, Singapore

Human Resources: COVID-19 Workforce

By Ella Sherman

COVID-19 has reinforced that PEOPLE are the most important asset of all. Businesses right now are more aware than ever how their people talent and interactions impact day to day operations. Human Resources departments are working hard to quickly put into place policies and procedures dealing with communicable diseases so our workforce doesn’t grind to a halt. We have had to react and negate the people issues COVID-19 has thrown at us. My Generalist role in Human Resources has always been about being agile and adaptive to business needs, and the COVID-19 New World demands we evolve fast. There is a lot of discourse right now around returning to work, with Human Resources and Business Continuity Planning being conducted over the past few weeks since returning to work is not as simple as leaving was.

Many employees deemed ‘non-essential’ are now home working. Many companies are surprised to have seen a surge in productivity. My friend who is analysing risk for a leading bank says “We have seen a significant increase in productivity which was unexpected and is enormous. We are now questioning the way we operate going forward.” Channel News Asia on 8th May 2020 reported ‘Contrary to popular belief employee productivity falls when they are away from the office, a study by a group of Stanford University and Peking University scholars found a 13 per cent increase in productivity for employees working from home, with scores given by both managers and employees.’ When you cut out the time it takes to commute to the office, let’s say 80 minutes a day, and the lunch hour is reduced to a quick bowl of noodles or sandwich that only takes 15 minutes, staff are now working at least two hours more per day. Take out office chit chat, lunchtime gym classes and cigarette breaks in designated areas and you’re looking at an extra three hours of focused work per day. Increased productivity means increased profitability and possibly decreased headcount. From a Human Resources perspective this raises the question should we have more employees home working to reduce business costs and increase profits.


The biggest concern identified with staff working from home is their mental health. The majority of people are social creatures and need regular interaction with other people to stave off loneliness and depression. Working in a team in the office gives a sense of belonging. Though office gossip and banter sound trivial it actually helps employees experience comradery and being part of a team. Working from home and going for days on end without seeing a colleague is taxing. Some people need space from their spouses as apparently divorce enquiries are up 40% since the start of the outbreak. South China Morning Post wrote on 10th May 2020 ‘Family law specialist Sharon Ser says she has had numerous divorce inquiries since January, when the pandemic struck Hong Kong. She has been receiving at least two to three divorce inquiries every day, compared with an average of one a day previously.’ Therefore, a model where staff are in the office for a minimum of two days a week hot desking may be the best solution for tackling such issues and the rest of the time spent home working.

Virtual meetings on Zoom and Teams have become the new norm. The digital revolution has arrived, so if you were video shy before, by now you’ll have learned the basics of how to set up your computer to get the most flattering light on your face, how to combine business shirts with shorts, and create the illusion of a business-like clutter free background. Speaking up and staying present during these meetings is essential. Leadership has never mattered so much. As we get more familiar with these live video meetings, businesses must analyse the need for so much costly and time-consuming business travel when a video meeting is so cost effective albeit transactional. Likewise, is there the need for so many expatriate staff when they can now manage teams and situations remotely through video meetings? Human Resources departments will now question whether there really is a need for costly business travel and expat assignments in this new age of virtual technology.

Now that companies are learning employees are more productive working from home the need for expensive office space is being scrutinised. Office space and utility costs are enormous expenses for businesses. Commercial landlords charge high rents, and then you have fit out costs and ongoing utilities, refreshments and facilities maintenance. Office space is clearly one of the biggest costs businesses have to bear other than employee salaries. Even if office space was reduced to essential floor-based staff and hot desking two days a week for other employees this would significantly reduce overheads. Would some of the cost saving mean bigger bonuses for staff? Which in turn would help motivate performance whilst home working. Companies have been overcoming the challenges of home working, providing training on virtual video meetings and tips on working remotely, whilst employees have been granted allowances for home office equipment and utility consumption to mitigate expenses.

Keeping employees content, no matter what industry you’re in, boils down to rewards and recognition. We all need to feel valued for our work and compensated accordingly. Many employees have had to take a pay cut during COVID-19 in order for the business to retain all staff. Companies have been honest in saying this is necessary for everyone to keep their jobs. For the greater good employees have conceded to this. However, there are some companies taking advantage of this situation. One of my friends works for an insurance company and says “My company cut our salaries by 20% despite my team lodging excellent growth this year and the whole company seeing strong growth globally. We are busier as people can’t absorb risk on their balance sheets anymore so are buying insurance. The company is still paying dividends, the CEO has a huge salary, stocks and options so he benefits from paying dividends. They are using the line that they are guaranteeing jobs whilst also proceeding with an acquisition worth a billion of a company whose share price has crashed. None of our competitors have cut salaries and now we all want to find new jobs.” The employees are understandably feeling taken advantage of and disillusioned with their employer. As an HR professional I believe this will only serve to demotivate the workforce and have good employees move to competitors – which will eventually impact the bottom-line as well as the reputation of the company. Ultimately, employee experience and engagement convert into investor/customer confidence.

During COVID-19 we have to balance the safety of employees whilst keeping the workforce energised and productive. Managing a new landscape of furloughs, pay cuts and retrenchment. Looking ahead, we have employees returning to work and a new era of health screening procedures, social distancing in office set ups, enhanced flexible working and identifying people talent who fit in with the business strategy, drive outcomes and generate wins in the market place. Post COVID-19 Human Resources departments are more important than ever before, so we need to increase our human, business planning and technology skills to add more value for our people talent.

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