In crisis, there is an opportunity: A new era of HR is emerging

About the author : Soorya Themudu

HR Director, Asia Pacific

Published on : 11/29/21
  • Climate change; diversity, equity and inclusion; and the impact of remote working on mental health have triggered open and often difficult conversations at the workplace. This confluence of trends is putting increasing pressure on employees, both personally and professionally, thrusting employee wellbeing into the spotlight as a much-required value proposition for organisations to thrive.

    This op-ed was first published on Business Times

    Amidst this new era of human capital management, HR professionals have been forced onto the frontlines. HR, as business partners, must help leaders navigate this slew of changes that have been accelerated by the pandemic and redefine how companies attract, assess and support their people.

    In crisis, we find opportunities. Smart HR leaders evolve and place themselves at the core of the business, by providing strategic guidance to the leadership team to navigate through the storm – but not in the same boat – while keeping a close eye on short-term objectives and actively engaging in developing the strategy playbook.

    Leading a purpose-driven workplace

    One of the biggest challenges senior executives are grappling with is how to lead while demonstrating purpose – from being authentic, showing empathy, promoting diversity, equity and inclusion, ensuring employees are healthy and engaged, to incorporating sustainable practices. Increasingly, employees are taking stock of whether organisations and leaders genuinely embody principles that are laid out in their corporate value statements and are holding their employers accountable. With that, leaders are looking to actively demonstrate company values to their stakeholders, employees and the public. 

    Take Lego, for example, which announced last year a $400 million dollar fund to support their social responsibility and sustainability efforts. Or Southeast Asia's largest banks, from DBS Group Holdings and United Overseas Bank to Malaysia’s Malayan Banking, which are jostling to finance projects that incorporate environmental, social and governance objectives. 

    The founders of start-up Klook even created the Klook Cares initiative, a customer engagement and revenue stream to help feed 5,000 underprivileged and migrant workers who have been affected by Covid-19. To make the most of this opportunity, HR leaders will need to drive change by deploying new skills, resources and innovative approaches that speak to key trends reshaping the way we work. 

    Rethinking engagement and retention

    As hybrid work models start becoming the norm, HR as business partners should focus on enhancing employee experience and engagement by providing guidance, tools and technology to function effectively. A comprehensive review of policies is also necessary to stay relevant to the new norms of working. Offering employees the choice of a hybrid work model which requires a deliberate approach to working when, where and how is deemed most beneficial to both employee wellbeing and business performance, which in turn, can strategically shift employee value propositions. 

    This shift calls for more innovative approaches to attracting and retaining talent – irrespective of the physical location – and making the office a more engaging destination. We need to recognise that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to work. The hybrid work model may not be feasible for all segments of business. For instance, at Sodexo, approximately 95% of our workforce are frontline employees who need to be present at client premises to provide food and facilities services to consumers. A hybrid model might therefore not be suitable for these roles. For the rest of our workforce, it is about adopting hybrid ways of working that will best support our clients and operational needs.

    Amidst the changing notion of what “the office” looks like, the risk of pandemic fatigue is all too real – fueled by the increased use of collaborative tools for communication and learning. HR plays a key role in ensuring that the technology being adopted is accurately fulfilling the needs of both the organisations and employees. Facilitating the transition of employees to new user interfaces will also make it less likely for employees to reject these tools. 

    Cultivating an endemic workplace where every employee feels safe to bring their whole selves to work – physically, mentally, and emotionally – is no easy feat. At the end of the day, human beings are wired for choice. Workplaces that accord employees with flexibility and freedom to manage their own workflow, inspire greater productivity and loyalty.

    As we emerge from this crisis, HR leaders have to be willing to say, “There’s no reason to go back to the way things were.”, and support C-suites in implementing new solutions for employees that support client and business outcomes 

    Upskilling and Reskilling – the need to unlearn and learn

    Lifelong learning is ingrained in Singapore’s work culture and ethics. This is evident through a slew of initiatives – Adapt and Grow; SkillsFuture, SGUnited Jobs and Skills Package – that subsidise workers’ training to expand on skills and encourage career progressions laterally and horizontally. 

    Nowhere is this more pertinent than in the workforce of the future. Employees will need technical skills that do not yet exist, and soft skills, such as design thinking or cross-functional collaboration, that have traditionally not been a top priority among recruiters when selecting talent. To adapt, companies will need to ingrain a growth mindset into their DNA, enabling employees to make time for on-demand learning and celebrating learning accomplishments through recognition, promotions, and other incentives. 

    This comes with shifting how HR is delivering learning and other benefits to its people, and how they are capitalising on technology to tailor customised learning experiences for everyone in the company. Having a more agile workforce and the ability to pull diverse teams together quickly from all over the company will give leaders a competitive advantage.

    Bold Strokes for the Future

    There are numerous opportunities for HR leaders to steer purpose more actively in the workplace, at a time when employee needs are radically shifting. Gone are the days where we think about implementing organisation designs that are 18 months in the future, and it will require bold moves from HR. 

    The focus on optimising talent from the inside, giving employees opportunities and allowing for greater movement and autonomy are the things that will help companies recover. I have no doubt that HR leaders will drive this agenda.

    When organisations get it right in these ways, their workforce emerges more engaged and loyal, their productivity increases, and they end their workdays with a sense of pride and belonging. Those who succeed have an opportunity to elevate their role as a strategic leader who can guide the organisation into a more inclusive future.