Lelia Konyn, global business and CHRO leader, shares her COVID 19 insights

Lelia Konyn is an internationally recognised business leader and human resources expert.

Her extensive experience spans nascent startups through to Global Fortune 100 companies, including listed as well as private organisations working closely with Boards and family shareholders alike.

As Group HR Director of commodities giant Noble Group, she facilitated the growth of the company from an 800 person, familial-style enterprise to a 16,000 employee, US$100bn, global multinational.

Her other appointments stretch across shipping, financial services, retail and tech giving her a deep and broad perspective into what it takes to sustain, build and grow diverse teams and organisations.

Having lived in Hong Kong since 1991, Lelia has helped lead organisations through a number of significant crises including the 1997 Asia financial crisis, the global financial crisis of 2007/8, SARS in 2003/4 and several natural disasters meaning that she is well practiced at navigating through times of ambiguity and difficulty.

Lelia shares with Barracuda Search her thoughts and reflections on the ongoing COVID 19 outbreak.

From a business continuity perspective, perhaps one of the notable differences between the SARS crisis of 2003/4 and the current COVID 19 outbreak has been the proliferation of technology. What impact has this had on how business has been managed during this time?

Huge! I can’t imagine work continuing at the pace that it needs to now without the technology we have available to us.

Firstly, let’s start with the very basics. Let’s start from Wi-Fi and its wide availability – this enables people to connect to company systems and colleagues and work from home. Gone are the land cables some households used to have in 2003-2004 when SARS broke out. That’s a very basic thing that everybody takes for granted but it’s very important.

Secondly, the availability of smart phones. Even if someone doesn’t have access to a laptop or a PC they have a smart phone, which enables them to communicate – calls, video calls, emails, WhatsApps… – being accessible at all times. This was not available in 2003/4 and again we take it for granted but it makes a big difference.

Then of course the other communication systems. The ability and ease of connecting and conducting video meetings with Microsoft Teams, Zoom, Skype or WhatsApp, or Botim in Dubai, has been crucial. These were non-existent 17 years ago and are improving all the time.

We then come to company systems. With an HR Management System (“HRMS”) companies can continue to manage their human capital to an extent – it is interactive, you have all data at your fingertips, you can continue to run critical HR processes (pay, performance monitoring and appraisals…). Companies who use Trading Systems, are able to continue to trade – pricing, risk management, market status, supply/demand, bid for deals or tenders. Many of these things were done on paper or in Excel 17 years ago, as trading systems during SARS were far more basic.

Undoubtedly, if we didn’t have the digital capabilities we have today, starting from the very basics of Wi-Fi up to company systems, we would not be able to engage in remote working and maintain the connectivity and business continuity we’ve had so far.

With the ability to travel highly-restricted, a lot of regional and global companies are asking questions about their organisational structures, particularly regarding the importance of in-country teams. What have your observations been during this time?

It is interesting. Now that so many countries have been in lockdown and people working from home, it became apparent who are the leaders in your regional offices, and through lack of visibility, who has disappeared so to speak from the radar. It is interesting to see how some people naturally become leaders and are proactive and come the fore, and then those who just go into some kind of black box and you need to follow up with them closely and chase on instances.

When meeting face to face is only possible through video, although video meetings take you a long way, the full rapport and the full trust you can establish in person is not quite there. I think this is a catalyst in thinking how you assess people, what skills and competence you want to assess and how you do those assessments.

This time has also highlighted the roles and positions in a company that are not critical. In some cases the roles themselves can be replaced through digitalisation, and companies should seriously consider it to remain competitive. In other cases, it is a decision on the position: is it necessary? Is it the position holder’s capability or the role itself? It is a time to reflect if we really need that role or can those responsibilities be given to two or three other people who will do it just as well?

We discussed earlier that this period may well inspire new ways of working moving forward. When you think about at a company’s culture, how do you think it will be possible to build, maintain and grow such a culture if teams are going to be spread more disparately and in some cases working from home on a more regular basis?

I think it will be possible, but you need to put more effort into it. You will need much more interaction for that to happen. Whereas previously you had meetings, let’s say trade meetings or strategy meetings, now you will have to do those online. Whereas previously you had people dialing in once a week from an office for updates and such like, rather than having a call because you were going to be seeing them in a month anyway, you are going to have to have a video conference to replace that.

You will have to have more activities online to engage your workforce. If you had team building activities before in person, you have to create something similar online. You need to create the feeling that they are part of a bigger team, part of a bigger group that reinforces the processes, the culture, the pride in the company, and builds the optimism and spirit to continue to cooperate and work together successfully.

You’ve got to replace the physical face to face activities with online activities and drive engagement in a different form. With the team building element, you need to think how you do that online, who you involve, what levels in the organization, what’s the common denominator and what kind of cultural traits of the company you want to embed or build into these exercises. This is not a siloed HR task, it requires thinking and planning from leadership, line managers and HR. But it is important to create this.

Most organisations prior to this outbreak were going through some level of transformation, some level of evolution. Of course the human, the psychological, the economic toll of COVID 19 cannot be overstated; however do you believe that this period has afforded any opportunities, now or moving forward, for organisations to take actions that may have been harder under normal circumstances.

Yes, in a few of areas. I think flexible working patterns will become more the norm. This time has demonstrated to companies that once they are prepared (online, with systems and technology) remote and flexible working can be done without detrimental aspects to work. So more flexible working patterns and more people working from home.

People will travel less. Companies have realised that for some meetings the objectives were achieved through online communication and video conferences rather than by travel. Those business meetings in Timbuktu you were flying to attend regularly – you have realised you can discuss most issues on video conference. Of course some key business meetings, or site inspections of assets or operations, you cannot do through video conferencing with the same efficiency, but a lot of things you can.

Flexible working hours and working remotely may mean lower office costs. It may mean that offices are not so big and you can split your workforce and have part of them working in an office for a time and then work remotely at other times.

Companies that were not technologically prepared, or had no business continuity plan, were more severely impacted. Perhaps it has emphasised or underlined the importance of accelerating the digitalisation of processes and business critical aspects, as well as dusting off and updating the business continuity plans regularly.

So to summarise: flexible working, less expensive offices, less travel potentially, and more investment in digitalisation.

What would you say that your greatest learnings have been through this time?

How important constant change is in a company. How important it is for the company leadership, Board and shareholders to constantly move with times, to keep adopting and implementing change, not to stop, not to become complacent and not to say, “we have had a great business for the last 30 years, we know what we are doing, we will keep doing more of the same and we’ll be just fine”. This global pandemic is an inflection point for many companies.

Interview conducted by Barracuda’s Head of Hong Kong, Max Holdsworth.

June 2020