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Our Think Tank: Business with Humanity

The pandemic may have turned tables against you, but does that warrant you to whittle away your people?

Businesses across the globe have been severely impinged by the pandemic, that they have had to restructure operations to stay afloat, and in the quest to do so, prioritize their continuity at the cost of key value contributors, even in the form of laying off employees or switching supply chain partners.

Is this a lack of empathy or simply a prudent step for survival?

There has been a lot of debate around the humanity of such organizations that put their survival first; yet businesses have had their fair share of arguments justifying their actions. While unempathetic is the discernment of employees, prudence is the perception of businesses.

So, are we right to assume that empathetic businesses cannot survive?

Perhaps not! Businesses with a commitment to Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) have always seen increases in productivity and employee engagement.

And companies with top-quartile employee engagement ratings have twice the customer satisfaction and 25% higher profits than organizations with bottom-quartile engagement ratings.

Therefore, shedding employees to cut cost is more often than not detrimental to the company itself. It results in the loss of tacit knowledge, investments in training as well as the network of relationships built by employees. What’s worse is the bad publicity making it harder to attract conscious customers and new talent, as well as its lasting effects on survivors – depicted by a lack of interest to work hard as the fate of their peers only assure them that good performance doesn’t guarantee their jobs, consequently hurting profits in the long run.

Firms that downsize their workforce by 1% see a 31% increase in voluntary turnover the next year.

Moreover, impact investors today are increasingly factoring ESG – Environmental, Social, Governance – principles into their investment decisions. Socially conscious firms that are considerate towards its people and relationships are hence poised better to attract higher investments and outperform the market.

ESG firms captured USD 51.1 billion of net new money from investors in 2020, compared to USD 21 billion in 2019 indicating the level of increased attention this topic has gained, amidst the pandemic. Prioritizing ESG issues generate superior long-term financial performance across a range of metrics. In 2020, ESG stocks outperformed the stock market across the globe – by 46% in the U.S., 20% in Europe, and 77% in Asia.

So, while it is a no brainer that business empathy leads to success, when survival is on the brink, business empathy tends to get overshadowed by cost cuts

While CSR and ESG are concepts towards which businesses like to devote funds and time during profitable periods; at times of acute crisis, it tends to get deprioritized as it is an expense not all firms can afford to incur. Most SMEs laid off employees, at least temporarily, to cope with the crisis.

While organizations opt to lay off employees in multiple situations, including high performance times, what we explore in this article is the dilemmatic decision people-centric firms are compelled to make during times of distress, where the sheer existence of a company is threatened if cost is not curtailed in time. So, the two key questions we aim to address are:

  1. Should firms hold onto their employees during a pandemic despite a difficulty to remunerate them?

  2. How much effort should enterprises invest to take care of existing employees amidst a pandemic?

1. Should firms hold onto their employees despite a difficulty to remunerate them?

As the pandemic continues to stamp its imprint, firms have had to look for profitability or cash overhaul. Businesses have adopted divergent coping mechanisms – some are adopting retreating strategies while some are either proving themselves remarkably agile or stayed resilient. In any of the 3 scenarios – Retreat, Agile or Resilient, what we look at here are better ways to handle changing workforce needs that make sparing use of staff reductions and ensure that if they do happen, the process feels fair and affected parties have a soft landing.

A. For companies coping through retreating strategies – No choice but to downsize

SMEs in certain industries such as travel and retail are teetering on the edge of closure. For example, airlines have seen reductions of up to 71% of seat capacity and around 1.5 billion passengers globally by the end of 2020, exemplifying the precarious nature and effects of the pandemic on airline businesses and the financial position of multiple firms that provide support services to airlines and airports. This daunting panorama has left SMEs with nothing but spare choice to cut back spend.

How could retreating businesses that are downsizing minimize the negative impact on employees?

  • For organizations that are downsizing/having to halt operations temporarily: Prioritize employees over all other forms of costs – The concentration of any organization’s restructuring effort is mostly on its people due to it being one of the largest expenses, in both manufacturing and service-based industries – a prominent cost figure that any pair of eyes cannot miss on a financial statement.

Hence, firms need to exercise caution in the prioritization of dispensable costs. Start by looking at what other expenses can be cut down and trim employee expense only as a last resort.

i. Scale down asset base – Assess, if the company is paying large sums of rent on unutilized assets/unused capacity (for example, aircrafts, premises), the possibility of selling owned fixed assets such as equipment, machinery or vehicles to liquidate cash for expenses and leasing them back, and the potential to outsource distribution and warehousing to reduce rentals paid on fleet of vehicles or warehousing units.

ii. Lower sales and marketing spend – Hold back advertising and marketing expenses of products that don’t see a viable market anymore.

iii. Iron out inefficiencies – This is a specifically a high cost for manufacturing organizations, including errors, rework and idle time. When all else fails, some companies may have no choice but to downsize workforce in order to stay afloat. While doing so, firms could explore situation-based strategies. i

. Offer pay cuts – If the short-term concern is dire, notify employees that the moment business rebounds, pay would be revised. For employees with dwindling savings, offer more notice and support with at least partial income until business bounces back/they find an alternative job. ii. Offer no pay leave – If the outlook in the near term is unclear, offer indefinite periods of No pay leave. This way trained employees are ensured job security and are available when operations rebound, without adding to the short-term cost burden. iii. Lay off: Communication as a tool to manage employee emotions: Be it due to downsizing, or a temporary halt in operations, inform employees that moment business rebounds, they would be commissioned to work. Assure them that they would be prioritized over new recruits, especially the older hands that have contributed to ground breaking ideas and business success in the past. This also applies to firms that cannot pivot to any other form of model to survive and are having to cease operations. In this instance, employees understand that the business is no longer viable. It should be explained that it is not that a set of skills are being devalued or deprioritized rather a business going concern. However, as mentioned above, this process should be carefully managed, taking into consideration the psychological effects it could have on employees. B. For companies coping through agile strategies – Address the real issue Prior to resorting to layoffs, organizations should investigate the root cause of business struggle. Black swan events such as the COVID -19 pandemic can drastically change a business’s outlook; however, the underlying reason for failure is an externality beyond one’s control and not its employees. Then why redirect pressure on the workforce? Of late, business blues has been the result of demand side issues. Hence, retrenching employees, by any means, does not ensure a firm’s longevity, instead it would only call for more and more retrenchment, the longer the pandemic persists. Therefore, companies should simply address the elephant in the room. If business failure is owed to a drop in demand, firms should explore the possibility of new revenue opportunities, either as a solution for the shorter term or longer term. (While this may not be as easy as it sounds, postponing this will eventually result in a continuous decline in revenue and earnings). Check our April issue on how businesses could sustain demand amidst a pandemic.

So, how could agile businesses deploy employees without having to lay them off?

i. Redirect workforce to increase sales– Deploy workforce to restore customer relations, increase access to product via online channels and secure newer markets. Firms could explore possibilities of tying part of remuneration to new business secured. Sharing business risk would incentivize employees to drive business while partial salary reductions would ease cheque burden on the firm.

ii. Reskill them for new products – For firms planning to create new products within its core competence, it could deploy existing talent aided by shadowing a few external experts. It could run a few pilot tests until existing teams are savvy on new product creation and marketing. For developments outside core, where existing set of skills are rendered redundant and the adaptability in the new environment is sparse, intense, fast-tracked training and development is vital including assessments and assignments. C. For companies that are finding themselves resilient – Optimize workforce capacity Companies that aren’t switching business models or retreating, rather strengthening existing business to align with new realities should optimize present workforce capacity. So, how could resilient businesses optimize their workforce?

Take good care of existing employees – Explored in detail in Section 2 below. Re-imagine the post pandemic workforce – While resilient firms may not have to invest much to manage workforce development for present needs, it is essential to build resilience for the future. This is true for all organizations continuing to operate amidst the pandemic, may they be, agile, retreating or resilient.

i. Adopt flexible working approaches: While lockdowns and restrictions would continue as the norm over the foreseeable future, firms should explore opportunities to increase output through work from home channels. This would help keep employees engaged while also staying safe at home. It is also an ideal solution that can aid with the minimization of firm cost on rental and utility bills while ensuring pre-pandemic level of output. However, firms should not discount the adversity of this approach on employee morale owing to reduced social engagements in office and corridor conversations. It has also had an emotional impact on working parents struggling to balance the home front and work life. Hence, in the more medium term, when restrictions are eased, a hybrid model is encouraged where a combination of work from home and office time is enabled.

A survey of 100 executives found that 90 percent envision a future with some combination of remote and on-site work.

ii. Re-skilling – Firms would need to re-skill to suit new business realities and stay relevant. While some form of immediate training is required for employees in resilient industries (for example, reskilling nurses so that they can keep up with technological advances), businesses would have to strategize what the future business workforce would look like. Equipping employees with social, emotional, advanced cognitive (thinking), digital capabilities, as well as multi-tasking capabilities is essential so that they can cross-work and be resilient to external shocks.

A survey revealed that 69 percent of respondents found building the skills of existing staff to be more important than any other method of talent building, including hiring during the pandemic. (Figure below)

2. How much effort should enterprises invest to take care of existing employees amidst a pandemic?

While some employees have been let go of, the ones that have been retained have had to weather the storm head on. Businesses have had to transfer workloads of a previously larger workforce onto a smaller group or hand over an increased burden to the existing workforce. This has meant that employees who have been fortunate enough to retain their jobs have had to take on much more than before. While this is still a much better predicament to be in, rather than be unemployed, the degree of difficulty some of them have had to face has been intense – with healthcare workers, front-line workers and daily wage earners being among the hardest hit groups. This has demanded for increased intervention by HR and management, especially to ensure continued performance and productivity.

Emotional Wellbeing –

  • Increase recognition, incentives, and breaks – For example, front line workers such as doctors and nurses who have had to see COVID-19 patients on a daily basis, have come under immense strain. Employers should offer increased remuneration and recognition to such die-hard workers. They should also be offered breaks in the form of flexible scheduling, opportunities to provide telemedicine services and other innovative patient-care delivery methods.

22% of 400 frontline nurses surveyed, providing direct patient care, revealed that they may leave their jobs in the next year, a reflection of the physical and mental strain the pandemic has placed upon the profession.

  • Ease double shift burden – For example, a third of work from home moms say they are considering leaving the workforce or downshifting their careers given the need to switch back to taking care of children either soon after work or amidst work. Employers should look to offer increased part time roles and explore opportunities to trim any low value-add work/digitally equip them to expedite tasks.

  • Check-in with employees – Regularly liaise with employees to understand concerns, alleviate fears, make them feel comfortable and included. For example, create a forum to voice concerns.

Physical Wellbeing –

  • Lesser person to plant ratio – While work from home has been feasible for certain roles, on-the-ground plant workers in manufacturing and construction industries have had to physically be present to drive output, while fearing infections. Large plants that require employees to work next to one another, would need to lessen person to plant ratio, alternating employee shifts by fortnight or the standard quarantine period.

  • Promote health and safety – Companies with large factories could use support to coordinate vaccination for employees, ensure proper sanitization and hygiene to create a safe work environment. Each company should also assess their medical and insurance facilities available to staff members and accommodate additional expenses for those who may not be able to afford these expenses.

Financial Wellbeing –

  • Loaning to employees in need – For employees that are taking pay cuts, or going on no pay leave, they may struggle to afford day to day expenses. Differential interest rates between personal and corporate bank loans could make the difference between individual poverty and economic survival. Firms can use their corporate credit and collateral to arrange low- or no-interest loans to their employees. Loan repayments can be deducted as a percentage of employee salaries, guaranteed by the firm.

  • Invest in providing paid internet connections and laptops for work from home – While it has been simple for some to switch from an office-based to home-based working, it has not at all been a fun ride for many. Employers should offer to technically equip work-from-home employees that do not have access to sound infrastructure and are finding it to be a bottleneck to performance.

As businesses continue to embrace more and more concerns posed by the pandemic, they will need to transform their eco-system of operations to remain future proof. Await our monthly issues next quarter to explore how organizations need to Look Beyond the Pandemic.

References: COVID-19: Implications for business – McKinsey, June 2021; SME Competitiveness Outlook – International Trade Center, June 2020; Measuring the business value of corporate social impact – Deloitte, July 2020; Layoffs That Don’t Break Your Company – Harvard Business Review, June 2018; Money invested in ESG funds more than doubles in a year – CNBC, February 2021; From CSR to ESG – JDSupra, February 2021; Does ESG Investing Produce Better Stock Returns? – The Motley Fool, May 2019; How Does Investing in ESG Companies Affect Returns? – Morningstar, February 2020; Coronavirus Is Putting Corporate Social Responsibility to the Test – Harvard Business Review, April 2020; ICAO, Uniting Aviation – A U