2020: Our dystopian reality

May Leng Kwok is Regional Head at CIPD Asia. In this article, she shares her reflection on the lessons learnt, challenges ahead and offers her encouragement for the people profession.
'We’ve learnt this year, that in unsettled times, leaders must hold a mirror to their own behaviours and question whether they are contributing to the panic or leading their teams and communities in a more productive conversation.'
2020 launched the decade with a bang - bushfires, political tensions and of course COVID-19. The world was simultaneously plunged into chaos, with heads of state navigating the unknown - a task that separated the leaders from the lead. COVID-19 is likely the biggest challenge leaders in government, organisation and at home will have to face during our lifetime. Not only is it tough, but the speed of response required, whilst being publicly benchmarked against each other, has created a perfect storm and a legacy of change. 
 
This year has taught us we are equipped to survive highly stressful situations; resilience has been the key to success. Creativity and productivity are our responsibility, and not even a global pandemic gives us a free pass. In contrast, the health crisis has required us to raise ourselves and those around us to higher levels of thought and effectiveness for greater impact. 
 
From global boardrooms to micro start-ups, right now there is demand across all workplaces for level-headedness, empathy and effective decisive leadership. Are there causes for concern? Absolutely. From hitting numbers, to juggling family responsibilities and the uncertain economic outlook. More burning questions emerge every day causing tremendous uncertainty in our work and private lives. Adding to the confusion is not going to solve any of these problems. Nor is it going to contribute to the recovery of our businesses or our health and happiness. 
 
We’ve learnt this year, that in unsettled times, leaders must hold a mirror to their own behaviours and question whether they are contributing to the panic or leading their teams and communities in a more productive conversation. The good news is human dynamics are somewhat predictable. - although possibly not on first appearances... Whether we are in a room together or operating from our homes through advanced technologies, it is challenging to not be influenced by the barrage of negative images we see from the outside world.
 
COVID-19 has been a catalyst for change, a giant reset button for many organisations which were constrained by low productivity, declining margins and poor business models struggling to create space for innovation leaving employees frustrated. We saw the birth of cross-industry collaborations and diversifications:  Singapore Airlines cabin crew being redeployed to care for hospital patients (Singapore), Lyft supplying drivers to Amazon (USA) and Alibaba employing furloughed employees from the restaurant sector (China).
 
As we start the new year, people around the world are looking forward to vaccines being deployed, signalling ‘a return to the norm’ and ‘business as usual’. To prosper we must abandon that mindset. For many, the current reality of remote working is merely an interim solution; policies and procedures written to manage the pandemic are transitory. Resources deployed (human, systems or otherwise) are makeshift. To avoid a snapback effect, and move to permanent hybrid ways of working, the people profession has a lot to do as we hurtle towards 2021. 
 
Ensuring our practices are agile and fit for purpose is vital to our organisation’s ability to survive. The closure of iconic brands such as the Acadia Group (UK), J.C. Penney (USA) and Robinsons (Singapore) has shown us that harsh reality. Change, especially at this scale, impacts business operations and can involve potential restructuring in order to ensure business survives. Do we have our systems, policies and processes in place to enable us to be Prepared, Agile and Resilient so that we can adapt quickly to deal with shocks? Think how earthquake proof buildings and walls operate – it is resilient to absorb pressure and flexible to move when it needs to - there isn’t a 100% guarantee it will always survive – but it is ready for most shocks! Our ability to create an agile and scalable workforce alongside an operating model that allows us to adapt and morph continuously, is what is needed to stay competitive in this rapidly evolving world. 
 
Digital skills, design thinking, entrepreneurship and innovation will all be crucial skills in 2021. Adopting a growth mindset, a commitment to continuous learning and comfort with ambiguity will also be key. The challenge will be to sustain the hastily established structural and cultural infrastructure that fosters true ingenuity. Maintaining the momentum for change and improvements that COVID-19 has brought and not be tempted to rebound to the security of the past; ensuring we allow ourselves to focus on building skills that enable us to be customer centric and create future-ready businesses. 
 
As cliché as it sounds, time is of the essence. Don't be afraid to implement, test and tweak as you go. The more your employees learn, the faster your company will be able to bridge the gaps and overcome difficulties needed to emerge from the pandemic stronger than ever. The people profession must continue to be at the forefront and as the situation develops and changes, so too must our HR Professionals. You will need to act quickly, adopt agile and flexible working practices to support the organisation and its employees to stay engaged and productive. Adopting a holistic human centred approach is paramount.
 
We need to Connect More. It is critical to re-establish a foundation of psychological safety. Before we can engage effectively, we need to check in with one another. Motivate staff through the principles of co-creation and collaboration. Devise broader challenges, demand creativity; we can channel positively toward solutions and progress.
 
We need to Share More. Leaders must reiterate their organisation’s ambitions, reassuring colleagues that they will come out of this pandemic stronger and better emotionally equipped. Ensure you have a well thought out communications plan – succeed by design not by accident.
 
We need to Care More. Be empathic to others, manage frustrations and people’s anxieties as these are barriers to productivity. Your employees will remember how you have treated them during this challenging time. Promote solidarity, don’t let it be lip service. Bring your whole self to work and be authentic.
 
As Charles Darwin said, it’s not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the ones most responsive to change. Be that change.
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