As the Regional Director and Country Head of Michael Page Philippines, I was supposed to be based in the Philippines by now.
In fact, at the beginning of 2020, the plan was to rent out our house in Barcelona, sell our car and move the entire family — that’s me, my wife and my children — to the Philippines in time for the opening of Michael Page’s brand new office. Despite news of COVID-19 spreading in certain parts of Asia, we figured the situation would eventually be dealt with in due time.
Unfortunately, not everything went according to plan. Eight months after the COVID-19 outbreak was officially declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization in March 2020, countries around the world continue to grapple with its health and economic impacts. In the Philippines, the annual Gross Domestic Product is already forecasted to contract by up to 7.3% in 2020. Unemployment, too, rose to a staggering 17.7% in April 2020. Even though the COVID-19 outbreak is in better control now compared to earlier this year, at least at the time of writing, much of its impact is still to be seen in the years to come.
As for Michael Page Philippines, we did manage to open our new office as scheduled in July 2020. However, due to a combination of border restrictions and bureaucratic issues, several members of the senior management — myself included — have been locked out of the country since the pandemic began. Keeping up with the latest recruitment trends from halfway around the world is one thing, but building up a culture across different geographies and time zones, especially for a new business, has been a real challenge, to say the least.
With that said, there are many positive signs and profound learnings that I have discovered over the course of this turbulent year, and I would like to share them with you.
1. Resilient industries will carry us through
Before the pandemic struck, the Philippines’ e-commerce industry was still in a relatively nascent stage. However, with large sections of the population confined to their homes during the COVID-19 pandemic, the industry has had to rapidly develop its reach and capabilities.
This meant that companies in the sector began to invest heavily in technology, secure their supply chains and hire the best available talent. This was the case for traditional sectors looking to transition their businesses into digital areas as well. Digital transformations had to be fast-tracked, which spurred hiring activities within the sector.
In fact, towards the end of 2020, we saw plenty of roles for e-commerce platforms, startups and businesses that were about to turn digital. Even better news was how sectors adjacent to e-commerce, such as third-party logistics, packaging, IT and financial services, also experienced a boost towards the end of 2020.
2. A lean team allowed us to stay afloat
Again, opening a brand new office in the middle of a global pandemic was a less-than-ideal situation. However, this turned out to be a blessing in disguise here at Michael Page Philippines. Many of our competitors entered the Philippines market long before we did.
Unfortunately, due to their relative size and maturity, this also meant that they were much harder hit when the pandemic became a reality. On the other hand, because we started small, we were able to grow from a team of zero to 10 within the first six months. In fact, we are looking to double our structure within the coming months, and all of that is because we’ve been able to remain agile while others were forced to adopt a more conservative strategy.
Of course, this was not a strategy by design, and luck had everything to do with it. However, a big part of surviving the downturn is about seizing the right opportunities — and being lean allowed us to remain viable for longer.
3. The importance of first-mover advantage
There were many tough decisions that the team had to make in the early days. We could choose to delay our move to the Philippines until a viable vaccine was produced. After all, with our competitors in the Philippines reducing their headcounts and closing some of their offices, it certainly didn’t feel like the right time.
However, there were simply too many uncertainties ahead. For example, we didn’t know when a vaccine would be produced, let alone reach the shores of the Philippines. On top of that, we continued to face bureaucratic issues, which meant that the senior management didn’t know when they could move their operations to the country. Instead of waiting around for good news, we decided very early on to push on ahead with the plans, adapt to the situation and make it happen.
After all, the COVID-19 was going to spread regardless of our decision, and we knew that businesses would rebound eventually. It was important, then, to make the first move even if we had to make personal sacrifices. This, I am happy to report, turned out to be the right decision.
4. Embrace change — and the people that matter the most
Speaking of sacrifices, 2020 was a challenging year on a personal level as well. Aside from selling our car and renting out our house, most of our worldly possessions had been packed into a shipping container bound for the Philippines. Everything was set and we were ready to go. However, as I mentioned earlier, things did not come to pass.
There’s something beautiful about having my wife and children within arm’s reach throughout the day.
I am writing this from an Airbnb unit, which I have been renting for the family since November 2020. It is a modest yet cosy unit, but one downside is that I have to hold video calls in the kitchen so that I don’t wake the family up in the middle of the night. It’s also wintertime here in Spain, and we only just realised that most of our winter clothes were in the shipping container.
All we had on hand were summer clothes we were going to hand carry to the Philippines (so much for spending Christmas in the tropics!). Finally, because I have had to conduct meetings remotely, it is not uncommon to stay up till midnight or even wake up at four in the morning to take calls and give presentations.
Again, it’s not the most ideal situation but, like my team in the Philippines, I too have had to learn to adapt to the challenges and find the bright spots in everyday life.
And the bright spots were not hard to find in my case.
Albert Perez, Regional Director and Country Head of Michael Page Philippines, with his wife and children.
I welcomed to the world my second child this year, which has brought much joy to the family. Instead of splitting the time between work and taking care of the children, because I have had to work from home, I found myself playing the role of the Regional Director, the Country Head, the husband and the father at the same time.
There’s something beautiful about having my wife and children within arm’s reach throughout the day. The fact that they are healthy, too, is something that I am incredibly thankful for.
Looking ahead, the market sentiment for the Philippines is positive. GDP growth is already forecasted to go back to 6.5% in 2021. Unemployment, too, nearly halved by July 2020. The expectation is that the economy will certainly bounce back come 2021.
As hiring activities continue to rise steadily across the board, I encourage my peers to both look ahead with optimism and look back at the precious times spent with those that matter the most during this crazy, unpredictable year.
We’ve come this far, let’s push on for just a little more.
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