The pandemic has hit the Asia Pacific hard: businesses have been heavily affected by the COVID-19 crisis, with millions of workers suffering adverse impacts. Governments across the region implemented mobility restrictions to avoid the rapid expansion of COVID-19. In India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced one of the longest – at the time – lockdowns on 24 March 2020, asking 1.3 billion Indians to stay home for 21 days. This record was soon broken by other countries in the region, like Singapore and Australia.
One and a half years into the pandemic, new variants triggered authorities to impose new strict measures, e.g. in Thailand, Singapore, South Korea and Vietnam. Some were so strict, that people were reliant on food deliveries from the military. Few senior leaders have faced a challenge in their career as severe as what we have seen in these last 18 months. The pandemic is a novel test of their leadership ability – and no one has any idea how long it will last, how it will end, and if it will end at all.
In the “new normal”, leaders will have to get comfortable with different ways of working. Leaders and their teams have already become reliant on smart-enabled technologies, creating remote office working, distance learning and a cashless society. New local outbreaks of the virus make it unavoidable that workers will have to be able to switch fast between working from home or working from the office. In fact, many employees have started to embrace remote working, and a Bloomberg survey of 1,000 working adults showed that 39% would consider quitting if their employers weren’t flexible about remote work. Customers are expecting a seamless digital experience and on-demand services from the comfort of their homes.
Although business travel has slowly started to resume in Asia Pacific, it will not return to pre-pandemic levels: a Bloomberg survey of 45 large companies globally shows that 84% plan to spend less on travel post-pandemic. Companies plan to hold onto the cost savings brought by the pandemic reduction in business travel and, simultaneously, are increasingly pressured to reduce carbon emission reductions as part of their ESG agenda. This means businesses will become more reliant on technology for client meetings, managing global teams, and attending business conferences.
Going forward, leaders will face the following challenges and opportunities:
A continued digital transformation
There will be a reset of the business assumptions that underpin the old operational model when leaders plan for the future: how will they operate going forward, in terms of their digital strategy, their physical offices, traveling and their supply chains?
A critical review of the current team
The past year has shown that some leaders and managers have not been able to adapt to the new model. It is time to evaluate which leaders and managers have been missing in action, and which have stepped up.
Shaping the corporate culture in a virtual workplace
While working from home can enhance productivity, the lack of touch can have adverse impact on the psyche of the employees and can lead to culture disintegration.
These new uncertain times require a different style of behaviour from leaders. As executives focus on making fast decisions, they cannot let their biases and other follies become critical derailers in stressful situations. Moreover, the ability to move against short-term issues requires a level of employee engagement that goes above and beyond – empathetic and purpose-driven leadership will be load bearing in the times to come. Executives and their leadership teams need to master:
BRAVERY: Executives need to be brave in thinking independently and making very difficult decisions. They need a sense of self-efficacy, or feeling of agency, with a mindset that they can act and make decisions that will improve outcomes.
AUTHENTICITY AND EMPATHY: Executives must display authenticity and empathy in all that they do and be a context-sensing communicator who is close to “perfect pitch” in their communications with different audience and in varying situations.
PURPOSE–DRIVEN: Leaders must be able to connect the organization to societal purpose and explain the “reason for being” for the organization. This source of belonging, engagement, and motivation are very important overall, but especially critical while emerging from a period of crisis.
OFFENSIVE AND DEFENSIVE AGILITY: Executives need to think differently about the opportunities and challenges they are facing. They need to know how and when to deploy both an “offensive” and “defensive” mindset, and the approach issues systematically and while thinking across multiple (time) horizons
FINANCIAL AND OPERATING “SHARPNESS”: Executives need a strong level of financial and operating “sharpness” to navigate the inevitable financial and economic challenges the organization will face. Leaders need to develop a strategy that is grounded in a strong understanding of operations and what is possible to achieve given restraint resources and (travel) restrictions.
FORCED DIGITAL ACCELERATION: Executives must embrace digital tools and practices now, even if they were hesitant about them before. From innovation to remote work, digital is now critical to leader’s goals.