New tripartite guidelines on flexible work

24 April 2024 7 min read

By Michelle Chua

At a glance

  • From 1 December 2024, all employers in Singapore must fairly consider formal requests from employees for flexible work arrangements (FWAs) under the new mandatory Tripartite Guidelines on Flexible Work Arrangements (Guidelines).
  • Non-adherence to the Guidelines may result in the Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices (TAFEP) engaging employers and advising them to comply with the Guidelines.
  • The Ministry of Manpower (MOM) may also issue a warning and require employers to attend corrective workshops.

From 1 December 2024, all employers in Singapore must fairly consider formal requests from employees for flexible work arrangements under the new mandatory Guidelines. While the Guidelines encourage employers to offer FWAs to employees, they are not required to do so. This means that the Guidelines will cover the processes to submit and evaluate formal requests for FWA, but will not govern the outcome of the FWA.

Non-adherence to the Guidelines may result in TAFEP engaging employers and advising them to comply with the Guidelines, and MOM may issue a warning and require employers to attend corrective workshops for employers who are recalcitrant and/or wilfully refuse to comply with the Guidelines. 

As stated by the MOM, the Guidelines are meant to develop strong workplace norms around FWAs and set out best practices in developing trust and mutual understanding between employers and employees, rather than being punitive in nature. At present, further enforcement action does not seem to be available against recalcitrant employers, or employers who off-handedly reject FWA rejects with business-related reasons without proper consideration.

The Guidelines will replace the Tripartite Advisory on Flexible Work Arrangements issued in 2014 and the Tripartite Standard on Flexible Work Arrangements launched in 2017.

Types of FWAs

FWAs are defined as work arrangements where employers and employees agree to a variation from the standard work arrangements. There are three broad categories of FWAs: (1) flexi-place (eg work-from-home); (2) flexi-time (eg staggered hours); and (3) flexi-load (eg job sharing).

Principles for proper consideration of FWA requests

When requesting, and using, FWAs employees should do so responsibly by considering the impact on their workload and performance, as well as the impact on their team and clients, where relevant to their job role.

As far as reasonably practical, employers should explore ways to accommodate FWA requests, such as reviewing work processes or re-assigning work across team members, so that clients’ needs can still be met, and the company remains productive.

Each FWA request should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, and be viable from the business’ point of view. Where there are valid business grounds, employers are not expected to approve the same FWAs concurrently for all employees in the organisation.

How to make a formal FWA request

To begin with, all employees who have completed probation (duration as determined by their employer) can make a formal request for FWAs under the Guidelines, but employers can consider FWA requests from employees on probation.

In terms of timelines, the process to request and consider formal FWA requests is as follows: (1) the employee submits a formal FWA request to the employer; (2) the employer should properly consider the FWA request based on business needs; (3) the employer should communicate the decision within two months; and (4) if the request is rejected, the employer is encouraged to engage the employee on alternatives.

Step 1 – Formal request by employee

With regard to Step 1, employers should have a process for employees to submit formal FWA requests (eg submit via work portal or via email to the employee’s supervisor). If an employer has stipulated certain requirements (eg format/template, required information) for making a formal FWA request, the employee should follow these requirements by default.

If an employer does not have stipulated requirements or a process for an employee to make a formal FWA request, the employee could make a formal FWA request in writing, which should include the following information: (i) the date of the request; (ii) the FWA requested for, including its expected frequency and duration; (iii) reason for the request; (iv) requested start date and end date (if relevant). If the employee’s request does not meet the requirements, it is not a formal request and will not be covered under the Guidelines. Annex A of the Guidelines contains a template for an employee to submit a formal FWA request – employers can potentially use the template to form their own template, should they wish to do so.

On balance, we think that employers should have a process for employees to make formal FWA requests that is accessible to employees. This is because Annex C (Frequently Asked Questions) of the Guidelines provides an illustration of an employee sending a text message or email to her supervisor stating: ‘I would like to request to change my daily work hours from Mon-Fri, 8am - 5pm to Mon-Fri, 10am - 7pm, so that I can send my five-year-old son to school in the morning. I request for this arrangement to begin on 1 Jan 2025 and end on 31 Dec 2025.’ The Guidelines state that where an employer does not have a process for employees to make formal FWA requests, such a text message will be considered a formal FWA request as it satisfies the conditions set out above. This may result in certain formal FWA requests being missed or not properly escalated to the appropriate decision-maker regarding such FWA requests, which is crucial given the two months’ deadline to make a decision.

Employers are not required to, but can, communicate information that can help employees assess their own suitability for FWAs, such as: (i) types of FWAs employees can request, including those that may be available as a default; (ii) reasons why certain job roles might not be suitable for specific FWA(s); (iii) examples of why requests might be rejected; and (iv) expectations for the use for FWAs. In our view, such information should be carefully reviewed before it is circulated to employees, as it may form the basis of expectations held by employees, and it may be difficult to deviate from such expectations if subsequently required.

Step 2 – Employer considers the FWA request

With regard to Step 2, when assessing an employee’s FWA request, 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 the job. While employers have the prerogative to reject employees’ FWA requests, it should be based on reasonable business grounds and not personal bias against FWAs. Some examples of reasonable business grounds include: (a) cost (eg leads to significant increase in cost burden to the employer); (b) being detrimental to productivity or output (eg leads to significant decrease in the quantity or quality of the individual, team or the organisation’s productivity or output, or negatively impacts the organisation’s ability to meet customer needs); or (c) feasibility or practicality (eg not feasible or impractical due to nature of job role, or there is no capacity to change other employees’ work arrangements, or requires the need to hire new employees, to accommodate the FWA request).

The Guidelines also emphasise that employers should not reject FWA requests for reasons that are not directly linked to business outcomes, and examples of unreasonable grounds for rejection would include: (i) if the organisation’s management does not believe in FWAs; (ii) if the employee’s supervisor prefers to have direct sight of the employee so that they can see if the employee is working, even though the employee has consistent satisfactory work performance; and (iii) if it is the organisation’s tradition or custom to not have FWAs (eg staff have always been required to be in office during regular office hours, do not want to start allowing FWAs as other employees may request too). Annex B of the Guidelines contains a template for an employer to respond to a formal FWA request – employers can potentially use the same for their own template.

As part of the consideration process, employers and employees are encouraged to discuss FWA requests in an open and constructive manner, and come to a mutual agreement on how best to meet both organisational and employees’ needs. In the event of a disagreement, the Guidelines deem it best for employers and employees to address them through the organisation’s internal grievance handling procedure as far as possible.

Step 3 – Employer communicates the decision

With regard to Step 3, employers who receive a formal FWA request should provide a written decision within two months from receiving the request. This means that employers should engage the employee on any clarifications and discussions on the request, as well as communicate the approval or rejection of the request, within two months. If the request is rejected, employers should include the reason for the rejection in the written decision. As above, caution should be exercised when making any decisions in writing.

Step 4 – If FWA rejected, discuss alternatives

Employers are encouraged to discuss alternatives with the relevant employee(s) if the FWA request is rejected. However, the Guidelines do not provide further guidance nor examples on what alternatives might be discussed with employees.

Overall, the approach in the Guidelines is in line with laws in other jurisdictions such as the UK and Australia, and takes into account the changing landscape of the workplace brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. Employers should carefully review their existing policies (eg remote working policy) and are recommended to implement new policies and practices to ensure compliance with the Guidelines. Additional resources to train and assist employers in gaining capabilities to implement FWAs effectively will be progressively rolled out by TAFEP and other organisations from May 2024 onwards.

If you would like to understand more about how the Guidelines will impact your business, please contact David Smail.