Throughout the circuit breaker period, Lisa, a receptionist at a small local investment firm, had worked from home with the understanding that this would be her work arrangement for the foreseeable future owing to the Covid-19 situation.
So when her company’s director asked her to report to the office from Tuesday (June 2), the mother of two, who is about seven months’ pregnant with a third, and who requested to have her full name withheld from publication, was shocked.
Her main job is answering the phone, which she says she can do from home, as the calls are diverted there from the main office.
She wondered to herself: Didn’t the Government say that even after the circuit breaker period ends at the end of Monday, all workers must continue to work from home unless clearly necessary?
Return to Office
With Singapore entering the first phase of its three-phased economic reopening, several employers and rank-and-file workers in small businesses have said of the confusion over the “telecommute whenever possible” rule, despite the start of phase one on Tuesday.
In phase one, the Government has stated that workers are expected to continue to work from home where it is at all possible.
Under the Infectious Diseases Act, employers who do not make facilities available for members of staff to work from home where such an arrangement is reasonably achievable could be jailed or fined. Businesses may also face stop-work orders or other penalties.
Breaches or poor practice relating to such safe management measures can be reported to the authorities via SnapSAFE, a mobile app, according to the Manpower Ministry (MOM).
On Friday, MOM provided clarification that working from home is the default position.
Until that happened, and despite the Government emphasising the rules on several occasions over previous days, several businesses had apparently been dithering over whether to continue with telecommuting arrangements.
‘No Point’ Returning To Office
Several office workers said that their bosses have ordered them to return to work even though they worked from home successfully during the circuit breaker.
The workers noted that returning to the office during phase one would place them and their families at unnecessary risk of contracting Covid-19.
Some said their firms had provided no guidance on work arrangements as Singapore moves from the circuit-breaker period to phase one of reopening the economy.
Others have been offered a “choice” over which option they preferred, even though the MOM rules state that during phase one, workers must work from home if the option is available to them.
Lisa, the receptionist at the financial firm, said she had warned the human resources department and her boss that they could be breaking the law — but to no avail.
Her boss wants her to do her job in the office.
Lisa said her boss was aware of the potential penalties he faced “but I believe he would rather take the risk in order to restart work”.
Frustrated, Lisa blew the whistle on her employer and reported him to the authorities on Thursday by email, a step which all other workers said they would rather not take, she said. The outcome is pending.
A designer at a clothing wholesaler, wishing to be known only as Alicia, 28, said that her employer told all staff to return to the office, other than those with poor health, those who are elderly or pregnant.
She said the stated reason was to gain access to specialised “systems and hardware”. However, Alicia said that she needs only a computer to do her work, and that this could be done from home.
“The management simply made it clear that ‘we are working from home just fine’ is not a valid reason,” she said. “I found this absurd.”
Public relations manager Clare Li said that her employer — which she declined to name — is asking 30 per cent of employees from each department to return to work. She claimed she could perform all her work at home.
The 28-year-old said that when she and her colleagues took the matter up with her boss, she “could not give us a good reason why” they had to return to the office during phase one.
Companies ‘Should Be Very Vigilant’: Josephine Teo
While companies may be eager to have operations running at full steam, this needs to be done cautiously, said Manpower Minister Josephine Teo during an online press conference on Friday.
Mrs Teo said: “Companies may be eager to get their employees back… but in the initial phase, they should be very vigilant and very careful, and therefore the requirement is as long as a person can work from home, please work from home.”
Ms Amarjit Kaur, a partner at law firm Withers Khattar Wong, said that should workers feel that their return to work is unjustified, the first step should always be to “communicate their specific concerns about returning to work to their employers in the first instance”.
If communication fails, the next step should be to tell the authorities, such as the Tripartite Alliance for Dispute Management or to MOM via SnapSAFE, Ms Kaur added.
Mr Leong Chee Tung, co-founder of human resources technology start-up EngageRocket, said that companies that prioritise ‘face time’ in front of the bosses need to “closely examine the human biases” in their performance management systems.
He said given the health risks involved “it is certainly disappointing to hear that some teams or companies continue to operate this way”.
Mr Ho Meng Kit, chief executive officer of the Singapore Business Federation, called for employers to “take this situation seriously”.
“This phased approach, beginning with the resumption of business operations that pose a lower risk of transmission, will ensure that community spread can be better managed and controlled.
“It is difficult but needful,” he said.
While several business owners said that they are aware of the penalties behind flouting the requirements and will abide by them, they also understand why some firms are eager to have workers return to the office.
Former Member of Parliament (MP) Inderjit Singh, director of electronic wholesaler Tri Star Electronics, said businesses such as his would prefer to “go back to normal”, as his 40 employees can sign papers and meet people more efficiently in the office.
“Many companies will say that they tried their best and it worked (to an extent), but efficiency has not picked up… I don’t think every company is ready,” said Mr Singh, who was an MP representing the Ang Mo Kio Group Representation Constituency for the People’s Action Party from 1996 to 2015.
While working from home has caused a 40 per cent fall in sales for his company, Mr Singh will continue with this arrangement as per the authorities’ requirements.
Some firms are also adjusting their arrangements due to MOM’s clarification on Friday that workers should return to the office only “where there is no alternative”.
Mr Kelvyn Chee, managing director of fashion wholesaler Decks, said that he had originally hoped that four of his 10 employees who have been working from home could return to office during phase one, as they could work more productively there and had expressed interest in doing so.
However, he decided to scrap these plans after reading the clarifications, even though the economic impact of Covid-19 had set his company back six-figure sums over the past two months.
Mr Singh said that the introduction of phase one will not make a difference to the way most firms have operated during the circuit breaker.
“We got excited (to resume operations) but when we look at the fine print, actually we cannot,” he said.
“They might as well say we have to do one more month of the circuit breaker.”