FIRMS need to show flexibility in work arrangements and staff assessments to make it easier for people to start or expand a family, said Minister of State for Community Development, Youth and Sports Halimah Yacob.

She raised the importance of a flexible work plan, such as allowing parents to work from home, at the Maybe Baby? dialogue held by I Love Children (ILC) yesterday. This is the first dialogue held by the voluntary welfare organisation to find out what would encourage married couples to have a baby, or more children.

Said Madam Halimah: "We have to start looking at how we can do things differently. People have to spend an unimaginable number of hours at the workplace... that is really not family-friendly."

Companies should also assess staff based on their output and not the number of hours spent at the workplace, and co-workers should be more supportive of those with families, she added.

"The most critical part is to show that even when people are working on flexible work options or part-time, it does not affect their productivity, efficiency."

The 20 participants at the dialogue included ILC members and members of the public.

Singapore's total fertility rate picked up slightly last year, rising to 1.2 from a historic low of 1.15 the previous year.

Sociologist Paulin Straughan said: "Without immigration, Singapore's population would have shrunk already. We now see the consequences of the low fertility rate, with the increase in foreign workers."

Other concerns raised at the dialogue included the high cost of infant care and housing. ILC president Joni Ong said it is looking to hold such sessions every quarter.

"We have gained insights into what would-be parents and even those with one or two children are thinking about," she added.

An ILC parenthood survey last year showed money is the key concern when it comes to deciding whether to start a family.

Other reasons cited for not having children included not being mentally prepared, placing more importance on career goals, and the lack of quality or affordable childcare. More than 600 people, aged between 21 and 39, took part in the survey.