Eugene has more than 20 years starting up, managing and advising businesses in the APAC region. He started his career with Hewlett Packard. Later, as co-founder and Executive Director he operated a network of 30 smoothie outlets franchised across 4 cities for 7 years; he was recognized with the Spirit of Enterprise Award 2003 honoring local entrepreneurs.
Eugene works with senior leaders to design and implement integrated human capital solutions from business strategy and organization design to culture transformation and change management. He is the founding architect behind Singapore’s national human capital organizational diagnostics tool, a multi-agency initiative under program stewardship of the Institute of HR Professionals (IHRP).
Here are the excerpts of the interview.
Do you see the rise of a new workplace in the post-pandemic world?
The outcomes from the global WFH experiment will provide varying lessons for different types of businesses. There will be evidence that technology can liberate work from a fixed location and that meaningful relations can still be maintained without physical proximity, promising to alter both commuting to work and business travel decisions forever.
The new paradigm for managers will now be how they can add the benefits and improve on the output of remote working to their existing model of work.
COVID-19 has surprised the world for being an effective change agent for accelerating the digital agenda. The question is whether these conditions will persist long enough for new habits and systems to take root. There are two possible scenarios which will determine the shape of the new workplace.
- Scenario 1: If the threat of COVID-19 is eliminated by the end of the year. Many companies will return to the old normal and cease to make the necessary investments in converting the opportunities revealed by our global WFH experience. Old habits will prevail and only the most progressive of companies will continue to liberate their employees from their desks, thereby widening the competitive advantages their organizations have over the rest of the field in terms of costs, productivity and access to talent.
- Scenario 2: If the threat of COVID-19 persists beyond 2020 (second, third, and subsequent waves anticipated), all companies will be forced to divert resources to transform their companies to embrace a world that is more “high tech, low touch” (i.e. contactless). On one end of the scale, companies may just upgrade their infrastructure and choose to operate as close as possible to the current norm with some additional protocols. On the other end, this is the “proof case” for certain companies to “double down” on their digital efforts that is already paying dividends. Each will pursue their own strategies at varying pace, but the digital agenda will gain greater urgency as businesses anticipate when the next crisis will hit and race to be ready for it.
So, what will the new workplace look like in Scenario 2? It will evolve to a rotating workplace of choice model, particularly for knowledge/digital economy workers.
First, where we work will change. A useful concept to describe this is the sociology-inspired term the “Third Place” which refers to another place outside the home (“first place”) and work (“second place”) that people gather. Contrasting the current models of “hub-and-spoke” or “core-and-flex”, where the office remains at the centre and workers gravitate towards it to spend considerable time getting work done there, this new workplace will evolve to become a model that sees the rotation of these three spaces, elevated to “equal standing”. As managers realize most staff can be trusted to do good work out of the office, the choice of appropriate space to work will lie with the employee.
In this future, the power of choice (where previously there was none) is key. Which space employees choose depends on how well each delivers the “experience” required to fulfill what we need to get done. For example, if you need a quiet space to do focused or thinking work, home could be a great place to work. If you need an informal but comfortable setting to meet a client or build relationships, a local café (third place) could fulfill this function. And if you need to team more effectively or use specialized equipment, the traditional office is the right choice of workspace.
This new found choice of working environments to help improve both quality of work and life for employees rests on the organization and its leaders’ ability to set up strong remote teaming cultures powered by the right infrastructure to make work truly seamless and boundaryless.
Companies like Google, Facebook and Twitter that are looking at permanent WFH for certain employees could open up a new and rich talent source such as return-to-work mothers or persons with disabilities who would benefit greatly from this form of remote work arrangement.
Second, work will look different when we do come together. All social distancing and face covering protocols are expected to continue as will frequent hand sanitizing. Engagement rules will likely be laid down to govern how meetings are conducted, how often, where and for what purposes.
Until the virus is eradicated, I anticipate meetings will be done in smaller sizes, for shorter duration and in more open spaces. People will be allowed to opt to attend remotely, so a more “remote inclusive” culture must persist to embrace colleagues working from home or a third place. Hopefully, greater mindfulness over the use of physical meetings should prevail, eliminating those purely update in nature that can be caught up in an email.
These will extend to external – client and supplier – meetings as well, reducing travel budgets significantly and putting a premium on face to face meets.
Socializing at work will also change. Sharing food and using common utensils will be an adjustment for Asian cultures. Minimum standing distances and the “contract free” greetings will be unnatural for many. Friendly encounters at pantries will be brief as people are encouraged to retreat to their desks with their refreshments.
Third, there will be implications of how we consume learning and upskill our people. This is one area that can be digitized heavily. Learning will be “democratized” and accessible to everyone. Technology will make learning more personalized, just-in-time, and interest-directed replacing much of the structured planned interventions by L&D teams.
How can companies prepare their workforce to adapt to the new world of work? What will the ÔNew Normal’ in the Post-COVID-19 era demand?
If we believe and accept the world has fundamentally changed, then we will need to find new ways of operating to find success by defining what this environment looks like. However, having a clear vision of a future-state is nearly impossible given the sustained volatility and ambiguity of world events. We cannot revert to old tools such as scenario planning which will lead to an infinite number of possibilities to anticipate.
We must instead rebuild our systems incorporating the key design principle of robustness over our prior obsession with efficiency (which is vulnerable to single points of failure).
There is now heightened awareness in the need to invest in creating more agile organizations - from supply chain processes to management systems and workforce resilience; agility is a far better insurance against change than any other fixed strategy. Organizations struggle every day to balance the short-term drive to Perform and the longer-term need to Transform. Transformation is vital to ensuring future performance. Transformation also takes away energy and resources from today’s ability to perform.
In the context of businesses that will return to running at maximum speed in the need to regain lost business, people will be pushed harder to do more, the perennial “change the airplane engine while in flight” analogy. Organizations risk losing people who don’t have the capacity to change or fall victims to burnout.
People, not technology, are at the core of driving successful transformation and this means an inordinate amount of time and resource should be dedicated to retooling them to redesign work and learn how to learn.
What are the top pain points that HR people are likely to face as they gear up to reboot employees' coming back post-COVID-19?
Employees coming back Post-COVID-19 will need first, to feel safe teaming or meeting clients in close physical proximity.
They will also be coming back to a world where their job processes and skills might be left wanting.
They will need to be supported through this reintegration back to work.
In the short term, three key areas can help ensure physical and psychological safety, and business continuity at the office.
First, infrastructure adjustments, layout changes, and maintenance routines. What do we need to put in place at the office for our workforce to do their job safely and more importantly to do it well
Second, HR Policies and benefits updates. Refine policies around sick leave, childcare and flexible hours. Special insurance coverage and WFH allowances for the new work model.
Finally, management system updates. Definition of goals and performance metrics to be more objective driven across the board and even more so as roles are redesigned or new ones created. Managers will also need retraining on how to implement these effectively.
HR will need to realize that culture building and engagement in digital/remote working environments become increasingly important. The further apart we become physically, the more we need to find ways to bind us together emotionally.
By far one of the most important roles for HR is to figure out innovative ways to build a sense of belonging, deepen alignment to the organization’s mission, raise engagement and information transparency in a geographically distributed work model. This will become more challenging with a workforce composition that will increasingly be made up of non-permanent staff like contract and part-time talent.
Many corporate CEOs are facing the toughest leadership challenge of their lifetimes. What are the top leadership traits that businesses will require to adapt to the post COVID world?
Our research found that great leaders possessed qualities that converged into three traits.
Preparedness for the unexpected: Many of these leaders were investing ahead in their workforce and organizational capabilities long before the crisis struck. They didn't predict it, but they were prepared having built in "shock absorbers" into their systems, culture and people rather than optimizing for efficiency and maximum profit.
The ability to act decisively in ambiguity with empathy: to accept the situation for what it is, and to adjust in real-time by listening to customers and employees and responding with speed and empathy.
Balance long and short-term thinking even through a crisis: These leaders empower their teams to take care of the operational zigging and zagging while they seized the initiative to look ahead for what could come next. They invest in key initiatives to help them "accelerate out of the turn" stronger. Performing and Transforming at the same time even when “Perform” becomes “Survive”.
What might the end of furlough look like - and how should HR prepare?
One of the biggest issues is reintegrating furloughed employees back into their teams from a psychological perspective.
A deep sense of mistrust with management could exist if the furlough was not executed with empathy and objectivity. This means a lack of motivation and commitment for those returning to a workplace that had gone on without them for months.
Some furloughed employees may feel a sense of bitterness and could harbor residual fear… thoughts like “I’m here now when the company needs me but where was the company when I needed it most?” or “will they furlough me again at the first sign of trouble”. It is important to make them feel psychologically safe again.
An important role for HR is therefore to make sure the employee’s re-entry experience is positive and work to go “above and beyond” in courting the employee and rebuilding trust.
Leadership should be advised to be more sensitive and deliberate in their engagements with this group of employees and thank them genuinely for their personal sacrifices. They are the “invisible heroes” who helped save the company as well and be recognized for it.
There should be an expectation that a fair number may be looking out for employment opportunities elsewhere when the economic situation turns more positive and contingencies should be made. Frequent engagement surveys and focus groups to get a pulse of how furloughed employees are integrating and if they are receiving the right support will be important for assisting line managers to mitigate the situation in their teams.
How should employers change the way they hire and reskill? How does this intersect with the war for talent to open up new perspectives on employee engagement and talent retention?
First, the shift will be from acquiring to accessing talent.
The organization has to be open to all types of employment arrangements in order to access the highest quality talent it can and move away from “owning” the talent.
The employee value proposition, a big part of which is its culture, will be necessary to attract and emotionally bind these talents to the firm or to keep them coming back for a great experience.
Selecting talent will start with looking for people who have the ability to keep learning new skills and possess the mental resilience and emotional maturity to handle change and ambiguity well.
They have to be team-oriented in addition to being achievement-oriented. The use of skills-based and scenario-based testing will help remove hiring biases in the selection process. There should be more use of peer hiring panels as fit will be deemed a critical criterion in ensuring a new addition to a high performing team doesn’t negatively affect team dynamics.
Learning will eventually be “democratized” with technology providing scale and personalization of the learning journey; all employees will have their own access to resources (such as pre-recorded training videos or “live” experts) to help him/her skill up just enough to get a job done in a short period of time. Learning will be largely unstructured and interest/need driven.
There will be more cross-training to create redundancy for split team arrangements and a heightened awareness of the importance of succession planning for mission critical (not just senior) roles
L&D professionals may spend more time curating learning experiences and running special programs for selected talent pools to provide enhanced learning experiences through cross-functional projects, job rotations and other applied learning opportunities to accelerate growth, using data to support the organization’s investment in such programs
How do you see the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the world of work five years down the line?
Five years isn’t a very long time for drastic changes to occur at the systemic level.
A post-COVID-19 world subjected to some soul searching will eventually find more responsible business owners and directors actively reviewing the focus of managers to balance their profit motives with a sustainability and risk management agenda.
As with times before, businesses will be grappling with increased costs. This time putting in place resilient supply chains, retooling their workforce, and maintaining lower density offices (saddled with additional cleaning and sanitizing costs and the like) will force businesses to look beyond reviewing their cost structures and fundamentally change their operating models to survive.
Businesses will look different “under the hood”. This newfound resiliency will come in the form different systems but more importantly the types of leaders and diversity of talent innovating literally from anywhere they choose.