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A new social contract for a shared future in a fractured workforce: navigating Hong Kong’s changing employee expectations


A new social contract for a shared future in a fractured workforce: navigating Hong Kong’s changing employee expectations

By Trevor Yu

Underpinning the various discussions happening at the World Economic Forum 2018 in Davos was the theme, “Creating a Shared Future in a Fractured World.” Indeed, the world continues to suffer debilitating fractures on so many fronts – climate change, social inequality and political polarisation to name a few – bringing world leaders from governments, major international businesses and non-profit organisations together once again to find common ground and actionable steps for the world.

At the panel session on the overarching theme, moderated by the International Monetary Fund’s Managing Director Christine Lagarde, one of the cracks raised for discussion was the impact of globalisation on the workforce. Specifically, how it has resulted in vast unemployment, generations of young people without hope and turning to crime or even terrorism, marginalised workers in the informal economy … all of whom have now become the “modern slaves” in our global economy.

In the words of Sharon Burrow, General Secretary at the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), “we’ve denied people, despite being three times richer in thirty years.” We live in an increasingly fractured world where change is inevitable and we need to prepare people for this new world so that they don’t fall through the cracks.

The corporate workplace, itself a microcosm of civil society and the economy, is too undergoing disruptive change; from the way day-to-day business is run and how employees interact with each other, to the very thing that incentivises workforce productivity.

While Hong Kong’s workforce may not be experiencing the same plight of unemployment and surge in street-side business seen in other markets across the region, the city has its own set of ‘cracks’ to deal with.

A common perception about Hong Kong’s working professionals is that they are typically highly ambitious, continuously seeking to increase their income – their main driver. However, there’s a shift taking place, away from monetary rewards. In Hong Kong’s already extremely fast-paced and demanding working environment, the lines between work and private life are blurring even further as technology makes employees better connected and ‘always-on’ through their mobiles and other devices. And as a result, there’s a new finite commodity in demand: personal time.

While an attractive salary package may have been the way to retain and motivate talent up until recently, it is no longer as high up a prospect’s list of considerations. Today, even a flight – traditionally an email-free sanctuary for travelling executives – is no longer free of work’s daily pressures as new demands fly in, on-the-go.

Remuneration in a technological revolution: personal time

According to the 2017 Robert Half Salary Guide, many Hong Kong employees now regard work-life balance options as more attractive than a higher pay. Approximately four in ten of Hong Kong workers surveyed are willing to accept less pay in exchange for flexible working hours (42 percent), or prefer the option to work from home over a salary increase (39 percent)1.

Universum also uncovered similar sentiments in its annual survey of Hong Kong graduates. Last year’s student poll revealed work-life balance to be the top career goal among more than two thirds (68 percent) of those who participated, as compared to just over half (53 percent) four years ago2.

Flexibility in the workplace has become increasingly important as it contributes to a satisfied, motivated, productive and loyal workforce. These non-monetary benefits range from additional holidays to flexible working hours and the option to work from home; the latter becoming highly sought-after by Hong Kong’s working professionals.

This flexibility has become highly imperative as well, given workplace and workforce models have shifted and continue to shift away from the traditional ones employers are familiar with. Teams expect to collaborate across time and space, and companies have begun incorporating automation and even artificial intelligence into their workflows to optimise this connected, yet physically disconnected, approach to business.

A more dynamic career ladder, negating the linear model of old

We now also have a labour market characterised by shorter-term work that is more varied, more unpredictable and devoid of boundaries. These conditions have combined to shift the responsibility for managing careers from the employer towards the individual. ​ The old days of clear career trajectories and stable employment are over.

As a new set of career aspirations and demands, innovative work-enablers and widening diversity in employees emerge, forcing cracks through the old work system, we need to think about how best we can manage these changes and create a new model where everyone is given equal opportunities to adapt and succeed.

We need to negotiate a new social contract in the workforce, one that prioritises life-long learning and re-training for both employee and employer.

Instead of waiting for the next promotion, employees now expect to actively seek out opportunities to develop, renew, and enhance their skills and capabilities to adapt to the challenges posed by constant change in the wider economy. And this is only possible with the support of governments and companies coming together to provide ample learning tools and platforms, and employees themselves proactively voicing out their suggestions and feedback.

Continuous, self-managed, learning

Self-autonomous career management is especially important for older employees who find themselves on the wrong end of a significant gap in skills and wages between them and their younger counterparts. The launch of the SkillsFuture movement in Singapore, a collaboration between public and private sector, reflects this growing emphasis on self-driven career management, in which individuals embrace the concept of lifelong learning with a focus on the mastery of new skills and competencies.

For this new social contract to achieve its purpose, both employer and employee must recognise what their new roles entail.

For employees, managing their own growth is akin to running an enterprise, where decisions entail investment, risk and even sacrifice in pursuit of long-term career and life goals. An entrepreneurial mindset is vital. They need to take charge by constantly seeking out opportunities to deepen and expand skill sets. They need to take risks.

Broader skill sets and greater choice

The 21st-century workplace requires workers to take on an increasing array of responsibilities, many of which will be unfamiliar to the current workforce in many parts of Asia, including Hong Kong, who trained in a system focused on highly-specialised individuals for particular vocations.

Job reinvention is thus required. Medical doctors, lawyers, teachers, and research scientists are taking on leadership responsibilities. Professionals need to innovate and start new systems, practices and enterprise.

Employers are not off the hook either. They need to create an ecosystem where entrepreneurial career activity can thrive. Employers can offer incentives such as upgrades in responsibilities and pay scale for those who learn new skills and knowledge.

Employers also need to be more flexible to incorporate individual choice and customisation since career pathways are now so varied. For example, individuals should choose between developing their careers in terms of growing deeper in knowledge and skills in their area of expertise, or climbing the proverbial corporate ladder, or focusing on innovation by heading new enterprises or initiatives.

Employers who fail to understand that their employees increasingly want work to be a part of who they are (not just a way to make a living), that their biggest fear is not finding a job that matches their personality and that they need inspiring leadership, are bound to face significant challenges when it comes to attracting and securing their future talent pipeline.

Mitigating the cracks through building more flexible workplace structures

Returning to the growing preference for work-life balance over pay raises in Hong Kong, work structures that champion individual autonomy and choice play a prominent role in encouraging entrepreneurial career investments.

For instance, personalised work arrangements negotiated between employer and employee facilitate the customisation of work around the needs of both parties. For example, an employee with childcare responsibilities can schedule times to be at the office that coincide with hours when his or her children are at school.

Similarly, an employee can also telecommute on certain days of the week if travelling to the workplace is inconvenient. A supportive social network of supervisors, peers and subordinates can help workers strike a balance between delivering on immediate work responsibilities and future investments in one’s career.

The days of one-sided employer-driven approaches to career management are over. Preparing Hong Kong’s global workforce for the uncertain and complex challenges ahead is now a shared responsibility between individuals and their employers.

Individuals have to be more proactive, strategic and entrepreneurial in choosing where and how they are going to invest their time and resources in the interest of achieving career goals. But this new social contract, one that will ultimately create a shared future – despite the fractured society we face today – starts from within the company.

About the author

Trevor Yu is associate professor, Division of Strategy, Management & Organisation at Nanyang Business School, Nanyang Technological University.

This commentary was published in South China Morning Post on 20 February 2018.​




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