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As a company at the frontline during the pandemic, shifting employees to a hybrid/remote model and ensuring their safety came as a challenge for Pacific Healthcare Group, amid having to meet rising customer demands. In this interview, Jenpakorn Veerachayapornpong, Vice President People and Culture, PHG, shares:
- Three areas the firm focused on to re-skill employees to adapt to the change;
- Why employees are encouraged to work on their top five strengths as part of their learning approach, and
- How he as a leader and father balanced his challenges in the process.
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Pacific Healthcare Group (PHG), an international pharmaceutical and healthcare company based in Thailand, has been serving the Thai healthcare industry for 60 years, beginning as a small firm with just 20 members in 1961, and now standing tall amongst the healthcare distribution leads of today with more than 500 associates across Southeast Asia.
When COVID-19 struck in 2020, the company grew even more important as it worked to meet the rising demands for healthcare, pharmaceutical products, nutritional products, medical devices, and consumables. Through it all, it never forgot to take care of an important asset that kept the company going — its employees.
That’s where our interviewee, Jenpakorn Veerachayapornpong, Vice President People and Culture (pictured above), stepped up to play a critical role in not just engaging and motivating employees, but ensuring those who could not work from home were kept safe.
In this interview, he delves deep into the details with Priya Sunil, talking about how he and his team across Thailand, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Myanmar worked to re-skill employees to keep up with the shift to a hybrid work model; how he as a leader and father balanced his challenges in the process, and more.
Q No doubt, it's been one of the busiest times ever in the healthcare industry, with the demand for medical supplies, devices, etc. shooting up with COVID-19. Yet on the people front, it is also a time where companies have had to pivot to remote/hybrid working. With PHG’s services being primarily customer-facing, how did you re-skill your workforce to a hybrid/remote model, while meeting customer demands?
I am going to use the concept of the 'adopt and adapt' model. First, we need to make our employees understand the current situation — what's going on with new cases, what it means for them, as well as the impact on the business. Then, we let them think about what to expect of the situation, and how we can all continue to live and continue the business in these tough times.
It is like a chain concept, where we know exactly where we are in this moment, and we know what we want to be in the future in this situation. We also asked our employees why it was important to go into that space, and what could block or limit our success. After that, we came up with an action plan.
This is the process we underwent to ensure our employees can, firstly, live with this tough situation; secondly, continue to do business, and thirdly, serve our customers well.
In terms of skills, after analysing the situation, we looked at customer-centricity, our value chain, as well as how we could adapt our employees’ skills to move into that space.
First, we focused on resilience, as we knew the COVID-19 situation impacted the mentality of our people. We did this to help them understand the situation and to prevent potential depression or falling to pressure. We also tried to help them see the opportunity in the situation, not just focus on the negatives. To give an example — how the growing importance of technology in these times could help accelerate our digital skills. So, this is how resilience can help us bounce back in life.
The second was to re-skill them to be flexible and adaptable. For instance, in healthcare, people in general, keep using the term ‘new normal’; but for us, it has become the ‘now normal’ since 2021 as we should already be used to the situation. It is time for us to train ourselves and stay true to ourselves, thinking — 'hey, even once COVID-19 ends, our lives won’t go back to what it was, so it’s time we start thinking about learning new practices'.
For example, we tried to change how we do certain activities with our customers and employees — such as changing our ‘Fun Fit’ activity to ‘Fun Fit at Home’, taking it virtual. As part of this activity, we invited our customers and employees to join us in cooking healthy food and to participate in virtual exercise classes. This way, our employees are able to stay active.
We cannot forget communication as the most important aspect of re-skilling, particularly communication using technology.
Last but not least, we focused on planning and organising.
We are not really trend crashers, rather, we think about what is important to us and how we can do it in order to create an impact on our business and our people. Planning and organising are very basic skills, but they are very important at this moment.
If we talk about one of the seven habits, for instance — to be proactive — this is very basic for all people to be disciplined in and to independently choose, not only employees. We can’t use COVID-19 as an excuse to stay in the corner and say, ‘hey, sorry, I can’t serve you.’ No. You can continue to serve, but you have to change the way you do it.
I would like to bring up something about strength here — one thing we also do is to encourage and motivate our employees to work on their top five strengths, using Gallup’s Strength Finder. Why? Because we need to educate and develop our own employees by leveraging their top five strengths. This is how we want them to be disciplined and take more responsibility for themselves, to learn more about themselves and what they like, what they enjoy, and so on.
To put it this way — for me as an HR leader, a one-size-fits-all approach does not work. That is why, especially in these times, we empower, motivate, and encourage our employees to use these strengths to plan out how they should learn and be trained. This is how we re-skill our employees.
Q What was the employees' response like? Did you face any resistance?
No, I can say there has been no resistance. They cannot resist what they have decided for themselves, based on what they think would be useful for them to develop professionally and personally. For example, looking at one of the strengths — ‘analytical’ — employees who have this as one of their strengths are able to select and train themselves based on what they like and what they are good at in relation to this skill. This then allows them to enjoy the learning process. In contrast, people who don’t have analytical skills in their job won’t really be so keen on training in it and therefore, the results will be less impressive.
Q While you did not face any resistance from employees, did you face any other challenges in implementing this whole approach?
I think the way of learning and the content were a challenge. In the past, we did not have to worry about the content in our learning programmes, because we could invite guest speakers to come up with the content and we could also buy content.
However, it's not like that now, because the content that exists in the market may not fit what we are looking for. Therefore, the pressing challenge for us lay in content and the way of learning.
In the early stages of the pandemic, we started training our employees in using technology and in changing our communication platforms. We also walked them through the digital tools available, to familiarise them and adopt the behaviour of using such tools and being familiar with them. Even if the majority of people enjoyed face-to-face training in the classroom, they had to adapt.
Overall, we constantly encourage learning outside of the classroom. I do that by listening to podcasts while driving. I listen to both professional and interesting topics — they don’t always have to be serious, but they can also be fun. For me, I enjoy a few types of podcasts, including on business and historical topics.
Q Going back to challenges — in your own role as a leader, did you face any challenges?
Feedback and coaching became more important when we could not have face-to-face discussions, but I found that some managers lacked consistency in giving feedback immediately, in a moment where we needed speed.
On the personal front, I faced challenges as a father because my daughter had to study online from home. Before I knew her life was going to change forever on the education front, I had to help her familiarise herself with the online platform and digital tools, while also creating an enjoyable learning environment. After all, she was only five years old at that time, and at that age, it was very difficult to get her to sit still in front of a screen for three hours, or even 30 minutes. It was very important for her to have the right environment. To motivate her, I had to come up with games and Q&As for her, and importantly, had to prepare her on how to take care of herself while learning online.
For this, I had to work closely with my wife, wherein she would monitor our daughter on how she behaved while I was working from home. And whenever my daughter had time after class, I would give her some supplements to her education — for instance by asking her for feedback, and through games where she can have fun by winning some small prizes.
Bringing this whole scenario back to the workplace — we are building learning communities, where we give people the stage and allow anyone in the organisation to share their knowledge from what they have learnt, and we will then have group discussions around this virtually. And that is exactly what I have done with my daughter.
Q Coming to the point-of-view of PHG — I'm sure as a company in the healthcare industry, PHG is passionate about employee healthcare and wellbeing. On that note, what have you and your team introduced or implemented for your own employees in providing support for their own health through these tough times?
I think it is not about us being a healthcare company meaning that we need to take care of our people. Instead, I believe it is, very importantly, about taking care of people as human beings, as an employer, and as an employee.
For instance, when COVID-19 struck, we had to make sure everyone in our warehouse operations remained safe because we knew our warehouse operations were critical to our company, and stopping operations would mean we cannot deliver our products to the hospitals. So what we did was to provide over 2,000 room nights to accommodate 60 warehouse and logistics employees at a hotel for a number of months.
From an investment point-of-view, it was a lot of money. But we still wanted to do it because the team knew they were very important to the operations of the warehouse, and also, the staff wanted to be safe in order to deliver the products for our patients. They spent many months away from their family, all week, only transiting between the hotel and the warehouse, but in the end, we managed to keep them safe.
Secondly, we prepared personal hygiene sets (‘WeCare’ sets) including Vitamin C, fish oil, hand gels, antigen test kits, and other items for our employees, to educate them and allow them to self-test twice a week.
Thirdly, COVID-19 led us to revisit the benefits of our healthcare insurance, to ensure it covered the expenses of COVID-related treatments. After all, we could foresee some challenges in the healthcare system if the pandemic were to continue. Therefore, as we did not want our employees to worry about treatment should they be exposed or contract COVID, we invested in insurance for them.
Q I understand all these initiatives were rolled out across the markets you look after — Thailand, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Myanmar. However, each market brings its individual employee needs. How did you then ensure these initiatives applied across, while also catering to those individual needs?
We did give out the WeCare sets in all markets, and gave the healthcare insurance coverage across these markets too. It was just the hotel accommodation programme that was only implemented in Thailand, as we do not have any warehouses in our other markets, and the local regulations in those markets also required them to stay at home.
Q What was the employee response like to these initiatives, and how did you measure ROI (if any)?
I would say the response was very good, big thanks to our company motto — ‘Because We Care’. But in terms of ROI, we don’t heavily measure how much we gain back on what we invest. However, we can imply. If our employees respond very well because of what we have done, then yes, productivity will not drop and we will have lower employee turnover.
When we go the extra mile in taking care of our people, we will not start off with how much we are going to get back. Not even our BCPs force us to do that. That is because, for us, the people are very important in the sense that if they cannot carry out their duties, then it is not about the impact on the business, but rather it is about the impact on the patients.
The key strategic objective is to take care of employees so they can, in turn, take care of the patients. This is very important. That's why this is key in motivating and engaging our employees so that they know that their service is very important to the people (our patients).
Q You've done so much for your employees, but how are you prioritising your own health and your own wellbeing?
Good question. Sometimes, we look after others, but we don’t think about ourselves. For me, it is about the seven habits — sharpening the saw. What I have done for my wellbeing, firstly, is to stop smoking.
Secondly, I still enjoy eating, but carefully. I can pamper myself with food, but I know the limit. For instance, I love meat, especially beef, but I have to limit that.
One other thing I find very important to me as a lesson about resilience is the quality of sleep, which I pay a lot of attention to.
I have no problems with my health or wellbeing, but the question also depends on how we define ‘wellbeing’. Yes, it involves being healthy, but wellbeing is not just about health and mentality. It is also about being wealthy, about relationships, living, family, and love.
Q You bring with you more than 17 years of experience in HR, across industries and even countries. How has this experience shaped the leader and person you are today? What meaningful lessons have you learnt along the way?
I would say, I am very lucky to have worked with good leaders that are also good coaches. I’ve also had good teams. As for what shaped me as a leader today, I would say it is because of the people I work with. In particular, my ex-leaders.
For example, Mandarin Oriental Hotel Bangkok was where I had my first job, for seven years. I worked very closely with the HR director, who was my first coach, and the learning and development Manager who was my first trainer. And everything that I learnt from them, is what I apply today. Questions they used to ask me are what I ask my team today, even after 10 years.
It was them and my other bosses who shaped the leader I am today, together with my teams. I could not do what I do alone, without my team. Whatever I do, I start by asking “why”, and I relearn from experience.
Overall, I believe success does not come if you don’t take action. That is why when my team and I run our talent development programme, one of the things we emphasise a lot is turning learnings into action.
Q Why HR? Did you enter it by accident, or was it always your passion?
It was accidental. When I first joined Mandarin Oriental, I started as a junior secretary of finance, a temporary staff replacing someone who was on maternity leave. I had just graduated from my studies in hotel and tourism management, and Mandarin Oriental was my dream workplace. On top of that, I thought, it was a great opportunity I could get ever.
Two months later, the hotel opened up the opportunity to take on a permanent role – as an F&B analyst. During the interview, I met the HR director and he told me the job wasn’t the right fit for me. He then offered me the role of a training coordinator, and the rest is history.
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