The lens of optimism in a pandemic-fatigued workforce

Updated: Mar 11

INTERVIEW: No wonder Aileen Tan embraces positivity. Her HR management mantra is the same often quoted by comedian Tina Fey: “Being a good boss means hiring talented people, and then getting out of their way”.

As the Chief HR Officer for AIA Singapore, Tan is also a staunch supporter of human capital development and specialises in succession planning and organisational and performance management. Speaking in this exclusive interview with Chief of Staff Asia, she says companies must prioritise optimism within their workforces, to empower employees, and drive inclusivity, connectivity, and accessibility.

This has been particularly important over the last two years, which Tan says have had an unparalleled impact on employees. Amidst the emotional strain, and the physical exhaustion that has invaded workplaces with the pandemic, she says optimism is key to stronger resilience across employees, and it is this positive mindset that has proved a particularly effective coping mechanism for AIA Singapore.

Optimism in the workplace

COS Asia: Why is AIA Singapore prioritising optimism within its workforce?

Aileen Tan: There is a saying, “misery loves company”. These days, it is easy to go down a slippery slope into the abyss and think everything is doom and gloom. It is about perspective and how you see the positive things in every crisis.

At AIA Singapore, we continuously prioritise our employees’ wellbeing and equip them with the necessary tools and support for their personal and work challenges. Optimism is about one’s mental wellbeing and the ability to be more resilient, unfazed by hurdles.

This links to AIA’s overall brand promise of (enabling) healthier, longer, and better lives.

COS Asia: The pull of pessimism has been unprecedented during this time. How has AIA sought to counter this force?

Tan: In 2021, we introduced many initiatives and activities for our employees. Our Microsoft Teams (video conferencing tool) has never been more active than in the past year!

We had everything virtual: Employee Townhalls, coffee sessions with our CEO Wong Sze Keed, getting to know our senior leaders, and talks by external speakers. This created many communication touchpoints between the management and the employees.

Wong certainly exemplifies optimism and belief in the strength of the human spirit. Long before it was fashionable to talk about mental health, she has been talking about it in alignment with AIA’s brand promise. We have not been remiss in making our employees feel that the company cares for their health.

At the start of the pandemic, we gave each staff SGD1,000 as work-from-home support, sent antigen rapid test kits, and activated a “reset day” option each week for self-learning or wellness activities.

COS Asia: What grade would you give AIA in terms of optimism?

Tan: I would grade us an “A” for transforming the workplace at the speed at which we did.

Mobilising the entire workforce to work remotely had no playbook for reference. This has given me a level of optimism I probably would not have previously imagined. Now, I see that anything is possible despite the last two years being unforgettable and unprecedented.

The HR vertical has never been more at the forefront. The intersection between people and working in the “new normal” has created an opportunity for HR to help the organisation. Our people thrive in a landscape where colleagues from various functions work to help in ensuring the health, safety, and wellbeing of our customers and employees.

In the past, we had probably taken some things for granted. Getting to a grade of “A+” would mean articulating and connecting initiatives for the employees to experience thriving in the workplace. It drives work to be more human-centric.

COS Asia: Tell us about the four drivers of effective optimism that are in play at AIA.

Tan: Optimism helps us look at situations, events, and people through a lens of positivity. In AIA Singapore, the team unites to overcome challenges, achieve great things, and encourage colleagues through difficult times.

Leadership influences a variety of things that contribute to people’s optimism “wells”, including:

  • Recognising and celebrating our people: Their strengths, contributions, talents, and efforts;

  • Constant communication: Sharing the company’s vision, accomplishments, what else is in store for everyone; both the good and the bad news;

  • Making work arrangements flexible: Enabling effective work arrangements for productivity; and

  • Empowering employees: Shaping the ways of working so that everyone knows that they are empowered and trusted to make decisions, speak up, contribute ideas, and share perspectives.

COS Asia: How easily can the natural worriers in the workplace adapt to this optimistic mindset?

Tan: I think everyone must play a part in creating an environment that allows optimism to flourish. It can be done through a mix of communication campaigns, performance reviews, rewards, and role-modeling by formal and informal leaders.

This feature was extracted from Chief of Staff Asia's exclusive interview with Aileen Tan, AIA Singapore’s chief HR officer. For further coverage please see any of the below links:

The lens of optimism in a pandemic-fatigued workforce

Aileen Tan: AIA’s longevity and productivity secrets

Leading by empowering for a better workplace and society

Getting to know: Aileen Tan, Chief HR Officer, AIA Singapore

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