7 Key Trends from the SHRM India Annual Conference 21

Global HR

​The role of HR professionals has evolved significantly amid the COVID-19 pandemic, but more change is expected in the year ahead, according to HR experts speaking at the recent SHRM India Annual Conference 21, held virtually.

Whether hiring new employees or implementing an organization’s learning and development program, all HR functions need to be seen through a fresh lens, experts recommended. At the same time, HR should foster empathy within the organization.

Anyone can learn how to read a spreadsheet, but “the soft things, human capital, is the hard thing to do,” said Dave Ulrich, director of the HR executive program at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business in Ann Arbor, Mich.

Here are seven key learnings from the conference:

HR’s Role as an Architect

Today’s HR professionals should see themselves as architects, Ulrich said, noting, “I think we can architect work experience, job assignments [and] education” to propel employees’ careers. 

Line managers should be seen as builders who help implement the organization’s grand vision. HR professionals act as architects; line managers make it happen, Ulrich said, who added that managers should tell employees “to act rather than be acted upon.”

Ultimately, however, employees have to work toward their own growth and take ownership to upskill and reskill themselves, he said. “We’ll give you the opportunity, we’ll do everything in our power to make this work for you, but you’ve got to step up.”

Making the Right Choice on Tech

As organizations look to implement new technologies in this increasingly tech-dependent world, it’s important to think through the goals the organization wants to achieve.

“Maybe 20 things seem great to have, but are they really required for your organization?” asked Cecilia Azavedo, head of HR business partners at Biocon Biologics, a biopharmaceutical firm. “Being sharp, knowing what you want from the technology is what will help you and the user of that technology,” she said.

Sometimes leaders make the mistake of focusing on the technology rather than the desired results. “If you are trying to drive performance management, then the appraisal system should not be your focus. … The outcome of it should be the focus,” said Ramanand Puttige, senior vice president and head of global talent management at Cyient, an engineering, manufacturing and digital technology solutions firm in Hyderabad, India.

An ideal technology is one that doesn’t create disruption for employees when rolled out. “The less visible it is, the better it is,” Puttige said.

Bringing Employees Back to Work

As companies in India make plans to bring staff back to a physical workplace, one of the biggest challenges is the potential awkwardness of employees meeting in person after a long time working remotely.

“We’ve had a lot of organizations and leadership come up to us to say: ‘Look, we are finally coming back into the offline world. … Can you help bring us back into the room?’ ” said Eika Chaturvedi Banerjee, founder and CEO of Eikam, a coaching firm in Mumbai. Banerjee said organizations want help to break the ice and take away the awkwardness as leaders reintegrate the workforce.

“The human connect, the soft aspect, is lost,” Banerjee said. She noted that the pandemic has accelerated technology adoption, and technologies that were once at a premium are now readily available. Now “human engagement is at a premium,” she said.

What Businesses Want from HR

HR has been a key advisor to business amid the COVID-19 pandemic, but in order to add more value, it must step up the pace of execution on all fronts, including hiring, communication and employee engagement, said Shray Mehandiratta, director of finance, planning & information systems at IPM India, a Delhi-based joint venture of Philip Morris brands Sarl and two Indian entities.

“If we align our speed with the sales and marketing function, I will truly feel that HR has really transformed,” Mehandiratta said. He explained that HR professionals should take an “outside in” approach in which they look to understand the customer’s needs, assess the talent that is required to meet those needs, identify the talent available in the market and plan what can be done to develop talent internally.

“It’s all about a proactive versus a reactive approach,” Mehandiratta said.

Making Financial Guidance Part of a Wellness Plan

Employee wellness has gained importance since the pandemic began, but not many companies in India are educating employees on their financial wellness, experts said. This is even more important now as the pandemic has resulted in higher health care bills and other financial stresses for many. Such stress impacts productivity and employee morale and consequently “has a huge cost that the organization will bear,” said Sanjay Muthal, CEO of Kontempore Leadership & Business Solutions, a consulting firm in Mumbai.

Even without the added strain of the pandemic, many employees in India find it difficult to make ends meet. Around 80 percent of employees run out of money before the next payday, said Chitresh Sharma, CEO and co-founder of Bengaluru-based Refyne, a financial product company that conducted a survey of employees.

To resolve this cash crunch, companies could pay salaries more frequently than just once a month, as is the norm in India, said panel members. Offering employees the option to access their wages before payday would also help.

“Financial wellness has become a key ingredient of providing employee wellness,” said Manuel D’Souza, former CHRO for Intelenet Global Services, an outsourcing firm in Mumbai.

What’s Changing in Hiring

With the fast pace at which the needs of businesses are changing, the shelf life of skills is getting shorter, said Anjali Raghuvanshi, chief people officer at Randstad India, a placement agency in Bengaluru. Against this backdrop, rather than looking only for certain technical skills among job candidates, recruiters are looking for individuals who are curious to learn and know how to apply that learning to varied situations.

“Organizations are talking about hiring for learning agility,” Raghuvanshi said.

HR experts agree that other traditional ways of hiring also need to be reassessed. For instance, resumes are still being screened manually by recruiters and hiring managers, but that may not give a full picture of the candidate’s knowledge.

“We need to look at what are the experiences that a person has garnered,” said Dhanashree Thakkar, vice president and head of corporate HR and organizational development at Bharti AXA Life Insurance in Mumbai.

To assess candidates, HR should consider leveraging new tools, such as simulations, said Carmistha Mitra, group chief learning officer at Axis Bank & Subsidiaries. 

Prepare for a More Complex Workforce

As the Indian economy grows and companies expand their presence in smaller towns and even rural communities, organizations can expect to hire more employees from different socioeconomic backgrounds who speak several languages and are spread over different geographical areas.

“Being able to engage with a more complex and heterogenous workforce is something that organizations will have to strive for,” said Syed Azfar Hussain, senior vice president of HR at Bajaj Finserv, a financial services firm in Mumbai.

While planning their future workforce, organizations will also have to think about how to integrate robots and artificial intelligence with the work of human employees. “How do you manage that dual stream of contribution?” Hussain said. “That’s a big area of focus.”

Shefali Anand is a New Delhi-based journalist and former correspondent for The Wall Street Journal. You can follow her on Twitter.

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