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Training staff and fighting fire: both vital for survival

Firms must not let the urgent drive out the important - re-training and upskilling - or they may stagnate as competitors overtake them.

"This Covid-19 crisis has forced many businesses to digitalise, move their operations online and to re-invent their workflows. This disruption is not a bad thing and, in many ways, has made for a more efficient workplace." - Jonathan Yuen

"In planning for the long term, SMEs should focus their skills training efforts on closing a skill gap that is needed in a post-Covid economy, especially since today's skills will not match the jobs of tomorrow, and newly acquired skills may quickly become obsolete." - Lim Seng Kong

"The global supply chain may change as we exit the crisis. Businesses and work processes will change with the accelerated pace of digitalisation. It is therefore crucial that firms prepare a workforce that is equipped for recovery." - Woo E-sah

Roundtable panellists:

  • Jonathan Yuen, partner, Rajah & Tann Singapore;
  • Lim Seng Kong, managing director, Singtel Enterprise Business;
  • Woo E-sah, partner, RSM Singapore

Moderator: Lynette Tan, journalist, The Business Times

FIRMS should not - and perhaps, cannot - see training staff and fighting to stay afloat during the pandemic as an 'either-or' situation, observers have said. This is lest they lose valuable employees.

Firms that let themselves stagnate may also be overtaken by competitors that are making the effort to improve.

Observers from three notable Singaporean companies - Singtel, Rajah & Tann and RSM - discuss how firms, including small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), can balance training, job re-design and fire fighting.

Have firms been too quick to shed manpower at the height of the Covid-19 crisis?

Jonathan Yuen: That's not necessarily true. While it is true that there has been an increase in overall numbers of workers being retrenched, what we have experienced is also an increase in firms seeking legal guidance on diligently complying with the Tripartite Advisory on Managing Excess Manpower and Responsible Retrenchment.

This means that ultimately, when a retrenchment occurs, most firms would have already in good faith tried and exhausted other avenues to retain the worker before finally resorting to retrenchment as a last resort.

Woo E-sah: In such trying times, we believe that there is no one-bill-fits-all approach.

Firms in certain extremely affected sectors such as hospitality and entertainment may have taken the needed measures to shed manpower in order to stay afloat and provide employment for the remaining workforce.

But many firms, I believe, have tried to avoid making this move by first tapping the support packages from the government.

While more firms are shedding manpower, the overall unemployment and retrenchment figures still appear to be lower than during past financial crises and during the Sars outbreak.

It suggests that firms may be deliberating before shedding manpower, or that the impact has been cushioned by the support packages from the government.

Besides, we also see pockets of hiring of locals due to border controls and the tightening of foreign hiring.

How is the crisis disrupting firms' workforces? How can firms balance job re-design and layoffs?

Jonathan: This Covid-19 crisis has forced many businesses to digitalise, move their operations online and to re-invent their workflows.

This disruption is not a bad thing and, in many ways, has made for a more efficient workplace.

For instance, at Rajah & Tann, our lawyers have comfortably adapted to operating in a mostly paperless world.

The usual image of a lawyer lugging around thick reams of documents is no longer accurate - our lawyers perform most of their work armed with a laptop, wireless headsets and can draw on the firm's vast resources which all now sit on the cloud available anywhere, 24/7.

Seng Kong: The pandemic has changed consumer behaviour, making SMEs realise they have to pivot to a digital-centric business, so that they can connect with consumers and grow new revenue streams.

That has, in turn, made many SMEs recognise that they need to re-design job roles and up-skill staff to ensure that their workforce has the digital skills to participate in a growing e-commerce industry.

But with limited resources and funding, some SMEs have found it challenging to start their digital transformation while balancing job re-design and up-skilling. Hence, Singtel is stepping in to fill this gap with our newly launched 'Let's Get Digital' initiative.

We conduct monthly webinars and one-on-one digital clinics where our digital executives provide basic advisory and guidance to help equip SMEs' staff with the knowledge to use digital solutions.

Through this initiative, we also provide curated collaboration and cybersecurity solutions under the Productivity Solutions Grant programme, which subsidises up to 80 per cent of the costs for SMEs.

E-sah: Firms are affected in a few ways. Border closures and the circuit breaker disrupted businesses and created vacuums in some sectors of the economy, resulting in overcapacity in manpower.

On the other hand, where manpower is needed in the construction industry, for example, border controls and dormitory lockdowns meant that the foreign workforce was not an option. The "circuit breaker" which required telecommuting as a default work mode also disrupted work flows and processes.

But it's essential that firms re-design jobs that have been affected. One reason is that it will be too late and costly to re-hire and re-train when recovery happens, if firms take the option of layoffs now instead of re-designing jobs and re-training staff. Talented and good employees may also be gone for good.

Staff can be cross-trained instead of laid off. An example would be training retail staff to manage online sales platforms instead of just manning the physical shop front.

SMEs have also been asked to re-train and up-skill their workers. How important is this, especially as some firms may say that they are still fighting fire?

Jonathan: Unfortunately, this is not an "either-or" situation; it must be both.

In order to not just survive but to thrive, it is critical that firms must not let the urgent (fire-fighting) drive out the important (re-training and upskilling); without which, the firm will stagnate while its competitors continue to reap the benefits of continuous improvement.

Seng Kong: With the pandemic situation adding greater urgency for both companies and their employees to adapt to new norms of business, SMEs need to balance dealing with the immediate challenges and investing in the capabilities of their workforce.

Taking proactive steps now to re-skill staff will pay off in the longer term and be key to remaining competitive and delivering sustainable growth in an ever-changing environment.

We have seen successful examples of SMEs that have pivoted quickly - not just by embracing new digital skills, but also by rapidly re-training employees such that they can perform roles of higher, or added, value.

E-sah: SMEs need to understand that adapting workers' skills and roles to the post-Covid-19 ways of working is important to build business resilience. It is more than remote working and automation or digitalisation - it is about re-training and up-skilling the workforce to deliver in new business models.

SMEs with their flatter structures can, in fact, be more agile and move faster to adapt to the new normal.

What should firms do so that their skills training efforts will be successful?

Jonathan: At its core, management must lead, for effective change management to succeed. If managers do not bother to upskill themselves, do not exhibit intellectual curiosity and a learning mindset, or worse, exhibit a contemptuous attitude to self-improvement, then it is unlikely that the firm's training efforts would bear any fruit.

Seng Kong: In planning for the long term, SMEs should focus their skills training efforts on closing a skill gap that is needed in a post-Covid economy, especially since today's skills will not match the jobs of tomorrow, and newly acquired skills may quickly become obsolete.

Regular, 'refresher' training is also important in order to stay current. A firm would also do well to adopt a mentality of lifelong learning, so as to be able to maximise the potential of every employee.

E-sah: Firms need to do both short- and long-term business planning, and chart the direction of growth beyond this period.

The global supply chain may change as we exit the crisis. Businesses and work processes will change with the accelerated pace of digitalisation. It is therefore crucial that companies prepare a workforce that is equipped for recovery.

Firms need to have a clear view of the current deficiencies in their workforce, prioritise the gaps to be addressed and select the right candidates for re-skilling. The workforce needs to be trained in fields that fit the business growth plan.

Also, it will be necessary to manage the costs of such training so that businesses remain competitive. Tapping into the various training grants provided by the government is a good start.

What are the most urgent re-skilling needs for your own business?

Seng Kong: As we operate in an industry where technology is rapidly evolving, we continue to invest in training focused on our strategic priorities and business needs such as cloud, analytics and cybersecurity, to accelerate our digital transformation.

With the arrival of 5G and the capability gap in this new technology, we expect to ramp up training to help staff prepare for 5G and related technologies including artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things.

We aim to re-skill up to 3,000 employees over the next three years and supplement this with new hires, to boost our 5G workforce.

While employees can learn new job-specific skills through professional conversion courses, on-the-job training and online resources, we want them to build soft skills, like adaptability and creativity, which will enable them to work innovatively and efficiently.

Employees aged 50 and above - what we dub as 'silver talent' - are also encouraged to acquire tech skills and remain relevant in the workplace.

E-sah: At RSM Singapore, people are our pillar, so training and engaging employees have always been our priorities.

We believe that re-skilling and up-skilling can not only improve employee retention, but also reduce overall hiring costs.

According to a local study, the number of accounting tasks that can be performed by machines will increase by 80 per cent in the next three to five years.

We will have to look into the existing work scope of each level of staff, assess if the job is going to be replaced by machines and decide the skills that are required to either move the staff up to the next level or on to a different job scope.

For instance, vouching tasks performed by a junior external auditor could be replaced by a data analytics solution.

The auditor may then be trained to perform other roles which require human judgement or analysis, such as client advisory.

But employees, on their part, will also need to be adaptive and forward-looking.

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