Weathering the storm: How HR helped AirAsia through the pandemic

img-2324Aviation and travel were among the sectors hit hardest by the Covid-19 pandemic. Reports of retrenchment, reskilling, forced leave, salary cuts, and bankruptcy created a doom-and-gloom outlook for the sector.    

Intan Shahira Mohd Shahru, Head of People (Aviation) at Capital A (which is the holding company behind AirAsia), spoke with Chief of Staff Asia about how she and her team faced the challenges of Covid-19 when it happened, and how AirAsia is adapting to post-pandemic work practices.

Shahru joined AirAsia as Group Head of Talent and Rewards in 2018, but her greatest challenge came when Covid-19 hit. Moving to her current role in 2021 at the height of the pandemic, her mission has been to help the airline and its staff, known as “Allstars” internally, rise again victorious.

Read more in this series about Shahru’s organisational strategies, life in AirAsia, and her way with Allstars.    

Developing agility and skills

Shahru knew that AirAsia’s staff would have to respond quickly as the global recovery from Covid-19 continues.

“We realised that agility and a skill-based organisation are imperative to expand our people’s skill sets,” says Shahru. “They enable Allstars and the company to pivot and respond to changes quickly. We urge Allstars to upskill and learn from courses provided by the in-house AirAsia Academy in tech, leadership, and innovation.” 

She says: “Throughout the decades of our operations, we have seen numerous inspirational and exemplary transformations of junior staff members becoming pilots, aircraft engineers, and even C-level management. The sky is truly the limit. We’re proud to see our employees evolving and inspiring others.” 

Business was bleak during the pandemic, however, and Shahru says the airline saw Covid’s effects ripple through its supply chain. 

“To help our Allstars cope, we equipped them with many tools and resources to report Covid-19 cases, learn about work arrangements, and more,” says Shahru. “We aimed to reduce misinformation while assuring them that we prioritise their wellbeing and concerns.”

In 2020, AirAsia launched a programme with the digital health and wellness brand Naluri. Through an app, staff could access remote therapy, fitness, and financial coaching from dieticians, doctors, and pharmacists. More than 100 employees worldwide joined its six-week weight loss programme.

The Allstar Peer Support programme helped manage stress caused or aggravated by Covid-19. “We encouraged Allstars facing emotional, financial, work, or personal problems to ask for help,” says Shahru. “Our internal platforms have Peer Supporters to pick up requests and respond within 24 hours.” 

To jumpstart this programme, AirAsia recruited and trained 157 “Allstar Peer Supporters”. In 2020, hundreds of staff requested support, but as the immediate shock and severity of the pandemic wore off, the number of people requesting help dwindled to below half its initial volume in 2021. 

To help staff who needed urgent psychological or psychiatric support, AirAsia added Aareena Oasis, a professional mental health provider based in Malaysia, to its wellbeing network. 

Shahru says she is particularly happy with one of the healthy lifestyle initiatives that was already in place. The airline’s offices adopted a no-smoking policy in 2019, before the pandemic. “Smoking within 500 metres of office premises has been prohibited,” says Shahru. “I’m proud that many of our Allstars have since quit the habit.” 

AirAsia has implemented sustainable practices such as bringing cutlery and takeaway containers to work and reducing paper use where possible. The airline has also introduced a flexible work arrangement to reduce carbon emissions.

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Chief of Staff Asia