Hong Kong is facing a manpower battle on a number of different fronts. The extremely low employment rate means that candidates are thin on the ground. Technology advances are making some skills obsolete while others are raising demand, creating talent shortages. And employee expectations are also changing amid a generational shift.
All of this means that finding the right people is a challenge. The Chamber’s CEO Manpower Conference on 3 October focused on the theme of The Art of Manpower Management in an Evolving Workplace. Chamber Chairman Aron Harilela noted that his own industry, the hotel sector, was struggling to find workers. But also, he added, this is being seen across many sectors in Hong Kong, from retail to high-tech.
Winning the Manpower Race – Talent Strategies That Work
A high proportion of attendees raised their hands when Frank Koo, Head of Asia, Talent and Learning Solutions at LinkedIn, asked who had a profile on the platform. Koo pointed out that LinkedIn’s core aim is to help individuals and organizations win the manpower race, so it must lead by example.
“If not, nobody would believe in us,” he said. “So we try to bring in the best people, and provide an environment where they can feel engaged and fulfil their ambitions.”
To make this happen, the company has a carefully designed hiring process to ensure they understand the candidate’s attitude. “If people are not aligned with the company’s purpose, it can be destructive,” he said.
LinkedIn encourages staff to “dream big,” and to this end it provides e-learning platforms, employee resource groups and reverse mentorship activities. The company also conducts regular employee surveys – these are done every quarter, considerably more often than most firms.
It is not just online companies that are now offering more flexibility and benefits. Guy Mills, CEO of Manulife (International), said that the long-established insurer is also changing the way it operates.
“Sourcing and retaining talent is one of our key challenges in Hong Kong,” he said, particularly in the face of the “beanbags and diet coke” image that often lures younger workers to start-ups.
To attract talent, Manulife is working to raise the company’s profile. “Something fairly new is that we have gone out and tapped into the community at events like RISE and fintech forums. We are very visible.”
Manulife has also overhauled its internal procedures, from cutting the time taken to hire new staff to introducing more agile ways of working.
“Previously, we were very hierarchical. Now, we have delegated decision-making to several layers down, and given teams mandates and budgets,” Mills said. “It sounds very simple, but empowering teams to make the decisions – and not to have to run through layers of bureaucracy – is critical.”
Innovate and Diversify
Changing with the times has been key to the success of Mitsubishi Corporation Hong Kong Limited, as Kosaku Kawai, President and Managing Director, explained. Originally a trading company, the corporation is now in sectors from consumer goods to mining.
“If we had stayed in trading we would be bankrupt by now,” he said.
In a career spanning Tokyo, Beijing and Hong Kong, Kawai said that the key trend in recent years has been the growth of technology in Mainland China. “The biggest change is digitization in China – it’s really unique, it’s outstanding. And the centre is in Shenzhen.”
Hong Kong must seize the opportunities through helping to commercialise innovations and providing a market. “If we want to take part, we have to be part of the innovation,” he said.
The very fast pace of technology development in Shenzhen is happening as a result of trial and error, which reflects a change in culture, Kawai noted. This means that businesses will have to step out of their comfort zones to keep up.
NWS Holdings Limited is a diversified company, but has core business in roads, aircraft leasing, transportation and construction, explained CEO Eric Ma. It is one of the largest global toll road operators and has 15 toll roads in the Mainland.
The group is always looking for new opportunities, Ma said, pointing to the Irish aircraft leasing company Goshawk, which has grown considerably since NWS Holdings invested in it in 2015. This broad reach means that NWS Holdings employees can move in a variety of sectors and locations.
“We are a very diversified business, so we are able to offer talent a lot of experience and provide them with extensive opportunities and travel.” For example, one employee moved from M&A to the company’s healthcare platform.
“Manpower management is about more than just a good package to attract and retain talent,” he said. “The younger generation want fast career progress, so it is important to give them purpose and accountability. Human capital is a critical asset to our long-term business success.”
The Power of a Multigenerational Workforce
Hong Kong’s ageing population means the demographics of many workplaces are growing older. At the same time, younger staff often have different expectations of working life. This creates potential for conflict, but a multigenerational workforce can also bring benefits as it offers a mix of experience and new ideas.
One challenge is persuading young people to work in sectors that may not seem very glamorous, like cargo handling.
“People say that cargo is not sexy – it is!” said Wilson Kwong, Chief Executive of Hong Kong Air Cargo Terminals Limited (Hactl). “Without our work, you would not have your beauty products and smartphones.”
Although the company has faced challenges in recruitment, he noted that it is getting better at attracting younger talent.
“At Hactl, the more senior you get, the younger you get,” he said, explaining that the top management are relatively young, with 34% in their early forties.
Hong Kong has been the busiest air cargo airport in the world for the past nine years, and Hactl operates the world’s largest multi-story air cargo terminal. This provides a great environment for creative employees to develop their skills, Kwong said. Complex loading procedures and the demands of on-time performance give workers the opportunity to develop innovative solutions in a fast-paced environment.
“We also offer flexitime,” Kwong added. “We measure on performance, not the number of hours you put in.”
One of the more controversial tactics to keep workers engaged was introduced by NiQ Lai, CEO of Hong Kong Broadband Network. Every year, the company exits the bottom 5% of performers.
“We treat our workers like an elite sports team, not a family,” he said. On the other hand, “we treat our top performers like superstars,” he added.
To encourage loyalty and a sense of pride, Hong Kong Broadband also allows some employees, even fresh graduates, to become co-owners by investing in the company, which now has 350 co-owners.
Although Lai said that he doesn’t believe in work-life balance, the company has policies including no emails on the weekend, and shorter working hours and more generous holidays compared to the Hong Kong norm.
The company wants to attract the best, and this mix of carrot and stick ensures that they hire the most passionate talent, Lai said.
Many companies have a set of values that they promote as part of their brand identity but sometimes this merely serves as box-ticking. Adrian Worth, Managing Director, IKEA Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan, admitted he was skeptical when he was sent IKEA’s list of eight key values ahead of his interview with the company. But he found that these values – including caring for people and the planet, giving and taking responsibility – are something that the company takes very seriously.
This values-based approach to recruitment helps IKEA to find the best fit. “If a high degree of adjustment is required, then you won’t enjoy the working environment.”
While IKEA’s shop floor staff are often young, the company has plenty of older workers behind the scenes. “We try to operate the business according to these values,” Worth explained. “The common mindset means that you can cut across the generational gap. People get it.”
By far the youngest company at the conference was Klook, a travel booking platform founded in 2014. The company’s app operates as a one-stop solution for travellers looking for tours or practical help, like airport transfers. Cary Shek, Klook’s Senior Director, People and Culture, said the company now has a team of 1,500 in more than 20 locations.
“Our workforce is quite young, and the majority of them are from Generation Z,” she explained.
This means that staff are also same age as Klook’s target audience. But as Shek pointed out, you also need experienced managers to bring structure to the enthusiasm of the younger staff.
Like several other speakers, she emphasized the importance of staff that are a cultural fit. Because the company grew very quickly, a concern was that Klook’s collaborative culture could be diluted as new staff joined.
“Part of our success is down to our company culture,” Shek said. “It is a crucial task to ensure that this doesn’t happen by focusing on our core qualities.”
Changing With the Times
From automation to diversity, Roger Steel from Willis Towers Watson discusses some of the key manpower trends
While some companies’ innovative strategies are helping to attract talent, the fact remains that many local businesses continue to operate in an old-fashioned manner.
“A lot of Hong Kong companies have been reluctant to change. Unless we do change, we will get left behind,” said Roger Steel, Managing Director, Hong Kong and Macao at Willis Towers Watson. “I’m not sure why we are slow, but I think Hong Kong is waking up.”
The rapid growth of technology, and how companies adapt, is one of the key trends affecting manpower and recruitment. Citing the results of a recent global survey by Willis Towers Watson, he said the consumer base is becoming more demanding, and technology is transforming every business. “It doesn’t matter what business you are in – we all face the same trends.”
For example, Hong Kong is struggling to attract the tech talent it needs if it is to become a serious I&T player. This is partly because we face competition from the “super-dynamic attraction of Shenzhen” just over the border.
Another way that technology is making its presence felt is in automation, which is improving efficiency but also eroding the stability of many jobs.
“Automation is everywhere and the effects are accelerating,” Steel said. “People are worried about their jobs. The fact is, there is almost nothing that is immune. Lawyers and investment banks are being affected, including the high-value roles that previously marked Hong Kong out as special.”
Internal structure has also been affected. With the advent of digitalization, companies need to decide whether they should have a central digital hub, or digital managers across different departments. Steel points to collaboration as the solution, which allows talented people to move laterally.
“We need to make organizational structures agile,” he said. “If careers are more opportunistic, and people can move within the group.”
Willis Towers Watson has carried out benefit reviews for many major companies, Steel noted, and the days of the pay packet being the only consideration for job-seekers are long gone. Candidates are often seeking work-life balance, and flexibility in benefits. One option for companies is allowing staff to buy additional annual leave if they request it.
Inclusivity and diversity also appeals to top candidates.
“Diverse teams create diverse solutions,” Steel said. “I think there is a diversity moment happening globally. I would encourage everyone to create this kind of environment, as it is a real attraction to younger talent.”
When businesses do hire good talent, they must reward and recognise them, Steel added. Data from Willis Towers Watson shows that firms in the region are paying a premium to secure the best digital talent, for example.
For companies that have been struggling to recruit, Steel had some good news that it is not too late for them to change.
“We are at a very exciting moment in Hong Kong, we are very resilient,” he said. “Organizations in Hong Kong have always been able to reinvent themselves and we will continue to be a very attractive destination for talent.”
Assessing the Impact of AI
Technology is changing the workplace but human input remains an essential part of the process
“We are the biggest HR company in the world – except we deploy robots, not people,” said Tommy Fan from Xiaoi Robot Technology. Fan, who is Regional Director and VP, International Business Group, added that 80% of the top 50 banks in China are Xiaoi’s customers, using its chatbots for customer service, among other things.
Does this mean that we have reached a tipping point with artificial intelligence (AI), where robots can take over from human workers? Perhaps not quite yet. Fan explained that although the technology is now very advanced, we will still need a balance between humans and machines.
Still, AI is making its presence felt and its likely prominence in the near future is widely accepted. Fan reported a survey that found 81% of executives believe AI will work alongside people.
So where is this technology already having an impact, and which other sectors are likely to be next?
“For AI, customer services is the easiest entry point,” Fan explained. “It can free up staff from the routine questions that customer service staff have to answer every day, and allow them to spend time on more advanced jobs.”
As computers become smarter, they can even detect emotions, for example if callers become angry – a key skill for customer service agents.
However, the growth of sophisticated chatbots has raised concerns that this will lead to unemployment. Fan pointed out customer services managers will be resistant to large job cuts as their influence will diminish. So efforts will need to be made to ensure that staff at all levels understand the changes that are being made.
“It’s not about sacking people,” he said. “It’s about providing them with new skills – if they are willing to learn.”
Decision makers need to plan carefully for such a major change. This can be difficult in large and complex organizations like banks, retailers and big corporates, Fan said, and the path towards implementing AI is not always smooth.
“Transformation is a long journey. It’s not the case that you purchase something and – bang, it happens.”
AI is already being used in recruitment, Fan explained, in screening applications, and also in training. In training programmes for customer services agents, for example, a chatbot can play the part of a complaining customer to train new recruits, greatly cutting down the time demand on HR managers.
But Fan does not think that people will be replaced by robots any time soon in recruitment.
“The human touch in terms of interview is very important,” he said. “When I do interviews I still need to see the candidates.”
And while robots and AI technology may make some roles obsolete, the changes will create opportunities in other areas. Fan expects that engineers, speech scientists, data scientists and professional services leaders will be among those in high demand in the years to come. High-tech collaboration with robots, rather than them taking over, will be the future of the workplace, Fan concluded.