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COVID-19 Workplace Stress on the Rise – What can leaders do?

There is no doubt the COVID-19 crisis continues to create stress -- but is it such a bad thing? Some might say it has triggered the motivation needed to reinvent business models and affect positive change. Guest writer, Rachel Austen of Austen Advisory, considers the business case for tackling stress and shares some practical insights into what companies should be doing. Should business leaders do something about stress beyond just the rhetoric? To a certain degree, some stress and pressure is helpful - it uplifts performance, energises people and brings teams together. The problem comes with undue stress, which not only is very detrimental to an employee’s mental health and wellbeing but also places businesses at great risk. If left unaddressed, stress accumulates and can lead to serious lapses in judgement, toxic behaviours and in extreme cases to suicide. These impacts are all hugely damaging to a company’s brand. In the current COVID-19 crisis, the negative impact of stress is evidenced by Profile’s Working in APAC survey conducted earlier this year, with 45% of respondents admitting their mental health has been adversely affected. This figure is likely to be higher in reality, due to some respondents being unaware of the early warning signs of declining mental health. Also, from the survey, 43% of people said their levels of stress had increased due to their leadership's response to the pandemic. Aside from the potential risks to organisations mentioned above, plenty of studies show us stress limits productivity and increases staff turnover and employee healthcare costs. AIA’s 2019 Healthiest Workplace Survey results for APAC show that 67.5 days are lost per employee per year through stress-related absenteeism and ‘presenteeism’ – i.e. when employees are physically there but not mentally present. In the context of COVID-19, many companies talk about the need to reinvent, collaborate and be agile – all of which require employees to have a calm, flexible state of mind. Stress is, therefore, the biggest impediment and management must take action now. Exhibit 1: The business case for taking action on stress ​ What can leaders do? A big issue leaders need to address is isolation – employees feeling less connected to others given the more remote working arrangements that many companies still have in place. Leaders should focus on: Tailored support: Stress is personal and everyone’s experience will be different. Leaders need to be attuned to and show empathy for an individual's circumstances. Checking in with them individually to ask how they are feeling. Being vigilant for changes in their behaviour such as being late for meetings, deadlines or becoming irritable and negative. Then exploring this sensitively, with open questions rather than jumping to conclusions. Meaningful connections: Employees crave quality connections (not quantity). Creating opportunities that enable employees to share their challenges and ‘feel heard’ is key. Examples are peer-group collaborations/support, virtual coffees, building in more time at the beginning and end of team meetings for informal discussion, perhaps sharing 'the best thing that happened last week' or doing a pet introduction. Lightening the mood is a good stress reliever. Awareness of available support: Communicating the support channels available and having all these resources in a central, accessible place. Ensuring all managers know what their company has in place so they can signpost them to support (managers are NOT therapists). Many managers lack awareness of what support is in place, therefore avoid conversations completely. Will employees be open in disclosing their struggles? How can this be overcome? Many fear job loss and whilst there is now some more openness about discussing mental health, there is still a big stigma. Furthermore, many people lack awareness of the degree of impact stress is having on wellbeing or the language to specifically describe their feelings. There is an emerging trend in using scientific tools, like AURA (Austen Advisory’s proprietary tool), to measure stress and provide proper insight into the symptoms with personal and management reporting. The AURA tool is completed by confidential personal questionnaires, providing a ‘safer’ channel for disclosure and is a platform for focused individual, team and organisational action planning. Most importantly, it enables a proactive and preventative approach to managing risk from stress – it is far easier to address issues early before they become more complex problems. An example of a recent implementation of this in APAC is at BBC Studios, where a resilience analysis programme was undertaken to gain insight into the impact of stress on the workforce, pinpoint issues and put in place personal, team and management action plans. This provided a common language, addressed the need to localise interventions to their seven different markets and made their business model work much better without employees being under undue stress. You can read a full case study here. Conclusions Stress is dangerous and, like COVID-19, is a silent enemy that can creep up on us. Stress will be a big barrier for achieving business goals: Would you hire people who are negative, cynical, lack energy, think rigidly, emotionally volatile and prone to making irrational decisions? Employers of choice will be those who are known to place wellbeing at their core and take early, focused action on stress. Rachel Austen, C.Psychol. MBPsS. MHKPS. MSc. Director, Austen Advisory Limited www.austenadvisory.com Are you/ your team on the road to resilience or the path to burnout? Click here for a short video to understand more. ​Rachel is a Chartered Occupational Psychologist with over 15 years of experience working for market leaders, providing advice to many large organisations in addressing their people issues. She previously was an Associate Director at Mercer Hong Kong and Principal consultant at SHL in Hong Kong & Singapore. She now runs her own firm which has a specialisation in stress and resilience and uses a proprietary tool entitled AURA. She has over 9 years' experience working with businesses across Asia spanning a wide range of industries.
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COVID-19: Candidate Confidence in the Post-Pandemic Job Market

Franki Crosse, Associate Director of Profile, A WilsonHCG Company, discusses the impact of COVID-19 on the confidence of candidates looking to change roles. Demand for talent across APAC has dropped in the face of COVID-19. Businesses are buckling up, sadly some are retrenching, and most are surviving the best they can. The mental health of both employers and employees has also suffered, reducing the bandwidth for thinking beyond pure survival. What does this mean for the talent market? Is there a lack of openness from potential candidates to explore new job opportunities now? In April this year, we surveyed a large set of working professionals in APAC – 2,685 people based mostly across Singapore, Hong Kong SAR, China and Australia – on the effects of COVID-19 on working life in the region. We delved into how candidates are feeling in the current environment. (Click here for an infographic summary of who filled in the survey) Whilst there is no doubt a huge increase in pressure on employees, both from a work and home life perspective, it’s fair to say most of us have had a moment of reflection over the past few months. It’s been a time for checking in with ourselves; are we on the right track? Are we spending our time in the most fruitful way? Do we have the right balance between work and home? Is our role and company taking us in the direction we’d like to go? Which parts of normality will we be in a rush to return to, and which will we decide or prefer to leave behind? In times of disaster or upheaval, there is always a wake-up call, and this is absolutely the case with COVID-19. That said, we wanted to explore how this is playing out and impacting the confidence of potential job seekers. Whilst all the above considerations may lead candidates to proactively seek a new opportunity, are candidates actually confident enough to make the move? This, coupled with organisations working hard to engage and retain key talent in order to avoid the cost of replacing key employees, has certainly had an impact on mindsets. Within our survey, we posed the question “Are you considering leaving your organisation in the next 6 to 9 months?” and gave respondents two options – ‘Yes’ or ‘No’. Interestingly, whilst Singapore may still be in a fairly tight post-‘circuit breaker’ situation, employees in Singapore are actually most open to moving, with 45% saying ‘Yes’. Australia has fared impressively well in its COVID-19 response measures overall, with China and Hong Kong also now swiftly getting back on track work-wise; however, only 36% are open to a move in Australia, 37% in Hong Kong, and 39% in China. Interestingly, and rather handily, we carried out a separate survey in December 2019/January 2020 with a similar number of respondents across the same countries, before the pandemic hit, and we asked the same question. The change, in just a few months, in people’s willingness to move is dramatic. Overall the number of respondents who said ‘Yes’, they were considering a move, has fallen from 55% at year-end, to 41%. A breakdown of this fall by country can be seen below, but, in short, it is uniform across the region. We must keep in mind that whilst these numbers may still seem reasonably high, they also consist of a portion of candidates who may have been let go, and are therefore actively on the market. Dig a little deeper and it becomes clear that the number of professionals open to a move has reduced. The main reason for a move we uncovered in our pre-COVID-19 survey was overwhelmingly due to “lack of career growth and developmental opportunities”. Whilst this, coupled with the recently available time for self-reflection, may suggest talent would be even more open to a move, that is not yet playing out in action. With few companies in growth mode, job advertisements in decline, and numerous hiring freezes across the market, candidates may perceive now to not be a fruitful time to explore their next opportunity. In recent years, candidate preferences have shifted towards ‘shopping around’; much like organisations often like to review a range of candidates and benchmark prior to making an offer, candidates too, like to explore a few roles before deciding on the right one. Given there are fewer opportunities to do so in the market, many candidates don’t see it as a good use of their time or energy to be hunting around right now. There are also questions around what the experience would look like onboarding in such a time, and whether candidates would be set up for success. For the majority, this does not feel like the time to be actively rocking the boat. Retrenchments are taking place across APAC, often under the radar, and there is a sense of nervousness across the potential candidate pool that being ‘last in, first out’ is a very real possibility. People across the region are taking refuge in the safe and familiar, from baking bread right through to their job. Whilst many may be considering their longer-term plans and aspirations, for the near term they’re often working to preserve whatever security and constant is available to them, financially and emotionally. Gender wise, males have come out slightly more open to opportunities than females at 43% vs 38%. Whilst this difference isn't huge, it further emphasises the statistics we’re seeing that females are more likely to be impacted and retrenched due to COVID-19. They, therefore, may be even more consciously choosing security. Add into the mix the regular juggling of family life, and we see why women may be opting to stay in their current role, and also may be lacking the time or energy to engage in an external search right now. We then look at generational differences. Baby Boomers are the least likely to move at 35%. Gen X and Y, however, land pretty much equal at 41%. Past patterns dictate that Baby Boomers often take more of a focus on longevity in a role, and this coupled with the current insecurity organisations are facing, as well as potentially fewer opportunities open to Baby Boomers at their level, means many are hunkering down and not willing to take a risk or waste time looking. There is also a sense of loyalty prevailing. For the companies and leaders who are successfully engaging employees and taking steps to reassure them, this is being gifted back. Employees are focusing inwards to their organisation, working towards the common goal of survival and hopefully future growth. Many have also been provided growth opportunities within their roles through this storm, or at least extra mental stimulation and challenge. This is particularly the case for HR professionals across the region, where 38% vs 42% non-HR professionals are open to new opportunities. There’s no doubt the HR function has been thrown further into the spotlight, and HR professionals are tackling rewarding challenges and changes every day. Now is the time when, with some careful thought and an engaging approach, organisations can get ahead and retain top talent, utilising the self-reflection time staff have had, to their advantage. It requires an empathetic approach and an understanding of what is motivating their staff right now. As we shift to a new normal, and economies bounce back, employers will have little time to position themselves for the next phase of growth and focus on hiring top talent. Now is the time to not only support their current talent population, but also consider what future needs will look like to get ahead of the game. Read more from our COVID-19 Impact series: COVID-19: Has Human Resources in APAC Stepped Up? Will Flexible Working Survive COVID-19? COVID-19 Impact on Mental Health in APAC COVID-19 Impact: How Has Leadership in APAC Performed?
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COVID-19 Impact: How has leadership in APAC performed?

James Rushworth, Managing Director of Profile, A WilsonHCG Company, considers whether leadership in APAC has been effective in responding to the crisis. We all know this pandemic is different to anything the world has faced in living memory. Record levels of disruption have meant employers are reacting at record pace. Incredibly, “business as usual” transformed overnight. Agility is necessary in business. A company’s ability to be nimble, through strong leadership, is an indicator of its success. Leadership at nearly all firms have already taken proactive measures, such as having all or some staff working from home or remotely, or offering flexible time in the office, to protect their staff and to contain the spread of COVID-19. But has leadership been as effective as it can be? Has it stepped up? In April we conducted a survey on the effects of the COVID-19 outbreak on our working lives in Asia Pacific. In all, 2,685 people filled in the survey, ensuring a robust data set. The majority of people who responded were based in Singapore, Hong Kong SAR, China and Australia. For a summary of who filled in the survey click here. Based on our evidence it suggests many leaders, having to perform their roles under challenging circumstances, seem to be struggling. When asked “How would you rate your leadership's effectiveness with respect to dealing with COVID-19 within your organisation?” 70% and 68% said ‘adequate’ to ‘weak’ in Hong Kong and Singapore respectively. Conversely, 65% of Australian respondents felt it was ‘excellent’, with only 3% saying it was ‘weak’. China was the highest in Asia at 44% stating ‘excellent’, and Singapore the least positive with over 14% saying ‘weak’. Why is this? Asia might have fared less well as it was the first to experience the crisis and leaders may have been, through no fault of their own, slow to respond with clear, effective measures. However, maintaining and building morale, reducing politics and fostering creativity has regularly been flagged as a challenge for leaders in Asia. Areas which undoubtedly require soft skills, such as communication, the ability to influence, engage and build a collaborative culture are key to leadership effectiveness. We then went on to ask “How has the response by your leadership to the COVID-19 crisis affected your levels of stress?” Singapore and China respondents felt the most impacted, with 46% and 44% respectively, saying their levels of stress had increased. This is countered by both Hong Kong and Australia where more said there had been no change, and increases in stress levels were less acute. Leadership, generally, shouldn't be unnecessarily increasing people's stress levels, so the results aren't great in terms of its performance. From a generational perspective, there were slight differences. Our survey findings suggest that Baby Boomers are the most resilient with 51% saying there had been no change in stress levels, and 38% stating that their stress levels had increased. Generation Y however, was at the other end with 43% saying stress levels had gone up, with Generation X in the middle. However, if stress levels are increasing or remaining the same, it brings to question why leadership has not been able to alleviate or reduce the stress that has come with this trying circumstance. What is clear is that leaders will have to ensure they are effective at engaging and retaining people with different wants and needs. Our findings suggest leaders still need to step up further to minimise stress and prove more effective in leading during crises. It takes longer to build your employer brand than it does to damage it, and times like these call for empathy, clarity of communication, better engagement and more mindful leadership. The world has seen its fair share of crises over the years and they’ve all had an impact on the global economy. COVID-19 is the latest and, although unprecedented, it is temporary – we just don’t know for how long. Like all other black swan events that have tested us in the past, it too, will pass. Leaders, though, need to be better equipped to deal with them. Read more from our COVID-19 Impact series: COVID-19: Has Human Resources in APAC Stepped Up? Will flexible working survive COVID-19? COVID-19 Impact on Mental Health in APAC
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Will flexible working survive COVID-19?

Uttama Patel, Regional Business Intelligence Manager with Profile, A WilsonHCG Company, examines the trends in flexible working across APAC during the COVID-19 outbreak. The COVID-19 pandemic, having disrupted the familiar in a multitude of ways, forced working lives to change. Regardless of what organisations had already established, or believed, about an agile workforce, working from home, or telecommuting as it’s formally called, arrived as an enforced norm, on short notice and with no certainty on an end date. But this sudden move to large scale flexible working revealed more about organisations than just adaptability. We recently surveyed a large set of working professionals in APAC -- 2,685 people based mostly across Singapore, Hong Kong SAR, China and Australia -- on the effects of COVID-19 on working life in the region. (Click here for an infographic summary of who filled in the survey) Not only did we want to find out if remote working was working, but also what the expectations were for after the outbreak, and how current challenges might inform that future approach. The outlook was clear: people view flexible working as the future. Seventy-three percent of all respondents felt their organisation would adopt a more agile way of working even after COVID-19 is under control. Most striking was this held true across all industry sectors, size of organisations, countries, generations, and gender. But do decision-makers agree? Broken down by level of seniority, the finding strengthens, with senior management showing stronger agreement than other respondents. Eighty percent of Board Director-level professionals, 75% of CEO/CFO/MD level, and 75% of Senior Managers agreed or strongly agreed that their organisation would adopt flexible working post-COVID-19. ​ One of the drivers for telecommuting is the finding that remote employees are more productive than their office counterparts, with recent studies in the US and Europe producing conclusive evidence. In APAC, however, the productivity of a remote workforce is still in question. Our survey demonstrated a split in people’s perceived productivity levels when comparing home and office environments. Some felt they achieved more working from home (31%), others felt they achieved less (34%), and a significant number (35%) felt their productivity remained the same whether they were in the office or at home. Variation here could be attributed to the range of people’s home working environments, as well as the accompanying domestic responsibilities many are juggling due to COVID-19 shutdowns. And not every job lends itself to working remotely, even temporarily. What can be said across all industry sectors and levels of seniority covered in our survey, is that over 65% of respondents felt working from home kept their productivity levels the same or more. As organisations consider the cost savings of reduced real estate, they may also reevaluate what office space is crucial for, and whether limiting it to teams for whom in-person collaboration is paramount, is a more advantageous arrangement. One key differentiator in the findings on productivity was location. In Australia, where agile working has been established for longer, 43% of respondents felt they achieved more working from home. And in China, where flexible working is still in early stages of adoption, the exact same percentage of respondents felt they achieved less working from home. However, perception may play a key role in this. A robust two-year study by Stanford professor Nicholas Bloom, based on the results of a work-from-home experiment with a 16,000-person NASDAQ-listed Chinese company, showed a productivity boost in remote workers that was equivalent to a full day’s work, compared to office workers, for whom commuting delays, leaving early, taking multiple mid-day breaks, led to lower productivity levels. Where productivity may be in question, it seems the number of working hours is not. Sixty percent of all respondents said they worked a longer number of hours while working from home, with 32% indicating they worked “a lot more”. The longer hours could be due to a lack of commute, with people extending work time on either end of the day. Only 16% felt they worked less at home. So why, if professionals are working more hours across countries, industry sectors, and levels of seniority, is there this lack of confidence in productivity? With the economic peril the pandemic has brought, it could be that professionals are putting higher expectations on themselves as a result of job insecurity, feeling a heightened pressure to over-perform and to compensate for lack of physical visibility. Many survey respondents commented on feeling the need to respond to work communications right away, regardless of hour of day, for fear not doing so would threaten their demonstration of commitment. Herein lies the danger of flexible working, and particularly in APAC, where significant effort remains to be made. Where the region was previously more resistant to telecommuting, with the exception of Australia, now it’s had to reconcile with the fact remote working cannot be ignored. What that has brought to the forefront is a question of trust. Our survey asked to what degree people felt their colleagues were taking advantage of flexible working arrangements and not fulfilling their responsibilities as expected. Over 50% of respondents felt their colleagues were slacking off “to some extent” or “to a large extent”. This held true across all levels of seniority, industry sectors, and generations, with slightly higher levels of mistrust from Gen Y respondents, 23% of whom felt their colleagues were not fulfilling responsibilities to a large extent. That this is the view despite most professionals working longer hours from home, reveals an imbalance. If flexible working is what professionals expect of the future, what may be critical in the long term is the level, or lack of, trust organisations place in their employees who they can’t meet in any capacity but virtual. As it stands now, most leadership teams seem hesitant to conduct critical business or make key decisions at a remote level. One of our survey respondents shared an example of a deep level of mistrust at their organisation: all employees working from home were required to log on to a live webcam and be at their home desk, dressed in work attire, for the duration of the day, constantly observed by managers from a distance. Perhaps what needs to shift, in addition to the stigma around telecommuting, is the view that remote working mimics working in an office, merely at a different physical location. Agility is more nuanced than that, and we may lose out by ignoring that subtlety. Leaders will have to diversify management styles, office politics could take on a new meaning or reduce in prevalence, and office-driven motivation will seek a replacement. What’s promising is the foundation is strong; professionals in APAC currently working at home are working longer hours and harder. But adding pressures of mistrust and rigidity refute the advantages flexibility allows. Recent Gallup research showed professionals who worked even a few days offsite were significantly more engaged in their jobs, as greater flexibility and control allowed them to optimise their work-life balance. As more organisations in APAC plan on a continuation of flexible working post COVID-19, turning a forced circumstance into a strong employee engagement tool, it may be pertinent to take a view on trust, adaptability, and culture--elements that transcend physical location. As remote working cannot be fully addressed without consideration of its effect on mental health, look out for the next in our blog series on how COVID-19 has impacted the emotional well-being of working professionals across the region.
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COVID-19: Has Human Resources in APAC stepped up?

Richard Letcher, Managing Director of Profile, A WilsonHCG Company, discusses the impact of COVID-19 on the standing and reputation of HR functions across APAC. Over a couple of weeks last month, we conducted a survey on the effects of the COVID-19 outbreak on our working lives in Asia Pacific. We were overwhelmed with the response – 2,685 people filled in the survey, ensuring a robust data set. The majority of people who responded were based in Singapore, Hong Kong SAR, China and Australia, level-wise were mid to senior, Gen X, with 62% working in non-Human Resources roles. Here’s a summary of who filled it in: Early in April, The Economist published an article on “The Importance of People People” which espoused HR’s enlarged seat at the table due to the COVID-19 outbreak and the growing need for firms to have a strong HR function, keeping employees healthy and their morale high, orchestrating flexible working arrangements and potentially making some employees redundant. The article’s main tenet was that the profession’s influence has been growing over the decades from “pay and parties” managers to working on greater compliance in the 1990s to more involvement in rewards in the 2000s, following various C-suite pay misdemeanours. More recently, recruitment and talent management have been at the fore, following poor executive succession planning in some Fortune 500 companies and general skill shortages, as has employee relations with #MeToo troubles to contend with. But how has HR performed in APAC over the last few months, through their efforts to tackle the COVID-19 outbreak from a people perspective? Has HR stepped up? On the whole, the answer is “yes”, but things become a little more complicated once you scratch below the surface. In our survey, we asked the question, “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?” Here are the results: Across all respondents, the percentage of people who thought that HR’s reputation has been enhanced, either “very much” or “somewhat”, was 53%, which isn’t too bad but it could have been better. The percentage was particularly high in Australia with 83% but lower in HK, Singapore and China who had 51%, 51%, and 39% respectively. China's relatively poor showing may be due to the fact HR functions there were the first to deal with the outbreak. However, when you dig a little deeper into the numbers, and you look at the split between respondents who are HR professionals, and those who are not, it’s more of a skewed story, as you might expect. 71% of HR professionals feel that the reputation of their function has been enhanced “somewhat” or “very much” whereas only 42% of non-HR folks do, with 40% feeling that there has been “no effect”, and 18% feeling that the management of the situation has, in fact, negatively affected HR’s reputation. Within quite a few organisations, however, it is clear that HR certainly has stepped up with their reputation suitably enhanced by the efforts they have put in since the outbreak began. In many others, this has not been the case with some survey respondents feeling lukewarm or even disappointed at HR’s performance. Why? One answer might be that the business simply has a negative perception of HR as they have been adversely affected, personally, by the changing fortunes of their organisation. You’re not going to say that your HR department’s reputation has been enhanced when you’ve just had your salary cut or your role has just been made redundant. It would also appear that, in this instance, size matters somewhat. When we sliced and diced the data, it became clear that small (below 200 people in the region) and large companies (above 5,000) rated their HR functions less well than in medium-size ones with 200 to 5,000 employees. It could be that the HR teams in companies with smaller population sizes in the region are less experienced generally and have not had the capability and resources to put in place well thought through and communicated business continuity plans. APAC was also the first region to experience the outbreak, and probably little support came from global head offices on other continents at that time. With bigger companies, the resources and capabilities are there, but within a large, complex organisation with people spread across a multitude of different countries experiencing the outbreak at different stages and in different ways, a perfect response is going to be difficult. Interestingly, the more senior, and also older, the respondent is, the higher the appreciation for HR's efforts. This is actually quite pronounced. This was also shown through the data on the different generations with Gen Y being more sceptical about HR‘s performance than Generation X and Baby Boomers. This might be because the more senior, and therefore typically the older you are in an organisation, the more you are connected with what is going on in terms of the business continuity, communication and strategic HR plans, with lower-level individuals being kept in the dark somewhat (with an accompanying lower perception of HR’s competence as well as a, probably related, enhanced fear of what might happen to them). Overall, this might have skewed the results so that HR is, in fact, doing a better job than some think. Sector-wise, there seems to be a slightly better view of HR‘s performance from respondents working within industry & commerce than financial services and professional services. Despite this “OK” response to HR’s overall COVID-19 performance, it’s clear that within quite a few organisations, HR has indeed stepped up and has enhanced their reputation and standing within their organisation. To the point made by The Economist, this is indeed part of the general trend in HR. I have been recruiting HR professionals in Asia for almost 20 years, and I have seen an incredible change over this period from the traditional, transactional “personnel” function to one which is far more strategically aligned with the business. This has largely been due to the demands of the business environment (think GFC, SARS, Asian credit crisis, the dot com bubble, the immense economic growth in China and Southeast Asia and the never-ending war for talent). HR has needed to step up. COVID-19 is yet another challenge - some companies have risen to it and continue on their path to having a bigger seat at the table but, sadly, others have not.
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Singapore’s Recruitment Landscape Amidst COVID-19

Stanley Teo, Managing Director of Profile, A WilsonHCG Company, discusses the current hiring landscape in Singapore during the current COVID-19 outbreak. With over 2 million infections and over 125,000 fatalities worldwide, the COVID-19 outbreak is one of the single largest disrupters to global markets, supply chains, healthcare, social mobility and, most importantly, people’s daily lives, within the last century. In this commentary piece, we aim to assess the impact of COVID-19 on the hiring practices here in Singapore over the last three months, from when it first hit our shores to the current state. We can distil the effects of the pandemic into two sections: the first wave and the second wave. FIRST WAVE: January – February 2020 Countries affected by COVID-19: China, Korea, Japan, Singapore, Hong Kong, Malaysia and several other countries across Asia. Number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Singapore from January through February 2020 Source: European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control First Wave Impact on the Recruitment Landscape China was the most significant casualty during the first wave of this crisis. With the US and Europe unaffected except for single-digit infections, most of our clients in Singapore and Hong Kong, who primarily consist of global MNCs across commerce and financial services from those markets, were still pretty much business as usual. Headcount growth and replacement plans were still on track as per business plans. Interviews went ahead as scheduled and offer letters were issued under the usual approval process. The only disruptions were that most interviews were not conducted face-to-face, but rather through video conferences or teleconference. For face-to-face interviews, candidates had to declare if they had travelled to key affected areas within 14 days of the scheduled interview. Across Asia, firms activated their business continuity plans and those that did not have one quickly mirrored what they could learn from clients or vendors. Working from home became the buzzword across Asia. In Singapore, the government noted the possible risk of markets and hiring slowing. They swiftly appended their annual budget to implement the first backstop of policies supporting local employees through their Stabilisation and Support package, aiming to support employees’ employment status through wage support and training grants. In comparison, during SARS in 2003, everything in Asia came to a grinding halt. Client meetings and interviews were abruptly cancelled with no teleconference options, no face-to-face meetings were held, and all hiring was rapidly put on hold and reviewed on a case-by-case basis. So for the first two months of COVID-19, recruitment across Singapore, although inconvenienced, seemed to be tracking on, and was not a repeat of SARS. SECOND WAVE: March – April 2020 Fast forward another month, and what a difference a month makes. The narrative here is a lot more sombre. Vast numbers of COVID-19 cases started to envelop Northern Italy, Spain, France and now most of Europe. The US was not let off, and the number of infections across the US as of April 1 had surpassed both Italy and Spain combined. Most of Asia was stabilising by the end of February, but the pandemic that swept through Europe and the US introduced a second wave into Asia. Number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Singapore from January through 15 April 2020 Source: European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control The Second Wave’s Immediate Impact The most impacted industries include global aviation, and tourism-related industries such as hospitality, retail and entertainment. As US and EU clients start implementing their BCP plans, some have also implemented firm-wide work-from-home policies, where telecommuting is now the norm. We are seeing the ugly head of global wage cuts and reductions taking place in aggressive mode. Second Wave Impact on Recruitment Landscape Due to the scale and uncertainty of the outbreak, many companies are reviewing their global headcount needs. The message we hear from most clients is that it is not a total freeze, but instead, they are pausing for now and reviewing headcounts on a case by case basis. After this review, many plan to “unpause” the headcount freeze for those roles deemed essential. However, for others, they will likely keep headcount on hold and will begin hiring again when the outbreak is over. For companies where hiring is still taking place, interview processes are taking longer, and offer letter approval processes are going through multiple channels up the hierarchy. But it is not all doom and gloom on the recruitment front. China is picking up again and ramping up its manufacturing and industrial activities. Consumers are gradually able to get back outside instead of being locked in; however, the country is very cautious to minimise the impact of the second wave. Our business in China is almost back to normal, but we are exercising caution and ensuring our team takes all of the necessary precautions. Businesses and large operations headquartered in Asia are still selectively growing and hiring, although not at the same pace of 2019. This lack of a total hiring freeze is unlike what happened during SARS, and so, shows promise. Additionally, people are still changing jobs. Our candidates are receiving more than one offer, and firms that have a longer-term vision see this as a significant strategic opportunity to pick up talent for when things improve. Resilience Package ​ The Singapore government has done a fantastic job in propping up the country and its people’s confidence in the face of this pandemic by supporting the most vulnerable and most adversely affected members of society. They are swift in their response to the pandemic, and are transparent in their communication, delivering both the good and bad news and keeping the country on a “business as usual” path. As the second wave of the pandemic hit the US and Europe, as well as wiped out large chunks of global financial markets, the Singapore government was swift to act. They delivered an additional SGD 48-billion package to support workers, businesses and households across Singapore in hopes of staving off reduction and retaining jobs for as long as possible. This package, along with the Stabilisation and Support packages, has also factored in benefits and schemes to assist those workers who may ultimately get retrenched. There is no better time for these workers to rethink the relevance of their skills in this fast-moving economy, and perhaps opt for retraining and reskilling. We have often heard from employees that they do not have the time to retrain for fear they will lose their current job, or that they are doing fine in their existing role with no need to upskill. Although retraining and upskilling may not be for everyone, the intent is good and the financial support is generous. Many of the jobs these employees used to perform may not exist when the pandemic is over. It is a commendable strategy by the government to help affected employees get back on their feet. Looking Ahead These last three months have been the most testing times for professional and personal lives, and we know there is possibly more bad news to come. As we read the doom and gloom daily across the print, live and social media, there are some bright spots here in Singapore, and across Hong Kong and China as well. For one, as the second-largest global economy, China is starting to rev up again. Perhaps it is too early to call, but the outlook is much better than it was in February and early March. Internally and externally, we are still observing people working hard to maintain and increase productivity, albeit in a new work-from-home setting as they adjust to a new norm where they cannot travel to see customers or vendors. Working hours have not reduced, and as a matter of fact, many are putting in more hours in a day to provide assurance and support to clients and business partners wherever they are located. People have become more empathetic in this robust environment. Client and vendors alike are working hard to ensure the supply and demand chain communications remain open. Although workflows will get slower, the relationships will strengthen because we are all in this together. We are all trying our best to help and support each other in any way we can. At the end of the day, resilience is vital. We think the name for the Singapore government’s second support package (Resilience Package) is a very apt title for any organisation looking to come out of this stronger. Through our numerous tele-conversations and video meetings with clients across Singapore and other parts of Asia, we are confident that when this pandemic comes to an end, activities will pick up significantly, and the curve for business and hiring activities will head upwards again.
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