TL;DR – Civil servants value family time.
I met with Bobby*, a civil servant in his 40s, to find out his honest thoughts about flexible-work arrangements (FWA).
He had greatly benefited from his wife’s FWA for seven years but ever since that privilege has been taken back from her, he admitted that it has been hard for the family to cope with the adjustment.
Bobby tells me that his young children are very energy-zapping, but he wants to expose them to all sorts of experiences to develop them exponentially during the age of 0 to 9 years old.
I could tell that he is a loving father and there’re good reasons why he is so.
His parenting journey wasn’t very smooth – in fact, it was a rather bumpy ride. The loving couple didn’t only had problems conceiving, they also experienced some child losses.
“My wife’s boss was aware that we had child losses. She was empathetic about it.”
FWA as a private arrangement
When his daughter was much younger, his wife’s employer in NTU allowed her to work from home everyday in the afternoon.
It was very helpful for the family as the wife could keep an eye on the helper, accompany their daughter on medical visits and take her to enrichment classes.
“She had to request for FWA. It wasn’t even in the company’s policy. That happened even before FWA became a buzzword.”
Things changed after a new boss came in and curtailed his wife’s FWA arrangements.
Bobby’s wife then joined NUS and met an enlightened boss who was kind enough to offer her the same FWA terms but with one condition attached – she had to be discreet about it.
“She had to set aside one or two afternoons if there were meetings with students and she had to go quietly so her colleagues wouldn’t know.”
It was a private arrangement but some closer ones eventually got to know about his wife’s FWA.
But it also didn’t last long because a new boss took over and didn’t agree to the FWA. So for the last three years, his wife was on full-time mode.
They had no choice but to leave their kids to the domestic helper.
“We try not to farm out parenting to domestic helpers. My mother-in-law is willing to come over to our house to monitor our helper and she’s still doing that today.”
No career progression under FWA
I asked Bobby if FWA affected his wife’s performance appraisal at work because some employers don’t treat employees under FWA equally compared to other full-time employees.
He didn’t hesitate to tell me that his wife wasn’t promoted at all for all those years she was on FWA.
“Her colleagues were readily available, they could do more things. So she was just stuck there.”
But Bobby thinks it’s fair enough that the remuneration rewards go to employees who stand in for those on FWA.
“It’s also the same in schools. Just because the teacher is not there, the CCA has to go on so naturally.”
Surprisingly, Bobby’s colleagues in teaching don’t kick a big fuss about the lack of career progression under the FWA.
He said they value family time over financial rewards and it’s a good stop gap measure for those who priortise family during the child’s growing years.
I asked Bobby if those who opted for FWA were aware from the onset that it would cause them to be stagnant in their career progression.
He was candid in his answer.
“People who sign up for FWA know what they are signing up for. It helps them prioritise.”
Having said that, Bobby is recognises the “valid tension” between “doing what you love and being with who you love”.
Unpaid infant care leave
The Government is trying out unpaid infant care leave for working parents.
Under a three-year pilot which started last year, public sector employees and their spouses are entitled to an extra four weeks of unpaid infant care leave per parent.
I asked Bobby if he had any friends who benefited from this.
He told me that he has a colleague who is thinking of applying for 3 years of unpaid leave to care for her newborn.
His colleague just returned from maternity leave but she wants to take care of her infant until the child is ready for childcare at 4 years old.
Bobby is a firm believer of sending children below 4 to infant care but he also acknowledges that it’s very expensive to do so.
“We encouraged this colleague to apply. MOE does have provision for such cases…sometimes it’s to follow spouse overseas or for childcare purposes.”
But Bobby also told me MOE will post educators to other schools if they are out after certain number of months.
This means that educators must be mentally prepared to part with their long-time colleagues and students if they decide to apply for FWA.
Should FWA be mandated by law?
FWA is currently not compulsory by law but there is a tripartite standard which companies can adopt to implement family-friendly practices.
More than 250 companies with 210,000 workers have adopted it. However, only 50 out of these 250 companies are SMEs – this is a very small percentage given that there are 188,000 SMEs in Singapore and they make up two-thirds of Singapore workforce.
In Australia under their Fair Work Act (our equivalent of Employment Act (EA)), certain employees have the right to request FWA and employers can only refuse these requests on reasonable grounds.
I wanted to know if Bobby thinks it should be mandated by law. After all, his wife no longer benefits from FWA.
He personally thinks that FWA works well if it’s not part of the EA because he feels it takes away the trust between employers and employees.
“The moment it becomes mandatory – you won’t feel your employer is so nice. When my wife had FWA, she would do it even when she was called up to work till late at night. There was a good sense of obligation.”
However, he wasn’t against institutionalising FWA.
He was realistic about how things work in Singapore and said unless there is a mindset change amongst employers, making FWA mandatory by law may work for Singapore.
*His name has been changed to protect his privacy.