The new rules for managing a remote workforce, as well as their wellness and career development in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, were among the hot topics discussed by HR experts at the recent SHRM Edge conference in India that was held virtually.
Here are some of the top tips from discussions at that event.
Driving Innovation in WFH Is a Worry
A distributed workforce poses challenges in maintaining company culture and driving innovation, said Ajay Banga, CEO of Mastercard, a payments technology firm, in Purchase, N.Y.
“Keeping culture and values together … that’s going to be problem number 1, 2 and 3 in the future,” Banga said, in a conversation with Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., SHRM-SCP, the president and CEO of SHRM. A distributed workforce doesn’t lend itself to interactions that allow for the bouncing of ideas, or for creativity and innovation to flow, he said.
“It’s really hard to be innovative on Zoom,” Banga said, who expressed hope that augmented reality and artificial intelligence could help with this, but said he wasn’t sure these technologies are there yet.
“I still think human interaction is key, and I worry about that.” Banga added that CEOs are also feeling the stress of working from home. “Anybody who thinks it’s not stressful WFH [working from home] is living in a fool’s paradise,” he said.
What Changes Are Here to Stay?
Many of the workplace changes that have been triggered by the pandemic will become permanent, HR experts said.
“Organizations are not thinking about how we go back to the old, but rather how do we create a new normal,” said Vishpala Reddy, head HR, Indian SubContinent for Philips, an electronics and health technology-maker, in Gurgaon. Reddy listed some changes that she thinks will be permanent:
1. The greater use of technology and data by companies not only to make their operations more effective but also to raise their capability to innovate.
2. The hybrid work model, where people will be allowed to work from an office, home or anywhere.
3. “Gig” or project work will become a greater part of how organizations get work done.
4. Employee engagement and wellness, especially regarding employees’ safety and mental health, will remain paramount.
5. Leaders will move toward leadership styles where they operate “not just with the head but also with the heart,” Reddy said.
Mental Health Isn’t Someone Else’s Problem
Many HR professionals, when they hear the words “mental health” think that it affects someone else, but they are wrong, said Ashok Ramachandran, group executive president (HR) at conglomerate Aditya Birla Group in the Mumbai area. “Mood swings come in as part of mental health,” he said. “I feel good on one day, but feel down on another day. I’m anxious whether I’m being seen as a performer. I’m not sure if I’m being valued for what I am. I get angry faster, because I don’t think I am being understood.”
In short, “each of us goes through elements of these in various moments, and you can be senior or junior,” said Ramachandran. Once managers grasp this, they can help their employees handle stresses better, he said. To do that, managers must stay connected with employees and be real. Employees “don’t want you to give them the cock and bull story of how life is all fine, and how I’m here to motivate you. They need authenticity,” said Ramachandran.
What’s Needed from Leadership Today
Company leaders need to exhibit a combination of empathy, authenticity and vulnerability, and can discard the old leadership style where they are meant to know all the answers and can show the way, HR experts said.
“When the way is not clear, when things out there are hazy, when we are discovering as we go, then we need more tentativeness in the way we approach things,” said Geethaa George, executive vice president at HDFC Bank in the Mumbai area. This kind of leadership style will “naturally allow people to be equally vulnerable with you and walk with you in the journey,” she said.
Sumit Mitra, CEO for retailer Tesco in Bengaluru, said that leaders need to be prepared to run a sprint as well as a marathon: a sprint because customer needs and the environment are changing often, and a marathon to plan for the long-haul. To get this right, he said leaders need to empower their teams. “Don’t try and be a superman and try and do everything yourself,” he said.
Taking L&D to The Next Level
Many companies have shifted their classroom learning and development (L&D) programs to digital formats and think they’re prepared for the future. “That is not the trap we should get into,” said Yogesh Kumar Bhatt, executive vice president, StackRoute, a training firm, in Bengaluru.
Instead, the future is in tailoring L&D programs to the needs and motivations of employees, experts said. L&D programs should give employees “recommendations, like Amazon or Netflix, based on what you have been viewing or searching, and therefore build upon what you have done in the past,” said Vikramjeet Singh, CHRO, Bajaj Allianz General Insurance in Pune.
To personalize the learning experience, L&D professionals must understand what drives their learners, said Sudeep Ralhan, vice president, people, Walmart Global Tech India in Bengaluru. “That, to me, is the key to becoming truly learner-centric.”
Don’t stop after a training program is complete. Think of ways to ensure that the learning is put to use, Ralhan said.
“How do you provide performance support for something that you have learnt recently?” added Shraddhanjali Rao, vice president, HR at software firm SAP, in the Bengaluru area.
New Ways to Pay Employees
The world of work has changed, but organizations haven’t changed their compensation structures, said Fermin Diez, an HR veteran and deputy CEO for the National Council of Social Service in Singapore.
Diez shared several ideas on how companies can rethink compensation:
- Pay for Retention: This idea proposes that a portion of the variable pay be tied to retention rather than just performance. This ensures “you keep the people that you’ve brought on board,” Diez said.
- Pay for Development: Studies show that employees value growth, so companies can tie compensation to the acquisition of new skills or expertise. “We still have the traditional pay systems where pay goes up only as you become more managerial, and that isn’t the way a lot of people want to think about compensation today,” Diez said.
- Pay for Location: This idea has been made popular recently by technology companies that are saying they will allow workers to work from anywhere, but will adjust pay based on where employees live.
Employer Branding Is Happening Now
Though recruitment plans are on hold at many companies, employer branding and engagement should not be, experts said. Just like relationships between friends, engagement should be an ongoing conversation, rather than something to be done only when it’s time to recruit.
“I see that as a massive challenge for employer brands,” said Abhijit Bhaduri, founder of Abhijit Bhaduri & Associates, a talent management firm, in the Bengaluru area. How companies behave during the pandemic will go toward building their brand for future hires.
“When Gen Z job hunters apply for a job at your organization, one of the things they will look at is how did you … cope with COVID?” said Joey Uppal, director, global faculty network at Emeritus, an executive education firm, in Mumbai. Even companies that are letting go of employees can take steps to maintain their brand, said Joel Paul, general manager, Randstad RiseSmart India, an outplacement firm, in Pune.
One way is by helping the people being let go find opportunities for what else that they can do, Paul said. “That support system … will reinforce the brand of that organization.”
Shefali Anand is a New Delhi-based journalist and former correspondent for The Wall Street Journal. You can follow her on Twitter.