Policy and culture in offices without walls

At the recent Frontiers of Work 2021 Conference, panelists from backgrounds in law, HR, and IT discussed and debated issues around policy, employee experience, technology and the limits and possibilities of the physical workspace. Some of the questions discussed were: how does a company adapt its culture and practices and work together as a single team without physical proximity? What are the legal, administrative, personnel-related ramifications of indefinite work from home operations, and can employee productivity be quantified?

Moderated by Rahul Joshi, Head of Content at Jicara Media, the panel had the following speakers:

  • Bryan Tan, Partner, at Pinsent Masons LLP; 
  • Che Lewer, Associate Director, Human Resources at Heinemann Asia Pacific Pte Ltd; and
  • Syukri Sudari, Chief People Officer at Affin Bank Group.

What are some workplace transformations because of the pandemic from the HR and legal perspective? 

Syukri Sudari: With the pandemic affecting the whole world, the way we think has totally changed. I had suggested earlier to my CEO that we must have a policy where people must work from home. People weren’t ready then, but surprisingly within a month, people became ready to work from home. 

In the past, we met our colleagues, now we can’t. So a lot of companies are struggling, because immediately after we implemented work from home, many didn’t  have the foundation from the technological and psychological perspective. 

In the past, we built a culture because we knew each other while working in the office, but while working from home how do you build the same culture?

Che Lewer: We came from an environment where there wasn’t too much flexibility, where everyone would be in the office, so we pretty much had to change overnight –  around the tools, change management, infrastructure, more essentially around the transformation leadership, as dealing with remote teams is both a challenge and an opportunity. 

We moved at pace — we created policies, procedures, infrastructure and systems, and I think the challenges centred around managing the team, social isolation, wellness and mindfulness. Creating a way to engage with our people, keeping our fingers on the pulse, having engaging poll sessions on a weekly basis, and supporting our employees both professionally and personally, were some endeavours. 

Having said that, I’d say that the transition has been quite smooth. We need to be in touch with our people constantly and have that personalised touch to engage, retain and communicate with them in an efficient way. 

Bryan Tan: I agree with my fellow panelists that not everyone has taken work from home easily, while on the other hand, there are others that have gelled really well with the remote working culture. As technology lawyers, we’ve seen a lot of technology services, and businesses evolving, so that’s a good thing.

Whether or not it’s due to the pandemic, hiring has definitely dropped off. The number of new businesses, new clients walking through the door has dropped off, and I suspect that’s probably the same for other businesses.

A part of this that will worry business leaders is how do you get back to that marketing mode that businesses were in. The legal business is actually a people business. Nobody ever gets into a fight by himself, nobody enters into a contract with themselves, so in order to do a transaction, you have to do a contract with someone else. 

Developing the human nuance, the ability to deal with people becomes quite critical for a lawyer. So, my question would be how much are we actually losing out. That’s something I feel shouldn’t be forgotten. The other aspect that we see is a development in quite a number of countries: entrenching the right to work from home, meaning your employees will say that I have the right to work from home, and I will work from home. There might be a possibility that you might be hiring employees that you wouldn’t see through the rest of your lives after signing the employment contract. Will that work for all businesses? I don’t know, but I think that should be one of the points to keep in mind. 

How would you build a culture in an office without walls, and one that’s distributed all across the globe?

Syukri Sudari: The answer isn’t easy, it’s very difficult and challenging. But my perspective is that the fundamentals go back to the culture of the company. Trust and empowerment are the key pillars for an organisation to function. If you do not have these two, things might become very challenging because we can’t see or monitor people working from home. 

Previously, managers thought that they had to see their employees in front of them; now, it’s hardly the case. So, the trust element is very important. Secondly, empowerment is pivotal too. How do we empower people, and bring about a change in mindsets? 

Managers must have the skill sets too. Now, managers have MBVC (Management by Virtual Calls). So, how do you do that as a manager, as that’s very important — a manager needs to evaluate what productivity means to people. 

For example, in an office setup, an employee would deliver 10 things in a day, and when he is working from home, he’d deliver the same work in an hour’s time. So, what does he do with the remaining time? To me support is important, the technology to support that is important, and the psychological mindset is important too. So, this is the kind of environment that you have to build to ensure productivity is maximised. 

Che Lewer: We need to probably challenge our mindsets. Sometimes, people associate culture with a building. Culture is based on the DNA and identity of our people. Remote working isn’t for everyone. Some individuals do want to work from the office, but how do we enable them in a good way? I think that comes down essentially to the relationship that you have with your people. 

Being able to transform, being able to be vulnerable and connect with our people is a personal and professional approach. Then, it’s really about engagement. Understanding what your people are saying, what they are feeling is pivotal. 

Having virtual lunches, or wellness sessions, and being able to support our people on an individual level is very important. At the same time, having fundamental clarity of what’s required in your day is paramount too. 

Bryan Tan: Most of us talk about having a strong culture, before the lockdowns. The culture that we built before the lockdowns, has been the same so far, and that’s great. But the bigger question is how do we then continue to do that?

We talk about KPIs and this would be another thing. In law firms, we typically value KPIs by available hours and in terms of documents handled. We spend a lot of time and money training lawyers. So, trying to ensure that we keep up with that kind of investment in people, building a sort of a personalised experience becomes a big question. I think that’s a challenge for a lot of companies, so how do we start planning for the future? That’s something all business leaders are grappling with. 

You have to trust the employee, empower him, but  also demand accountability. That ties into the KPIs and productivity debates, so how do you ensure that your employees are just as productive?

Syukri Sudari: I have been hearing multiple feedback from managers and employees as well. Some people are extremely productive being at home, and some aren’t. 

First, we need to make sure that we believe in our employees, and our managers need to make sure what our employees need. I feel expectations must be addressed upfront, and management is a skill. To manage people remotely, the employees need to be given the skills to work from home. 

For example, they need to have their own small corner, accurate timing, and the like. 

Che Lewer: Certain people have reacted really well, and for us, the challenge would be getting people back into the office. For the individuals that have been struggling, I’d say for every company it’s important to have clear, tangible outcomes and objectives. 

It’s about agility and also diversifying our ways of working, as well as our business models. Some people need more help, while some are super productive. I love the fact that now they can look after their families, and have a work-life balance. 

Yes, it comes down to that trust element and change in mindset and also upskilling our leaders so that they can deal with the remote workforce. In our environment, people want to work from home up to three days a week, and have the opportunity to be able to come into the office, be able to collaborate, have those office discussions. You can never replace human contact — there’s so much value to that. We are constantly evolving, constantly engaging with our people and having our fingers on the pulse. 

Bryan Tan: As a company, we’ve done enough surveys, and noticed that there are people that love working from home, and others that don’t enjoy working from home as much. I can safely say that we see some generational differences. So, the younger generation wants to work from home more. 

It’s interesting times for everyone, the HRs especially on how will they respond to the workplace changing. It’s quite surprising that none of us saw this coming at least three years back, and now that it’s there, how do we deal with it? 

How are the models of hiring changing in your opinion?

Syukri Sudari: Now companies have a lot to access due to the gig economy culture. I think most people are looking forward to hiring more gig people and not permanent ones which gives an opportunity to hire multiple people at the same time in different locations. 

I think that will be the trend in the future. For now, companies have started going the gig way, especially in the digital and technical space. This process is quite efficient because if we can hire someone in the US or UK, doing something that’s valuable to the company, then why not? 

At the same time, it’s cost-effective too. So, yes the trend is coming and it’s pretty much possible. Previously, it was almost impossible to interview online, as people wanted to see each other face to face. These days having a video interview has become the norm. My prediction is that in the future, we are going to have a chatbot with artificial intelligence that will even help in selecting the right candidates for a job profile. 

Bryan Tan: In the digital mindset, you need to look out for those blindspots, those risks that are involved in the process. For instance, when you are talking to someone, how do you figure if that’s a human or a robot talking? How do you watch out for phishing attacks, digital faults and cyber threats that happen while working remotely? 

Che Lewer: I think it’s a great time to be in HR, as we are really adding a lot of value. I think as a business, my key priority is being agile, being entrepreneurial, and being able to challenge the way in which we are working. 

We need to support the growth and sustainability of our business model, and also support our people. Talent is available anywhere, so let’s tap into it.