Soaring the skies

Singapore’s Changi Airport was recently crowned the best airport in the world by Skytrax for the seventh time in sixteen years. In this exclusive interview, HRM finds out more about the people who power its well-oiled operations

Atrue Singapore icon, Changi Airport is in a phase of rapid growth at the moment, with Terminal Four as well as retail and lifestyle complex Jewel Changi Airport both due to open in the next few years.

Another major project in the works is Changi East, a plot of land that the Changi Airport Group (CAG) is developing to build a three-runway system and supporting infrastructure, as well as the 10 million square foot Terminal Five. This multi-billion dollar facility is projected to be ready in the later half of the 2020s.

Having the right talent to match this scale of growth and development is a priority for the HR team at Changi Airport, says Justina Tan, Senior Vice President, HR, CAG. “Good talent is in short supply and that is definitely a key challenge and an area of focus,” she says.

The group has an internal staff strength of 1,800 but works together with a wider community of 40,000 airport employees across its three terminals. The fourth one is due to open in the second half of 2017 and preparations are already underway for employees to become operationally ready. “Project teams have been formed and hiring is taking place so that the team is ready for operational testing,” shares Tan.

CAG places great emphasis on workplace diversity as it generates fresh perspectives and new ideas that help it stay ahead of the competition.

Tan says this diversity is reflected in its hiring practices. CAG reaches out to a wide range of education institutions and participates in various career fairs to interact and take in suitable candidates with different interests, specialisations or experiences. They could be scholars, fresh graduates, or experienced hires, she says.

“We hire people who share the same DNA; people who will ascribe to our value system.”

A strong employer brand

Changi Airport reached a significant milestone when it won its 500th best airport award in November 2015.

However, CAG is not content with just being a leader in its field. It is also constantly striving to be an employer of choice so that the best talent come under its wing.

Building a strong employer brand is a key focus area, says Tan. “The company brand should be a reflection of what the company stands for both externally and, even more importantly, internally,” she explains.

When CAG created its formal employee value proposition, it asked its own employees what they were looking for. “It must stand for something that we can deliver as this makes it authentic, and that’s what guided us in its development,” says Tan. “Changi is a place people can call home and that is what our employees feel about our brand.”

According to Tan, employees are also brand advocates. “We have a team of brand ambassadors who are able to articulate our brand through events that we host, such as career fairs. People hear from employees themselves and not just HR or marketing.”

Such sharing sessions give people a sense of what goes on behind the scenes of a successful airport. “For example, someone might not know what a person does in an airport operations role,” says Tan. “We launched a series of brand videos and asked employees to talk about their area of work, to let potential candidates know what could be some areas that they could consider.”

CAG is always seeking new ways to engage its target audience. Last October, it conducted an SG50 Amazing Race in the airport for top local students to gain insights about the airport and find out more about the scholarship programme that CAG offers.

CAG’s dedication towards its employment branding efforts also impressed the judges at this year’s HRM Awards, where it won the STJobs Award for Best Employer Branding.

Helping careers take flight

Career growth and development are critical for the long term retention of employees, especially in a competitive marketplace. Understanding this, CAG places a lot of emphasis in actively developing the careers of its employees.

Supervisors anchor one-on-one career conversations with employees to discuss their aspirations and what is needed for them to reach their goals.

Specific priorities and actions to be taken in the year, which could include changes in current job assignments or training, are then jointly identified and incorporated into the development plan for the year ahead.

Leaders at all levels make a critical difference in any organisation, says Tan, making leadership another priority for the HR team at CAG. All people managers in the CAG Group undergo a leadership milestone programme when they reach three critical leadership junctures. These junctures take place when they progress to become, firstly, a manager of individual contributors; then a manager of other managers, and finally an enterprise leader.

“It is a journey of self discovery, where they get to think through their own leadership style,” says Tan. Programme participants also gain a better understanding of the business, and are exposed to case studies on challenges that they have been through themselves. The programme is complemented with training modules on people management skills.

As CAG runs a complex business, it is also critical to onboard new employees in the right way, says Tan. Leaders who enter the organisation at the “Manager of Managers” and “Enterprise Leader” levels undergo an onboarding programme called “Accelerate” within their first six months at the organisation.

The programme accelerates the recruits’ understanding of the business environment as well as the principles and thinking that guide business decisions. Heads of divisions as well as top management members facilitate this programme, which in turn forms part of their own leadership development as they engage and grow the new leaders who come on board.

Rewards and Recognition

When Changi Airport won its 500th award last year, all the leaders in the organisation spent time serving coffee to employees in appreciation of their contributions. This is one of the non-monetary avenues to show staff appreciation that can go a long way, shares Tan.

In addition to long service awards, CAG also honours its employees with “core value” awards. Here, employees nominate their peers who best display the company’s core values in their daily work. “We hear a lot of heart-warming and touching stories about employees who have run the extra mile,” says Tan. Their stories have been compiled into a book entitled “Extraordinary”.

When it comes to staff benefits, employees in a diverse workforce have different needs, says Tan. For example, older workers appreciate health benefits while their younger counterparts might prefer travel perks. Understanding this need, CAG offers its employees flexible spending accounts that they can use to claim for a variety of health, family and leisure benefits. These include travel expenses, laptops, sports equipment, childcare fees, insurance premiums, and books.

Employees aged over 35 also receive a wellness spending account which they can use to claim funding for health screening packages.

At a glance


Total number of employees: 1,800


Size of the HR team (Singapore): 53


Key HR priorities:

- Recruitment

- Employer branding

- Leadership development


Innovation to boost productivity


Imagine a waste-bin that alerts cleaners when it is full and ready to be emptied? This was one of the new technologies introduced by CAG’s Innovation Lab, which looks at mid-to long-term innovation efforts that could improve overall operational efficiency at Changi Airport.

In another trial, the lab also tested the use of battery-operated janitor trolley carts in the terminals, relieving cleaning staff of the need to push heavy trolley carts manually.

In addition to the application of new technologies to enhance airport processes, the lab looks at the redesign of facilities and offerings to meet the needs of the changing passenger demographics.


CEO Challenge


This initiative encourages employees to get creative and submit original ideas that can boost profits, cost savings and productivity. The winners receive a monetary award as well as the personal satisfaction of seeing their idea positively impacting the organisation.

One idea that won was to use the horticulture displays in the airport as advertising space to generate additional revenue.


Who’s Who in HR


Justina Tan

Senior Vice President, Human Resource


Goh Hwai Kar

Vice President, HR Business Partnership


Fonda Tan

Vice President, Rewards & Performance Management


Shirley Cheong

Assistant Vice President, Talent & Development


Analysing the Workday advantage

Sandeep Aggarwal, Chief Financial Officer of Aon-Hewitt Asia-Pacific, shares his thoughts on the Workday finance and HR analytics platform. He says the cloud-based system is intuitive and easy-to-use, but still provides powerful insights across the functions.

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