We need more self-determination at workplace

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I came across a piece of good news in The Straits Times on March 17- the possibility of working from home. And then I felt crushed immediately when the article said only one out of five employers were sold on the idea.

Why is this so? Frankly, “working part time and getting a salary” is still not embedded in our mindset, according to many employers quoted in the article.

Michael Smith, director of Randstad Singapore, said it is because many employers still believe job commitment is demonstrated through long working hours and the majority of bosses are accustomed to seeing their employees at work- 9am to 6pm, no excuse- in case productivity takes a plunge.

But let’s face it. The crux of the problem is that we have cultivated an environment where our employees may not be able to function outside an instructions-oriented culture. So they must be kept 9-to-6 chained to a desk. Without constant instructions, no work gets done.

As a leading corporate service firm, Janus Corporation Solutions, bluntly puts it: “Most of the local firms have significant influence of the traditional values of the Chinese, who make up 75.2 per cent of Singapore’s population. In relationships, this translates into a culture high in power distance where people at the lower levels would accept their subordinate status, and respect formal hierarchical authority. People seldom violate chains of command or openly question decisions by their superiors.”

But how do you give instructions to your 20 or 50 employees when they are all working from home? Install CCTV at their homes?

In other countries, there are less drastic ways to deal with non-present employees.

For example, a company can have a contract where employees have certain targets to meet, regardless of the hours they spend in the office.

Tony Goh, 28, has spent the last three years as a finance manager who lead a team of staffs, with everyone working on flexi-hours.

For Goh, his company sets a system to measure the productivity of the employees. “We have a Service Level Agreement that we need to meet. Our performance is measured against company’s revenue. Consistent good results would be rewarded, of course.”

“Ultimately, most European companies do not really ask how you do it but ‘just get it done’ within the time frame given,” he said to The Independent Singapore.

Another issue with Singapore’s work culture is our need for control over employees’ work.

Janus Corporate Solutions added that: “The majority of the local firms donít actually want too many employees running around with too many crazy ideas, nor do they want unfocused fragmentation of the core businesses managed by over-enthusiastic entrepreneurs. It’s often thought that mass Singaporeans cannot innovate because they are conditioned to be followers rather than creative idea generators.”

The irony is our work culture comes in total contradiction with the push for innovation under Budget 2014.

Deputy Prime Minister, Tharman Shanmugaratnam said: “… the only way for our businesses to survive in that environment is to have advanced country capabilities in innovation, in commercialisation of R&D (research and development), in managerial skills, and in investing in employees so that they have deep skills.”

But how does Singapore innovate if employers keep an iron-fist over their employees? The bigger question we should ask is: Would a more self-determining work environment be healthier to cultivate innovation among Singapore’s workforce?

We are at a crossroad here; on one hand, our heavy-handed approach to work culture has not destroyed Singapore’s economy; innovation be damned. On the other hand, as a country who wants to make it big in the R&D and innovation department, does our workforce not deserve some self-determination to pursue some creativity at work?

Yet if we were to follow Mr Tharman’s vision, then we have to move towards an innovative workforce. How? Perhaps the government could start by cultivating a more self-determining Singapore public.