Total Rewards Asia Summit 2024 Singapore
How HR leaders in Hong Kong are bracing for the new normal

How HR leaders in Hong Kong are bracing for the new normal


Employers are quickly learning that returning to the workplace does not equal returning to life as it was pre-pandemic, and that it is actually more complicated than they had previously anticipated. In this exclusive, Samantha Chan speaks to leaders at five organisations to identify the exciting and innovative range of post-pandemic plans they have devised.

The next 12 to 18 months will be a roller coaster as economies and organisations digest the full emotional and economic consequences of the pandemic. Employees will require energy and confidence to survive and thrive – whether back in the workplace, still at home, or embarking on new assignments.

Let’s find out how employers in Hong Kong are unleashing strategies to both excite and motivate their employees in the post-pandemic era through a series of five case studies.

Case study: Sino Group


Elaine Liu, Associate Director and Chief Human Resources Officer, Sino Group, had her “aha” moment around Q3 2020 that the pandemic was going to stick around. The company needed a breakthrough instead of postponing plans as she realised employee training could not be put off indefinitely.

New hires needed onboarding training, while existing employees required new skills or refreshers. Additionally, phone and email could not be the sole avenues for communicating with employees.

“We realised if we keep halting our plans, not only will this affect our colleagues, but also our service to our clients,” she says.

With the pandemic being characterised by its uncertainty, rather than trying to predict the future of COVID-19 and the economy, Liu kept a keen eye for certainty in the present.

“From an HR perspective, to prepare for the post-pandemic future, we enhanced and deepened communication with colleagues to help them better understand our business direction, our progress and how they can contribute,” she says.

“So at least we can bring as much clarity and certainty to the business, and all of us can be as prepared as possible.”

Since Sino has several important hotel and residential property debuts throughout this year, recruiting talent is Sino’s top HR priority.

In May 2021, Sino Group organised a career day to offer 1,000 jobs covering roles in property development, property management, hospitality services, innovative technology, sustainability, and other related sectors. Of these, around 30% of the roles were targeted at young talent and fresh graduates.

The property developer designed three zones where young applicants could receive on-site career consultations with HR, take personality questionnaires, and experience job simulations.

Enhancing communication within the organisation is another strategy by Sino to remain competitive after the pandemic. Liu cites tapping into technology such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams as “an efficiency gain” for the company because colleagues no longer have to travel between offices to attend meetings or training sessions.

Reflecting on the role of HR, she says HR is progressing gradually.

“There is an increasing need for HR to perform marketing tasks. They need to know how to deliver value propositions, and how to communicate on and off social media to their ‘customers’. For HR, our ‘customers’ are employees,” she adds.

Case study: Societe Generale


Societe Generale is on a mission to support its talent in developing their professional and personal capabilities through creative career paths, within an inclusive and engaging environment, to successfully contributeto the organisation’s growth, strategy and transformation.

With this in mind, it has three main directions for this year’s people strategy, co-created by HR and the management committee for APAC: aligning workforce strategy to business strategy, strengthening the culture of responsible behaviour, and data driven decision making.

Mukta Arya, Head of Human Resources, Asia Pacific, Societe Generale, stresses that while remaining competitive is important, becoming resilient is equally crucial for the company in a post-pandemic future.

In light of the business transformation in various jurisdictions in APAC, building a future talent pipeline is essential for HR.

To attract talent, Arya’s team boosts the firm’s employer branding internally and externally through various channels such as forums, social media and awards. On the other hand, to strengthen talent retention, the team puts a lot of emphasis on internal mobility, which echoes its definition of the employee value proposition.

“We want to develop the professional and personal capability of employees through creative career paths because we believe that employees need to be assisted in finding their careers. It doesn’t have to be a traditional career. They can move from function to function, across geographies, or we can even create something for themselves which does not yet exist,” she says.

In terms of culture and conduct, rewarding good behaviour and having zero tolerance for inappropriate behaviour have been the financial services firm’s core principles. With an understanding that managers are essential in shaping a healthy workplace, HR has designed a toolkit for every manager so they are well aware of the HR initiatives that might be useful for their teammates.

Furthermore, to cultivate an engaging, diverse and inclusive workplace, the firm launched a road map for employees’ wellbeing, while its diversity council has developed a cascade of initiatives to support gender, culture, LGBT+ and differently-abled talent.

In March, Societe Generale launched a sponsorship programme to help under-represented profiles gain more visibility and growth within the firm. Additionally, the company debuted executive coaching for female managing directors, maternity coaching, parental transition webinars, and more.

Policy-wise, Arya says seemingly little gestures, in fact, matter significantly in building an inclusive workplace. For example, she and her team make sure to use gender-neutral language in policies and have closely examined their office, including the toilet signs.

“We are taking concrete actions and not just lip service that diversity is important for us. We are really looking at it in our HR processes, from succession planning, promotions, to training programmes,” she says.

Looking back, she says HR has evolved into a partner and an advisor for business.

“During the COVID period, people realised the importance of the human connection. HR has played a great role in making sure people have that support when they want it.”

Case study: Cushman & Wakefield


Looking into the post-pandemic future, two leaders at Cushman & Wakefield cite talent management as one of the top challenges, and hence, that has become the real estate services firm’s HR priority.

Shirley Fung, Head of Human Resources & Administration, Hong Kong, Cushman & Wakefield, observes that recruitment has not been easy amid the pandemic. While some have faced the axe across the local landscape, others have decided to stay put because of the economic uncertainty brought by the pandemic.“

When the pandemic winds down and the economy starts to pick up, talent will consider getting a new job. And for some businesses, they will start resuming their recruitment processes. The war for talent will be fierce,”says John Siu, Managing Director, Hong Kong, Cushman & Wakefield.

With this foresight, Cushman & Wakefield has looked into both monetary and non-monetary incentives to retain talent. Even though the business was hit hard by the pandemic last year, all employees were paid their full bonus. Additionally, Siu and his team successfully worked with the global team to provide salary increments for employees this year.

Even so, Siu and Fung recognise that employees are looking for more.

“We always emphasise that it is important to let colleagues feel at home, create a sense of belonging at work, cultivate a positive company culture, and reinforce a diverse and inclusive culture, apart from making sure that our salary and benefits package is competitive,” Siu says.

Effective communication and driving inner mobility are critical to the firm, which believes in maintaining a flat hierarchy and a tight-knit culture in place.

“As the MD of the Hong Kong office, I always tell new employees that they can talk to me directly anytime and without appointment,” Siu says.

In fact, he organises a monthly gathering to introduce new employees, announce new assignments and achievements, and recognise specific teams. For those who can’t attend, he sends out a newsletter with the same content.

Whether it is young talent or the ones who have been with the company for decades, the firm makes sure there are different engagement plans catered to them.

For employees aged 30 and below, Cushman & Wakefield has in place its Youth Intelligence Committee (YIC) to facilitate more interactions amid the pandemic. The purpose of the YIC programme is to close the gap between generations, ranks and departments. YIC representatives are also invited to department heads’ regular meetings so they have a clearer picture of the business direction.

Under the revamped programme, YIC 2.0 participants have a clearer set of goals and benefits by understanding more about the future business direction and giving feedback to the management team. More recently, YIC had dinner with the executive committee, marketing and HR departments to get to know each other better.

To understand talent profiles better in order to drive internal mobility, Siu and Fung regularly use a nine-square division (九宮格) to identify where the top talent stands between high performers and high potentials. Based on the analysis, they design a tailor-made plan to drive their future development.

Looking ahead, Fung comments on the changing role of HR by urging HR teams to leave behind their mindset of being a “backup support”, and to become more proactive.

Case study: DBS Bank


For an organisation with more than 29,000 employees and 53 years of heritage, it can get easy to be bogged down by processes and legacy – but this isn’t the case with DBS.

There are several ways in which the organisation is bracing for the new normal, one among which is to embrace the ‘horizontal organisation’ (HO) approach to formalise collaboration and joint accountability. Thus, operating models are characterised not by conventional functional departments, but by project-specific data-driven squads formed with members from different functions and relevant areas of expertise.

Sharon Cheng, Managing Director and Head of Human Resources, DBS Bank Hong Kong, explains: “Agile squads are already commonplace in some parts of the bank, primarily in the technology space, and this will further extend at scale to other parts of the bank.”

Cheng has an exciting role to play, as the HR team is taking the lead to formalise and put more structure on the HO implementation. On the cards is a playbook to provide guidance to businesses, including the definition of roles and responsibilities, decisions on investment and headcounts, evaluation of KPI setting and performance, and more.

Such initiatives are a result of DBS’ thoughtful employee engagement to see what the need of the hour is. Early in the pandemic (March 2020), DBS HK conducted a pulse survey with its employees locally, in the midst of the split locations and work-from-home arrangements. This was elevated to become the regional Future of Work Taskforce later in 2020, with 80 members coming together from different functions and regions.

“The task force was formed to give recommendations in the way we work to better address the changes brought about by COVID-19,” Cheng shares.

Over a six-month study, this task force reviewed the insights gathered from research, deep dive experiments and employee surveys conducted across functions and regions –and the result – DBS’ ‘Future of Work’ strategy is being rolled out in 2021.

To ensure a successful roll out for the hybrid work mode, a series of change management, engagement and awareness programmes have been put in place since the beginning of 2021.

In addition, employees have been getting advice on new work rituals with teams operating virtually, as well as establishing new norms to ensure a respectful and productive digital work environment.

Managers have also received guidance on how to better engage their teams remotely, including actionable tips on building team morale as well as insights on cultivating trust and empathy from behind the screen.

Further plans include the redesign of workspaces as ‘Joyspaces’ to allow better co-creation and cross-team collaborations. In Hong Kong, this journey started back in 2019 to redesign the office for the technology and operations team in Kwun Tong into an agile collaboration workplace.

Cheng reveals: “We will further reconfigure our workspaces located in other premises to enable greater collaboration and ideation, aiming to blend the best physical and virtual modes of working under our Future of Work vision. We target to have more Joyspaces, that is, our activity-based workplace, in Q3 this year.”

Going forward, culture will continue to play an important role at DBS.

“To ‘create culture by design’ is the responsibility of DBS HR and we have been playing a key role to ensure our values and culture are embedded in every part of the bank, and in every individual,” Cheng concludes with a flourish.

Case study: PwC


Carpe diem, we’ve been taught since childhood. PwC is doing exactly that, by seizing this critical moment in time to accelerate the adoption of new ways of working and living as an opportunity to drive a better experience for its people.

Leading the change is the launch of ‘Reimagine Life at PwC’, where the goal is to deliver greater career and personal development opportunities for employees, while ensuring the right skills, capabilities and tools are in place to help clients to solve their most important issues.

Ewan Clarkson, Chief People Officer, PwC Mainland China and Hong Kong, explains: “Our people strategy revolves around three key elements, including workforce, wellness, and workplace, contributing to the overall experience for our people. To align our people capabilities with business strategy, we’re making significant investment into upskilling at all levels to build an agile and resilient workforce that is market-centric and fit for the future.”

In line with this priority, the company has made significant progress towards empowering the growth, development and life of its people. Last year saw the introduction of PwC badges as a key milestone in reimagining learning recognition.

“PwC badges are visible, shareable and portable electronic records of new knowledge and skills gained at PwC. They reflect our people’s ability to contribute and create value in specific skill-related areas, and recognise the progress of their personal development,” Clarkson shares.

A six-week gamified campaign called ‘DigiTrek’ was also launched, featuring the 22 hottest digital topics in today’s market, enabling employees to earn the digital acumen knowledge badge. Badges are earned through successfully conquering digital quests and applying digital knowledge to solve clients’ problems in scenarios faced by the firm. As of today, more than 3,000 PwC digital acumen badges have been granted across the workforce.

With wellness another top priority for the firm, in April, PwC launched its very own Wellness Reimagined app, a seamless one-stop shop for wellness services and products.

Employees can now make appointments and purchase PwC-curated wellness services at their own choice with flexi-life benefits. This includes one-to-one complimentary sessions with certified wellness professionals, a shop for wellness products with corporate discounts, and more. The team even went the extra mile to take care of staff’s loved ones by extending the wellness coverage’s plans and benefits for family and friends.

Flexibility is not a new mantra at PwC. In fact, it launched ‘everyday flexibility’ some years ago (called WeFlex) allowing people the ability to choose where, when and how they work.

“We built upon these strong foundations by enabling greater mobility and transparency within and across our different service lines and locations through the launch of an agility ecosystem,” Clarkson explains.

This led to a streamlined application process, refreshed mobility policy and increased transparency of available roles, which empowered people to shape their career development according to interests and a desire to grow their skills.

PwC’s ‘reimagine life’ approach spills over into the physical workplace as well. Over recent months, the team has been redesigning and reconfiguring the workspace in each major market across Mainland China and Hong Kong by embracing the concept of activity-based working – where its people work in designated areas that cater to the requirements of their task.

“We want to be more deliberate and intentional about the role of the office, so as to ensure that the workspace is digital, yet human-centric, and serve as a hub for us to be collaborative, productive and creative,” Clarkson says.

What’s evident is that as we move into a post-pandemic world, PwC is well set to continue to build a workforce that is fit for the future by delivering greater agility and flexibility for its people to thrive personally and professionally in today’s dynamic and digital world.

Images / Supplied

Follow us on Telegram and on Instagram @humanresourcesonline for all the latest HR and manpower news from around the region! 

Follow us on Telegram and on Instagram @humanresourcesonline for all the latest HR and manpower news from around the region!

Free newsletter

Get the daily lowdown on Asia's top Human Resources stories.

We break down the big and messy topics of the day so you're updated on the most important developments in Asia's Human Resources development – for free.

subscribe now open in new window