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Never too cool for school

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Are companies’ increasing investments of time and money into employees’ personal and professional development paying off? Sabrina Zolkifi finds out.

Benjamin Franklin once said, “Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.”

Some believe Franklin’s quote is a very early description of what we now know as experimentation or hands-on learning. And while those words may have been uttered centuries ago, but its meaning still rings loud with many leaders of today.

More companies in Singapore are starting to make huge investments into their employees’ further education efforts, providing everything from inter-departmental courses to building multi-million dollar campuses and study leave.

Danielle Quinell, head of talent management at Baker & McKenzie Singapore, says one of the reasons it’s important for employees to further their education is to keep them motivated and support their career development goals which should result in job satisfaction.

She says the firm also recognises that furthering ones education does not only mean going back to school, but also take on the form of on-the-job training, online learning, and external courses.

Quinell says Baker & McKenzie is very supportive and accommodating employees who are furthering their education. For example, the firm provides four days of study leave a year, and allow employees to return to their previous role if they go on sabbatical for full-time education courses.

“We have even supported incoming employees by deferring their start dates in order for them to complete a period of study,” she says.

A focus on the people

Cassandra Cheng, head of learning and development for OCBC, says the bank realises the “success of the organisation is dependent on our people”.

Cheng says she has also seen a positive correlation between employee engagement and the bank’s learning and development programmes.

“This positive correlation has become more obvious over the past five years, when learning and development opportunities clearly became one of the key drivers for our rising engagement score.

This drove the bank to open the OCBC Campus earlier this year, a S$60 million investment designed to provide comprehensive and unconventional learning facility for its employees.

People have always been Singapore’s biggest and best resource, so it’s no surprise companies are jumping on the education bandwagon.

John Nolan, senior vice president of Unilever’s global markets, said the onus falls not only on the government but also companies to help “lift the gene pool”.

By providing training, development and learning opportunities, Nolan says “we will all be making a contribution to improve the readiness and availability of access to talent – something which we all need.”

Cheng says it was also important for the bank to provide such a learning opportunity because of the industry they were in.

OCBC sponsors about 50 employees a year under its Continuing Education Scheme, which allows staff to pursue certificates, diploma, degree or Masters programmes relevant to the bank’s needs.

“Post financial crisis, there is a lot more scrutiny on the banking industry in the areas of governance, capital strength, liquidity, investment sales and advisory processes. The needs of our customers are also evolving, becoming more sophisticated and complex.

“We need to ensure that we have competent employees who are able to deliver the best outcomes,” she says.

A juggling act

Earlier this year, a study by Kelly Services found 71% of workers upgraded their skills with the aim of getting a promotion, rather than leaving or starting their own business.


Employees are also increasingly demanding better professional and personal development opportunities.

Marina Bay Sands is an organisation that has heard its employees’ demand for learning because it realises it is “important to have a workforce that is competent and versatile as this will give our business a competitive edge”.

Chan Yit Foon, senior vice president of human resources at Marina Bay Sands, says the company is highly supportive of employees who wish to pursue their education outside the organisation.

“We operate according to best practices and will fund the education fees of team members who wish to further themselves in their areas of expertise. Departments have also been fully supportive of team members who have to attend classes, take exams and be away from work,” Chan says.

Quinell says it’s also important the timing of employees going back to school is right, and proper handovers take place to ensure the team isn’t burdened with extra responsibilities for the studying employee.

She says it’s also critical for the companies to manage the expectations of the employee once they have completed their education.

“If they do return to the same role, will they be put on some kind of career track in view of their additional qualification? Will their salary expectations differ on completion of their studies?

“All of these questions must be addressed before the studies commence to try to ensure there are no difficulties on completion of their studies,” she says.

Chan is quick to agree, adding companies with employees who want to return to school have to keep their staff’s needs in mind.

“They should be open-minded to employees’ decisions to pursue further education but be mindful of resource management to minimise disruption to daily operations,” Chan said

While it may be a struggle to find that sweet spot for employees managing both work and learning programmes, she says the compromise will pay off for both parties.

A well trained workforce will reap tangible benefits such as increased productivity, better teamwork and management across all business units and more importantly, happy and satisfied guests.

Cheng says another way the bank is providing for employees’ learning needs is by offering e-learning services.

Currently, the bank offers 60 e-learning programmes for employees, allowing its overseas employees to tap on the knowledge pool as well.

For the future

Unilever, which also recently opened its second global Four Acres campus here in Singapore, is also committed to learning because it impacts the business.

“It causes the brand to be more attractive to people, attrition will go down, retention will go up, and the employer brand becomes stronger,” Nolan says.

But with Kelly’s report revealing 68% of employees go for training to prepare for another role in a new company, does the company harbour fear employees may jump ship after participating in learning initiatives at Unilever?

“We’re confident that if we do the right things, and provide people with the right employment experience, they’ll stay. If we don’t, they’ll go,” he says. “And if they go, it means we haven’t done well enough, so we deserve that.”

“With something like Four Acres, it give people opportunities to learn, and if at end of the day, that makes them more marketable, and they leave, that’s unfortunate… but that’s okay,” he says.

Quinell says HR leaders with employees considering further education must keep in mind the need to ensure flexibility.

“Whilst it is beneficial to have a policy that covers further education or professional qualifications, it is equally important to build in an element of flexibility – each application should be considered on its own merits,” she says.

She also advices HR stay in constant contact with employees who are away pursuing a full-time education course, keeping lines of communication open so the employee is always in the loop of developments in the office.

“Encourage managers to catch up over coffee once in a while to maintain the relationship and help the employee to feel as if they are still part of the firm. This should help to keep them motivated to return to work once their studies have concluded,” she says.

Read more:

Case study: Unilever

Case study: OCBC

Case study: Singapore Marriott Hotel

Power a future-proof HR by driving intelligent business solutions and talent analytics. Learn how to at Accelerate HR 2020 with more than 120 HR peers.
Download the conference brochure and pre-order your tickets today.

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