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Workforce Rewards and Strategy for an Aging Asia



If demography is destiny, economies will rise and fall on waves of statistics citing birth and death rates, populations trending young or old, and the resulting impact on human welfare and workforces. Research tells us that Africa, for example, is beset by youthful underemployment, leaving millions unprotected by social safety nets. Asia, on the other hand, encompasses a vast web of economies that are aging rapidly, with long-term economic growth hanging in the balance.  

Over the next several decades, aging populations will increasingly define Hong Kong, Japan, Mainland China, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan and Thailand. In each of these countries, the working-age population peaked in 2015 and will decline at an accelerating rate in the coming decades, according to research by Nataxis. By 2050, the proportion of elderly in these nations’ populations is expected to increase to 27% — from just 7% in 1995.

Elderly populations put pressure on public and private pension and health systems, of course, but also lead to reduced labor supplies that can constrain economic growth. The solution for this is easier said than done: higher labor participation, capital investment and policies that address productivity. As much as possible, organizations must combine a long-term view of their internal and external labor markets with a current commitment to the rewards and incentives that will ensure a productive workforce despite its age. If more and more workers are aging out of companies in Asia, then recruiting and retaining a stable workforce calls for fierce dedication to worker well-being and innovation in terms of rewards.

Global technology stalwart Seagate, with its strong manufacturing footprint, is one example of a multinational firm with no illusions about Asia’s demographic challenge. Roughly 85% of Seagate’s approximately 40,000 employees are based in Asia, notes Seagate Global Rewards Leader Molly Ang. Not surprisingly, the past year has upended standard operating procedure for rewards and recognition.

“Before COVID, Seagate primarily focused on monetary spot awards,” says Ang, adding that Seagate relies on an internal tool to manage the nomination and award process. “During COVID, Seagate began shifting toward more holistic and non-monetary employee rewards and recognitions. So we are looking to a holistic platform and to leverage digital apps to recognize and thank employees, peers and managers.”

Indeed, a more broadly targeted non-monetary method of employee recognition makes sense for older employees who may appreciate the affirmation and continued show of support just as much as any financial bonus. And during a pandemic, encouraging and recognizing team health and fitness can spark engagement, according to Rosaline Chow Koo, founder and CEO of Singapore-based CXA Group, a health-focused insurtech firm with clients in Asia.

CXA emphasizes early disease detection and prevention when clients buy their health care insurance through CXA brokers. Employees are given digital wallets to select the most relevant mix of insurance and wellness services from a range of providers. Thus, employees across the age spectrum can tailor their options to their needs. “Someone young and healthy can focus on fitness with base core insurance, while those with young children can focus on pediatrics, and those closer to retirement can choose more medical care and insurance post-retirement,” explains Koo.

“We worked with many large multi-country firms during COVID to engage their employees by rewarding for health and team building,” she added. “For example, our Step Challenge app tracks the step count from the cell phone’s pedometer so there’s no need for HR to pay for devices, while teams are competing on walking the most steps. We also added image uploads so that during COVID quarantine colleagues could see and comment on each other’s images of exercising, meals, meditation, playing with kids and pets. This helped increase remote employee engagement.”

The innovative potential of apps and an enlightened approach to workforce dynamics can go a long way, but economic realities remain. Alicia García-Herrerosenior fellow for European economic think tank Bruegel and chief economist for Asia Pacific at Natixis, has noted that China’s aging population will affect its potential labor input, threatening its current competitiveness. Meanwhile, García-Herrero says, Japan may be able to defy the gravity of a graying population, taming the cost of pharmaceuticals and medical equipment through price controls, while becoming one of the world’s biggest makers and users of industrial robots to address its looming issue of fewer workers.

But companies like Seagate are bound to worry less about the uncertainties and conundrums of macroeconomics and focus more on proactive strategies to serve an age-diverse — and globally diverse — workforce. As far back as 15 years ago, Seagate embarked on a program to educate employees to be more informed and discerning about their personal health and well-being so that a health crisis does not lead to a financial crisis for families, Ang explained.

“We created a digital Wellness Account for employees to tailor to their own life stage and health needs,” Ang said. “Depending on the country, employees can use the account to select subsidized and highly discounted voluntary insurance, vaccinations, health screening, and traditional medicine. The insurance is portable even after employees leave Seagate to ensure coverage where the vendors can offer it.”

Seagate concluded it could do more than bring employee benefit choice and portability to the fore. It also focuses on four pillars for health and well-being: physical, mental, financial and social. And there are no fewer than 16 sub-pillars underneath those four main health and well-being pillars, with Seagate “self-interest groups” run by volunteers on a range of employee engagement initiatives. Among them:

  • A Self-Care Campaign whereby employees respond via their mobile phones about their mood, how they take care of themselves, and things for which they are grateful.
  • Well-Being 365, an EAP program with a total wellness platform via a mobile app with access to health videos, articles and access to employee assistance, available in local languages such as Chinese, Japanese, Thai and Malay.
  • To engage employees with families, an Asia Children Art contest was planned to commemorate the annual United Nations’ International Day of Families.
  • Seagate also partners with vendors, offering financial planning talks. These are targeted at different life stages, from savings and investment for younger generations to retirement planning.

Such programs have the potential to empower employees of all ages, but the larger demographic issue of Asia’s aging populations has a more fundamental challenge and solution, which is to keep older citizens healthier and productively alive longer, as new generations come of age. Technology makes this more possible, especially with the advent of telehealth options for online video health provider visits.

“Seagate Singapore introduced telehealth before COVID, but usage really took off during COVID,” Ang said. “Our health partners in China, India and Thailand offer various telehealth options, from seeing doctors virtually to the dispensing of medication online. Seagate factories operate multiple shifts, and for factory workers who do not have an email address, mobile-based, virtual telehealth was added to offer employees accessibility and convenience to supplement in-clinic visits.”

These telehealth programs have benefited employees with chronic conditions and minor ailments, especially for those who avoided visiting clinics due to COVID. Meanwhile, Seagate partners with Asia-based vendors for digital apps such as e-claims for self-funded outpatient medical claims, and QR-barcoded e-medical cards on mobile phones to eliminate physical ID cards for access to clinics.

Arguably, Seagate’s example suggests that the most valuable sort of reward, recognition and benefits programs for an aging society are those that take the big picture into account. As companies commit to supporting workers’ life-stage financial, physical and mental well-being through accessible technology and effective communication, they can keep pace — if not stay ahead — of demographic destinies.

About the Author

Matt Damsker Bio Image

Matt Damsker is a former principal with Mercer, an author and journalist. He served as managing editor of Human Resource Executive magazine, as a staff reporter and columnist with several leading newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times and Hartford Courant and is a regular contributor to USA Today.