Requests for flexible work – can employers say “no”?

The Tripartite Guidelines on Flexible Work Arrangement take effect from 1 December 2024. The Guidelines require Singapore employers to fairly consider formal requests from employees for flexible work arrangements.  What does it mean to fairly consider requests for flexible work and do the Guidelines really change the state of play for HR in Singapore?

W.e.f. 1 December 2024, employees may submit formal requests for flexible work. “Flexible work” includes: flexi-place arrangements, flexi-time arrangements, staggered work hours, as well as part-time work. The Guidelines require employers to consider the requests and communicate its decision to the employee within 2 months. If the employer rejects the request, the employer should state the reason for rejection and discuss alternatives with the employee.

The Guidelines helpfully outline a number of acceptable business grounds for rejecting flexible work requests. E.g. an employer may cite the following rejection reasons: the request leads to significant increase in cost for the employer; the request will have a detrimental impact on the individual’s productivity and output; and/or the request is not feasible or impractical due to the nature of the employee’s job. The Guidelines also outline a number of unacceptable business grounds for rejecting flexible work requests. E.g. an employer should not reject flexible work requests for reasons not directly linked to business outcomes and should not cite the following rejection reasons: supervisors prefer to have sight of the employee in the office during working hours, even if the employee has not shown any performance-related issues; the management does not believe in flexible working arrangements; and/or it is a long-standing custom and practice to have employees in the office during regular working hours.

In other words, employers may say “no” to a request for flexible work but only based on business grounds. However, the Guidelines are silent on whether the business grounds must be objectively ascertained, or can the employer take a subjective view on what amounts to “detrimental impact”? E.g. an employee who is an individual contributor whose work is mainly task-based (“IC”) may argue that his work can be performed anywhere and at any hour of the day, as long as he meets the assignment deadline. From the employer’s perspective, the IC should be available in the office to have meetings with internal stakeholders as and when the internal stakeholders require, to ensure good communication. We would argue that the employer, in rejecting the IC’s flexible work request, should not be required to prove objectively that there is a detrimental impact if the IC were allowed to work flexibly.

This article is produced by our Singapore office, Bird & Bird ATMD LLP. It does not constitute as legal advice and is intended to provide general information only. Information in this article is accurate as of 18 April 2024.