Higher staff retention through active engagement

Ms Marilyn Ow, Founding Principal of House on the Hill Montessori Preschool, shares why putting staff first has been most rewarding when it comes to retaining talent.

According to the Early Childhood Development Agency (ECDA), Singapore currently has more than 23,000 early childhood educators, and another 3,500 are needed by 2025 to support the sector’s expansion. With the tight labour market, how can pre-schools create a conducive environment that attracts and retains employees?

Ms Marilyn Ow, Founding Principal of House on the Hill Montessori Preschool (HotH) shares that a major challenge facing the early childhood education sector is managing the educators’ workloads while balancing the needs and requirements of the centre.

Together with the founders Wu Jing and Oliver Bettin, Ms Ow helped grow HotH from just one school with five employees to what it is today — four campuses located at Mount Sophia, Pasir Panjang, Balmoral Crescent, and Hollandse Club, where they oversee the growth, development and care of 350 young children from infant to kindergarten levels, with the help of a team of just under 100 employees.

Because of the fast-growing expansion in the sector and the high demand for early childhood educators, there is an urgent need to improve the well-being and working environment of educators.

This is where Ms Ow and HotH’s shared vision comes into play with fruitful results — many of their staff have remained loyal and have been with the school since it was founded in 2012. In addition, 42% of their current employees have been with them for more than three years.

They achieved this through constant staff engagement initiatives, seeking to truly understand the needs of their employees, and investing in their growth. They also recognise that younger educators may want exposure to other institutions within the education sector, and they welcome them back when these staff eventually return, now with renewed appreciation of how HotH is different compared to others.

BiZQ speaks to Ms Ow for a better understanding of their staff engagement initiatives.

HotH’s first staff engagement trip in Kuantan in 2012.

Why the decision to prioritise staff engagement?

It has always been a high priority for HotH from the very beginning, as it allows our employees to have a voice in expressing their thoughts and co-shaping the school’s practices.

We also realised early on that when teachers were empowered in selecting their team members during the recruitment process, they feel more connected to the school. Sometimes, we get them involved in the interview process or on-the-job assessment. They are also involved in the mentoring and buddy system for new teachers, and they are part of the confirmation appraisal process. This creates a more positive work environment that helps not just with productivity, but also staff loyalty.

Staff referral has also been a good way to involve staff in the recruitment process. They are a good way to market the best employee practices in our school.

Can you tell us more about HotH’s employee engagement initiatives?

With four schools, engagement is multi-layered. We try to foster a school spirit that is shared by all, and within each school and department. We adopt the following approaches:

  • Encouraging a culture of collaboration among our staff where they take charge of their personal and professional development. Together with Centre Leaders, they can discuss their short- and long-term goals, and this helps them feel inspired knowing that their leaders have vested interest in their growth.
  • Having open lines of communication and feedback available for staff. These sessions are conducted both on an informal and formal basis, at least six times a year on Curriculum Planning, Staff Development Day, Staff Training Days, and Strategic Planning days. It gives staff the opportunity to support one another to improve their abilities or to work out any differences during their course of work.
  • Staff bonding activities such as casual get-togethers like pizza and movie nights or overseas trips. Through such activities, our staff gets to enjoy the ‘play hard’ part of ‘work hard, play hard’.
  • Support during difficult times. For example, during the pandemic, we still made it a point to meet virtually and have online training and development. To help our staff stay mentally strong, we arranged for a trainer to carry out emotional resilience training online.

How have employees responded to these engagement exercises?

They feel connected as part of a big family. We have a very strong, tight team who feels empowered to voice their opinions and grow with us. We also really like being with each other — we encourage, support, and mentor one another, and we laugh a lot together as well! We value our teams, and we try our best to engage in open communication regularly.

Curriculum planning and celebrating HotH’s 10th anniversary in December 2022.

Any staff growth stories to share?

We nurture our staff to be well-rounded in their development. We have many who started with us in the initial stages of their early childhood education career path and have taken up different planning, mentorship and leadership roles as they advance further in their journey.

For example, the principal of our Hollandse Club campus was one of our founding teachers in 2012 who rose through the ranks. The staff development goals and objectives we planned out for her have helped hone her talents. She is a great example of a motivated, passionate educator who enjoys her work and has grown through experience and training.

We also celebrate their personal milestones and life experiences — some are now mothers themselves and in turn, trust their babies in the care of their colleagues in the team!

What’s your advice for companies or entrepreneurs who would like to start focusing or investing more in employee engagement?

Just start! It doesn’t have to be anything fancy. Some of our best engagement moments have happened over pizza and hanging out together in the teachers’ lounge. Start with small ways by showing appreciation and recognition to staff to let them know that you value them.

It’s also good to align goals and direction and you can do this as part of the onboarding process for all new staff. For us, we educate new hires about our school practices, our vision and mission, and they get the chance to meet other new staff and create opportunities for bonding and connection.

We also do this yearly with everyone as a reminder and refresher, to unite everyone under the same aim and work towards a common objective.