Empowering The Intergenerational Workforce

Feb 17, 2017 1 Min Read
What You Can Do With The Intergenerational Workforce


How companies tailor benefits and engagement for employees at various life stages

Organisations are increasingly contending with challenges as well as opportunities offered by an intergenerational workforce. As set out in Accenture’s Reinventing Work in Asean report, 55% of Asean’s working-age population will be between 20 and 39 years old by 2020. These ‘millennials’ are arguably different from prior generations, especially as they are digital natives.

At the same time, longer life expectancy has led nations to raise minimum retirement age – Malaysia raised it to 60 years old in 2013 and we are seeing more people work on contract or part-time post-retirement.

An inter-generational workforce is already a reality. Based on the Diversity in the Workplace 2015 survey of Malaysian listed companies by TalentCorp and PriceWaterhouseCoopers (PwC), the breakdown of employees were 33% in their 20s; 34% in their 30s; 20% in their 40s; 12% in their 50s and only 1% aged 60 years and above.

However, the risk of disconnect between leadership and workforce arises especially when the 1% who are 60 years old and above account for 49% of board members; 22% of chief executive officers (CEOs) and 13% of top management.

How then can organisations attract, retain and get the best out of the multi-generations of employees, leveraging on the diversity of talent to navigate an increasingly competitive business environment that is also VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous)? Our experience suggests Malaysian companies that do this well, practise the following:


1. Customer orientation to employees

Sir Richard Branson famously says that at Virgin Group, staff come first and customers second on the argument that an employee-centric approach is key to great customer experience and, ultimately, business success. We’re not endorsing this view but, safe to say, we would do better to treat our employees more like our customers.

Taking a customer-orientated approach to employees isn’t just about saying our employees are important. It involves a mindset change and a methodical approach of the following…

  • knowing that both customers and employees have choices on where to go, hence, articulating a brand or value proposition to attract and retain talent like we do our customers
  • engaging employees like customers to understand their needs
  • appreciating that different employees have different needs – just as customers are segmented – thus, different ‘product’ offerings are needed for a diverse workforce, especially one made up of multiple generations
  • building mutual trust for a successful long-term relationship

Google repeatedly topped Fortune’s Best Companies to Work For list. Many would focus on working conditions at the Googleplex, with its constant supply of food (a plus point Malaysians can relate to) and the very best office facilities and employee perks.

But that is only part of it. Google realised a key demand of top talent was having great bosses. Hence, they got their analytics team to research qualities of great managers, then not only recruit those with these characteristics but also developed a training program to teach managers these qualities and appraise their managers against these requirements.

Maybank clearly articulated an employee value proposition with the tagline Go Ahead, using it consistently to engage talents on campus and in career fairs, in addition to its signature Go Ahead Challenge – a business case study competition for young graduates.

Maybank’s focused approach has seen it rise in rankings and emerge as Malaysia’s Top Graduate Employer, based on surveys involving Malaysian youth.


2. Effective engagement from the top

We are seeing more Malaysian employers listening to their employees, in line with a more customer-orientated approach. Leading employers institutionalise annual employee engagement surveys as a barometer of organisational health and as a platform to solicit feedback to improve employee engagement efforts.

However, annual surveys and data analysis are not enough. What’s key is the tone from the top, especially in demonstrating commitment to engage directly and respond to employee needs.

Some CEOs have started engaging staff through “split-level” meetings, directly meeting younger employees multiple levels below them. One example is Datuk Khairussaleh Ramli, group managing director of RHB Bank. He believes in the importance of split-level meetings, especially with RHB’s Gen Y, who account for more than 45% of employees.

It was through these meetings that Khairussaleh heard, first-hand, the recurring demand for flexible work arrangements (FWA). Following this discovery, he personally tabled FWA – demonstrating commitment to respond to feedback.

Another CEO who pays attention to his people is Prakash Chandran, the president and CEO of Siemens Malaysia, who championed the “Pride@Siemens” programme as a result of two-way dialogues with employees.

Under their “work from home” pilot programme, employees were given the choice to work in their preferred setting one day a week, equipped with the technology to do their work, such as a laptop, remote access to shared folders, efficient connectivity and Internet access subsidies.

Upon bearing positive outcomes, the work from home policy was fully implemented in the organisation, benefitting employees of different generations. Together with other employee-centric initiatives, this helped the company’s attrition rate drop progressively from 14% in 2011 to 8% in 2013.

This might interest you: Cohesion In Diversity: 3 Key Principles Of Managing Differences

3. Embracing and catering for differences

Businesses are very good at grouping customers into different segments and creating different product offerings, accordingly. For example, with the emergence of metrosexuals, cosmetics companies have created skincare ranges specifically for these men. Similarly, car companies produce different types of cars for different customer segments.

In contrast, human resources (HR) professionals have historically applied similar HR policies to all employees – a seeming “one size fits all” approach in the name of consistency and internal equity.

In his book Transformative HR, Towers Watson’s global practice leader for talent management, Ravin Jesuthasan – coincidentally a Malaysian based in Chicago – calls for HR professionals to learn more from their marketing colleagues by segmenting talents based on their needs, just like in consumer segmentation.

Having a multi-generational workforce requires appreciation of the different needs of an employee. Companies such as Nestlé and CIMB have flexible benefits, recognising that staff would like to have choices on their wellness packages and insurance coverage as they go through different stages in life.

Typically, younger employees value higher take-home salary more than they do health benefits. Older employees, on the other hand, prioritise family health coverage. This is a clear example of why a cookie-cutter approach is not ideal for a multi-generational workforce.

Starbucks caters for differences even in terms of professional ambition. Many join Starbucks as a barista on a full-time basis with a pathway involving training and development, with opportunities to become a store manager.

In studying its talent needs for baristas, however, Starbucks identified a distinctively different talent segment, coined surfer dudes, who made very good baristas but were not interested in professional development or becoming store managers. This segment just wanted a flexible form of employment to earn some income while pursuing other interests. Hence the need to design different employment terms for this different talent segment.

Starbucks Malaysia also embraces differences in employee ability. The chain opened their first signing store in Bangsar Village, an outlet which employs only hearing-impaired staff. Catering for different needs helps enhance talent engagement and retention.


4. Work-life integration

When PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi was in KL, she met a group of Malaysian CEOs and shared how she wanted PepsiCo to be a company where employees could ‘bring their whole selves to work’.

She explained that companies tend to have employees adopt a different persona at work. What makes them a complete person – the communities they come from, their values and interests, tend to get parked outside the office entrance.

In enabling employees to bring their whole selves to work, PepsiCo ensured that the organisation’s business is consistent with an employee’s values and priorities. Individuals who care passionately about the environment would fully commit their talent to an organisation that commits to sustainability, like Sime Darby, with its brand promise “Delivering Sustainable Futures”. Similarly, an employee who prioritises health and wellness would appreciate an organisation that provides healthy food options, gym facilities and ergonomic work conditions.

In forging a long-term relationship with its employees over their life cycle, progressive employers are able to transition a talent from periods where they can commit to full-time jobs to periods where they wish to work part-time or take a career break.

For example, Chong Chye Neo’s rise to the top as IBM Malaysia’s managing director was facilitated by IBM policy, which allowed her to take two leaves of absence for family reasons.
Rather than trying to achieve work-life balance, which implies a neat separation between work time and personal time, some companies aspire for work-life integration, providing for a more symbiotic relationship between work and life.

5. Mutual trust and respect

Among the challenges of a multi-generational workforce is the risk of intergenerational miscommunication and misunderstanding. Successful employers overcome such risks by inculcating an environment of mutual trust and respect.

Rather than view mentoring as a one-way street with an elder mentoring the younger, organisations such as Kimberly-Clark and Credit Suisse have reverse mentoring where younger millennials – as digital natives – would mentor senior management in areas such as social media, e-commerce and digital marketing. This is part and parcel of engendering a sense that each generation has something to learn from the other.

Many employers shy from FWA for fear that employees will abuse it. “Trust is a two-way street. Trust begets trust,” asserts Datuk Sabariah Hassan, who is currently the deputy director-general of the Public Service Department.

When she introduced FWA to officers at the Women, Family and Community Development Ministry, she found that they were responsible in practising it and even responded positively with greater productivity.


In a nutshell

Our best employers globally and in Malaysia have woken to the reality of a multi-generational workforce. Such employers have taken progressive steps to move away from the mindset of treating all employees equally to one which embraces the inherent diversity of their workforce.

No rocket science involved here – effective employers learn to treat their employees the way they treat customers. Combining strong engagement, talent segmentation, work-life integration and trust produces a winning recipe to thrive in today’s ever competitive and complex world.

Let’s look at some case studies based on Malaysian companies:

Case Study 1: PwC Malaysia

With a workforce comprising close to 80% Gen Ys, the leadership team at PwC Malaysia takes a keen interest in listening to the voices of their younger employees.

Partners make time to engage with their teams through coffee chats, focus group sessions and real-time feedback with short debriefs called “Take 5”. The following strategies help them build a lasting connection across generations…

Customer orientation to employees: Understanding the millennials’ inclination for variety in their work, in-house programmes are introduced to provide young graduates with the option of working across-industry or competency groups. The Industry Xplorer programme (IX), encourages agility among new joiners who gain experience in more than one industry group before opting to specialise.

Effective engagement from the top: Taking the feedback from the younger generation that they want to feel empowered, the “Junior Consulting Board” was established, comprising young associates who are members of a shadow board. They are given the opportunity to work with senior partners to lead employee engagement initiatives, which include town halls and durian parties.

Embracing and catering for differences: In recognition that employees have different priorities as they go through their life journey, PwC Malaysia offered a reduced work-week option of working between 2.5 to 4 days a week. This was introduced more than a decade ago, with the initial intent of retaining high performing working mothers. This option is now made available for all staff, including male employees. A recent pulse survey indicated that 63% of staff who’ve opted for reduced work week would’ve left the firm if not for this option.

Work-Life Integration: People at PwC take getting fit seriously, including senior partners of the firm. The on-going health campaign, or #FitPwC, is designed to get people across all generations exercising more so that they can be healthier and more productive. Employees can take part in a variety of activities ranging from walking (KakiJalan), taking the stairs (Stair-a-thon), running, or taking a break to have a massage at work (#UrutPwC).

Mutual Trust and Respect: With the aim of creating a more flexible work culture, flex+ was launched in 2016 as an enhancement of the FWA in the firm. For the programme to succeed, there needs to be mutual trust where the firm offers flexibility at work, but at the same time, employees have the responsibility to ensure that work commitment and client deliverables are not compromised.

These various people initiatives have shown positive results in PwC Malaysia, with an increase of six per cent in the People Engagement Index in the last few years. The journey continues at PwC, with increased efforts to bridge the intergenerational gap within the firm.


Case Study 2: PKT Logistics

Datuk Michael Tio is a man on a mission, driven to transform PKT Logistics, a logistics SME that was founded by his father, into Malaysia’s first logistics multi-national corporation with a billion Ringgit revenue. His leadership certainly captures the elements of what it takes to run a multi-generational workforce. Here’s how PKT Logistics wins over the hearts of employee – using the very same strategies as above…

Customer orientation to employees: Recognising logistics as an ‘unsexy’ business, Tio works hard to brand PKT Logistics as the logistics employer of choice – investing time engaging students in universities to providing an office environment to rival Google. PKT’s “Smart Trucker” program aims to raise the status and profile of truck drivers by attracting fresh graduates with salaries above RM4,000 per month.

Effective engagement from the top: Tio could be mistaken for a Gen Y given how much he champions social media. PKT Logistics prides itself as a ‘Facebook company’ – while some employers still ban Facebook at the office, PKT Logistics has made Facebook, a compulsory communication tool at work, covering everything from applying for a job, maintenance reports, security guards reporting for duty, booking meeting rooms, gym usage, etc.

Embracing and catering for differences: An example of catering for different needs is PKT’s “Anak Belajar Ibu Bekerja” which provides employment opportunities for mothers who live in kampungs near its premises. Women are provided with option to work in four-hour shifts either in the morning or afternoon to match their children’s schooling hours.

Work-Life Integration: Health is a major priority for PKT Logistics, with access to state of the art gym facilities and annual health screenings. Incentives are given to those who consistently clock in more hours at the gym and winners of the biggest loser competition get an all-expense paid trip overseas. Every year, the senior management go on an overseas holiday as a team to building greater social interaction and team cohesion at work.

Mutual Trust and Respect: An example of trust is the ‘honour bars’ where employees are trusted to pay for whatever food and drink they consume. So far there has never been any shortfall in collections that are placed in unlocked boxes.

Tio stresses “CSR is not how you spend your profits but how responsible you are in making profits. Responsible to who? Your employees of course.”


Johan Mahmood Merican is deputy director-general at the Economic Planning Unit and Salika Suksuwan is human resources director of PwC Malaysia. Both are also TalentCorp Malaysia’s Diversity Advocates. If you would like to contact them, you could do so at editor@leaderonomics.com.


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Johan is formerly the CEO of TalentCorp He believes that a strong partnership through gender and ethnic diversity is best for Malaysia and thus, hope our employers will be progressive, particularly in embracing inclusiveness and flexible work arrangements.

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