With the announcement of the latest Economic Stimulus Package by the Prime Minister on 27 March to tide Malaysians over as we battle Covid-19, the SME sector in particular was left holding the short end of a very thin rope.

Can we take a step back and understand the impact the Movement Control Order (MCO) and the lopsided economic stimulus package on SME workforce?

On the whole, the SME sector has always had a hard fight to garner the best talent.  So, when we do find them, we work hard to retain them – offering competitive packages, a flexible work environment and job security for those who make the cut. The bottom line is that companies need good talent, so we work hard to build our portfolio to attract the best fit for us. I speak for my agency here – if we have a role that allows you to work from home (WFH), count your lucky stars.

No one expected this…PERIOD!

As front-liners, policymakers and the pharmaceutical industry battle to stop the spread and find a cure for this deadly disease, companies are fighting their own battles – finding ways to stay afloat with cost-cutting measures, in the short and long term.

In countries with mature and clued-in governments, immediate solid plans have been put in place to mitigate the burden of business owners and unemployment among the working populace due to drastic lockdowns or movement control orders. In Denmark, for example, a 3-month scheme was put in place, whereby the government covers 75% of the monthly salaries of employees who would otherwise have to be let go, with companies paying the remaining 25%.  While in Australia, the JobKeeper Payment programme allows employers to claim a fortnightly payment of AUD1,500 per eligible employee for 6 months beginning 30 March.   It should be mentioned, though, that Danes pay one the highest overall tax rates in the world, but it is great to see the Danish and Australian government using the tax income for the right segment at this time.

No alt text provided for this image

Published by The Star on 28 March 2020

In Malaysia, the government provisioned a measly RM600 salary subsidy (coupled with legal scare tactics), in a barely sufficient effort for companies to keep staff on during the MCO.   This is a mere 50% of the Minimum Wage Order 2020 that came into effect on 1 February 2020.   The ‘stimulus package for everyone’ certainly left out the majority of taxpayers and undervalued the contribution of SMEs to employment and the economy.  To understand your rights as an employer do read the opinion of Advocate & Solicitor  Su Tiang Joo as published by the Malaysian Bar.

“There is no law as it stands that provides the Minister with the power to impose liability on the employer to pay wages for work not done and which could not be done through no fault of the employer”. Su Tiang Joo, Advocate & Solicitor, Cheah, Teh & Su

However, let’s keep legalities out of the equation.   This unprecedented situation needs firm leadership and if it’s not coming from policy makers then business leaders have to take care of their own, #kitajagakita.

How do I live without you?

Business owners have hard decisions to make at this time, beyond MCOs and legalities. Are they making the best possible choices? For an organisation like ours, a WFH situation is nothing new. We have offered that flexibility to employees from time-to-time. Used productively, it’s actually a good solution. As we enter the second phase of this MCO, let us look at how we manage our greatest assets – our talent, as we stay apart to stay together.

There are a number of lessons that we have been forced to learn from this situation:

1.     Readiness – weeks before the actual MCO was ordered, we had looked at the global trends and discussed solutions that were right for us. When the time came and the announcement was finally made, our senior management had a face-to-face with the entire team to discuss everything from SOPs to health insurance.

2.     Keeping BAU – with the unprecedented situation, keep a sense of normality. From simple to-do lists, calls to catch up and weekly WIPs, all these are ways to keep the flame alive. Being cooped up at home 24×7 with the family, kids and your spouse, the situation is certainly different, but weekly morning meetings can help you focus and complete work tasks effectively. Apart from WIPs with your immediate team, arrange conference calls with clients to keep things going.

3.     Be their North Star – it is easy to lose the plot, especially when there is a lot of negativity floating about. With businesses unable to sustain, and news of job losses across the globe, the struggle is real. Your team needs to know where you stand. No one expects you to be a bleeding heart – but listen, understand and now more than ever, communicate. Also keep your employees abreast with policies – be it government or corporate.

4.     Accountability – a two-way street (or three-way if you count clients), so ensure that extra effort is made in communicating with your stakeholders. This does not mean hourly check-ins, but a heads-up when work is done or a message to say that ‘you’ve got mail’. Let’s face it, no one is staring at their computers all day. This is also a good opportunity to review plans and start thinking out of the box.

5.     Respect – if you are at work, lunch is lunch and the end of the work day is the end of the work day, and most importantly, weekends are weekends. If things can wait, it just should. The biggest lesson this MCO has taught is to slow down and evaluate what is important.

6.     Be Real – the struggle of day-to-day work is now coupled with uncertainty, do not ignore that rent has to be paid and food has to be put on the table.  While we discuss work and deadlines, check-up on your team to see how they are coping.

When companies get back to the rat race, there will be a lot of procedures and roles to be re-evaluated. The way we do business and the way we manage our talent will never be the same again. Sacrifices will have to be made all around. Now is the time to set challenges for your biggest assets and see who will rise to the occasion. You never know – you may just find what you never knew you were looking for.  If you have talent strategy in place , or even if you do not – this would be a good time to evaluate.