Singapore, for all its advances, still lags behind in a number of important trends impacting workplaces and jobs around the world, even as productivity growth continues to falter.
This was among the key themes to emerge from an inaugural round-table discussion about the future of work.
Panellists at the event, which was organised by The Straits Times, said Singapore companies can do better in areas such as training and human resource management, and the use of new disruptive technologies.
However, they also noted encouraging signs, such as the strong focus on educating people to take on jobs in up-and-coming industries and the vibrant entrepreneurship scene.
The panel discussed a wide range of issues likely to impact workplaces of the future over the course of an hour-long discussion moderated by Straits Times business editor Lee Su Shyan.
Automation, technology and jobs
Technology has resulted in tremendous changes across various industries, and companies have been forced to adapt to new business models, panellists noted.
This will have a profound impact on the workplace and types of jobs most in demand in the long term.
Singapore Management University president Arnoud De Meyer noted that not only are jobs changing, they are also evolving more rapidly.
Technological disruptions have traditionally affected lower-skilled jobs, but medium-skilled jobs are also increasingly impacted, he added.
"The percentage of lower-skilled jobs around the world has actually remained more or less the same... It is jobs which require medium skills, and are relatively repetitive, that are being hit."
These include jobs such as accountants and stock analysts.
The jobs that will survive this shake-up are roles which involve caring for people, such as physical therapists and clergy, said Prof De Meyer. "These jobs involve not just physical care, but also taking mental care of people... This is very difficult to automate."
Freelancing and large organisations
The traditional notion of a secure job in a large organisation is losing relevance, panellists said.
Instead, people are increasingly working independently, only joining forces when they have a particular task to complete.
Mrs Ayesha Khanna, co-founder and chief executive of The Keys Academy, said technology has allowed for the emergence of "networks of free agents that come together and dynamically form teams to work on projects".
Prof De Meyer noted that workplaces structured as large companies are a relatively recent phenomenon which arose only about 150 years ago.
"There were very good reasons why we created these large organisations, perhaps to have better coordination and integration... but today, we can do that over the Internet. We perhaps don't necessarily always need large organisations," he said.
DBS chief executive Piyush Gupta agreed that the Internet makes training and organising a workforce possible without the need for a large organisation.
However, even as people increasingly value individualism and the ability to work independently, having an "anchor" is still essential, he noted.
Even if people are operating as free agents, they should still have a common sense of purpose.
"The human mind likes to anchor around certain constancies... It is more important today than ever before that companies have a culture with a defined sense of purpose."
Role of leaders, human resource managers, teachers
Ms Peta Steele, the ASEAN leader of IBM Smarter Workforce, said companies have become more practised at tailoring their products to customers, but are still not as good at catering to the individual needs of employees.
"Each of us has different motivations around what drives us to work and what our preferences are, and we should be able to personalise that," she said.
Data analytics is a rapidly growing field in human resource work, Ms Steele added. "For instance, data can tell you a lot about how engaged your employees are."
Bosses and teachers also have to calibrate their approach to a new generation of employees and students, panellists said,
"You cannot run a command and control hierarchy," said Mr Gupta.
"There is no premium on information any more; middle management and bosses cannot simply tell employees to do things."
Instead, staff should be given flexibility, he noted. "If you can do that and marry it with giving employees a strong sense of purpose, you can get a very good mix."
Singapore lags behind, but is catching up
Singapore companies are often held back by fear of failure and risk aversion, said Mr Gupta. "In the United States, you see how efficiently people use new technology... we are just not as flexible."
For instance, he noted, even government departments in Singapore do not seem to share data.
"Now having said that, as with everything in Singapore, once we get our minds around it, we have the potential to do a lot better," he said. He pointed to encouraging signs, such as the blossoming start-up ecosystem.
The human resource profession, which should be driving the changes within organisations, has been slow to pick up on best practices and new technologies, said Ms Steele. This might be because staffing decisions for many multinationals here are traditionally made by overseas headquarters.
When it comes to education, however, Singapore is leading the pack, Prof De Meyer said.
He said: "Creating the mindset that there are alternatives (to getting a degree) and equally good ways to be successful, and... providing for these alternative pathways...
"That is a very good initiative."
This article was first published on July 11, 2015.
Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.