Let’s ensure they are home for keeps — Richard Hartung
MAY 17 — A young pharmacist recently returned to Singapore after a highly satisfying stint studying and working in Australia. There, she said, doctors she worked with listened to her and valued her input.
When she returned to Singapore, however, she found herself in a workplace where doctors expected orders to be followed, new practices were delivered direct from the top and colleagues stayed until their manager left even if they had finished their work.
It is not just foreigners who may have difficulties integrating into local companies. Singaporeans returning from abroad, like the pharmacist, seem to have similar issues too.
Thousands of Singaporean students spend years studying abroad and gain leading-edge skills. At many universities in Western countries or Australia, they are taught to think critically and their grades often depend on how well they speak up in class.
Some of them then burnish their skills by working overseas for a couple years after graduation, often in a participatory workplace where their input is valued.
When they return to Singapore and join the workforce, however, they are often thrust into a vastly different environment where they are expected to follow directives from above with little comment.
PULLED BACK BY MANAGEMENT
While studies on returnees are few, some researchers have indeed found that returning Singaporeans do face difficulties.
The Central Policy Unit in Hong Kong, for example, conducted research on Singaporean returnees so it could gain insights into how to attract the territory’s own citizens back. In a report released in 2009, it found that Singaporeans who return experience “a work culture that remains unreceptive to returning migrants’ ideas about creativity; an organisational and governmental bureaucracy that is top-down; and a community that treats the returnees with suspicion”.
The result, as several young Singaporean returnees put it, is that while they start their careers full of passion, they are pulled back by management. “At some point,” one said, “most of us just give up and go with the flow”.
The situation has led some Singaporeans to decide that it is simply not worth coming back at all to a corporate environment that is fairly rigid and does not fully value their skills.
While many of the more than 192,000 Singaporeans living overseas are there for study or on short-term work assignments, a significant number have simply decided to stay abroad. For example, a Today report last December noted that about 150 Singaporeans head overseas each year to study medicine. About 20 per cent return to Singapore to practise, according to official figures between 2005 and 2009.
ENGAGE THEM DIFFERENTLY
To benefit fully from the education, enthusiasm and experience that returning Singaporeans have gained abroad — and, indeed, to get more of the Singaporeans living overseas to come back in the first place — companies need to engage them differently.
They can start by having management listen to employees, enabling staff to work creatively in teams, and giving staff more engaging work.
Collaborative networking tools, innovative office layouts and allowing staff to work remotely can be part of the mix.
Along with enabling more innovation and higher productivity, these changes may result in more locally-educated staff liking the environment better too.
Such changes are perhaps similar to what top companies have found they need to do to engage Gen Y workers.
As Intel HR director R. Anish told ZDNet some time ago, Gen Ys expect challenging work assignments, socially responsible workplaces, flexible work environments, freedom, collaboration and innovation. His company and others are structuring to meet these needs.
Yet, returnees interviewed in the Hong Kong study and anecdotes related by others suggest that both the public sector and local private companies in Singapore seem more likely to follow long-established practices.
While some local companies have started to change, the number is still small.
TOP-DOWN POWER STRUCTURE
One difficulty may be the entrenched top-down management structure in Singapore companies.
The Hofstede’s Power Distance Index, for example, shows Singapore’s score of 74 as being far higher than the 36 in Australia or 35 in the United Kingdom, with a higher score pointing to a far stronger top-down power structure here.
A key implication, as Kate Sweetman, director of research and curriculum at the Iclif Centre for Leadership and Governance Centre in Kuala Lumpur, wrote in the Harvard Business Review, is that the structure “stomps flat the multi-level relationships and open communication required for innovation”.
It is easy to say that returnees rather than companies need to change. Yet if companies do not change, the thousands of talented returning Singaporeans are more likely to leave or move to foreign companies — if they come back in the first place.
Moreover, as Sweetman also wrote, companies that fail to address issues of power structures “remain vulnerable to failure”.
Yes, it may take time to improve management practices and put new technology in place. To leverage returning Singaporeans fully, enabling both the company and the staff to achieve their full potential, faster change is essential.
* Richard Hartung is a consultant who has lived in Singapore since 1992.
* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insider.