COVID-19 showed the value of collaboration. Employers worked closely with their workers to support them physically and mentally. Meanwhile, governments stepped in to help both employers and workers cope with pandemic challenges.
New legislations are now on the table, new frameworks are being drawn up, and a new level of collaboration between all stakeholders of a country’s GDP now exists. But will it last the test of time? Or will this be simply a blip in our history?
Navigating uncharted territory
During the HR Tech Festival Asia 2020, a panel discussion on “Building a Better Post-COVID Future of Work” examined the key issues.
“We’re in very much uncharted territory now, and we’re all facing similar challenges. But there are also big differences, as it depends on the level of sophistication and development of individual countries and the strength of tripartite structures in individual countries, etc.,” said Graeme Buckley, director for DWT/CO-Bangkok at International Labour Organization (ILO).
Buckley highlighted his organization’s four-prong policy approach. It included stimulating the economy to create jobs; supporting the enterprises; protecting workers; and fostering social dialog.
One area where ILO is actively engaging lies in social protection that is often based on social dialog responses and dialog between workers, employers, and government. Buckley noted that the pandemic offered an opportunity “to strengthen social protection systems which are often in dire need of being strengthened in a number of countries.”
However, for social dialog to occur, there needs to be trust among the different stakeholders. “That is absolutely essential in the uncertain times; it’s an essential fundamental condition, really, for moving forward.”
Governments part of the solution
A key feature of the pandemic is how governments stepped in. Many showed leadership against adversity by enabling tripartite (government-employer-worker) institutions and processes in various countries.
“We all know that this is not always done as effectively and efficiently as it can be. But in these moments of huge uncertainty and crisis, I think this calls for ever stronger collaboration between social partners and government. And I think that governments have a key role to play in ensuring that this takes place, including the effective implementation of existing labor laws,” said Buckley.
Diaan-Yi Lin, senior partner, McKinsey & Company, who moderated the discussion, asked how Singapore leveraged the tripartite model during the pandemic and worked with its ASEAN neighbors.
Aubeck Kam, Permanent Secretary at Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower, noted the challenges were because of the differences in labor laws and implementations. He cited the differences in addressing the retirement age as one issue.
However, the fact that intergovernmental dialog was already occurring when the pandemic struck made a considerable difference.
“So, when we found ourselves in the midst of a crisis. I think we were fortunate that the instincts for the tripartite partners to work together were quite current, and they were quite operationally ready if you like. And so, we put them into play,” said Kam.
One area where the Singapore Government took additional care was in legislating new labor laws. “Very often and a big ask of government is to make a law, so that [the action] becomes crystal clear. And I think we have tried to apply a certain wisdom in Singapore to decide what really needs to be legislated, and what might be better advanced as by way of broad principles. And I think we are able to do that because there is that trust [between citizens, employers and the government],” Kam explained.
Kam noted that governments need to understand that not all companies were facing the same challenges. “We had companies that were seeing an increase in demand, and then we had companies that were losing 90% of their demand. So, I think we took a practical approach, and we were able to do it because the trust is forged in peace [pre-COVID] times,” said Kam.
In Viet Nam, the government doubled down on education. “When we talk about the future of work before, we often talk about the Industrial Revolution 4.0. But with the comings of the COVID-19, we also saw that the world of work is now changing a lot. And we need to think up the new normal things about how to protect our people, and also to help them to improve the skill in coping with the very fluid situation,” said Dr. Ha Thi Minh Duc, Minister of Labor for Invalids and Social Affairs in Viet Nam.
She explained that the government decided to invest a lot in education, especially in the application of IT, and “change our curriculum for our future generation.” The government reinforced education, higher education, and vocational education laws while engaging the business sector for “socialization of education.”
Worker welfare, innovation in focus
COVID-19 will be remembered as employers played an active role in worker welfare.
Lynn Dang, human resources lead at Microsoft Singapore, noted that the company was already witnessing a sea change toward hybrid working needs before COVID-19. “But, obviously, during the pandemic, more organizations adopted remote working.” She cited their latest research from Australia that productivity was three times higher in companies that adapted to a remote way of working.
At the same time, Dang also noted that the pandemic highlighted the importance of having a culture of innovation to respond quickly to challenges.
“And as we speak to more business leaders, they no longer view innovation as a luxury. It’s actually a necessity for survival. And our latest research here in Singapore bears that out, where innovation is a must-have,” said Dang.
She observed that companies integrated the ability to innovate into “the core of their organization” emerged stronger out of the pandemic.
As an HR leader, Dang sees the need to encourage developing such a culture of innovation that embraces risks and ongoing learning. “From an HR lens, it is about making sure that the right rewards and incentives, and infrastructure are set up to encourage innovation,” she added.
Keeping the paradigm shifting
One area that often does not get much illumination is the changing role of workers, trade unions, and employers due to the pandemic.
Shoya Yoshida, general secretary for International Trade Union Confederation - Asia Pacific (ITUC-AP), noted that the biggest challenge for workers and trade unions is to ensure that the paradigm shift keeps going in the right direction.
“We have witnessed how fragile businesses are when they are relying excessively on demand of the global supply chain and giving less priority to boosting domestic demand. We also saw how workers, losing jobs even for only a month, find it impossible to fund housing, children’s education and even food,” said Yoshida.
He urged employers to focus on their HR policies on improving “every ability” and focus on the employability of the lower-income groups. Such an approach will create a large volume of the middle income that can weather future crises.
Yoshida reinforced the need to continue the tripartite collaboration between governments, employers, and workers to grow the middle-income bracket. “The current growth is debt-driven and based on labor exploitation. Such an export-driven economy cannot be sustainable, and the key to a brighter future world is social dialog and tri-partite cooperation,” he said.
Dr. Duc noted that Singapore is taking the right steps forward by introducing a promising future of work program in 2018 to ASEAN. Currently, the region is focused on sharing the best practice.
Intergovernmental exchange and tripartite cooperation are bearing fruit. “So many of the national programs that you see in ASEAN reflect some commonalities, and I would like to think that is due to the exchange and the cross-fertilization of ideas at the ASEAN governmental level,” added Buckley.
Mental fitness becomes vital
One new area that COVID-19 brought to the fore is employee mental health.
“I would say that mental health was an issue before COVID. I actually think the pandemic has actually given us an opportunity to really bring mental health into the forefront and really talk about that as a cultural aspect as well,” said Microsoft’s Dang.
Dang noted that most organizations would have Employee Assistance Programs. But what is really important “is to create a culture where leaders and leadership are comfortable in sharing their vulnerability and saying, to their teams, it’s okay to not be okay.”
Dr. Duc added that mental stress is not only at the workplace but also within the community. During the pandemic, people were afraid to make contact with others. This was a big issue as countries like Viet Nam depended on manufacturing.
However, Dr. Duc did single out one area where there should be more focus: migrant workers. She noted that working overseas sometimes gives these workers less access to the in-country healthcare system.
Buckley added that the definition of work-related mental stress needs to be examined closely. He noted that some of the triggers could be non-work related. “For example, your employer being late in paying salaries.”
He urged employers to offer multiple channels to allow workers to reach out and make early intervention possible.
Image credit: iStockphoto/metamorworks