Young and Old Make Vital Work
At Vital, the Singapore Public Sector’s outsourcing centre, it is not unusual to find line-dancers, origami enthusiasts and handicraft-makers during lunch hour. A small group would gather once a week to pursue common hobbies and activities outside of work at a common workspace. On occasion, this would culminate into a staff performance. What is more valuable and uniquely Vital, is its abundant mixture of participants from four generations of staff -- traditionalists, baby boomers, Generation X and Generation Y.
Ms Chim Geok Ping, 31, is Deputy Head of Finance Services at Vital, which handles vendor payment and management for 40 over public agencies, and supervisor to 131 subordinates of different age groups. With a 30 years’ age gap, her youngest officer is 19 years old and the oldest, 67 years old, and Geok Ping is ‘sandwiched’ on middle-ground. Now, one may think that this combination could make for some pretty interesting conflicts in the workplace but these members of Vital or ‘Vitalites’ get along just fine.
When Geok Ping first joined Vital three years ago, she was fortunate to have found a mentor in whom she addresses endearingly as “mother”. Mrs Soh Fong Chun, 62, retired and re-employed by Vital taught Geok Ping the ropes and imparted subject expert knowledge to her. Geok Ping attributed her career progression and work passion to her “mother”, whom she now coaches as her subordinate. Fong Chun is heartened with Geok Ping’s fast-track progression over the years. Fong Chun joins the rank of over 22 other retired and re-employed officers in Vital, including the oldest ones aged 67. She was put on re-employment after accepting an invitation by Vital to continue her services as payroll supervisor to three other junior staff. She said she could not turn down an appreciative boss who had asked her to be re-employed just a month ago, after she turned 62 and was due for retirement from the public service. She said, “The younger generation is driven, creative and focused on what they want to achieve. There is also mutual respect of different experiences and new ideas.” Work aside, the seniors would also share tips on making handicraft such as turning spoilt umbrella cloth into a tote bag. Geok Ping said, “Older colleagues are willing to share their experiences, more nurturing, patient and encouraging.” Geok Ping added, “We are a very close-knitted team. We buy lunch and look out for each other. This year, I spent 14 hours to make 50 meat dumplings to share with my colleagues. As a supervisor, I’m age-blind. What matters to me is having a can-do attitude at work.”
Year-end, Geok Ping is planning an overseas holiday with another 61-year-old colleague, Ms Jeannie Tan, who is a pensioner, retired from Vital last year at 60 after 36 years in the public service. Jeannie had spent most of her years with the HR and Finance departments of various other public sector agencies before spending four years in Vital and then retiring at 60 years old. She chose to return to the workforce and back to Vital on re-employment at 61 on renewable contract, because of the strong ties she had built over the past six years with her team. Jeannie continues to be a team supervisor with the same pay as before. Commenting on the most common ‘flaw’ in younger colleagues, she said,
would be “reminders to be meticulous over even accounting for one or two cents, and diligently reading up on HR circulars and standing orders,” which Jeannie had observed younger workers tend to take short cuts.
According to the 2004 Society of Human Resource Generational Survey Report, one of five HR professionals report that they frequently hear employees state the co-workers of different generations do not respect them. The Y’ers and X’ers for themost part are impatient lot – impatient with work turnaround and career progression. That is not necessarily a bad trait, said Geok Ping. In fact, it is advantageous to work in a multi-generational workforce. She shared that “our younger folks will challenge the team and bring fresh ideas and perspectives at a much quicker pace. They are more IT-savvy and can keep up with technology. They have better ways of stretching the excel spreadsheets and optimizing IT software, while the older ones will provide useful insights to avoid mistakes before they are made and consequences of doing things.” For example, the seniors are used to set methods of working such as printing and filing hard copies, but they are amenable to being taught the greener ways of archiving soft copies and saving paper.
Ms Yeo Ling Ling, 19, who just joined Vital just three months ago after graduating with a diploma in banking and finance, was apprehensive about the likelihood of “generation gap”, “slow pace” issues cropping up in a multi-generational workplace. She now settles down into a “homely and warm setting”, where she said her colleagues with “diverse backgrounds and experiences are generous in sharing experience and patient with newbies like me” Ling Ling was interning at DBS Vickers before she joined Vital. Lunch conversation topics amongst her peers usually centred around lifestyle and shopping, but she finds that with seniors in the workplace, there are more enriched conversations from sharing trivias like “eating too much gingko nuts is bad for health” and tips on “what food to avoid during pregnancy”.
Geok Ping added that, “Vital’s cross-generational environment comes with its generational differences; as the workforce is getting younger, more diverse, and requiring different leadership, it is crucial to hone communication and people skills at the workplace in order to manage different expectations.” When conducting job interviews, there is a conscious lookout for replies to questions asked to a candidate, if he or she had worked with older folks. In terms of age profile, 34.5% of the staff strength at Vital is 19 – 30 years, 22.6% of the staff strength at Vital is 31-40 years and below, 16.7% are 41-50 years of age and 26.2% are 51-69 years of age. Overall, about 57.1% of the staff are 40 years and below. Together, the Vital departments serve a gamut of shared services by 95 public agencies (over 81,000 public servants) from 18 agencies in 2006, with transaction volumes exceeding 1,000,000 per annum. Vital has seen a renewal of staff since its inception in July 2006. Today, it has about 50% of its pioneering staff who were absorbed from different Ministries to set up Vital. Increasing profiles are coming from graduates and diploma holders from 16% (63) to 18% (80) and from 8% (31) to 23% (102) respectively. Presently, there are 22 employees at Vital who are on the re-employment scheme. Last year, nine out of 12 eligible retired officers had opted to be re-employed by Vital. The reasons cited were largely the good working relations they have had, familiarity and financial need. Overall Customer Satisfaction Index earned by Vital is 63.8%. In the Vital Productivity Challenge which just concluded, different departments competed in customer responsiveness. Finance Services which has the youngest and oldest officers under its fold, clinched 95.8% in resolving customers enquiries within three days.
To keep up with the different energy levels, Vital injects different types of team-based activities and projects. Vital’s Chief Executive (CE), Mr Clarence Ti, 39, said, “Workplace diversity can work for staff harmony and at the same time drive productivity and innovation. It’s up to the boss to lead and bring out the best of all generations.” The CE conducts regular fireside chats and holds crucial conversations using online platforms which would reach out to younger officers.He also writes a weekly CE blog and while holding monthly face-to-face CE dialogue sessions to cater to the senior staff.Before implementation of company initiatives, inputs will be collected from each generation in order to ensure mass appeal and buy-in at all levels. Vital’s staff welfare offerings also include a variety and good mix of benefits, from futsal, dragon-boating, kickboxing to line-dancing, baking and health screening, which will allow the employees to choose what works for them.
Clarence added that, “With each emerging generation comes a new attitude, work ethic, life experience and set of goals. For the employer, there is continuity of knowledge which comes with corporate memory from the senior and more experienced staff. As part of business continuity and renewal, it would be wise to groom the next generation of leaders so that company remains progressive and will not skip a beat.” How one generation loves, the other generation learns. But one thing is common -- the motivation to continuously improve knowledge and skills, whatever the age cohort. “Each staff will bring something different to the table and contribute in a different way. If the workplace is too homogeneous in profile, experience, age and set skills, you will miss out on the valuable knowledge and perspective that each generation contributes,” said the CE.
Vital, Ministry of Finance
2 July 2010