It seems that we can’t get enough of COVID-19 news. Day after day, we are bombarded non-stop with news of infection counts, death rates, plunging economies etc. If there’s ever a time that says, “bad news sells”, this is it.

Worldwide, governments are instituting quarantines, stay-at-home orders, and movement restrictions. Companies have adapted accordingly: issuing work-from-home orders, adopting video conferencing technology, while closing offices and doing business online.

Less savoury are the other methods companies are adopting to deal with the economic fallout: pay cuts, unpaid leave, furloughs, and other attempts to manage cash flow. During trying times, it is unfortunate that employees often get the short end of the stick: payroll is the first thing finance managers look to cut.

Understandably, this affects employees’ emotions and well-being. Aside from the constant bombardment of bad news, a reduction in income can play havoc with anyone’s mental health. Prevalent questions that are often asked in these uncertain times include: Am I able to keep my job? Can I still maintain my housing loan? How do I continue to pay for my children’s education?

And in the age of self-preservation, employer branding is probably the last thing on any company’s mind. Why market ourselves to jobseekers, when we’ve frozen hiring? Why care about our existing employees, when we have to cut payroll to stay afloat? These are tough questions for any employer to answer – but they must be answered for the long-term good of the company.

The Long Game

Put simply, your employer brand will endure far beyond this crisis. In good times and bad, your reputation as an employer will determine how you are perceived by talent.

Dato’ Hamidah Naziadin, group chief people officer at CIMB Group says, “Employer branding is important to an organisation as it will stand the test of time, be it during peace time or any crisis such as the current COVID-19. Employer branding concerns how employees, past, present and future, perceive the organisation through their experiences. A positive employer brand goes a long way to not only retain our most valuable employees but also to attract the best talent out there.”

Krish Seshadri, CEO of, APAC and Middle East further adds that employer branding is a long term, ongoing exercise – especially in such times. “A company that has a strong employer brand not only retains and attracts talent, but can also build a positive work culture. With many employees working from home, companies should continue to engage with their people through employer branding. It is an imperative exercise that will not only help build up company morale, but will also help the company maintain a solid talent pipeline as well as positively influence hiring and retention strategies,” he explains.

As the war on talent grows ever more competitive, companies need to pay attention to their workforce and ensure they are safe and supported over these unprecedented times. Clear communications and leadership is required during these times to build an employer brand that will last through to the post-pandemic period.

Even in normal times, employees want to see employers acknowledge their financial concerns and respect their unique family circumstances. They want to know that systems and processes are in place to support their emotional well-being as well as their ability to do their job well. Clear communication is vital to keep staff updated on the situation.

Arlene Wherett, VP & managing director of Sage Asia further adds, “In such testing times, compassion, or empathy, is the core value that should resonate during this time, in keeping the workforce physically and mentally healthy.”

“When we are mentally healthy, we can form positive relationships, cope with day-to-day challenges, and use our abilities to reach our potential. Taking a few minutes out from one’s day to focus on being present helps our colleagues to engage more effectively with our customers,” she explains.

CY Chan, co-owner and chief talent & purpose officer at Hong Kong Broadband Network says, “COVID-19 hasn’t suddenly ‘made’ employee branding important to us, but we found that this pandemic has indeed offered us a chance to ‘run the talk’ (instead of just walk the talk) in our pursuit of purposeful profits and talent culture more emphatically.” With their programme to help fresh university graduates kick-start their careers at a challenging time by offering them a three-month learning and job opportunity, Chan outlines the hidden opportunities that COVID-19 gives for employers to enhance their brand.

The Tech Path Forward

With the advent of technology, engaging employees is ever more important. Adopting technology is also a required facet of employer branding for any organisation. Imagine working for a company that doesn’t have Internet or email today – technology has grown to that point where productivity and distributed working tools like video conferencing and remote check-ins can be done seamlessly.

As part of quarantine or movement restrictions by governments across Asia, face-to-face contact has become rarer and rarer for most of us. In its place are instant messaging, video conferencing, and other remote working tools to maintain productivity. Jordy Cao, general manager at Alibaba Cloud Intelligence Malaysia says, “Previously a novelty, this has become a necessity during the MCO [Movement Control Order] period. Not only do people communicate with each other online, but also do online project management, conduct trainings and have meetings, even parties via virtual communication applications to maintain productivity and mental wellbeing to some extent.”

Cao explains how Alibaba’s enterprise communications platform, DingTalk is used in ways to help employees grow closer during this period. “In Alibaba’s Malaysia office, our cloud team toasts each other virtually to celebrate the birthday of our members using DingTalk‘s video conferencing. Thanks to the technology, though we can’t meet in person, we feel like being together.”

CIMB’s Dato’ Hamidah further explains that though technology provides a great way to engage employees from home, as well as build the employer brand, it is a challenging prospect. “We are fortunate that CIMB has always prioritised employee engagement and it gives us a bit of an advantage during COVID-19 as we have been able to leverage off existing platforms that we have built over the years. We ensure constant and consistent communication to all employees and give them the forums to provide feedback and concerns/challenges that they face during these difficult times,” says Hamidah.

Post COVID-19, the tech revolution is only expected to accelerate. Cao says, “We believe people will get more used to working from home and online learning. Therefore, more remote office applications are expected to be launched in the near future. It will become essential for business continuity. In addition, the outbreak will accelerate the IT transformation of quite a number of companies by adopting cloud technology for the fast service deployment so that these companies don’t have to wait for the hardware expansion and software integration.”

Listen to Your Employees

Ultimately, your employees will be the ones using these tools. As an employer, branding is as much listening to feedback, as it is spreading the message.

Arlene Wherrett of Sage Asia says, “When your workforce in its near entirety (depending on your industry) moves to remote working, some of your employees will be taking a big step into the unknown. As well as providing support to your people as they work from home, it’s worth checking in to see how they are getting on.”

Furthermore, the use of technology can be daunting for several people, especially those with accessibility or disability issues. The increasing focus on UI and UX in recent years is helping to solve this problem to some extent. As employers, companies can also focus on this to help facilitate the digital transformation. Dato’ Hamidah says, “We are also aware that we need to accommodate various levels of digital literacy within the organisation and access to digital platforms to make it an inclusive affair.”

“Ultimately the key to engaging employees during this time is empathy. We need to genuinely demonstrate to them that we understand their concerns and fears, that we feel what they are feeling and, more importantly, that we care and will do our best to support them during this period,” she explains.

Chan from Hong Kong Broadband Network further adds, “There might be frustration from talents during this period, but we encourage leaders to coach their teams to embrace change and enjoy being a pioneer in how we’re adapting to a new way of working. By offering a flexible and agile working mode, we’re improving work efficiency, and as a result, talents can reap greater work satisfaction.”

A New Work Paradigm

Six hundred years ago, the Black Death ravaged Europe. One-third of the population was wiped out. But from the tragedy, opportunity arose. Surviving peasants found that their labour was greatly in demand – increasing social mobility and rise higher in life. Labour saving technologies like improved plowing enhanced crop yields. And lords were forced to give their workers better bargains.

Will this parallel happen to our world post COVID-19? Perhaps not, but a major paradigm shift is already happening. Both major companies and SMEs are more willing to adopt flexible working – and employers who don’t offer this will lose out. Tech enabled communication will be the ‘new normal’ for the foreseeable future. But with careful branding and engagement initiatives, employers can come out ahead in the war for talent.


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