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Labour shortage, ageing workforce, and D&I: Tackling workforce challenges in the built sector

Labour shortage, ageing workforce, and D&I: Tackling workforce challenges in the built sector

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Find out how Ramboll's APAC Head of HR, Yvonne Wong, is managing the built sector's workforce challenges through creative, industry-specific strategies.

Look around you - the buildings, structures and the infrastructure around us that provide the setting for our daily activities comprise the 'built sector' also known as the 'man-made environment', typically including the sectors of construction, real estate, security, and environmental services.

Denmark-based Ramboll is an engineering, architecture and consultancy company focused on the built sector, with a team of 16,500 across 35 markets, including Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong, India, Australia, and Myanmar. Leading HR for the APAC region is Yvonne Wong, Head of HR, APAC, Ramboll, our interviewee (pictured above), where the staff strength is in the range of 500.

Seeing as labour market recovery globally is still lagging, with a job gap of 22mn in 2022, which is projected to increase to 26mn (1.4%) in 2023, according to the Asia-Pacific Employment and Social Outlook 2022 report, Wong is keen to ensure the best talent is attracted, and retained, at Ramboll. 

In her experience, women in particular face difficulties when returning to the workforce after a career break. As such, in 2021, Ramboll launched 'Return to Work' in the UK, a programme offering returning professionals with prior industry experience a guided route back to the sector. Proving flexible opportunities, training, and support to ease their transition back into the workforce, the programme has seen great success so far.

With a target of 40% female representation across the organisation by 2025, commitment by the senior leadership team is essential to making this possible, as HRO's Aditi Sharma Kalra finds out in this interview with Yvonne Wong. Read on for the conversation:

Q Talent attraction and retention is an issue that is faced by every industry worldwide. Particularly in the built sector, where you have almost eight years of experience, including your tenure with Gensler, what are some challenges that are unique to the built sector?

Many HR challenges are universal across industries, though some are especially prominent in the built sector due to the nature of our industry.

Labour shortages is one such challenge. Factors such as an ageing workforce, declining interest in built sector-related roles, difficulties in attaining highly specialised skills, and competition from other industries contribute to exacerbating labour shortages in the built industry.

Another prominent challenge is diversity and inclusion. The built sector has traditionally been male-dominated due to the physical nature of its jobs. Attracting and retaining a diverse workforce and creating a more inclusive workplace that is suitable for a diverse workforce can be especially challenging.

HR professionals in the built sector need to develop creative strategies that are industry-specific to attract and retain talents. To do this, we must first listen to our employees, leaders, and the wider community. At Ramboll, we have created many listening channels such as our 'Employee Work Council', the annual 'Employee Engagement and Satisfaction Survey (ESES)', and a Yammer forum, to name a few. Through these channels, we can identify the needs of our employees which aids us in designing our HR programmes.

For instance, owing to two major surveys, the 'Flexible Work Arrangement Survey' and the 'Employee Experience Survey - COVID-19', we implemented our award-winning APAC 'Flexible Work Arrangement Programme' (that won bronze at the Workplace of the Year 2022 Award by Engage Rocket), which allows our employees a combination of a few flexible work arrangements such as combining work-from-home with flexible hours, all the way to full remote work, and the option to make changes when their needs change.

To support them with this flexibility, we also introduced telemedicine and flexible benefits that allow them to upgrade their home offices. These have proven to successfully attract and retain talent in our sector.

Q Having been an HR practitioner in other industries (professional services, tech, shipping, etc.), what are some learnings or best practices that you have brought over to Ramboll?

I am very thankful to all my managers and mentors. The regional roles and other career opportunities that I have been given have shaped me into who I am today.

Having exposure to different industries makes me realise that ultimately, regardless of industry, employees want the same things – to be treated fairly as a valuable member of the organisation with equal opportunities, the right recognition, and good support from their leaders.

Ramboll, being a foundation-owned company with Nordic heritage exemplifies these values. At Ramboll, our core strength is our people, and our history is rooted in a clear vision of how a responsible company should act and behave. My role is to design and create a workplace that speaks to our values so that our employees feel empowered, inclusive, and trusted to deliver both meaningful and inspiring work.

Q In your view, what would a balanced gender representation in the built workforce look like? What policies have you introduced to achieve such a vision and target? How is your progress so far?

In my view, balanced gender representation in the built workforce would mean that everyone is equally represented and given fair access in terms of employment opportunities, career advancement, equal pay for equal work, and leadership roles.

On this front, Ramboll has an ambitious target of achieving 40% female representation across the organisation by 2025. In APAC, we are already at 46%. Our leaders are fully committed and are in close partnership with the HR team to achieve this target. Together, we have implemented programmes to support and develop future female leaders such as through the 'APAC Mentorship Programme', the 'Global Talent Review' process, and our prestigious in-house leadership programme – the 'Global Horizon' programme.

Our Flexible Work Arrangement Programme, which allows employees a combination of a few flexible work arrangements, along with the option to make changes to meet different functions, teams, and diverse personal needs, has also helped us attract and retain more talent, including women, in our workforce.

Therefore, in my opinion, we are making good progress, but are also mindful that DEI is a journey, and that we should not be too focused on the destination but rather aim to make continuous improvements. There is never enough done when it comes to DEI.

Q In your opinion, how important is it to inspire a cultural change within the organisation in order to achieve greater DEI? What are some ways that HR practitioners can enable this change?

Achieving greater DEI requires systemic changes in policies, practices, and attitudes. This starts with cultural change within an organisation. Culture shapes the values and beliefs of an organisation, which in turn influences the behaviours, attitudes, and decisions of its employees.

Embracing equality, diversity, and inclusion as core values will help organisations create an environment that values and respects people from diverse backgrounds. We require proactive leadership where leaders are the catalyst of change. I’ve noticed HR practitioners being the drivers of change and working alongside the leadership in this DEI journey.

At Ramboll we support our leaders by providing them with the knowledge and tools that enable them to lead the DEI journey. On the 'preparing' end, we have DEI-focused leadership development programmes such as the APAC Mentorship Programme, 'APAC People & Culture Forum', DEI eLearning, and 'Ramboll Group Leadership Programme'; while on the 'providing' end, we conduct periodic DEI activities via our APAC Care Ambassador, Employee Network Group (ENG), and APAC Employee Work Council (EWC).

Q In your opinion, what are some of the workforce challenges that are unique to the APAC region, and some ways that you are addressing them?

The Asia Pacific (APAC) region, consisting of diverse countries, faces unique workforce challenges due to its varied economic, social, and cultural landscape.

Some workforce challenges that are unique to the APAC region are talent shortages that are driven by an ageing population and low birth rate, difficulty in talent mobility between countries due to work authorisation restrictions, diverse workforce, complex labour regulations and compliance, and a lack of work-life balance.

At the same time, we can also turn these challenges into opportunities for our business. A diverse workforce, for instance, can facilitate creative solutions by allowing for diversity of thought.

Organisations can consider hiring a diverse workforce, creating opportunities for knowledge transfer, improving work-life-balance by offering job sharing, flexible work, and driving locally relevant DEI strategies in APAC.

Q What more do you think the needs to be done by the industry as a whole to address the above challenges?

Overall, the built sector presents a complex and diverse set of workforce challenges that require holistic approaches and tailored solutions to ensure sustainable workforce development and economic growth. We should continue to invest and upskill our workforce in digitalisation as well as technology such as machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI), metaverse, virtual reality (VR), etc.

We should also be receptive and agile in adopting and promoting the future way of work to make the built sector more attractive to the workforce and needless to say, we can always make a greater effort with our green efforts to create a more sustainable future.

Q Finally, and on the personal front, how did you get into this sector, and what do you love about it? What, in your experience, makes your every Monday morning fulfilling?

I started my first job in the construction industry 20 years ago and thereafter joined other industries but eventually, returned to the built sector. Here, I am surrounded by problem solvers, creators, and thinkers who believe that there is a solution to every problem and that their work can contribute towards a more sustainable future. Being with Ramboll, where sustainability is at our core, also empowers us in HR to close the gap and contribute towards a more sustainable future. This makes me feel like I am a heroine, who has a part to play in saving Mother Earth.

Another point I admire about Ramboll is that there is a common desire to work on complex and impactful projects regardless of our colleagues’ disciplines. Ramboll’s respected reputation and state-of-the-art capabilities enable us to work on some of the region’s most recognisable projects, such as Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park and the Kampung Admiralty, to just name a few. The hands-on learning experiences and collaboration with our teams globally through the delivery of these projects are truly appreciated as a key part of professional development.

Lastly, what makes my Monday mornings fulfilling is when I see our employees entering the office with bright smiles on their faces – our employees are happy.


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Photo / Provided (featuring the interviewee)

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