Traditional thinking may view human resources as more of a support function, but the happenings of the past 12 months have certainly changed that. Since early last year, HR teams everywhere have been right in the front line in dealing with the immediate impact and knock-on effects of the Covid-19 pandemic and, as a result, the wider corporate world has gained a far better understanding of the vital role they play.
In the first days of the outbreak, employers looked to them to sort out everything from work-from-home and social distancing arrangements to workplace safety, online training, well-being programmes, and adjusted leave entitlements.
But amid those priorities, all the usual responsibilities still had to continue. So, in suitably modified form, recruitment and employee engagement activities carried on, as did forward-looking involvement in talent development strategies, re-skilling initiatives, digitalisation projects, and planning the workplace of the future.
And now, with light at the end of the tunnel in terms of the public health crisis, the recovery or “reinvention” phase will be very much in focus over the coming months. Companies must be ready to evolve and adapt in order to meet new staff and customer expectations and, where necessary, take steps to reshape fundamental aspects of the employee experience.
Fortunately, many who have been leading the way in these areas were able to receive the credit and recognition they deserve at the late March prize presentation ceremony of the inaugural HR Appreciation Awards.
Organised by Classified Post, with the support of premium partner Mercer Hong Kong, the event shone a spotlight on the successes of HR teams who, during a challenging period, showed leadership and resilience, but also pushed the boundaries and set higher standards.
The format included three main categories: compensation and benefits, training and development, and impact as a business partner. There was also a Covid-19 Special Award, with three sub-categories – for corporate, SME and NGO entities - to recognise the outstanding work done in dealing with all kinds of unexpected problems during the pandemic, usually at very short notice.
That could involve anything from sourcing adequate supplies of protective equipment to rejigging staff rosters or providing practical support for individuals confined to quarantine. But what also made a big difference was the sense of strength and empathy conveyed to others within the organisation – and often in the wider community too – helping them to pull together and pull through.
“The awards showed that HR professionals have an increasingly important role to play in shaping company culture, driving corporate productivity, and sharpening best practice in employee engagement,” said Elsie Cheung, the SCMP’s Chief Operating Officer. “Attracting and retaining talent and maintaining a committed workforce is the key to business success, but that is just one part of what HR does. So, we are proud that this event allowed us to honour many distinguished organisations operating in Hong Kong and the Asia-Pacific region for their exceptional employee management programmes and robust human capital strategies.”
Across the various categories, a total of 51 companies were named as winners. Of these, 15 were honoured as the Grand Winners for earning the highest scores in each category.
The panel of judges included senior figures and sector experts from the fields of business, academia and consultancy. In assessing nominees, the process they followed was robust, extensive and transparent. And, subsequently, they were quick to commend the high overall level, especially the fast and comprehensive approach to foreseeing problems and devising workable solutions.
For all entries, the judges took account of four main criteria: creativity and innovation, sustainability, contribution to overall business performance, and benefits for different stakeholders. When drilling down, they also took due note of such things as work-life balance, flexible working hours, employee assistance programmes, and both internal and external training opportunities.
More broadly, and especially for the business impact category, they were looking for examples of workforce diversity, the approach to CSR, and volunteering activities. And they were interested to hear about onboarding, mentoring and transformation projects plus what kind of impact these could have on employer branding.
“All the nominees showed creativity in their initiatives,” said Alex Ho, Vice President, Circulation, Recruitment and Services for SCMP Publishers, who was also one of the judges. “We saw many examples of how quickly HR professionals reacted in rolling out new plans and protocols to counter the effects of the pandemic, and how much effort went into creating a pleasant employee experience during these unusual times.”
These actions, he added, proved the importance of adaptability, but also served to illustrate the key role HR plays as a bridge between employees and management by anticipating difficulties, assisting decision making, and facilitating communication.
“In setting up the HR Appreciation Awards, we specifically wanted to give companies an opportunity to showcase their achievements and to celebrate their successes,” Ho said. “At the same time, we hoped they could find inspiration from the other participants and would use this platform to exchange thoughts and ideas. By doing that, they can benchmark against the best and help to set new standards of excellence for the industry.”
It was noticeable, he added, how the winners combined practical measures such as flexible working hours, transport subsidies, and special leave arrangements with the element of moral support.
The latter was obviously crucial when staff switched to remote work. In many cases, employees had to contend with the usual job pressures, as well as family health concerns, online schooling for their kids, and a new way of living. So, regular check-ins to keep everyone in the picture, plus wellness programmes, continuous learning, team-based social activities conducted online, and access to specialist helplines all contributed to easing the strains and created an important sense of unity.
“We saw how HR best practices are evolving in several significant ways,” said Vicki Fan, Chief Executive of Mercer Hong Kong and one of this year’s judges. “HR managers have long played an important role as partners within a business, but this became even more embedded as organisations navigated a course through the pandemic.”
In particular, she noted, the issue of employee health and wellness leapt to the top of the agenda. HR leaders also had to take a more holistic view of compensation and benefits as they worked to keep staff productive, motivated, engaged and connected. And with the coronavirus accelerating the move towards automation and digitalisation, any plans for training and development now had to focus more on new technical skillsets and creating talent pools critical for success in the future economy.
Furthermore, the remote workforce is expected to keep growing in the post-pandemic era. That means employers may have to reevaluate the role, design and functionality of the office, but also the way individual members of staff are hired, managed, assessed and remunerated.
“With all this, the transformation of HR is continuing to gain momentum,” Fan says. “We can see that in the increased use of digital tools and data to assist with everything from recruitment and talent assessment to staff engagement and organisational design. But it is also clear that companies have become more willing to listen to the concerns of employees in order to offer the support needed to build and protect each person’s physical, emotional and financial well-being.”
Not surprisingly, all of this year’s winners had inspiring stories to tell. Even so, some still stood out either for their success in more than one category, the scope of initiatives involving essential public services, or the fact that they went the extra mile – and then a bit further.
For instance, AIA International took home Grand Winner prizes in two categories. The firm won plaudits for its two-tier leadership curriculum which provides tailor-made training for up-and coming talent and middle managers. A particular strength of the scheme is that it emphasises the concept of joint ownership and partnership between supervisors, managers and senior executives, while also highlighting the importance of transparent communication and an all-round commitment to success.
That win was repeated in the business partner category, where AIA’s “SPRINT” leadership programme caught the eye of the judges. It was designed with a view to long-term strategic development, the aim being to give participants an entrepreneurial mindset and the skills to run a team or department as if it was their own business.
DBS Bank (Hong Kong) was also a dual Grand Winner. One triumph was for its flexible compensation and benefits policy, which backs up the statement that people are the bank’s greatest asset and makes real the wish to give staff a better work-life balance.
The other was for special efforts made to resist the spread of Covid-19. These began in February last year with the formation of a group crisis management committee and later saw adjusted opening hours for the branch network and close monitoring of every operating location. Besides that, an HR chatbot and helpline services were quickly updated, while health and well-being webinars were set up to answer questions and concerns.
Fellow Grand Winners of the Covid-19 Special Award made their mark in contrasting ways. To safeguard employees and the public, MTR Corporation enhanced disinfection measures by deploying 20 robots spraying vaporised hydrogen peroxide in specific areas to improve decontamination. And, to guarantee supply, the company even set up its own face mask production lines.
Separately, New World Development Company used its reach to launch a global platform to share plans and ideas on how best to fight the pandemic. The group also led the way among Hong Kong blue-chips by implementing a groundbreaking work-from-home policy and setting up a HK$10 million anti-epidemic fund to source protective equipment and hygiene supplies for staff and their families.
Importantly, though, the HR Appreciation Awards also looked beyond the big names of the corporate world for examples of innovation and excellence. As a result, they were also able to honour Fu Hong Society, a local NGO, as a Grand Winner for their in-house TECC initiative to help care home staff express their anxieties and let out emotions in times of stress. The acronym stands for tangible, emotional and continuous support, along with commendations, and the principle helps to retain required manpower, encourage staff to seek advice, and rebuild team spirit when things were getting tough.
Similarly, in the SME sub-category, Herbalife Asia Pacific Services showed with its “Power of One Team” campaign how a well-thought-out HR plan can advance employee safety, well-being, teamwork, and pride in the company. The key elements of their initiative included establishing strong virtual teams, encouraging a positive mindset, and creating a greater sense of unity. With hard work, everything came together and the efforts continue to pay off.
“By organising the awards, we have been able to recognise the extraordinary work done in HR over the past year,” said the SCMP’s Alex Ho. “But we also want to set the bar for excellence across the industry.”