Will Working From Home Become the New Normal in the Malaysian Public Service Sector?
Working from home (WFH), and its close counterpart working from anywhere, is not a new concept for Malaysians. It has been discussed academically and practised in various forums and organisations with both private and public sectors offering various opinions on this issue. Generally, new cultures or new norms are not easily accepted in this country which is strongly influenced by baby boomers. Traditionally, the older generation associate formal work with being at a certain place and within a determined time frame. Anything else outside of this is not considered “working”. Some may perceive working from home as less productive than working in the office or at a designated workplace. And then, there is the issue of trust where bosses express insistence over ‘controlling’ their subordinates and enforcing conventional in-person meetings.
Sentiments Within the Public Service
The Public Service Department (PSD), among others, is responsible for matters related to working hours in the public service, and is constantly reviewing feedback from civil servants as well as stakeholders including concerned groups such as unions who call for improvements in working hours. Usually, proposals received from internal or external parties will be taken to a higher level of the government to be scrutinised on.
Nearly a decade ago, our government began to study the need for public service to have more flexible working hours. This is to achieve better work-life balance through quality time management. Public servants have diverse backgrounds and time management demands which vary according to individual needs. In other words, the flexibility in managing working hours varies according to the needs of each group. On the other hand, cost and time involved are two vital factors behind the need for alternative working arrangements. Flexible working hours and environments are now necessities in today’s modern working culture as the world embraces the work-from-anywhere trend in the wake of COVID19.
Working from home has become a part of human resource management policies that emphasise on for optimal worklife balance among public servants. The public sector is
now increasingly supportive of the idea that productivity and efficiency will be enhanced if public servants’ lives are wellorganised and experience adequate cost of living, stable emotions, conducive working environment and achieve good work-life balance.
Public Service Commitment Towards Flexible Working Arrangements
During the the 2014 Budget speech, the Prime Minister of Malaysia stressed on the importance of employers implementing Flexible Working Arrangements to enable employees to enjoy good Work-Life-Balance (WLB). FWA covers various aspects such as working hours, location of work, work methods and so on.
Furthermore, to strengthen talent management and create a better future for the public service sector, through the 11th Malaysia Plan (11th MP), 2016-2020, the Malaysian government is committed to improving existing working conditions leading towards better work-life balance. This meant an increase / a rise of flexibility in public service while looking into factors such as flexible work hours, compressed work week and teleworking. The same strategy has been emphasised in the Mid-erm Review of the 11th Malaysia Plan, 2018 – 2020, through new priorities and emphases.
Undoubtedly, FWA implementation in the public service sphere aims to provide flexibility to civil servants in order to create an optimal balance between their career and personal life, which will hopefully eventually improve their performance and productivity.
A study on the implementation of FWA in the private sector jointly undertaken by Talentcorp and ACCA (the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants) concluded that the government should champion the implementation of FWA. In line with efforts to transform public service, the initiative was introduced to make the public service more flexible and better aligned with current human resource management practices.
In May 2014, the PSD conducted a survey to get feedback on the proposed implementation of the FWA. Fueled by the participation of 6,438 employees , it was discovered that 78% of respondents agreed that FWA should be implemented in public service. This prompted a pilot project for FWA
The public sector is now increasingly supportive of the idea that productivity and efficiency will be enhanced if public servants’ lives are well-organised and experience adequate cost of living, stable emotions, conducive working environment and achieve good work-life balance.
that was carried out in 2015, whereby several ministries and departments were selected to participate. Among the departments involved were the Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development, the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI), the Department of Work and the Attorney General’s Chambers. The project was implemented in phases and three modules were involved such as work from home (teleworking), compressed-work week, and flexible working hours.
The project and survey findings have since been used as a foundation in the flexible working arrangement policy in public service. Some issues encountered in the study involved integrity of the workers, lack of ICT to monitor workers whereabouts and inconsistent performance as well as other productivity issues.
What’s more notable is that, any policy with regards to working hours in public service must be subject to the regulation as stipulated in the General Order (Chapter G) 1974 and the government circular in force.
Working From Home In View of the Pandemic
To date, COVID19 has infected more than 95 million and killed more than 2 million people worldwide. Life as we know it may not be the same again, and no one is able to accurately predict when will normalcy will return.
Prior to the pandemic, the work-from-home culture isn’t as widespread in Malaysia but everything changed with the COVID19 pandemic. During unprecedented times, most
non-essential business owners did not have many options except to allow employees to work remotely.
It has now become the new norm as companies and employees are being forced to review their priorities to ensure that it works. As for public service, the government has decided that all ministries and departments implement work-from-home policies in their daily operations. Only those providing essential services are allowed to continue operating in the field.
The Malaysian government has taken initial steps to leverage lessons learnt from the MCO WFH experience, paving the way for flexible work arrangements while working with telcos to provide free data for students and workers as well as providing incentives to employers.
In March 2020, the Director-General of Public Service issued a circulated letter as an official directive to implement a workfrom-home policy in the public service. It was in line with the Movement Control Order (MCO) implementation which was enforced by the government starting March 18, 2020.
It was a good move for the public service sector as everyone quickly adapted to this unforeseen situation. Public service has taken a positive step by seeing WFH as a necessary policy to be implemented immediately and until the foreseeable future. Regardless how WFH was viewed in the past, it is vital to be implemented as a strategy for the continuity of the government services especially in during these crucial times. Therefore, at the end of 2020, the PSD issued a Service Circular No 5 Year 2020, as an official directive and foundation of guidelines concerning the implementation of WFH within the Malaysian public service sector with effect from January 1, 2021. This points to the benefits that the public service sector can enjoy when agility is practised.
It is also a good start for public service in setting good examples for best human resource practices when it comes to nationwide HR policies. The policy will be reviewed and improved upon from time to time based on current changes whenever needed in the future. What With the many advancements in IT being introduced at break-neck speed, it is only fair to say that there is definitely room for improvement when it comes to perfecting this policy.
WFH or work-from-anywhere has a bigger role and strategy in human resource management. The ultimate vision does not only involve working hours or place of work, but also concerns achieving the bigger goal of work-life balance for civil servants. Therefore, WFH policies can be viewed as:
WFH Challenges and the Way Forward
The ultimate result of WFH is not limited to simplifying the way people work, but rather, the real outcome is to proliferate benefits beyond an employee’s individual productivity. For example, increasing organisational effectiveness and efficiency through cost-cutting as an immediate effect of work-from-home initiatives would be futile if sufficient governance of government accountability on public expenditure remains tough.
Secondly, WFH requires effective and efficient measurement on performance in the long run. Its basics is placed on the all-encompassing improvement of human resource management within the public sector particularly by removing existing workforce segmentations and divisions from functional scheme of services to a specific designated job . Thus, working from home would be objectively tied with a robust performance measurement framework. A position based organisational structure will specify the exact output and outcome of deliverables required from employees be it for office-based or work-from-home employees. In order to materialise a reform with the expected impact, the abolishment of narrow scheme of services and individual based pay would be vital.
Those changes would not be achieved easily without political will or more persistently from within the public service/sector* itself. Otherwise, all efforts to simplify flexible public service working arrangements would be wasted if we fail to leverage on employee productivity as well as organisational effectiveness and efficiency.