Engaging workers as business transforms is a must: panellists


EVEN as businesses continue to transform themselves, many have focused on technology alone - neglecting the need to engage with their people to cope with the changes, noted panellists at a human capital forum on Monday.

This lack of clarity has led to a sense of unease among workers as they do not know where they fit in the future of the business, they added.

This was among the main themes discussed by panellists at the Human Capital Partnership - Singapore Press Holdings (HCP-SPH) forum on employee engagement, which was attended by almost 100 business leaders and HR practitioners.

"As we talk about technology advances and how industries are developing, there's this unsettling sense among workers today," said Minister of State for National Development and Manpower Zaqy Mohamad, who was part of the panel.

"[These workers are asking]: Are you training me as your company transforms? Or are you just leaving me here to become obsolete?"

He emphasised that talent development and giving workers a clear career path are key for businesses to thrive in today's war for talent.

Digital disruptions may be viewed with distrust, but Mr Zaqy emphasised that technology is not a "bogeyman" that comes to "kill jobs".

In fact, panellist Audrey Cheong, managing director, Federal Express Singapore pointed out that technology advances have, in fact, helped create employment.

"It's our duty as an employer to anticipate the change and retrain our workers," she said.

Technology can also be used as a tool for employers to engage with their workers, according to panellists.

Chia Yoong Hui, CEO of maritime technology firm Ascenz Solutions shared how staff in the homegrown small and medium-sized enterprise (SME) use platforms such as Twilio and Slack to communicate. The company, consisting of about 40 employees, also has an internal portal for them to have discussions.

Rebecca Chew, deputy managing partner, Rajah & Tann said that the company started its technology transformation in 2018.

"We are trying to use technology to engage with our staff and lawyers, because we feel that maybe the younger generation prefer engaging with technology if they are not so comfortable with a face-to-face conversation," she said.

The law firm has invested in tablets - or any other technological devices staff desire - to enable them to stay engaged, she said. This helps their lawyers to keep in contact with the company as some of them are based offsite.

Panellists also spoke at length on how creating an open work culture and addressing the needs of staff are some steps that they are taking to attract and retain talent.

For Mr Chia, this involves spending "a lot of time" with his people to get to know them on a personal level.

"At times, they are not comfortable to voice out [their opinions] in meetings, so they ask me out for coffee," he said.

"His or her concerns might be valid - it could be a warning for our business. I'm not the guru who knows everything so it's good to know feedback on the ground."

Panellist Sean Tan, principal and consulting services leader, Mercer said that research showed that one in three employees hesitate to express their views as they fear negative repercussions to their career.

So there is a need for "deliberate arrangements" to invite feedback from colleagues, he said.

In FedEx, there is a formal survey to find out what staff members think about management's performance and work conditions.

After the findings come out, the company would sit with employee work groups every month to make sure problems are fixed.

"Employees see that issues get addressed and that's very important… when we ask for feedback, we must be willing to listen and act on it," said Ms Cheong.

Panellists also touched on their employee engagement challenges and how they coped with it.

One question posed during the question-and-answer segment was how to manage staff who are unwilling to further develop their potential. Ms Chew said that the key is to find out why employees behave like that.

She shared an instance many years ago, when she encountered a senior associate who turned down a partnership as she wanted to focus on her child with special needs. After finding out her situation, the company offered her a flexi-work arrangement which allowed her to overcome her challenges at home.

The lawyer eventually became a partner and ended up heading a department, said Ms Chew.

Even though Singapore businesses are taking steps in the right direction when it comes to employee engagement, Mr Tan said that there is still some way to go.

He pointed out that Mercer's research found that Singapore consistently ranked near the bottom in the region when it comes to employee engagement.

"We are always fighting with Japan to clinch the spot of 'most unhappy employees' in Asia-Pacific. That's nothing to be proud of," he told the audience, albeit in a more light-hearted tone.

"We need to do a better job at engaging our people… because that's going to make a difference in terms of propelling our economic and commercial interests."