Ushering in the smart era

As Singapore presses on with its bold and ambitious “Smart Nation” blueprint, another “smart” revolution is quietly making its presence felt in the workforce. HRM Asia investigates how HR is equipping employees to join the smart workforce of the future.

When Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong outlined the country’s “Smart Nation” vision, he envisioned the country to be one “where people live meaningful and fulfilled lives, enabled seamlessly by technology, offering exciting opportunities for all”.

Tellingly, Lee cited talent as a vital “ingredient” for building a Smart Nation.

“We have to attract the best and the most dynamic people – Singaporeans and non-Singaporeans – to come to tackle ambitious projects, and to start up their companies here,” he explained.

A key tenet of the Smart Nation blueprint is therefore building a smart workforce; one that is equipped to tackle the challenges of both today and tomorrow.

Getting smart in HR

But what exactly will constitute a smart workforce for Singapore?

Dheeraj Shastri, Global HR Strategy leader with Abbott Laboratories, says these are exciting times of rapid change for employers, particularly when it comes to both technological development and flexible learning opportunities.

“This is the time period where technology is changing the way of working, with its fastest pace during the past 100 years,” he explains.

“That will also mean making education and training flexible enough to teach new skills quickly and efficiently.”

Shastri says this is the first time organisations are having Generations X, Y, and Z all working together in the same environment. He says these very different demographic groups each have varied thought processes and approaches to overcoming challenges.

“The workforce is getting smarter and different age groups are using technology in their own ways, whether it is for entertainment, play, documentation or work,” he says. “It is very important for leading organisations to understand these differences.”

A smart workforce will also incorporate businesses and employees across all levels, including SMEs.

For Sarah Tham, Associate Director of Finance and HR of mechanical and electrical engineering contractor DLE, a smart workforce is a manpower base that continually asks the question: “How do we do it better and faster?”

“This would mean that staff take their own initiative and are able to think of ways to increase their productivity by finding solutions or closing gaps on the ground,” she says.

This ethos is inscribed in the SME’s core values, which lists “continual improvement” among them.

“As such, our DNA is to always improve on our processes so that we do not rest on our laurels,” Tham says. “Our ultimate goal is to always exceed the customer’s satisfaction by doing it better than before.”

Vineet Gambhir, Vice President HR, Yahoo Asia-Pacific, sheds further light on what the “smart workforce” of today is yearning for.

“Your work can impact hundreds of millions of users a day, all over the world, and we have the reach to make small but significant changes to the entire internet. This, to me, is what the ‘smart workforce’ wants,” he elaborates.

“They believe that the work they are doing is important and has value. They believe they are contributing to something meaningful and take pride in the results of their efforts.”

Plugging skills gaps

While innovation, automation, disruption and technology are some buzzwords that epitomise a smart workforce, Shastri says another emerging HR trend is the adoption of social networks.

He argues that these networks are now firmly embedded in every HR process, beginning right from the day companies hire, engage and retain employees.

Cultivating a smart workforce therefore requires smart planning from HR heads.

“The secret is to attract the right candidates who have the strengths, career aspirations and personalities your organisation needs to succeed, and to then match them with the right roles and the right place in your organisation’s culture,” says Shastri.

He says the biggest obstacle faced by businesses today is that they are having to “play catch-up” to the rapidly changing skills-gap generated by an intensely competitive environment.

“Leading organisations are creating smarter workforce planning strategies that solve these skill and knowledge-transfer problems,” he shares.

“These strategies are proactive, and not only focused on immediate needs, but what an organisation might need three to five years down the line to continue to have an edge over the market.”

As is often the case with SMEs, resource shortages can hamper the best of plans.

Employees will often have to undertake multiple roles, a strategy Tham is using at DLE.

This means that each employee in her organisation is required to possess a broader base of knowledge in different operational aspects; enhancing their skillsets and boosting overall productivity levels.

“This helps to expose them to things they have never learnt before, but concurrently enables them to expand their potential,” Tham explains.

In order for SMEs to thrive in this smart workforce environment, she says their HR teams need to be resourceful and adaptable.

They should be exhaustively seeking data, information and solutions from a plethora of sources.

“SMEs must be attuned to what is going on in their industry, such as new government grants that will be made available, or when new regulations will kick in,” she adds.

While Shastri says a smart workforce will not eliminate the need for specialists, the sheer speed of technological change means no platform can be expected to dominate a field forever.

“The substantial foundational skill the new workforce needs is the ability to develop a working knowledge of new systems in very little time, either to fulfil the expectations of their job, or to work with specialists,” he elaborates.

Shastri says that while data also continues to be an important tool for HR, helping it develop strategies in recruitment, retention and engagement, businesses will still need to be convinced that a particular course of action is worth the time and resources.

“This is where the skills and abilities of communicating data-driven-proof in a storytelling way becomes an important technique,” he says.

Flexibility reigns supreme

According to the Singapore findings of the Contingent Workforce Index 2016, there are an estimated 300 skilled contingent workers in the country.

An inevitable part of a smarter workforce will involve a greater number of freelancers, independent professionals, and temporary contract employees all working on a non-permanent basis on niche projects and assignments.

This group is nimble, adaptive and, more pertinently, favours flexible working arrangements.

For companies comprising largely of permanent employees, Shastri says it will be increasingly important to look at flexibility even in day-to-day task delivery.

“How much flexibility are we giving to our employees to deliver a certain task in their own unique way?” he asks.

Shastri stresses that businesses should always remember that their workforces are made up of intelligent people, all looking to make a difference to the organisation. However, he says this can only occur if firms cultivate an innovative culture, another key aspect of a smart workforce.

“If we put a lot of pressure on employees to deliver a certain task in a certain way, then they are no different from artificial intelligent machines that can deliver that job. We should maximise the potential of our employees and I believe this is also the best way to improve employee engagement and employee retention,” Shastri explains.

One of the ways HR can play its part in nurturing an innovative culture is to hire those who embody key characteristics that will add to the working environment, such as imagination, inspiration, knowledge, boldness, and persistence.

“There is a need to have a structured thought-process for innovation and to remain focussed on the big picture,” adds Shastri.

“You might have some wonderful innovators hidden away in your organisation that you’ve not tapped onto, and the more people you have contributing, the more power you’ll have to generate and develop great ideas.”

Workplace flexibility and an innovative mindset can also be fostered in SMEs.

For example, with many of DLE’s engineers being based on project sites, Tham says they are not required to come back to the office to submit documents such as quotations. These are transferred electronically through the organisation’s Enterprise Resource Planning system.

This system also integrates accounts and the organisation’s project management module. Tham says the platform helps to streamline DLE’s processes so that quotations are submitted and approved online, and then subsequently flowed to the other functions for tracking.

“The system helps to consolidate the information on one common platform so that we do not need to extract and re-compile data for sharing between departments,” Tham explains.

She says HR departments in SMEs can adopt a slew of measures to further improve workplace flexibility and harness innovation and technology. This will raise productivity levels and help the business engage in deeper collaboration with colleagues: key traits of a smart workforce.

Shastri adds the constant evolution of technology infuses the flexibility to learn.

“For example, gone are the days when we needed software engineers to write code. Now, we are entering into an era of artificial intelligence where existing code will write new programmes based on their machine-learning and past routine transactions,” he says.

“All routine work down the line will be moved towards automation,” Shastri predicts. “Organisations need workforces that are flexible enough to learn new and non-routine work.”

Gambhir stresses that while technology is an enabler to building a smart workforce, it is not the end goal itself.

“The main objective should be to create a collaborative and engaged workforce that is interconnected to a common mission and goal.

“Technology will just build the house, but it is the people occupying the house that we need to focus on,” he explains.

“Technology is a foundation but is of limited use if respect and engagement are not built upon it; together, they then create a smart workforce.

“So the investment needs to be not just on technology but on people as well.”

Engaged and energised

So, how should HR craft their engagement strategies to help develop and inspire the new smart workforce?

Gambhir says Yahoo is committed to surfacing and fast-tracking the best ideas from across the company, and also recognising the value of its world-class talent.

“Put together, this makes for an engaged and energised smart workforce that in itself, is a big draw in making Yahoo the absolute best place to work,” he shares.

Gambhir believes employee engagement in this era is about understanding each employee’s role in the organisation, how connected they are to the culture, mission and values of that organisation, and the degree to which they are enabled and inspired to participate in furthering them.

“It’s about giving staff the freedom and openness to think out of the box, creating an environment that empowers them and is open to innovation, and building a diverse and inclusive workforce,” he elaborates.

“I am also a strong believer that all engagement programmes should be built on the basis of respect.

“Everyone deserves, wants, and is motivated by respect. The job title, salary, and responsibilities are all manifestations of a need for respect.”

Tham says it is imperative that HR in SMEs have a keen understanding of the staff within their ranks.

“Different generations have different needs and bring different values to the table. HR needs to know their different interests and what appeals to each group of staff in order to be able to engage them,” she explains.

“As in any relationship, having an open two-way communication framework will definitely help.”

Engaging the smart workforce

A smart workforce will dramatically alter the employee engagement landscape for HR in Singapore. Vineet Gambhir, Vice President HR, Asia-Pacific, Yahoo, lists some useful pointers for HR departments to take into account:

 

  • Recognition

Organisations should celebrate people and not just accomplishments. When employees feel valued, they’re motivated to do their jobs better and are more likely to be engaged. Birthdays, promotions, work anniversaries, and professional achievements are among the important events where people can be made to feel special.

 

  • “Always on” engagement

Employee engagement is too important to be just an annual measurement in today’s world of work. Think about it as the “always on” aspect for business, rather than simply banking on an annual survey.

 

  • Create a “wow” culture

The culture of an organisation is embodied in the acronym “WOW”: Work; Opportunity; Workplace. The work that people do should be enjoyable. They should feel challenged and, often, victorious. There should be ample opportunity to pursue the projects or work they really want to do by way of a relatively flat organisational structure. If your employees love the work and the environment you have created, they will treat customers better, innovate, and continuously improve your business.

 

  • Respect

Respect your employees regardless of their grade level or title. Treat people the same way you would want to be treated yourself. A lack of respect can potentially shake the foundation of even the best laid-out employee engagement strategies.

 

  • Empower employees

Employees today want to be part of something successful. When people are empowered, they are more engaged – translating to higher levels of productivity and increased revenue. It is important to provide goals, but it’s especially critical to ask employees how they think they can help. When employees feel their opinion matters, they are more engaged and want to work harder.

 

The Smart Workforce on show

“By 2027, more than three quarters of the Fortune 500 List will be companies we have not yet heard of.” Richard V Foster’s prediction is fast-becoming a global reality and having real impacts on workforces around the world.

HRM Asia’s Smart Workforce Summit, in Singapore from 18 to 21 October, will give Asia-Pacific HR leaders the chance to explore and plan for the skills, jobs, and businesses of the future.

The four-day mix-and-match agenda features two days of high-level discussion on the Smart Workforce plans and opportunities in Southeast Asia in particular, followed by a hands-on interactive workshop on gamification strategies in HR.

Participants can also sign up for site visits to some of Singapore’s most dynamic and forward-thinking organisations, getting a first-hand view of their culture, technology, and systems.

For more information, and the full four-day agenda, see: http://smartworkforcesummit.hrmasia.com/

 

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