Business leaders across Asia have adapted business conversations and decision-making in the wake of COVID-19 workplace shifts.

Business leaders in Asia Pacific and Japan (APJ) have largely offset concerns about changed working conditions following the global COVID-19 pandemic by leaning more heavily on data to inform decision making, according to a new YouGov survey, commissioned by Tableau, titled Quality Conversations.

Some 95% of leaders in APJ listed at least one major issue they have experienced as part of workplace shifts in response to COVID-19, with 47% worried about their business’ ability to find solutions to problems, a little over a third (36%) saying poorly structured meetings were problematic, and 35% said a lack of data had hindered their conversations.

The study, which included responses from almost 2,000 business leaders from nine countries including Singapore, Japan and Australia, found almost a quarter (24%) of senior regional executives had seen a decline in discussion quality since the beginning of the pandemic – while 36% had experienced positive changes.

The Quality Conversations survey sought to examine how business leaders had adapted decision making and employee engagement since new public health measures and restrictions were introduced last year.

Other key findings include:

  • Regional businesses that increased data use were more than twice as likely to report positive change to workplace conversation (57%) during the COVID-19 pandemic, compared to those that have not (21%)
  • APJ leaders were also almost two times more likely than their counterparts elsewhere in the world to use data to improve workplace decision-making and communication – with local leaders in Singapore (52%) and Australia (54%) increasing their use of data significantly more than markets such as the United Kingdom (29%)
  • 79% of regional leaders say data delivers credibility in decision-making and drives attention to a topic.
  • While regional leaders understand the value of data, 52% cited the lack of data literacy as a barrier to decision-making.
  • Research found strong correlation between regional leaders who personally used data (52%) on a weekly basis at minimum, and overall business adoption (49%)

Role of data in creating quality conversations

Professor Donnel Briley, a social psychologist and Professor of Marketing at University of Sydney who provided commentary for the report said: “The shift to remote working has shown us how leaders simply can’t use the same set of tools in their toolbag to communicate anymore. But we’re also seeing leaders recognize how data creates a foundation of intelligence for important business discussions – more so in this region than anywhere else. Data will increasingly play a role in shaping such conversations.”

JY Pook, Senior Vice President and General Manager, APJ, Tableau, commented: “The importance of data has been a hot topic for a while now. Many leaders recognize the value in theory but are not intentional in weaving data into the fabric of their organizational culture…. In fact only 16% of leaders we spoke to use data analytics platforms on a daily basis to drive conversations.”

On the strong correlation between leaders who personally used data (52%) on a weekly basis at minimum, and overall business adoption (49%), Pook said: “It’s nearly a 1:1 ratio and this is not surprising. So until employees see executives making decisions with data, we can’t expect the wider business to do the same. It’s not just data that makes decisions, leaders do too!”

Jeremy Ong, CEO, Indonesia, CARRO – which is a Tableau user – shared some insights: “We lean on data across all aspects of the business. In brainstorms, data helps level the playing field for all to participate and removes bias. In performance reviews, it brings in the element of accountability and transparency – where an individual is assessed based on pre-agreed metrics instead of intuition.”

Ong added that there has never been a more important time in history to build trust among employees with data than now: “Senior leaders have a big part to play. For example, if management can present data on profitability based on facts, confidence and trust in the management’s abilities will grow. This has a knock-on effect on employee welfare, and ultimately, overall productivity.”

Data has a big part to play in organizational culture, he said. “With data at the center of conversations, issues can be raised and remediated based on facts instead of on gut feel.”

Tjen Chew Lee, Chief Financial Officer, Phoon Huat – one of Singapore’s leading food suppliers – said: “Last year, we expanded our brick-and-mortar presence online to make our baking supplies more accessible to customers during the pandemic. We also launched our omnichannel customer loyalty program to give us more insight into our customers’ online and offline shopping behaviors — data was central in this transition. It is now possible to engage with our customers on a more personalized level than before.”

Leslie Ong, Country Manager, Southeast Asia, Tableau, has this to say about the findings for Singapore: “Changing workplace conditions and the rising use of technology during the pandemic has paved the way for flatter team structures, allowing businesses in Singapore to respond to new challenges quickly.”

Data has the potential to level the playing field, he said. For instance, “everyone, including those in bank branches or retail stores can participate in the company’s decision-making process. Employees will also be more engaged as they feel empowered and valued by their organization.”