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Q&A: Marcus Heng, CHRO, Wildlife Reserves Singapore (WRS)

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Taking a walk on the wild side

Marcus Heng, CHRO of Wildlife Reserves Singapore (WRS), tells Aditi Sharma Kalra about the roll-out and achievements of a three-year plan which has helped curate meaningful and memorable experiences for employees.

Marcus Heng joined Wildlife Reserves Singapore, which owns and manages the world-leading Jurong Bird Park, Night Safari, River Safari, and Singapore Zoo, at a most exciting time. The organisation had just launched a refreshed vision, mission and values statement, in parallel with driving the rejuvenation of Mandai Precinct into an integrated nature and wildlife destination.

Tasked with the agenda of inculcating these refreshed ideals, Heng spent the first 100 days getting to know the organisation, restructuring the HR function, understanding the competency gaps, and networking with the key stakeholders, which in WRS’ case involved not just the HODs, but also two strong unions. Today, WRS has a 1,200 employee-strong workforce (supported by a bench of about 800 part-timers), and works passionately and tirelessly to inspire people to value and conserve biodiversity.

In this interview, Heng talks about the roll-out and achievements of the three-year plan, which includes the journey into digitalisation, a career path for zookeepers, flexible work arrangements for front-facing staff, and more.

Q WRS is managing four zoological parks, as well as the corporate office space – what is the culture and how do you maintain it uniformly throughout your properties?

The common thread here is that we’re a strong community of people sharing the same passion to protect wildlife. The culture is family-oriented, and defined by collaboration, teamwork, and inclusiveness. Sharing a common purpose and passion brings people together.

In providing staff meals, teams dine in a family-oriented way. Major festivals (usually riding on the town halls) are celebrated together, so the feeling of togetherness is evident across the parks, and we are looking forward to the Jurong Bird Park team moving over to Mandai in 2022.

Our approach and communication towards this culture has always been very consistent. The philosophy is strongly anchored by the leadership. The management truly walks the talk, for example, every Sunday, one member of the senior management team is on duty in one of the parks, as well as on Friday nights at the Night Safari. In this way, they not only appreciate what employees are doing, but at the same time, understand the challenges they’re facing in delivering the guest experience. Additionally, on May Day last year, we instituted a Management Action Day, where the management team was assigned to help out on the front line.

 

Q You’ve progressed quite a bit since you launched the refreshed vision and mission. How have employees adapted to this new way of life?

Our vision is to protect the wildlife and we do that in a lot of ways. For example, we used to sell bottled water, but we have since stopped and put water dispensers around the park. Yes, that impacted our revenue, but that says something about holding true to our organisational beliefs.

Taking another example, in the first year of the roll-out, we organised a series of team-building programmes to help everyone align to the new values. For an organisation with 60% of operational staff, can you imagine the logistics to get everyone out for team-building?

Evidently, when the organisation walks the talk, it makes an impact on the employees as well. We have also aligned the new values to the performance appraisal, which allows us to measure the values that are being exhibited and the areas in which they need to improve. All such actions allow us to embed the values in everything that we do.

We’ve been able to measure the impact through our biannual employee engagement surveys, which show our employees are strongly aligned to the new mission, vision and values. Also, among our several conservation projects, we find staff themselves volunteering to help out. From the participation rate of such projects, it is clear they have subscribed to the organisational philosophy.

Q What do the surveys show are some of the things that employees love, and areas where you can improve?

The employees love the work conditions and environment. It’s truly an open office like no other. People are friendly, collaborative, and treat everyone with respect. So teamwork emerged as one of our strongest themes. Another area that really stood out is our brand. As a world-leading zoological institution, employees feel proud associating with us.

Engagement levels are high and people say they want to stay in the organisation. These are some of our strongest points according to this year’s survey, where we got a 92% response rate from our team of about 1,200 full-timers.

Things that we could do better are the processes. The Bird Park, Zoo, Night Safari, and River Safari have been around for 49 years, 47 years, 26 years, and six years respectively. It’s time for us as an organisation to look at how technology can enhance and streamline our processes, while helping us strike a balance between governance and efficiency. So, we have embarked on an IT master plan to digitalise our journey to transformation.

E-learning is very impactful for us because, with 60% of our workforce made up of operational staff, sometimes it’s impossible to get them away for even two days.

Q Talk us through your journey towards digitalisation so far.

In November 2018, we commenced our five-year plan capturing the technology path we want to go down on. With new parks, attractions and developments coming up, we wanted to look at the processes that could use technology to make things more efficient.

Externally, that means we are looking at leveraging technology to enhance the guest experience. Internally, our objective is for employees to experience digitalisation for themselves before they can go and talk about it.

We’ve brought a new HR integrated system on board, and have incorporated the talent management and succession management modules for a start. We have also gone electronic for appraisals and learning. E-learning is very impactful for us because, with 60% of our workforce made up of operational staff, sometimes it’s impossible to get them away for even two days. With this bite-size-learning, they can do it anytime.

We have also rolled out on-the-job training (OJT) and our Zookeeper Competency Framework – all online. All the way from being trained, coached, assessed and passing the module, none of it is done on paper. We have also digitised the leave application. So be it applying for leave or doing your claims, employees only need to use the app, effective early 2020.

Another thing we’ve done is started using Yammer as a platform to communicate with staff. No longer do they need to use emails while they are busy preparing coffee for guests. As part of our outreach, we post company news, form committees based on interest groups, and more.

As for the management, they no longer have to approach HR to access employee information in their department. Everything is available digitally – right from staff profiles, to their performances, goals, and individual development plans (IDP).

Q How has using technology made an impact on productivity?

Once everything goes online, we don’t need to pass papers around anymore, looking for supervisors to sign things. We’ve already saved so much time and gained convenience!

For employees, on the appraisal and career development front, everything is accessible right from IDPs to competency planning. Zookeepers can know exactly what their competency level is and what they need to learn in order to progress to the next level of competency, for example.

For the HR team, it means we are no longer spending time chasing and processing forms. We’ve designed the system not on the basis of current processes, but on the basis of the most efficient way of doing things. This allows us to take away things that add no value to processes.

Put all of this together and so much time has been freed up for people to do more value-added work. We have measurements in place to track progress digitally, such as the completion rates for the appraisal forms, which were hard to track while we were still chasing paper forms.

Q You believe very much in self-directed learning. Tell us how the Zookeeper Development Programme adds to that strategy.

This programme is unique because there is no public institution in Singapore that prepares people for the profession of zookeeper. We train employees from scratch. We built this programme in-house in 2018, when we first got the management and curators from the zoology side to identify the core competencies that are needed for each level, starting from junior zookeeper to zookeeper to senior zookeeper. There was a lot of involvement from the line as well because they know well the kind of competencies that are needed.

We went on to identify 15 core competencies, about 40 sub-competencies, and about 400 skill sets that are needed for career progression over four to five years, thus giving our employees complete clarity over their career. In parallel, we also came up with about 1,800 tasks in the Zookeeper OJT Blueprint.

It is indeed a resource-intensive project, but ultimately it’s for the greater good of employees.

Q Did you face any challenges in implementing this unique framework?

One of the challenges when you implement something like this is to ensure enough communication goes out and all questions are responded to. For example, people asked if they needed to cross all the core competencies before they could be promoted, or what happens if someone was quite senior in age, but not tech-savvy. These were some of the key union and management concerns we addressed. So the overarching goal was to give employees the assurance that this programme was for their development.

The other challenge was in ensuring our coaches and assessors were ready. We needed to equip them with the skill sets to coach and train. Some already had the skill sets, but were not confident enough to coach, so we worked side-by-side with them. It is indeed a resource-intensive project, but ultimately it’s for the greater good of employees.

Q Let’s talk about the flexible working arrangements (FWAs) – how did you implement those in such a roster-based industry?

We are frontrunners in implementing FWAs in the tourism, attractions and hospitality industry. In 2018, we looked at our current and future workforce, and recognised that one of the things they really value is work-life.

Now, the typical view is that work-life balance is not really possible in this industry where we’re typically open 365 days a year and almost 24 hours a day (taking the Night Safari into account). But it’s up to us to challenge the norm. So we decided to explore the programmes available, and then customise those to suit our context.

Our next challenge was the fear that only a few people would benefit from this – the corporate staff yes, but the staff on the operations side might feel a bit shortchanged. So our aim was to ensure that our programme must benefit as large a population as possible.

We then went out and did an intensive stakeholder engagement campaign – lots of focus groups and any opportunities to understand our options.

We then launched telecommuting, flexible working hours, and staggered work hours. We also came up with the Blue Skies policy – wherein we encourage employees to clock in 15 minutes extra from Monday-Thursday, and leave an hour earlier every Friday, when the sun is still shining and the sky is blue! It became so popular because policies like these make the weekend seem longer and bring happiness to the workforce. We first launched it on a trial basis for three months, and it has now been a year since it has been implemented.

Not forgetting the operations staff, we started looking at a five-day workweek roster, instead of the five-and-a-half-day workweek. We worked with the line managers to adjust the rosters and achieve optimal outcomes. We also have the benefit of leaning on our flexi-workforce of part-timers to support us for such programmes.

However, while we were able to implement FWAs for four sections of the front-facing operations staff, we still haven’t found a way to make it work for the F&B staff. What we have done, though, is communicated this well enough and addressed the reason for this with the staff and unions, with F&B being such a manpower-intensive industry and Singapore facing a nationwide shortfall. At the same time, we will continue looking at options to make this possible, especially when starting to leverage on more technology.

Today, our survey shows the satisfaction rate with the FWAs at 4.8 on a scale of five being the best.


Vital Stats: Having joined Wildlife Reserves Singapore (WRS) in 2016 as CHRO, Marcus Heng comes with a strong foundation in leading HR operations both in the areas of HR management and development. Having previously worked with leading organisations such as LTA, SATS, and Sentosa Development Corporation, he is organisationally experienced and adaptable to various work environments.


Art Direction: Mohd Ashraf
Photography: Lee Guang Shun (Studio Three Sixteen Pte Ltd) – www.studiothreesixteen.com


This interview has been published exclusively in Human Resources Online magazine.
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