How can Hong Kong professionals navigate a rapidly evolving workplace landscape? This was a question on the minds of speakers and panellists in the afternoon session of the CPA Congress 2023.

The changing face of Hong Kong

The third panel of the day included Daniel Chan, Head of Greater Bay Area at HSBC; Archie Fong, Head of Healthcare and Corporate Finance for Ping An of China Capital (HK) and an Institute member; and Peter Kung, Chairman of Supreme Genius Consulting Company Limited and an Institute member. Wilson Pang, Senior Partner, Advisory, Southern China at KPMG; and Jennifer Zheng, Head of Customer Lifestyle, China, at Cathay Pacific, also joined in the discussion, which centred on the growing role of Hong Kong in the Greater Bay Area (GBA).

The GBA, encompassing Hong Kong, Macau and the Chinese province of Guangdong, has a total population of 87 million people with a combined gross domestic product of over 13 trillion yuan, according to panel moderator Jasmine Lee, Managing Partner, Hong Kong and Macau of Ernst & Young and an Institute Council member.

The area is a hub of innovation as the birthplace of 63 start-ups that have each reached over US$1 billion in valuation, also known as unicorns, and its success in nurturing talent may come in handy as Hong Kong’s 7.3 million population ages faster in the coming years, noted Kung. He helped found the Foshan office of KPMG 12 years ago when he worked for the firm and watched as its headcount grew from 300 to over 2,000 by 2019.

According to HSBC’s Chan, as a cluster of cities, the GBA is an international centre of finance, technology and advanced manufacturing, and has a higher growth potential than any other “bay area.” However, policies across the Mainland, and Hong Kong and Macau special administrative regions need to be brought in line to fully unleash its potential. He takes the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge as an example, which, while being well-built to connect multiple GBA cities, has seen low usage partially due to complex insurance regulation differences between the three cities. Chan suggested a more unified set of rules, application processes and innovative insurance products that offer protection across GBA cities, would increase usage significantly.

“Research and development? In the GBA. Port used to send products abroad? GBA. Auditors? GBA. Legal professionals? GBA.”

“It is very encouraging to see governments, regulators, businesses and professionals working much closer now on addressing these challenges and we look forward to seeing more policy harmonization in the near future,” Chan said. “As a super connector, Hong Kong can make robust contributions given our understanding of the Mainland market and familiarity with international standards.”

Despite the speed bumps, many companies are forging ahead to explore the opportunities presented by the region’s rapid growth. Zheng from Cathay Pacific shared her company’s experience setting up its GBA headquarters in Shenzhen three years ago, “so we’ll be able to understand more of the digital ecosystem of our [Mainland] consumers.”

Calculated premiumization, a consumption trend that delivers functional and emotional value to shoppers, is rising in the GBA, according to Zheng. Cathay sees more people researching and connecting with brands through online platforms like WeChat and Douyin.

It all comes back to what this region offers for brands and consumers. Kung used the business model of Shenzhen-based drone manufacturer DJI, which holds a 70 percent share of the civilian drone market, as an example: “Research and development? In the GBA. Port used to send products abroad? GBA. Auditors? GBA. Legal professionals? GBA.”

DJI was founded by an Hong Kong University of Science and Technology student, and looking ahead, there will be more young entrepreneurs to come, said Kung, who views the bay area as an excellent incubator for talent and business.

“Hong Kong is known as a super connector. I think the 2.0 version of that is how to become
a super connector city that keeps adding value.”

There can be a degree of specialization among the cities that compose the GBA, according to KPMG’s Pang, who co-leads the firm’s Global Portfolio Solutions Group.

While start-ups are sprouting in Shenzhen, global trade and banking can continue to flourish in Hong Kong. “If we can maximize our strengths in international finance, technology and commerce, we can focus on what we are good at and we can share with the rest of the GBA and work together,” he explained.

Fong from Shenzhen-based conglomerate Ping An said that Hong Kong could act as a bridge between Mainland China and western markets and would be an excellent place for leading international technology companies to establish their regional headquarters.

Bringing more international brands into the GBA region will be the next step, said Zheng, and Hong Kong is ideally placed to act as a funnel. Cathay has started to recruit cabin crew from within the GBA. “Hong Kong is known as a super connector. I think the 2.0 version of that is how to become a super connector city that keeps adding value,” she added.

In her conclusion, Lee summarized the panellists’ views, saying “We have to have a mentality of engaging in healthy competition but also be prepared to collaborate with other parts of the GBA. That way we can all grow stronger together.”

As the city embraces this role, it will be up to businesses to keep pace and create an inclusive work culture to attract and retain talent. The final panel of the congress took an in-depth look at the challenges and rewards of doing so.

Creating a corporate culture to inspire inclusion

Diversity. Mobility. Work-life balance. Leadership. These keywords came up time and again in the fourth panel discussion moderated by Eric Ng, Chief Strategy Officer, KOS International and an Institute member, in conversation with Winnie Lai, People and Organization Director, Head of Area South, Greater China for DB Schenker; and Melissa Lau, Director and the Hong Kong lead of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, at Robert Half. They were joined by Jannie Tam, Founder and Senior Director, GROWDynamics Talent Development; Francis Ngai, Founder and Chief Executive Officer, Social Ventures Hong Kong; and Christine Tsang, Board Vice-Chair at The Women’s Foundation.

Tam, a media and content industry veteran who now heads up a corporate leadership training firm, reframed the concept of corporate culture into the process of merging people with different talents to form a team. Culture is how one influences people and responds to them, she noted, citing Hong Kong as a mecca of multiculturalism where residents from a swath of different backgrounds have converged.

As the first panel during the afternoon session agreed, this city is a super connector with the Mainland. Businesses like German logistics company DB Schenker are using Hong Kong as a springboard into China. Increasing the exposure and mobility of employees in Hong Kong to Chinese working culture is a big part of this process, said DB Schenker’s Lai.

She also encouraged facilitating more significant connections between young professionals across the region who work in similar positions. This would go a long way to bridging the perceived cultural gaps, according to Lai, who recommended that companies create more events and activities to achieve this.

“If you do not already have a diverse team, reexamine your recruitment process. If you want diverse talent you need to look in diverse places.”

Failure to do so can have consequences. Lau from recruitment firm Robert Half shared that one of the main questions her team asks people is why they want to leave their current roles. “If you do not already have a diverse team, reexamine your recruitment process. If you want diverse talent you need to look in diverse places,” said Lau. If a team is already diverse, she recommended increasing collaboration on projects: “the worst thing is having all these diverse people but not having inclusion.”

Leadership soft skills are vital for people heading up these teams. When Tam launched GROWDynamics in 2015, this was not a part of the vocabulary at most companies. “At the time, people did not prioritize [soft skills] because everything was about profit.” Over the last eight years, she has seen this attitude shift.

Having ESG standards has been a part of this evolution, and in order to reach their “S” targets, employers need to empower their employees and support their relational needs, according to Tam.

They can do so by understanding what motivates their employees to succeed, and ensuring that supervisors acknowledge their achievements. “[Employees] give us their talent, and we can help encourage, recognize and give them the opportunity to shine,” said Tam.

Next, moderator Ng explored how the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted and reshaped corporate culture. Many companies in Hong Kong experienced a talent shortage, as cross-border mobility fell to rigorous quarantine protocols. However, there may be plenty of talent readily available in Hong Kong, according to Tsang from The Women’s Foundation.

“[Employees] give us their talent, and we can help encourage, recognize and give them the opportunity to shine.”

Females are highly underrepresented in the workforce. She noted that female participation in the Hong Kong workforce hovers at around 55 percent, compared with 62 percent in Singapore and 76 percent in Australia. Tsang pointed to return-to-work programmes, which can empower mothers to return to their jobs and people who took a career change for various reasons. “Companies should offer individualized career counselling services to working mothers to align their family responsibilities with their career development goals, so that they can keep their dreams while their children are still young,” added Lai.

Many mothers may not feel empowered to return to the workforce after giving birth as they juggle a myriad of duties at home.Class-based inequalities compound the problem for women in poverty, Tsang commented.

“There are some big challenges for these women,” said Ngai from Social Ventures Hong Kong, a social venture incubator that also offers integrated impact solutions for corporations. It launched social initiatives to unleash the potential of the female workforce, such as the co-working factory HATCH in Kwai Chung in 2019 with family-friendly working arrangements, including a children’s playroom on-site.

One of the programmes that has come from HATCH is the “Jobcation” initiative, which recruits mothers for internships with corporate partners such as the Hang Lung Group. Ngai shared that some of his partners have already turned these three-month internships into long-term employment after agreeing on working hours that allow these women to take care of their families.

“While corporations benefit by acquiring talent to meet their needs, this shows that employment can be more than leveraging the workforce, and can be an opportunity to intervene to help our communities,” says Ngai.

Some larger companies have arranged split job programmes where two people can share one position so women can better balance their professional and personal responsibilities, Tsang noted.

“‘The benefits for companies are numerous, and gender must be an essential consideration in cultivating an inclusive corporate culture,’ said Ng, who pointed to the many women panellists as an excellent demonstration of why.”

To be sure, this is easier in some professions than others. Working at home is difficult for traders in financial institutions, Tsang acknowledged. Nonetheless, there are ways to do this in lieu, such as extra days off or taking performance reviews from home.

“The benefits for companies are numerous, and gender must be an essential consideration in cultivating an inclusive corporate culture,” said Ng, who pointed to the many women panellists as an excellent demonstration of why.

According to Tam, empathy and communication are the bedrock of any open workplace, and these skills will set people apart when hiring. Regarding technical abilities, “everyone’s CV looks the same,” said Lau.

For Ngai, talents do not need “retaining” as long as they are contributing to something meaningful. “We’ve observed that talents, especially young people, emphasize the importance of ‘purpose’. To them, working day and night is not just about earning their bread and butter, but about spending their time to contribute to a good cause.”

Ultimately, it is a two-way street, Ng summarized as the panel reached its final minutes. Employees can contribute to creating an inclusive workplace by honing their soft skills, while management must cultivate a diverse workforce and set their teams up for success.

Prof. KC Chan, Chairman of WeLab Bank and Senior Advisor to WeLab
Connecting through collaboration

Prof. KC Chan, Chairman of virtual bank WeLab Bank and Senior Advisor to Hong Kong-based FinTech WeLab, launched the afternoon session of the CPA Congress 2023 with a keynote speech discussing the value of cooperation in the financial services and FinTech industries.

He has seen the evolution of this sector over the last three decades first as a professor, then as the Secretary for Financial Services and the Treasury of Hong Kong, and now as a corporate executive.

These days, he works with homegrown digital bank WeLab Bank. The Bank is owned by WeLab, which is the first locally-based FinTech company to establish a virtual bank after receiving its license from the Hong Kong Monetary Authority in 2020, Chan explained.

Despite its rapid growth, WeLab, which recently expanded into Indonesia by partnering with local financial institutions, has retained its entrepreneurial spirit and Chan leads a highly cooperative and agile team.

“We have the mentality of a start-up company,” he said. “As a start-up, collaboration is very much in our DNA.”

He pointed to one of WeLab Bank’s roles as a major car financing provider for Tesla over the last year. “The team sat down and figured out what it is we need to differentiate ourselves from others in the market,” said Chan. Among many features, WeLab Bank launched rebates for car owners using the company’s card. “In traditional banks, you will not see this kind of collaboration, whereas with us we basically sit around a table and try to come up with solutions.”

At WeLab, he draws on the same skills that helped him develop the Shanghai-Hong Kong Stock Connect when he was in government. The project, which allows investors in the Mainland bourse to access Hong Kong shares and vice versa, remained confidential for over six months despite involving the work of hundreds of people. He attributed this achievement to the power of collaboration and a shared common goal.

Today, these values drive business for Chan and aid him in managing WeLab Bank. “[Collaboration] is definitely a leadership style. It is how you foster the intersection of people to sit down and come together,” he noted.

For the highlights of the morning session, please click here.  The full CPA Congress is also available now as an archived webinar for enrolment.

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