Agility is key to retaining Singapore’s tech talent

To continue attracting the top regional tech talent, Singaporean companies need to go beyond free dress codes and on-site baristas. Firms must revisit the relationship between employees and the workplace.

By Bridget Shao, Head of Recruitment Southeast Asia, ThoughtWorks

Having grown up as digital natives, millennials make ideal candidates for the highly-skilled, technology-driven jobs that are powering Singapore’s Smart Nation vision – whether it’s in deep-tech such as data analytics and software development, or more human-centric professions like product design and digital marketing.

But Singapore faces stiff competition in securing digital talent, both from regional neighbours and from established global tech hubs like Silicon Valley and Shenzhen. A recent Randstand survey showed that more than 40% of our millennials plan to leave their current roles to pursue greater career growth.

In order to stay competitive and continue to attract top regional talent, many Singaporean companies are adopting popular workplace practices, including open offices, free dress codes, and employing in-house baristas, sommeliers and masseurs.

However, while these practices have shown to be effective, they will not be sufficient in the long-term to retain the top tech talent. As more companies pick them up and these become the new normal, Singaporean firms will need to come up with novel and innovative ways to attract tech talent.

Agile workplaces could be the answer

Singapore’s employers could instead explore the methodologies employed by software development companies to stand out to prospective employees. Of particular note is the practice of “agile” workplaces. Initially popularised by software developers to better respond to the rapidly changing demands of programming. The technology sector quickly caught on and agile workplaces sprang up across the tech employment landscape, with the aim of empowering more motivated, productive and collaborative individuals, as well as driving more efficient and effective ways of working.

While allowing employees to choose where, when and how they want to work is a key feature of agile working, there are no prescriptive methods. Instead, the notion is centred around a set of general guidelines.

Agile workplaces embrace the individual

ThoughtWorks’ London office.

Each employee has their own ways of working and staying productive, especially Gen Z and millennial employees who prioritise balance in their work and personal lives to pursue their desired lifestyles. Agile workplaces encourage this and adopt workplace policies to fulfil their wishes where possible.

Flexible working arrangements are gaining popularity as they allow employees to self-regulate their schedules and juggle multiple commitments and interests. Research carried out by Mercer supports this trend, with more than half of employees polled indicating that they want their companies to offer more flexible work options. Rigid processes and tools no longer have a place in engaging the digital workforce of today.

All-rounders are prioritised over specialists

Technology is evolving so rapidly that it is crucial to have diverse technical expertise and extensive, relevant experience. Today’s tech talent is acutely aware of this, and younger employees are always looking for learning and professional development opportunities.

Autonomy should also be given to employees who want to pursue learning or passion projects – particularly for specific capabilities like artificial intelligence – that contribute to the expansion of their skillsets.  Such initiatives equip them with the capability to respond to rapid demand shifts in the fast-paced tech sector, while also meaningfully empowering and engaging them.

Collaboration is favoured over negotiation

Agile approaches encourage the individual to be independent, yet collaborative and flexible, capable of leveraging efficient responsibility distribution and flatter hierarchies to drive the best outcomes. Similarly, an agile organisation with a well-articulated culture will strongly appeal to millennials who not only want to do well in their careers, but also want to feel that they are contributing to the goals of a like-minded community.

Local organisations need to develop a continuous and flexible talent development strategy that is capable of responding and adapting quickly to employees’ immediate needs and priorities. For instance, when setting up career goals, an agile approach which divides up bigger long-term goals into smaller, more manageable ones, will allow employees to chart their continued progression, celebrate their career successes, and motivate them to continue developing their career within the organisation.

How can tech firms implement these principles?

With tech talent demand outstripping supply, employees with digital capabilities are headhunted on a regular basis. Singaporean employers need to consistently engage their workforce to pull ahead in the talent race.

Some of the best ways to better engage today’s tech talent are to invest in learning and development opportunities and entrust them with more independence and responsibilities to take on new challenges.

Investing in overseas initiatives for employees to work, network, and spur learning and development, provides a fresh challenge and exposure to international collaboration. For instance, at ThoughtWorks, new hires from the Singapore office are given the chance to attend a five-week crash-course programme in China or India to gain exposure to different workplace challenges and form a network of mentors and peers that can help provide future development opportunities.

An empowered and self-regulated workforce can also be leveraged in the form of organisational ambassadors. Young, talented company advocates can help connect with and attract other young talents. Millennials value genuine human relationships and sharing best practices to help one another learn. The Women Who Code bootcamps are one example of how ambassadors are being effectively deployed in the search for new tech talent. Hosted by female software developers, the camps are inspiring more young women to consider technology careers and connecting capable talent to local companies.  

Not all the agile principles need to be applied equally to secure the best tech talent. But for most young workers today, they embody within themselves the characteristics of an ideal workplace – technologically savvy, collaborative and inclusive, adaptable and flexible. Success in the quest for tech talent will thus require employers to be willing to acknowledge newer, human-centric approaches to work, and have the appetite and agility to respond decisively and effectively to accelerated change.