Leadership & talent

How can organisations adapt to emerging human capital trends in Southeast Asia

22 March 2017 by Karen Tee

The workforce landscape in Singapore – and Southeast Asia – is facing some unprecedented changes. Millennials now comprise about 22 per cent of Singapore's population and this demographic is expected to account for 75 per cent of the workforce within the next decade. New digital technology is disrupting business models and changing the way work is done. Companies in the region have to adapt or risk becoming obsolete.

Mark Maclean, HR Transformation Practice Leader, Deloitte Southeast Asia

Companies that want to remain competitive in the changing landscape have to “evolve leadership models, redesign organisational structures and drive an employee-centric culture,” says Mark Maclean, HR Transformation Practice Leader, Deloitte Southeast Asia.

Deloitte’s Global Human Capital Trends 2016 is one of the biggest global studies of workforce, leadership and Human Resource (HR) challenges, surveying more than 7 000 business and HR leaders across 130 countries. In the region, 213 business leaders responded, spanning countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand. The key findings shine the spotlight on the top human capital trends that companies should keep abreast of to remain competitive and attract talent.

In Southeast Asia, with companies generally feeling less equipped to deal with these new workplace challenges, the top trends in the region – leadership development, employee engagement,  organisational redesign to empower teamwork and curating learning opportunities for employees – offer insights on the strategies that companies can embark on to manage change well. 

Jason Seng, Human Capital Director, Deloitte Singapore

Adapting leadership styles for the millennial generation

Most Singapore companies do not have a strong succession planning programme or plans to develop effective millennial leaders. Jason Seng, human capital director for Deloitte Singapore, says: “The Asian hierarchical mindset is not keeping pace with the level of change in the region. Companies will need a paradigm shift in their thinking to adapt to the different needs of young, millennial workers.”

This new generation of workers, typically defined as those born between 1982 and 1994, are more receptive to a coaching style of leadership with constant conversation and feedback and leading by example, as opposed to the top-down style of traditional leaders. The challenge is encouraging a mindset shift in older leaders, which is essential in executing this change as it is up to them to “coach the younger leaders that are rising up through these organisations to build the leadership of the future,” says Seng.

Says Maclean, “The ability to ask questions or challenge the thinking of a senior is part of enabling employees to explore and innovate. However, this is something that can, at times, in some Asian cultures, go against the tradition of respecting seniors. This mindset shift is tricky but important.”

Keeping employees engaged

Besides responding better to a coaching style of leadership, millennial employees want to feel connected to their work and to get on board with their company’s purpose.

“In some Asian cultures, there is an expectation that ‘if I give you a job, you should just be happy about it and get your job done’,” observes Maclean. “But millennials from every country are interacting on a daily basis with global peers. They are global citizens, and when they are told just to do something rather than being really engaged and brought on board with the idea, it can lead to disengagement.”

What companies can do is to adapt their annual performance feedback system and use it to give constant but informal debriefs where necessary. Says Seng: “Millennials need to be told after doing an assignment how they can improve. But also before they start a project, they need to know why they are doing it, how others approach it and how it has been done before. They ask a lot more questions. The engagement is heavier, but typically in a less structured manner. It can even be delivered via a text message – it is a lot more informal today.”

Creating a network of teams

In addition, companies all around the world are recognising the need to redesign their organisational structure from a top-down hierarchy to a cross-functional network of teams to deliver results faster. “This shift is encouraging greater collaboration, agility, customer focus and employee engagement,” says Maclean. 

In Singapore and the region, more than half of the respondents feel that they are not prepared to make the required changes to create a more nimble office structure.

Seng adds: “I can’t stress enough how much I see jobs being more project-based, and this permeates across organisations. Companies should be prepared for dynamism – encouraging employees to work in specific teams for a few months, then disbanding them and slotting them into different teams for a different project.”

Business and HR leaders in Southeast Asia will need to ramp up efforts to transform their existing HR structure to one that is more conducive for teamwork, says Maclean.

“This is likely to mean significant changes to core HR processes and solutions such as recruitment and onboarding, performance management and remuneration. These need to evolve to ensure people are selected and rewarded in line with the new operating model. Such demands on HR will definitely require a step change and increase in capabilities for many HR organisations in the region,” he adds.

Curating a learning experience

In this knowledge economy, employees today want to have learning opportunities to continually upgrade themselves. This is a trend that Singapore is particularly well placed to cater to. Says Maclean: “Singaporeans are very focused on learning, and it tends to be a higher priority in this region when compared to global attitudes.”

However, only 37 per cent of respondents in Singapore said they were ready to manage this learning trend, which is insufficient for an “information hungry” population such as Singapore, says Seng.

The area of opportunity in this region, says Maclean, is to leverage the full range of learning opportunities available to curate the best courses for employees. Instead of relying on internally designed training programmes, which can take up a tremendous amount of resources, companies can capitalise on selecting the best among the wide variety of  massive open online courses and other mobile and digital platforms to train employees. 

Maclean adds: “If chief learning officers and people inside HR shifted 25 per cent of their time away from designing and delivering learning courses to finding and curating courses in open platform, that would make a substantial difference in the Singapore and Asian market.”

With digital disrupting the workforce and breaking down barriers, and new organisational structures moving away from traditional hierarchy becoming more commonplace, now is the time for companies in the region to start adapting their organisations to meet global talent and business demands.

Edited by Kritika Srinivasan and Goh Wei Ting