Article: Organizational agility in times of crisis

Strategic HR

Organizational agility in times of crisis

What constitutes the much-touted quality of agility for organizations? Four HR leaders whose companies scored highly in agility shared their thoughts earlier this week.
Organizational agility in times of crisis

2020's pandemic and the ensuing global disruption drew a clear distinction between organizations that are capable of agility, and those that are not. At a workplace level, agility became one of the defining factors describing a company's ability to handle sudden and rapid change on a large scale, and also how well it can come out of the disruption.

“People are at the heart of the change that organizations are going through,” observed Andrew How, Singapore Market Leader at people management advisory firm Kincentric. Speaking at a roundtable organized earlier this week by Kincentric, he pointed out that agility in the past year has involved, to a great extent, the ability of organizations to help employees cope with the changes and keep them motivated and engaged through the months of uncertainty.

A rapid and employee-centric response

Agility manifests differently in every organization, but it ultimately comes down to a swift and effective reaction to disruption, said the roundtable participants, all of whose companies had scored particularly high on agility and responsiveness—and that reaction must always incorporate employee welfare.

“We are a very traditional company, so to us, agility is about the ability to respond very quickly and reinvent ourselves—the way we work, and the way we do business,” said Tery Chua, VP of the Human Capital Management Group at NETS. As a major handler of electronic payments, he explained, NETS is deemed an essential service, and when businesses across Singapore rushed to transition to online transactions at the start of the pandemic, NETS employees' workload suddenly doubled and tripled. The HCM team responded with a huge communications and support effort, including special recognition for the employees who had been working twice as hard and long to keep payment services going.

Similarly, Naveen Chhabra, Regional Head of Human Resources for Southeast Asia and China at Olam International, said that when the scale and severity of the pandemic became clear, the top priority for the business became employee safety. “Agility is our ability to renew ourselves and to adapt,” he said. “To succeed in this changing environment, we must prioritize, and for us, we clearly defined the top priority as employee safety. We also rolled out sessions on mental health, we introduced an employee assistance program where any employee can log in and reach out to a counselor. And we leveraged technology heavily to ensure that our employees have access to the key HR processes.”

But what actually gives organizations the ability to react quickly and effectively?

Purpose and preparedness

Two points that came up throughout the discussion were the importance of organizational purpose, and, in the context of crisis, the need for well-rehearsed business continuity plans.

Dane Lim, Executive Director of Human Resources at DBS, observed:

“If you are clear about what purpose means, that helps you to overcome many challenges.” 

Sometimes, he shared, purpose can mean giving employees the opportunity to do something worthwhile with their down time: volunteering to help others, whether inside or outside the organization.

Agreeing, Aaron Lim, Human Resources Director of Park Hotel Group, said that during the hospitality industry's extensive downtime last year, the hotel had partnered with organizations that help the disadvantaged. “We want to help team members in our hotels find purpose at work by giving them the opportunity to contribute positively to the community and also the environment,” he said.

At the same time, Chhabra noted that the pandemic has shown that even if organizations have business continuity plans, those plans need to be field tested before an actual crisis happens. “We do safety dry runs all the time, such as fire safety drills,” he noted. “But we need to do similar runs for BCPs.” In the future, he added, Olam may pilot BCP dry runs in the same way it does safety drills.

Chua said that in ordinary times, people may not see the importance of BCPs, even for an essential service like NETS. “Then COVID hit us and part of our workforce had to shift to another site. Thankfully, we had been very serious about our BCPs, so we were able to adjust immediately with very little downtime.”

Viewing disruption as opportunity

Agility in times of crisis is partly a matter of mindset—the ability to see disruption and a forced change of plans as an opportunity to do better. Some of the roundtable participants shared that they have, or are planning to, use the changes of 2020 as a springboard to overhaul the way certain things are done in the workplace: besides introducing BCP dry runs, they have been restructuring teams and even reviewing physical office layouts.

“For us, agility means the ability to understand the situation very quickly, and more importantly to act on it,” said Park Hotel Group's Aaron Lim. “We found opportunity in this crisis: we took the chance to relook, regroup, and restructure our teams, and explore ways to be more efficient and productive. For example, we cross-deployed our team members and clustered some functions.”

Chua shared that NETS had just been about to move into a new consolidated office space when the pandemic hit, and the move has been delayed since last year as a result. “That has given us the time to redo the office design,” he said, explaining that—in a major change for a company that tends toward the traditional—NETS is now considering a hybrid model where employees might spend 60 percent of their time working from home and the other 40 percent in the office. “We are also creating a space that can increase collaboration, so that people can come together when they return to the office.”

Ultimately, the speakers said, agility comes down to recognizing obstacles and opportunities and doing something about both. The challenge, however, lies in how to prepare employees for the inevitable change, whether in terms of upskilling and reskilling, or in terms of managing their expectations.

“It's not just about hybrid or remote working,” predicted DBS's Dane Lim. “We are now confronted with many new realities, and a lot of the answers will lie in how we have to change to a new way of working, and how we improve the nature of collaboration going forward.”

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Topics: Strategic HR

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