Importance of effective communication in retrofitting projects in Singapore

Abstract

The Singapore government launched an ambitious Upgrading Programme in 1989 to transform the old public housing precincts into quality housing precincts comparable to those in newer towns. The uniqueness of this upgrading work is that, as the flats belong to the residents and the residents are still staying in the flats while upgrading works are being carried out to the flats and precincts, the communication with the residents plays a critical role in the smooth implementation of this Upgrading Programme.

This paper describes the various methods and mechanisms adopted by project consultants in implementing the Upgrading Programme. The various means of communication adopted to effectively communicate with the residents before and during the upgrading works is discussed in detail in the paper. The various project management measures implemented in the upgrading precincts during the construction to minimise the inconveniences caused to the residents and to ensure their safety is also discussed.

Introduction

Through its many years of involvement in the Singapore government's Upgrading Programmes, like the Main Upgrading Programme (MUP), Surbana International Consultants Pte Ltd (SICPL) has built extensive experience in managing communication with thousands of residents during implementation of the upgrading projects. In the MUP, upgrading works are carried out to existing buildings with residents residing in their flats. These include works within the residents’ flats, in the blocks and around the precinct. Inevitably, the upgrading works would disrupt residents’ daily routine. In this case, trained site staff and proper site management systems would be necessary to ensure good public relations is maintained so as not to create any negative publicity for the project or disrupt the progress of the works.

The MUP is a programme chosen by residents to improve their existing living conditions. It is carried out only if 75% of the residents voted for it. Although most residents see the benefits of the MUP, many do not expect or tolerate the temporary inconveniences and “sacrifices” that come with it. Also, the impact of the inconveniences to residents will vary as each has his or her own lifestyle, habits, preferences, and beliefs. Consequently, different residents will have their different needs and concerns when the upgrading works are being carried out.

Hence, it is the important to establish an effective two-way communication channel with the residents. This communication channel would help the site team keep residents informed of the various impending works to be carried out (so as to seek their understanding) and as an avenue for the residents to provide feedback to the team for follow-up action.

With this understanding in mind, various measures, system, and procedures would be put in place during the construction period to establish effective communication between the management team on site and the residents. Site measures to minimize possible inconveniences like noise, dust, and safety, would also be implemented.

Concerns and Needs of Residents

It is difficult to satisfy every resident's needs. However, with the completion of each new upgrading project, we are able to gain more and more experience in addressing most of these needs and concerns. Generally, the main concerns of residents can be classified into a few areas. (Exhibit 1)

Exhibit 1

Exhibit 1

Site Measures to Minimize Inconvenience to Residents

In view of the impact of the upgrading works on residents’ livelihood, a set of standard measures to minimize inconveniences have been implemented at all MUP sites. These measures help to address residents’ concerns in various areas such as noise, dust, safety, and ensures that their interests are incorporated into the site management system. Some of these measures include the following:

  1. Special piling methods to minimise noise and dust
  2. Pre-cast technology used to expedite progress of works
  3. Restricted working hours and maximum allowable working days within flat
  4. Noise meters to monitor noise
  5. Temporary toilet for residents’ use during toilet upgrading
  6. Temporary clothes drying racks for residents’ use during Space-Adding-Item construction
  7. Maximum two breakers used at each block at any one time
  8. Covered block entrance/exit for safety reasons
  9. Ramps and alternative walkways where necessary
  10. Directional signages to guide residents
  11. Hoardings to segregate work areas
  12. Assigned housekeeper at each block
  13. Heavy duty vacuum cleaner used for works within flat
  14. Protection of residents’ furniture and properties during work within flat
  15. Special sanitary pipe fittings used to prevent delay in work within flat
  16. Chain-saw cutter used during sanitary pipe cutting to minimise sparks and foul smell
  17. Half-height hoardings with nettings used in front of shop fronts to retain exposure
  18. Air-conditioned study rooms / rest areas for residents’ use throughout the duration of the upgrading project

Some elaboration of the site measures include the following:

Safety and security

Perimeter work hoardings would be put up before commencement of any work for safety purposes. This is to segregate the work from the public areas and prevent any members of the public to enter the working areas. For construction access, an entry/exit gate and guard post would be set up and security guards would be stationed full-time on site. Workers would be required to carry identification passes and would not be allowed to loiter around public areas.

Noise monitoring

Noise meters would be used to keep noise generated by the construction works at permissible levels. A mobile noise meter would be used in order to record readings at any specified location.

Housekeeping

Housekeeping checks would be carried out on a regular basis to ensure that the site is properly maintained. The contractor would be required to engage workers to only carry out housekeeping work. Anti-mosquito breeding measures like fogging and oiling would be done at least once a week. Residents in the nearby residences would be informed of the schedule for the fogging of mosquitoes.

Effective Communication with Residents

Are these site measures enough? Although these measures are comprehensive and have a wide coverage, they have to be complemented by an effective community relations programme involving close communication with the residents. We are dealing with people, and interpersonal communication is vital in maintaining mutual understanding and support. It is important to establish an effective two-way communication channel with the residents to keep them informed of the various impending works to be carried out and as an avenue for the residents to provide feedback to us for any follow-up action. With this understanding in mind, various measures and facilities, established systems, and procedures have been set up in the upgrading precincts during the construction period to ensure the effective communication between the management team on site with the residents, vice versa. The following describe how this is done at our upgrading projects.

Facilities Provided for Residents

24-Hour Information Centre on Site

An Information Centre complete with a 24-hour information toll-free hotline telephone is set up on site. The objective of setting up an Information Centre on site is primarily to provide an easy accessible avenue for residents to provide feedback or to seek clarifications on the scope of upgrading works, schedule of upgrading works, etc.

The Information Centre is manned by a public relations officer (PRO) and a clerk during office hours. After office hours and on Sundays and public holidays, the Information Centre is manned by a senior security officer. The PRO is tasked to ensure that all queries, complaints, or feedback from the residents are promptly and properly attended to. After office hours, the senior security guard takes over the duties of the PRO and assigns the respective personnel to attend to the residents in times of emergency, for instance, chokage or service disruption in the unit.

Notice Boards at Upgrading Blocks

Notice boards are installed near to the lift lobby of the upgrading blocks. Important notices are displayed at the notice boards to inform residents of vital information pertaining to the upgrading works. Information on the location of the site Information Centre, rest area and study room, photographs of the consultants, contractor, security and conservancy personnel, schedule of block washing and mosquito fogging and oiling, notices on construction activities within the blocks and precinct. In addition, the monthly “Upgrade Update” newsletter informing residents of the works completed in the previous month as well as the impending works to be carried out in the following month is also pasted on the notice board.

Procedures of Informing Residents of Impending Upgrading Works

Besides the abovementioned facilities provided on site to enhance the communication channel with the residents, there are also various established systems and procedures to aid the communication process. These channels are as follow:

(Serving Notices/Letters to Residents

To keep residents informed in advance of the impending upgrading works within the flat, block and precinct and the likely inconveniences together with a time frame. Most of the notices/letters are served to the residents via letterboxes except for two notices, which must be served by hand and explained to the residents for works within the flats:

  • (a) Intention to carry out the works and the scope of work involved (two months before commencement of works within flat)
  • (b) Actual timeframe/dates and description of daily activities (two weeks before commencement of works within flat)

For works within the blocks and precinct, residents would be informed by letters and/or by notices to be displayed at the notice boards. For works that affect the residents lifestyle such as disruption of services, closure and rearrangement of carparks, letters are sent to residents in addition to being displayed at the notice boards. For any noisy works (e.g., concreting and new Multi-Storey Car Park), neighbouring affected blocks and nearby schools are also informed.

House Visit for Condition Survey

During the house-to-house visit for the condition survey, the PRO, together with representatives from the Consultant and the upgrading contractor, would visit the unit and explain to the residents the purpose of the condition survey. At the same time, they would also explain to the residents the scope of the upgrading works that would be carried out in their unit, and also advise residents of the fixtures and fittings that are likely to be affected by the works and other possible disruption of services and other inconveniences that would arise during the period of upgrading (e.g., noise, dust, shutting down of lifts, etc.). During the survey, we would also take note of residents who are handicapped, bedridden or very old so that extra care will be taken when carrying out the upgrading works to these units.

The house-to-house visit can be seen as one of the more crucial communication channels as it allows the residents and us the opportunity to have a face-to-face interaction and seek clarification from us and also for us to address to any of their concerns and queries about the impending upgrading work. The house visit would establish a good rapport with the residents before the commencement of the upgrading works.

Call Card

A Call Card bearing the precinct name and showing the location and telephone hotline of the Information Centre as well as other useful emergency contact numbers, for example, Neighbourhood Police Post, Town Council, Branch Office, Hospital, and telephone hotline of the Information Centre is given to the residents during the house visit. This is to facilitate the ease of residents to call us for any queries that they might have.

Service Card

During the house-to-house visit to conduct condition survey, there might be instances where some residents were not at home during that time. In order to establish a close-loop communication process, a Service Card would be served to the residents requesting them to contact our site staff so that we could schedule a follow-up house visit with them to conduct the condition survey or for any other matters.

Procedures for Managing Residents’ Information

MUP Information Centre System (MICS)

The system is developed to assist the staff at the Information Centre manage residents’ feedback and data more efficiently. The feedbacks (complaints / requests / enquires / suggestions) are entered in MICS to ensure that they are properly recorded. Besides being able to keep the data of all the feedback cases, MICS is also used to generate survey forms, decision forms, and work schedules.

Residents’ feedbacks are closely reviewed by the project manager and project management associate once a week to ensure that all residents’ feedback are attended to promptly and appropriate proactive measures are taken to prevent recurrence of similar cases. The project manager would then conduct a weekly feedback review with the site supervisors and PRO.

Telephone Recording System for the Information Centre Hotline

The purpose of having the telephone recording system at the Information Centre is to record all calls received over the hotline. To ensure its effective use, the info line is connected to a voice-activated tape recording system, which is able to capture the date and time of each telephone call. This recording system is operational 24 hours a day, including Sundays and public holidays. The recording tapes are replaced with new tapes daily and the recording tapes are kept for one month before they are recycled for future recording.

Decision Forms

Upon receiving the residents’ decision form with regards the choices that they have made for the various standard upgrading items, a photostated copy of the decision form is also given to the respective residents for their own records.

Ensuring Service Excellence

With the various facilities, established systems, and procedures, the communication process is further enhanced by ensuring good service delivery of the counter staff at the Information Centre as well as the trained staff on site. A project management associate assists in overseeing the operations of the Information Centre to ensure that the counter staff provides quality service. The PRO and the senior security officer manning the Information Centre have attended various courses organized by approved organizations to learn and improve their communication skills. In addition, in-house training also instills and reinforce the importance of providing quality service to the residents.

With the telephone recording system and the MICS records at the Information Centre, regular auditing of the recorded tapes are carried out to ensure that feedback from the residents are properly attended and recorded in MICS. The audit also aims to assess the level of service and competency rendered to callers by the staff at the Information Centre.

Other than having the required training and qualification of our staff, we also conduct surveys with the residents to gather feedback to gauge the level of customer satisfaction with the services provided by the site staff. The surveys help us to identify any aspect that needs improvement and enable us to focus our efforts in making these areas better.

The “Personal Touch”

Executing an effective community relations programme is not only doing the right things; but it is also about getting the right people to make things right. The site staff must be mindful and empathetic towards the feelings and concerns of residents. The mindset must be such that residents should always be treated with utmost respect and each case handled with its own merits. As mentioned earlier, different residents have different concerns due to their own individual situation.

We will need to fully understand their concerns in order to find an amicable solution or compromise. Only employment of staff with experience, patience, and strong interpersonal skills will be able to play this important role of ensuring that residents’ concerns are properly addressed during the upgrading.

Effective Communication with Working Committee / Project Construction Committee

While residents are our main priority, we also liaise with other parties to ensure the smooth implementation of the upgrading programme at the precinct level. These parties include the Grassroots Organistions (GROs) (Residents Representative), Town Council (managing the conservancy and maintenance of the precinct), HDB Branch Office (the client). They are all represented in the Working Committee (Design Phase) and Project Construction Committee.

Before the actual upgrading works start, the project manager and the project management associate on site take the lead to form the Project Construction Committees (PCCs) timely before the services diversion commences on site. We will update members on any design changes after polling and brief them on their roles and responsibilities as in the chart below so that members of the Committee will be aware of their roles: (Exhibit 2)

Exhibit 2

Exhibit 2

Measures Taken

The project management team takes the following measures to address the respective concerns as follows:

Conduct frequent formal and informal meetings, regular discussions / site inspections / household visits:

Frequent formal and informal meetings (including PCC meetings), discussions, site inspections, and household visits with key committee members are conducted. These allow us to update members on the progress of work and to seek concurrence of certain decisions that are made in the course of the upgrading works. They also help us gather feedback and resolve residents’ issues related to upgrading works.

We also carry out site inspection with the Town Council on maintenance issues, housekeeping, etc. This is to establish good rapport and in a way facilitate the handover of the completed works.

In the case of HDB Branch Office, joint inspections at residents’ flats are carried out if necessary to investigate residents’ complaints / requests, especially on internal upgrading works and car parking issues. At the request of BO, goodwill repairs may be carried out on a case by case basis to establish good rapport with them.

Attend Community Relations Events

The project manager and project management associate also attend some of the community events like grassroots functions, national day celebrations to establish and maintain good relationship with the MPs, advisors, grassroots leaders, and the key staff of the HDB branch offices and town councils.

Resolve Difficult Residents

We always work closely with the HDB branch office and town council staff in responding to the residents’ feedback that are referred to them and resolve the complaints amicably. As for some difficult residents and sensitive cases, we are able to approach the RC for help due to the good rapport established.

In short, all these measures practiced on site are very importance and crucial in maintaining a good working relationship with the PCC. Good rapport is especially important and beneficial during “special” times like defaulting MUP contractor who stops work, the forthcoming general elections in dealing with the MPs, advisors and grassroots leaders and major “unpopular” decisions that may affect residents detrimentally. The project manager with the help from the project management associate are able to guide the project management teams to respond swiftly by implementing various service recovery measures and to ensure that the disruptions and inconveniences to the residents are kept to a minimum. By doing so, they always help to ease the concerns of the residents at the ground.

Summary

Project management skills in this form deals very much with communication. Only direct, clear, and sensitive communication is able to address the needs and concerns of the residents.

The MUP is a sensitive and intricate programme that needs a lot of effort to ensure that it is implemented smoothly at the precinct level. Over the years, we have established a fine-tuned system consisting of site measures to minimise the inconveniences of residents and have kept a core group of staff well equipped to handle residents’ concerns. The relationships that we have built up with the grassroots organisations are also strong and lasting.

The main objective of the MUP is to manage the residents well. This is also what makes the MUP so challenging as it is never easy to satisfy everyone. However, throughout the years, we have managed to keep complaints and dissatisfaction to a minimum except for some isolated and exceptional cases. This is an amazing feat when you consider that we have managed the upgrading of over 100,000 flats successfully. We must continue to ensure that our work is of high standard and keep to the policy of “doing it right the first time.” After all, this is the best way to prevent a complaint from surfacing. However, equally important is the experienced staff that we have and have never given up on this arduous task. As discussed earlier, the site staff have to be experienced and empathetic to the needs of the residents and various parties involved. The rewards are sometimes just a simple thank you or complimentary letter but these are most fulfilling and it feels good to be able to help others improve their living conditions while carrying out our work.

References

Tan, J. C. (2000, May). Project Management Strategies employed in Singapore Public Housing Projects – The Importance of Effective Communications. HDB Conference 2000, Singapore.

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI or any listed author.

© 2008, Tan Siew Ling, Tan Joo Chuah, Lee Yoon Seng
Originally published as a part of 2008 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Sydney, Australis

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