Supporting Singapore’s Workers During the Pandemic

By Shefali Anand May 29, 2020
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modern Singapore building in background with water fountain in foreground

​Since early April, Singapore businesses have been largely closed to curb the spread of the coronavirus. For many Singaporean companies, working from home is a new concept that took time to put in place. Employers say productivity dipped at first but has recovered as employees and managers adjust to the new remote workplace.

For HR, one big challenge has been how to engage people when they aren't physically together, said Charlton Ong, vice president of human resources at Singtel, a leading communications technology group in Asia.

While keeping productivity high is important, experts say HR must not lose sight of the soft touch. "We need to let our employees know that we're taking care of them," said Ying Yuan Ng, chief operating officer of group human resources at DBS, a banking and financial services group headquartered in Singapore.

Here is an overview of how Singaporean companies have been keeping their staffs productive and engaged.

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Coronavirus and COVID-19

Rolling Out Tech Tools

Many companies have been coaching their employees on how to use technological tools that help with remote work. These tools include WebEx, Microsoft Teams, Skype, Google Meet and Zoom. Deciding which tool to use depends on the purpose.

Singtel, for instance, uses Teams for collaborations and file sharing. But when it wanted to organize a virtual town hall for 4,000 employees at one of its units, it used the enterprise edition of Zoom.

In addition, it uses in-house tools for communication and networking. For example, a microsite keeps staff apprised of company updates, as well as government and health advisories on COVID-19, Ong said. Employees also are encouraged to interact socially on the company's private social network, Yammer.

Frequent Check-Ins

HR staff at CrimsonLogic have been coaching company managers and leaders to frequently check in with team members and employees "just to see that they are feeling OK," said Sylvia Koh, chief people officer at the information technology company.

Koh said teams typically have a call at the start of the week to discuss what has to be done that week, as well as an end-of-the-week call, "just as though they are back at the workplace."  

At professional services firm Deloitte, managers are encouraged to organize "stand-up" sessions "that energize everybody at the start of the day," said Gek Choo Seah, talent partner at Deloitte Singapore. These could include a quick fitness or yoga session using an online video. Teams are also encouraged to spend time together informally, like having a team lunch via Zoom. But HR doesn't micromanage these suggestions. "We gave them the tools and the ideas," Seah said. "The actual implementation we leave to team leaders."

Digital Learning

Many companies have stepped up their digital learning offerings to upskill employees.

Singtel has been encouraging employees to sign up for its e-learning application #CURIOUS, which offers more than 100,000 courses and videos, Ong said.

Deloitte Singapore employees who aren't being fully utilized at home are encouraged to take up "any learning that is outside their core skill set," Seah said.

In April, DBS launched a "Digital Learning Festival" with a series of sessions held over a week to teach new skills. Thought leaders were invited to give talks on a variety of topics, including how the crisis can help shape the bank as an organization and the future of data, Ng said.

The festival was part of a broader "Together" program launched by DBS, which aims at shifting the mindset of employees from thinking they are being controlled by COVID-19 to thinking about how they can help the bank grow. "How do we galvanize employees from being controlled to shaping opportunities?" Ng said.

At CrimsonLogic, HR has offered a series of trainings on resilience building and best practices for working from home, Koh said. "We increased our budget for e-enabled learning by 50 percent," she said.

Help on the Home Front

One challenge of working from home is the inability of employees to draw a line between work and personal time. "We encourage them to take some time away from work," Seah said. In addition to sending frequent reminders about taking time off or stretching during the workday, she said, Deloitte Singapore has organized activities that engage employees elsewhere, such as a virtual cooking competition and activities with children.

Ng said DBS has created a guide on recommended work-from-home behaviors, which include tips on how to balance home life with work. "We wanted to make sure that these behaviors are relevant for our culture," Ng said. She said managers have been coached on how to support team members who may be juggling extra tasks at home, like taking care of children. For instance, managers can redraft team members' jobs a bit, have them switch roles or commit to not calling after certain hours, depending on the need.

Employee Well-Being

Singtel has launched a telemedicine facility through which employees can talk to a doctor about any medical issue and have prescriptions that are covered by the company's insurance policy delivered to their homes, Ong said.

Companies are also focused on managing the mental wellness aspect. "During this period, there is an increase in people feeling more anxious," Ong said.

In addition to providing options for counseling, he said, Singtel has been encouraging employees to take up activities like yoga and Zumba, which help with anxiety management.

Similar initiatives have been part of the DBS "Together" program, which includes a wellness track. Recently, it launched webinars on how to practice mindfulness, Ng said. Meanwhile, employees are increasingly making use of the bank's counseling hotlines, she said.

Sentiment Polls

Some companies have been taking more-frequent sentiment polls to understand how their employees are feeling during this period. "Do you feel supported?" and "Do you get guidance?" are some of the questions being posed to employees at DBS, according to Ng.

Singtel has conducted a sentiment survey every week, compared to doing it once a year previously. Employees rate questions on a scale of 1 to 7, and results are shared with team managers. Managers then decide what interventions they want to take based on the results, Ong said.

Showing Appreciation

Companies also are seeking ways to recognize and reward employees.

For May Day, Singtel gave each eligible employee a small financial bonus as a sign of appreciation from management, Ong said.

CrimsonLogic is encouraging the use of its "Rewardz" tool, through which employees get appreciation points from their colleagues that can be exchanged for vouchers or discounts.

In current times, it's "all the more important to acknowledge good work done and show appreciation," Koh said.

Shefali Anand is a New Delhi-based journalist and former correspondent for The Wall Street Journal. You can follow her on Twitter.

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