HRDs reveal their greatest lessons from 2020

We’ve just survived a ‘crazy’ year – but it was one filled with great change. Can HR sustain the momentum for 2021?

HRDs reveal their greatest lessons from 2020

As we start wrapping up a difficult year and prepare for incoming challenges, Singapore’s top HR leaders revealed their greatest lesson from 2020: all of us have the ability to handle ‘great change’.

The topic was discussed at a recent exclusive roundtable co-organised by HRD and Achievers, where leaders pointed out just how defining this year has been for everyone – especially in the world of HR.

“As people and as organisations, we’ve demonstrated that we can handle great change,” said Mark Barling, senior sales director at Achievers. “If we were given this as a theoretical assignment to find out, ‘how would you manage this?’, [we would reply], ‘well that’s never going to happen, so we don’t need to worry about it’.

“Well you know what, it did and we had to. And the fact is we got through it.”

Read more: Remote work: Leaders reveal key lessons from pandemic

The HR heads had shared their varied experiences from the year and their priorities for 2021. Four key points revealed during the virtual session were:

  1. The cultural challenge of going ‘back to work’

The HRDs brought up issues around overcoming resistance, assuring safety and confidence in employees, as well as accommodating changed needs. It was an interesting concept as “a lot of us probably wouldn’t have thought that people would have wanted to go back to the office”.

  1. Focus on leadership capability

Sustaining leadership capability has been a focus for many in 2020, so it’s unsurprising that it remains a priority area for 2021. Attendees brought up issues around the ability to engage employees, to help transition into the ‘next normal’, and as a ‘support layer’ for the business.

  1. ‘Old school’ is still a good school

While future-focused technical skills are important for leaders, the session proved that it’s important to ‘get the basics right’ to successfully manage a crisis. This includes being able to communicate effectively, enable leaders, and to critically connect and recognise employees.

  1. Mental health’s elevated status

Organisations in Asia are finally taking action to manage mental health. Now HR has to figure out how to mobilise and respond to mental health challenges while employees worked remotely.

Read more: Revealed: Five recruitment priorities for 2021

HR lessons from hard-hit industries
It may have been a tough year but 2020 is worth celebrating just for accelerating those changes.

Going into the new year, however, HR leaders are now focused on sustaining momentum and finding ways to embed the changes permanently into the organisation’s culture. This can thereby ensure the ability ’to adapt faster, respond more efficiently and lead our people more effectively’ in the future.

To get a closer look into what organisations went through this year and HR’s efforts in tackling the various challenges, we share two outstanding experiences from leaders heading companies in hard-hit sectors.

Read more: Chief people officer shares top lessons from COVID-19 crisis

HR director at a public healthcare organisation
Calling 2020 a ‘pretty crazy year’ is an understatement for an HR director managing a healthcare institution. Being at the frontlines and ‘the core of the pandemic’ meant a long list of battles to fight:

  • Employees being deployed from their main roles into new ones at different facilities
  • The constant feeling of anxiety and daily fear about employees’ personal health and safety, as well as that of their loved ones
  • Employees’ mental and emotional duress from managing the pandemic

“This whole nine to 10 months has been a whirlwind for our staff,” he said. “Our staff is being deployed away from the comfort zone.

“That really is a big challenge for the organisation. For HR we needed [to figure out], how do we keep them engaged? How do we make sure that they are able to manage the [new] situation on the ground?”

Getting employee feedback from all functions was vital for HR to ensure they always gave the right support to staff – whether they’re a frontline healthcare worker or a corporate, backend staff.

“Fundamentally, [HR has] to really manage the mental and emotional side of the issue,” he said. “When they’re dealing with a pandemic, despite the fact that they’re all given PPE to protect themselves, at the end of the day, there’s always the fear of bringing the virus back home.

“Because it doesn’t show up immediately – and especially if you are working in an environment where almost everyone is a confirmed COVID-19 case.”

Fortunately, being in healthcare also meant that they had access to mental health specialists and resources, ready to be shared across the organisation.

“We were able to activate our own internal expertise to set out hotlines and even train our people or additional people to make sure that we have sufficient activities on the ground to address and support our staff,” he said.

Read more: IMH CEO: How to tackle the mental health crisis

Head of HR at a large maritime and shipping company
With global travel at a sudden-stop and international borders closed for most of the year, a head of HR leading a firm in the maritime sector had to face crisis after crisis.

Some of which included:

  • A critical financial hit to the business
  • With about 80% of employees being rank-and-file – many foreigners – the firm had constant personnel-related issues to deal with, including a fear of COVID-19 breaking out at dormitories
  • Lockdowns, both Singapore’s Circuit Breaker and Malaysia’s Movement Control Order (MCO), halting on-site work

“We went through a very difficult time over the COVID period,” he said. “It was very challenging on two fronts: one is pandemic control; the other one is the business front.”

Managing the workforce through the Circuit Breaker ‘was very tense’, he said, especially when there was a surge of cases amongst migrant workers. The firm has their own worker dormitory and that period proved to be a ‘real scare’. Luckily, all of their employees were tested and cleared of any infection.

That wasn’t all – the MCO was also put in place concurrently, which was a further hit to the business. A large group of their Malaysian workers couldn’t cross the border at the time and the business was effectively ‘stuck’.

Read more: In times of crisis, workplace relations can grow stronger

“Adaptability was really quite key for us to be able to do business well over the last eight to nine months,” he said. “And I'll just talk about two areas: one is communication, the other one is on leadership.

“When Malaysia implemented the MCO and a large group of Malaysians couldn’t come in, we had to adapt at the time and had to make do with whoever we had.

“In the workers’ dormitories, we also had a lot of testing and people were anxious. Our workforce was also anxious about the infectious disease control measures that we had to comply with.

“I feel that communication and leadership are two very key things that we have done over this period.”

He added that it’s important to not just communicate about ‘what we are going to do’, but it’s also a lot about ‘why are we doing this or that’.

“When you start to communicate with a big group of people in a very fast manner, we find it is important to communicate the purpose,” he said.

“Some of the measures we take are unprecedented and people cannot understand why we were doing this or that. Then, when we talk about what we needed to do, we also need to be flexible.

“And it’s also about calming nerves. I will say April, May and June were very critical. Calming nerves, providing assurance to our people, and building confidence in our people were very crucial.”

Leadership, on the other hand, had to step up and ‘must lead by example’, be authentic, be confident and align with the decisions agreed upon by the management. He also believes that leaders ‘must understand the intention very well’.

“As HR, we need to know exactly what’s going on,” he said. “How our people are feeling.

“Adjust our policies and measures quite flexibly, while constantly listening to people. Because a lot of the things that we do, a lot of policies that we had pre-COVID, some of them are actually totally irrelevant.

“We have to make decisions quite quickly, so that it assures our workers. It’s an unprecedented time – we have to make decisions very quickly to adjust with the situation.”

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