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WHAT LESSONS CAN LEADERS LEARN FROM THE COVID-19 CRISIS?

Simon Lance Managing Director, Hays Greater China

The global COVID-19 crisis has already transformed the way in which we work in such a short space of time. As the situation continues to develop and the road to recovery is expected to be a long one, business leaders and professionals must adapt and be agile to the challenges that are presented to them on a daily basis, with valuable lessons to be learned along the way.

In this Q&A, We're joind by Simon Lance, Managing Director for Hays Greater China, to gather his valuable insights from the last four months and the considerations for business leaders going forward.

1. Before we kick things off, could you quickly introduce yourself to our listeners?

Sure, I’m Simon Lance, I’m the Managing Director for Hays in Greater China where we have six offices across Mainland China and Hong Kong, and around about three hundred staff.

2. Now the wider global recovery from this pandemic is expected to be a very long one. The majority of China has exited its lockdown period albeit with some restrictions still in place. What are the challenges you are now facing in the region?

For us, as China gradually relaxes the coronavirus restrictions and encourages businesses to get back to normal, our pressing challenges at the moment are really about understanding the market and the way that our clients are adapting to a very different economic landscape. So, we’re spending most of our time really consulting to them and trying to understand how their industries and sectors have changed and how their business models have adapted to what is likely to be the new normal. That predominantly focuses a little bit on the financial position of their companies themselves and what their cash flow is like, but also just understanding how promising the prospects are for their respective markets or industry sectors, and once we have that basis, really understanding how we can add value to their plans for the year ahead.

Internally, we are really looking at our own employee care as our biggest strategic priority in that emergence from lockdown, and most of our thinking, our challenges, our opportunities are all really focused on how we take care of our own staff, how we retain talent in a difficult market and how we help them cope with what is quite a stressful and unsettling period in their own careers. So, I would say the biggest challenges for us internally are really focused on our own staff and talent.

3. And to those countries who are a few months behind China, how can businesses prepare for the months ahead?

Yes, well we were sort of the first country and first part of the Hays world into that crisis and first coming out, and I hope that other countries around the world are learning from their international colleagues in China and taking the opportunity to be better prepared for each stage of disruption and recovery.

So, I think it’s really going to vary considerably between location and industry sector, but having a return to work plan that is based on learns from colleagues or other businesses around the world is really important, and I would be looking at different business models and different industry sectors and just trying to tease out what has become best practice at each progressive stage of disruption and recovery around the world.

Once you have that plan in mind, getting full engagement across your leadership teams and even down into your general staff really seems to make a big difference. So that communication and the cascading down of the key elements of that return to work plan seems to have been a really common trend in businesses that have weathered the initial storm well and then perhaps rebounded to normal business activity quickly here in China.

4. Now we’ve seen some really big changes to how people work during this pandemic such as remote working and also how we communicate. What were the key learns you took away from this period?

For us as an organisation, that preparation to move digital and stay digital at short notice and under some stress was probably a key learn, so I think for organisations that are either assessing their own business performance now or preparing for a return to work, I’d really stress testing all of the digital and IT infrastructure that you have in place to support remote working either through the crisis or as business progressively comes back after the crisis. I think that’s a really key learn and my advice would be to test and assess as much as you possibly can before it really goes back into full operation.

One other really important learn that I’ve seen a distinct benefit from, has also come from the way that organisations communicate from the executive level down to general staff. And I think for CEOs or business leaders, that need to be much more visible and talking to your general staff more frequently about what is going on in the organisation in the world, in general, is really important. So, I think just having that clear, frequent and open communication from the executive down to general staff has also been a real key learn for me.

5. Do you expect any of these changes to be adopted permanently and what do you think it means for the future of the world of work?

I think the digital disruption that’s happening here will absolutely be a permanent change and we’ll see ways of working and business models that are permanently changed as a result of that adaptation through the coronavirus disruption. It’s highly likely, if not a certainty, that businesses will integrate remote working far more into their mix of operations, so I see that as a permanent change and disruption. And attached to that I think everyone’s still really feeling their ways through how to integrate that successfully into the overall mix of a company’s operations, but there are some risks there and some opportunities, but I think that will really be a permanent change and it’ll perhaps cause organisations and entire industries to reassess how they feel and think and plan around physical office space, and what is the purpose of a physical office?

I think it’s moved well beyond the completion of tasks or general workspace that can now all be done remotely. So, it’s creating some good discussion here in China about what the overall purpose is for a physical working space and leading to some more interesting theories around innovation or collaboration, team culture and emotional support, but it’s really progressed beyond just completion of tasks.

6. What’s been your key focus since emerging from the initial lockdown phase and what will be your focus going forward? Are there any challenges you see on the horizon for leaders?

Our key focus has really been centered on our employees, our staff and particularly leadership, and how we prepare and support our leaders and their teams to operate in a very uncertain environment. So, the emotional support, the assistance programs that we have in place, the tools that they require to work remotely and just generally how do they deal with a period of intense stress and uncertainty, and that really has been our focus through the initial crisis, the lockdown period, and now as business restarts, it’s really managing the employee part of the equation.

And I think attached to that, we’ve really decentralised a lot of our decision making and leadership structures and attached to that necessity really has been how we support our local leadership teams in the respective cities around our region. So, I think looking at that as a key focus will continue, even though restrictions on travel are lifting, it’s obviously a little bit harder for our executive leadership to travel around the region and around the world.

And I think looking to the future, that trend probably continues when we look at how we need to support our leaders. It’s really how we equip them to manage and lead through a very uncertain environment and potentially a few ups and downs in the months ahead as business resumes in China and around the world.

7. Considering a lot has happened in such a short space of time and the world we lived in at the very beginning of the year feels far removed from the one we’re in today for a large number of reasons, which best parts of the old world will you keep and which will you say goodbye to as we move into this new era?

In terms of what we would keep having learned the importance of it through this crisis and recovery would be the absolute commitment to people and culture. We had already really put that at the core of a lot of our strategies here in a Hays China, but we’ve certainly seen the benefits of that through a period of intense disruption and stress and having a really strong engaged leadership and general team has really been the difference for us in weathering the storm and then catching the recovery and rebound quickly. So, I think really putting people at the heart of our business just perhaps pops up the priority list even higher.

In terms of what we would lose or say goodbye to, there’s a lot and particularly attached to traditional ways of working and traditional ways of making decisions across a multi-location region, and we’ve really seen that under that period of stress and pressure; the need to decentralise our decision making and leave that in the hands of trusted local leaders without needing too many links or steps in the chains of approval. That’s worked really well and it’s something that I’m quite keen to now entrench and embed in our overall management structure.

And secondly, I think just encouraging our leaders and our middle management to challenge the status quo a little bit and look at the traditional ways of working or doing things and ask the question and present ideas or ways of innovating or doing them better, so really keep that sense of innovation going through normal times not just through a period of disruption.

8. And how have you adapted to an increased reliance on technology during this period? Have you discovered a smarter way of working?

Going into that disruption period, we honestly weren’t ready from a technology infrastructure point of view, so through the crisis and out the other side, we’ve invested pretty heavily in upgrading every aspect of our tech infrastructure platform and that now is enabling smarter ways of working. So, I would say we’re still really in a learning process, but it has opened up a lot of innovation from our staff and we’re now seeing different ways of using video conferences or conferencing facilities that expand beyond traditional meetings and move into speeches, ways of celebrating, ways of innovating or managing cross-region to create new ideas or come up with different ways of doing things. So, I think the use of video is just becoming a lot more integrated in our normal way of working.

In terms of the tools, everything to do with digital and remote working is seeing a fair bit of investment for us and I think the future for us really is a completely mobile-enabled workforce that would choose or need to come to a physical office space for certain times or certain tasks or functions through their normal working day or week, but I can see a scenario where everyone hypothetically has a lot more flexibility and freedom in how they choose to go about their jobs.

9. Now you mentioned video conferencing, which of the specific technological tools have you found most useful in helping you and your team during the situation, and I assume you’ll be using them going forward?

Yes, we will, and it’s a real mix actually. We’ve found different platforms suit different purposes and the value to us is probably in the diversity itself. So, we have some of the traditional products that you would see around the world, Microsoft TeamsZoom and so on and they’ve been quite useful for corporate traditional functions if you like meetings or interviewing our candidates and taking in job specifications from our clients.

There’s also a whole host of online local Chinese platforms that have been brilliant for gamifying parts of our business and creating a little bit of competition and collaboration across consultant populations and even interactive events being run through a more social app in the business networking.

We’ve also obviously embraced webinars and have a couple of different platforms that we’re using for that to host our external events and link up our networks as guest speakers or audience attendees. So, it’s amazing to me, the diversity in the mix of those online tools and platforms that we’re now using in what’s been a very short space of time.

10. So, we’ve spoken a lot about businesses, but is there any advice you would give to professionals on how they can navigate this defining new era of work?

The advice that I’ve been giving to a lot of senior-level or executive candidates at the moment is to rethink how their value to an organisation is going to be perceived in a radically different world. From an executive recruitment position, companies now are extremely interested in someone’s aptitude for ongoing learning and self-development themselves, and being able to articulate and embrace that as a senior leader or an executive, your appetite for ongoing continuous learning and your investment in that, personally I think is a point of differentiation in what may be a little bit more of a job short or candidate rich market.

So, I would encourage professionals at all levels to take a really active interest in their ongoing professional development and find ways to articulate that on your CV, on your social media profiles and of course during an interview. And I think if it’s not already, it will become a bit of a defining question and assessment criteria for a lot of organisations.

11. And what would your advice be for other employers in countries where they are now beginning to transition back to office life?

My advice is to take it a little bit slow and in doing so give yourself and your teams a little bit of time to understand what the market is. I think it’s highly unlikely for any country that the return to full working mode is going to be smooth and there’s probably going to be a few ups and downs in there and as part of that, there’ll be risks and opportunities that I think people should be prepared to discover first and then make the most of. And my advice on our own experience here and the organisations that I deal with in China has been to really empower and take care of your key people.

There have been more than a few stories where companies have seen talent that they have developed over years very quickly become disengaged and leave or will be caught up in global or local restructuring programs and leave for other reasons, and I think it’s a tragic waste of talent at a time where organisations really do need the very best talent to guide them through an uncertain landscape.

So, my advice would be to take it a little bit slow and look for the opportunities and the risks through the ups and downs ahead and really point all of your energies on taking care of the best talent that you have in the organisation, engaging them, considering their own wellness and mental health and general stress levels, and just making sure that they see a secure, confident future ahead with the company.

AUTHOR

Simon has over 14 years consulting and management experience within the professional recruitment industry in UK, Australia and China. Simon was appointed as Regional Director, China in January 2012 and is currently the Managing Director of Greater China, responsible for the operational management and expansion of Hays offices in Shanghai, Beijing, Suzhou, Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Hong Kong. Prior to his current position as Managing Director of Hays Greater China, Simon spent 8 years with Hays Australia, progressing through various levels of promotion to assume overall management of businesses in both Western Australia and the Northern Territory. Simon’s management experience includes developing market-leading teams within a range of technical, financial, corporate and executive disciplines. He also maintains a strong personal interest in the infrastructure, engineering and energy industries. He graduated from the University of Western Australia (BSc) and has attended management development programs through both Hays and external

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