Consumers need to change habits too

MENTION "productivity" and most think of a level of ruthless efficiency that stems from spending money on technology and employee training, but there is a less technocratic angle as well.

Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam added that extra ingredient in his Budget speech, pointing to the relatively amorphous concept of social norms.

Instead of focusing only on "dollars and cents", transforming the economy also means "changing our social norms", he said, highlighting three broad areas that could be improved.

One is that companies should develop a workplace culture where the views and contributions of employees are valued.

Society as a whole should also nurture a culture of job mastery - "we have to take pride in developing expertise and flair in every vocation, seeking not just competence but excellence".

"Doing the job well is what counts, not long hours on the job," said Mr Tharman.

Finally, consumers should change their habits to feel more at ease with self-service technologies; quality service, in other words, need not mean being constantly waited on.

Unlike investing in new technology or seeking new sources of revenue, such changes are not simply a matter of implementing new techniques and ironing out kinks.

In comparison with other developed economies around the world, it does seem like Singapore has some way to go.

In London, for instance, supermarket shoppers rarely encounter a cashier. Most checkout counters are automated and customers scan and bag their own groceries. Japan is renowned for its high- tech retail and dining concepts.

Meanwhile, countries such as Germany and Switzerland have retained their competitive edge with the help of well-honed apprenticeship programmes that turn out master tradesmen and certified professionals in different areas.

Not just cogs in a machine

NATIONAL University of Singapore sociologist Paulin Straughan said a vital element of becoming more efficient is "being able to see ourselves as part of a larger process".

"We often separate the worker from his skills because of this idea that labour is dispensable," said Dr Straughan. "When you have engaged employees who are active stakeholders, it becomes more than a job to them."

A 2012 Gallup poll of about 600 Singapore workers found the ratio of "disengaged workers" - 76 per cent - to be one of the highest in the world. Singapore fared worse than countries such as the United States (52 per cent) and Britain (57 per cent).

Similarly, the ratio of "engaged workers" here - 9 per cent - paled in comparison with the global average of 13 per cent.

Gallup's Singapore and South-east Asia manager, Mr Leong Chee Tung, wrote in The Business Times in January that research has shown employees are most productive when they can achieve "autonomy, mastery and purpose" in their work. Real cultural change happens when a company's top leaders clearly define the values and benefits of engaging with employees, he noted.

"This can only happen when leaders and managers understand deeply that any productivity or innovation returns they will gain from their investments will come from their employees."

A survey by Randstad released last week showed that 20 per cent of Singapore companies polled intend to hire more people on flexible working arrangements over the next five years, compared with 35 per cent in Australia and 39 per cent in New Zealand.

It showed that concerns about employee productivity are the biggest barrier to introducing flexible working arrangements.

Mr Michael Smith, country director of Randstad Singapore, said many employers still believe in Singapore's traditional business culture, "where job commitment is demonstrated through long hours and a culture of presenteeism - the practice of being present at one's place of work for more hours than is required".

"Business leaders need to be aware that presenteeism due to a lack of flexibility might be a bigger drain on productivity, through poor employee engagement and collaboration," he added.

Changing way of thinking

MS LIM Zhiyi, a Singaporean who spent three years studying in Tokyo, said automation and self-service in the retail and food and beverage industries are more common there, especially in lower- end establishments.

"In Tokyo, it's widely acknowledged that service labour is expensive - on a par with the wages of white-collar executive positions," said Ms Lim, 26, a consultant at a public relations agency.

Dr Straughan said consumers should not see themselves as merely purchasers of a product or service. "As consumers, we also have to understand and appreciate why changes like more automation in restaurants and supermarkets are necessary, and see the whole picture."

Consumers are "hugely adaptable" and preferences have evolved alongside technological advancements in sectors like retail and food and beverage, said Mr Aaron Boey, a member of the National Productivity and Continuing Education Council.

Mr Boey, who is also the former executive vice-president and president of commercial operations for Asia-Pacific at Levi Strauss and Co, said retailers need to understand their target customers better in order to take advantage of new retailing concepts and technologies that can help boost productivity.

Some United States department stores, for instance, are divided into "selling floors" and "non-selling floors". Products that customers usually need more help with are placed on the "selling floors", while shoppers largely serve themselves on "non-selling floors".

Retailers - including big names like Apple - are also increasingly making use of automated kiosks.

"We often think that automated retail is for low-priced, disposable items, but these machines sell a wide range of products across price ranges," said Mr Boey. "The consumer doesn't come away saying that quality of service has declined simply because the in-store experience has changed - in many cases, it's enhanced," he added.

Mr Jeremy Lim, head of Asia-Pacific health and life sciences at Oliver Wyman, noted that social norms surrounding banking have evolved dramatically, with the advent of Internet banking and ATMs before that. In the past, visits to the bank often involved long queues at branches.

"People were gently nudged forward, and I think that the same thing is going to happen as we shape consumer attitudes over time," he said.

While consumers will eventually have to learn to feel more at ease with self-service technologies, "this does not mean replacing service staff", who will have to learn how to serve customers in different ways and "redefine their whole brand of service", said Mr Boey.