India: What HR Is Grappling with on Hybrid Work Models

Global HR

As the omicron variant of the coronavirus continues to impact employers’ plans to reopen their offices in India to all staff members, many organizations are moving ahead with making hybrid work a part of their structure even after the pandemic ends. But HR leaders say many issues still need to be resolved before organizations can arrive at an ideal long-term hybrid workplace model.

“How to engage, how to motivate, how to establish clear objectives, how to measure work and its output and success—all that is still being learned,” said Yash Mahadik, president of global HR and co-lead of the business transformation office at Lupin Global, a pharmaceutical maker in Mumbai.

Mahadik was speaking at a panel on hybrid work at SHRM India’s annual conference recently. Mahadik said Lupin is conducting a pilot program in which 20 percent to 30 percent of its office-based staff is working from home.

“Through this pilot, we’re learning a lot of things,” he noted.

At the conference, HR leaders shared key issues they’re grappling with as they try to figure out the ideal hybrid model.

Readiness of People Managers

Line managers have coped with the pandemic-induced hybrid workplace out of necessity, but are they ready for a permanent hybrid workplace? That remains to be seen, HR experts said.

“My worry is always the readiness of managers to look at hybrid as a successful model,” said Leena Sahijwani, vice president of group HR at Indian conglomerate Tata Group in Mumbai. She said that managers typically tend to allocate work to people who are sitting right across from them, which means that employees who aren’t in the office lose out.

“While all of us were working from home, it worked OK, but when you start coming with a hybrid model, these are challenges I don’t think we are ready for yet,” she said.

HR experts agreed that organizations need managers who can lead virtual teams and connect with their team members. 

Measuring Productivity

Business leaders remain divided on whether employees are equally productive when working from home. One study of 10,000 remote workers at an information technology services company in Asia showed that they had lower productivity compared to when they were working in the office. However, many business leaders say remote workers have been equally or more productive.

“The way we measure productivity has become less biased when everyone is working from home,” said Sashi Kumar, India head for Indeed, a global jobs website in Bengaluru.

However, when some of the staff is in the office and the rest is at home, it raises questions about how to measure productivity objectively, especially in roles for which the output is not quantifiable. Some managers may be inclined to believe that workers in the office are more productive and that those working from home are slacking off.

Some companies have taken steps to track employees’ activity when they are not in the office. At Bharti Axa Life Insurance Co., for instance, meetings of the field sales team are now tracked and monitored, said Jai Balan, head of HR in Mumbai. “These are things we were not doing in the past,” he said.

Ultimately, however, a long-term hybrid model can only work if there is trust.

“We have to trust our people to do things which are right for the organization, right for themselves [and] right for teams,” said Dependra Mathur, senior vice president and global head of HR development at Infosys BPM, an outsourcing firm in Bengaluru.

Logistics in a Hybrid Workplace

The sheer logistics of a long-term hybrid workplace are also up for discussion. For example, what happens if an employee’s base location is in Mumbai, but while she is working remotely from her hometown in Kanpur, 800 miles away, the manager calls for an onsite team meeting in Mumbai?

“Who pays the airfare?” asked Smriti Ahuja, chief people officer at Times Internet, an Internet technology company in Delhi.

Multiply a similar situation with several employees over a period of time and the expenses add up. “Who is going to bear the cost?” Ahuja asked. She added that even raising these questions is tricky without being branded as a company that isn’t employee-friendly.

Engagement and Culture-Building

Although organizations have tried several initiatives to connect with employees who are working remotely, leaders aren’t convinced they’ve found a perfect solution.

“Engaging with employees who are not going to be on premises is still not where it should be,” said Syed Azfar Hussain, senior vice president of HR at Bajaj Finserv, a financial services company in Mumbai. One risk is that with some employees working from home and the rest in the office, an organization could end up having different cultures among its staff.

To build culture in a hybrid world, organizations need to get comfortable with the “phygital” concept, said Manu Wadhwa, CHRO of Sony Pictures Networks India, a media and entertainment company in Mumbai. She gave the example of how, during the pandemic, Sony organized a virtual celebration to commemorate a company anniversary. Employees’ family members were able to join the event, which was a first.

“That’s how culture is getting built,” Wadhwa said.

Compensation for Remote Workers

While some companies like Facebook have indicated that they will pay different salaries based on the location of the employee, HR experts in India aren’t convinced that’s the way to go. Some said that compensation should be based on output and performance regardless of where the person is physically based. One HR leader suggested that those working from home should be paid higher.

“The fact is that they’re giving up a lot of their personal time,” Ahuja said.

Hybrid Rewards and Recognition

Like other aspects of employee life, rewards and recognition have also moved to online platforms, but how to handle them effectively remains a question. As part of “hybrid recognition,” there needs to be a balance between immediate recognition, which should be done close to the occurrence that is being recognized, and recognition via a more important platform when warranted, said Mridula Shukla Varghese, director of talent practice for the Indian subcontinent at Procter & Gamble, a consumer goods company in Mumbai.

Goodyear Tire & Rubber HR director Vishal Dhingra in Gurgaon said the company has instituted an instant online recognition program that sends “thank you” e-cards to deserving employees. Goodyear also continues to have town hall events in physical locations during which monetary rewards are given out in front of employees’ peers, as well as quarterly companywide meetings.

“Initiatives which are slightly bigger in impact are recognized there,” Dhingra said.

Some organizations like software maker Infogain have invited the family members of employees to participate in online recognition programs, according to Rajiv Naithani, the company’s chief people officer in Noida.

“It’s so easy to bring the family together and make them feel part of the inclusive organization,” he said.

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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