Covid-19 has sparked off a global health and economic crisis. The virus has also caused disruptions to the way people work — and the way managers manage. One example is how business leaders expect their employees to be physically present so that they can be assured that work is being done.

As Covid-19 forces organisations to allow their people to work from home, such a disruption can actually be the catalyst for a mindset change and also a chance to implement behavioural change, according to experts such as associate professor Tan Hwee Hoon of the Singapore Management University (SMU).

“How do we manage by outcome, instead of managing by processes? It is not changing your skillset, it is changing the way you think about people, about work,” says Hwee Hoon, speaking at a webinar on July 18 featuring a panel of HR experts on the topic “Managing Change in Disruptive Times”.

As part of the mindset change, Hwee Hoon urges organisations to place more trust on their employees. “What is our assumption of our employees? Do they come to work and shirk, or do they want to come to work and do a good job?” she elaborates.

She empathises with organisations that are facing big challenges in the way they manage performance of their employees. To address this issue, she urges a sharper differentiation between “effects” and “outcomes”. “Our mindset has to change on how work gets done, by experimentation, by trial and error. We ought to allow for failures, allow for people to fail, try interesting and new things all the time,” she says.

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Some ways to manage differently can be to look at how individuals’ tasks and functions should change so that there is less interdependence; and which are the individuals who might need more social interaction, she suggests. Also, without constant physical proximity, communication becomes even more critical. “We can never over-communicate — we should do “redundant communication” via different channels: online, or offline; high-tech, or high-touch,” she says.

Besides Hwee Hoon, the other experts at the webinar were Eugene Goh, co-founder of Talentkraft; Mayank Parekh, CEO of the Institute for Human Resource Professionals (IHRP); and Tan Chee Wei, vice president of human resources for Southeast and Northeast Asia at Shell. Wendy Wong, regional director of The People At Work, was the moderator.

Agility to pivot

Despite the seriousness of the crisis, some people might not appreciate the urgency to change — they expect things to revert back to pre-Covid-19 days soon. Unfortunately, the old “normal” is further than many people think, warns Goh.

Sure, scientists are busily developing vaccines, but it could take at least 18 months for one to be developed properly, and then be made widely available. In the meantime, everyone will have to brace themselves for repeated and unexpected disruptions to the normal economy, he adds.

Furthermore, many existing business models have been destroyed. “Businesses need to think about something more fundamental than simply surviving the next three to six months; businesses need to adapt and HR needs to support,” he says.

As an example, Noma, a renowned Danish fine-dining restaurant consistently ranked as one of the best in the world, has reopened as a takeaway burger bar, as that was deemed the only way it can make enough money to survive the crisis.

However, are there enough businesses with the agility to pivot like Noma? The answer, for now, is no, says Goh. He offers a 4P framework to systematically rethink HR. First, people: who are the people in the team, their different levels of capabilities and resilience?

Second, policy: what are the organisation’s plans? Next, processes: how can admin and procedural activities such as making claims and applying leave continue to run even in this new environment.

And last but not least, perception: how can an organisation communicate within, and manage anxieties? He reminds business leaders to pay attention to a critical demographic too: “Don’t forget your managers — don’t assume they can seamlessly transition from the old ways to a new way of working, they need support as well,” says Goh.

Continuous learning

In the same vein, HR professionals themselves need to constantly upgrade their knowledge and skills, says Parekh, of IHRP, which offers a comprehensive selection of courses for HR professionals. According to him, most CEOS struggle with talent and people-related problems. Whenever he asks CEOs what their top three challenges are, a distinct pattern emerges. The top challenge, says Parekh, is to find the right talent. The other top challenges, similarly, are related to talent.

Unsurprisingly, HR departments are often relied on heavily to solve this problem. “This requires agility on the part of the HR team itself and has to be done while continuing HR’s operational activities. HR staff must make continuous learning and reskilling a core,” says Parekh.

He urges HR professionals to go beyond traditional boundaries, and help elevate HR decision science, enhance the talent experience and to make better business cases. The Covid-19 crisis is a chance for HR departments to prove their value to their organisations. “The call to action represents a new opportunity for HR leaders to chart new growth,” says Parekh.

Secret sauce

While having enough information and time to analyse the data is ideal, like many organisations, Tan Chee Wei and her colleagues at global energy giant Shell have been compelled to make much faster decisions often without complete information and data. “Things are unfolding in real time, and they keep changing. In such an environment, there’s little tolerance for slow-moving processes and hierarchy,” she says.

Furthermore, given all that uncertainty, there are calls for much shorter cycles for organisations to be completing changes, production decisions, running experiments and so on. That has led to frequent adjustments, which calls for everyone in the organisation from top to bottom to take on more responsibilities for action, to strengthen the execution muscle. “We have to make adjustments ahead of changes instead of waiting to be told what to do,” says Chee Wei.

She adds that Shell is dealing with this crisis by focusing first on managing the health impact, and then maintaining smooth delivery of products and services to the customers.

Similar to what Hwee Hoon is urging, Chee Wei says that in these unsettling, uncertain times, the “secret sauce” for leaders is to be open to a big shift within. “At the heart of leadership challenges are mindset changes, as well as to manage and navigate, learn quickly from successes, creating safe environments, make mistakes and recover,” she says.

“Do also have this sense of curiosity, and be inclusive, as you encourage others to shape and develop solutions. There’s no tried and tested solution, and nobody really knows the right answer,” Chee Wei adds.

Besides learning on the job, one way Chee Wei has been constantly developing herself was to do a post-graduate programme at SMU, where she took a Master of Science in Communication Management. “It was a very valuable experience on many levels,” she says.

In a sense, signing up for new programmes or additional courses as part of one’s upgrading is no longer about staying ahead but keeping up. As a result of Covid-19, some jobs, especially those requiring just repetitive actions, will likely disappear. In contrast, demand will grow for those with the skills in data analytics, and especially those who can combine these new skills with their industry domain knowledge, says Hwee Hoon.

Now, besides new skills, what is also important is the mindset to recognise the need to constantly change. “One needs to continually reinvent himself or herself in this age and time and so there is a need to identify the kind of jobs or skillsets needed,” she says.

To this point, one of the webinar participants probably spoke for many when it was pointed out that amid this Covid-19 economic crisis, many companies are now in a survival mode. In other words, everything else — including HR and further training — would inevitably take a back seat, and that there is scant luxury of time and resources to allocate these areas.

Goh of TalentKraft urges organisations to put talent-related objectives at their front and centre. “People are the company. The key is to find the alignment and focus on those areas.”

Hwee Hoon agrees. “If you don’t have the people, you don’t have the company; you derived your strategies from the people. People must see that they are not put at second place, and be at the front of all your strategies,” she says.