all your work obligations.
3. Understand that this is a privilege, not an entitlement. Even if your company has an official framework for flexi-work arrangements, it generally requires your line manager to sign-off and agree that it is okay for you to work from home.
4. Understand also, that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. I’ve already explained the company’s most likely response in terms of career advancement and remuneration above. You would have to manage your own expectations accordingly.
5. It truly helps if you have peers who are willing to take up the slack while you are gone. So, be nice to everybody.
6. Employers should sit with staff to work out what is critical work, which someone else has to take up immediately in the staff’s absence, and what is not critical and can be allowed to slide for a couple of days. Employers have to let go of the mindset that EVERYTHING is equally important, or be prepared to arrange fo additional help – either through temps, or internal transfers.
7. Lastly, look at time and cost factors. For us, having my colleague on half-time for 2.5 months was acceptable, because we already knew what was the average cost to hire a new person and train him/her. Not to mention that the recruitment process would take at least a month anyway.
So, that’s it! Hope this helps somebody, somewhere, sometime. I’m just glad that when the ideal and the reality clashed, there was a way to let my ideal work. May it be the same for everyone else out there.