Experts call on bosses to use technology and strong company culture to engage employees

At the forum on Jan 21, 2019, were (from left) ST senior executive sub-editor Toh Yong Chuan, who was the moderator; Rajah & Tann deputy managing partner Rebecca Chew; Minister of State for Manpower and National Development Zaqy Mohamad; Ascenz Solut
At the forum on Jan 21, 2019, were (from left) ST senior executive sub-editor Toh Yong Chuan, who was the moderator; Rajah & Tann deputy managing partner Rebecca Chew; Minister of State for Manpower and National Development Zaqy Mohamad; Ascenz Solutions chairman and CEO Chia Yoong Hui; Federal Express Singapore managing director Audrey Cheong; and Mr Sean Tan, principal and consulting services leader of Mercer Singapore.ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

SINGAPORE - Disruption may be causing workers to fret about their jobs, but it can also be an avenue for bosses to better engage staff, experts said at a forum on Monday (Jan 21).

Bosses should talk to staff about how technology is changing the way they work, and technology can also be used to gather useful feedback from staff, they said.

This was among the topics discussed by panellists at the Human Capital Partnership - Singapore Press Holdings Forum on employee engagement.

Minister of State for Manpower Zaqy Mohamad, who was one of the five speakers, said: "As we talk about technological advances and how industries are advancing, there's an unsettling sense among workers today. They're looking at not just 'are you training me for my current job' but 'are you preparing me for my next role'."

Thus employers should have conversations with workers about where the company is heading amid disruption and their role in the transformation. This builds trust, he said.

Three company representatives on the panel - Ms Rebecca Chew, deputy managing partner at law firm Rajah & Tann, Mr Chia Yoong Hui, chairman and chief executive of maritime technology company Ascenz Solutions, and Ms Audrey Cheong, managing director for Federal Express Singapore - said they use technology to keep colleagues connected to company happenings.

Mr Chia, for example, uses a portal for his 37 employees to post comments and discuss topics with one another.

Technology aside, they also agreed that the key to boosting engagement is having a strong company culture with values that resonate with staff, such as trust, integrity, and generosity.

Mr Zaqy said that younger professionals tend to look at culture and values when evaluating an employer, not just dollars and cents.

"They look at your organisation's values - 'do you resonate with me; is this a company I want to work with; does my leadership stand the same way on beliefs; are they aligned to mine," he said.

Mr Chia said he aims to build a family environment at work. "Every individual has his own talent; they can perform very well as a single person, but how well can they gel with my team?" he said.

"They must enjoy working with the company - that is the minimum I can offer."

The topic is important as employee engagement levels in Singapore lag behind other countries in the Asia-Pacific region, said Mercer Singapore's principal and consulting services leader Sean Tan, who also spoke at the forum.

A survey last year by Mercer found that only 72 per cent of Singaporeans are satisfied with the companies they work for, compared with 75 per cent and 74 per cent in Hong Kong and South Korea.

The figure was even higher for Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam, at 82 per cent.

The panellists said that building a culture of openness or having an open door policy is one way to engage staff.

But some employees might be fearful about going to their supervisors with feedback, said Ms Chew.

To counter this, Rajah & Tann set up an ombudsman 10 years ago, where a senior member of the firm will sit in the in-house canteen so that employees can approach him in confidence. If their idea is good and constructive, he will raise it to the human resources team and to management, said Ms Chew.

Mercer's Mr Tan and FedEx's Ms Cheong added that beyond gathering feedback, bosses must show that they are willing to act on it.

At FedEx, for instance, there are monthly sessions with employees and work groups to understand the ratings gathered in surveys on the performance of management and working conditions, said Ms Cheong.

"If there are things that cannot be fixed immediately, we make sure we are upfront about it and tell them what the plan is going to be," she said.

About 90 business leaders and human resources professionals attended the forum at SPH News Centre in Toa Payoh North, which was moderated by Straits Times senior executive sub-editor Toh Yong Chuan, a former manpower correspondent.

Another key strategy to engage staff is to develop them and help them progress in their careers. But what happens when staff do not want to be developed, panellists were asked by members of the audience.

Ms Chew said she has encountered some lawyers who are comfortable with their role and pay. For example, one senior associate at the firm did not want to move up into a more stressful role as she wanted to devote time and attention to her child with special needs. So the firm put her on a flexible work arrangement, and eventually coaxed her into accepting a partnership. She now heads the corporate real estate practice.

Management should try to understand why employees do not want to develop and, if they truly have potential, look at how to work with them to take on greater roles, said Ms Chew.

Asked about how to better retain staff, Mr Chia said it is important to look at every employee as a human with his own needs and aspirations, which change over time.

"As a father, we have different challenges, we have our kids and our family to take care of," he said.

"We look at... how they can fulfil their personal needs and in return contribute to the company."

Mr Tan added that companies should weigh the options of losing someone for one day a week if that flexibility is required, or losing him totally.

"Give the person the feeling and belief that he or she has a future at the company and that notion of a future may evolve over time," he said.