Businesses in Asia continue to grapple with the impact of COVID-19. While many are focused on navigating the challenges of now, such as embracing remote hiring and managing falling revenue and reducing headcounts, others are already looking to the future, making sure that their businesses are well placed for when markets re-emerge out of COVID-19’s shadows. In fact, for every company that has reduced its headcounts, there are others, particularly in tech, digital, healthcare, pharmaceutical and e-commerce, that continue to grow its teams. 

According to a recent pulse survey by Mercer, across the 232 companies that participated, only 22% are planning on a hiring freeze. For those whose financials are in the red, hiring, let alone aggressive hiring, is out of the question. Even for replacement hires, progressive and strong leadership, as well as clear direction are needed to avoid missing out on talented new hires. However, for businesses that are navigating the now while also thinking about the medium term, it might be a good time to identify skill gaps within the organisation, make the right hires and prepare for the market’s eventual recovery. 

Recruiting during COVID-19

First, let’s dispel some myths about hiring during a downturn. The idea that employers can attract quality talent at a ‘lower-than-average’ price, in view of rising unemployment, is a misconception. In truth, talented professionals with high potential are increasingly reluctant to take a chance and leave their current employers in what they consider to be a high-risk market. 

While prudence must be the approach during an economic crisis, with any investment in headcount well planned and considered, inaction, in many ways, could be detrimental in the longer run. This is especially so when there are hidden yet significant opportunities nestled among the bad headlines. 

Sharmini Wainwright, Senior Managing Director at PageGroup, agrees with the sentiment. In a recent article, she wrote: “Faced with questions from clients asking us whether they should delay their team’s hiring, my team’s answers are typically pragmatic. You have the budget available, the talent available, and the chance of a first-mover advantage? If the answer to each question is ‘Yes’, then it’s important not to forget that many of these sectors typically have a natural candidate shortage during most times. So if the talent is there, now may actually be the best conditions for hiring that you’ll find in the near future.” 

1. Certain sectors remain robust: With 20 offices across Asia Pacific, Page has observed a high level of activity related to the acceleration of digitalisation in many sectors. Anthony Thompson, Executive Board Director & Regional Managing Director, Asia at PageGroup, explained, “We see strong activity in healthcare and life sciences, from both a commercial and technical perspective, along with some parts of FMCG, food manufacturing, chemicals, as well as packaging.” Thompson added that tech businesses, too, are proactive in terms of hiring in Southeast Asia. 

In terms of specific markets, Thompson said that financial services and insurance have been positive in Singapore, as the city-state continues to be an innovation hub for tech, digital and research and development. With rising supply chain costs in China, ASEAN will remain an attractive alternative for the US and Europe. Supply chain and procurement specialists, too, will remain in high demand. 

2. Contractors and temp staff add flexibility and value in difficult times: Under normal market conditions, contractors and temp staff add value by covering critical skill gaps, permanent staffers’ holidays, urgent projects and parental leave — all without incurring substantial risks or certain headcount-related costs and issues. 

However, these are not normal market conditions. Even though a market rebound is a near certainty at some point, the ‘when’ and ‘how’ are still very much up in the air. As such, businesses want staffing flexibility — and that is where contractors and temp staff come into play. Beyond the above mentioned benefits, contractors and temp staff afford companies the freedom to increase or decrease headcounts based on short-term business needs. 

3. It’s a good time to reassess your priorities: The pandemic is a massive shake up no one saw coming, and with that comes unexpected opportunities. While ill-prepared companies will inevitably fall by the wayside, the resilient ones will weather the storm and emerge in a better position to thrive for when market conditions resume. To build up said resilience, now is a good time to shore up your recruitment strategy in preparation for a recovery, as well as the potential opportunity to increase market share. 

Certain business verticals, for example, will see faster rebounds than others within the same organisation. Businesses, then, must take the opportunity to assess the resources currently available, where their priorities truly lie, as well as how said resources can be better optimised and allocated in the post-COVID world. The real challenge for business leaders now is getting the balance right between current needs and keeping a close eye on the future. 

Look for the bright spots

If the 2008 financial crisis and the SARS outbreak in 2003 taught us anything, it would be that markets will recover, and sometimes faster than anticipated. 

Thompson said in a recent interview, “When we moved into this pandemic, there was very much a war for talent. There will be another war for talent on the way out. Companies will want to hire across all sectors. We’ve seen it in all past crises. It’s just a matter of when.” 

In the meantime, while companies hunker down to weather the storm, it is important to keep an eye out for opportunities in various markets — and there are bright spots to be had in the region for sure. Mainland China, for one, has been dealing with the pandemic longer than any other country in the world. However, the situation there has largely stabilised, with many businesses coming back online — an encouraging sign for others around the world. 

Andy Bentote, Regional Managing Director for Greater China at PageGroup, shared that though parts of China continue to reel from the pandemic, specific sectors are already on the rise. “Contracting, healthcare and digitalisation are areas that have seen good momentum, and we have since engaged new clients to work with in the road ahead,” he wrote in a Linkedin Pulse article. “As such, when it is your turn to recover — and it’s not a matter of if but when — it is critical to really identify the sectors that are most likely to experience the fastest rebound. It may not be the areas you expect.” 

Of course, for the time being, uncertainty is still top of mind for many businesses. Yet Wainwright refuses to give in. “Clearly, now is a worrying time for many. Yet, as long as the right precautions are being taken, it’s important that we continue to do what we do best,” she said. “In every situation, there is always a silver lining — so find yours. With patience and perseverance, the rest will in time take care of itself.” 

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