Just like Singapore’s low birth rates and lack of work-life balance, incentivising child-rearing in the workplace has been discussed to death, but to little effect. And once again, experts are wondering what the government can do to enhance the Marriage and Parenthood Package.
While the lack of flexible work arrangements has been identified as a big hurdle to would-be parents, everyone is still sceptical that any real change will come to pass. After all, the typical Singaporean workplace is face-time heavy and inflexible. Many companies do officially have flexible work arrangements in place, but people just aren’t taking them up.
Here are some things that need to change before people will start taking up those flexi-work arrangements and decide to have more kids.
Attitudes of bosses
It has been suggested that the government make flexi-work arrangements a statutory requirement. But I am sceptical, as are most people who’ve worked in Singapore SMEs.
Sure, you may in theory be allowed to leave early to pick your kid up from childcare, or choose to work from home a few times a month.
But if your boss makes snide remarks when you do so, assumes you’re slacking off or accuses you of doing less work than your colleagues, it’s easy to see why you might choose not to take these flexi-work arrangements despite their in-principle availability.
During my stint in the corporate world, I noticed, at least in the companies I worked at, that the attitudes of bosses towards parents requesting flexibility was generally negative.
I vividly recall a boss being openly suspicious when a pregnant colleague had to take time off to go for medical appointments. It was also common for bosses to express irritation when colleagues took childcare leave. There was even an instance where a colleague on maternity leave was repeatedly called and emailed about a matter at the office, and badmouthed by her bosses for not checking in while she was away.
In order for flexible arrangements to have any discernible effect on birth rates here, bosses need to start seeing their employees as human beings with their own lives and families first, and economic digits second.
Many of the problems plaguing the Singapore workforce (low engagement, long hours) can be traced to the fact that employees are, more often than not, not appraised solely on their performance.
Instead, oftentimes they are judged based on a range of factors, including face-time and how much they can suck up to their bosses. Sounds harsh, but anyone who’s worked in an old-school SME can probably attest to this. I’ve worked at more than one company where bosses were heard complaining about staff who left the office earlier than them, despite the fact that they had finished all their work.
The need for face-time not only results unproductive behaviour like hanging around the office surfing Facebook till the boss has left, but also makes it very difficult for employees to juggle work and parenthood. Why even have a child when you’re stuck at the office till well past your kid’s bedtime every day?
If bosses could focus on employees’ output, workers would be able to telecommute or at least continue working at home after picking up their kids from childcare or school, without being afraid they’d be given a lousy appraisal.
More convenient childcare options
When you consider the fact that most Singaporean households now need to be dual-income in order to survive, the need for convenient childcare and infantcare options becomes very pressing.
Furthermore, people work long hours here, and public transport is still a rather slow way of moving around unless you live and work close to MRT stations. This makes convenient childcare options close to the home or the workplace even more crucial.
For instance, if I were to work in the CBD from 9am to 7pm (9-6 plus one hour of OT) and take public transport, I would have to leave the house at 8am and arrive home at 8pm at the earliest. If I had an imaginary child to pick up from childcare, just adding an extra 30 minutes to my daily commute would mean I would get back at 8:30pm at the earliest—assuming I wouldn’t have to do more than one hour of OT. All while trying to squeeze onto multiple overcrowded trains and buses with a young child in tow.
Many people have argued that it isn’t the government’s responsibility to produce convenient childcare options for everyone, and yes, that might be true.
But that doesn’t change the fact that the daunting unavailability of convenient childcare options is a huge deterrence to dual-income households who can’t afford to take a break from work.
Childcare options close to the office or perhaps even at the office itself would be a huge incentive to employees who are parents to stay with a particular company.
For instance, staff at Republic Polytechnic have access to onsite Kinderland childcare and kindergarten, which makes them an attractive employer for working parents.
Until more attractive childcare options become available, many employees are going to find the combination of long hours at work and inconvenient commutes to pick their kids up huge disincentives to having children.
What else can be done to help parents balance work and child-rearing? Tell us in the comments!