Perspectives on work, management styles and leadership approaches from HR veteran, K Thiveanathan, who draws lessons from his experiences in the aftermath of the SARS epidemic to pull together a checklist for a post-COVID world.

On a recent Sunday afternoon, I was reflecting on some of the contemporary people practices and wondered what they will look like as we move forward in a post COVID-19 world, where a new paradigm is emerging.

When the pandemic first hit, I had hoped that my earlier experience with SARS may help in navigating the new paradigm, but I am proven wrong. The world that is unfolding in front of me now is beyond imagination.

Our perspectives on work, management style, and leadership approaches have been shaken up. We are accepting major changes to our core belief systems, which was unthinkable just three months ago.

Moving forward, organisations will need to do a ‘soul-searching’ exercise and to prepare for a new paradigm in workplace arrangements. I have listed out key aspects that will likely see a sea change in the months to come below, and I hope HR leaders and their teams and use these as a checklist in drafting out their strategy for 2021.  

#1: Managing the workforce

  • Work from home has become a norm, while working at the office will probably become a status symbol. To understand conditions at ‘home’ (hardware as well as the soft-side i.e. family) will help organisations to prioritise those who may need office space more than others.
  • Approach to occupational safety needs to include the home environment in which the employee is working: We need to consider if insurance will cover home-based accidents.
  • Explore ways to involve remote workers in developing work-related policies, EHS programmes etc.
  • We need to redefine work practices and policies (e.g. disciplinary procedures, leave policy, employee onboarding etc).
  • Review the role of team leaders/supervisors/middle management; role of HR and support functions; build new approaches to self-directed teams; define the workplace/workspace.
  • Employee engagement initiatives, measures, pulse surveys; expect mental health of remote workers and those in isolation becoming a common need to be addressed.
  • The dynamics in engaging unions will change; be prepared to consider the inclusion of new terms in union agreements, e.g. teleworking benefits.
  • Explore benefits of telemedicine and similar services to help keep staff safer and lessen the risk of exposure.
  • Redefine the performance management process; how are we to measure productivity/creativity/employee’s behavioural impact (the employee who runs the extra mile) to business?
  • Redefine the talent pool to tap on skilled/talented home makers who may come forward to offer their services via flexible work arrangements.

How can we complement remote work practices by having huddle rooms and hot desks at the common office, rotating work-day routines, shift work for office staff?

#2: Logistics and infrastructure     

  • IT and information security (IS): Security & privacy policies’ review needed’ capital investment in IT/IS; self-regulation guides; IT support to home-based employees; safety of company property at individual homes and supporting policies.
  • How we can complement remote work practices by having huddle rooms and hot desks at the common office; rotating work-day routines; shift work for office staff; ‘isolation room’ in addition to the usual first aid room; re-design office space (albeit probably smaller office space than before).
  • How we are to provide logistic support for remote workers; home-office stipends could become a norm; Wi-Fi/connectivity cost; basic office set up cost; ensuring adequate lighting and ergonomically safe work environment are among the issues which will require attention to assess consequences and potential liabilities.
  • Case in point (best practice): In 2001, I was on a short-term assignment at Indianapolis as a HRBP for a new product introduction team. I noticed a written company policy of supporting staff who opted to work from home and the support that the company provided to make it a success. For example, the company was providing financial aid to set up a home office, including a full furniture set (depending on the position and job need, computer, and an allowance to cover expenses on renovation and monthly overheads).

#3: Organisational capabilities and leadership

  • Assess and modify appropriate organisational structures and business model.
  • Build organisational capabilities to assist managers to unlearn and reskill with new coaching paradigms and people practices befitting new work norms; educate the leadership team in communicating with remote workers; sharpen the organisation’s capability to engage remote workers’ hearts and minds.
  • How are we to capture intellectual property initiatives by employees, as well as ensure professional/job-related content security.
  • Review BCP guidelines to include COVID-19 related risk assessment.
  • Social issues impacting the business: Pressure to reduce reliance on foreign labour will become even stronger, especially in countries such as Singapore where issues related to foreign labour were raised.
  • Redefine security/cleaning staff’s role to include basic healthcare functions; new cleaning regimens; define mandatory on-the-job medical screening.
  • More scrutiny on business travel needs; customer interaction routines; etc.

High tech and high touch – meet high trust

In today’s world, high tech is unavoidable. High touch will continue to be a must, more than before. However, high touch will only be received as credible by employees if there is high trust. When working remotely, ‘trust’ is seen as a ‘degenerative commodity’ (a.k.a. out of sight, out of mind) and will be lost if no conscious effort is made to build it through visible actions and behaviours of the organisation’s leadership.

Yes, the post-COVID workplace offers a new paradigm that will require ‘high trust’ initiatives to ensure the organisation marches on to meet business expectations towards a common purpose, where every employee feels like they are part of a larger team. Efforts and resources that the organisation puts towards building trust will yield benefits in terms of talent retention, candid feedback to the central organisation, desired performance-productivity levels, collaborative approach, customer retention, and more. 

The organisation that prepares better and faster than its competitors will have a greater start in the new paradigm. 

What makes employees tick?

While talking about building trust, I can’t help but refer to the timeless Maslow’s hierarchy of needs theory; but I’ll summarise it in three simpler tiers:

  • Physiological needs
  • Psychological needs
  • A bigger purpose

Maslow’s theory has deep and broader applications. It offers a basis for organisational development initiatives with reference to employees’ motivation and how these can help a company achieve its objectives while maintaining high employee satisfaction. However, in this article I am taking a simplistic application of Maslow’s theory.

In the context of a common workplace, the first tier refers to the needs of our frontline staff/workers or the bargainable group. While psychological needs and a pull from a larger purpose have their motivational attraction, this group of employees (e.g. relatively lower wage earners) could be driven more by the basic need of having a consistent daily wage, job security, and a safe environment to work.

The second tier could be linked to supervisory and middle management staff. This group is generally motivated by recognition for work done, a collaborative and trusting work environment, respect from peers and bosses, rewards tied to annual performance that gives a sense of achievement, timely coaching from their superiors and, from time to time, require reassurance from the top management on business viability and a common purpose.

The third tier could fit the leadership team made up of senior managers. For this group, while physiological and psychological needs are somewhat important, they are often more motivated by a common purpose and longer-term goals. This group usually does not look for immediate gratification but challenging business expectations which can draw their creative ability, problem solving skills and expert capabilities. Thus, their variable compensation tends to be tied to stock options or long-term business performance.  

Thus, each group’s motivational needs are varied. Moreover, such needs may vary further based on each company’s business model and culture. With a little effort, such as focus group discussions, surveys and brainstorming exercises, organisations will be able to identify critical interventions that can make each of them tick.

What’s the next step?

It will be a long road but this too shall pass. The world will eventually adjust to the new paradigm. In the coming months/year, organisations will be racing to reinvent themselves, first by defining and preparing for post-COVID work paradigms and then by addressing the challenges faced by businesses and its people.

Second, guided by Maslow’s theory and the three-tiered groups, the leadership and HR team can brainstorm on what makes each group tick. Flexibility and pragmatic approaches are key as organisations continue to observe, listen, learn and amend their ways to fit evolving employee needs.

In this process, it will be crucial for organisations to conduct self-checks on how to continue to build trust among employees so that each and every one of them will come on board fully engaged with their leadership team and strive towards a common goal.

The organisation that prepares better and faster than its competitors will have a greater start in the new paradigm. 


The author, K Thiveanathan, is a business and HR advisor, with over 30 years of international experience in senior leadership. He has previously tenured as Global CHRO of UTAC Group, Human Capital Director of Coca-Cola (Singapore / Malaysia); and has recently taken up early retirement to focus on his investments in several companies in the region.