The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has transformed the world as we know it. Businesses have had to adapt to a new way of operating, providing the necessary resources for employees to work remotely for the foreseeable future. Organizations that manage overseas assignees have had to tackle unprecedented challenges, dealing with employees who have been stuck indefinitely abroad due to borders closing, or having to be repatriated at the height of the pandemic.
With no applicable playbook for this unique set of circumstances and vastly varying protocols between nations, businesses have been forced to pivot rapidly, and in some cases, radically, to ride out the storm.
However, as companies slowly move towards some semblance of normality and economies inch towards recovery, there are key lessons to take away from COVID-19 in managing employees during a crisis:
Lesson #1: Learn from the past
2003 taught Singapore an important lesson in crisis management when the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak occurred, resulting in more than 230 people being infected and 33 deaths over a span of just three months. The country subsequently enhanced its crisis response plan, so when the COVID-19 outbreak hit, Singapore reacted swiftly and seriously enough to be recognized by the World Health Organization (WHO).
When the Singapore government officially announced the start of the ‘Circuit Breaker’ period, employers and their staff were able to adapt and accept the necessary changes faster due to earlier experiences of such safety measures. Some of the commonly implemented responses adopted by businesses included canceling business travel to affected areas, as well as enforcing work-from-home and/or social distancing measures at the workplace for essential workers. This ultimately enabled businesses to ensure the utmost safety of their employees with ease, amid such a tumultuous time.
Lesson #2: Be transparent
Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was lauded for his regular public addresses and updates on the government’s response to the pandemic. What made these even more impactful were his timely addresses highlighting some of the social issues catalyzed by the pandemic, such as panic-buying.
Similarly, within organizations, clear, transparent and regular communication by the leader of the company during a crisis can help to build and reinforce trust with employees, and in turn, ensure that any protocols are accepted and followed.
Lesson #3: Be adaptable to change
Change is notoriously challenging to implement in companies of any size, but particularly so for large MNCs with employees across the globe. Crises like pandemics present businesses with unique challenges that require quick thinking and decision-making, despite there being many unknown variables.
As we know, remote working has been the most universal change impacting business operations across the world. While there may have been initial hurdles and resistance to overcome, benefits can now be seen in increased productivity, performance, engagement, retention and profitability, among others. So successful has this measure been, global brands are now offering employees the option to continue working from home indefinitely. Prior to COVID-19, such widespread adoption of flexible working arrangements would have been unthinkable.
Organizations - regardless of their size - need to stay flexible, nimble and have open channels of communication to better understand what does and doesn’t work for its employees, in order to stay resilient in times of crisis.
Lesson #4: Learn from others
Managers are often asked to justify changes to policies or practices by providing details of market or best practice, with superiors keen to ensure that what they are doing is in line with that of their peers. Responses to crises are no different, with companies commonly framing their response based on the conduct of others. When it comes to COVID-19, the evidence shows that many companies have been influenced by the decisions made by governments elsewhere. Singaporean budget airline Scoot, for example, ceased flights to Wuhan on the same day that Taiwan’s government announced that it would be suspending all flights to the city.
Staying up to speed with the latest developments in the global landscape and evaluating the decisions of other leaders can provide effective benchmarks for decisions implemented within your own organization.
Lesson #5: Adopt solutions that suit your circumstances
Varying responses to the pandemic have shown that it is crucial for companies to consider their own unique circumstances when faced with a challenge. While many organizations have put in place crisis management teams and developed plans to help mitigate business impact, unforeseen issues may still arise.
Take Singapore for example; upon identifying the migrant workers' dormitories as a key, large-scale cluster, the government immediately cordoned off areas and set up on-site testing stations to contain the infection. Taking several weeks, the situation has now been brought under control, with restricted movement in affected areas slowly being lifted. Looking closely - and honestly - at the unique situation being faced by your industry and organization can help leaders to better navigate any necessary business pivots.
Lesson #6: Put employees first
While remote working has its perks, the pitfalls of social isolation and disconnectedness are elevated for overseas assignees unable to return home to family and friends due to restrictions on cross-border mobility and international travel. Concerns about loved ones in countries tackling their own unique COVID-19 challenges, economic uncertainty, worries about job security and the blurring lines of work and home life can compound to have a negative impact on the mental and physical well-being of employees.
Ensuring clear and regular communication on the situation and measures being implemented can help provide employees with much-needed reassurance. Above all, being empathetic to the personal circumstances of individuals is vital in ensuring the workforce remains positive, supported and healthy in difficult times.
For companies with overseas assignees, this may also mean re-evaluating existing compensation and benefits packages to mitigate any worries or if changes have not been made, to communicate the reasons why. Companies have generally not adjusted compensation packages offered to their assignees. Our Global Mobility and COVID-19 policy survey, undertaken in June 2020, showed that fewer than 10 percent of the 350+ participating companies provided any increase in cash compensation to staff remaining in their location of assignment, nor did they reduce packages. Rather, companies made efforts to both ensure employee safety, such as by providing personal protective equipment, which was the most common response, or provide support and equipment to enable the employee to work from his/her place of residence in the assignment location. Therefore, this shows that companies have placed employee well-being at the top of their list of priorities, rather than ensuring employee retention through cash rewards for staying on assignment—there is no point in increasing an employee’s compensation if they are working in an unsafe or unhealthy environment.
Effective solutions to managing a crisis can often be framed by looking at how challenges have been dealt with in the past, and applying relevant lessons learnt as a way of mitigating impact. As the COVID-19 situation continues to play out and true business impact is yet to be seen, we are highly likely to see more lessons from this unprecedented global crisis. What we do know for sure is that an organization's ability to adapt is proving critical in working towards securing safety and stability in a post-pandemic world.