Most people might think that virtual empathy requires digital savvy, while in fact, it requires us to be great, compassionate leaders while leaning on digital tools and technologies, explains Chua Chai Ping, HR Director, Experian to Priya Sunil.

From immediately reviewing learning content to be more crisp and succinct (given shorter online attention spans) to leaning on in-place infrastructure to pivot L&D quickly, Chua Chai Ping, HR Director, Experian and her HR team have had quite the year.

In this interview, Priya Sunil finds out why the soft skills that we have been talking about (empathy. compassion, reaching out, and stakeholder management) will continue to play out as the world emerges from the biggest social and human experiment in recent history.

Q How has your learning strategy today evolved from what you’d planned out last year?

Last year was definitely a massive shift where we absolutely had to transform all of the classroom training to virtual ones, and we were very worried about the engagement level of our participants. So when we had to pivot very quickly, we immediately reviewed learning content to be more crisp and succinct given the relatively shorter attention span online while ensuring that the session remains interactive by inviting participation through polls, quizzes and elements of gamification like Kahoot!.

I consider us lucky because from a technology standpoint, we were already prepared in terms of our infrastructure, so that helped us to pivot pretty quickly. I would attribute another success factor to virtual empathy. Much has been said about empathy, but virtual empathy is equally important and this is where I am thankful that our people realised that we are doing all these programmes for their benefit. Hence, they showed-up and participated knowing that the learning outcome would be better through diverse sharing of thoughts and viewpoints.

I really can’t stress enough about virtual empathy and this really has to come from all parties, not just the participants.

If you’re going to train in a virtual world, virtual empathy is very important so that you see the wider possibilities and understand the whole scenario. For example, knowing that our people are working from home, we need to consider what situation they could possibly be in, and how to draw their attention. We should have them feel that this is a safe place despite them having screaming children in the background, needing to shift focus to their children’s online classes or rushing to prepare meals for the family and the list goes on.

Hence, I believe that having virtual empathy is absolutely more essential now than ever to support our people to thrive remotely.

Q What are the hottest, function-agnostic skills in your industry today – skills that will never fail you?

I would go back to the very old fashioned one – resilience. I think resilience is something that I can't stress enough. Like empathy, I know a lot has been talked about resilience, but we absolutely can't downplay it. This rings true especially in a pandemic where tough decisions had to be made in the face of adversity and uncertainties, and our workforce, workplace, work culture was transformed overnight.

Teaching resilience is something that doesn't come easy. I say that because while people may call it a soft skill or competency, it comes with a lot of innate values.

Just like in the Iceberg Theory, the barometer of resilience or how resilient a person really is often comes from what's beneath (i.e. their childhood, background, upbringing, education, etc). Having said that however, I think in the workplace, resilience can be role-modelled. When leaders show resilience while providing psychological safety for their people, they are then able to build a resilient culture in their teams. It ultimately boils down to having resilience especially during crucial times like a pandemic.

Another skill is agility and this is not just being agile in an IT world, but also in terms of being able to adapt, take-on challenges boldly, and even simply pivot physically. For instance, I'm used to working in an office environment comfortably with sufficient facilities, but now I sometimes sit on the floor and work for a change of perspectives and environment.

Last but not least, I’m going to call out empathy again along with compassion. It is important to include compassion for self because once you have self-compassion and self-kindness, then your ability to reach out and help others will be a lot higher. I’m conscious that this is a very much used example but in cases of emergency, we have been taught to put the oxygen mask on ourselves before we attend to those around us. As leaders or HR professionals, we need to remember that we are responsible towards the livelihood, safety and wellbeing of many and this is why we need to take care of ourselves first before we could in turn take care of others.

Q How are you building these skills in your workforce? Essentially, how do you help employees accelerate their learning (especially when it comes to soft skills)?

The pandemic has been one of the biggest social and human experiments, and I hope that during this pandemic, the soft skills that we talked about all the time like empathy and compassion, reaching out, and stakeholder management, will play out even more. This is because now, in a very virtual world, soft skills have come across through virtual channels and means. This is also the biggest test in our lifetime and hopefully, this test will sharpen our soft skills to become better, because the future is here.

The challenges are real, the complexities are real, and the world will become even more complex.

Therefore, what will give us the advantage, as we navigate the complexity and challenges, will be us going back to being human, to breaking down the facades, and peeling off the deep layers (like an onion) and being as authentic as we can. By being authentic, real and sincere in the virtual world, we can get our messages and ideas across, and that will see the engagement and stickiness factor with our employees, teams, stakeholders become better.

Q On the HR front – what are the top three critical skills for HR to have in and beyond 2021?

I will call out virtual empathy. It is about how you lead in the digital world because people think a digital leader is a leader who is digitally-savvy, but I don't see it that way. Rather, it’s about how we live in a digital world, and how we lead in a virtual world. I, for one, am definitely not digitally-savvy but given that everything now is so virtual, I have no choice but to rely and connect more with digital apps and resources. And I think that's where leaders actually can be real, for example, if you're going to see my home environment while we’re in an online meeting, so be it. You know that's where you show your vulnerability, yet you also show your authenticity, as well as your sincerity. So, I think just being real and unpeeling the layers - that is virtual empathy.

I also believe in being ‘gusto’ and having courage in what you do. It’s about being able to cover your bases very quickly and thinking on your feet as a leader and a HR leader, especially. Like it or not, HR is now being pushed to the forefront.

You have to make the decisions and you have to have a lot of guts in order to lead from the front and not just lead from behind.

Lastly, HR also needs to know how to rely on data to make decisions.

Q Lastly, if there was a magic wand and you could do anything within your power to build a future-fit workforce, what action would you take?

The future is here. I think as leaders, we underestimate the kind of impact that we have on people, and role modelling is so real because there's a saying that goes, “monkey see, monkey do”. If you have leaders that are not of certain standards or calibre in terms of qualities, integrity, professionalism, then what happens is that the levels beneath would just emulate.

By qualities, I mean that leaders have got to set the bar really high. Sometimes it's hard, but you have to be whiter than white because if you want to lead and charge into the future, then you really need to role model those qualities. There are so many layers beneath you who are looking to you to guide them into this VUCA world, they seek clarity, vision, reassurance, so that they can help those behind them as well. As leaders, you have to know why you do what you do, and I say this to my team all the time.

If my magic wand can let people become better leaders, to care more and to actually trust more, then the world will be a better place.

I am a huge believer of this because when you put out positive vibes, the universe hears. Magically.

So let’s put it this way – if I had a magic wand, and if every action is an outcome of a pure intention, then the outcome will always, always be more magical than you originally imagined. And that's true. I've experienced it many times.


Don't miss the other interviews in Upskilling 101 series:

How Nokia Indonesia's aggressive push on digital learning is helping build a growth mindset
- TechnipFMC's VP of Learning on why 'problem-solving' is the one skill that will never fail us
How EZ-Link empowers employees to own their career and personal growth

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