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What makes a company a great place to work

From helping fund staff's education advancements to upskilling, leading eye care company Alcon meets the mark with its progressive workplace culture

With financial and moral support from Alcon, senior superintendent Rajkumar Sekar was able to pursue higher education and acquire new skills throughout his career. PHOTO: ALCON

Sixteen years ago, Alcon, a Swiss manufacturer of eye care products, opened Asia’s first automated manufacturing facility at Tuas Biomedical Park to meet the growing demand for its contact lenses. Spanning more than 330,000 sq ft, it became one of the largest manufacturing facilities of its kind in the world. 

Mr Rajkumar Sekar, who was hired to operate the contact lens machines, fondly recollects those early days. In his first year at the company, his supervisor encouraged him to upskill, which led to him completing a Higher National ITE Certificate (Higher Nitec) in mechanical engineering the following year.

With a self-professed thirst for knowledge, Mr Sekar’s learning streak did not stop there. With financial support from his company, the now senior superintendent went on to pursue an advanced diploma followed by a business management degree.
 

“Even though I was a shift worker, I was still able to attend all my classes because my managers were flexible about my work hours. They understood the demands of juggling school and work. The supportive environment at Alcon is the reason I could pursue higher education and acquire new skills throughout my career,” recounts Mr Sekar.

A leader in the growing eye care sector

Established in 1945 in Texas, Alcon was acquired by pharmaceutical giant Novartis in 2011, which it then spun off from in 2019, becoming an independent, publicly traded company. Today, Alcon is the global leader in eye care, employing more than 24,000 people across 60 countries, with a market capitalisation of US$43.5 billion (S$59.3 billion).

In its most recent full year 2021 results, worldwide sales reached US$8.2 billion, a 22 per cent increase compared to the same period last year.

Globally, an estimated 1.7 billion people will be living with some form of visual impairment by 2050. With the growing ageing population and the rising incidence of myopia and dry eyes due to the increased use of digital devices, improving access to high-quality ophthalmic care is a key priority for all Apac (Asia-Pacific) countries. As the global leader in vision care, Alcon is strategically positioned to cater to this growing need with the most comprehensive array of products that can treat the entire eye at each stage of an individual's life. Our mission is to help people see brilliantly so they can live brilliantly, and Alcon’s 4,000 associates across Apac live and breathe this mission every day in everything we do,” says Mr Chintan Desai, vice-president, Surgical for Alcon Asia Pacific. 

In addition to its first contact lens manufacturing facility here, Alcon spent S$200 million in 2009 to build a new plant, also located in Tuas Biomedical Park, to manufacture ophthalmic products to address various eye conditions. Together, both facilities employ 740 people in Singapore.

Enabling the development of its people

Since becoming an independent company, Alcon has doubled down on efforts to create a work environment where employees are encouraged to develop themselves to their full potential. 

This renewed focus on people has led to Alcon being certified a “2021 Great Place to Work” in Singapore, Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand by the Great Place to Work Institute. It also made it on The Straits Times’ annual list of top employers in 2021.

As a progressive employer, the company is recognised as a Human Capital Partner by the Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices (Tafep) in Singapore.

Through the pandemic, Alcon has actively participated in a number of government programmes such as the Singapore Jobs Initiative, which aims to help companies increase their local employment headcount. Alcon was also recognised for its efforts in supporting the upskilling of workers with a SkillsFuture Employer Award. 

The company’s own Education Assistance Programme, which accepts applications twice a year, provides financial support to employees who wish to further their education in line with business needs. In the past two years, 10 employees, including Mr Sekar, have obtained diplomas, and undergraduate and postgraduate degrees through this programme. 

To nurture young talent, Alcon collaborates with the Government on the Singapore Industry Scholarships (SgIS), which are offered by market leaders in strategic sectors to citizens at various stages of their university education. Three of nine scholarship recipients have since graduated and are pursuing careers at Alcon as an engineer, a validation expert and a chemist. 

Keeping a pulse on its people

At Alcon, there are multiple pathways for employees to develop professionally. For Ms Tan Hsiao Ching, a commercial manager, the company’s focus on training is one of the factors for her staying motivated throughout her 20-year career at Alcon. 

She says: “I’ve progressed in my career because the company invests in tools and training programmes that equip us with the skills and knowledge we need to do our job well. I’ve also become a more well-rounded individual because of the ample opportunities for self-development.” 

Commercial manager Tan Hsiao Ching says Alcon’s focus on training is one of the factors that kept her motivated throughout her 20-year career in the company. PHOTO: ALCON

“Alcon has an open and honest culture where all employees are encouraged to bring their best selves to work and to share their views freely,” Ms Tan continues.

Regular “pulses” or surveys – conducted no fewer than three times a year across the entire organisation – give all employees a confidential channel to share their ideas and concerns candidly and in a safe space. These regular check-ins have created conversations between leaders and their teams and led to actionable insights for improvements to the workplace culture.

Ms Preneet Bindra, head of human resources, Asia-Pacific, at Alcon, says, “Post-spin-off, we’ve delivered on a solid transformation roadmap that focuses on how we are organised as a company, where we invest and how we work. We’ve renewed our focus on people and culture, and extensive work is under way on culture activation.”

Nurturing a great workplace culture

The company’s focus on its people is evident in the myriad of initiatives that are designed to motivate and engage its workforce. 

A quarterly employee recognition programme, “You Are Brilliant,” rewards employees who exhibit the organisation’s values and have made a positive contribution to their respective areas of work. And, “You Magnify Brilliance” is an annual award given to the best-performing individuals or teams who are role models. 

Throughout the year, employees are encouraged to make use of an internal communications platform to show appreciation to one another with “thank you” e-cards.

For the first time in Asia-Pacific, Alcon created a book of stories that showcased the company’s culture of “Being Brilliant” to inspire employees. The book features stories of employees living by the company’s values, such as ownership and accountability. For example, when the pandemic hit, visits to eye-wear shops decreased. So, the Singapore Vision Care team worked directly with optometrists to provide socially distant solutions, including webinars with customers and last-mile deliveries to get purchases directly to the door, giving the customers confidence to purchase without having to visit stores. 

Commercial Manager of Alcon Singapore Daryl Ng (far right) and the Singapore Vision Care team. PHOTO: ALCON

Mr Daryl Ng, commercial manager at Alcon Singapore, says, “The whole idea was not to lose touch with customers. They needed a partner that would lean in and brave the ups and downs with them. We asked ourselves what we would do if this was our business and acted accordingly. It was a big sacrifice, but it not only worked, it also bonded us in a really unique way.” 

Investing in the development of its people, creating meaningful careers and offering a great workplace for all will continue to be one of Alcon’s key priorities in the long run.

“We’re doing more rigorous talent reviews and development planning that focuses equally on building exposure, experience and capabilities. As we build our outlook for the future, one can expect to see more development and learning opportunities to build long-term careers. We’re excited to find new ways to make Alcon a great place to work in 2022,” adds Ms Preneet.

Click here to find out how you can begin a career at Alcon.

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