KUALA LUMPUR: The pandemic has ignited conversations surrounding the nature of work, with corporations and experts repeatedly advocating for hybrid models as the way forward.

As part of a global post-pandemic shift in work arrangements, oil company BP instructed its 25,000 office-based staff to work from home for two days a week.

Meanwhile, Microsoft provided its employees flexibility to choose between working from home or in the office, with a third option to do a mixture of both.

However as COVID-19 restrictions ease, many companies in Malaysia have reportedly switched back to in-office culture and required staff to report to work physically.

Traffic data has shown that road congestion levels in Kuala Lumpur are currently worse than it was before the pandemic, as people commute to work again and students head back to school. Congestion at peak hours in the mornings and evenings have been consistently worse compared to 2019 and 2020.

Is working five days in the office still relevant?

The Malaysian Trades Union Congress (MTUC) notes that workers have been reporting “mixed feelings” on being asked to return to their physical desks.

Besides getting caught in traffic, its acting President Effendy Abdul Ghani said many had complained of employers who have yet to reinstate their salaries despite being back in the office full-time.

“But there are also some employees who prefer to work in the office because they face limitations when they work from home (WFH),” he said, noting that only certain companies can continue their WFH practices post-pandemic due to the nature of their industries.

Starting September 1, workers may apply for Flexible Working Arrangements (FWA) under the amended Employment Act 1955. Applications must be made in writing and can cover changes in working hours, working days and the place of work, while employers are given 60 days to respond.

According to Datuk William Ng, Chairman of The Small and Medium Enterprises Association, this is a move that follows the global trends towards more flexible work structures.

“For most small and medium enterprises (SMEs), it’s not even an issue of whether we want to move towards a hybrid work system,” he told Astro Awani.

“I think the world is coming to that and if we don't change sooner or later our employees will just move to companies that enable that.”

What are the arguments for hybrid work?

A 2021 report by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and Talent Corporation Malaysia (TalentCorp) found that 80% of Malaysian employees prefer WFH weekly, with almost half preferring to do so at least three days a week.

These preferences are not without reason.

Data shows that rigid return-to-office policies are negatively impacting employees with anxiety and work-related stress. One Future Forum Pulse survey on 10,818 workers saw a steep decline in overall satisfaction with their working environment, compared to flexible workers.

Meanwhile, results from a Harvard Business School study indicated that an intermediate number of days in the office resulted in higher productivity levels. It concluded that hybrid work offered greater work-life balance without the worry of being isolated from colleagues.

Ng agreed that if done correctly, WFH can be just as effective as working from the office.

“But the reality in Malaysia is that we have this general lack of performance culture. This is something we need to address before we can even talk about WFH on a permanent basis,” he said.

Besides the inability to monitor the performance of employees, Ng also pointed out that the country did not have the technology to enable effective hybrid work policies.

“In the context of Malaysia, when we do sales, purchasing, verification of suppliers, negotiations and so on; a lot of these are actually physically driven. How do you replicate these 100% on a virtual basis? It’s difficult.”

What changes must Malaysia make towards flexible work models?

For Malaysian companies to make operational shifts towards hybrid work, Ng said there are two things that need to happen.

The first is to help SMEs–which make up more than half of the country’s employment–towards a performance-linked wage system.

As of 2019, the Human Resources Ministry recorded 85,000 companies that have implemented the Productivity-Linked Wage System (PLWS) which was introduced in 2015.

The Finance Ministry under the Pakatan Harapan administration said, adoption of PLWS remained low in the country due to the lack of awareness, high implementation cost and resistance from trade unions, among others.

It had promised to widen the implementation of PLWS to ensure the people’s wages would be linked with productivity.

“We need to stop paying by the hour. We should no longer say we’re tabulating our employees’ salary and how much they’re worth to the company based on how many hours they work, but rather based on the output,” said Ng.

In order for that to happen, he stressed that Putrajaya must look into changing the country’s labour laws as it still measures salary by the hour’s work.

“We still base our labour laws on what happened in the 19th and 20th century. That absolutely has to change," he added.