Interview with Joanne Leong, Head of Human Capital and Communications, JEC Singapore (JECS)

Joanne Leong, Head of Human Capital and Communications, JEC Singapore (JECS) is looking towards the future—equipping this facility management (FM) organisation to break barriers and adapt to the future of work. In this interview with Lester Tan, she shares:

  • How the organisation manages its local and foreign workforce;
  • What is the organisation doing to reaffirm its commitment to its workforce, and
  • What is the organisation looking at to adapt to the future of work.

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Joanne Leong, Head of Human Capital and Communications, JEC Singapore (JECS), has a wide and diverse HR portfolio, with experiences and expertise from a range of heavy and "traditional" industries such as semiconductor, R&D, manufacturing, and oil & gas. And she is putting them to good use, as she shares how she and her team are helping this facilities management organisation to break the mould and reinvent itself.

Q Thank you for joining us, Joanne. Tell us your love story with HR — what sparked this relationship, and kept you going all these years in the industry?

I started my career as a shipping executive. After about a year or two into the role, an opportunity came in 1996 when my company was looking for a replacement in the HR department, which I thought I would try to apply for and was accepted. This was my first foray into HR. I was in the role for several years, until I progressed to undertake an HR executive role at an R&D company in 1999.

In 2010, I was given the opportunity to undertake my first managerial role at an oil and gas company. Shortly after, I joined JECS, and was promoted to lead the human capital & communications team as head in 2015.

What kept me going all these years are the opportunities I’ve received to make an impact on people’s working lives—even in the smallest of ways. The wonderful people that I’ve had the privilege to work with; the mentors who provided me with much needed support and encouragement along the way.

Q Throughout your HR career, you’ve been in the heavy-duty B2B industries like engineering, manufacturing, and semiconductors.

  • Why not B2C industries?

To me, it was more of the circumstances I found myself in, and the opportunities available to me back then. My consideration is mainly how the roles I was going to take could help me with my development as an HR professional. The type of industry was never really a major concern for me, as I was more focused on the craft itself.

No matter the environment, I am always eager to learn and adapt.

  • In your opinion, how different—and challenging—is the role of an HR professional between B2B and B2C organisations? 

In my opinion, whether it is B2B or B2C, the same principles of HR apply. Our major stakeholders are the employees from all levels. This is the same for all organisations, no matter the size.

An HR practitioner can survive and thrive in any setting as long as the foundation—experience, knowledge, competence and attitude—towards the role are strong. I am a firm believer that attitude plays a large part in determining success. My HR journey was not easy, and I had to take a longer route compared to many of my peers in the industry. As tough as it was, it has made me who I am today, and I have no regrets taking the road less travelled.

Q At JECS, one of the missions you’ve been tasked with is to ensure a diverse and inclusive culture, especially managing between a local and a foreign workforce. Talk us through some of the initiatives, and why and how you’ve rolled them out.

At JECS, we take the extra step in ensuring all our employees are treated fairly. Unlike many in the industry that hire foreign workers through agencies on a contractual basis, for instance, we hire all our workers directly as full-time employees. This ensures that the same benefits and stability is afforded to every employee, regardless of status or nationality.

During the COVID-19 dormitory outbreaks, we partnered up with Migrant Worker Centre (MWC) to provide welfare packages for 350 workers, and with ETWG wellbeing group to help engage those confined through high-intensity interval training (HIIT) exercises and entertainment programmes, such as karaoke sessions.

In addition to that, when the Delta variant first hit India and its neighbours, we coordinated with the relevant stakeholders, and sent 150 essential welfare packs to our employees’ families back in India and Bangladesh. This is where JECS tapped on its connections wherever possible to ensure the welfare packages reach employees' families amidst the tumultuous situation.

Q Local and foreign employment has always been a hot topic in Singapore.

  • On that note, given that your industry relies a fair bit on foreign manpower, are there negative social perceptions deterring many locals from joining the facilities management industry in Singapore?

In terms of negative social perceptions, the facilities management industry is admittedly seen to be more 'boring' when compared to the swanky tech jobs at places, such as Google and Facebook. However, that said, I believe that the challenge is rooted more in the work conditions that deter locals from joining the industry.

Work schedules for those in the facility management (FM) team comprise two categories: the first is the non-shift (a five-and-a-half day work week), and the second is the rotating shift (a workweek that includes the weekend). As for off and rest days, they are usually spread out on weekdays, and occasionally on weekends.

These are usually not what locals want, as they prefer a steadier work-life balance—a five-day workweek. Thus, this can be quite the challenge for us as facilities management tends to require 24/7 supervision.

  • Also, how do you ensure skills transfer between your workforce, so that everyone is constantly building the next level of skills?

At JECS, we believe in the need to continuously upgrade and upskill our workforce to ensure that they are able to carry out their tasks and duties safely, competently, and diligently.

The process begins with the identification of skills during the appraisal stage, where discussions on identifying knowledge and competencies gaps are carried out. After further discussion and deliberation, a 'Total Company Learning Plan' will be created. There, the required training and skills upgrading programmes and courses will then be planned and organised for the employee. Beyond such external training initiatives, we have also established internal training sessions conducted by our very own experts in the respective areas.

Q Having to tap on foreign resources would mean that the facility management sector does face its fair share of talent challenges. Can you share with us what are they? And how are you tackling them?

The challenges mainly revolve around the nature of the job, work conditions, competition within the industry, and people management.

I believe the manpower shortages, and the challenge of attracting the right talents to undertake FM roles are issues that are prevalent across the industry. To be proactive in combating these challenges, JECS has evolved beyond traditional recruitment methods to adopt various modern platforms, and encourage increased adoption of technology amongst our employees in their day-to-day tasks to overcome language and cultural barriers. We also organise and plan employee engagement programmes to engage and unify different teams and departments.

Other than that, we're also looking at employee retention strategies, as it remains a crucial aspect in ensuring effectiveness and efficiency in the workforce.

This could be done through enhancements to staff benefits, reward management, or providing modern workspaces which help to create a more conducive and collaborative environment for all our employees.

Q Another way JECS shows commitment to its workforce that they are of utmost importance is through providing a more collaborative and flexible work environment for them, in other words a modern workplace. Given the nature of the business, can you share with us how is JECS doing that? What is HR’s role in this?

Despite being in a more 'traditional' field, we take pride in offering WeWork-inspired modern office spaces, encouraging a more collaborative and flexible work environment for staff. We also believe that a modern workplace goes further than just the aesthetics of the office environment, and that it involves listening and providing close support for our team members.

As mentioned, we diligently ensure that our staff are always equipped with the skills and training that are required for their tasks. Team-based activities are incorporated into our in-house training programmes to foster a sense of camaraderie and purpose amongst our team members.

These are some examples that show as HR professionals at JECS, as with other organisations, we first have to identify gaps in areas where improvements could be made, then we plan, and then we execute.

HR’s role at every organisation is all-encompassing.

Q How important is it for 'traditional' organisations, like JECS, to adapt to today’s ever-changing rules of work, and workplace? What is your advice to your HR peers who are looking to do the same?

Change is inevitable. We are still learning new things, and trying to adapt to new ways of work every day. So, it is a continuous learning process. I am a firm believer in our attitude towards embracing challenges and obstacles when we are confronted with change, being the key factor to success. As challenging as it may be, we have to be able to find ways to progress forward despite these challenges.

On that note, my advice for other HR practitioners is to remain agile, and be receptive to change. As an organisation undergoes changes all the time, the HR department is typically the first business function that is required to react, plan, and adapt. We have to be comfortable with creating meaningful impact in a fast-moving environment.

Q We’d like to end with this – JECS promises to "engineer a better Asia”, how then should HR professionals like yourself engineer a better workforce, one that meets the needs of the future of work?

The future of work is exciting! Here at JECS, we are ready to meet this new change head-on. So, we've noted three key tenets that JECS, and other organisations out there, can look at to be able to adapt to the future:

  • Understand the business well - Only through this can we effectively complement and support in areas where we can best contribute;
  • Go beyond just playing the support role - Never rest and settle in passivity, take the initiative to be proactive in furthering your company’s success, and
  • Develop a culture of respect, trust and empowerment between staff and their managers - As this will ultimately serve as the platform for effective communication and employee retention.

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