Reimagining upskilling: Empowering employees to drive innovation

Businesses are driving workplace innovation amid a pandemic through upskilling initiatives developed by employees, for employees, with help from adult training specialists

Mr Abdul Subhan of Royal Plaza on Scotts is embracing learning and upskilling to stay relevant
Mr Abdul Subhan, assistant chief engineer at Royal Plaza on Scotts, is helping the hotel design a training programme to equip engineering employees with security skills. PHOTO: ROYAL PLAZA ON SCOTTS

When Mr Abdul Subhan steps into his workplace at Royal Plaza on Scotts hotel, he does so with his head held high.

At 67, he has seldom felt more relevant, respected and re-energised. He puts it down to another "R" word: Re-learning.

In his 46 years at the hotel, he has always embraced learning to stay relevant. It has been rewarding; He rose from technician to assistant chief engineer in the span of 35 years by attending engineering courses and pursuing a diploma in management processes.

The latest change in his journey of re-discovery? Learning how to manage security incidents, including terrorist threats, last year.

"Hotels have been merging duties across teams such as concierge and security," observes Mr Subhan. "(But) the initiative of merging engineering and security is a first, and it is interesting to see this evolution."

"I appreciate the opportunities to learn and grow with the organisation."

His employer played a large part in empowering his quest to grow.

It is part of Royal Plaza on Scotts' commitment to develop its "human capital", especially during tough times, says Ms Juliana Ong, the hotel's director of culture and human capital.

According to data from the Singapore Tourism Board, hotel occupancy stood at 63 per cent in September, far below September 2019's 87 per cent.

Despite the pandemic lull, Royal Plaza on Scotts remains resilient. It has avoided retrenching any staff, and is instead focusing on helping them grow.

"We strongly believe in expanding competencies across various functions and departments so that our employees can remain ready, relevant and resilient at all times," says Ms Ong.

Re-energised, Mr Subhan is now helping the hotel design a training programme to equip engineering employees with security skills. The pilot initiative was developed with the support of the Institute for Adult Learning's Centre for Workplace Learning and Performance (CWLP).

The CWLP aims to build a culture of learning across enterprises in Singapore. The centre serves as a consultant, helping companies like Royal Plaza on Scotts identify learning gaps and design programmes to promote employee-driven innovation.

As businesses grapple with the effects of the pandemic, companies gain when they invest in their people.

A recent study by SkillsFuture Singapore, a statutory board under the Ministry of Education, and the Ministry of Trade and Industry found that for every 10 per cent of the local workforce that are sent for training, companies reaped a higher revenue of 0.7 per cent on average each year, for up to three years after training.

But there are challenges. While 99 per cent of employees believe that learning and development programmes are crucial, the NTUC LearningHub's Workforce Learning in Workplace Transformation 2021 report found that current programmes leave much to be desired.

Some of the top reasons employees find current training programmes to be subpar include limited training topics and irrelevant modules.

By employees, for employees

So how can businesses ensure that they upskill and reskill employees successfully? For some companies, the answer is simple: Let employees drive innovation.

"One of our employee engagement strategies is to constantly nurture and develop our employees through professional challenges," says Ms Ong.

Mr Subhan worked with a workplace learning specialist from CWLP to design the job scope, skills and challenges of a new role: Technician and security officer.

Together, they developed the blueprint for on-the-job training.

"It was a great opportunity for us to transform processes and create meaningful jobs for our employees," says Ms Ong. "(The engineering team) saw it as an opportunity to upskill and safeguard their career during the pandemic."

Since the project kicked off last January, about half of the engineering team have obtained their security licence from the Singapore Police Force.

Encouraged by the results, Ms Ong says the hotel plans to expand this cross-learning programme for the front office and F&B teams.

Professional services firm Deloitte is another company that believes in cross-skills training.

With input from employees, the Financial Advisory arm of Deloitte worked with CWLP to develop a training exercise for its team.

"We want to equip our people with cross-servicing capabilities, and empower them to share ideas and co-create innovative solutions so that we can transform the way we work and how we serve our clients," says Mr Keoy Soo Earn, financial advisory regional managing partner, Deloitte Southeast Asia.

Upskilling and job redesign should be performed with foresight to help employees stay relevant, says Mr Keoy Soo Earn, financial advisory regional managing partner, Deloitte Southeast Asia. PHOTO: DELOITTE

The training exercise combined certain job roles of employees from the Merger and Acquisition Transaction Services (MATS) and Valuation and Modelling (V&M) business units.

It is a sensible move. Before the exercise, certain processes within the Financial Advisory business were duplicated by employees from the two teams, says Mr Keoy.

For example, the teams used to manually input the same set of financial numbers from a client into data books that were held separately.

By merging the two teams and introducing a single-source data book with automated dashboards, efficiency and productivity can naturally increase.

Growing together as one

Merging teams, however, can be challenging - especially in a time of remote working and limited face-to-face interactions.

An October 2020 survey led by US-based think tank Pew Research Centre found that 65 per cent of employees felt less connected to their colleagues due to work-from-home arrangements.

Building camaraderie among the two teams was what Deloitte had to do as part of its remote training exercise.

"Change is never easy," Mr Keoy says. "While our people acknowledged the importance of upskilling and reskilling, it did take some effort to push past the hump and embrace the change."

"For example, a MATS team leader might not have been very convinced that a team member from V&M would look beyond their valuation mindset to work on the financial due diligence aspects of the project, and vice versa," he adds.

To foster trust, Mr Keoy ensured that the employees had the chance to work together on projects and engage with their teammates from the other unit.

About 15 per cent of employees from the MATS and V&M teams volunteered to take part in the pilot training exercise. They are now working in their new cross-servicing roles.

Mr Hoo Jiunn Yih, financial advisory director, Deloitte Singapore, is one employee who has benefited from the training. "After the exercise, our team became more efficient on the analysis, which in turn allowed us to have more clarity and better understanding of the deals during execution of both financial due diligence and business valuation projects."

"I look forward to refining our skills further as we work on more projects, as I believe this will help all of us service our clients better, and advance our career," Mr Hoo adds.

The training exercise will be expanded across the Singapore team and other selected teams in Southeast Asia.

For Mr Keoy, the project has been anchored by three pillars: The insights and gaps identified from previous projects, open communication with employees on how to improve work processes, and the independent, unbiased perspective from the CWLP.

"CWLP came in to conduct independent interviews with our people so that we were able to have an unbiased view of what our people thought about going through the exercise," he says.

Mr Keoy stresses the importance of such programmes for survival: "Upskilling and job redesign should be performed with foresight so that our people can stay relevant in today's dynamic marketplace, particularly as organisations focus on transformation to thrive in the new normal."

Urgent need to be relevant

The country-wide initiative to upskill and reskill employees has never been more urgent. The real threat of losing one's job amid a crushing pandemic has made it critically important.

A report released by the Ministry of Trade and Industry last week revealed the devastating impact of Covid-19 on livelihoods in Singapore. By the third quarter of this year, the country's total employment had dropped by a cumulative 196,400. More than half of these jobs were lost during the circuit breaker period in the second quarter of 2020.

However, the job market is showing signs of recovery.

The Ministry of Manpower's latest Labour Market report notes that total employment has declined at a "considerably slower pace": 3,400 jobs were lost in the third quarter of 2021, compared to 16,300 in the second quarter.

Manpower Minister Tan See Leng said earlier this month: "As our economy restructures and recovers from Covid-19, our workforce needs to develop the right skills to meet the changing needs of industries and businesses."

This feature is brought to you by the Institute for Adult Learning.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.