The Covid-19 pandemic reshaped the world of work, ushering in the era of remote working across the globe. However, as we have transitioned into the post-pandemic world, a noticeable trend has emerged - more people in Asia are returning to the office than elsewhere. In this blog post, we will explore the unique factors driving this return to the office in the region and its significance in the current work environment in Singapore and Malaysia.
APAC leads the way
Asia Pacific is ‘ahead of the curve’ in employees returning to work – pulling a strong lead over the US in terms of office occupancy and days worked in-person. Currently, Americans work one and a half days from home each week on average, compared to just under half a day in South Korea. While office occupancy in the Americas sits at 49%, Asia-Pacific office occupancy is 79%, slightly above Europe at 75%, according to data from real estate services firm Jones Lang LaSalle. It points to how US companies, perhaps more so than those in Asia or Europe, are embracing the freedom to choose what they think works for them. The most recent American Time Use Survey showed over a third of American employees worked from home on an average day in 2022.
However, while workers in Hong Kong, Singapore, Tokyo and elsewhere in Asia are returning the office at higher rates than their Western peers, there’s still quite a lot of variation across the region. Employees in some countries quickly returned to the office (e.g., China, Korea, and Japan), while staff in other countries have been more reluctant (e.g., Australia, New Zealand, and Singapore).
Why Asians are returning
Cultural and customer perspectives, workforce demographics, and housing restrictions are the primary reasons researchers have identified to explain why employees in Asia are less reluctant to return to the office.
At the extremes, Chinese authorities have strongly encouraged those with mild Covid symptoms to return to work, in a radical shift from previous strict restrictions, as the world's second-largest economy promotes the resumption of business activities and hospitals suffer from manpower shortages. Meanwhile, in South Korea, where employees work less than two days per month remotely, many workers never stopped going into the office in the first place.
In Singapore, the preference for remote work increased when cases of Covid rose, while there was an increase in the preference to work from the office with the easing of pandemic restrictions. As many as 74% of employees said they were returning to workplaces on most days when polled in the first week of April 2022. Naturally, this also put some peer pressure on those still working from home.
In Malaysia, the government encouraged employers to adopt flexible work arrangements as part of its efforts to curb the spread of the pandemic. The Malaysian Employers Federation (MEF) also urged employers to continue with flexible work arrangements post-pandemic, citing benefits such as increased productivity and reduced costs. However, Malaysia too has seen a steady return to the office.
Face culture and team dynamics
Both Singapore and Malaysia have their unique cultural norms and work traditions, but in both countries, "face" is a crucial concept, and professional reputation, dignity, and public image are highly valued. Returning to the office aligns with cultural norms, allowing employees to maintain their "face" and adhere to traditional expectations.
In addition, many employees have been excited to reunite with their colleagues after the pandemic years, as work-from-home has disadvantages that affect workers’ commitment owing to various distractions.
“Working in an office is more productive as you are more focused. It creates a certain discipline among working adults. While working from home, you are constantly disturbed by your children and other household issues”, said 29-year old Fintech risk management executive, talking to Malaysia’s SunDaily.
Both countries have a rich cultural tapestry, and relationships are at the core of their work environments. Face-to-face interactions in the office foster a sense of camaraderie and collaboration that is deeply ingrained in these societies. Team dynamics, brainstorming sessions, and the spontaneity of in-person discussions are highly valued, making the office an essential hub for professional relationships.
Types of accommodation
Researchers also think housing patterns play a role in return-to-office dynamics. In suburban parts of the US, where people have larger homes and sometimes home-offices, workers have been slower to go back to the office. In contrast, densely populated cities, particularly in Asia, have tended to see higher return-to-office rates, often because people struggled to be productive in small apartments shared with many family members.
Not only that, but commute length and the nature of home life play a big part. If your commute only takes 20 minutes, that’s very little travel down-time and allows for a separation of work and home life. Additionally, if your home is full of screaming kids and you have to work from the kitchen counter-top, you’ll be a lot less productive (and possibly professional) than working from a desk or booth in the office.
Getting it right
Getting employees back to the office requires a well-considered plan with quite a lot of flexibility to allow some to come back immediately, while others, especially those with families or other important personal considerations, are likely to need a transition period.
What has been shown is that to encourage the workers back, the leaders need to be present and visible. According to IMA Asia – a senior executive business forum - if the senior executives are in the office and call a meeting, their staff must be there. The right approach is getting the managers in at least three days a week and their subordinates will follow. However, leaders in these countries mustn’t forget the lessons the pandemic taught us about the importance of employee well-being.
As Adrian Tan writes for CNA, “It seems strange we’re rolling back this major pandemic gain. After all the talk about the importance of flexibility and remote work, it's hard to understand why some companies insist on a full-time return to the office.”
The return to the office in Singapore and Malaysia post-pandemic is fueled by a combination of cultural, social, and economic factors. Human connection, effective communication, and professional growth in the workplace have a high value in these countries. The desire to adhere to cultural norms and work ethics is also significant in driving this trend.
As we move forward, Singapore and Malaysia are likely to continue evolving their work dynamics, blending traditional values with the changing demands of the modern world – such as employee wellbeing and continued interest in flexibility. Hybrid work models will likely become better established, with further advances in technology, contributing to the development of a dynamic and adaptable work environment over time.