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HR forum on hybrid working

The ECCT's Human Resources committee hosted a half day forum on the topic: "Labour law and labour force challenges in the hybrid working era". It was the second forum hosted by the committee this year. The event featured presentations by three speakers, followed by a lunch and panel discussion. Guest speakers were Howard Shiu, Partner at Baker McKenzie, Taipei Office; Ted Yang, Associate Director, Health & Benefits at Willis Towers Watson Taiwan and Elysia Liu, Senior HR Manager for GSK Consumer Healthcare (Overseas) Taiwan Branch. The panel discussion and Q&A was moderated by Andy Liu, Head of Health and Benefits for Willis Towers Watson Taiwan.

In his presentation, Howard Shiu gave an overview of labour law challenges in the hybrid working era. He noted that circumstances had changed significantly in Taiwan since the HR committee's first forum held on 31 March this year. At that time, Taiwan was seen as a relative safe haven from the global coronavirus pandemic and neither authorities nor local branches of multinational companies (MNCs) had thought much about Work From Home (WFH) policies or practices, although local branches of MNCs were aware of developments in other countries more affected by the pandemic and the Ministry of Labor (MOL) held a seminar on WFH on 20 April. Everything changed after the government implemented level 3 restrictions on 15 May. Since then, the MOL has announced guidelines on WFH (on 23 July), which provide a useful reference for companies operating in Taiwan.

Shiu quoted from a report produced by Microsoft which summarises the new reality: "The future of work is here and it's hybrid". Citing his firm's 3R approach to help organisations navigate the business and legal impacts of the pandemic, Shiu noted that, at the time of the first HR forum, companies in Taiwan were only focused on the first R, Resilience – managing the immediate impact of the pandemic. MNCs in Europe and the US have already gone through the next two Rs and Taiwan has belatedly had to follow suit to the second R, Recovery – navigating the countercyclical activities to find a way to return to life and work and the third R, Renewal – strategizing for business transformation and developing new ways to live and work in the new era.

Despite the rude awakening since 15 May, Taiwan remains relatively unscathed from the pandemic compared to much of the world. However, WFH has since become common, and we have entered a new hybrid working era. Before 15 May, Taiwan had only loose or no government regulations. WFH was seen as a benefit policy, uncommon and only adopted by some MNCs. The only regulation that had any relevance previously was "Guiding Principles for Workers' Working Hours Outside of the Workplace" (勞工在事業場所外工作時間指導原則). However, on 23 June, the MOL introduced its Occupational Safety and Health References Guidelines on WFH (居家工作職業安全衛生參考指引) to supplement the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA). This effectively recognised WFH as a new working model.

Hybrid work is seen by businesses as inevitable. It is also proven to be workable and efficient, although downsides include loneliness and exhaustion if WFH is not managed well.

Implementing WFH also requires changes and additional costs. According to Microsoft's report, 66% of leaders say their company is considering redesigning office space. Meanwhile 73% of employees want flexible remote work options to stay while 67% want more in person work or collaboration post-pandemic. What the seemingly contradictory desires indicate is that employees want flexibility.

Shiu noted some important trends: Flexible work is here to stay but some leaders are out of touch with employees and need a wake-up call. In addition, while productivity is high, it is making the workforce exhausted. The younger generation (Gen Z) is at risk and will need to be re-energized. Shrinking networks are also endangering innovation but talent is everywhere in a hybrid world, which has both advantages and drawbacks for both employers and employees.

To thrive in this new environment, companies and organisations will need to create a plan to empower people for extreme flexibility, invest in space and technology to bridge the physical and digital worlds, combat digital exhaustion, prioritise rebuilding social capital and culture and rethink employee experience to compete for talent.

The MOL's WFH guidelines require that employers should identify and assess the occupational safety and health risks of WFH, take necessary precautions to a reasonable and feasible extent and use the checklist attached to the MOL's guidelines for compliance. To ensure compliance Shiu advised companies to establish a clear policy, separate workstations from living spaces if possible, and ensure employees take breaks away from their workstations. In terms of measures to ensure mental health, Shui advised keeping a healthy work schedule, providing education and training, arranging activities with colleagues to reduce loneliness and depression, and encouraging non-official interaction and communication, among others.

Despite recommendations from the ECCT and other business organisations to do away with attendance records, the MOL still insists that companies provide them. However, there is some flexibility on what form records may take.

Companies can unilaterally close their physical offices and ask employees to WFH. However, if companies wish to reduce employee benefits, they are advised to get written consent from their employees.

The speaker went on to describe some digitalisation trends, particularly the use of e-signatures. He noted that e-signatures can refer to a number of varieties but that digital signatures are a class of e-signatures that apply cryptography and require service providers to be approved by the government. While e-signatures have been lawful for some time, they had not been widely used until 15 May this year. Nevertheless, there are some exceptions where they may not be used, such as in non-compete and collective bargaining agreements. In cases of disputes on the authenticity of an e-signature, the burden of proof falls on the person lodging the dispute.

In his presentation, Ted Yang spoke about how the pandemic has affected benefits trends in Taiwan. He noted global trends towards shifting focus to broader benefits, wellbeing, and employee experience. Citing his company's survey of 189,000 employees at 150 employers, a third of employers have no clear benefits strategy as yet but seven in 10 plan to differentiate and customise their strategies in the next two years.

A focus on inclusion and diversity, remote working and ESG are the top external influences driving companies' benefits strategies and improved employee retention is the top measure of success. The top objectives of surveyed companies over the next two years regarding benefits packages are to focus on integrating wellbeing into their benefits packages, increase flexibility and choice and enhance communication.

Most employers are at an early stage of digital adoption but three quarters plan to embed and personalise the digital experience across benefits. Cost and risk management and greater efficiency are key objectives for managing benefits.

In terms of how benefits packages are likely to change over the next two years, the highest percentage of organisations in the survey plan to increase wellbeing support, such as support for mental health, physical health, lifestyle improvement and social well-being in addition to enhancing core benefits such as healthcare, leave and risk benefits.

Improving employees' understanding of cost and value is the top tactical priority for employee experience of benefits and two in five employers are planning or considering adopting a digital hub that houses all benefits to make it convenient for employees to manage their benefit options. For example, employees would be able to update their insurance coverage preferences through a mobile app.

The survey revealed that most employers are already taking steps to use technology to address health and wellbeing through online/virtual medical and mental health services, and wellbeing apps. Half of employers are planning or considering manager training to identify and assist employees with their wellbeing.

Yang concluded that any adjustments to benefits programmes should be made with employee needs in mind and the design should be flexible enough to make adjustments later on to meet changing needs.

In her presentation, Elysia Liu spoke about supporting employees in dealing with uncertainty. Her company has three main areas of focus in dealing with the impacts of the pandemic: employee health and wellbeing, being a responsible employer and ensuring business continuity.

In terms of hygiene and wellbeing, the company provided subsidies to employees to purchase personal protection equipment and health supplements and granted special leave to parents with young children. The company's Employee Assistance Programmes (EAP) included virtual sessions with medical and other professionals on subjects such as nutrition, sleep, WFH and improving workspaces, such as ergonomic furniture. In terms of virtual engagement, the company explored the best ways of working. Liu noted that agendas and schedules have to be adjusted for the virtual format. For example, it is not reasonable or practical to host workshops for hours or even days on end. Sessions need to be broken up into shorter segments.

In terms of business continuity, the company provided subsidies to employees to purchase furniture for their home workspaces as well as for upgrading telecommunications and internet plans, among others.

In terms of being a responsible employer, Liu stressed the need to balance risk and opportunity while remaining empathetic to employees' needs and communicating effectively. This means providing frequent updates about measures, resources, and support. It is also important to allow employees to give feedback, share their concerns and make adjustments accordingly.

Reflecting on some of the lessons learnt so far, Liu said to beware of excessive communications and bear in mind that the new era will put a heavier burden on managers and HR personnel. Managers not familiar with taking care of employees needs may need additional training and assistance in this regard. Other challenges the new era will bring include maintaining relationships and building trust, fostering inclusion and a sense of belonging, as well as regulatory obstacles to providing flexible and practical working solutions.