BEEFING up human resource (HR) capabilities can seem a daunting task for firms already struggling to keep their heads above water.

But some simple tweaks can work wonders, according to experts at a seminar here.

Speakers also stressed that a robust HR strategy is becoming increasingly important for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) amid the tight labour market and ongoing economic restructuring.

While the challenges are large, small changes in processes can make work environments more pleasant and ultimately boost productivity, they said.

Companies can start by taking simple steps to deal with the manpower shortage, said Ms Ho Meow Choo, the general manager of training and consultancy provider Human Capital Singapore. These include minimising idle time by training staff to multitask and making small changes to workflow so fewer steps are required for each task.

"There are many opportunities for improvement - the devil is in the details," Ms Ho told an audience of 250 at the event held at the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry (SCCCI) on Monday.

Mr Alexis Saussinan, the South-east Asia head of performance and talent management at global HR management and consulting firm Aon Hewitt, said many SMEs lack the ability to articulate a "clear and differentiated employer brand" to staff and potential employees.

"You have to be able to communicate what differentiates your company from others, in a clear message that is understood by everyone." He added: "But this also needs to be more than just words - it has to be translated into every single company practice."

Mr James Wong, managing director of O.E. Manufacturing and a speaker at the seminar, said firms are now facing the challenge of "reducing the workforce without reducing output".

His company, which makes hydraulic cylinders, has standardised some of its products in order to facilitate automation and take advantage of economies of scale.

It has also shifted labour-intensive manufacturing to China, while keeping higher value-added processes like design here.

The firm is participating in enterprise agency Spring Singapore's SME Talent Programme, which aims to attract Institute of Technical Education and polytechnic students to SMEs via study grants and job opportunities.

"We have to design jobs that are attractive in order to retain (staff) and help them build a career," Mr Wong told The Straits Times on the sidelines of Monday's seminar.

Human resource issues like staff retention and attracting the right talent are at the top of bosses' minds given the tight labour market, said SCCCI vice-president Lau Tai San. "Many are changing their work processes and business models but it is also important to look into adopting an HR strategy," said Mr Lau, who is also the chairman of the SME Centre @ SCCCI