Brainstorming Resources

Dean Tong, Head, Group HR, United Overseas Bank

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In this exclusive, Dean Tong tells Priya Sunil how UOB is keeping its workforce happy, healthy, and well-supported – all while going hybrid. 

When people are supported, happy, and healthy, only then can they be at their best – agree?

At financial services firm United Overseas Bank (UOB), it is with this belief that the leadership team places holistic wellbeing as a priority, shares Dean Tong, Head, Group Human Resources (pictured above).

How is the bank putting this belief into practice?

Among a series of initiatives, it has the weekly UOB Mental Wellness Days featuring virtual self-care activities that span fitness, psychology, nutrition, ergonomics and other relevant topics. These activities which are designed to foster an open and supportive workplace culture, are run every Friday to help employees end the week with positivity.

Further, employees can look forward to routine huddles and check-ins with their managers, which encourage meaningful interactions and open dialogue.

What’s also notable is a dedicated clubhouse that doubles up as a collaborative space for informal discussions, brainstorming, and networking.

Above all, these activities, and more, are part of the bank’s focus on employee wellbeing, while it prepares to shift to a permanent hybrid work model.

“Even as we digitalised our wellness programme to make it easy for our people to participate wherever they work, our underlying consideration is always to ensure that we are encouraging meaningful interaction and open dialogue through our activities,” Tong tells us.

Ultimately, we want to cultivate a culture of care where every one of us feels supported, and will also uplift each other in times of need.

In this interview with Priya Sunil, he delves deep into the core of UOB’s wellbeing journey, and how the bank is driving its employee experience – all from a workplace, workforce, and work-life perspective.

Q I understand the majority of the workforce will have the choice to work remotely twice a week once COVID-19 restrictions are lifted. Is this hybrid model permanent? How else are you facilitating flexibility in work arrangements?

Providing our people with the choice to work remotely twice a week once COVID-19 restrictions are lifted is part of our permanent hybrid work model to help them better manage their work-life priorities and mental wellbeing. This approach is guided by our learnings from the prolonged work-from-home arrangement, and extensive research which showed that two days of remote working each week helps our people to stay connected with one another while achieving productivity.

In addition to having the flexibility to work remotely, our colleagues have also told us they seek predictability in their daily work schedules as it helps them to maintain a healthy work-life balance.

As such, we encourage our managers and colleagues to have open discussions about their work-life commitments and to fine-tune a hybrid work schedule that works best for the team.

For example, our teams can set aside a common day each week to return to the office for closer collaborations or strategic work. Colleagues who prefer working on-site can also choose to increase their number of working days in the office upon discussing it with their managers.

Q How do these enhancements in Q1 tie-in with your existing employee initiatives such as the move to a permanent hybrid work model?

As our people move to a permanent hybrid work routine where they are working both in the office and remotely, it is important to continue to care for their physical and mental wellbeing. We must recognise the pandemic is still ongoing and that our people who are returning to the office after more than a year of remote working may experience some degree of culture shock as they adjust to new work routines.

Besides the launch of the UOB Mental Wellness Days, our employee wellness programme also encompasses various initiatives and resources necessary for our people to stay connected and to manage their wellbeing holistically.

For example, we have launched a series of virtual town halls knowing that our people may feel disconnected from our senior leadership team given the lack of face-to-face interaction when working remotely. These sessions provide our colleagues with opportunities to hear from our senior leaders, to exchange ideas, and to pose questions on any topic, helping to build a culture of trust, transparency and open dialogue at UOB.

Colleagues who need professional support with managing their overall wellbeing can tap on the healthcare or telemedicine services by our health provider or speak to counsellors via a dedicated mental health helpline run by the Health Promotion Board. Having access to professional help from the safety, privacy, and convenience of their home empowers our people to seek support whenever they need it, before stress accumulates and becomes more difficult to cope with.

To help our people defray expenses for their health and wellness needs, we have a wellness benefits programme called CARE, through which our people can use credits to offset expenses, ranging from sports activities to psychiatric treatment. This year, we are giving every colleague an additional S$50 voucher to purchase fitness equipment and apparel at one of the largest sports retailers in Singapore. As part of this programme, our colleagues are also given the option to exchange up to two days of annual leave carried forward from the previous year for additional credits.

As we accelerate the transformation of our workspaces to support a permanent hybrid work model, we have also designed a staff clubhouse at Boat Quay which will be open to all colleagues when restrictions are eased further. With a capacity of 180 people, the clubhouse spans two floors and comprises a range of amenities for colleagues to unwind. These include a wellness room where we plan to hold complimentary yoga and mindfulness sessions for our people when it is safe to do so, as well as a games area for table tennis, foosball, and video games.

The clubhouse also doubles up as a collaborative space for informal discussions, brainstorming, and networking. Breakout rooms on the second floor also provide a dedicated space for group and team building activities.

Q As a leader, what challenges have you faced in approaching the topic of mental health and wellbeing with your stakeholders? How did you overcome (or how are you overcoming) them?

Even though most of us will experience some mental health challenges in life, people are often hesitant to talk about them for fear of being judged or labelled. However, it is encouraging to see the long-standing stigma around mental health is gradually lifting in part due to the COVID-19 pandemic raising global awareness of its importance.

That said, there is more that we can do to help people feel more comfortable discussing their mental health challenges and supporting one another to overcome them. This is particularly important as mental health challenges can manifest across a broad spectrum – ranging from low morale, stress, and burnout, to more severe conditions or illnesses – and addressing them early on prevents them from worsening.

Therefore, one of the priorities underlying our employee wellness programme is to foster a caring and supportive workplace culture in which our colleagues feel safe having open dialogue about their mental health and are compassionate about helping one another.

This takes collective effort from all our people, which ranges from senior leaders engaging with our colleagues through regular virtual town halls to training our managers to manage stress within their teams. We also create avenues for colleagues to form communities through which they can connect over common interests or hobbies, talk about their personal challenges or share tips on healthy living.

Within my team, we make it a point to check in with one another during our daily morning huddles aside from discussing work requirements. During this time, our team members are free to chat about any topic and this helps to encourage open conversations and to build a better rapport over time.

Q Overall, how have these initiatives boosted employee engagement and productivity in your workforce?

Our employee wellness programme goes hand-in-hand with our efforts to enhance the employee experience at UOB from a workplace, workforce and work-life perspective. Over the years, we have seen our engagement scores rising consistently. Our people have also told us they appreciate the initiatives we have put in place to enhance areas, including wellness, productivity, career development, and collaboration.

Following the onset of COVID-19 last year, the majority of our colleagues said they appreciated the care UOB had shown them through our wellness programme and support measures as well as our commitment to protect jobs in extraordinary times of uncertainty. Our colleagues also said they were able to maintain their effectiveness while working from home through our various work technology tools. As a result, our people have achieved several milestones since last year, including the launch of our digital bank TMRW in Indonesia, our all-in-one mobile banking app UOB Mighty in Malaysia, and the UOB Infinity app designed for our corporate clients.

While measuring the success of our employee wellness programme is crucial for identifying strengths and areas of improvement, what is most important, however, is that caring for our people’s wellbeing is simply the right thing to do always.

This has always been our commitment to our people and is embedded in UOB’s culture.

Q The Asian workforce is often cited as among the most overworked in the world. What conscious steps is your leadership team taking to address this at UOB?

Remote working has blurred the lines between work and life to a certain extent for many people, which could lead to the issue of overworking or having an always-on mentality. This could stem from several factors such as difficulties in balancing family and professional commitments or having an unpredictable work routine or schedule.

The lack of face time could also create a false sense of needing to work longer hours to demonstrate productivity, an issue that may be worsened for employees who feel they are being micromanaged.

These factors point to the importance of establishing a healthy work routine and ensuring that productivity is measured based on outcomes rather than the number of hours clocked at work. For example, we encourage our managers and team members to schedule routine huddles to discuss and to align on work expectations to avoid the pitfalls of micromanagement. We also emphasise to our people the need to respect each other’s time off and to reach out after hours only for work that is urgent or essential.

As part of our performance-based compensation approach, our people are evaluated according to their team and individual goals and outcomes each year. We also have quarterly reviews in place to ensure team members are on track or have the support they need.

Together, these help to encourage our people to use their time effectively and productively during working hours and to switch off from work to recharge.

Q How do you see your employee wellbeing initiatives evolving in the next three to five years, and why? Are there any initiatives in the pipeline?

One of the things I always tell our people is our career is a marathon and not a sprint, therefore our focus is to take a long-term and holistic approach as we support our people through this journey.

This means with our people’s wellbeing at the centre of all our employee wellness initiatives, we will also continue to look at ways to build a better workplace, better workforce, and better work-life – ultimately shaping a meaningful and purposeful career journey for our people at UOB.

For example, one of the initiatives we are currently developing is a toolkit to guide our managers and colleagues on better ways of working as we transition to a permanent hybrid work model. These include ways that teams can manage their hybrid work arrangements and time effectively for better productivity, to collaborate closer for better outcomes, and support each other better through open dialogue and weekly pulse checks.

In line with our belief in the importance of establishing a healthy work routine, we are also exploring ways to implement an official break time during work hours to encourage our people to recharge their mind and body.

Q If there are just three things HR should keep in mind when looking to reinvent or enhance any employee wellbeing programme, what would they be?

With an overwhelming amount of information on best practices for boosting employee wellbeing, HR leaders may fall into the trap of simply following the latest or most popular trends in the industry. As there is no one-size-fits-all solution, they must take a step back to assess how a particular strategy or approach would fit their organisation’s unique culture and their people’s needs, and tailor where necessary before implementing it.

Relying solely on top-down policies and training programmes to enhance employee wellbeing is also a common pitfall that HR leaders must avoid. Instead, taking a holistic approach through cross-team or cross-function collaboration can make a difference in creating an all-rounded programme with offerings that matter most to employees.

Last, given that employee wellness is developing in importance and focus, what works well today may not work as well tomorrow. It is imperative that HR leaders listen to and adapt to their people’s changing needs constantly.

Q Personally, how are you prioritising your mental health and wellbeing, especially through tough times?

On a personal front, I believe that how we spend our time every day reflects the way we prioritise our health and wellbeing. I like to start my day early with meditation as it puts me in a positive state of mind, followed by some form of outdoor physical activity such as swimming or running. Ending the day by recounting the things that I am grateful for makes me happy and appreciative of what I have rather than what I do not have.

Reading books on philosophy has also enhanced my mental wellbeing. One of the books I would highly recommend is The Monocle Book of Gentle Living, a guide to slowing down and appreciating the little things in life.

Watch this space for our upcoming Q3 edition of the e-mag – the Talent Management Special, which will feature this interview and lots more exclusive content lined up. 


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