Enterprises are bracing up for the New Normal led by digital networks, agile systems, and a distributed workforce.

The past three months have dealt a monumental blow to many businesses worldwide. By staggering their pace, revenue, customer outreach and workforce dynamics, the virus outbreak is questioning why organisations should re-strategize operations and their ‘concept of work’. Digital tools and agile working models have been in place for a while, but none were vastly forced to go into a full-on remote digital experiment like what is being witnessed now.

In many ways, the pandemic has taught us how to cope during a crisis by preparing enterprises to abandon traditional organizational behaviors and revamp their employee value proposition. The possibility of another crisis is not too far off, although we may not know how or in what form it may manifest. The current work from home (WFH) exercise offers a glimpse into the ‘Future of Work’, a concept organisations have been imagining and predicting ever since the disruption of IR 4.0.

To further understand the quarantine work scenario, Propay Partners and Aon hosted a webinar on May 19th, 2020 to understand how organizations and their employees are battling novel challenges. Themed “What if…Working from home is the ‘New Normal’?”, the discussion was attended by panelists Rohit Nambiar, CEO, AXA AFFIN Life Malaysia, and Rahul Chawla, Head – Malaysia, Financial Institutions (SEA) & Wealth Management (Asia) Human Capital Solutions, Aon.

In his opening remarks, moderator Manish Mehta, Business Director, Propay Partners, drew attention to this never-experienced phenomenon that was altering the way we lived, worked, and functioned. “It has been 63 days since we have been under the MCO & CMCO. Until a few months ago, none of us would have thought that we would be holding a webinar like this and on this topic. This time there's no playbook to take cues from or predict what might happen next,” he said.

A Once-in-a-Lifetime Opportunity

Panelist Rahul likened the new normal to a time-lapse video that captured the lockdown and its consequent onslaught of virtual activity to fleeting frames. “There is no doubt that it is an unprecedented crisis, but it is also one that offers an unprecedented opportunity. We’ve looked at the Great Financial Crisis, the SARS epidemic, the 9/11 terror attacks, Dot-com Bust and it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity because there is a tremendous economic value that can be unlocked. We aren’t saying that it will only lead to topline or shareholder returns in the long term but tangible value for all stakeholders to experience,” affirmed Rahul.

Leading with facts, Aon, a professional services firm that provides risk, retirement and health solutions to corporations globally, published their third COVID-19 Pulse Survey titled ‘Setting the Stage for a Return to Work and the New Normal’ in early May this year. Sampled among 189 respondents from across sectors in Malaysia, the survey highlights that there will be accelerated changes to the way we work. Numbers also show that only 7.5% of HR departments have been rated as sufficiently ready to take on these changes.

“The amount of trust employees have put in their leaders and organisations, and how firms have responded to that trust needs to be reflected in a change in the employee value proposition. Not only will employee compensation philosophies change, but virtual working arrangements will be here for good. Around 84% companies are expected to have different working models as a result of Covid-19. Companies are also shifting from a welfare-oriented approach (prevalent in the beginning of the pandemic) to a more economic approach for the long term,” pointed out Rahul, adding that companies who once said they wouldn’t trim headcount are now forced to consider the option and its alternatives.

While the question of return to work (RTW) is still unclear, a vast majority - nearly 90% - of firms in Malaysia are preparing RTW strategies in line with local government rules to make their worksites safer for their employees. However, the fact that two-thirds of the organisations do not intend to make long-term restructuring in their workforce operations is disappointing, according to Rahul. “They are really letting this opportunity slip by. What it also shows is that these organisations assume that everything is going to be the same once they get back to their offices,” he said.

Bridging Crisis Management with Empathy

Rohit, when asked what he had learnt from the Covid-19 experience said the outbreak helped businesses realise that people are the ‘secret sauce’ that they have always been looking for. “For a long time, companies have been advancing technology, products, processes, but at the end of the day, it’s people,” says Rohit, who was awarded the Young Leader of the Year at the Asia Insurance Industry Awards in 2019.

Known for widely representing millennials and the under-represented segment in the insurance industry, Rohit insisted that ‘the current uncertainty is here to stay’. “I believe that the world will be a Pre-Covid and Post-Covid world. We’ve never faced a situation like this in 100 years and, as leaders, it will be quite interesting because many industries are not used to taking risky decisions. Now, nobody has a choice. It’s baptism by fire. In times like this, one of the mantras we believe at work is that the ‘fastest fish will eat the big and small fish alive’. And that’s how we manage our projects. All our projects are done within three months. The speed of thinking and execution is going through a tremendous change; one that we haven’t seen in our lives so far,” he says.

Rohit, who has been CEO since 2017, feels that the quarantine-enforced remote work strategy has a direct link to leadership competency. “Leaders are so used to management by sight and not objectives. People need to be told why companies are enforcing WFH because they have the right to know why we are bringing in change. Sometimes, you have to believe in empowerment than micromanagement,” he stressed. The world cannot be fully agile but there will be an equilibrium, he added.

Illustrating examples from his own team at AXA AFFIN Life, Rohit explains why crisis management needs a bit of empathy in both execution and outlook. “Working mothers are full-time caretakers, teachers, cooks and employees. It is vital for us to provide means and ways to help those who are less vocal and may need newer ways of engagement. Beyond this group, there are many others who can do with that little help from a professional on how to handle the “new norm” or “Work-from-home” challenges better. Having technology in place also helps employees to kick off working from home without hiccups. Being cautious is important but it’s also important to keep your eyes on performance as this is the best time to clear backlogs and relook at SOPs,” he noted.

Productivity & Iterative Models for the Future

Virtual access and movement restrictions are also throwing up companies the option of operating without footprint in markets of their choice. However, unlocking economic value cannot come from a cost standpoint alone. Rahul, who has over 13 years of experience in core human capital development, explains that real estate savings alone will not account for great savings. “As an organisation you need to know what your headcount is, expenses are, where you make money, what your positions are and if you can operate in a digital work environment,” stated Rahul. Building an Employee Value Proposition around these factors would greatly help companies navigate concerns during crises, he added, citing Aon’s Covid-19 survey.

Building digitally-capable functions that operate seamlessly is not just the only indicator to measuring success. Productivity, which also a key indicator, requires metrics that actually matter otherwise it can have damaging consequences for both the employee and employer. “Dealing with ambiguity and expecting employees to be productive at home can be a big leap of faith,” according to Rahul. Most of these expectations can be matched with the right hiring decisions and also making sure they are made comfortable and given their space even when they work from home.

“The whole concept of tracking employees & measuring them itself is a very outdated philosophy in performance management,” said Rohit, seconding Rahul that leadership makes the difference. “It’s all about if they are delivering or not. What matters are the objectives that the managers set and the employees who receive them,” he said. He also emphasized why managers should know how to manage millennials better. “WFH is really the same thing – how are you managing them, do they know how you are measuring them, what if they don’t perform and what does that mean for them – these are important aspects,” he added.

Even as the crisis looms and enterprises are springing new ideas, Rohit warns why it isn’t a good idea to run before learning to walk in the current context. Some banks are shutting their branches and going digital. But what do you do in a rural kampung (village) in Malaysia where going to the bank is part of people’s lifestyle? A lot of things are changing, getting automated, going digital and people’s jobs are transforming. But with every new development, you got to be really careful so that you don’t overcorrect,” pointed out Rohit.

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