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How COVID-19 has Impacted the Workplace Norm in China

With the rise of COVID-19, the world found itself in uncharted territory amid a global pandemic. During the development of new ways of working, HR departments around the world were thrust into the limelight of businesses to guide employees and the organisation itself through the changes to keep everyone safe, and operational. Now, as countries around the world start to come out of varying levels of lockdown, HR departments are once again front and centre to establish what the long-term work practices will be.

As things have already begun to evolve in China, we interviewed some in-country HR leaders to gain a glimpse into their changing world and how they are preparing their organisations for the next steps.

The World is Different Post Lockdown

As the first country to battle this crisis, China managed to control it with effective lockdown measures across the nation which started at 10am in Wu Han on 23 January 2020. In April, lockdown was gradually lifted and life in China was back in the spotlight; as a pioneer, both post-COVID-19 economic recovery, and of the societal changes the pandemic has precipitated. However, even after three months, there are still cautious measures in certain areas and incidents of new clusters are being found in different cities. Therefore, we are not really ‘post’ COVID-19 yet, and, the world generally is no longer the same. How to support and provide a sense of safety to employees given there are still uncertainties has become one of the key focuses for HR leaders in China. As Richard Xu, China HRVP at FrieslandCampina emphasised

Be prepared. Anything could happen so we have to stay vigilant all the time. Employee safety has become an essential part of our HR plan, even for office-based staff, which has not been the case traditionally.

Leapfrog in the Digitalisation Journey

COVID-19 has not only accelerated digitisation in business-to-consumer (B2C) applications and channels, but also the way organisations communicate with and engage their workforce. Pre-COVID-19, China was already a digital leader in various aspects, but many organisations had to leapfrog in the use of technology for communications, business continuity, engagement, and learning purposes. While there had been talks and trials before COVID-19, the crisis has undoubtedly forced everyone to push it to the maximum extent. Not surprisingly, many organisations have since seen the benefits of what they once doubted. The CPO of a local real estate company commented

Using mobile applications to keep employees updated on the work/office plan and run quick surveys to gather timely feedback has had a very positive impact on engagement, and will become a long-term communication platform for the company.

The Learning and Development Director of a global professional services company shared with us that they used to rely heavily on the traditional classroom set up for learning programs and less than 10% were run virtually. After they switched to 100% online learning during lockdown, they have received such positive feedback and engagement, some business leaders were even asking ‘why didn’t we do this earlier?’.  

Resilient HR Leaders Rising to the Challenges

The financial impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is severe, rapid, and global. Organisations across the world are experiencing workforce disruption at an unprecedented scale and speed. Even though China has shown some early signs of recovery, the overall economic environment and global eco-system has proven challenging for many businesses. For a market that is often associated with high growth, business leaders and HR leaders now have to manage the organisations through tough times. This is propelling HR leaders to rise to the challenge, showing their resilience, and also helping their organisations achieve long-lasting workforce resilience. As Richard shared:

HR Leaders can be more impactful by being role-models in crisis. Employees turn to the HR team for advice and support. It’s a time for HR leaders to demonstrate authentic care to employees, be approachable, and represent the resilience of the organisation.

The Need for Reskilling the Workforce

To build a resilient organisation, adapting employees’ skills and roles to the post-pandemic ways of working will be crucial to building operating-model resilience. In 2017, the McKinsey Global Institute estimated that as many as 375 million workers — or 14 percent of the global workforce — would have to switch occupations or acquire new skills by 2030 because of automation and artificial intelligence. The COVID-19 pandemic has made this need even more urgent. Workers across industries must figure out how they can adapt to rapidly changing conditions, and companies have to learn how to match those workers to new roles and activities. This dynamic is not just about remote working, or the role of automation and AI. It is about how leaders can reskill and upskill the workforce to deliver new business models in the post-pandemic era. To meet this challenge, HR leaders in some companies have started to be involved in crafting a talent strategy that develops employees’ critical digital and cognitive capabilities, their social and emotional skills, and their adaptability and resilience.

As we all know, none of the above is unique to China. COVID-19 had a profound impact on the workforce, workplace, and the way of working everywhere in the world. As one of the first countries to surface out of the tunnel and get on the recovery curve, we are pleased to hear HR leaders are not only focusing on the short-term recovery but also long-term strategies through their learning from the crisis.

The future is not what it used to be, but let’s get ahead of the curve. 


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