Use tech, strong company culture to engage staff

Manpower shortage is a common issue among businesses, but listening and responding to employee feedback will help with talent retention, say panellists at the Human Capital Partnership - Singapore Press Holdings Forum on Jan 21.
(From left) ST senior executive sub-editor Toh Yong Chuan moderating the Human Capital Partnership-Singapore Press Holdings Forum on employee engagement with five panellists: Ms Rebecca Chew, deputy managing partner of Rajah & Tann; Mr Zaqy Mohamad,
(From left) ST senior executive sub-editor Toh Yong Chuan moderating the Human Capital Partnership-Singapore Press Holdings Forum on employee engagement with five panellists: Ms Rebecca Chew, deputy managing partner of Rajah & Tann; Mr Zaqy Mohamad, Minister of State for Manpower and National Development; Mr Chia Yoong Hui, chief executive of Ascenz Solutions; Ms Audrey Cheong, managing director of Federal Express Singapore; and Mr Sean Tan, principal and consulting services leader of Mercer Singapore, at the SPH auditorium yesterday.ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

Values such as trust, integrity and generosity resonate with staff, say experts at forum

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 yesterday.

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

"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'," said Minister of State for Manpower Zaqy Mohamad, who was one of the five speakers.

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.

STRENGTHENING COMPANY CULTURE

It's about strengthening the organisation's culture by recognising the contributions and the importance of your employees. If you believe honestly employees are the lifeblood of your company, then there's a lot more we need to do to inculcate values of openness, trust, respect, to make sure that employees are engaged.

MINISTER OF STATE FOR MANPOWER ZAQY MOHAMAD, on good human capital practices.

HAVING DIFFICULT CONVERSATIONS

Not everybody is skilled in engagement... How do you tell an employee that he is reaching a plateau, how do we tell the employee honestly? It's a hard conversation to have.

MS REBECCA CHEW, deputy managing partner at law firm Rajah & Tann, on the need for supervisors to have good communication skills.

TWO-WAY STREET

This will be an ongoing effort, we have to actually engage our people, and in return they will have to engage us also, telling us what is in their own mind and own career plan.

MR CHIA YOONG HUI, chairman and chief executive of maritime technology company Ascenz Solutions, on the role of employees in engaging their bosses.

SENDING THE RIGHT SIGNAL

If the employees see that the company is interested in their personal and professional development, they are more engaged.

MS AUDREY CHEONG, managing director for Federal Express Singapore, on talent development as part of the employee engagement strategy.

ACTING ON FEEDBACK

There's only one thing that is worse than not asking our colleagues for their input and that is having asked for it and not doing anything about it. If we want to ask our colleagues for their views, we have to be very prepared and committed to act on them.

MR SEAN TAN, Mercer Singapore's principal and consulting services leader, on the need for feedback exercises to be taken seriously.

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 staff 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.

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

"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.

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, 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. 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.

But beyond gathering feedback, bosses must show 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 The Straits Times senior executive sub-editor Toh Yong Chuan, a former manpower correspondent.

Another key strategy to engage staff is to 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.

Management should try to understand why employees do not want to develop - perhaps, to devote time to a child - 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 staff member as a human with his own needs and aspirations which change over time, such as when he has family commitments.

Mr Tan added that companies should weigh the options of losing someone for a 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. That notion of a future may evolve over time," he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 22, 2019, with the headline 'Use tech, strong company culture to engage staff'. Print Edition | Subscribe