The post-pandemic return to work has turned out to be a much lengthier and more complicated process than many expected, with resurgences of the coronavirus forcing governments worldwide to reinstitute lockdowns and safety requirements over the past months. On the third day of TechHR SEA, HR leaders from several organisations joined a panel discussion to share how they have been managing the return to work. Moderated by Monique Yong, Chief Human Resources Officer at Columbia Asia, the conversation identified three big priorities that organisations have been focusing on.
The first priority: ensuring people's safety
Keeping people safe has unquestionably been the number one priority throughout the crisis, and HR leaders have been at the forefront of workplace health and safety measures. Jacely Voon, Chief of People Officer, People, Culture & CSR at FUJIFILM Business Innovation Singapore, described some of the basic steps she and her team took: familiar measures such as safe distancing demarcations, setting up a health monitoring system, and providing employees with personal protective equipment.
“Apart from that, we ensure that we look at our people's readiness to come back,” she said, pointing out that for some employees—those who are pregnant, who are in higher-risk age groups, or who have pre-existing health conditions that increase their risk factor—additional consideration has to be given.
The second half of the equation is psychological safety. Many employees may still be afraid to return to work, not necessarily because the workplace itself is unsafe but because of concerns around the commute or meal times. Nadia Mohamad, Managing Director, Head of HR, CCIB Products at Standard Chartered Bank, listed trust, empowerment, and respect as the basis of building that psychological safety—trusting people to know their own needs, empowering them with an environment that suits those needs, and respecting individuals' views and preferences.
“Our leadership needs to demonstrate care and concern for our employees' well being, provide them with the sense of confidence that they are being well taken care of, and to address any potential anxiety about returning to work,” she said.
The second priority: enabling new ways of working
With most of the workforce operating remotely, organisations had to find entirely new ways of work. This often required a more agile way of thinking and operating: having small independent squads rather than large complex teams, developing a cohort of coaches who could help the teams work through the changes. Most importantly, the speakers shared that it involved helping people make the shift in mindset to take ownership of issues, work through uncertainty, and adapt as they go along.
“Agile is not just about processes and ways of working, it's also about mindset,” Nadia shared. “The key thing we really had to do during the pandemic was pivot people's mindset to an agile way of working—to having the confidence to be able to say 'Okay, I don't have all the information right now to make a 100 percent accurate decision, so I will make the best decision I can and iterate as I go along and adapt to the situation as it emerges.' We had to not only update our processes and policies but also support people, leaders, and staff with that mindset shift to agile ways of working.”
These emerging mindsets and work cultures are very likely to stay beyond COVID-19, meaning that organisations need to think in the longer term as well—to project what an agile way of working might look like in a few years' time post-crisis, and build towards that.
“In the short term, putting people first with clear strategies is a plan to focus on survival, which is essential for leading the workforce more effectively,” Jacely said. “We have to look beyond, at the organisation, at the leadership. Leadership means the ability to think and act and communicate differently, and depending on the context, to deploy a suite of leadership, intelligence, and effective communication skills to integrate the elements of building an agile organization to understand the situation quickly and provide the needed support instantly.”
The third priority: rebuilding resilience
'Pandemic fatigue' has been an issue for several months now, as people entered 2021 with their emotional reserves depleted by the crisis but had only limited opportunity to recover. Now, the speakers said, as people return to the workplace, the next big challenge is to replenish that stock of resilience.
“How do we invest back in people? How do we rebuild that good atmosphere in the office where people can learn and spend time together and enjoy each other's company?” Nadia asked.
While the issue of resilience might not be easily solved, both speakers had some suggestions for how to proceed in the near future.
Jacely emphasised a caring approach to leadership: “We should focus on what enables us to respond swiftly, recover mindfully, and emerge even stronger. I think our leaders should also take this opportunity to show that we are here for all of our people, and how we can lead them with moral intent: to protect employee morale, health, and safety, and demonstrate that we have genuine care and concern for them because they are our greatest asset.”
And Nadia suggested that HR should set aside its typical strategy of standardisation, and instead move toward personalisation. “In the past, HR has been very focused on having consistency and having common processes across multiple markets and multiple employee groups. Going forward, what we need to think more about is, one size does not fit all. For different markets will go through different experiences and different employees will have different requirements. We need to move into a headspace where we create policies and approaches from HR which allow that flexibility and accommodate the multiple experiences that people will have.”