Our annual survey of nearly 3,000 professionals in APAC provides a pulse on working life in the region. This year, we share data from before and after the start of the COVID-19 crisis. Managing Director and Profile co-founder Richard Letcher provides insights into the impact it has had on flexible working, mental health, our confidence in leadership, and more.
Background to the report
This year, following our annual Working in Asia Pacific survey on talent and human resources trends, the 5th edition of which we carried out in January pre-COVID-19, we conducted a second survey in Q2 as a result of the dramatic change in the world. The latter focused exclusively on the impact of COVID-19 on our working lives.
This report is based on data from both surveys, which we conducted in conjunction with The Next Step, a national boutique HR Consultancy firm in Australia, and Roffey Park, a global leadership consulting firm.
Data is also provided for North America by our parent company, WilsonHCG.
The respondent demographics for the two surveys were almost identical - mid to senior professionals located in predominantly Singapore, China, Hong Kong SAR and Australia, and evenly split by gender. In all, 2,600 people filled in each survey, leading to a particularly robust dataset. Respondents predominantly worked in Industry & Commerce (46%) with 31% responding Financial Services and 23% Professional Services.
COVID-19: Have leaders & human resources stepped up?
How would you rate your leadership's effectiveness with respect to dealing with COVID-19 within your organisation?
For the most part, respondents felt leaders performed okay (during the initial crisis), although their performance was rated much higher in Australia and North America.
This geographical inconsistency may be due to the fact that leaders in Australia and North America were not the first to deal with the crisis, as they were in Asia, so there was time to react, prepare and take heed. Also, the survey in APAC was done in April at which point conversations in Asia were starting, or indeed had happened in some organisations, around job and salary cuts, so perhaps respondents rated their leaders lower because of this, particularly if they fell victim.
How do you feel the standing and reputation of your HR function, within your organisation, has been affected by the work it has done over the last few months with regards to COVID-19
How about HR – have they stepped up? Over the last few decades we have seen HR functions excel in the face of crises and as such, they have been rewarded with more credible, high profile positions within organisations. Has the work done by HR during the last few months enlarged this seat at the table
The simple answer is “yes”. In total, 41% of respondents thought their HR function had enhanced their reputation, but nearly a fifth thought HR's reputation had actually been tarnished by their handling of the crisis.
In Australia particularly, HR’s good work has been very much appreciated and noted.
When we slice the data further by level we see that senior respondents are more likely to have bought into how HR has stepped up, perhaps as they have been working more closely with the HR team, and as a result, they are more acutely aware of the complexity of the situation.
Working from home – the future?
Which flexible working options are the most important or appeal most to you?
As a result of the data from our January survey pre-COVID-19, we can see people’s expectations of flexible working options ahead of the crisis. Our COVID-19 survey data then showed what the impact was when some of those remote working arrangements came into play. Just before the COVID-19 crisis started, we asked respondents what they wanted when it came to flexible working options in the future.
Prior to COVID-19, certainly not all of us had wanted to work entirely away from an office environment. From the graphic above, respondents were keen to have the freedom to arrive and leave work when they wanted, work from home on occasion and perhaps work the hours they chose. All of these were more important to people than ‘flexible vacation time’ (unlimited paid time off).
"My organisation offers the right level of flexible working options".
For the most part, pre-COVID-19, respondents actually rated their organisations favourably when it came to flexible working options.
"Because COVID-19 has led to most people working from home, I feel my organisation will adopt a more flexible and agile way of working even after COVID-19 is under control.”
We are currently working in the biggest flexible working experiment we have ever known. So, who thinks it’s the future?
It would appear that the majority of respondents, particularly in Australia and North America, where flexible working programs were more prevalent pre-COVID-19, believe flexibility is here to stay. However, the data suggests comparatively less think so in China. It seems there is a greater expectation to return to the office in China or perhaps there was a greater pull back to the office and to see work colleagues.
The buy-in to work more flexibly seems particularly strong at the senior end, which is not necessarily what you might think. Could it be that younger professionals are keen to return to the “old norm” of the office environment as they think they are learning and developing more effectively there?
If you have been working from home because of COVID-19, how productive do you feel you’ve been in comparison to if you had been working in an office environment?
Is working from home actually working? From our COVID-19 survey data, it appears “potentially not” if you look at productivity, cultural differences, work-life balance and the issue of trust. Let’s examine these further.
We asked respondents whether they felt more productive working at home compared to the office. A third say they are indeed more productive but an equal number say they’re about the same and the final third say they are actually less productive (citing children running around, unstable internet and small spaces shared with other family members). In Asia, particularly in China, respondents felt markedly less productive working from home than in Australia and North America.
If you have been working from home, how do your number of working hours compare to if you were working in an office?
Ironically, all this working at home has meant less work-life balance. Fully 60% of respondents in APAC and 57% in North America say they work a lot or a bit more in terms of the number of hours they’re working at home versus the office.
Other global surveys carried out over the last few months point to the fact that on average, we are working fifty more minutes a day working from home.
A factor here is that we are not commuting so we are using that time wisely but we might be working longer hours because we are worried about losing our jobs. Only time, and future post-COVID-19 studies, will tell whether that is an issue.
To what extent do you feel your co-workers, who are working from home as part of the COVID-19 contingency plan, are taking advantage of their flexible arrangement and not fulfilling their responsibilities as expected?
A very large issue less discussed within organisations or the media is one of trust. We are obviously working longer hours when we have worked from home this year but 53% of respondents think their colleagues are not working as hard as we are! If the perception is that others think we are bunking off, can working away from the office be as viable an option going forward as many think?
So, with these various barriers to working from home, could we end up with not quite what Twitter’s CEO Jack Dorsey has done in giving up most of his company's real estate leases in order to work from home “forever”, but what The Economist has referred to as the “optional office” which meets working in an office/at home halfway?
Our mental health – how are we faring?
In short, not overly well. COVID-19 has created a lot of stress for everyone; not only is there the fear of our loved ones, or ourselves, catching the virus but also the dark clouds of being let go from our jobs or having our salaries cut. Working from home has also created stress as has the way the crisis has been dealt with in some of our organisations.
Just under half of the respondents in APAC mentioned they have been adversely affected in recent months due to the pandemic, with the figure being just under 60% in North America, and many of us feel that our colleagues are suffering too.
"COVID-19 has adversely affected my mental health."
When we break it down by geography Hong Kong is markedly worse off with regards to individual respondent’s mental health. Economically the territory has not been doing well and mental health had already been adversely affected by the uncertain political situation and the protests last year. Add in a pandemic and additional economic woes and it isn’t surprising.
Generation Y reports a higher negative impact, which might be due to their greater propensity to talk about and be open about mental health issues, a point backed up by previous research we have done.
"I feel that COVID-19 has made it more acceptable to discuss mental health issues with my colleagues/manager."
As more people are experiencing higher levels of stress in their personal and work lives, there now appears to be a greater openness to talk about mental health issues with colleagues and managers compared to before which, beyond COVID-19, may prove to be beneficial in the campaign to encourage discussion about mental health issues.
How has the response by your leadership to the COVID-19 crisis affected your levels of stress?
Our data points to the response of leadership, within some organisations, being the cause of elevated stress levels through lack of communication and direction leading to uncertainty for many. For this topic we had an open field within the questionnaire - these are four responses that encapsulate what people have been going through.
Regarding mental health, what support does your organisation offer?
How are organisations tackling mental health? We asked respondents, in the pre-COVID-19 survey in January, to “tick all that apply“ from seven options and here are the results.
Employee assistance programs was the number one tool of choice in 2019 as well. It is worrying that a third of respondents thought that nothing is offered. It will be interesting to note how this changes post-COVID-19.
Retention – the COVID-19 effect
Are you considering leaving your organisation in the next 6-9 months?
Every year our survey asks all respondents whether they have an intention to leave their current organisation in the near future. With the poor economic outlook in January this year, fewer people were open to move given the risk. But COVID-19 has caused people to be even more cautious of making a move with the lowest percentages we have seen since we started the survey five years ago. The perception is that there are far fewer jobs to go to and there is also the risk of being “last in first out“. (Note: we only have Australian data starting from 2019).
But when the job market bounces back across the region post-COVID-19, points of frustration for all employees will undoubtedly return. These are the top six pain points for professionals across APAC according to respondents who filled in our January survey.
“Lack of career growth and developmental opportunities” is always the main motivator to leave from previous surveys we have carried out, but there are three other trends which are worth noting. The first is that weak leadership is key in people’s decision to stay or go. The second is that money is never as important as you think, and the third is that politics is a key driver for people leaving organisations.
What do you consider to be the major stressors in your working life?
Politics is the key contributor to high-stress levels at work and also inhibits teamwork. It appears to be a hidden enemy as it doesn’t seem to be a topic of conversation within companies currently and is rarely given as a reason for leaving a company. From the data, it is a big factor especially within financial services, large companies and for Generation X and Baby Boomers.
For more information or individually tailored advice, please do not hesitate to contact our regional Human Resources team:
Hong Kong office - Richard Letcher, Managing Director
Singapore office - James Rushworth, Managing Director
Shanghai office - Shelya Zhou, Associate Director