Dato' Khalis Rahim, Chief Human Capital Officer, Malaysia Airlines

Restoring pride & purpose into the workforce

Under the CHCO's people stewardship, the workforce has braved turbulent times, and emerged more united, passionate, and appreciative. Here how pride and purpose was rightfully restored, in a story told to Lester Tan.

Vital stats: Dato’ Khalis Rahim oversees human capital management for the Malaysia Airlines Group of companies. He has extensive exposure in human capital management, having served in several multinational companies for over 20 years across different industries. He has been involved in various disciplines of the profession from organisational development and change management to performance management, industrial relations, HR re-engineering, as well as talent development.


Malaysia Airlines’ proverbial flight has not been short of turbulence. So, when Dato’ Khalis Rahim (pictured above), the airline’s current Chief Human Capital Officer, joined the team in 2018 having experienced work-life at Colgate-Palmolive and Telekom Malaysia, he witnessed a "very tired, fearful, and disillusioned workforce".

"They had undergone five or six high-profile transformations with minimal success, and more failures as the organisation continued to make losses. There was a lot of blame game as to who was at fault," Dato’ Khalis explains. "I knew I had one massive task, and that was to restore pride and purpose into the workforce. I decided that if I fixed this one massive task, the rest would be by-products that would fall into place."

With that end goal in mind, he set out to review the transformation roadmap that came with the Malaysia Airlines Recovery Plan. He immediately realised something was amiss. "When it came to the people agenda," he shares, "I discovered the plan was written by experts who had an abundance of theory and benchmarked practices, which are needed, but the plans overlooked the importance of empathy. They focused little on the soul of the organisation."

This, he explains, was crucial because when transformation plans "do not fully achieve the desired outcome, it is easy for the people or the public to push the blame to the employees". Adamant to do better, he decided to start with the unconventional. "The first person I hired into my human capital team was not an HR expert, but an Ustaz (religious teacher)," he shares. "My boss thought I was insane, but he allowed me to carry on with my plans."

But how would an Ustaz help turn the company around? "I simply repurposed him. He was to walk the shop floor, meet the people and remind them – despite facing adverse conditions – to be thankful and count their blessings. To share a universal message regardless of one’s religious or spiritual background: ‘Be thankful you still have a job under these challenging circumstances whilst many of your friends have been laid off in 2015. The company is not in a healthy state yet, so stop demanding, stop whining, and start working’."

Dato’ Khalis followed this up by requiring everyone to sing Malaysia’s national anthem at the town halls, as well as introducing the airline’s corporate song, the MH Song.

While some shrugged, and others were amused, they sang nonetheless (albeit some off-key), and the impact was "amazing", with some citing they had goosebumps.

I told them: ‘Now you know why you are here. You have a duty to the 33mn people of this nation. We are the national carrier, we represent them.’

The MH Song, as it is called, was launched on 5 September 2018 and spread like wildfire among the employees. "It rallied the employees to break the silos and work together towards a shared vision of success. Today, it has become our anthem and value call." It was around that time, Dato’ Khalis and his team embarked on a series of workshops based on neuro-linguistic programming, called ‘Winning with MH Passion’.

"This programme unleashed something that was already in every one of the employees. We started to see stories coming in, and people were volunteering to try different ways to resolve issues. There were tangible discretionary efforts. Suddenly, people were proud of the country, and of the airline," he says.

To reinforce the right renewed behaviours, a quarterly WoW (Way of Working) awards programme was introduced to recognise employees who demonstrate the company’s values in the course of their duties. "We began to see the impact of the initiatives. Our employee engagement scores shot up from a low 51% in 2018 to a high of 77% in 2021 with a participation rate of 93%! Our other qualitative corporate scores correspondingly shot up in 2021.

"For instance, the customer satisfaction index was at 84% (from 74% in 2018), the net promoter score was at +54 (from +3 in 2018), on-time performance at 89.4% (from 74.9% in 2018), and mishandled baggage at 3.42 /1000 pax (from 7.32/1000 pax in 2018)," he reveals.

Under his people stewardship, Malaysia Airlines has steadied itself and never looked back since. Let’s find out more about this journey.

Q Despite all the ups and down, the airline managed to get through – hitting financial targets for 2019, breaking even for 2020, and even avoiding retrenchments. How did Malaysia Airlines manage it?

We have had a rather chequered history. Our people are quite used to the pain, hardship, trials, and tribulations. Even prior to the global pandemic, we had already embarked on workforce optimisation – and this has been a continuous journey. We shed almost 2,400 employees through natural attrition. Replacements were hired with extreme prudence. The clarion call was ‘do more with less’, and ‘agility’ was the way to go. We started to challenge our existing processes.

Cost containment and productivity were always top of mind. We even started to experiment with flexible work arrangements (FWAs) and work hours for the non-operations workforce. It was imperative for us to remain nimble and agile, and make digital our enabler. Our initiatives, philosophically and operationally, somewhat postured us to embrace a VUCA world. Then, of course, COVID-19 reared its ugly head in late 2019. Call it conditioning or memory muscle if you will, but we just kicked into action.

While many talked about people being their best assets, champions, stars, and what have you, more often than not, they had no choice, but to reduce their workforce when faced with extreme adverse business conditions. We were not spared from that pressure. Call it counter-intuitive, but we felt that our people helped bring us back on track; they have given us toil, blood, sweat, and tears to lift us up from the depths of the doldrums to the cusp of success. Ain’t no way were we going to leave anyone behind.

The management made a conscious decision to bring everyone over the line. We also knew that skill sets such as digital, IT, eCommerce, and digital marketing will be critically needed when the borders open up eventually. It was pertinent to avoid being dragged into a talent war which would distract us from achieving our ‘Long-Term Business Plan 2.0’. We will not lay off anyone in active employment.

To sustain the workforce, we instituted differentiated pay cuts ranging from 10% to 40% depending on the salary bracket. Lower-income employees, who formed the bulk of the workforce, were untouched. The salary cuts were done with the consent of the affected employees. They knew this was a necessary pain to ensure their lower-income colleagues were able to keep their jobs. Even the board members participated in this exercise by taking a hefty cut.

The employees were appreciative. We were barely flying during the pandemic, and hence, there were no related variable pay nor allowances to be earned by operations staff, which typically formed a significant part of their take-home pay.

As the saying goes, ‘Never waste a crisis’. We used this opportunity to reset our rewards structure to make it more sustainable, reflective of market, and driven by productivity.

This included resetting the salary policy and productivity allowances for pilots, introducing the productivity efficiency incentive to replace overtime in engineering and maintenance, and offering a 10% quarterly variable component of the base salary for selected support staff.

Q Take us through the thought process of charting the upskilling and reskilling flight path for the workforce.

In 2019, the organisation started to pivot towards building a digital workforce. A five-year ‘Digital Workforce Roadmap’ was designed to complement the business plans. The roadmap aimed to upskill and reskill the workforce. At that time, awareness of digitisation and digitalisation among the people was minimal, save for the small digital and IT team which was instrumental in building and developing platforms, systems, apps, and such, for the business. We knew our task of upskilling and reskilling the 11,000 workforce was insurmountable.

To provide our employees with the experience of how digitisation or automation can elevate the efficiency and quality of our deliverables, I organised the first-ever in-house digital conference. We invited some of our renowned industry partners, namely Microsoft, IBM, PwC, Facebook, and Google, to be part of this conference. Through a week-long series of workshops, exhibition booths showcasing the power of automation, design thinking work groups, forums, dialogues, and such, our people began to immerse themselves in the digital experience.

When the pandemic hit in 2020, we had started to gain momentum in our digital efforts. Our industry partners continued to be very supportive, and provided virtual training for our people. Our businesses started to take charge of automating and digitising their respective processes and workflows. We saw many employees drive the digital agenda for their respective businesses. It was exhilarating to say the least, where at least 300 processes were digitalised across the Group. Not wanting the momentum to halt, we organised our second digital conference.

In 2021, we organised our maiden in-house learning and development conference, aimed to provide more opportunities for people to work alongside industry practitioners to improve their skills. We also started to seed the need to drive innovation by creating a safe space for them to fail fast and learn fast.

Hence, the birth of the ‘IDEABOX’ project at the start of 2022, which focuses on encouraging people to contribute their innovative ideas to improve our products, services, processes, and even culture. Another key initiative was the setting up of the School of Digital Business by our very own Malaysia Airlines Academy. The baton of building a future-proof digital workforce has now been passed on to the Academy, which has the right resources to curate a sustainable curriculum for the workforce.

The multiplier effect of this journey has gradually built a digital way of working and mindset across the organisation. Today, papers and forms are frowned upon naturally. Everything we do, or work on, is in the cloud, properly secured.

To sum up, the key success factors to ensuring learning sticks are to provide learners the opportunities to put to use what they have been taught, and a safe space to fail fast and learn fast.

Most importantly, ride on the momentum of achievements. Celebrate successes, big and small.

Q Here we are today: life is (somewhat) back to normal, business as usual. Workloads are bound to increase. What is the team actively doing to help manage the work-life conundrum?

We introduced FWAs even before the outbreak of the pandemic. Using HR analytics, we found that a number of our employees spent non-productive time commuting to and from work due to the heavy traffic and the distance to the workplace, leaving them very little time for themselves and their families. Some had to resort to applying for time off to attend to personal matters, which, in actual fact, may only take less than an hour to settle.

So, we decided to give our employees the flexibility of working remotely. We started with baby steps so as not to shock the system. We initiated work-from-home on Fridays. At first, there was pushback from some of the bosses, but we persevered. We were fortunate that our GCEO was fully supportive of this. Then, when COVID-19 hit our shores, we started to work in the office on a rotational team basis and this quickly evolved into a full-blown work-from-home arrangement. We practically closed down our HQ and created hot-desking spaces, should anyone really need to physically come to work.

Today, I don’t have a physical office, and neither do my fellow CXOs. We all do hot-desking, including our GCEO. We found that our productivity levels shot up. Issues were resolved at a much faster pace. Our online town halls had better reach. Trainings were done online. We even ran a few large events such as conferences and seminars virtually.

Work-life and social-life will integrate. There is no stopping it. It is just a matter of how far that integration goes. Today, everyone is connected, either via email, messaging apps, or some other online platforms. We just need to ensure that employees’ wellbeing and rights are not compromised as work-life and social-life will inevitably integrate.

Q Malaysia Airlines has proven that the idea of FWAs is not difficult to implement, even in such a bustling industry. How do you see it evolving from here?

As with any new initiatives that disrupt the norm, there will be teething problems. We just have to be open to feedback and to continuously improve. People need to know why we are doing it, and that it’s a part of a bigger strategic direction. In our case, FWAs are a part of our culture change process towards becoming an agile organisation that focuses on productivity.

In short, there must be a compelling reason. You can have all the world-class processes and practices in place, but remember, it’s the people that will make or break them.

First, engage the people. Get their feedback on how you can improve the workplace, and at the same time, achieve superior business results. In our case, we started this initiative in response to our people’s feedback about the travelling distance and massive traffic jams they had to endure daily which impacted their work-life balance. We also engaged the business units to see what we could do without impacting operations.

Second, always ensure you make decisions based on data. In our case, we relied on quantitative and qualitative data. We had numerous touchpoints to collect data before we formulated our models. We then stress-tested those models before recommending them for implementation.

Third, and I cannot over-emphasise this, is the importance of having feedback channels or constant engagement with the people and the business units to tweak the model if there are requirements to do so. Be open to improving continuously.

With regard to issues like engagement and proximity bias, my opinion is that it is not a process or systems issue. It is a leadership issue, or lack of it, to be precise. It is incumbent upon the leaders to know their people and spend time with them either by walking the shopfloor physically or virtually. Hence, in our case, we measure and rate leaders not only by just their operational KPIs, but also by how they manage their people.

As for the future of the office space, I believe it will continue to evolve. To what? I wouldn’t know exactly. There will be new ideas or concepts. Most importantly, we must know what we want and why we want it. We need to have a problem statement to resolve it. Out of FOMO (fear of missing out), many HR practitioners today would recommend ‘best practices’ to the business without really establishing that compelling need.

Q As we conclude the interview, what are some key skills you believe HR or people leaders will need to possess in order to be relevant in the future?

Buffing up one’s profile on social media is certainly not one of them. I am not sure about other locations, but here in Malaysia, there are too many of these kinds of self-proclaimed HR professionals nowadays, who are unfortunately, more form over substance.

Whilst social media is important in this day and age to quickly share and obtain information, it is a doubleedged sword. One can, and quickly, be misinformed and disinformation can be disseminated easily. It can also create a generation of narcissistic HR practitioners (it may already have). Unfortunately, narcissism and empathy don’t rhyme.

The future is ever-changing. An HR leader needs to be able to adapt and do so very fast. Driven by the right values and purpose, the HR leader needs to be able to build a compelling case, then challenge and disrupt the norm without appearing as a threat to the people within the organisation.

To effectively disrupt, HR leaders will need to be able to manage ambiguity, connect the dots, fly below the radar, and do what they need to do, stealthily. Humility is key. 


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