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Working Space Age

The explosive growth in staff mobility is having a seismic impact on the future of office design

Feature23Nov13The workspace of today is undergoing a profound shift. As human living is transformed by the modern need for greater mobility, flexibility and sustainability, a revolution is taking place in attitudes to work environments.

“Space is changing,” says Simon French, global design director at Regus. “It’s not all about the four walls around you. Technology is freeing people from their desks, and workspace has got to reflect this. This means more drop-in space, more hot-desking, and more flexible multi-use spaces. Gone are the days of one person, one desk.” Continue reading Working Space Age

Profiles on social media get Likes and dislikes

tor.jpgThere is no denying that social media is now part and parcel of the way many of us work. With recruitment firm Robert Half putting the figure of Hong Kong professionals using LinkedIn at 600,000, the importance of social-networking websites to the business world is only expected to grow.

Social networking websites are among the most popular ways of nurturing professional relationships today, says Pallavi Anand, director of Robert Half Hong Kong. Continue reading Profiles on social media get Likes and dislikes

Growing Asian firms need cover in a risky world

statsAccording to leading risk management provider Aon, the continued menace of terrorist attacks and political violence is becoming a threat to global business growth. Its 10th annual Terrorism and Political Violence Map released this year reveals that 44 per cent of countries across the globe have an identifiable risk of terrorist attacks.

Continue reading Growing Asian firms need cover in a risky world

Be careful not to trip over uneven ‘people risks’

People Risk in AsiaAlthough people are the backbone of any business, they are also a key source of risk. A “people risk” is the possibility of a negative event occurring when recruiting, employing and reorganising talent that causes loss to a business. The extent of this risk can differ depending on the company and the country.

In an attempt to categorise people risk around the globe, Aon Hewitt has been ranking countries according to their people risk since 2011 in its annual ratings survey. The latest Aon People Risk Index this year has found that Asia-Pacific has the widest deviations in risk of any region worldwide.

For example, while Singapore ranked as the second-lowest people-risk city in the world, and Hong Kong the seventh lowest, there were also a number of very high-risk cities such as Chongqing, Hanoi and Phnom Penh. However, there is a lot of economic potential in these riskier cities and there is keen interest to invest in them.

“Asia-Pacific will continue to be an attractive location for business,” says Rick Payne, regional talent and rewards practice leader for Aon Hewitt in Asia-Pacific. “However, the region has the widest variance in risks related to recruitment, employment and redeployment of any region worldwide. Companies must carefully assess the risks they face in individual locations and identify the specific steps they need to take to address those risks.”

Sally Evans, Aon Hewitt’s research manager, adds says that while people risks are lower overall in developed nations, significant risks can still materialise as a result of ageing populations, uneven demographics and restrictive employee practices.

Singapore is a perfect case in point. The country has low people risk in regards to demographics, government support, education, talent development and employment practices. Despite this, however, the Singaporean government recently introduced measures to curb the influx of foreign talent which, while not affecting labour pools immediately, has the potential to harm Singapore’s ability to attract talent in the longer term.

“We anticipate Singapore may experience problems in the next few years with regard to demographics,” Evans says. “The government is tightening policies regarding the inflow of foreign talent, which will have an impact on Singapore’s ability to mitigate the risk of its ageing population and low birth rate.”

Hong Kong has slightly higher risks all round, except in demographics. However, it also has issues ahead for future workforce planning, and this is linked to the economy and fluctuating GDP growth.

Nevertheless, Hong Kong, unlike Singapore, is currently alleviating the risk of its ageing working population through pro-business immigration policies and high workforce productivity, Evans says.

“According to the People Risk Index, Hong Kong is low risk – one out of 10 – for low work productivity. In support of this, a report by the Economist Intelligence Unit rated Hong Kong as the most productive workforce in Asia in 2012,” Evans says.

On the other hand, across the border, the mainland’s tight labour market put a lot of mainland cities above the top 50 ranking in the index. There has also been a growing trend of companies shifting to inland, tier-two cities where costs are lower, but risk is higher.

“The shift inland is due to high costs in first-tier cities as well as new opportunities in these rapidly growing markets,” Evans says. “While the attraction of lower operating costs and new markets will continue to draw investors to tier-two cities, our study found significantly higher levels of people risk in these cities. We feel that people risk gives a lot of context to these lower costs.”

Janet De Silva, dean of Ivey Asia, has also witnessed this shift to secondary cities. She says these cities lack trained, informed sales and service staff and, above all, managers.

“The growing need for talented managers in China represents by far the biggest management challenge facing multinationals and locally owned businesses alike,” she says. “In a recent China Consumer Market Strategies study [conducted by Booz & Company and the American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai], 37 per cent of multinational companies reported that recruiting talent was their single biggest operational problem in China – a bigger problem than concerns about regulations, lack of transparency or intellectual-property rights.”

To combat the constricting talent supply, De Silva says that some overseas companies in China are now opening local academies and campuses, while Chinese companies are now offering management salary packages and benefits that match or exceed those offered by multinationals.

These actions can lessen risk in the respective locations in which they are carried out. Evans says that education is also another key area where people risk can be improved. Using Hong Kong as an example, she says that the current struggle for parents to find places for their children in Hong Kong schools will have an long-term impact on the quality of “home-grown” talent entering the workforce in the future. This is also true of any developing city that does not address its education supply and people risk correctly.

Originally published in South China Morning Post, April 20, 2013

Employers hunt overseas as local skills dry up

Employers hunt overseas as local skills dry upAlthough it has been a fairly good start to the year for the employment market, not everyone is cooking with gas just yet, as the Hudson Report: Employment Trends for Q1 2013 shows.

The report, which surveyed 5,900 employers from four major industries, found that IT&T (information technology and telecommunications) was the only industry with increased positive hiring intentions. On the other side of the coin, hiring intentions dropped seven percentage points in the consumer-business sector, ten points in manufacturing and industrial, and 0.5 points in banking and financial services (banking and financial-services employers also showed the strongest intentions to decrease headcount).

Tony Pownall, general manager of Hudson Hong Kong, says that the drop in the consumer-business sector reflects the fact that mainland visitors are not buying as much as they used to. Hiring in IT&T, meanwhile, is being driven by demand from businesses to improve both efficiency and profitability via technology.

“Permanent-hiring restrictions among some multinational corporations are resulting in increased demand for vendor services and there is a continuing trend towards the outsourcing of core IT functions,” he says. “Big data and the technology associated with manipulating it to support decision-making and improved customer relationships are also continuing to grow in popularity.”

The outsourcing trend is not just within IT&T. The report also shows that contracting roles are slowly growing in acceptance in Hong Kong, with a third of businesses using contractors more regularly.

Pownall says that part of the reason for this is that workloads are up 41.8 per cent compared to a year ago. This is being driven largely by more projects (according to 75.3 per cent of respondents), which naturally lend themselves to contracting support.

He adds, though, that stable jobs have always been favoured in Hong Kong. “High living costs and cultural-status issues drive a preference for permanent roles, and contracting is still not seen as a lifestyle choice as it is in other markets,” he says. “Sometimes companies switch contract roles to permanent roles in order to improve their chances of finding a good candidate.”

Good candidates with the right skills, however, are rather thin on the ground. Marc Burrage, regional director of Hays in Hong Kong, says that this shortage is triggering companies to use more flexible staffing tactics, such as looking overseas or outsourcing.

“We still have a skills shortage and are seeing more employers willing to hire or sponsor qualified overseas candidates in skill-short areas,” he says. “Many more are now using flexible staffing approaches than in the past 12 months as part of a flexible approach.”

The use of these workers is likely to increase even more over the next year as Hong Kong looks set to continue as a candidate-short market, he adds.

This shortage goes a long way in explaining another of the Hudson report’s findings – that staff retention is the top HR priority for Hong Kong employers, with 28.4 per cent placing it above all other concerns.

“Employers are very aware of the challenges of securing the right talent, which are exacerbated by skills shortages and challenges in securing headcount approvals,” Pownall says.

He adds that employers are conscious of the fact that strong employee engagement is the key to staff retention, and a high staff turnover causes disruption and affects productivity.

“The right people in the right roles are critical to retaining staff, so giving due consideration to behavioural and motivational fit is important, as these are far more effective indicators of high performance than technical skills,” he says.

Pallavi Anand, director of Robert Half Hong Kong, says that she has also observed a fresh emphasis on staff retention recently as a result of companies being at greater risk of losing their best talent to competitors.

“Whether companies are looking to retain or hire new employees, they need to ensure that they are offering more than just an attractive salary,” she says. “Candidates want to clearly understand how a company can help them build their skill sets and develop their career. In such a competitive market, factors such as a clear career path, a commitment to work-life balance, and greater responsibilities and challenges will strongly influence individual career decisions and help firms attract and retain talent.”

Originally published in South China Morning Post, March 23, 2013

Workers stay bullish on economy and job hopes

The new Michael Page Employee Intentions Report reveals that most workers have faith in the strength of the Hong Kong economy. Completed in June, the online survey polled entry-level to senior-management professionals on salary expectations, confidence in the job market and general employment outlook.

Of the 700 respondents, 42 per cent rated the current job market as strong. Some 40 per cent also indicated they are likely to change jobs within the next six to 12 months, with over a third of those who wished to move citing career progression as their primary reason. Half of those surveyed also said they would ask their current employer for a pay rise.

In light of these results, employers will likely need to look at ways to hold on to staff over the next year, says Anthony Thompson, senior managing director for Hong Kong and Southern China at Michael Page.

“Employers need to focus on retention and will be expected to enter into salary negotiations to keep top talent – that is, individuals with the experience and knowledge to drive the business forward,” he says, adding that jobseekers are paying special attention to career development plans, something hirers should be wary of.

Employers should also be mindful of the fact that average salary rises look set to grow. Over a third of respondents are aiming for a rise of 6-9 per cent, far outpacing expectations from the same time last year.

However, Thompson adds that while remuneration is important, there are a number of other ways employers can encourage top talent to stay with them.

“We increasingly find that candidates are focused on their career path and not just what is in it for them now,” he says, pointing to the impact of career progression on willingness to stay put.

Part of what’s fuelling the higher expectations, he suggests, may be the current wealth of job opportunities. Much of this, Thompson says, is attributable to the strength of the mainland economy, which is prompting many firms based there to expand their operations in Hong Kong.

“There is no doubt that China’s economic strength and continued growth are a real positive for the employment market in Hong Kong. Asia overall is performing well compared with most other markets,” Thompson says.

The only exception may be the financial services sector, which continues to be hit by uncertainty, especially in Europe.

Originally published in South China Morning Post, September 2012 

Interior Design Supplement – Interior Design’s Tighter Space

Though the Hong Kong interior design industry is flourishing, the city currently faces a dearth of well-trained interior designers – and this looks set to continue as work from emerging markets in the region is on the rise. The pinch is being felt across the industry, with even the larger interior design firms finding it difficult to recruit designers.

Offering an explanation for the shortage, Logan MacWatt, managing director of Aedas Interiors, points out that the majority of skilled designers are essentially all fully employed.

Continue reading Interior Design Supplement – Interior Design’s Tighter Space

HK employees struggle to maintain work-life balance

The lines between work and personal lives in the city are blurring, according to staffing and human resources consulting provider Randstad.

With detailed feedback from 405 local employees, the new survey – part of their debut Workmonitor Report for Hong Kong – captures sentiments towards local work practices.

Of those polled, 36 per cent said their employers expect them to be available at all times, while 61 per cent reported receiving work-related phone calls or e-mails during their time off.

Commenting on the results, Brien Keegan, director of Randstad Hong Kong, says that they have done similar surveys in other countries, but a notably larger proportion of local respondents claimed to work outside office-hours, a fact he attributes largely to the city’s role as a financial hub.

“We are literally in the centre of the world here in terms of our access to global markets. And to maintain good business relationships, one often has to keep in sync with other time zones,” he says. “This practice puts a severe strain on effective work-life balance and can also have a negative impact on productivity in the workplace.”

The survey also showed that 69 per cent of the respondents said they tended to deal with private matters during work hours, while 68 per cent indicated they handled work-related matters in their private time.

Keegan believes that to counteract this “blurring”, staff and employers should set guidelines defining priorities.

“The balance between working and living is really an individual preference, so employees and employers should set boundaries and expectations and find what is personally and professionally important,” he says.

Keegan notes that striking a balance between work and life commitments can be a good thing for both workers and their managers. Flexible working arrangements, he adds, can increase productivity, aid employee retention and enhance staff engagement.

Nevertheless, Keegan concedes that flexible arrangements are not for everyone.

“While some part-time workers might give 40 hours of work on a 20- hour timesheet, other employees need the routine, support, guidance and social structure of a traditional workplace,” he says, adding that this may explain why 65 per cent of respondents also indicated a preference for face-to-face contact.

Keegan expects work-life balance to become an increasingly crucial issue. “One of the things we need to think more about is how to create a more efficient workforce, especially since the war for talent is about to pick up again,” he says. “Providing flexible work options [for some] is going to be really important.”

Originally published in South China Morning Post, March 2011 

Bums on office seats are not always good for bottom line

Employees can probably feel less guilty about tardiness or web-surfing during office hours. At least that’s the implication of the results from a Regus global survey suggesting that flexible working conditions can help increase worker productivity and, by extension, company profit.

The survey, which covered more than 16,000 senior business managers, is one of the largest of its kind to validate the correlation between flexibility, productivity and profitability.

Among those polled in Hong Kong, 75 per cent said that flexibility boosted productivity, while 72 per cent agreed that it could help increase revenue.

Hans Leijten, Regus vice-president for East Asia, attributes the gains to enhanced employee morale.

“Flexible work gives people power to decide when and where they work. This helps them to plan and execute their work more efficiently and to reduce the time it takes to commute and to actually do the work,” he says.

“A more efficient and happier worker will generally deliver better results.”

At 67 per cent, a significant portion of Hong Kong respondents also reported feeling more energised and motivated, thanks to flexible work arrangements. Some 60 per cent even claimed to feel healthier, implying cost-savings on healthcare premiums.

Leijten notes that flexible arrangements can also help cut office rentals. “As a rule of thumb, 40-60 per cent of any office space is underutilised,” he says. “In a city like Hong Kong, where commercial space is among the most expensive anywhere, there are big savings to be made.”

And with many firms still reluctant to commit to large pay rise this year, flexible arrangements can be used as an employee retention tool, Leijten adds. “Staff who work flexibly report feeling healthier, more energised and more motivated, which is good for staff retention and morale,” he says.

This view is echoed by Martin Cerullo, the global director of resourcing communications at Alexander Mann Solutions. “The ability to work flexibly makes up an important part of the overall employee value proposition. Employers who allow staff to work flexibly are really saying, ‘I trust you to make the decisions about the time and working location that are right for you.’ Naturally, this sends an appreciative message,” he says.

Leijten notes that the Regus survey findings help reaffirm a common practice in Hong Kong, particularly among smaller nimbler companies where implementation is easier.

“Flexi-working is the future of work,” says Leijten. “If you manage your employees by line of sight, all you can evaluate is bums on office seats. The best companies manage people by results, and flexible working clearly helps employees improve their results.”

Originally published in South China Morning Post, March 2011 

Architecture Supplement – Building Blocks of the Future

Hong Kong has always been an architectural hub, with some of the best talent in Asia and the world, and, today, its architecture industry is alive and vigorously kicking.

“With its mixed international pool of architects and proficiency gathered over time, the Hong Kong architecture industry is perfectly set up as a hub to serve the region,” says Dominic Lam, president of the Hong Kong Institute of Architects (HKIA).

“In fact, more than 50 per cent of Hong Kong architects end up working on projects outside Hong Kong,” he adds.

The CEO of architecture global giant Aedas, David Roberts, shares the same sentiment, describing Hong Kong as a “strategically-placed business destination”.

“The proximity to Southeast Asia is important,” he says. “A lot of clients [from there] look to Hong Kong professionals to provide provisional services for their projects. Hong Kong has a huge advantage in terms of its geographical location.”

However, this regional market is dwarfed by business in China, which has surged two-fold in the past few years. “The workload from mainland China has been increasing, and 60 per cent of the work in our Hong Kong office is from the mainland,” says Roberts.

“Ten years ago, this would have been only about 10 per cent and, looking ahead, the 60 per cent might become 70 per cent soon,” he adds.

This is felt throughout other practices in Hong Kong, too. Kenneth Lui, a director with the P&T Group, even points out that increasing mainland work is putting pressure on local and international architects to learn Putonghua.

“One of the most important things for an architect in Hong Kong now is language – even locals need to learn Putonghua,” he says. “One must also be willing to travel and to work on the mainland.”

Lucy Richardson, managing director of Bespoke Hong Kong, is seeing the same trends at her local architect and designer recruitment firm. “At the moment, 80 to 90 per cent of candidates we place are Chinese, and this is mainly because of the language factor,” she says. “We are finding it more and more difficult to place international architects because they don’t have the language skills.”

Candidates need to know more than just Putonghua though, as Richardson points out. “Those who are most in demand are the locals who have trained overseas, who have had experiences with international practices and are returning home to the mainland or Hong Kong,” says Richardson.

“Although graduates are of interest, the Chinese market is looking for broad-minded architects who have done two to 10 years in a practice overseas, and have come back with understanding, training and experience.”

Richardson also points out that while there are some strong candidates coming out of local schools, Hong Kong-educated students are slightly weaker than their international counterparts.

“I think that the brief set in universities here is a bit basic, and does not really get people thinking – it is a lot more challenging at Australian, British and American universities,” Richardson says.

P&T Group principal designer Remo Riva agrees, adding that creativity is somewhat disregarded in Hong Kong.

“At universities here, they teach that management skills are very important and creativity is more a by-product because it is not so needed or expected,” Riva says. “Even at the University of Hong Kong, the emphasis is not so much on teaching or on creativity, but about training for management skills.”

Creativity is also lacking in the field, where developers dominate and tough regulations restrict architects. “Basically, to be approved, the architecture has to work around and within the regulations and demands of developers, which reduces creativity. In other places, you look at buildings and you can see the developers are more open,” says Lui, of P&T Group.

He adds that developers are also snapping up talent, which means that local demand for architects remains strong.

Nevertheless, HKIA’s Lam says that the architectural scene is healthier than it has ever been, and fresh graduates can expect to start at a competitive monthly rate of HK$30,000 minimum, which is the highest that entry-level salaries have been in the sector.

Roberts of Aedas has the same positive viewpoint. “Hong Kong has been able to grow domestic talent through the universities and educational establishments here, while also attracting international talent, even as markets are quiet in places like New York and London,” he says.

“We have some of the best infrastructure, and investment is continuous with strong all-round optimism and energy levels. This is certainly the place to be right now,” Roberts adds.

Originally published in South China Morning Post, March 2012

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