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Liz Furniss, who has been living and working in Hong Kong for over 22 years, joined St. James’s Place, Asia as head of human resources in February – when Hong Kong was first hit by COVID-19. She talks to Human Resources exclusively about how she navigates the pandemic and whether she considers her team as a hero. 

Workforce strategies to support employees through COVID-19

In July, St. James’s Place was proactive in meeting the fast-changing needs of its employers by hopping on the work-from-home-forever bandwagon. It implemented a permanent agile working policy specific for Hong Kong. Employees can choose how and where to work, even when the pandemic is over.

“There are all sorts of people and personalities. Some people do really well working from home and some people don’t,” Furniss says.

She explains that while some employees appreciate working in an office because they don’t have the right set-up at home, or they might have other distractions, or they simply need a community and the presence of other people, some employees appreciate the opportunity to WFH because they can spend more time with their family or do more exercise or even get more sleep.

“We want to be as flexible as possible so we give people choices. There is no mandatory working from home and there is no mandatory coming to the office,” she adds.

About 95% of employees are now choosing to work from home for at least one day a week.

“We asked people what they are doing with the time they normally spend travelling to work. More than half of them are saying that they are using the time to do exercise, which is really good to hear,” Furniss says.

Since the pandemic began, Furniss and her team have also been pushing various wellbeing-oriented initiatives. Besides organising online fitness classes, mental health talks and workshops, the financial conglomerate has launched a monthly email newsletter. It evolved from a wellbeing-only newsletter that offers people ideas to maintain physical and mental health to one covering broader topics.

In addition to the wellbeing section, the current newsletter, led by HR and compiled by contributors across the business, features a section where senior managers share their interests and personal life, a section that highlights a particular department, and a learning and development (L&D) section that recommends top online courses. The company also brought monthly team meetings down to bi-weekly in a bid to keep people connected and informed.

Another transformation the company has done is bringing all L&D online. There have not been any face-to-face sessions since the outbreak. All the courses are done via Zoom,Teams or pre-recorded videos. Since the company was well-equipped in terms of tools before the pandemic, employees just need to learn how to make the most of it.

Furniss says HR is able to introduce a lot more initiatives, and employees get to work with their colleagues across the region more easily.

“For example, if we want to do a leadership development course, we can invite leaders from Singapore, Hong Kong and Shanghai office at the same time,” she says

HR Heroes?

When it comes to heroism in the face of the pandemic, she says everybody in the organisation has been a hero. She wouldn’t pinpoint a single individual, not even the HR team.

“We can come up with an initiative and an idea of the ways to do things. But none of it will work unless the senior management supports it and the rest of our colleagues take it onboard,” Furniss explains.

“Everyone in the organisation is kind of a hero in their own way as far as this pandemic is concerned. They need to adapt to a different way of working, which varies from month to month. Leaders need to learn how to manage their team remotely, while others need to learn how to do their jobs from a location that might not be ideal. And people help each other through that,” she adds.

She cites the top leadership skills for the pandemic as trust and communication. Leaders have been learning to shift their perception on productivity away from the number of working hours. They have to trust that people are working just as hard, even though they might not see them. They also need to rethink how often and how they communicate to keep everyone motivated and engaged.

Looking into the post-COVID world, when asked whether it will be better or worse, Furniss says: “Everything is bound to be better because we would only keep things that work really well for us, not the things that don’t work so well.”