My search for Shangri-La; Employee Retention – Simplified

In a 1933 novel, “Lost Horizon” by British author, James Hilton, “Shangri-La” is being portrait as a mystical and harmonious valley; an earthly paradise; a Himalayan utopia; and a permanently happy land.

The story center around the character, Hugh Conway, a veteran member of the British diplomatic service, who finds inner peace, love, and a sense of purpose in Shangri-La, whose inhabitants enjoy unheard-of longevity.

I like the part about the “longevity”, the inner peace, love and sense of purpose. Isn’t that such a romantic idea?

We spend about 9 hours a day working. Ok, who are we trying to kid? We all know that we work more than 9 hours a day, and some would even point out the weekends.

In a week, there’s 168 hours. Let’s just assume that we’re put in about 50 hours of work a week and we clock a healthy 56 hours of sleep a week. That would mean we spend about 44.6% of our conscious life at work!

If we are going to be spending a third of our life on an activity such as work, shouldn’t we do doing something that we love, or at least on something that we don’t hate?

There is a corny old saying that goes, “If you love your work, you will never work a day in your life”!

Right! That makes sense. However, how many of us can put our hands up today with the conviction that we have the same undying passion and commitment as the first day we step into the organization?

I bet many of us can’t even remember what happened on that very first day of work!

Where is the love?

Let’s make another assumption that most of us are in a job that we like somewhat. However, we would argue that the fundamental reason that kept us going is the need to earn our keep. We have our expanses to upkeep, our lifestyle to maintain and our wife’s Gucci to purchase.

And “YES”, the “Gucci” is important! (Else, I wouldn’t be able to write this article at this hour!)

There are many theories about “Employee Retention” with many of them centric around bosses, salary, benefits, development, culture, and more.

We often over complicate things by reading too much into the many different factors that holds an employee to an organization.

To me, I would loosely categorize the factors into the 3 “S”s.

1) Suitability, 2) Stability and 3) Sanity

The “Suitability” refers to the fit of the job. Every one of us is equipped with a unique combination of skills and abilities, allowing us to take on different jobs with vary degree of proficiency. Thus, the ability to gauge how suited our abilities are to a given job is important in determining the suitability of the job, which in turn result in performance.

The need for “Stability” exists inside every one of us. Regardless of the amount of self confidence and self worth that we have for ourselves, no one like to be in a situation where you feel threat or fear.

Drawing a parallel, asylum seekers leave their war-torn countries for survival, an employee would do the same if the fundamental reason (the need to earn their upkeep) for them working in your organization is shaken.

Last but not least, the “Sanity” of doing your job. If you’re in environment that drives you crazy, I don’t think you’ll last very long.

In the military, combat psychologists are being assigned to frontline units to help troopers cope with the combat stress. This brings out the best in the units’ performance. The same goes for sports psychologists who help athletes cope with the pressure and expectations.

The state of mind of an employee in his/ her role within an organization is critical and has a direct correlation in his/ her performance level.

Maybe it’s not that extreme as in combat or sports, but I’m sure there are instances that you’ve encountered difficult colleagues or bosses, people who drives you nuts. Coupled with the unrealistic expectations and workload, I’m sure anyone of us will feel the stress and pressure.

Given time, left untreated, the cracks will appear and soon we’ll give way. Early signs includes grumbling and complaining about one’s job, with more severe symptoms such like workplace violence or quitting.

Just do a search on “Workplace violence” and you’ll be amazed by the amount of articles you can find.

Thus, a job that doesn’t test the limits of your mental sanity is important.

For me, I believe the retention of an employee goes pass factors such as salary, development, promotion and such. More work and emphasis should be put into understanding the motivations of your workforce.

Everyone has a different yardstick and motivation for sticking around. It is the ability to put together that unique combination of factors that creates that Shangri-la workplace.

Only than, we’ll start seeing longevity in the workforce and employees will start seeing a purposeful career with the organization.

With this, I’ll leave you with a thought; “Have you found your Shangri-la?”

Eric Wong

Ps. I dedicate this article to a good friend and colleague, Sam. I hope you find your “Shangri-la” soon, and Happy Birthday.

The Mathematics of Human Resource – The Anorexic Organization

I work in a manufacturing plant. I’ve been working in the manufacturing environment for the last 7 years.

In the manufacturing environment, there is a fundamental concept of “capacity”.

I’m not a guru in this field, but what I find interesting is that:
1) the output is directly proportional to the input
2) the throughput is somewhat a constant, unless:
2.a) the line is setup differently, resulting in a more optimized setting, or
2.b) there is an increase in equipment/ station, which increases the capacity
3) last but not least, if a production line has a 1000 units output, than 2 production lines would have a 2000 units output

What a simple concept. It doesn’t take a genius to figure this out. I thought I knew this when I was in primary school! I was made to write lines for not doing my homework. I had to write 500 lines of “you know what”. If I can do 2 lines a minute, that would take me 250 minutes to complete. That is a whopping 4 hours of writing!

I figured that if I want to catch my favorite cartoon on the TV, I would either have to:
1) Write faster, or
2) Get my brother to help

In the end, I got to watch my cartoon and I’m sure you knew what I did.

That’s the basic, that’s Manufacturing 101.

Let’s move one to Advanced Manufacturing 201.

In a manufacturing line, it is essential to have periodic “preemptive maintenance” (PM). This is to ensure that the line is calibrated and the constants are maintained. Or rather, to ensure that there is no mistakes. We also know that equipment has a certain tolerance level, by which would require servicing.

How could we not know that? Even the car we drive needs an oil change. Ok, I’m guilty of squeezing another 20% more mileage before sending my car in for servicing. But, the fact remains. The servicing is essential.

We also know that the wear and tear for our “high-performance” and “highly-utilized” parts is generally higher which requires more frequent servicing. For example, a car which has run more miles daily would require a servicing at shorter intervals, and a turbo engine breaks down easier than a normal engine.

Hold that thought.

Now, let’s take a look at how organizations plan their human resources. I’m not taking about how the HR team is setup. I’m referring to how organizations setup its department and the people in these departments.

It is safe to assume that with the technology advancement we’ve seen in these 2 decades, the pace and volume of work had increased many fold. The expectations of the employees had increased accordingly.

I was just talking to a someone who’s been putting in many nights’ of work and his complain was that he’s been made to work at 120% of his capacity from the day he joined the organization. And recently, he’s been working much harder as there’s an urgent project he’s been put in charged of.

He’s burned out.

He felt that in the real world, the volume of work can never be at a constant level, there should be a high period and a low one. However, why can’t he be operating at 80% for most of the time and 120% at the high period?

Maybe he’s not that hardworking, and he deserved to be replaced. Maybe.

Have we gone over board with cost cutting measures as such that it really cuts to the bone? Try losing weight to the point that you become anorexic. I bet it isn’t fun. Not to mention that it is not very healthy.

Fat helps regulate body temperature, store energy, and cushion and insulate organs.

According to an article from, the American Dietetic Association recommends that men have 15-18% body fat and women have 20-25% body fat. Healthy male athletes might be as low as 5-12% body fat, and healthy female athletes could be as low as 10-20%.

With that in mind, shouldn’t an organization stop being anorexic and start putting on some healthy fats?

Where are the “PM”s and where are the “servicing”? Have we gone from preventive maintenance and servicing to just replacing?

Last I checked, “Size 0” is so passé.

By Eric Wong – 22 Apr 2010