The COVID-19 pandemic is affecting every facet of our daily lives, including the way we work. Prompted by a rapid increase of COVID-19 cases in the country, the Malaysian Government issued the Movement Control Order (MCO) that implements a series of precautionary measures to curb further outbreaks of COVID-19 in the country, including shutting down all government and private premises except for those involved in “essential services” and some sectors with government permission, and travel bans on all foreigners entering Malaysia and on Malaysians leaving the country.
The MCO has forced most employers to request their employees to work from home as part of the efforts to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. Millions of employees in Malaysia are working from home for the first time, as the country tackles COVID-19. And amid stay-at-home orders across the country, employees have ditched their daily commutes to work from sofas, dining room tables, and beds in their own homes. Despite the circumstances, we’re making work work for us in the best way we can. But this may not be an isolated shift. The outbreak has triggered an anxious trial run for remote work at a grand scale.
Yet when the COVID-19 pandemic passes and we slowly return to normality, many companies will have the tools and infrastructure — and the option — to implement true flexible working as part of their way of work. The question is: will flexible working be the default position for all employees, rather than it being up to individuals to request?
Flexible Working by Default?
What if we amend the Employment Act 1955 and make all jobs flexible by default rather than putting the onus on employees to request flexibility? Will you agree that all jobs should be considered up for flexible working by default? I may sound like I am pushing the envelope too much as flexible working will be the new normal, but to make it as 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 the Employment Bill that would give employees more power over when they work. It comes after Tory MP Helen Whately introduced a flexible working bill in July 2019 arguing that the change would help close the gender pay gap and help parents to share childcare.
Flexible working is good for business, the economy and work-life balance. It must be offered as standard, not haggled for later down the line, says Helen 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 whilst “flexible working arrangements” is still one of the proposed amendments in the Employment Act 1955 in Malaysia. Currently, the Act neither prohibits nor allows flexible working arrangements. So it makes sense that the UK is progressing towards default flexible working.
This is where Malaysia may skip the flexible working by application phase and implement the flexible working by default – unless “employers have good reason not to”.
If Malaysia implements flexible working by request, as you say, employees would have to request it. It will be a very formal structure. Employees had to prove how they could make it work. So there was almost a trust issue between the employer and the employee. I think flexible working should shift from being a very formal, formulaic approach to, “Will this job work, etc.” to, “We must make it work.”
So I think if it becomes available to everyone and it becomes something that is an option that’s considered as part and parcel of every job, there will be more creativity. 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 certain jobs probably where it will be incredibly difficult, but I think taking an approach of amending our employment laws means that the starting point is “Can we make it work?” as opposed to, “Malaysians have never done it this way before and it’s not doable.” It will shape the mind-set of employers who will see it more as something that should be considered as opposed to, “Let’s wait and see if somebody requests it.” For some jobs, particularly in office environments, it is always possible to implement flexible working but I know lots of managers who resist the idea of working from home.
For default flexible working to work, there should be mutual flexibility where employers and employees compromise, where work design will allow a job to be a little bit more flexible. It may not be the full acceptance of what the employees want, but there could be some compromise. Employers will have to get better at improving productivity by being more results oriented rather than task oriented or having a mere presence at the office which we call “presenteeism.” Employees have to develop new habits, such as planning their day into work deliverable, office communications, personal time, and social or family life.
TalentCorp Malaysia has been campaigning for flexible working arrangement, and it took a pandemic to show that it is really possible. From this perspective, it has proved that Malaysia can make flexible working as a default. But a pandemic is not an appropriate time to determine what kind of working arrangement is the best for increasing productivity in Malaysia. It is rather a moment for companies to embrace digital culture that, when the economy is back to normal, could make remote work easier for employees who want to take advantage of it in a future where they will commute less and spend more time with family at their homes.