How COVID-19 made purpose and empathy the future of work

In this month’s Lunch at the Top, dtacblog asks dtac’s Chief People Officer Nardrerdee Arj-harnwongse about work’s next normal

  • COVID-19 accelerated the need for dtac’s transformation due to changing consumer habits
  • dtac is a pioneer in flexible work in Thailand, with thousands of employees working remotely.
  • dtac’s head of human resources says leaders must empower their teams with a strong purpose.

dtacblog’s Lunch at the Top series interviews top executives from dtac and Telenor to understand how they view telecommunications’ changing role in Thai society. But due to COVID-19, “lunch” has mostly been transformed into video calls. And no one is closer to such changes than Chief People Officer Nardrerdee Arj-harnwongse. As dtac’s head of human resources, she’s spearheaded the largest flexible work scheme in Thailand, with dtac announcing last year that remote work is here to stay indefinitely for all roles that allow it.

We spoke with Ms. Nardrerdee this January, just as Thailand was experiencing a second wave of COVID-19. The company headquarters had been maintaining a 30 percent occupancy level to enforce social distancing throughout the year but had just tightened rules to reduce it further.

LEADING IN A CRISIS

“The new normal impacts dtac in every way. dtac was already transforming. Just like other companies in this industry, we were facing disruption from digital players,” said Ms. Nardrerdee. “And now there’s COVID, which further changes the way of work. We need to rethink how we lead, the physical structure of offices, and how we care for employees. It is like a second wave of transformation. If we stay still, we will suffer the consequences. Our employees know we have to adapt.”

The pandemic’s impact is perhaps most visible on health and safety. dtac’s human resources department, dubbed the People Group, has managed unprecedented logistics to deliver hundreds of thousands of face masks and tens of thousands of liters of sanitizing gel to hundreds of dtac retail points throughout the country.

“Our mission is to keep employees safe and sound comes before everything else,” Ms. Nardrerdee explained. “Mobile connectivity is considered a critical service by the government. We can’t shut down operations. Even shops are expected to continue operating during lockdowns, as do banks. We balance our responsibility to Thai society and to our employee’s safety with an abundance of caution.”

dtac has had to adjust policies based on the various missions of its employees. Network engineers must continue to operate, sometimes even in COVID-19 hot zones, where they wear full personal protective equipment (PPE). Shops must defend themselves with temperature checks, acrylic partitions, masks, visors and hand sanitizer. The remaining employees are asked to stay home as much as they can.

“Even our call center agents were sent home, meaning we had to very rapidly equip them with new computers, home internet, and virtual private networks. For office employees, this is leading us to reinvent the office. We are bringing much more technology inside meeting rooms to bridge the gap between office and home,” she said.

LEADING CHANGE WITH PURPOSE

dtac’s revamped office, currently under construction, is set to open in April. But COVID-19 also transforms organizations in less visible ways. With employees working out of sight from their direct managers, what constitutes good leadership is being redefined.

“We are retraining our leaders to operate more as coaches and less as supervisors. They can’t see what their team is doing at home. So they need to be very clear on the ambitions and targets. And then they need to empower their teams to work on those ambitions flexibly. Finally, leaders need to be very precise on measuring outcomes against their targets. This is what we call ‘tight-loose-tight’ leadership,” Ms. Nardrerdee explained.

The change is also in reaction to changing customer expectations. Redemption of online privileges from dtac Reward quadrupled in 2020, and usage of the dtac app by prepaid users doubled.

“We have to be positive about change, although our nature is to resist and fear it,” Ms. Nardrerdee replied. “dtac supports our people to upskill, reskill and design their future roles so that they can get ready for tomorrow. But it’s a mutual responsibility. While dtac gives you the opportunity, you have to be open to it.”

dtac also has a bold efficiency agenda. The company announced that is aims to automate 100 percent of repetitive, rule-based processes in the organization by 2023. But this can also create anxiety among employees about redundancies.

“Every time we mention automation or simplification, people feel uncomfortable and intimidated and afraid of losing their jobs,” Ms. Nardrerdee commented. “But at the same time, many people feel that we have more work than we can deliver. Simplifying, automating and digitizing are also for ourselves. Why waste time on low-value work? The people who engage with these improvements, they’ll benefit.”

dtac must also content with a diverse workforce. The company has 30-year veterans in its ranks working alongside Gen Zs. And with the Norway-based Telenor group as a strategic partner, dtac House is home to many nationalities from Asia and Europe.

“dtac does well on diversity, with 68 percent of us being women. We treat people equally. We don’t discriminate based on gender, age, disability or religion. We even have six-month maternity leave, to allow women to continue their career when they have children. But we want that to be better reflected in senior ranks, where men are still the majority. There’s always more we can do,” Ms. Nardrerdee said.

The “Chief People Officer” also points out that Gen Z have different needs compared to their predecessors. Rather than just seeking job security, they prioritize their need for purpose.

“We have to be relevant to them. And COVID-19 has been a reminder that we don’t just sell SIM cards. We provide an essential service, connectivity, that supports society,” she said. “If you’re looking to work in an industry with purpose and a nationwide impact, then dtac is a good place to start.”