Digitalising, retraining workers, hybrid work: How S'pore firms can survive disruptions like Covid-19

Phoon Huat had begun moving its services online, even before the Covid-19 outbreak.
Phoon Huat had begun moving its services online, even before the Covid-19 outbreak.ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

SINGAPORE - Companies that were able to adapt fast and become less reliant on foreign labour were better able to survive the economic fallout of the Covid-19 pandemic, said Minister of State for Manpower and Education Gan Siow Huang on Thursday (July 8).

Digitalising and retraining workers in Singapore is hence crucial to allow companies to survive future disruptions, or even another pandemic, said Ms Gan who was speaking in a panel discussion at a forum to launch the opening of SkillsFuture Month.

The panel, which discussed driving business transformation through skills development, featured business leaders such as Microsoft Singapore's managing director Kevin Wo, Grab's managing director Yee Wee Tang, executive director of Phoon Huat James Wong and the executive director of human resources firm HRnetGroup Adeline Sim.

It was moderated by The Business Times' digital editor Christopher Lim.

Companies going digital

Quickly shifting to digital modes of operation before and during the pandemic helped firms to ride out the storm, the panellists said, adding that Covid-19 also accelerated changes that were already in motion pre-pandemic.

Mr Wong of Phoon Huat, a baking supplies and wholesale ingredients firm, said his company had begun moving its services online before the Covid-19 outbreak.

He said: "We had already started planning our digitalisation much earlier, after the Government's announcement a few years ago that it was going to cut the worker quotas. So we were planning ahead of time.

"But when the pandemic came, even though our e-shop was not fully ready and tested, we were forced to launch it just as the circuit breaker came."

He added that it was a "blessing" that Phoon Huat's online services were already in the works, even though they were not entirely ready.

Mr Wong said Covid-19 was a "big stick" pushing his company forward, and that it created the impetus not just to be more manpower-lean but also to expand its business overseas.

Ms Gan noted that digitalisation is important, especially in Singapore's context where a small population necessitates making the most of every worker.

"I think our strength has to be on developing quality manpower, making the most out of every person who is willing to work and able to work in Singapore," she said.

Ms Gan added that Covid-19 has reinforced the lesson that Singapore cannot be overly reliant on foreign workers, especially when border controls have affected the inflow of such workers across various roles.

Upskilling challenges

Though firms know upskilling of workers is vital, both employers and employees face a host of challenges in the process, the panellists said.

Microsoft's Mr Wo said companies - especially small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) - do not always have the resources or capabilities to find talent.

He noted that some do not even have dedicated human resources departments, or the budget and time to develop their employees. They also face constraints in letting staff take time off for training.

Ms Gan said companies like Microsoft can be SkillsFuture "queen bees" to help smaller firms with training and skills upgrading. Queen bees are industry leaders which partner SkillsFuture to lend expertise and networks to help smaller firms.

In November last year, 22 queen bees, including companies like SMRT and Kwong Wai Shiu Hospital, were with SkillsFuture, and there are plans to have 40 queen bee firms by 2025.

Ms Gan added that there are also SME centres to help smaller companies get help in training their workers.

Mr Wo said the pandemic has made work more digital in nature, and the next key step to successful economic recovery is to ensure there is more access to digital skills.

"One of the keys to genuinely inclusive growth is to make sure that those people who are hardest hit by the job losses - professionals, managers, executives and technicians (PMETs), job seekers, underrepresented minorities like women... are addressed," he said.

Grab's Mr Yee said his company provides a mixture of training for both immediate job requirements and longer-term skills in other fields.

"The first stage is when they join our platform. We have training like safety, vehicle maintenance and hygiene. Secondly, we do on the job training like... learning how to handle pets so we can put them on other services (such as GrabPet) to enhance their income opportunities," he said.

He added that Grab also has courses in other fields like personal training or being a barista so its riders and drivers can pick up another set of skills to improve their income.

However, many Grab workers find it challenging to take time off work to learn new skills, as they have to balance training with their financial and family needs, Mr Yee noted.


Grab provides a mix of training for both immediate job requirements and longer-term skills in other fields. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

Changing mindsets for young and mature workers

Learning hard skills is not the only requirement for working life in the future. The panellists agreed that changing mindsets to adjust to new situations, for instance, is also among the skills needed for both young and mature workers.

Microsoft's Mr Wo said navigating uncertainty must become a core skill for job seekers, while workplace environments must become safe learning environments where people are allowed to ask "why not" and "what if".

"The environment should be safe for people to take risks and make mistakes, so people can learn from there. When they make mistakes, it should be celebrated, not penalised, so they learn faster," he added.

Hybrid work

Besides changing mindsets and adopting digital tools, the nature of the workplace itself is evolving towards a more hybrid model - a mix of physical interactions and virtual work, the panellists said.

HRnetGroup's Ms Sim said: "I would put my money on companies that evolve that way... It actually works extremely well. Hybrid is the new normal and is here to stay."

A Microsoft workplace trend index study done earlier this year found that more than 70 per cent of respondents prefer to have a flexible workplace environment and policies.

But there was also an equal percentage that wanted face-to-face interactions, Mr Wo said.

"I guess it's a balance of both and I think that's where we are hoping to see that the employees and employers will have to come together to make that work."

Ms Gan also noted that not all jobs can easily shift into a hybrid mode of working.

"Perhaps for manufacturing, food and beverage services (F&B) and hospitality, it might be harder to have this kind of hybrid... type of work experience," she said.

"But certainly there's potential in many other sectors and I think it's important that companies actually see these as opportunities to be able to attract talent, and also be able to retain the good employees."