Flexible work arrangements (FWA) have become increasingly common in recent years, in part due to the COVID-19 pandemic requiring most workers to work from home. Many employees and jobseekers now expect employers to offer flexible work arrangements; it was recently reported that 1 in 2 Singapore workers would quit their job if asked to work from the office more often[1].

Against this backdrop, the Singapore Ministry of Manpower (MOM) recently announced on 16 April 2024 that a new set of “mandatory” guidelines targeting FWA requests will come into effect on 1 December 2024.

As summarised below, the Tripartite Guidelines on Flexible Work Arrangement Requests (FWA Guidelines) establish baseline requirements regarding (among other things):

  1. how formal FWA requests should be made by employees;
  2. how employers should properly consider such requests; and
  3. the requirement for employers to communicate decisions on such requests in a transparent and timely manner.

The FWA Guidelines, which seek to normalise FWAs in the workplace, are expected to be especially helpful to employees who have caregiving responsibilities or are elderly. Moreover, companies that seek to retain and attract talent through FWAs can take reference from the FWA Guidelines to manage the expectations of employees.

In describing the FWA Guidelines as “mandatory”, the MOM has stated that employees may approach the Tripartite Alliance for Fair & Progressive Employment Practices (TAFEP)[2] or their respective unions for assistance if their employers are in breach of the FWA Guidelines. As with other guidelines issued by the MOM, penalties that may be imposed on non-compliant employers potentially include the curtailment of work pass privileges.

Employers in Singapore should therefore review their existing FWA practices, or implement new FWA procedures, to ensure they are aligned with these FWA Guidelines before they come into force on 1 December 2024.

Scope of application of the FWA Guidelines

The FWA Guidelines will apply to all employees who have passed their probation, and who wish to make formal FWA requests to their employers.

The obligations under the FWA Guidelines therefore do not apply to job applicants and new hires who are still on probation[3].

Under the FWA Guidelines, formal FWA requests must be in writing[4], and contain the following information:

  1. date of the request;
  2. the FWA requested, including its expected frequency and duration;
  3. reason for the request; and
  4. the requested start date and end date (if relevant).

Any request that does not satisfy these four cumulative requirements are considered informal FWA requests, which fall outside of the scope of the FWA Guidelines.

Policies and procedures for dealing with formal FWA requests

As a starting point, employers should implement a process for employees to submit formal FWA requests. This could involve submission via a work portal or email to the HR department or a supervisor. Employers should also inform employees of the format/template of the submission, and the types of required information.

Optionally, employers can consider communicating information to help employees assess their own suitability for FWAs, including:

  1. types of FWAs employees can request, including those that may be available as a default;
  2. reasons why certain roles might not be suitable for specific FWA(s);
  3. examples of why FWA requests might be rejected; and
  4. expectations on employees for the responsible use of FWAs. Such expectations may include:
    1. the expected work deliverables of employees while on FWAs (including how the employee’s performance will be properly evaluated while on FWA, and what conditions need to be met for the employee to continue using FWA);
    2. how the employee should remain contactable during working hours while on FWA; and
    3. the supervisors’ ability to review FWAs with employees, including FWAs already granted, to assess the effectiveness of the FWAs and make adjustments where necessary to meet business and employees’ needs.

How formal FWA requests should be made

Under the FWA Guidelines, eligible employees are required to:

  1. request and use FWAs responsibly, considering the impact on their workload and performance, and the impact on their team and clients (where applicable); and
  2. follow the employer’s requirements and procedures for submitting a formal FWA request. Employers are entitled to reject a request if it was not made in accordance with its established requirements and procedures.

If, however, the employer does not have stipulated requirements or procedures for an employee to make a formal FWA request, the employee may submit any written request with the requisite information (see above); the employer will then have to consider this as a formal FWA request.

How employers should consider formal FWA requests

Upon receiving a formal FWA request, employers are required by the FWA Guidelines to:

  1. evaluate formal FWA requests on a case-by-case basis, and approve them where they are viable from the business point of view – in particular, employers should focus on factors related to the employee’s job, as well as how the requested FWA may affect the business or the employee’s performance of his/her role; and
  2. as far as reasonably practicable, accommodate formal FWA requests, by reviewing work processes or re-assigning work to other team members, to ensure that the company remains productive and its clients’ needs can still be met.

However, where there are valid and reasonable business grounds, employers are entitled to reject FWA requests and/or are not expected to approve the same FWA requests concurrently for all employees in the organisation.

Reasonable business grounds for rejection of FWA requests include:

  1. Cost: where the FWA will result in a significant increase in cost burden to the employer;
  2. Productivity and quality of output: where the FWA leads to a significant decrease in the quantity or quality of an individual, team or the organisation’s productivity or output, or negatively impacts the organisation’s ability to meet customer needs; and
  3. Feasibility or practicality: where the FWA is not feasible or practical due to the nature of the employee’s role, if there is no capacity to change other employees’ work arrangements, or if the employer will have to hire new employees to accommodate the FWA request.

FWA requests should not be rejected due to personal bias against FWAs, or for reasons not directly linked to business outcomes. Improper reasons for rejection of FWA requests include:

  1. the management’s lack of belief in FWAs;
  2. the supervisor’s preference to have direct sight of employees in the office, to see if he/she is working, even though the employee has consistently satisfactory work performance; and
  3. the organisation’s tradition or practice to not allow FWAs, and concern that allowing one FWA request may result in other employees requesting FWAs as well.

Where an FWA request is supported by a reason which the employer does not agree with, the FWA Guidelines suggest that employers should respond to the FWA based on business-related grounds, instead of indicating that they disagree with the reason.  

Employers and employees are encouraged to discuss FWA requests openly and constructively, so that a mutual agreement can be reached. Any disagreement that cannot be resolved should be dealt with via the employer’s internal grievance handling procedure.

Clear communication of decision to employees

Following discussion with the employee and proper consideration of a formal FWA request, an employer must communicate its decision to the employee in writing[5] within two months of the employee’s formal FWA request. This requires the employer to act promptly and transparently.

If the FWA request is rejected, employers are required to include the reason for the rejection in the written decision. For approved FWA requests, employers are encouraged to set out the agreement with the employee on specific work expectations (e.g., outcomes and standards for accountability, work quality and timelines).

It should be noted that the FWA Guidelines do not specify outcomes for FWA requests – ultimately, all employers retain the discretion to consider FWA requests based on business grounds, and are under no legal obligation to accept a FWA request.

If you have questions regarding policies and procedures for FWA or any other employment matter, please feel free to contact us.

[1] 1 in 2 workers in Singapore will quit their job if asked to be in office more often: Survey – CNA (channelnewsasia.com)

[2] TAFEP is an agency set up by the MOM, the National Trades Union Congress, and the Singapore National Employers Federation, to promote the adoption of fair, responsible and progressive employment practices.

[3] For such individuals, employers are not required to, but can: (a) state in job advertisements and interviews what their policy or approach to FWA is, to manage expectations; or (b) consider FWA requests from employees on probation.

[4] Annex A of the FWA Guidelines contain a template formal FWA request form, which employees may utilise if the employer does not have its own form or process for FWA requests.

[5] Annex B of the FWA Guidelines contain a template form for employers to set out its decision, and reasons for rejecting a formal FWA request (where applicable).