Article: David Thomas of HSBC on ‘agile workforces’ and the future of learning

Learning & Development

David Thomas of HSBC on ‘agile workforces’ and the future of learning

Flexible working has long been part of the culture at HSBC, but the pandemic accelerated and normalised it. How did the firm turn flexible working into an opportunity for agile learning? In this exclusive interview with People Matters, David Thomas, Asia Head of HR at HSBC, casts a new light on learning amid the pandemic and tells us how he envisions the future of work.
David Thomas of HSBC on ‘agile workforces’ and the future of learning

READ the October 2021 issue of our magazine: The Skills Gaps Conundrum

David Thomas is General Manager and Head of Human Resources, Asia Pacific - The Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation Limited. He joined HSBC in May 2019. Prior to this role, David had been Senior Vice President, Head of Human Resources, Asia at Manulife Financial (Hong Kong) since 2014. He also worked for Standard Chartered before joining Manulife. There, he held a variety of positions from 2002. He is also a Member of the Joint Management Board of British Consulate in Hong Kong. 

David has a Bachelor of Management Science Degree from Aston University in Birmingham, UK, and a postgraduate diploma in Human Resources Management from the University of Wales, Cardiff, UK. He also attended executive development programmes at Harvard Business School, University of Oxford, Cranfield School of Management, and IMD Business School. He is a Fellow of the Institute of Chartered Personnel and Development. 

In this exclusive interview with People Matters, David casts a new light on learning amid the COVID-19 pandemic and tells us how he envisions the future of work.

How do you define the ‘new world of work’ and what’s the most significant implication of these changes to talent leaders globally?

There is now an evidenced realisation and acceptance that work can be done remotely to the same standard or better, and that employees working remotely are just as productive as in the office. We are certainly likely to see greater flexibility embedded within organisations, as employees expect more choice over how, when and where they work. Failing to meet those expectations, or to offer alternative solutions in a transparent way, may present a talent flight risk. 

Lockdowns forced everyone to think about how work gets done – we don’t want to lose that learning. Flexible working was already part of our culture, but the pandemic accelerated and normalised it. Managing a dispersed talent workforce to even higher performance will present challenges for some leaders who will need to be supported to deliver team performance in the new normal. We do hear a lot of questions from employees and managers about managing virtual teams and, at HSBC, we have increased coaching and learning solutions – both for employees on how to work effectively remotely, and for managers on how to manage remotely.  

We are actively supporting our people leaders, because despite the volatility, the ambiguity of the current operating environment, our strategic plans and priorities remain: driving growth; providing excellent customer experiences and delivering change; maintaining the well-being of our employees and the engagement of our customers; and mobilising talent to enable this – doing all this through new ways of working together. It’s a challenge our talent leaders and colleagues are rising to.

The crisis of 2020 wrought havoc across the globe but it offered an opportunity for corporations and their leaders to reimagine all aspects of work and fix broken links. Do you think things are changing for good? 

Yes, the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted how we work and employees have a new expectation of what the new normal can look like. We were delighted at how colleagues adapted to working through lockdown, and productivity wasn’t impacted. We’ve always been focusing on performance over productivity, and we don’t need to change that focus now just because we’re adopting hybrid working. 

Research from a recent Gartner poll showed that 48 per cent of employees will likely work remotely at least part of the time after COVID-19 versus 30 per cent before the pandemic. I think at HSBC the number may be higher. 

We asked our colleagues how they felt about our response to COVID-19 and working from home. About half of our population told us they were more productive at home, 21 per cent said no impact to their productivity, 75 per cent said their work/life balance had improved, and 81 per cent said their mental health was strong. It is likely we will see more and more people choosing to work remotely in the post-COVID-19 environment. 


This will have a knock-on effect on the way we use office space, which we expect to become a more fluid space where employees come, some occasionally, others more frequently, to connect and to collaborate. The work environment will have more social spaces to encourage face-to-face interaction that provides the development and collaboration that builds team effectiveness. 

Hybrid and digital working practices will be a positive factor in helping to reduce our overall carbon footprint as we reduce our head-office footprint and don’t return to pre-pandemic levels of business travel.  

We’ve looked through an “inclusion and fairness lens” as we’ve evolved our hybrid strategy to ensure there aren’t any unintended consequences for certain groups. We recognise that some groups with protected characteristics benefit from having greater control over their ways of working, working environment and routine – such as carers or working parents, neuro-diverse colleagues or those with underlying health conditions. The impact will be monitored regularly through consultations with our Employee Resource Groups and employee surveys. 

We will also need to embed the digital solutions that were implemented as ‘interim’ at the start of the pandemic to ensure that both formal development (classroom) and the informal coaching that used to take place on the job, in the office, can reach a hybrid workforce (especially those starting out in their career), equipping our people with the skills they will need now and in the future to support our strategy and their own personal growth. 

While we adapted admirably during the pandemic, our people also told us they worked longer hours and missed human interaction.

How has the pandemic transformed workplace learning? Can you share the top three shifts that you think are most significant?

Support measures were put in place to ensure continuous delivery of recruitment, on-boarding, and training activities to comply with the requirement for social distancing. On-boarding and induction – so critical to the first experience and the coaching that employees require to integrate at pace – now take place virtually. This includes virtual buddies assigned to enable new employees to assimilate into the organisation, whilst social distancing and working from home. We also ran our global internship programme and global graduate induction virtually. 

Employee development must continue and so whilst face-to-face classroom training is at an all-time low due to social distancing, a wide selection of curated digital learning modules and resources to support employees’ continuous learning have been made available through the HSBC University portal and app – over 20,000 courses are available to employees. We have also had to be more purposeful in facilitating the opportunity for informal coaching that helps to hone employees’ skills. Team check-ins and connectivity sessions have been used to ensure the informal support for development that took place in the office, can continue remotely. Of course, line managers have also been asked to dial-up their regular everyday performance and development conversations with employees to provide real-time feedback and development advice, in addition to ongoing well-being check-ins. 

Feedback from employees is very positive. Employees are learning, new joiner attrition remains within thresholds, and feedback on virtual solutions for formal development receive consistently positive employee feedback. 

The future will be a mix of face-to-face and virtual solutions and we will have to continue to be purposeful and planned about how we facilitate development for a dispersed workforce. It has been pleasing to see leaders at HSBC stepping up to create innovative and inclusive experiences that ensure their dispersed teams are able to still regularly connect and to acquire the development from each other that was such a critical part of the ‘office’ learning experience.

The acceleration of digitalisation and automation has exposed the skills gap forcing businesses to rethink their capability-building approaches. What’s your take on how can organisations offer the global workforce clear skilling pathways?

We are working to operationalise the idea of a ‘liquid workforce’ – these are agile workforces that better align skills to needs, outside contracted work areas. We saw success with this in the early days of the pandemic where we were able to move employees from areas with less demand, as seen in branches closed due to social distancing, to areas where there was a jump in demand. For example, in operations. We would not have thought this possible prior to COVID-19, but we were able to do it, and it is great for everyone – we can meet peaks and troughs in demand and retain people. Colleagues can use existing skills in new environments, learn new skills, and make new connections. 

Thinking about how we make that a new norm, we are implementing a tech platform where employees can share their skills and experience, and project managers can seek out skills to meet needs that cannot be met within the traditional team structure. This will also provide employees with the opportunity to build skills and experience in new and stretch environments without necessarily having to commit to a role change or moving for an overseas assignment as was the norm pre-pandemic.

For L&D professionals, the spotlight is clearly on reskilling and upskilling, according to a 2021 report from LinkedIn. And companies are investing heavily in the future of their employees? How can organisations overcome challenges, including the cost to train employees?

This new normal has shown that digital solutions provide a cost advantage which can be routed back into more engaging content that touch a wider number of people – we can develop better solutions that reach significantly more people than we are able to accommodate in a classroom. For example, our Future Skills programme, facilitated virtually using our Degreed learning experience platform, is open to every colleague around the world, so everyone at HSBC can explore new personal, digital, data, and sustainability skills – skills they need to help deliver the bank’s strategy and prepare for the future of work. In 2020, our colleagues spent 5.2 million hours focused on training and development.

How has the learning landscape changed in HSBC in 2021? What are some of the new initiatives that you have implemented recently and how are measuring their impact?

Our focus is our Future Skills programme, equipping our people for the jobs of the Future. Global campaigns and market-specific activity around this programme have resulted in consequential uplift in engagement by employees to the Future Skills agenda. In the first half of 2021, we grew the total attendees 78 per cent from February to May for more than 65 programmes scheduled per month. We also have about 500 Future Skills influencers in Asia, colleagues who believe in the value of development and work to encourage their peers and team members to own and drive their development, in readiness for the Future of Work. 

The next exciting initiative will be more in our digital journey and creating through our new Learning Experience Platform a personalised learning experience for every learner based on their preferences. It is a unified point of access for all learning, integrating internal and external catalogues, designed to empower learners to identify and find the learning they need and includes a set of social and collaboration tools through Sharing and Groups. Colleagues will be able to understand all the learning and skill development happening within the organisation, not just mandatory learning.

What aspects of the new ways of learning will persist in the long term? And how can L&D leaders up their ante to meet the sophisticated needs of employees?

Virtual learning will be here to stay – it will be about investing to ensure learning needs are well understood in the context of Future Skills and the bank’s strategies. We must also ensure that solutions are content-rich, engaging, and play to the unique advantages that technology and the digital environment can provide. Also, encourage employees to gain different experiences across the bank and benefit from on the job learning.

With uncertainty still abound, what's your best prediction about how work will look 2-3 years down the line? 

We will have a hybrid workforce, where colleagues have more autonomy to decide when to work as well as where to work. And I think the office of the future will be a flexible space, a place where colleagues come to connect, to collaborate occasionally; or simply because they find it easier to be more productive in that environment. They will be able to learn anytime, anywhere, supported by innovative solutions, through a variety of channels, which work to create the feel of the office as a space for learning and development.

How are you transforming HSBC for the new world of work? What are your larger priorities and top challenges?

We are becoming more digital and working to make the office not just a physical space, but one that you can access from anywhere and through any device. We have seen significant uptake in our digital banking solutions during the crisis and, even in HR, uptake of our Mobile HR app increased significantly as people at home realised its particular usefulness when working remotely. Digitalisation will be exponential in a post-COVID-19 world of work. 

Workforces will become more ‘agile’ – we have seen great success in managing the COVID crisis by taking decisions at lower layers in the hierarchy, where we are closest to the issue, as we then leverage networks of capabilities (rather than roles) to deliver against those. I expect to see this becoming an embedded way of working as we move into the post-COVID period.

We will need a new style of leadership – more will be asked of leaders if they are to deliver in the new normal – harnessing the will of an increasingly diverse yet dispersed workforce, equipping them will the skills to deliver in very challenging operating contexts, now and for the future, whilst keeping them well, will require a new mix of capabilities. We will need leaders able to communicate a sense of purpose; able to sustain the connections that enable development; foster employees’ sense of belonging even in a remote environment; and willing to take the risks that deliver creativity and innovation at pace in highly ambiguous operating environments.

What's your learning mantra?

Never stop!


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Topics: Learning & Development, Skilling, #TheSkillsConundrum, #HybridWorkplace

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