Are You Game For Engagement?

The war for talent has shifted from recruiting great staff to engaging and retaining them. Is the public service pushing all the right buttons in the game of engagement?
Are You Game For Engagement?
Playing to their strengths: Games at work help teams to understand the strengths and vulnerabilities of each “player”. Bosses can use the observation to mix players to create “balanced” teams that will work better together.

If you are in the office, take a look around at your colleagues now. In two years’ time, one in three would likely have left their current jobs. In five years, half would probably be gone.

These figures, published in a recent global survey by management consultants Hay Group, show Singaporeans to be one of the least loyal workforces in the world. While clearly a major headache for employers, it’s a trend that reflects the new reality of “the war for talent” – a phrase famously coined by McKinsey & Company to describe how companies battle for their most important resource: the best workers.

The employer today needs to understand that it is no longer about attracting the best worker, but how to keep him. And one important way to persuade staff to stay, say management experts, is to engage them.

There are varying definitions of an engaged workforce, but experts highlight some common features. Engaged employees are enthusiastic in their work and committed to achieve organisational goals, often exceeding expectations. Fully and meaningfully utilised in their employment, they are pumped up to give their best. This is vital in building a successful organisation.

How is the Public Service, Singapore’s largest employer, faring in terms of staff engagement?

Recent results of the employee engagement survey conducted by the Civil Service College show that engagement levels in the Public Service were “overall positive”.

One content public officer is Ms Zoe Lim, who says she is “happy and settled” at the Defence Science and Technology Agency (DSTA), where she is currently Manager of Corporate Planning and Development.

Ms Lim, who has been in DSTA for 11 years, shared on Cube, the government Intranet portal, that when she began to reflect on the reasons for her commitment to the agency, she found some unexpected answers. They included the organisation’s policies, work processes and culture; the mentoring she receives; and her trusted relationships with bosses and co-workers.

“I have been blessed [with] many mentors who have been great role models… What always touched me was how even when I have moved on from their lives or departments, they remain great friends and people I can always confide in when I feel stuck at work,” she wrote, in a long post.

Are You Game For Engagement?
Finding strength in comrades
DSTA’s Zoe lim shared what motivates her at work: “Nothing makes one smile as much as a buddy smiling at you first thing in the morning, or having a coffee to brighten up your day. Knowing that people [are working] with you towards a common goal makes the tumultuous journey worthwhile – no matter how massively frustrating the situation may be.” To read Zoe’s full note, go to: https://cube.gov.sg/Lists/Shared%20Info/DispForm.aspx?ID=549. You will first be prompted to log in to, or sign up for Cube.

But the Public Service could certainly still do more to engage its officers. A number of public officers, both current and former, were forthcoming about their frustrations at work when interviewed by Challenge. Their unhappiness stemmed from a variety of reasons, from insensitive supervisors who phoned them incessantly during their days off, to being tangled up in red tape or not experiencing job satisfaction.

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Just as an army general strategises how best to train and position soldiers on the field, leaders are responsible for unlocking the potential of employees.

For instance, an officer said that she had taken on a job at the Education Ministry in order to work directly with children. Instead, she has been tasked with planning events so often that she has become, in her own words, an “expert in catering”. She is still with the ministry but wishes she had more time to focus on the job she was hired for.

Are You Game For Engagement?
Going beyond work: Strengthening emotional connection aids staff engagement. Instead of interacting with staff during work or at formal events, try engaging them at more casual occasions.

Training leaders to unlock potential

When it comes to staff engagement, the importance of leaders cannot be underemphasised. Just as an army general strategises how best to train and position soldiers on the field, leaders are responsible for unlocking the potential of employees.

“Leaders play a key role in how work is organised, how jobs are designed, how officers are empowered and supported to do their best; whether the workload is well distributed and manageable, and how officers are encouraged and rewarded,” said Mr Leo Yip, Chairman of the Economic Development Board (EDB).

Leaders need to make sure that middle managers pay attention to these areas too, he added.

To help managers better guide their employees in the areas of performance and development, the Public Service Division (PSD)’s Capability Development department has a “Managers as People Developers” programme that was introduced last year.

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When trust exists between subordinates and their supervisors, employees do not need to ‘cover their backs’ as they know that their supervisor will support them and work with them. Hence, their resources are conserved towards doing a better job.

This includes a Coaching Initiative, under which middle managers receive one-on-one guidance from professional coaches and attend a two-day workshop on basic coaching skills, conducted by CSC and the globally renowned Coaches Training Institute. So far, managers from PSD and the ministries of Law, and Community Development, Youth and Sports (now known as Culture, Community and Youth) have participated in the workshop.

Feedback on the coaching workshop has been positive. Many managers have learnt that they needed to hone their listening skills and “focus on the person rather than the problem”, in the words of one participant. Another shared: “I can have a greater impact on others by developing them than to provide solutions [for them].”

Disengagement Is Harmful

Unhealthy workplace practices will lead to staff disengagement. Consider the blunder technology giant Microsoft made. According to a Vanity Fair report this year, Microsoft’s internal ranking system, which insisted on singling out “mediocre” and “terrible” workers no matter how capable a team was, destroyed employees’ drive and the company’s performance. According to a report published in the Gallup Business Journal in 2010, disengaged employees experience high levels of stress at work, and are more prone to suffering from illnesses such as anxiety and depression. As a result, companies have to bear hefty medical expenses and the indirect costs of absenteeism or decreased productivity at work. Productivity loss due to bad blood between supervisors and employees costs US companies a whopping US$360 billion every year, Gallup said.

Responding to feedback

One of the key concerns voiced by a number of the officers who spoke to Challenge was how the “fast-tracking” of scholarship holders could dampen their own prospects in the government. One officer quipped that he did not see any point in giving feedback on this issue: “Most of our bosses are scholars – would things change even if we voice it out?”

Perhaps this impression will change, now that PSD has announced plans to make the career development of non-scholarship holders a priority. Its Careers and Attraction Cluster will be reconstituted as the Career Development and Management Cluster, with a new focus on developing policies and frameworks for the job prospects of all officers.

Happily, too, a number of public service agencies have begun to make staff engagement a priority by paying close attention to feedback.

At the Central Provident Fund Board (CPFB), for instance, there are various feedback channels that officers can use to share their thoughts and concerns. After CPFB Chief Executive Yee Ping Yi joined the Board in late 2010, he made it a point to meet staff in small groups to get to know them better. Now, he participates actively on CPFB’s Intranet forum where he is known to personally respond to comments and engage in conversations with officers.

Such an open and communicative environment has led to a three-point improvement in the Board’s Employee Empowerment and Involvement index, as shown in a recent Employee Opinion Survey.

At the Ministry of Health (MOH), the Corporate Human Resource Division began taking steps to improve its staff ’s work-life balance, following an employee engagement survey in 2010. An example would be its “Blue Sky Friday” initiative, a monthly affair that allows staff to knock off work half an hour early to encourage them to have dinner with their loved ones.

Getting A Full Picture

At CPFB , scholarship holders and other officers identified as possessing high potential are rotated among departments for exposure to varied work areas. This gives them a fuller picture of the Board’s work, and first-hand experience in serving CPF members.

Ms Heidi Chan, Assistant Director at the Board’s Research Department, has also worked on policy review and on the front line, where she had to enforce Medisave contributions from self-employed CPF members. “It was not easy managing upset or irate members on a regular basis, but it really, truly makes you understand how our policies impact our people,” she said. “The opportunity to experience the different aspects of CPF work has been invaluable. Whether in policy, operations or research, it makes you think that much harder about how you can make things better.”

Building trust

Trusting staff is another good way of engaging them. Senior Health Policy Analyst Lee Huanyan is glad that his superiors at MOH value his input and encourage him to make meaningful contributions at work. He also enjoys enough freedom in deciding how best to formulate and implement policies. Feeling that he can make a real difference through his work, he spends extra time outside of office hours thinking about how he can be even better at his job.

Mr Lee’s dedication highlights the benefits of establishing trust between superiors and subordinates. Such trust could lead to “extra-role behaviours” which means employees willingly go beyond their job scope to accomplish organisational goals, said Associate Professor Tan Hwee Hoon, who teaches organisational behaviour and human resource at the Lee Kong Chian School of Business, Singapore Management University. Building trust at the workplace can also benefit the employer in other ways. A/Prof Tan explained: “When trust exists between subordinates and their supervisors, employees do not need to ‘cover their backs’ as they know that their supervisor will support them and work with them. Hence, their resources are conserved towards doing a better job.”

Emotional connection helps

Staff engagement is not only affected by work matters and practices. Understanding bosses who offer a personal touch can strengthen the emotional connection that employees have with the organisation.

A public officer related that her former supervisor was not just a boss, but also a friend: “We talked about work and personal stuff. When my grandmother fell ill, my supervisor even visited her at the hospital.”

A former officer said bosses should interact with their staff beyond “official tea sessions”. He said: “These sessions are too formal and structured. People may think, are they assessing my Current Estimated Potential based on what I’m saying?” Supervisors and leaders, he said, should try to understand who the officers are outside of work, and what motivates them.

Communication works both ways – leaders should allow their subordinates to get to know them better too.

“Staff will want to know their leaders, what they stand for, what they believe in, and the authentic person behind the decisions and actions. Leaders will have to make the effort to reveal this side of themselves,” said EDB’s Mr Yip.

At the end of the day, a public officer is not just a cog in the large wheel of the Public Service. Each and every one of them deserves to feel valued, and to find meaning in work. It may be a tough battle to engage every officer, but in today’s war for talent, is the Public Service willing to give it its best shot?

  • POSTED ON
    Nov 16, 2012
  • TEXT BY
    Chen Jingting
  • PHOTOS BY
    John Heng
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