Manpower challenges? Do more than have a cup of tea!
Singapore’s retail and F&B industries are notorious for their challenges in attracting and retaining employees. How does Singapore-headquartered TWG Tea, positioned as the finest luxury tea brand in the world and celebrating its tenth anniversary this year, tackle its manpower challenges? What lessons can other companies learn from TWG Tea’s experience and practices? Maranda Barnes, Co-Founder and Director of Business Development & Corporate Communications shares.
1. Hire for passion
Barnes states up front, “We don’t hire people to fill a position. We are hiring because we want great people, whatever their passion might be.”
For TWG Tea, the passions it is looking for can relate to the job that the candidate is applying for. Or to tea or the experience of luxury. Ultimately, there simply must be a tangible interest in something that relates to the company or the role.
If you are hiring for a role, ask yourself if the candidates are passionate about the role, your company’s product, or the brand that your organisation stands for. It may make recruitment even more challenging, but dealing with organisation-wide mediocrity is a worse problem, isn’t it?
2. Invest in your people for Day one
Now, a passionate candidate does not automatically translate into a skilled and knowledgeable employee. That is why TWG Tea launched its Tea Institute a year ago, with a key programme being the Brand Experience Workshop. An on-boarding programme, this workshop is for all employees – from drivers to chefs to functional heads; it is not just for the frontline staff serving customers in the retail shops or tea salons.
Interestingly, the Brand Experience Workshop occurs on the very first day of an employee’s journey with TWG Tea and lasts for three days. This requires a lot of coordination and organisation internally, to ensure all new employees start only on the days when the Brand Experience Workshop is running. It also means that way before an employee’s probation period is over, the company has already invested three solid days into them.
Do you think that such efforts are worthwhile? Here is a data point to consider: TWG Tea has in real terms, doubled its Singapore retention rate in the year since the launch of the TWG Tea Institute. Employees can see the investment made on them, and they appreciate it.
So, how are you investing in your employees, right from their first day with you?
3. Create sensory discoveries to embed learning
Often, a criticism of programmes and workshops is that they are “too academic”. Indeed, the training workshops at the TWG Tea Institute started off on this note with unrealistically high expectations that employees would quickly digest all the information downloaded on them. Today, content coverage at the Brand Experience Workshop is only 10 percent of what the original curriculum had. There is also an incredibly strong focus on self-learning with the help of discovery scenarios.
Take this example: TWG Tea wants its employees to learn why its customers are allowed to smell the tea in the shops and salons. How does it enable participants at the Brand Experience Workshop to discover the answer and remember it?
As part of the workshop, the facilitator will prepare three different types of tea: one that is opaque and as dark as coffee; a second one that is bright green; and a last one that is light yellow and almost translucent. Next, everyone is given a nose-clip to put on and invited to taste each tea. What do you think is the result?
Barnes declares, “You taste absolutely nothing. If you were blindfolded, you would think you were drinking water... Everything about the experience of eating and drinking is in your nose. It doesn’t just accentuate something. It is all in your nose!”
Back to the Brand Experience Workshop. Participants are subsequently invited to remove their nose-clip and drink again. “This flood of flavour” will hit them: strong and smoky for the dark-coloured tea; a grassy taste for the green tea; and a very mineral and delicate sensation for the last one. Barnes concludes, “And then they are sitting there shocked, and now know why we allow our customers to smell the tea.”
Some employees may not be academically inclined (and truth be told, you probably hired them for a different strength). Can you create discoveries that evoke their senses and embed learning in their memories?
4. From filling a job to being an ambassador
Ideally, hire for passion. Realistically, the typical candidate is thinking, “I am going to come and do a job.” Not many will see themselves as an ambassador of your company brand. Yet, for a luxury brand such as TWG Tea, it must somehow transform the mind-set of the typical employee (passionate, natural brand ambassadors, particularly in the manpower-starved retail and F&B industries, are few and far between, and just drawing from this pool is not an option).
“We have to introduce this concept to people, that whatever you do, say, the finance staff in how they write to people, or our drivers as they deliver something, or a chef and the kind of ingredients he will source,” explains Barnes.
The journey to becoming an ambassador starts with one’s behaviour, language, and a certain grace with which one carries oneself. It goes beyond interactions with customers, and includes interactions with colleagues. Barnes emphasises, “You are an ambassador first to your colleagues before becoming an ambassador to your customers.”
Your company may not play in the luxury space, but what will happen to your company culture if everyone is held to the standard of ambassadorship? Incidentally, do you know what TWG Tea could also stand for? Its brand values – thoughtfulness, willingness, and gracefulness. Do not settle for employees to be mere job-fillers.
5. Too posh? Draw lessons from chicken rice
TWG Tea positions itself as a luxury brand, which highlights another crevice in the skills gap that some companies in Asia struggle with. This is because a local employee’s understanding of the luxury industry and luxury behaviours is very different across Asia. An employee may perceive getting a plate of really great chicken rice as a luxury experience! The challenge lies in helping such employees understand what luxury is, on TWG Tea’s terms.
Barnes asks rhetorically, “How do you take that experience – what did you like about that chicken rice – and draw the equivalent to TWG Tea?”
A cultural divide may exist between segments in your workforce and your company’s expectations. How can you use relatable examples to bridge the divide and reconcile understanding? Don’t forget the humble chicken rice and other local equivalents!
6. Everyone can understand exotic cultures - in pieces
The TWG Tea Institute develops tea connoisseurs who have to know about the tea cultures of different countries. How does it help its Asia-based participants appreciate the exotic from their perspective, such as the Russian tea tradition? Try taking apart a 19th century samovar.
Barnes describes enthusiastically, “We take it completely apart and challenge our staff to put it together again. There is a place for the coal, water, tap, screws, where the teapot goes on top, etc. And they discover the different pieces, made of beautiful brass, by hand. [The samovar] has stamps all over it. Because it was used by the Russian aristocracy and every time they travelled, it was stamped at customs. And you know how wealthy the family is by the number of stamps on the samovar!”
The samovar also helps budding tea connoisseurs understand why Russian tea is an extremely strong, black one, and why the samovar is designed the way it is. “The Russian tea tradition is very much based on society, the parlour, and the people who come in and out to visit. The type of tea that was served naturally became a very, very strong black tea to be made over and over again because you never knew if people were going to be stopping by your house. And it would just be diluted with water from the tap. That’s how the samovar came about,” explains Barnes.
Working in a globalised world, employees will face the culturally unfamiliar. How can you help them appreciate this? Are there certain artefacts of the culture that you can let them see and touch? What kind of stories can you tell to enhance their cultural understanding?
7. Ride the growth adventure together
In the 10 years since its launch, TWG Tea has expanded from Singapore and its TWG Tea Salons & Boutiques are now in 19 countries. Its tea is also distributed in 42 countries. As the company celebrates its tenth anniversary this year, what advice can it share with aspiring start-ups in Asia?
Barnes reminds, “You need to think about your staff’s career path and how they are going to grow. As a start-up, you may just be thinking about how to make the business grow, but you forget a little bit about encouraging your staff and supporting them. In the first year, we had a dinner and dance although we had hardly anything! We had gifts, words and certificates. We had a trainer in because we always knew it was an important element.”
Thinking about your employees’ growth is especially important in Asia. “In Asia in particular, [there is] a desire to very quickly move up the ranks and have an important role in the company. I worked in Europe for 15 years. I would be lucky if I got a new title in 15 years, never mind one, two years! Maybe it is a generational difference and everyone is so young in Asia. They have an expectation of growth,” observes Barnes.
TWG Tea is meeting employees’ growth expectation by letting them learn new skills via the TWG Tea Institute. Riding on the rapid growth and geographical expansion of the company, they also provide employees with international opportunities. Yet, growth does not just happen by chance. The company makes it happen. Barnes remarks, “We are very fortunate to be growing very fast. And we are growing very fast because we seize opportunities. We have a quick approval process and we don’t dawdle over whether it is a good idea or not, and let the opportunity go by.”
Furthermore, management is always examining if the current way is the best way to organise the team. For instance, the Corporate Sales team has organised itself via different ways: by country, skills, etc. Barnes says, “As soon as they see it is getting clunky, they say ‘let’s change it all and give everyone new opportunities’.”
Hence, the final lesson: prioritise the growth of both your business and your employees. Keep thinking, “What growth opportunities can our company create for our people? How can we make it happen and not leave it to chance?"