When managing the pandemic, every HR leader has a war story. The pandemic was unpredictable, but it has also brought radical changes to where and how we work, and they could be lasting.
In Hong Kong, the challenges were particularly tough, with social distancing measures lasting for more than two years and still ongoing. With many HR leaders in the city managing their teams and workforce in the region, they also need to navigate the COVID-19 measures and legal implications from different jurisdictions.
There is no playbook to guide and prepare any HR leaders through the pandemic uncertainties. At the recent DigitalWorkforceTrends Hong Kong Summit, business and HR leaders shared some of their stories and how did they deal with them on the fly.
Turning into a health expert
One major surprise that resonates with many HR leaders is the new responsibilities of establishing health protocols.
“I didn’t know I needed to be a COVID-19 expert,” said Samantha Buttle, head of HR for Asia at multinational law firm DLA Piper. “I got a ridiculous number of questions, like asking [me] to predict who's going to be in which quarantine facilities.”
Enforcing social distancing, mask wearing, and hand sanitizing policies suddenly became part of their jobs. They also needed to interpret the changing public health and safety rules and apply them within the organization.
“My inbox has been choked with people’s RAT results; what am I supposed to do with that?” added Ruth King, group head of HR from baby and parenting products distributor Bloom & Grow. “Of course, if somebody was tested positive, they should stay home. But where do you draw the line? If someone’s mother, father or house-mate has COVID-19, are we then banning the staff from coming to the office and for how long?”
These newfound responsibilities highlight the changing roles of HR leaders in the people-centric and transforming market.
“Once your job title says the word ‘people’, [it’s not surprising] the responsibilities you’d pick up when something goes wrong,” said Buttle.
Digitalizing processes and water-cooler talk
Another major challenge is the introduction of remote working. By enabling workplace change within short notice for an extended workforce, HR leaders found their process-driven operations needed to go digital.
“A lot of the nuts and bolts of daily process, like contract and signature, on-boarding and off-boarding, if we didn’t have a digital process set up, we had to learn on the fly and made those transitions quickly,” said Gwen Lockington, head of HR for Asia at National Basketball Association.
On top of providing hardware and digital tools, Jonathan Lo, partner of HR transformation lead, KPMG, said many organizations have also learned the importance of “software” support to ensure talents have the confidence and competence to work remotely.
“We didn’t give employees clear guidelines and council to use tools productively,” he said.
To prevent a ‘lost in translation’ scenario, Lo said the communication medium should align with the complexity of the task to ensure the messages are digestible and delivered effectively.
Lockington from NBA added that not having the physical office to manage productivity, culture and relationship, HR leaders needed to find new ways to continue engaging with talents.
“We need to continue to invest in the employees, but how do we do it more engagingly now?” she said. “How do we find that casual chi-chat? How do we know what’s going on in the other departments?”
Lockington said the pandemic has revealed the value of the social aspect in an organization and accelerated the business conversation on culture and wellbeing.
“We are not a machine, and water-cooler chat is absolutely important,” added King. She noted that Bloom & Grow applied “pulse checks” on an individual’s wellbeing. “We are a family-supportive family business; that’s how it gives us this stable long-term workforce,” she said.
Understanding individual and diversity
With the rise of aligning corporate culture with individuals’ wellbeing, HR leaders can no longer manage the workforce with a group approach.
“We are changing the model from ‘how to put people in buckets’ into ‘how do we treat people as individuals?’” said Buttle.
Despite being challenging to understand and align individual needs, Lo from KPMG said it is a necessary effort.
“We are dealing with people from four to five different generations of people, with different aspirations. We should be experimenting with how to deal with people of different expectations,” he said. “Don’t assume each generation shares the same way they approach digital tools.”
For example, while many assume talents embrace working from home, King observed many in Hong Kong prefer to be at the office.
“It’s their second home. They have all the bits and pieces on the desk,” she said. “At one company, I observed that it’s the young bucks that want to come back to the office because it’s a social space, as well as a workplace.”
Lo added organizations need to understand there is a broad spectrum of interpretations of hybrid working. It could range from working a few days a week at home within the country of employment to working in a different country with no existing entity. While tax and legal implications are massive between them, organizations also need to consider a sustainable operating model for hybrid working.
“Our minds are wired to interact; everything virtual is doable, but not necessarily sustainable,” he said.
Sticks, carrots and trust
The introduction of hybrid and flexible working also redefines trust.
“Trust is not only important but imperative,” said Buttle from DLA Piper. “But what [flexible working] essentially means is trust everyone. Trust everyone to come and work the hours they want to, but get the job done.”
But this model does not necessarily apply in the legal industry, where the work schedule is often determined by the clients’ pace and court schedule. She added this is when HR leaders found a new role in restoring a relationship.
“The reality is in the past, we didn’t build relationships based on trust; we build relationships and organizations based on policies and practices,” she said. To enable a relationship with trust and slowly switch away from relying on policies are the newfound responsibilities of HR leaders.
King added this is when injecting accountability into the corporate value becomes essential. She said a high percentage of talents’ KPIs are based on realizing the company’s value.
“We want not only a stick approach, but a carrot approach to encourage and support people to do the right thing,” she said. By enforcing accountability, the organization encourages talents to take charge of their income, bonus and career.
Lockington noted at NBA, external online coaching is offered to support talents with new digital tools, management skills and inspiration for developing their career. She said it is only one of the many touchpoints throughout the employee lifecycle to understand and engage with individual needs.
While there is no playbook, HR leaders agree the pandemic presents an opportunity to rethink strategically and compassionately towards talent management.
Sheila Lam is the contributing editor of DigitalWorkforceTrends. Covering IT for 20 years as a journalist, she has witnessed the emergence, hype, and maturity of different technologies but is always excited about what's next. You can reach her at [email protected].
Image credit: iStockphoto/adrian825