On 16 March, the role of Ilja Rijnen, HR Director Asia Pacific & Global Travel Retail, Beam Suntory and his HR team changed for the foreseeable future. Immediately, the interim HR business engagement plan was rolled out and here's what it entailed.


It was on Monday, 16 March 2020 when our Business Continuity Committee came together to discuss the state of COVID-19 for our business in our region. This impromptu group consisted of our regional commercial leaders, legal, compliance and was led by our regional business leader and HR. We had put it in place following our return from Chinese New Year. Its prime reason of existence was to ensure a timely response for our Singapore regional Head Office and our wider region to the unfolding COVID-19 pandemic, in order to protect the wellbeing of our people, our business and our products in the short and long term. That morning the unanimous decision was made that from that afternoon and ‘for the foreseeable future’ we would no longer allow anyone in our region to travel, meet customers or come into our offices. This moment marks the day that the role of my HR team also changed, at least ‘for the foreseeable future’.

2019 had been a great year for Beam Suntory’s Asia Pacific region in general – despite setbacks in the global economy, linked to the rise of geopolitical tensions between China, the USA, Russia, our company continued its fifth consecutive year of solid growth following Suntory’s acquisition of Beam in 2014. This was complemented by having a great international HR strategy and with a new HR team in place, we felt poised at the start of 2020 to deliver an even stronger new year.

When meeting with our regional HR team on 16 March following our business continuity meeting, we knew that we needed to make some immediate and drastic changes to our HR approach for it to stay relevant for our business and our people in the immediate and towards a new and uncertain future. Our HR Business Engagement plan ‘Inspiring the New Normal’ was born by the end of that week.

We knew that our business across the APAC region would potentially be affected by COVID-19 at different speeds and in different ways. We aimed for an interim people plan that had the flexibility to adapt to this, with local ownership between HR and local business leaders, but with the same principles throughout our region, so we could simplify and support each other as one business, where possible.

Our selected principles were based on:

  • Collaboration and 'We over Me' – Leveraging the power of our organisation as one regional business, redeploying resource and efforts throughout our local workforce and throughout the region instead of everyone for themselves.
  • Think long term – Focusing on what’s good and sustainable for our people and business, in line with our values and culture – each decision for people investment and resourcing has to follow this. 
  • Whilst our HR strategy for the long-term seemed relevant for our region, we decided to roll out a tactical plan that focuses on helping our leaders and wider employee base thrive through the period of uncertainty, with weekly updates, ample support and focus for our people to ‘unleash their spirit’, even during some of the most uncertain times humanity has faced in modern times.

The interim HR Business Engagement plan was launched four days after our initial meeting and was built up around four areas:

  1. Communication – A weekly planned overview of communication moments by audience and channels.
  2. Health, wellbeing and social engagement to ensure people are equipped and resilient to have energy to deal with the ambiguity and stay connected as company. This also includes an enhanced healthcare and employee assistance programme designed for COVID-19.
  3. Performance enablement – Focused on ensuring every employee and team has meaningful work that adds to the success of the company. As markets changed and closed/reopened under COVID-19 we actively monitor with the leaders where we need to redeploy our workforce, so their jobs stay relevant and people stay engaged with their jobs.
  4. Development, focusing on instilling a growth mindset in each individual in order to keep people developing personally, functionally and from a career point of view throughout the crisis created by COVID-19 and from a longer-term perspective.

The plan got reinforced by our newly launched global flexible working and benefits programme, which trusts people to work from any place and gives people the freedom to balance work and personal commitments.

The recovery plan proved immediately successful, as we managed our ongoing communication to keep a continuous dialogue with our leaders and employees. We have had regular pulse surveys to test the effectiveness and support of our plans and needs of all our people. It has proven effective as we have seen engagement rates rise, productivity and happiness rates have been high throughout the process and we have been able to relative smoothly sail through very turbulent times thus far.

We uncovered the need for clear roles and responsibilities, defined between HR, compliance, leadership, facilities and communication to keep processes efficient and to avoid too many people getting involved with decisions that need a fast response.

The learning from this period has been that initially perceived work-pressure for our employees went up quite a lot. Whilst people were adjusting to working remotely, they were also asked to join many virtual sessions to keep them engaged, learning, and focused on meaningful projects. Whilst it is better to ‘over communicate’ and ‘over support’ during challenging times than to abstain from it, we had to find the right balance and cadence between global, regional, local and functional and this in order to keep all well aligned.

There is also a risk when raising both work-pressure and starting redeployment, as it can unintentionally stress people as they can assume that their current assignment may come to an end or their efforts are not perceived as useful by the company. The continuous two-way dialogues brought this to light early on and could therefore successfully be addressed.

We have first-hand experienced the advantage of being part of a globally strong and value-driven company. As COVID-19 unfolded into a global pandemic, there have been a lot of great initiatives to ensure our people are enabled to go through the changes strongly, bolstered by a revision of our global policies to allow people to be resilient during these challenging times.

For instance, the rollout of three additional company holidays and shortened workhours each Friday, allowing everyone to spend time away from work to recover. Another area of strong collaboration across our company has been the protocols for returning to work, which has resulted in an aligned and clear 90-day transition period of our offices after reopening.

Lastly, we uncovered the need for clear roles and responsibilities, defined between HR, compliance, leadership, facilities and communication to keep processes efficient and to avoid too many people getting involved with decisions that need a fast response. As times were changing rapidly, also roles of all functions involved had to change along, however no function can do this on its own. Continuous alignment and re-alignment sessions as part of our plans have therefore proven to be of critical importance.

The past months have proven very useful – not just reviewing this from the angle of HR supporting the business getting inspired to ‘finding its new normal’, it has also given us the opportunity to look into some of our foundations and beliefs of people processes can best be setup, and how we can drive the flexibility that is needed to run a high performing effective organisation, that can surf the waves of uncertainty and challenge.

And the best is yet to come, at an unforeseen pace!

Photo / Provided