by Zafar Anjum

How Southeast Asian CIOs are embracing the hybrid workplace and hybrid workforce

May 26, 2021
Remote Work

Remote work was just one part of the new approach to digitalisation that the pandemic has boosted across the region.

The COVID-19 pandemic has had twin effects on the workforce globally: One, it has accelerated the transition to remote working and the hybrid workplace. Two, it has catalysed the faster adoption of a hybrid (human plus digital) workforce.

“At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, enterprises in Southeast Asia were scrambling to ensure business continuity while implementing work-at-home policies,” said Sherrel Roche, an Asia-Pacific IT analyst at Frost & Sullivan. “This was more pronounced in the Philippines, Indonesia, and Thailand. Enterprises were under immense pressure to provide efficient customer services during the pandemic while simultaneously exploring digital solutions. Enterprises were overwhelmed as their day-to-day operations were disrupted and their business-continuity plans were tested.”

“We are looking at a prolonged period of hybrid working—from home and office in different proportions,” said Indranil Roy, executive director of the Human Capital practice at Deloitte Consulting.

Some companies adapted quickly, such as Singapore’s DBS Bank. When the pandemic started, because of their early adoption of the cloud- and mobility-first strategy, the bank’s employees were able to immediately transition to home-based working arrangements with no productivity loss. Likewise, AcePLP, a Singapore engineering consultancy, shifted from its traditional face-to-face courses to an online learning platform to enhance the skills of its employees. “Remote working is reshaping the future of learning; it forces technology-averse executives and employees to adapt and equip with digital workflows and skills,” said Ivan Tang, operations manager at AcePLP.

But the hybrid workplace is just part of the shift under way. The hybrid workforce is also emerging, combining digitally savvy people and automation systems such as chatbots and robotic process automation augmented with artificial intelligence that do work people used to do, as well as new kinds of work. The hybrid workforce will be found in all realms of business, said Sneha Kapoor, an Asia-Pacific research manager at analyst firm IDC Financial Insights.

“Intelligent automation is capable of augmenting and automating work while building opportunities to achieve new value within organizations. Front-office automation will accelerate further,” she said. “We are also seeing increasing adoption of shiny new features, such as process mining, process discovery, digital assistants, and bot resilience and health.”

“With Asia being the first region to experience the changes necessitated by the pandemic, hybrid workplaces have been readily embraced by Southeast Asian businesses,” said Sukhbir Sandhu, senior sales director for ASEAN at virtualisation vendor Citrix Systems. “Naturally, the transition to a hybrid model is more straightforward for knowledge workers as the tools required in such roles will be more accessible, digitally enabled, and are easily available.”

But hybrid work may not be as feasible for workers whose jobs involve high levels of human interaction or require physical access to precision tools, such as frontline healthcare workers and laboratory professionals, Sandhu said. “That said, thanks to the recent advances made in workplace technology, hybrid work models are gaining traction in these sectors, such as the healthcare industry which is benefiting from the rapid adoption of telemedicine and e-health.”

Southeast Asia is following two tracks for recovery scenarios in 2021, said Gavin Tay, a Gartner analyst. “The emerging economies such as Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Thailand) versus mature economies such as Singapore demand different approaches for CIOs operating across the region.”

Southeast Asia is not a monolith, with widespread unevenness in the mix of jobs and the internet infrastructure across the region. “Enterprises across Southeast Asia are embarking on their digital transformation journey. However, enterprises in Singapore are further along their digital journey, while enterprises in Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, and Philippines are gradually progressing,” Roche said.

But the pandemic may have helped businesses in less-developed countries because of the requirements to modernise to stay in business during the COVID-19 lockdowns. The pause in the region’s notoriously congested traffic as people worked remotely reinforced that the old work patterns were unsustainable. CIOs, governments, and providers alike redoubled their efforts to enable reliable telecommunications and internet access, Tay said, from improving the broadband networks to rethinking data-centre connectivity agreements.

Enterprises in Singapore and Malaysia were quick to implement remote work and address the changing workforce preferences to retain and attract talent, Frost & Sullivan’s Roche said. In the Philippines, the customer service and contact centre outsourcing services industry had to quickly move employees to a work-at-home environment within weeks while addressing infrastructure inadequacy and network stability and ensuring service quality and client data security, she said.

Tay said 85% of all Southeast Asian CIOs reported that relationships with their CEOs were strengthened during the pandemic, and 92% of Southeast Asian CIOs report that they saw an increase in requests for “higher value, strategic things” from business leaders.

Roche said that enterprises in the region are adapting to new ways of working and are expediting their investments in advanced video conferencing, automation, artificial intelligence, workforce optimization solutions, intelligent self-service tools, chatbots, and cloud technologies to augment their workforce and deliver continued services. She sees enterprises partnering with ICT service providers “to reimagine solutions by combining next-generation technologies with the human element to deliver business value.”

As a result of these forces and actions, Southeast Asian CIOs are now closer to a level playing field. And in many cases a pivot towards a distributed workforce has become the default—“a natural next step”, Tay said. Roche concurred: “The hybrid workforce will be the status quo in the near future,” Roche said.