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COVID-19 has accelerated the timeline of digital transformations in most companies across various industries. It changed the way companies hire, the way workplaces run, how employees interact, and how business operations function.
With many countries issuing nationwide lockdowns, organisations had no choice but to adopt and embrace remote work. In many companies, new processes had to be introduced to keep businesses afloat while employees work from home.
Countries across Asia have sped up their vaccination efforts to help reduce infection rates and overcome economic hurdles. Now, almost two years into the pandemic, organisations and their employees have found a rhythm in terms of hybrid work arrangements, and come to embrace hybrid work models even as countries start easing their lockdown rules.
So what is the next normal in the era of COVID-19? At The Future of Work discussion at the ASEAN Business and Investment Roundtables: Skills for a Digital Age event, hosted by the ASEAN Business and Investment Summit 2021, panellists discussed how digital transformation brought about by the pandemic has changed the way we work.
Moderated by McLarty Associates’ Senior Advisor Steve Okun, the session featured Deputy Secretary-General for ASEAN Economic Community Satvinder Singh’s keynote address, and an expert panel that includes Elizabeth Santana Kumar, Transformation Manager at Brunei LNG; Manuel Bulens, Deputy Chief Executive Officer at Baiduri Bank based in Brunei, Anthony Thompson, Regional Managing Director for Asia Pacific and Executive Board Director at PageGroup; and Ruma Balasubramanian, Managing Director for Southeast Asia at Google Cloud.
The panellists also shared their views on business challenges observed, likely permanent changes, functions that may require reinventing, hybrid team management and future challenges at the workplace in the uncertainty of an evolving pandemic.
According to the Deputy Secretary-General, the digital transformation journey across ASEAN have altered traditional business models.
“There are nearly 70 million new Internet users in ASEAN, making it one of the largest Internet bases with close to 400 million users [in the world,” he relates.
“Despite all the challenges brought about by the pandemic, our digital transformation journey is on its way and in good momentum, and while our economy is recovering, the pandemic has altered the way we work and play.”
And change it has, even for industries where face-to-face interactions are critical and traditional to the businesses. One such industry is banking. “We are not digital natives,” relates Bulens.
When the pandemic broke out, many processes that required human interactions at Baiduri Bank were evaluated for digital transformation. Digital functions were introduced, employees were subsequently trained, and remote work was implemented where relevant. Another aspect of the banking equation is the digital readiness of customers.
“We have seen a volume reduction of around 42% at our branches, and 40% more people signing up for our mobile application to do the transactions, which is phenomenal. But it also means we still have a lot of people not using the digital channels that we have provided for them,” says Bulens.
Another industry where face-to-face interaction is fundamental is recruitment. Almost overnight, hiring managers and recruiters had to adopt video interviews and online onboarding processes, and virtual interviewing looks to remain an option for talent acquisition.
There are several benefits to virtual interviews. It streamlines the process for recruiters and hiring managers as they no longer need to find a space to conduct the interviews. And it saves time for job seekers, as they can save time on travel and use the time to better prepare or even schedule more job interviews. Virtual interviews also allow for the employer's stakeholders to sit in on interviews without having to be in the same place or country. Positions that involve several rounds of interviews are more easily done virtually.
“As organisations become more comfortable and confident in using technology, particularly online meetings and video technology, to facilitate the recruitment process, we’ve seen more and more companies make recruitment decisions and run the whole recruitment process without ever meeting anyone face to face – even for senior-level appointments,” explains Thompson.
The downside is it is still easier to read a person’s facial expressions and body language in person. Online interviews can sometimes get cut off due to Internet connectivity or bandwidth issues. Some people are not familiar with video interview software, while others are just not comfortable with video interviews and may appear awkward onscreen.
As more and more businesses adopt digital capabilities, it also means that there is tremendous pressure on digital infrastructure for many companies.
Balasubramanian shares, “A lot of the remote work experimentation was around the fact that so many of our customers put millions and millions of people into this remote work-from-home situation, literally, overnight. For example, I remember working with one customer who put about 450,000 employees into a video situation in the course of 72 hours.”
As any new disruption or innovation comes in place, there would be inequality
“Now, if you think about the kind of impact that this has on the culture of an organisation; how you deal with this, again, in your personal lives, but then also the technology infrastructure? And how does that technology infrastructure accommodate moving parts of thousands of people into a situation where all your data has to be kept securely, and individuals have to collaborate on a regular basis?”
“[Companies] have had to go out and test new kinds of IP solutions, or perhaps adapt existing solutions. And to be honest, many companies that we work with have really struggled; they’ve discovered that their tools weren’t scalable, perhaps they had more cyberattacks than imagined that they would, and by the way, many of those tools weren’t really intuitive,” Balasubramanian observes.
As companies seek business solutions, digital capabilities, and new technologies to address work functions and remote work, the demand for technology talent has increased. This need for tech talent is prevalent across the world.
A research survey by Visier Benchmarks on 9 million employee records from more than 4,000 companies in the US found that resignations are highest among mid-career employees, particularly in the tech and healthcare sectors.
This data reflects the recruitment climate in Asia, too. According to Thompson, 2021 has been the strongest recruitment market he has seen in his 20 years working in the recruitment industry. And that leads to another pressing issue in today’s economy: the competition for human capital.
There is a real war for talent
And that poses another issue: smaller companies losing out to bigger and more prominent organisations on the talent attraction and retention aspect.
“I can imagine the bigger companies are going to be in a better place to be able to attract that capital,” adds Mr Singh.
When it comes to talent retention, organisations need to recognise that it takes more than an attractive remuneration package to keep top talent. One other way is to upskill your employees. This not only benefits employees but also advances digital capabilities in the company and facilitate the growth of an organisation.
Therefore, it is crucial to develop digital capabilities across the board, have equal access and not limit them to a limited group of employees.
Despite the technological advances and innovations we’re seeing, there’s still a massive investment and focus on human capital
“I think what’s important is for all sectors to recognise inequality and anticipate. We need all hands on deck [including perspectives from different age groups], experiences and employment status, even those in the gig economy; we need all of them to be building capabilities. So that the digital ways of working, change and continue to improve,” says Kumar.
“Industry leaders should focus on continuous learning, continuous learning for leaders, continuous learning across all platforms of people and levels of,” she adds.
Not limited to SMEs and multinational corporations, lockdowns across ASEAN brought about by COVID-19 have also created a spike in the number of home-based businesses and technology that small merchants can use.
“QR codes are now everywhere. And I think it has provided the ability for small merchants to be able to take payments digitally, without having to invest heavily report the sales equipment,” says Bulens.
“Also, doing business on Instagram has allowed people from their homes to create a business from scratch with limited overheads. So, they don’t have to invest a lot in stocks and things like that, and I believe there are still opportunities for people with different backgrounds to take advantage of the innovations pointing to the market. Now, it doesn’t mean that it’s for everyone. Also, some jobs will remain non-digital, some jobs, people will still need to do manually.”
Having thrown into a hybrid or remote work model for close to two years, many employees do not want to go back to the office-only model of before.
According to Bulens, an online poll conducted by Baiduri Bank in September on 1,000 employees regarding remote working showed that 54% of respondents preferred to work from home rather than from the office. 41% said they were well-equipped to work from home, with benefits such as spending more time with family, saving on transport fees and enjoying the flexibility of not having to rush to the office.
We’ve seen that the average working day has increased by 48 minutes
However, there are challenges when it comes to the implementation and management of workplace flexibility.
“As any new disruption or innovation comes in place, there would be inequality. I think what’s important is for all sectors to anticipate and recognise inequality [in digital capabilities amongst their employees],” says Kumar.
Bulens adds, “The challenge [is also] to find the right balance between doing work from home and your actual work as not everyone has the digital space, or help to assist their children who could not go to school during the outbreak.”
Related: Workplace flexibility crucial for leaders to get right: report
When approaching the subject of a hybrid workforce, there is a need to discuss the challenge and critical role of leadership in a hybrid model during the pandemic. As much as remote workers are grasping to adapt to working remotely, employers, human resources leaders and managers are also learning how best to lead and manage hybrid teams through video calls and online meetings.
“It is easier to lead a group of people where everyone is doing the same thing,” explains Thompson. “However, leading at work and employee engagement in the digital age with hybrid teams is far more complicated and challenging.”
There’s a real demand for leaders to have great levels of empathy and be able to create an environment that’s both psychologically and physically safe
“There’s a real demand for leaders and managers to have great levels of empathy and be able to create an environment that’s both psychologically and physically safe. So, I think there is going to be a real need to upskill constantly in terms of leadership,” adds Thompson.
“We’ve seen studies where more than 90% of organisations are saying that, even as workplaces open post-pandemic, we are going to allow employees to have that flexibility [of remote work] because employees are demanding it,” says Balasubramanian.
Related: How to manage performance reviews during the COVID-19 pandemic
There are some downsides to working remotely. “Interestingly, in our studies with our employees, we’ve seen that the average working day has increased by 48 minutes,” Balasubramanian notes.
Thompson agrees, “Remote workers are not respecting the time of day, and this situation is even more exacerbated in environments where home-schooling is prevalent, which will lead to a build-up of stress; not to mention, a lot of people haven’t been able to take a holiday break.”
He adds, “This comes back to the challenge of leadership, where you are collaborating remotely; you have to create scenarios to support hybrid teams and put discipline in place. As an organisation, we’ve implemented a special leave day called #PageBreak, where our employees take a day off in a month and are not allowed to be engaging with anyone to do with work.”
#PageBreak is an extra day-off offered to PageGroup employees as an opportunity for self-care activities and to connect with loved ones. Google also has global reset days every quarter to ensure people have downtime where nobody can reach out to other Googlers.
Almost without exception, what people want is choice
There is no clear definition of a hybrid work model. Every employee has their preferences when it comes to flexible work arrangements. Some employees want to work in the office, and others wish to have both options of working at and away from the office, while some wish to remain remote and never return to offices again.
“Almost without exception, what people want is choice,” explains Thompson. “The choice of when [and where] to work. And that might not always be how many days a week, but what hours am I working during the day. People are looking for more flexibility; in fact, what job seekers are looking for is a bespoke environment that would support and suit them.”
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