COVID-19: HR Responds

How companies in the region are handling the pandemic.

By Michael Switow

Faced with the human and economic costs of a public health crisis, companies throughout Asia-Pacific have been quick to implement new measures and contingency plans for how to operate during a pandemic.

At Singapore Press Holdings, for example, employees have been split into two physically-segregated teams and are told to log their temperatures twice daily. Nearly four miles away, office workers and visitors alike entering property developer OUE’s tower in Singapore’s central business district are screened for high temperatures as they walk in through the front door. Facebook has shuttered its Shanghai office, encouraged staff in South Korea to work from home, and temporarily closed part of its Singapore facilities for “deep cleaning” after an employee was diagnosed with the coronavirus.

“Take practical steps such as refreshing plans, updating employee policies, communicating frequently, and carrying out succession planning,” advises Forrester Vice President and Group Director Stephanie Balaouras, who is responsible for the company’s security and risk research. “Risk professionals should treat the latest outbreak [of COVID-19] as, at best, another powerful warning and, at worst, a potentially massive disruption.”

Singapore’s government was quick to react, raising a national threat level to “Orange,” the second highest tier, in early February. The country’s Ministry of Manpower advised employers to “prepare for widespread community transmission” in an advisory issued in partnership with employers and the country’s largest trade union. As the government laid out specific contingency plan measures, companies, universities, and other large organisations rapidly adopted the guidelines. Measures include:

  • dividing frontline staff into teams that do not have face-to-face contact;
  • encouraging back end staff to work remotely when feasible;
  • controlling and logging visitor access;
  • implementing temperature screenings for visitors and employees alike;
  • deferring large-scale events; and
  • being supportive of employees with caregiving needs.

In other southeast Asian countries, though, governments were not as clear or quick to provide direction, prompting a slower—and sometimes more confused—response by businesses.

Early Action

At technology services provider NTT, early action was key to the company’s approach.

“Our company has a well-tested business contingency plan in place, so just before the spike of the pandemic sometime in January 2020, we started preparing all business across APAC with the isolation plan,” explains Catherine Tan, the company’s APAC head of facilities, sustainability, and organisational resilience.

Supplies like surgical masks and thermometers were already in short supply in the region, so Tan’s colleagues turned to South Africa, where they were able to purchase what they needed at regular prices. Subsequently, NTT provided each employee with two masks.

Other companies, meanwhile, scrambled to find hand sanitiser and supplies for their employees as stores sold out.

“Generally, the precautionary measures we put in place are extremely welcomed by all employees across the region,” Tan says. “They know we are very serious about their health as well as our business.”

Social Distancing

Limiting personal contact is key to preventing COVID-19’s spread. Expos and conferences have been postponed or cancelled, as have in-person meetings. Some companies are prohibiting outside guests altogether.

Internally, split teams have become the norm. In some companies, teams alternate between working at home and the office—for example, three days onsite, then three days remote. In cases where members of both teams have to be in the same physical location (such as a radio studio), they avoid being in the same place at the same time, often allowing a buffer to disinfect the room after one team leaves.

Communication

At NTT, an important first step was to communicate with all employees to “create awareness and reinforce the process.”

Daan Duijm, the director of operations at a property and attractions company in Vietnam, agrees. “The first thing that we focused on was communication, making sure that we provided information about what the disease is, how it spreads, the symptoms, and what to do should you have any symptoms,” he explains.

Providing clear instructions about new policies—from travel bans to handshakes to split teams—is also critical. If not properly communicated or implemented, these measures can create grievances and negatively impact morale. In one company, for example, a director’s personal assistant wondered why contingency plans required her to work from the office whilst her boss could work from home. In another firm, a team leader lamented that some employees, possibly fearful of being in contact with others, refused to work from the office as per the calendar or made excuses to go on medical leave, then missed deadlines whilst working from home.

Challenges of Working Remotely

Even in cases where communication is clear, not every company is ready to make a quick transition to remote working.

“It’s proving a logistical challenge,” says ChapmanCG CEO Ben Davies, who’s in close touch with HR leaders across the region. “There’s almost accelerated learning  going on, which some companies are finding easier to do than others. Many are really learning every day—everything from how to lead virtual teams to how to maintain corporate culture and values while not being face-to-face.”

“You obviously need the right IT tools to help with communication, teamwork, and project management,” adds Duijm. “This can be new for a lot of companies. It’s important to pick those skills up quickly so you can switch with a minimum disruption to your operations.”

In addition to financial and logistical issues, industry experts caution that it’s crucial in times like these to be aware of employees’ mental health needs. Many employees are not accustomed to working at home and loneliness can set in. The fact that Asian flats are often quite small doesn’t help.

Industry experts advise that when employees are using online video tools, they should consider taking a bit longer than normal to just chat and check in with colleagues to see how they’re doing. Managers should also consider ways that their teams can be more productive whilst working remotely, such as introducing virtual training programs or asking for input on future business strategies.

“Could your team come up with ideas for continued business success? Let everyone come up with five ideas on how to generate new business or two proposals on how to market the safe and successful return to business post-COVID-19,” suggests Duijm. “Flipping that switch and having people work from home isn’t actually that easy. HR leaders need to give more guidance and not just assume they’re already set up,” says Davies.

Cutting Costs Whilst Trying to Maintain Morale

Faced with declining revenues, some businesses have been forced to cut workers’ hours or ask staff to take unpaid leave.

“It’s been a challenge,” says Duijm, whose company has implemented both measures to cut costs. “However, our staff has been very understanding. They see the situation and understand that it’s not just within our company. It’s industry-wide and throughout the whole country.”

Duijm engaged staff in the process, surveying them to find out how the virus was impacting them and what actions they thought the company needed to take. Feedback was gathered through a set of questions.

  • How should we cut costs?
  • Do you think we should implement that now or wait first?
  • How would these measures impact you?

“We’ve tried to deal with it as humanely and professionally as we could,” he adds. “For example, in cases where a husband and wife are both employed by the company, we made sure that only one is impacted by these policies so they can provide for their family as much as possible.”

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Posted April 13, 2020 in Workforce Management

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