What lessons should be taken by the workplace from COVID-19?

Edward Au,, Bonnie Chan and Mohamed Butt

Experts chime in on the latest topics in accountancy and business

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Edward Au,, Bonnie Chan and Mohamed Butt


Edward Au, Southern Region Managing Partner, Deloitte China, and an Institute member

Based on our analysis of the leading practices of multinational companies in business continuity planning and emergency management of major infectious diseases, lessons from the coronavirus pandemic include the following:

Assess the risks and clarify emergency response mechanisms, plans and division of labour. Many multinational companies have established contingency plans or business sustainability plans, usually implementing these immediately in the event of a major emergency. If a company has no such plan, it should conduct a comprehensive assessment of all risks, including employee, outsourcing, government, public and supply chain issues. According to the risk assessment, the company should respond to issues around office space, production plans, procurement, supply and logistics, personnel safety and financial capital, as well as arrange other major matters related to emergency plans and division of labour.

Establish a positive information communication mechanism and create standardized communication documents. It is important to stabilize supply chains and the mindsets of internal employees and external partners, as well as strengthen the management of publicity and customer services to avoid negative public opinion caused by negligence or inconsistency. At the same time, a company’s existing information system should be used to collect, transmit, and analyse epidemic information and issue prompt risk warnings.

Maintain the physical and mental well-being of employees, and analyse the nature of different businesses and jobs to ensure appropriate resumption of work. According to Deloitte’s latest human resources survey on epidemic responses, 82 percent of companies believe flexible work arrangements are now the most important means of employee management. We recommend companies to immediately establish flexible vacation and work mechanisms, using technical means to establish non-face-to-face or off-site work parameters during special periods. Besides this, a company should establish a staff health monitoring system and keep employees’ personal health information confidential. For example, during the most critical period of the pandemic, our firm immediately implemented a weekly self-declaration digital survey to ensure that we are aware of our people and their family’s safety and health situation.

Upgrade the company’s risk management mechanisms. We believe companies could face unexpected risk events at any moment. They should establish or upgrade their risk management systems to identify the key risks and build risk mitigation plan. Strengthening risk management systems is just as important as dealing with negative events when they arise.

“82 percent of companies believe flexible work arrangements are now the most important means of employee management.”

Bonnie Chan, Trust and Transformation Leader, IBM Global Business Services, Greater China Group, and an Institute member

While the lessons from the pandemic are not new, they have never been more important. The crisis has taught us to always be prepared. As part of that, it’s critical to create a cross-functional team to provide the framework and strategic guidance for tackling the issues. When the crisis started, IBM immediately set up a crisis management team to assess and address the dynamic impacts of the virus, from workplace and work-from-home adjustments to healthcare and financial questions.

The team saw the importance of meeting on a daily basis to receive feedback from the leaders, to make decisions and drive actions. During these meetings, the work-stream leaders would typically report on their own area, raise issues and ask for help.

Another takeaway is that the remote work model is doable and could be here to stay. Acknowledging that working-from-home is the new norm, IBM’s crisis management team provides employees with hints and tips to effectively work at home. The company has also seen the importance of developing initiatives with an objective of building a more flexible and productive workforce. For example, IBM developed the following work-from-home pledges during the pandemic:

  • I pledge to be family sensitive: Putting a call on hold to handle a household issue is OK.
  • I pledge to support flexibility for personal needs: Respect social boundaries when scheduling meetings.
  • I pledge to support “not camera ready” times: It’s OK to turn off video as needed. Try to have a profile picture, which allows people to “see you without seeing you.”
  • I pledge to be kind: I will keep in mind that I am “showing up” in others’ homes for the first time and want to be a good guest.
  • I pledge to set boundaries and prevent video fatigue: Use new time limit boundaries for meetings, recognizing video fatigue is a new phenomenon for all of us.

Strong communication is also key during times of crisis. A critical lesson for us is that timely and effective communication from one voice (human resources) can resolve most questions from employees and managers, avoid unnecessary anxiety and win trust. This can include an informative questions and answers channel, case management and reporting processes, and manager and employee responsibilities.

“The team saw the importance of meeting on a daily basis to receive feedback from the leaders.”

Mohamed Butt, Executive Director, Hong Kong Productivity Council

Despite signs of COVID-19 receding in some parts of the world, pandemic-triggered new norms remain – from remote working, mask-wearing, to technology inventions that alter almost all aspects of our lives. The extensive adoption of top-notch technologies like artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, Internet-of-Things and big data, has rapidly reshaped our workplace and business operations. Once transformation begins, businesses will not necessarily go back to the old days. The Hong Kong Productivity Council (HKPC) has seen the following transformations take place.

Commercialization of research and development (R&D) is on the rise: The pandemic has propelled us to fast-track technology adoption, not only for the well-being of our society, but also to generate new business opportunities. Thanks to our in-house experts, HKPC quickly debuted anti-pandemic smart initiatives. One of which is a touchless elevator panel, “kNOw Touch,” making use of the sensor-enabled application to remove the need to physically touch buttons. To facilitate early detection of visitors’ body temperatures, HKPC’s experts developed an AI thermal camera, which can alert frontline personnel with prominent sound and visual images in case a fever is detected. The “kNOw Touch” has also been patented for further commercialization.

Reindustrialization to drive economic resilience: Grappling with the tough times, successful enterprises are those that look introspectively and are dynamic in transforming their operations with the market. Take, for example, the many local manufacturers that have started establishing mask production lines in light of local shortages. Engaged by the Hong Kong government, HKPC’s tech experts worked round-the-clock to provide technical support on machine adjustment and testing for 50 mask production lines. This alleviated the mask shortage, and most importantly, reignited Hong Kong’s reindustrialization. Sure enough, this will play host to the city’s economic resilience, as local manufacturing steers towards high value-added production and supply chains.

Be aware of cyber lockdown: The pandemic also teaches us to put cybersecurity on top of our minds, given how quickly most organizations found themselves shifting to remote working, and hackers seeking to take advantage and launch cyber-attacks. Advice to the IT and risk management teams is to be more vigilant than ever – since “cyber lockdown” could be as disastrous as “coronavirus lockdown.”

“Successful enterprises are those that look introspectively and are dynamic in transforming their operations with the market.”

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Experts chime in on the latest topics in accountancy and business


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