How companies in the region are handling the pandemic.
By Michael Switow
Faced with the human and economic costs of a publicÂ health crisis, companies throughout Asia-Pacific haveÂ been quick to implement new measures and contingencyÂ plans for how to operate during a pandemic.
At Singapore Press Holdings, for example, employeesÂ have been split into two physically-segregated teamsÂ and are told to log their temperatures twice daily. NearlyÂ four miles away, office workers and visitors alike enteringÂ property developer OUEâs tower in Singaporeâs centralÂ business district are screened for high temperaturesÂ as they walk in through the front door. Facebook hasÂ shuttered its Shanghai office, encouraged staff in SouthÂ Korea to work from home, and temporarily closed partÂ of its Singapore facilities for âdeep cleaningâ after anÂ employee was diagnosed with the coronavirus.
âTake practical steps such as refreshing plans, updatingÂ employee policies, communicating frequently, andÂ carrying out succession planning,â advises Forrester ViceÂ President and Group Director Stephanie Balaouras, who isÂ responsible for the companyâs security and risk research.Â âRisk professionals should treat the latest outbreak [ofÂ COVID-19] as, at best, another powerful warning and, atÂ worst, a potentially massive disruption.â
Singaporeâs government was quick to react, raisingÂ a national threat level to âOrange,â the secondÂ highest tier, in early February. The countryâs MinistryÂ of Manpower advised employers to âprepare forÂ widespread community transmissionâ in an advisoryÂ issued in partnership with employers and the countryâsÂ largest trade union. As the government laid out specificÂ contingency plan measures, companies, universities,Â and other large organizations rapidly adopted theÂ guidelines. Measures include:
- dividing frontline staff into teams that do not haveÂ face-to-face contact;
- encouraging back end staff to work remotely whenÂ feasible;
- controlling and logging visitor access;
- implementing temperature screenings for visitors andÂ employees alike;
- deferring large-scale events; and
- being supportive of employees with caregiving needs.
In other southeast Asian countries, though,Â governments were not as clear or quick to provideÂ direction, prompting a slowerâand sometimes moreÂ confusedâresponse by businesses.
At technology services provider NTT, early action wasÂ key to the companyâs approach.
âOur company has a well-tested business contingencyÂ plan in place, so just before the spike of the pandemicÂ sometime in January 2020, we started preparing allÂ business across APAC with the isolation plan,â explainsÂ Catherine Tan, the companyâs APAC head of facilities,Â sustainability, and organizational resilience.
Supplies like surgical masks and thermometersÂ were already in short supply in the region, so TanâsÂ colleagues turned to South Africa, where they wereÂ able to purchase what they needed at regular prices.Â Subsequently, NTT provided each employee with twoÂ masks.
Other companies, meanwhile, scrambled to find handÂ sanitizer and supplies for their employees as stores soldÂ out.
âGenerally, the precautionary measures we put in placeÂ are extremely welcomed by all employees across theÂ region,â Tan says. âThey know we are very serious aboutÂ their health as well as our business.â
Limiting personal contact is key to preventingÂ COVID-19âs spread. Expos and conferences have beenÂ postponed or cancelled, as have in-person meetings.Â Some companies are prohibiting outside guestsÂ altogether.
Internally, split teams have become the norm. In someÂ companies, teams alternate between working at homeÂ and the officeâfor example, three days onsite, thenÂ three days remote. In cases where members of bothÂ teams have to be in the same physical location (such as aÂ radio studio), they avoid being in the same place at theÂ same time, often allowing a buffer to disinfect the roomÂ after one team leaves.
At NTT, an important first step was to communicate withÂ all employees to âcreate awareness and reinforce theÂ process.â
Daan Duijm, the director of operations at a property andÂ attractions company in Vietnam, agrees. âThe first thingÂ that we focused on was communication, making sureÂ that we provided information about what the disease is,Â how it spreads, the symptoms, and what to do should youÂ have any symptoms,â he explains.
Providing clear instructions about new policiesâfromÂ travel bans to handshakes to split teamsâis also critical.Â If not properly communicated or implemented, theseÂ measures can create grievances and negatively impactÂ morale. In one company, for example, a directorâsÂ personal assistant wondered why contingency plansÂ required her to work from the office while her bossÂ could work from home. In another firm, a team leaderÂ lamented that some employees, possibly fearful of beingÂ in contact with others, refused to work from the office asÂ per the calendar or made excuses to go on medical leave,Â then missed deadlines while working from home.
Challenges of Working Remotely
Even in cases where communication is clear, not everyÂ company is ready to make a quick transition to remoteÂ working.
âItâs proving a logistical challenge,â says ChapmanCG CEOÂ Ben Davies, whoâs in close touch with HR leaders acrossÂ the region. âThereâs almost accelerated learning going on,Â which some companies are finding easier to do than others.Â Many are really learning every dayâeverything from howÂ to lead virtual teams to how to maintain corporate cultureÂ and values while not being face-to-face.â
âYou obviously need the right IT tools to help withÂ communication, teamwork, and project management,âÂ adds Duijm. âThis can be new for a lot of companies. ItâsÂ important to pick those skills up quickly so you can switchÂ with a minimum disruption to your operations.â
In addition to financial and logistical issues, industryÂ experts caution that itâs crucial in times like these toÂ be aware of employeesâ mental health needs. ManyÂ employees are not accustomed to working at home andÂ loneliness can set in. The fact that Asian flats are oftenÂ quite small doesnât help.
Industry experts advise that when employees areÂ using online video tools, they should consider takingÂ a bit longer than normal to just chat and check inÂ with colleagues to see how theyâre doing. ManagersÂ should also consider ways that their teams can be moreÂ productive while working remotely, such as introducingÂ virtual training programs or asking for input on futureÂ business strategies.
âCould your team come up with ideas for continuedÂ business success? Let everyone come up with five ideas onÂ how to generate new business or two proposals on howÂ to market the safe and successful return to business post-Â COVID-19,â suggests Duijm.
âFlipping that switch and having people work from homeÂ isnât actually that easy. HR leaders need to give moreÂ guidance and not just assume theyâre already set up,âÂ says Davies.
Cutting Costs While Trying to Maintain Morale
Faced with declining revenues, some businesses haveÂ been forced to cut workersâ hours or ask staff to takeÂ unpaid leave.
âItâs been a challenge,â says Duijm, whose company hasÂ implemented both measures to cut costs. âHowever, ourÂ staff has been very understanding. They see the situationÂ and understand that itâs not just within our company. ItâsÂ industry-wide and throughout the whole country.â
Duijm engaged staff in the process, surveying them toÂ find out how the virus was impacting them and whatÂ actions they thought the company needed to take.Â 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?
âWeâve tried to deal with it as humanely andÂ professionally as we could,â he adds. âFor example, inÂ cases where a husband and wife are both employed byÂ the company, we made sure that only one is impacted byÂ these policies so they can provide for their family as muchÂ as possible.â
Editorâs note: Michael Switow is HRO Today APACâs editor at large.