On October 16, AmCham China’s 21st Annual HR Conference took an in-depth look at the role of HR in this year 2020’s public health crisis, which has had a profound effect on the global economy, business operations, and people’s daily lives. The theme of the Conference, “Learn to Become Resilient Together”, focused on the innovative solutions that high-level executives, as well as HR professionals came up with to combat the unique challenges posed by the pandemic. Industry-leading multinational C-suite executives brought their own unique perspectives to the Conference, sharing stories of their own experiences during the pandemic, as well as best practices and advice for a relatively uncertain future.

Throughout the day, 200 attendees, both online and offline, representing more than 80 AmCham China member companies, had the opportunity to learn from highly engaging speakers and panel discussions that focused on company experiences during the pandemic from an HR perspective, and how these experiences could have a significant effect on the future of work. Speakers from Microsoft, USCET, ExxonMobil, Chipone, Pfizer, Schneider, and United Family Healthcare spoke on a wide range of topics, including the importance of leadership and management during challenging times, balancing efforts to manage business recovery and enhance employee experience, defining the future of work, and more.

Fostering Employee Engagement and Innovation

The first keynote speech of the Conference, made by Horace Chow, COO of Microsoft China, focused on improving company culture through behavioral analytics in order to foster innovation and employee engagement. Chow listed various challenges that companies have faced in 2020 when it comes to employee engagement, such as schedules being filled up with meetings, work hours falling outside of the traditional 9-to-5, and fewer face-to-face interactions due to technology, ultimately creating a lack transparency in a team. To avoid these challenges, Chow explained that companies must create an environment that “provides an easy way to communicate, collaborate, and be proactive,” by organizing schedules with additional brainstorming time and increasing smaller-scale or one-to-one team meetings.

Following this, Chow (pictured above) encouraged companies to take a workplace analytics approach to foster a better working environment. Data, Chow said, can “identify inefficient ways of working, cultivate the skills that are directly driving targeted outcomes, and harness the power of the organization through relationships.” Using this data, Microsoft came up with three steps that managers can take in order to develop their employees. The first is to become a model for all employees, instead of a teacher. The second action is to coach team members by listening to their targets and goals rather than increasing workplace pressure. Third, he stressed the importance of caring for your team and having empathy for both their personal and professional situations.

Chow ended his keynote speech with a quote from Satya Nadella, the CEO of Microsoft, “As a culture, we are moving from a group of people who know it all to a group of people who want to learn it all.” He explained that it is the learning culture that moves a company forward and encouraged everyone in the audience to always be curious.

Attracting Talent in a COVID-19 Shadowed World

Ambassador Julia Chang Bloch, the President of the US-China Education Trust (USCET) and the second keynote speaker of the day, joined the conference from her home in Washington DC via the LED screen (pictured below). In her speech, Chang Bloch explored how the state of recruitment has changed in 2020 and how businesses working in China need to adapt in order to attract top talent, both domestically and abroad.

Chang Bloch began her speech by highlighting all the significant changes that have dramatically affected the workforce over the last few years. “Economic globalization, the increasing international competitiveness, outsourcing of operations, generational shifts in the workplace, and the rate of technological change have already changed the world of work,” said Chang Bloch, all of which have accelerated even more during COVID-19. “I see HR’s role becoming even more important to business success, as redefining, growing, and attracting talents, particularly among the younger generations, will be more challenging and essential.” In 2025, Chang Bloch explained, millennials are predicted to make up 75% of the global workforce. This generational shift will force HR professionals to understand what this group cares about most, including social justice, inclusion, purpose, and value-oriented companies.

Not only must HR professionals become familiar with the younger generation, Chang Bloch continued, but they must also be prepared to deal with ongoing US-China tensions. “The political risks of doing business in China have risen and will continue to rise. If your company is not prepared, you are liable to fall victim to the public naming and shaming by members of the administration and Congress.” She advised companies to stay vigilant and pay attention to the US-China relationship, emphasizing that in order to remain steady during turbulent times, HR teams must focus on hiring the right people. “During times of stress and uncertainty, cultural agility, resilience, flexibility, and the ability to work cross-culturally may be what’s needed” said Chang Bloch.

She concluded by quoting a section of one of her speeches from 1997 when discussing a similar topic during a very different time: “To deal with the global future requires an understanding of the world beyond our borders. We need, ladies and gentlemen, to prepare ourselves as well as our children to see ourselves and our nations “from the outside in” – the way others see us – and thereby take our places in the global community.”

Innovating During Challenging Times

Following the two keynote speeches, Michelle Zhang, Head of Human Resources at Pfizer China, led a C-suite panel discussion to examine the successes and failures companies have witnessed during COVID-19, and how this has inspired innovation. Sitting on the panel was Fernando Vallina, Chairman of ExxonMobil China; Charise Le, Executive Vice President and Chief HR Officer of Schneider Electric; and Sylvia Pan, VP of United Family Healthcare and General Manager & CEO of Beijing United Family Hospital.

Vallina kicked off the discussion by offering a clear example of how the pandemic has accelerated innovation efforts at ExxonMobil. The HW3 (How and Where we work) model, Vallina explained, experiments with working from different locations and during non-traditional work hours in order to promote more flexibility in the workplace, and using tech to ensure continued productivity and collaboration. While only in the testing phase before the pandemic, this model was utilized effectively across the organization.

When asked to share best practices to continue engaging and connecting with employees during this stressful time, Pan focused on the importance of empathy. She described the hospital during the peak of the pandemic as a ship sailing in turbulent waters. The general managers and HR, Pan said, “cannot just point their fingers and tell people what to do, you have to be there with the team and help steer the boat”. She continues “It is so important for HR to work on the front lines and be there all the time with their team”.

Balancing Business Growth and Employee Support

The second panel discussion of the day was moderated by Charles Shao, Senior Client Partner at Korn Ferry. Sitting on the panel was Briana Graydon, Head of Human Resources at Johnson & Johnson China Enterprise Talent Initiatives; Gao Lin, Executive Coach, Trainer, Writer, and CEO of Message Coach; Melody Xu, Head of Human Resources at HP Inc. Greater China; and Vivian Liu, Head of Human Resources Greater China at Amazon Web Services.

Throughout the panel (pictured above), the concepts of business development and employee engagement became very much intertwined, with many of the panelists emphasizing that a business cannot grow if employees are not supported. Xu elaborated that in order to promote employee driven innovation, “We at HP make sure our employees feel empowered and inspired to be their better selves and realize their potential to do something more.” To do this, Xu explained that HP allows for flexibility in the workplace, gives employees creative freedom, and empowers people to drive their own purpose in order to create something inspiring and different.

Liu explained that HR needs to better understand what their employees’ needs are in order to provide them with adequate support. At Amazon, HR sends out a daily one-question employee satisfaction survey to all employees related to their individual experiences, as well as idea sharing on client support. With this data, Liu continued, “we can develop workable support for employees and allow our builders to continue to innovate during the COVID-19 period.” Graydon elaborated on this point, emphasizing that productive communication between leaders and their teams is necessary to promote employee experience, as well as business productivity. “At Johnson & Johnson, we are doing sentiment surveys and pulse checks with our employees to see if they have everything that they need, how they feel about where the business is projecting, how they feel about that future, and what emotions are going through their hearts and their minds. By collecting that information, we can then provide our leaders with the key information that will answer those questions,” said Graydon.

Liu concluded the second panel with a final takeaway: “Technology is not what makes us outstanding, it is people that really makes your company outstanding, different, and competitive. The mission for HR is to bring value and purpose to every individual job, because your people can make your company unique in this market.”

Redefining the Future of Work

For the final panel, moderator Annie Wang, HRVP of Bayer Greater China and Bayer Pharmaceutical Division, led a discussion on how COVID-19 has transformed the way we work and changed traditional mindsets surrounding how we manage and shape organizations. Jason Lu, President of Chipone Technology; Maria Yin, HR VP of Universal Beijing Theme Park & Resort; Rebecca Liu, Vice President for People and Organization at Mars Wrigley China; and Wang Yanping, General Manager of Public Affairs at LinkedIn China, all provided their perspectives on this topic.

An area of debate between panelists was how productive working from home really is and which industries or roles within companies benefit the most from this new workspace strategy.  Lu found that working from home brought many challenges for his team and was concerned that especially for companies where people need to work together to come up with innovative products, working from home will not be an option. Yin offered a different perspective, explaining that Universal leveraged technology to continue staff trainings, meetings, and idea sharing to achieve goals. The third perspective from Liu, who joined the conference over video call, acknowledged both sides of the argument. The future of work, she explained, “varies by industry. For some industries, people have to stick together to brainstorm. It must be a balance. It is not one-size-fits-all. As leaders, we have to change our mindset to allow individuals who deliver quality of work from home to do so, while at the same time making sure employees with roles better suited to a traditional working environment are going into the office.”

Closing the 21st HR Conference

To conclude the HR Conference, Gloria Xu (pictured speaking below), General Manager of Public & Government Affairs, Greater China of Dow Chemical Company and Vice Chair of AmCham China, as well as AmCham China President Alan Beebe gave their final remarks. One of Beebe’s key takeaways was “the emotional impact that COVID-19 has had on all of us, our families, and our colleagues. This has been, and continues to be, a very disruptive and personal experience. As HR and business leaders, this has reinforced the importance of what is behind the smile or the lack of a smile of individuals from across our organizations. There are so many various personal aspects of COVID-19 that are from our personal lives, but bleed into our professional lives.”

The 21st annual AmCham China Human Resources Conference was a resounding success. Executives, business leaders, and HR professionals gave unique insights into the challenges they faced during the pandemic, and the innovative solutions they used to adapt and grow. For their continued support, AmCham China would like to thank all of our generous sponsors who contributed to this event: Beijing United Family Hospital, Select-Share, Message Coach, GR Plaza, the University of Maryland, and Fesco.