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The COVID-19 outbreak in Singapore dormitories for the last few weeks highlights a weak link in the Singapore well-run system. The infection cases are going up very quickly by the day (404 cases yesterday). It is a good time for the country and industry leaders to reflect deeply on how we are treating the large foreign workforce (>200,000 workers) who are living in very dense living conditions.
I have high trust in the multiple agency approach of the Singapore government, but it seems like we are caught off-guard and not well-prepared for such an outbreak scenario. However, I have strong confidence that we will learn from this crisis and emerge stronger as a nation, just like what happened after SARS. Singapore will certainly be a more resilient country!
In my sixth interview on April 16th, Brandon Lew, VP HR from T-Systems Singapore had the interview with me via FaceTime. He manages the Singapore workforce of 100 employees and acts as a strategic advisor to the business leaders. Interestingly, he was wearing a T-Systems polo T-shirt, while I was wearing a George Washington University (our school) polo T-shirt, as we are both working from home.
Here are the excerpts from our interview:
Ricky “R”: Hi Brandon, great having you today! Can you share with us your overall perspective on the COVID-19 pandemic situation?
Brandon Lew “L”: I’d like to put things into context. Singapore is two-third the size of New York and represents less than 0.1% of the world population. So, my perspective would be from the lens of a small country managing international influences.
At the beginning of the crisis, we were doing well until we did not. This overconfidence has brought us down a notch in terms of global investor confidence. We are saved by the fact that we are small and efficient enough to correct our protocols in a very short time. The circuit breaker should be called a “sledgehammer breaker”. Look at the sudden increase and severity of action steps. I’m all for it! But what I learnt is not to celebrate too early. Eyes on the ball and keep the focus on your end goal.
My perspective is that we need to work with the cards that we are dealt with and be practical about every day, not about every month. This is important because, despite all the opinions out there, every country is evolving. You should have a long-term goal, but you can’t have a long-term strategy at this time.
Business leaders will need to have an evolving strategy and optimise the business based on a day-by-day basis. You can’t advise the management that this is what we do for the month. We need to be super-fast and nimble.
My running shoes are on and I’m ready to run!
R: What is the impact on your business?
L: Reality is the best selling point. Previously, we have had clients who rejected our proposals to shift to customised cloud solutions. Today, these clients are definitely reflecting on their previous decisions. In the long-run, we believe that the industry will need to look at crafting smart maintenance solutions, in order to generate consistent revenues. It will no longer be business as usual where clients are paying for manpower and hardware.
R: How about the impact on talent attraction and development?
L: Internationally, everybody is learning something. We observe that the ground staff have more time for learning. I’m pushing for the employees to complete their online courses and fill up their training passport.
However, at the higher level, our managers have less time for such online learning courses. They are busy handling calls and reporting due to this telecommuting scenario. It is actually more stressful for them. The positive thing is that they are quickly learning how to manage people remotely and they are ‘forced’ to uplift their leadership competencies in this crisis.
R: How are your customers reacting? What’s your HR strategy to support the business?
L: For my HR team, I propose to them not to interfere too much with the employees who are working from home. We want to allow colleagues to have an opportunity to “miss” having hyper care HR services and onsite counsel. In the first evening, my HR team was uncomfortable. After 2-3 days, the employees and business managers started coming to them for HR services and solutions. Instead of breathing down the employee’s neck, let them pursue you for a change. We believe this is one strategy to build trust with our colleagues without being too intrusive.
For some of our workforce, we told them that we will have a daily check-in session. We need to be agile towards the evolving situation (day-by-day strategy) and make decisions quickly. People feel that it’s disorganised compared to normal days where we are used to being very structured and have a consistent routine. But these are interesting times. We need to adapt. Fortunately, our leaders are able to shift into this agile mode very quickly.
R: What advice do you have for business leaders?
L: My first advice is “don’t trust expert advice”! Customize all the solutions out there and don’t take any proposal wholesale. Think deeply about what works for your organisation. Nobody can give you the perfect solution.
Also, this is a good time for a business to consider who is truly critical for your team. After the COVID-19, leaders will know who to promote, to develop and who to be on a performance improvement plan (PIP).
I have known Brandon for more than 10 years, first as GWU school alumni and later as a client. My key takeaway from the interview is that companies need to be agile and be able to decide/act quickly. We need to park our structured and long-term oriented approach aside and make decisions that are relevant to the situation. It is a great time for leaders to learn how to manage their teams remotely and develop their virtual management competency.
If you are interested in how to build a resilient leadership team in APAC, drop me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org.