The push for flexible working in Asia

The newly published 2017 Gender Diversity Report from recruitment expert Hays has revealed that flexible working is highly sought after by employees in Asia. The report, which is based on a survey of workers from 30 industry sectors in China, Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore, and Malaysia, has revealed the importance of flexible working to both men and women, and warns employers that they ignore this push for flexibility at their peril.

The pros and cons of flexibility

For many companies, traditional office working might seem like the easiest option. Having all employees work within set hours makes communication simpler, avoids misunderstandings, and ensures that everybody is doing what is required. However, flexible working options – such as flexible start and finish times, and opportunities to work from home – can bring a whole raft of benefits.

Allowing employees to choose when and where they work gives them the freedom to plan their own time and demonstrates the company’s trust in them. According to Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower, this can boost staff morale and productivity, and help to retain staff who might otherwise be turned off by a more rigid, office-based structure. Agnes Chan, EY’s managing partner for Hong Kong and Macau, says, “The younger generation of employees are more in favour of the gig economy and they like… more flexible working hours instead of a full-time commitment.” If companies want to attract and keep these kinds of employees, flexible working could be the answer.

All genders want to work flexibly

The key findings of the 2017 Gender Diversity Report reveal that both men and women are on the lookout for flexible working. Many workers are keen to fit their careers around their personal lives, especially when they have young children or elderly relatives to look after. Of those surveyed in mainland China, 37% approved of flexible hours for parents, and this was reflected by 34% in Malaysia, 29% in Japan, and 26% in Hong Kong.

However, it isn’t just women who are looking for the flexibility to fit work around parenting. Lynne Roeder, Managing Director of Hays Singapore, says, “Flexible working is still seen very much as something that benefits working mothers but our latest research shows that companies developing flexible work policies have to take a broader view.”

The Hays survey found a clear desire among men for access to flexible working options. In fact, more men than women rated flexibility as important, and 50% of men said they already have access to flexible working (compared to only 40% of women). However, most of the respondents said that, when a child is born, fathers receive less leave than mothers, and 31% of respondents in Malaysia said that fathers are not offered leave at all.

The major advantage of offering flexible working to parents is that it can help to break down gender barriers. Lynne Roeder stated that a large proportion of respondents “are supportive of seeing more shared family responsibilities… as a way of breaking down gender bias and improving gender diversity.” 45% of the women and over one-third of the men surveyed agreed that this sharing of responsibility would have a positive effect in the workplace and help to dispel unconscious biases.

Is flexible working the way forwards?

Flexible working has become more available in Asia in recent years, but many companies are wondering whether it is simply a fad, and some are even returning to the traditional office-hours structure. Lynne Roeder says, “I would urge businesses to think about why they started offering flexibility in the first place.” Companies who have attracted employees with flexible working options could find themselves in hot water if they take them away. “For workers in skill short areas,” says Lynne, “organisations that offer flexible working can often beat the competition to an employee’s signature.”

The Hays study also revealed that there is less fear of flexibility among employees. Although most respondents felt that flexible working could have some negative impact on their careers, only a few described this impact as being “very much” a problem. It seems that for many, a slight career setback is worth the potential improvement in quality of life.

Thanks to the proliferation of digital technology, it is easier than ever for companies to provide flexible working options to their staff. There are also no hard-and-fast rules, so if a company is having problems, there is always room to compromise. For example, projects that require close teamwork can still be carried out in-office, leaving the more flexible work to be done remotely.

However companies choose to act upon this trend, the evidence is clear: flexible working is hugely desirable among employees in Asia, and offering it could help to attract and keep the most valuable workers.