Social Tools And The Singaporean Workplace

Taken at Lifelong Learning Institute of Singapore, a wall mural, with gear icons depicting collaborate, engage, connect, validate, ideate, develop, refine and launch.

Companies are quickly embracing the use of social tools in the workplace. Such an adaptation took place in my previous 2 workplaces. In fact, it happened twice in one of them, in the close span of a couple of years.

In the latter example, the management adopted similar change management for both instances: identify champions to propagate the use of these workplace social media tools in the office. Both times, the young employees were “arrowed”, because well, young, millennial workers are avid users of social media!

Unfortunately, correlation does not equate to causation. As mentioned by Harvard Business Review in their article published in Dec 2017, they did a 6-month study and concluded that one of the traps of implementing social tools in the workplace was to assume the young workers are the best, early adopters of the tool.

The converse was true.

Taken at Lifelong Learning Institute of Singapore, the library shelves slopes up. In the foreground, the shelf label "Career".

Older workers found the tools useful for them to access information held by their peers in another department, as workers of big organisations tend to work in the silo of their departments. On the contrary, young workers find it hard to reconcile the use of social media at work; just because they are heavy users of social media in their personal lives does not mean they will be able, or are comfortable to use them in the workplace.

When my previous workplace rolled out social media tools for the first time, it was met with deep skepticism, not by the junior staff, but by the management themselves. There was a camp of managers whom, during discussions with the vendors, requested “super admin” access to delete malicious messages left by staff, citing that such “sparks” would eventually turn into wild fire if they were not quelled at the onset. Some even went to the length of requesting for “forums” function to be shut down – which they succeeded.

The vendors maintained that having staff leave malicious comments on forums was very much like having one staff leave a post-it note with nasty remarks on the door of a manager – if the staff wants to do it, they will do it no matter the channel. The managers insisted that it would be easier to apprehend the malicious staff if he/she were to paste a post-it, though I, while sitting in to listen to the debate, thought that it would be infinitely easier to apprehend someone in the digital space.

The managers who thought that it would be easier to apprehend the culprit in the physical dimension were also the ones who thought everything digital was bad – so they forbade their team members to do anything constructive on the platform. Instead of sharing FAQs on how to troubleshoot a newly implemented software system, a manager only allowed uploading of photos taken while at office events. Even the latter was confined to the caveat that it would not make the department look like they were “slacking too much”.

Quoting the same article from Harvard Business Review, the managers fell into the traps of suppressing information exchange on the platforms and not recognising that learning can take place with the tools. It was disappointing, as the managers who pushed for such a roll-out of the platform wanted the opposite – the company was too big and staff had provided feedback that they did not know what their peers were doing in the other departments, so the social media tool should have helped them overcome the barriers. Except that the middle managers resisted the change.

In my other workplace, the “failure” of these tools were more of a mismatch of requirements. The department I was in was simply not suited for the implementation. The operational staff barely touched computers during their working hours. The older staff knew one another very well, so they shared information / learning whenever they met, be it along the walkways or during departmental events. The younger staff were active in activities conducted by interest groups and were usually nominated to attend small, cross-functional events, where they could meet employees outside of their usual job scopes to exchange learning they did not experience during official training.

Street view in Shanghai, on the way to The Bund. The skyscrapers in Pudong can be seen in the background, set against a blue spring sky.

An inner-me thinks that social media tools will not work in the Asian workplace; it has got to do with our underlying work culture.

Unlike the Western workplaces with flat structure, Asian workplaces emphasise a lot on hierarchy and ideas / recommendations by those in the lower ranks are usually met with disdain. Even in local companies that claimed they adopt the Western work structure, the expression of opposing views will usually be met with superficial acceptance – many junior workers have grown to learn that it is useless for them to make any suggestions.

This was partly the reason why the managers in my previous workplace resisted the implementation of social tools. They prefer their team members to listen to their instructions rather than listen to the advice of others, because most of them were not brought up in a culture of collaboration. In their construct, team members are supposed to execute their instructions, and not cast doubt on their “professionalism”.

They also didn’t want their team members to engage with other teams for 2 reasons – they didn’t want to “owe” favours to other team leaders (in the event that their team members derived their solutions from suggestions of another team), nor do they want their rival team leaders to attack them with information of their teams (Their biggest fear: to have some other managers tell their boss, “Her team is having a party again, like twice a week. Is that the reason why her team has not reported on the progress of the latest project to you yet?”)

So yes, Asian workplaces prefer to work in silos, even though much has been written about the benefits of cross-functional collaborations, because Asians are obsessed with the image of perfection. To them, being good means getting 100 marks at every test. Success stories like Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg are inspiring, but belong to the domain of “fairy tales”. Getting 99/100 at even 1 test would mean they would be passed over for promotions / progression, so they become very protective of their job scopes (for junior staff) and teams (for leaders).

Bangkok Café - The Commons, amphitheatre seen from Level 3. The Commons is a new shopping destination with open concept and designed to facilitate social interaction.

Western workers often sing praises of how they shared knowledge over pantry talks that would help them in their work. While I mentioned earlier that I know of staff who would do that, the general Asian culture tends to be very conservative. The worst occupation for a Chinese is neither cleaners nor factory workers. Even prostitutes have a higher status than matchmakers. In fact, the Chinese avoid matchmaking even at a personal level, because in the even that the couple has a nasty split. they believe the couple would blame the one who brokered the relationship. In the same line of logic, Asian workers refrain from telling their peers how to do their work – even a bit of information that may help lead to solutions is taboo.

These characteristics are not inherently bad – they are the ones that make the east Asian economies the best places for companies to set up factories. Singapore also owed its success to being a manufacturing hub. Unfortunately, they hinder collaboration and innovation. Singapore, despite being a “melting pot”, still has workers who are deeply entrenched in conservative attitudes of how one should behave in the workplace. We often hear employees of local companies complained of how useless those social tools are. I think the problem lie not in the tools, but in the mindset themselves.

Changi Airport Terminal 4 preview - seen here is the dancing petal sculpture hanging over the arrival hall, in between the public and transit area of the departure hall. Natural  light streams in from the skylight that ran the length of the terminal.

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