• Esther Er

One of the challenges of getting the Singapore workforce to be future-ready: "Our Lifestyle"

Balanced Lifestyle

As HR practitioners, you often hear these comments coming from your employees (and sometimes even your team!):

“There is just too much work. I do not have a balanced lifestyle.”

“So much work and I don’t even have time to think about improvements.”

“There is no balanced lifestyle working in this organization.”

“I cannot have time to make any improvements, and your expectations are just too high.”

I have been in the industry for over thirty years, and it is my personal belief that most people that I have come across don’t realize that they have not reached their maximum potential. One of the reasons could be over the years; no one cared who they are. No one bothered to share with them that they can be better than what they are doing today. Over the years, they were largely left alone with no one who wanted to coach or nudge them to go beyond the barrier of “imbalanced lifestyle.”

They reported to “nice” supervisors who will tell them they are doing a “great job.” Supervisors will always spend more time working with passionate people. Those that require a “higher” level of “maintenance,” the best option is to leave them alone. Only in rare cases, where you find leaders who genuinely care for 100% of their people. These leaders have a genuine love and a “higher calling” of not wanting to leave anyone in the “battlefield of business” to die.

The environment also plays a big part in determining our “center of gravity.” I remembered many years ago taking my daughter to Toys “R” Us to shop for her birthday present. We spent almost two hours in the shop. She ran around every aisle and then told me she could not decide what she wants! There were at least hundreds of choices!

I am sure some of you have had this experience. You go into one of the typical mega food bazaars in any of the Asian cities (In Singapore, we called such food centers as “Hawker Centers”). Each stall is selling at least ten varieties of food. Each hawker center on an average have about 30 stalls. There are at least 300 options available. You walked and covered the entire “hawker center,” and then you still don’t know what you want to eat!

With each option, it takes another chunk off our precious time. The more “varieties” of life that we have, we are paradoxically moving away from being a lifelong learner.

Simple Lifestyle

I grew up in a small town in Miri, Malaysia. It takes about a half-hour to see the whole city. There was no Internet back then and we there was no online services such as Amazon, Lazada, Taobao, etc. You have to go to town to see the options you have. When it comes to your birthdays, all you have is just a convenience shop that sells some toys on the shelf (along with other items such as home appliances, garden tools, etc.).

The choice is either a toy truck or an airplane. If you are late doing your birthday shopping, you might end up having to choose between a toy truck and a barbie doll!

Life then was simple, you don't have much choices, and you had plenty of quality time.

Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous (VUCA) World & Industry 4.0

We talked about the VUCA world. Not something new as this was used by the US Army some six to seven years ago. The concept of Industry 4.0 (ID4) is also nothing new. ID4 was a high-tech strategy of the German government some seven to eight years ago. Today it has gained a lot of prominences as the disruptions are at a global scale.

There are probably no businesses today that can honestly say that they are not affected by the wave of changes in the industry. From startup to the mortuary company, the changes that are happening will fundamentally redefine the way business will be transacted.

These changes are real, and they are scary. Most of the executives see this massive tsunami coming that will change the way we do our business. The “war of business” is not going to be fought and won on the solid ground anymore. The Internet of Things has effectively shifted the “war of business” onto the internet.

How then do we prepare our people to face the changes that are happening in real-time? How do we make our people have some level of depth in their mastery? How do we create a community where there is a hunger to learn? How will individuals make the concerted effort to dedicate themselves to making sure that they stay relevant?

If you are living in third or fourth world countries, I will tend to say that the hunger level for change is very high. Most aspire to have the same quality of life as the first world countries. That creates a real sense of urgency and direction for people to set aside their time as they don’t have many options for lots of varieties in their lives.

If you are growing up in a country like Singapore, you have a wild abundance of so many options that you can choose! You wish you have more extended weekends! There are so many things to do in tiny Singapore that you are always running out of time!

Imbalanced Lifestyle

Here is where most people don’t realize they have an “imbalanced lifestyle.” Here’s where a simple request in Singapore to your friends or relatives to attend an event, you will not likely get a straightforward answer of “Yes” immediately.  If they bothered to reply to your request is already a bonus!

You most likely will get an answer like, “Let me think about it as I may have something planned.” We cannot get a straight answer because life in Singapore is always “busy,” and we are always running short of time. We have lots of activities to do. Selfishly, we are not willing to “let go.”

Once a while I would visit my mum in Miri, Malaysia. There is not much you can do, and time seems to “slow down.” Whenever I am back to my hometown, I would bring along some books as I have plenty of time to read.

By the way, my hometown has also not being spared by our wired world. At least at my mum’s house, there are no cable TV or Netflix. Not that my mum cannot afford to pay for such “luxuries,” but she does not see a need to have them. By 9:30 pm, it would be time for the entire family to retire to bed.

I have just returned from Phuket, Thailand, after attending an HR conference. The flight back from Phuket to Singapore takes almost two hours long. Sitting in front of me was a lady in her 40’s having two grown-up children who were playing a computer game on her iPad throughout the flight. On the right side of me was a teenager playing “bubbles” for most of the flight time. These are what we called “stress relief” activities we do today.

These are the non-negotiable time that we need to have in our lives.

Our Imbalance Lifestyle

Whenever you hear employees saying that they don’t have a “balanced lifestyle,” there is so much truth in that statement. Our lives are so “imbalanced” that we don’t have a minute to spare to focus on deepening our mastery.

About a few years ago, I got a group of seven people in a room age from 25 to the oldest 56. It was during the Pokemon craze where people would go to different parts of Singapore, especially to the various public parks, to try to catch “virtual” pokemon using their smartphones. I asked how many people in the room currently playing the Pokemon game, and almost 80% of the hands went up.

I then changed my question and asked how many of them read an HR-related book in the last twelve months. None. Our lives, as we know, is one of “consumerism.” We are becoming to be a society of just consuming things.

It is a common sight to find people playing a computer game, watching the latest Korean dramas, looking at the newest fashion trends on their smartphones in all the public places, especially when they are in a queue. Most will tell you that they do this to get rid of “stress.”

The problem with our imbalance lifestyle is now boiling into our workplace. I don’t know whether there is anyone who has done any research in terms of the percentage of people “consuming” information from their smartphones each day at work. I have seen employees “playing computer games” during their breaks, and even the sound of computer games in the next toilet cubicle.

In a nutshell, we are living in an “imbalance” lifestyle that you have no time to do anything else. If you talked to your employees, some would say that they don’t have time to focus on learning new things related to their profession as after office hours is my “ME TIME.”

Don’t ask me to carry out any improvements, and I cannot take your “high expectations.” The truth is if people looked at themselves in the mirror, they are unwilling to address their “imbalance lifestyle.”

As a result, employees will want to depend on their employer to give them time off to go for workshops, external training, or conferences so that these are the time that they learn. Don’t expect them to deepen their mastery as they don’t have the time as their lives are already well planned. If companies don’t set aside time for them, they already have too much work to do.

There was a time in my life where people self-taught themselves how to do webpages, desktop publishing, etc. Today, we don’t have time to do such things. We are just too busy with lots of commitments.

Our people do not see the other less visible “tsunami.” There are 7 million graduates a year coming out of China. They are about 9 million graduates annually in India. That is a definition of “hunger.” We have not factored those that are from second, third, and fourth world countries where the appetite of wanting to find work in first world countries is a life’s mission.

Call to Action

As leaders (especially HR practitioners), our job is to bring greater awareness to our people. Some of the things that you can do to help bring that “level of urgency”:

1. Make sure that employees are continuously kept abreast of global disruptions at every communication event, e.g., Town Hall Session

2. Introduce workshop that stresses the importance of these disruptions. Make such workshop sessions fun, e.g., using gamification.

3. Make time to speak to every employee 1:1 on their performance. Help them to identify what and why they need to make the shift themselves. These are not your friendly chit-chat session, but a level of seriousness where you need to help them overcome their imbalance lifestyle.

4. Show video clips of all the latest innovation in the world. Share with the employees some of the disruptions in the industry.

5. Conduct sharing sessions to highlight these threats that are looming in our horizon.

6. Carry out skip-level sessions to talk about changes in the industry and what they have to do to make themselves marketable.

7. Share with your employees this “imbalanced lifestyle” story; perhaps some will be willing to reassess their current commitments.

The above are some of the things that we can “nudge” our people to shift in the right direction. It is not an easy task but leaving your employees in the dark is not the right thing to do.

Note: As I learned painfully in recent times, despite doing all of the above, some employees will still want to do their “own thing.” You have just got to resign to the fact that you cannot save everyone.  Sometimes your best intention can be construed negatively.

Last Note

The person who is tough on you and wants you to grow and to improve is investing personal time with you. They see the potential in you. They don’t dwell in your past, but they discussed future possibilities. You are to them a person and not just an employee badge number.

They want you to be “better than who you are” because when you become more marketable, that is the only satisfaction of their role in growing people.

They care for you, and that is the reason why they nudge you to break the years of “saturation.” The people who want you to “stay the same” or have no interest in “what you do” are not necessarily your “friends.” Once the dust is settled, and they have used you, you are just a “badge number” to them as they have got what they wanted.

Those that don’t want you to grow, but may have taken an interest in you may potentially have ulterior motives. Just asked yourself, what have they done for you to help you or encourage you to grow or to be marketable? What was the last time they have personally sit down with you to coach you?

Never judge a person in just that moment in time, but judge them for what they have done for you in the past, the team and what they have contributed to the entire community.

The world is full of opportunistic people. Those that encourage you to grow are the ones who see the true potential in you. The ones who want you to “stay where you are” and say lovely things, are the ones who do not see the greatest in you.

The world today is beginning to be more self-centered. In today’s organization, it is starting to be very rare to find leaders who are willing to share their knowledge and insights. When you come across someone who tirelessly has a “heart” in growing the people, it is a rare commodity.

They are the “guardians of the people” to ensure that the capability of the organization continues to grow.

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