My Say: Rising above Covid-19 and the future of work in Malaysia

This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on September 20, 2021 - September 26, 2021.
My Say: Rising above Covid-19 and the future of work in Malaysia
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For the past few decades, Malaysia has endured economic crises that significantly affected the trajectory of our economic growth, directly threatening the income levels of Malaysians. But each time, the country was able to face these challenges head on and pick itself up.

The Covid-19 pandemic has presented the toughest challenge yet, however, coming at a time when the country faces financial constraints. It is also an unprecedented public health problem, resulting in even a devastating economic impact for the country and her citizens.

To contain the spread of the pandemic, the government has implemented measures and regulations that require physical distancing, the closing of non-essential businesses, travel restrictions and, of course, stay-at-home orders. For more than a year, Malaysia has experienced a series of Movement Control Orders (MCOs), with limited economic sectors allowed to remain open. Despite the rolling-out of various stimulus packages, it severely affected the financial health of businesses, which in turn has had a direct effect on employment. Many employees have seen a dramatic decrease in take-home income, while many have lost their jobs.

The massive vaccination exercise in the country in recent months has started to show promising results, with declining cases of severe Covid-19 infections. This reduces the pressure on healthcare facilities. Furthermore, the rising percentage of Malaysians and foreign workers getting vaccinated means that we can look forward to the gradual reopening of the economy.

Still, the world we as know it now is unlikely to return to what it was pre-pandemic. Covid-19 is unlikely to disappear. Learning to live with it also means companies need to look at factors such as sustainable growth and profitability, employees’ continuous upskilling, and provision of supportive work environment and better staff engagement. With a reset of leadership style, leaders could facilitate these changes, to provide strong support to team members as they traverse the challenging road ahead. We need to overcome the unknown and reinvent ourselves together. By working together, humanity will prevail.

During the recent PNB Knowledge Forum 2021 titled “Rising above Covid-19: Reimagining Work in Malaysia and Beyond”, we asked a panel of experts for their views on the topic and the following are some of the key points raised. The panellists were Prof Charles Fine, founding president and dean of Asia School of Business; Frank Breitling, managing director and partner, Boston Consulting Group, New York; Nadiah Wan, group CEO of TMC Life Sciences Bhd; and Nadhir Ashafiq, co-founder and managing director of

Workplace transformation

Many ideas have been discussed regarding changes in the workplace even before the pandemic. The open concept, where companies emphasise a communal work environment with shared workspaces, have become popular, especially among tech start-ups. While companies in general have been slow in adopting it in Malaysia, the pandemic has changed everything.

Those allowed to operate during the pandemic must follow strict physical distancing practices, with manufacturing companies allowed to run at only 60% capacity. Many companies have implemented work rotation teams, with half of their employees working at the office and the remaining, from home. Post-pandemic, companies need to decide whether everyone needs to be back in the office or to introduce hybrid working arrangements.

Another major concern is also the destructive impact the pandemic has had on business operations, particularly bricks-and-mortar retail businesses. As revenue-generating activities ground to a halt, many have had to shut down their operations and lay off their employees. Some have since ventured into the e-commerce space and worked with logistics specialists to market and deliver their products. When the economy fully reopens, they need to decide whether to maintain their physical presence or double down on their e-commerce presence.

The pandemic has forced companies to do a quick rethink to ensure their survival. During the forum, the panellists recommended that companies prioritise the needs of customers, evaluating how they can serve their customers better post-pandemic before evaluating an employee model that could support the new business strategy. With profitability at risk, companies should seriously review their entire operations to find “low-hanging fruit” opportunities that could immediately drive lower cost and improve work productivity. An example would be a rethink of a digital strategy that could widen the reach and improve the delivery cycle time and quality of the services or product offerings.

Next is to link the talent strategy to mobilise the operational strategies. Rather than mulling whether employees should all return to work in the office or continue to work remotely or whether to employ the hybrid process, companies should first look at providing a manpower strategy that allows flexibility for the employees to thrive in the new normal.

After all, not all job roles are productive when working in the office. Some teams can work remotely and congregate for face-to-face meetings once a week or even once a month, and still be productive. There have also been calls for the work model to be revamped, prioritising action over inaction and focusing on fit and purpose.

The pandemic has also exposed challenges for employees when working from home. Not all employees, especially the lower ranks, have good internet access at home, particularly in locations where there is limited high-speed broadband coverage. Thus, as companies mull over offering the flexibility of allowing employees to work from home, considerations must also be made in providing employees with the necessary support for internet access as well as benefits for devices.

Future organisation

Organisational transformation has taken on a heightened importance because of the pandemic. Adoption of technology and digital strategies has never been more important. Legacy management tools are no longer enough. We have seen companies such as Nokia and Kodak fall from grace, disrupted by technology and changing customer preference.

On the other hand, we have also witnessed the rise of unicorns among tech start-ups known for being agile, flexible and yet persistent in the approach to understanding customers’ needs and in their pursuit of products and services that they have envisioned to make them the leader in the marketplace.

While incumbents are not expected to abandon their business models completely, the panellists at the PNB Knowledge Forum offered some solutions that could remedy the issue and to enable companies to successfully implement a digitalisation strategy. By mapping their business process and supply chain, companies could identify their areas of strengths and weaknesses. Rather than focusing on everything, they should prioritise areas of high value to the business, and where the companies have strong potential to generate long-lasting and strong profitability, while outsourcing other parts of the business.

The analysis needs to be done independently of whether the talents to execute them are available in-house, to avoid the pitfall of missing the big picture. A great example shared was the experience of IBM, which decided to outsource its microchip business to Intel Corp and operating system to Microsoft Corp. This inadvertently created technology behemoths — the combined market capitalisation of Intel and Microsoft stood at US$2.4 trillion (RM10 trillion) compared to IBM’s mere US$128 billion as at Aug 20.

Building the competencies and capabilities needed to make the digitalisation strategy successful can be executed either internally or through partnerships, with strong emphasis on accelerating the process at the same time. However, it is important to eventually have these capabilities in-house, so companies are in control of their transformation journey to ensure new strategies fit with the changing business environment or stand no chance of winning in the marketplace.

The recovery phase provides a lifeline for companies to continue their fight for survival and to return to “normalcy”. Hopefully, from then on, they could win new customers and realise the companies’ hidden potential.

It is important to also look at the skills needed to aid in building capabilities for a future-ready workforce. One angle recommended is reframing soft and hard skills into smart and sharp skills respectively. Sharp skills, which are largely technical in nature, including finance, programming, data analytics and marketing, can be taught in a classroom and even in a virtual environment.

Smart skills such as leadership, teamwork, humility and agility are rather difficult to be taught online and to be measured in effectiveness. Nevertheless, it is still possible to make it happen through solving carefully prepared case studies with defined and spaced-out checkpoints supported by active coaching, to facilitate and assist employees in moving out of their comfort zone.

In addition, to motivate employees to make the shift towards acquiring new skills and embark on the digital transformation journey, companies could rejig their employee compensation strategy. Not all employees, especially those doing support functions, have an understanding of the impact of the work they do on enhancing revenues or generating cost savings. Yet, like an engine, for companies to realise their potential, all parts need to be well-oiled so they can work together to get the engine to work at its optimal operating specifications.

Acknowledging the urgent need to get all this done, panellists suggested that companies implement a tweak to the performance-linked wage system, for example, linking the non-financial targets and key project completions to incentive bonus payments. This would help motivate employees to embark on the journey, participate in key projects and volunteer their ideas and time.

Leadership style reset

While Covid-19 has pushed us into a corner, it has also brought opportunities to do a hard reset and explore opportunities to future-proof processes. Amid the chaos, it is easy for companies and employees to be overwhelmed by the amount of work they must do, especially with little time to spare. Leadership is a key ingredient in steering the many “experiments” for companies to stay on the path of survival and recovery. But it is no longer the leadership characteristics that we knew before the pandemic, which further complicates the situation. Thankfully, not all hope is lost.

In general, the panellists agreed that leaders need to evolve and move away from traditional approaches. They need to get used to not having the physical visibility of their team members at the workplace, and not seeing the actual work being done. All this, while having a high level of trust that the work assignments will still be completed nonetheless.

There are concerns over a loss of productivity, but some progress on key projects is better than none at all. Leaders need to find ways to keep team members motivated and productive, while delivering quality services and products that continue to enlighten customers. Online meetings may not be as effective as physical meetings. Yet, the former helps reduce the power distance between senior management and lower-ranked employees. Online meetings allow leaders to bring many more people together in the same meeting, where meeting invites are no longer dictated by the size of the meeting rooms or the location of the attendees.

Desperate times call for desperate measures. Leaders cannot just depend on the specialists to solve specific problems. Sometimes, a simple solution can come from outsiders. Instead of just thinking outside the box, leaders should also consider ideas from people outside the box. They may have adjacencies or peripheral knowledge about and experience in the area of interest, or perhaps nothing at all. Nevertheless, crowdsourcing ideas from them could create much better solutions.

It is worth looking at the problem with a fresh set of eyes, unencumbered by the challenges at hand. The panellists also deliberated on rotating employees’ portfolios and moving away from defining fixed boxes to specific job requirements when hiring staff. When companies hire people with relevant experience, they lose out on talents from other industries that could demystify the challenges these companies are facing and find opportunities that had never been thought of before. It is time for leaders to change from being “know it all” to “learn it all”, while staying humble.

Meanwhile, it is also easy for the message from the top to be lost in translation on its way down. Thus, leaders need to ensure that the priorities are aligned to the big-picture goals, while empowering teams to experiment on various breakthrough solutions and holding them accountable for the key results. With the future at stake, leaders must establish stretch goals and timelines on various key initiatives, so each of these initiatives can be quickly evaluated. Here, failures are common.

Leaders need to embrace them and allow the team to have some autonomy to address them and must know when to advise them to abandon the initiative, so they can move on to the next big idea. After all, it is the journey that counts. The trust between management and team members will be strengthened, the problem-solving process gets enhanced and, eventually, the learnings from these experiences will help solve future challenges and bring opportunities to further delight customers. Happy customers would not only enhance profitability but also be great ambassadors for the companies.

In the midst of strategising and working towards business survival in the new normal, the welfare of employees needs to be looked at as well, especially in providing them with good emotional support. Mental health issues have been on a high trajectory during the pandemic. The unintended consequences of long physical isolation can affect psychological health and negatively affect work productivity. Thus, team leads should have regular pulse checks, and implement an open-door policy to encourage open communication with their team members.

Avenues for employees to speak up and seek help would go a long way to ensuring that these mental health issues are addressed at the early stage and ensure that the transformation initiatives remain on track. In addition, support should also be given to those with long-term effects of post-recovery from Covid-19 infection, especially lung-related complications that could impair the lung and other organ functions permanently.

The pandemic has been a wake-up call to address the need for more sustainable and transformative practices in the workplace. Owing to the MCOs, many businesses have had to shut down their operations, resulting in massive job losses. It has also highlighted systemic challenges, such as access to healthcare and internet connectivity, as well as seen high incidences of mental health issues resulting from long social isolation. These issues, if not properly addressed, will have a long-lasting implication on our country’s economy and citizens.

Mohd Redza Abdul Rahman is CEO of PNB Research Institute and head of the investment analysis department

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