Keeping Employees Engaged in Unprecedented Times

Mr Lee Hwee Siong, Vice President of Human Resources, Marine, ST Engineering, shines a light on the role of HR and the new business continuity measures adopted during the Circuit Breaker.

Q. Describe the key HR challenges brought on by the pandemic, and the efforts to provide reassurance to Marine employees.

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic early this year, companies have been expected to abide by numerous government advisories and regulations. This required the HR team to be flexible and implement many new policies and guidelines on the fly. These ranged from safe distancing measures to establishing new workplace norms for business continuity. The outbreak in the foreign workers dormitories, in particular, was a grave concern for the company. We took immediate steps to take care of the health and well-being of our affected migrant workers.

Adjusting our policies and realigning our work processes in tandem with the changing guidelines was challenging. The requirement to work from home, for example, was new to our company. To ensure swift and smooth transition, we developed guidelines to help our managers set performance targets and daily accountabilities for their direct reports. We also reminded them to stay in touch through regular calls and video meetings.

For essential staff who had to be at work, cohorting and split-team arrangements were introduced. Teams had to be sat apart across our facilities and locations, and were not allowed to meet even if they were within the building. We staggered our lunch times and kept our workers from Tuas and Benoi yard apart from one another. This took some getting used to.

Staff communication became imperative. Thanks to technology, we managed to improve the frequency and manner of communications. We disseminated video messages to our migrant workers, staff advisories through the intranet, and leveraged e-survey platforms for quick employee polls. To allay the concerns of staff on the ground, we issued talking points to the line-managers so that they could confidently explain any new policy or procedure to their teams.

As line-managers provided the critical link to the ground, we started a WhatsApp chat group to facilitate the dissemination of urgent messages. This kept everyone attuned to the rapid policy changes, while the availability of a two-way communication process provided people with some measure of reassurance.

Q. How did Marine cope with the manpower crunch during the lockdown of the migrant worker dormitories? Did this compromise your role as an Essential Services Firm?

Business continuity took on a higher priority than ever during the COVID-19 crisis. As an essential services firm supporting the Republic of Singapore Navy, we play a vital role to ensure that the Navy remains operationally ready. We took every precaution to safeguard the health and safety of all employees, including the wellness and welfare of a 1,200-strong migrant workforce. Fortunately, we managed to decant about almost half of our migrant workers from their dormitories before the lockdown was enforced. These workers had been tested negative and were able to report to work after completing 14 days of stay home notice at their hotels.

To meet the shortfall of manpower in critical parts of the business, we had to quickly divert manpower resources to these areas. I must say that our employees were very understanding and receptive to the need for job redeployment. The job rotation exposed our people to new business areas, and the feedback was positive.

Q. With more executives now working from home, have your training and development programmes had to evolve?

We believe in keeping employees future ready and attuned to changing business demands. To impart the necessary skills and competencies during this time, we embarked on an initiative for self-directed learning. Learning needs would be jointly identified by the staff and the managers, and relevant courses would be curated and made available on an e-learning platform. The employees would be able to log-in to their own learning accounts and complete the course within a given time.

While e-learning programmes are geared towards soft-skills development, technical training could only be resumed after the Circuit Breaker. Instead of sending our workers to the training centre, such courses are now conducted in smaller batches with the trainer in our yard.

Meanwhile, the government has unveiled various support packages to help industries continue with staff upgrading and position for subsequent economic recovery. We are riding on the Enhanced Training Support Package to further our training agenda, as well as setting up Company Training Committees with our union leaders to help workers keep up with Industry 4.0. Doing our part to support the maritime industry, we will be welcoming our first batch of SG United traineeship interns in 4Q 2020.

Q. Outline your initiatives to strengthen employee engagement during this time.

To correct a common misconception, employee engagement is more than just talking to employees or organising cohesion lunches. At ST Engineering, our priorities are four-fold. With sense of involvement, our goal is to create meaningful work that motivates employees to contribute to larger company goals. To achieve this, we have an established process for the review and delegation of goals in each department, so that every function—no matter how small— is able to contribute to the larger outcome.

With sense of belonging, the idea is to encourage camaraderie in the workplace, and we have done this through the activities of our corporate social responsibility outings, and even events that allow our people to stay healthy and keep fit together.

With sense of recognition, we are going beyond the use of tangible and intangible rewards. Staff can look forward to the implementation of a new collaborative tool that would complement our efforts to build a positive and open organisational culture.

Last but not least, we engage employees through opportunities for growth. Here, we are looking at empowering individuals to pursue their own career progression through learning and development.

The outbreak of COVID-19 has been the most unprecedented global crisis. To pull through this, we need to work together as one family, stay focused in our jobs and keep healthy. I am confident that we will emerge from this episode stronger than ever, ready for the new emerging norms.