HR Challenges Before Organizations Post Covid

HR Challenges Before Organizations Post Covid

What are the HR challenges before organizations in the post lockdown situation?” I asked this question to a group of eminent HR Leaders, and sought their permission to publish their response. Different perspectives of these thinkers enrich our understanding of the situation. My gratitude to the six HR leaders and thinkers for sharing their thoughts, which I present. (The feature pic, courtesy Pixabay, denotes hidden potential (we have to overcome challenges)).

Judhajit Das and Alok Sheopurkar represent the BFSI, Dipak Gadekar, Vikas Shirodkar and Sharad Gangal represent the Manufacturing, and Sudheesh Venkatesh represents the NGO space. It is also important to note that they have not restricted themselves to their sector or organization. This makes their views even more valuable. Note: All responses are published as received and are unedited.

Alok Sheopurkar Executive Vice President and Head HR, HDFC AMC

India has gone through 76 days of lockdown as I sit back and contemplate all that has transpired, and the challenges that lie ahead as we slowly try to restore normalcy. The human toll observed in this period is heart-breaking. The absence of any vaccine or readily available medication makes recovery even more difficult. This in itself leads to three very specific HR challenges that need to be addressed immediately and with firmness, and due sensitivity.

1. HR Technology

While we reopen in a staggered manner, Work from home is going to continue in the foreseeable future.

Alok Sheopurkar

The one big HR technology challenge is how do we ensure that HR technology provides all the support that an employee or teams can normally expect at work, including seamless integration of Work from Home into the mix. Organizations will be required to adopt technologies providing interactive digital workspaces for teams, learning, and engagement in addition to the basic HRMS functions. Security of HR systems, processes operating digitally will also require greater scrutiny to prevent loss of employee or customer information.

2. Workforce assessment

A pandemic and an economic crisis is a reset that significantly changes reality. Workforce assessments are required to be be carried out understand if the right skills are present, for e.g one may find the need to hire additional resources in digital teams. From a productivity and efficiency perspective, rightsizing and realignment of the workforce specially those in customer facing roles will be required as footfalls are unlikely to go back to pre covid 19 levels and digital transactions increase. 

This includes the structure and setup of the HR function itself, which can potentially be decentralized to improve resilience and costs when coupled with a good HR technology platform.

However, most organizations will struggle to do this correctly so it does not impact the gains made in workforce diversity.

3. Employer of choice

The pandemic has shifted attention from teams to the individual. The pandemic has made us all painfully aware that risk is borne by an individual and aversion to risk is at an all-time high.

Jobs that have extensive travel as component may not be found desirable. Shift based working in the absence of supportive practices (e.g onsite subsidized catering, company transport) may also tilt employees away from jobs. Employee willingness to relocate may also decline.

Organizations will be required to rethink what they offer to individuals and will be required to tailor their bouquet of work conditions, compensation and  benefits to accommodate far more individual preferences in order to remain an employer of choice.

Judhajit Das Chief – Human Resources, ICICI Pru and former President, Mumbai Chapter of NHRDN

I.        Employee Health, Safety and Productivity

Physical Health: Ensuring the physical health & safety of employees at work has clearly emerged as the #1 business priority. HR has a very important role to play in ensuring that workplaces conform to highest standards of sanitation, hygiene and safety and also in ensuring that employees stringently adhere to laid down protocols in the interest of public and customer health & safety. Employees will be expected to self-monitor their health status, maintain social distancing norms and follow high standards of personal & public hygiene.

Mental Health: Due to the COVID pandemic, employees and their family members have reported higher levels of anxiety and depression and organizations have tried to address the same through tie-up’s with counseling centers. Also, whilst several organizations especially in the services space who don’t need direct physical interactions with customers have transitioned to a 100% work from home (WFH) mode, the impact of WFH on mental health and productivity is yet to be well understood. Not all employees have access to privacy at their residence and WFH may hence not suit everyone. Human beings are social animals and physical interactions act as stimulus for collaboration and innovation apart from satisfying belongingness needs. 100% WFH is likely to have detrimental impact on work relationships thereby adversely impacting productivity.

Judhajit Das

A sharper focus on employee wellness including mental health is emerging as a key need. Tele-consultation with doctors, tele-counselling with qualified mental health professionals, enabling policies that help employees manage their healthcare and wellness needs along with the option to work from home are likely to help people balance their lives and become more productive.  Organizations that demonstrate sensitivity & commitment to the overall well-being of their employees will succeed in securing higher levels of employee commitment which in turn will lead to a virtuous cycle of growth and productivity improvement. 

II.       Workplace re-design: HR will need to re-imagine and re-design the physical workspace in a manner that balances productivity and employee safety. Use of technology to connect devices and solutions using IoT/sensors to ensure contact free access are likely to gain popularity. WFH, hot seating and rostering to come to work are likely to become norms.

III.      Employee experience: Digital adoption is clearly accelerating and continuous improvement in technologies will enable HR to re-design & re-configure processes that strike the optimal balance between real life social engagement and digital self -service options for delivering superior employee experience. Technology helps to deliver a 360 degree experience along the employee life cycle. Effective digital on-boarding and learning solutions for new and existing employees will be essential for building capability and improving productivity. Digital engagement solutions, mobile first applications that offer social learning opportunities, real time surveys that help track employee morale and engagement, digitisation of legacy processes are all very useful in improving productivity, measuring and enhancing employee experience.

IV.      Organization design: Traditionally, the managerial role has been about allocating, directing and co-ordinating work. Acceleration in digital adoption is a clear trend. Productivity & collaboration applications is likely to render the traditional role of the manager redundant leading to flatter organization structures, greater decentralisation and empowerment. Technology will only help organizations cut through levels making them less hierarchical. It is likely to accelerate learning and reduce transmission loss in communication leading to greater alignment with business imperatives. Organizations will also need to confront the issue of managing employee costs and improving productivity so thinking through the optimal organization design will be a key imperative.

V.       Building capability: There will always be a premium for expertise in traditional and emerging skill domains. However, the market for skills is likely to become borderless and organizations that provide challenging & stimulating work will be able to attract and retain the brightest and the most creative talent. Whilst digital learning is here to stay, the jury is still out on whether a blended approach to learning using both digital self-learning options along with classroom training is better suited for learning & retention than a pure digital model. The right blend is important as physical interactions support cultural socialization and deepen relationships and there is a long way to go before current technology can replace the magic of a face to face learning interaction. Employees will also probably need to learn to become more autonomous, self-directed and manage their personal learning & growth.

VI.      Enabling policies: A large variety of employment contracts such as fixed term, part time and not just the regular full time employment contract are likely to emerge as both employees and employers demand greater flexibility and choice in terms of employment, pay and benefits. The gig economy is likely to grow particularly for higher order skills and this will help organisations make their cost structures more variable and flexible. HR will need to manage the various life stage needs of a multi-generational, diverse workforce through enabling policies and there is a steady demand for greater personalization and customization. Integrating a diverse workforce with diverse needs and aspirations in a cohesive manner will be significant challenge. A cookie cutter approach to attracting, retaining and managing talent is not likely to work. Organizations will need to be flexible and design policies that offer greater choice to employees based on their life stage needs.

Sharad Gangal, Executive Vice President, Thermax

On a ballpark estimate the traditional Manufacturing companies will work with 20 to 30% work from home model, Information and ITES will work with perhaps 50 to 60%

First of all at a macro level the business world will not be the same post lock down.  HR will have to manage the following situations on one hand and also prepare for a change in its own domain.  I am summarising them essentially not in that order.

Sharad Gangal

There will be new dimensions of relationships, how to manage remote working and the stresses and tribulations out of it, the shade of inter personal relations will be completely different

Will specialist roles in HR continue to be on roll or will be on a pay for service basis?

Perhaps the traditional Org Structure will not exist, a set of people will come together for a project deliver it and then disintegrate for new project, there will be a Project Manager with relevant technical experts related to the project and there will be someone to facilitate, may be that will be someone with people skills, not necessarily HR.

Compensation will depend on the success of the project or otherwise and it will not have a time frequency, it will consequential to the project and the incidence of reward payment will be with the project.

Will people look for recognition in remote working?

The emphasis on level and grade will diminish and it will be more around competence that one possesses with or without experience that we normally prescribe

Organizations will become individualistic and more transaction based and the emotional and psychological contract may be on the wane.

How to keep people glued to the organization then? Or that glue is not required at all? Will something like Employee Engagement be relevant?

One may work for one or more organizations and paid on an hourly basis for most relationships with limited so called permanent employees.

Why am I calling them as challenges? Its simply because HR is not exposed to these tectonic changes, they were hypothetical situations which often used to get discussed but had only coffee conversation value and one never expected them to be experienced in the current HR folks life time. Overnight organizations will expect HR to manage these changes.

Secondly, they were thought about as a choice and it had a inbuilt calibrated approach even if one wanted it to be.  It has come without a choice and at an overnight speed.

The very existence of identity may be over and physical office may be only for statute purpose to house an artificial person called Company.

What perhaps may not change is the Manufacturing space in the context of people and people issues and will HRs identity be limited  to old Industrial Relations, unless that also gets challenged by Robotic processes and AI where human intervention will be minimal.

Dipak Gadekar Former Head HR Voltas and HR Consultant

The lock down now is extended till 30th June, with different concession in different states and / or within states, for different zones.

However the commercial and business activity is still struggling to get back on its feet with so many constrains around. Like although the Maruti plant in certain district were given permission to operate, they could not start those as their some other plans or those of their suppliers were in zones where no industrial operations were allowed and their plant could not start unless the complete supply chain was operational.

Dipak Gadekar

Whatever establishments are operating, with reduced manpower are struggling with the operational hassles of obtaining permissions for workers or the vehicles to travel, orienting employees to safe practices and complying with the safety guidelines, etc. Managing operations with allowed manpower was also a big challenge as, for example, those working in Thane – Belapur industrial zones travel to work from places like Kalyan, Dombivali, Karjat-Kasara, Mira-Bhayander, Vasai, or even Thane , but were not allowed to cross the Municipal Corporation limits! Some of the required employees were reluctant to report on duty sighting variety of reasons, including non-availability of public transport.

In all this chaos, the Government guidelines were adding to confusion rather than helping resolve it. Directive to pay salary for the period of lock down is one great issue which many are not clear as what to do about. The judiciary also is not taking up such an important issue on priority to clear the rule. Similarly there is a confusion about what kind of medical insurance is mandated by the MHA? The guidelines do not provide any clarity on that.

Ahead of this, some major issues will also need to be addressed when the lock down ends, some of them applicable even now.

The employees morale is very low, many are concerned about the continuity of their job and / or salary reduction etc. Many have already been terminated, asked to resign or given an indication of either job loss or Bonus/increment/salary reduction. We see many requests for help on various WA groups, personal messages, etc. The Stress Management Helpline numbers of organisation like IPH is continuously ringing, giving an indication of the extent of problem.

So the HR folks will have to work with the Management Board to assess the business possibilities in near future and arrive at a decision of whether they need to trim the employee number or not.  Post which they will have to work towards a humane approach of out-placement of the redundant staff and in either case – most importantly  on confidence building exercise among the remaining employees. Allaying their fears, addressing their anxieties and motivating them to stay focused on the organisation’s survival and growth strategy will be of prime importance.

The organisations which are dependent on migrant laborers have another bigger problem at hand. No body knows how many of them would come back , when would they comeback, etc. Although I feel that hunger will need to be satisfied and lack of enough job opportunities in home state will make them migrate ultimately, but in the interim there would be issues and ensuring availability of the ‘labour’ would be a big challenge.

The virus problem is not going to go away sooner, and so are the restrictions like wearing masks, maintaining social distancing, regular sanitisation of the work place, etc. These will pose issues which will need to be addressed and would take some time, money and efforts.

Many organisations are realizing that they may not need so many people coming to office or may be so many people at all! Many expect the WFH complement of the total employee number to grow but I personally feel that not many organisations, even non-manufacturing, can work that way and definitely not many of the (personal) service organisations.

However those which can, like TCS, will definitely prefer doing so. That will pose many challenges to those organisations which were not prepared for it. Apart from managing the infrastructure, working remotely and staying connected for developing the TEAM spirit will be a big challenge, not only for the employees but more importantly for the Team Managers. Preparing them for the same, giving them the skills and instituting that culture will be a task at hand for the HR folks of those organisations. Asian / Indian culture is different than western and people will feel lost if they are not able to see F2F their co-workers. Building team spirit, camaraderie etc will be challenge and some advantage of water cooler / smoke break discussions, etc. will be lost. Many of those who are currently working from home are complaining about physical and mental stress, long hours of work, etc. How will labour law cover this WFH situation is another aspect which needs to be seen.

There will be very many smaller impacts on the way to do work, for organisations in general and HR people in particular; the way to interview candidates, do meetings, conduct training programs, etc.

Personally, I feel whether and how much this Covid episode will impact the way of life, business or otherwise, will be known bit more clearly only after few months from now. Till then we can only  prepare us mentally for being ready to accept and adopt the new way of life. 

Dr Vikas Shirodkar

Dr Vikas Shirodkar Former Head HR GM Motors, J&J and HR Consultant

It is clear human beings will revive the economy and re-build the business, and not human coffins.  Hence to me the supreme challenge post lockdown is the Health and Safety of the employees, who will be returning to productive work. HR will have to work with Safety Departments to define the protocols required to be followed in the post LD situation, whether employees return to their offices/factories or they continue to work from home. The cessation of the Lockdown period is just the beginning of another major challenge of containment. Let us remember, in the Spanish Flu Pandemic of 1918, it was the wave 2 and Wave 3 which lasted over next 2 years which killed more people, than the Wave 1.

Work methods and Working protocols will change significantly. Again whether from home or in workplace, norms of physical distancing, minimal contact etc will prevail. Here in my opinion, documentation and policies will have to take the place of physical supervision. Along with O&M , again HR has to step in to create the policies and to communicate and implement these amongst employees.

The way work is changing, and will continue to change, means democratization of decision making and far larger empowerment. This again necessitates laying down of rules of engagement and guidelines for empowerment which HR will need to champion and define.

Managers, especially senior leadership who was brought up in a command & control model of management, will need to learn new skills. Significant coaching and counselling will be required in the period post lockdown to help managers, and especially senior management, to understand the new rules around authority and distribution of power.

Building and nurturing relationships,  in remote, virtual or distanced mode, becomes a key success factor for any organization. HR will have to play the difficult, yet most critical, role of Bhishma Pitamaha as this part cannot be managed with just policy manuals. This will require a hands-on, leading by example, down- in-the-trenches deployment

And finally increasing organizational sensitivity towards customer requirements and fulfillment of the customer demand. This will require new attitudes, new approaches of working. These will have to be discovered in a “pay-as-you-go” basis. Reminds me of the concept of Action Learning. A live experiment will begin post lockdown, and HR will play a multi-faceted role of Actor-Director-Critic as organizations and employees learn new ways of engaging and retaining their customer base.

‘Job ahe Saheb, chinta karu naka.’ (Translation: Don’t worry) Requires re-learning on part of HR to play this pivotal role. We will never get another opportunity to make the people agenda so much “centre stage” and add significant value to the organizational functioning.

Sudheesh Venkatesh Chief People Officer – Azim Premji Foundation

The world that we knew has changed in many ways due to the COVID-19 crisis. This applies to all aspects of our life, and organizations are no different. In these changed times, in many organisations, Human Resources (HR) teams have played a critical role in regular operations while stepping up to support people in ways never foreseen.

Sudheesh Venkatesh

I attended a webinar yesterday on ‘HR matters in COVID times – A Not for Profit perspective’. There were speakers from Think Through Consulting (which had surveyed over 100 organisations) , Room to Read, Plan International…etc. A Supreme Court advocate covered the labour law aspects, which are undergoing rapid changes too. Here are a few points I noted while adding a few of my own.

  1. The three big priorities for HR functions during the past 12 weeks seem to have been:
    a. Employee communication ( e.g., regular virtual townhalls, sharing real time relevant information, reducing clutter and reassuring employees)
    b. Health & Safety (e.g., HR Helplines, increasing medical Insurance coverage)
    c. Engagement ( e.g., ensuring people have superior IT – data, mobile, access to collaborative tools – to do their jobs well)
  2. Work from Home:
    a. 73% of the organisations said work-from-home will continue and people are expected to come into work only when essential.
    b. Everyone seemed to have realised that desk jobs (computer based) can almost entirely be done from home, without much loss in productivity. This would be encouraged to save on commute and real estate. People in some functions ( e.g., Accounts, Communications, IT, Learning & Development) seem to be working harder than ever before.
    c. People found it difficult to switch to work-from-home and the same is happening in the reverse. They are not returning to offices easily either post the lockdowns getting relaxed.
  3. Salary reviews:
    a. 33% organisations have said there will be no salary increases this year, 48% are undecided and 19% said they would consider an increase except at the CEO level.
    b. Only a few organisations have implemented a salary cut. At the senior levels the cuts are 20-30%, middle levels 10-20% and junior levels up to 10%.
    c. The reduced salaries are expected to remain for a period of 3-6 months ( 50% say 3 months, and the remaining 50% say 6 months).
    d. In a few cases there has been a salary deferral, in other words the arrears will be paid later.
  4. Recruitment:
    a. 32% of the organisations have delayed onboarding their recruits till the lockdown is over.
  5. Leadership:
    a. Most leaders are going through anxieties. Reasons include loved ones being away from home, fear of catching an infection, and job insecurity. Naturally, leaders cannot pass on their anxiety and that compounds the issue.
    b. Leaders who are humble, accessible and radiate optimism seem to be more successful. Also, leaders who share their vulnerabilities, genuinely consult, ask the right questions without assuming they know it all, act with speed and yet are willing to change when necessary seem to be navigating the crisis better.
  6. Positive outcomes of the crisis:
    a. People have become more conscious of their health and some have invested in exercise and better diets.
    b. Many employees are speaking of recalibrated priorities – valuing health, family time, hobbies, relationships and savings. People seem to be reflecting on need vs greed.
    c. Most organisations are seeing reduced attrition, partly on account of employees valuing the jobs they have, a weak job market, and an uncertain higher education environment.
    Of course, whether these benefits will endure is anybody’s guess.
  7. What can HR functions do during these times (in addition to the regular):
    a. Continually make sense of what is happening around and influence organisational decisions so that they are based on data and result in better outcomes.
    b. Bring forward activities that can utilise the current downtime in some parts of the organisation (e.g., Azim Premji Foundation has brought forward the appraisal cycle, developed educational handbooks…etc)
    c. Improve employee experiences by paring down unnecessary process steps/ approvals/ documents. Good time to question whether something is necessary and optimise accordingly.
    d. Move activities online assuming work-from-home is there to stay and that people cannot be expected to come to a physical office.
    Of course, HR teams can help others only if they take care of themselves (i.e. physical and mental well-being).

Now, considering the above, and as our people get back to offices, we are forced to think differently about how work gets done. A few of the HR challenges before us, are listed here:

  1. Ensuring a safe and sustainable restart:

The most critical aspect post lockdown is to ensure returning employees are provided safe workspaces. While the lockdown may have eased, the threat of COVID-19 looms large and will continue for some time till a vaccine comes through. HR teams will be at the forefront of defining these safety measures i.e. sanitisation & hygiene measures, people flow to avoid congregations, revising seating plans…etc. At Azim Premji Foundation, where our work is in the field, spread across 50 remote districts in India, there are additional challenges of accommodation, food and hygiene.

Even if one employee in any of the office premises tests positive, we will have to seal offices and isolate the primary contacts. Therefore, vigilance as well as rapid response becomes critical. Real-time data on where people are, their medical condition and knowing the support they need is critical and we have instituted a weekly health tracker for this. These are unchartered territories for HR teams and hence setting up processes is crucial.

  1. Employees first, more so when their personal circumstances are changing :

Employees need various kinds of support, which was not required earlier. Schools will remain closed till July at least. Child-care centres are not open, and even when they open parents are wary of sending their children there. These are crucial aspects to consider as we reopen for work. We may need to respond with support like work-from-home, flexible hours, on-site creches, additional leave without pay…etc. Amidst all this, it is natural for employees to have anxieties, and they look to HR for reassuring communications backed by the right steps that boost their confidence.

  1. Focus on Mental well -being :

The COVID-19 crisis has been unlike any and has brought a strong focus on mental health. We need to watch out for fears and anxieties and make focussed efforts to support our people in adjusting to this new way of working. Like I said earlier, even leaders have not been spared of anxieties and the causes range from loved ones being away from home to fear of catching an infection to job insecurity. Azim Premji Foundation is cognizant of this and we have therefore set up a dedicated mental health helpline for our members to seek counselling support. We also have an arrangement with Marsh, our Insurance provider for a helpline for physical illnesses.

  1. Rise of remote working and collaboration tools:

Even as the lockdown gets relaxed, travel will remain fraught with fear and work-related travel is expected to be only for the most essential. Teams will use collaborative tools and work remotely. We will therefore have to continue to develop programs to educate, train, and empower people to plan their work using these tools.

Our work in the Foundation mostly involves in-person meetings and workshops with teachers who work in Govt schools. At the start of the lockdown, our inability to travel and relatively lesser digital access amongst the people we work with seemed like significant challenges. Like the popular adage, necessity is the mother of invention and fortunately for us our teams have quickly adapted their work plans to suit the online mode. We understand the limitations of technology and know that it will take time for things to settle down to the new normal, but in the meanwhile, we are pleasantly surprised by the speed with which our members found ways to stay connected with teachers.

  1. Being agile, responding to fast changing conditions and seizing opportunities :

If the COVID-19 crisis has taught us anything, it is that we should be ready to respond to change rapidly. We can only speculate about what could be the possibilities post lockdown and therefore be agile in responding to any new scenarios that emerge. This may mean rethinking performance and productivity metrics as well as pay and benefits to name a few.

In a perverse way, the crisis has also presented opportunities for recruiting good talent. We realise that we can net a few good people if we move with speed. Since we are unable to meet many candidates we have moved in a big way towards online tests and interviews.

Many have argued this is the Lehmann moment for HR. In other words, HR as a function has become more critical than before and that HR will make or break organisations in the way they come out of this crisis. I for one, believe this is an exaggerated view and the HR function was, is and will be as important as organisations want them to be. Enlightened organisations that have enduring success have always known the value of HR and for those who didn’t, this may be a moment of introspection.

I invite all readers to share their thoughts in the comments section.

Vivek S Patwardhan (I have only compiled!)​ 

“What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments, but what is woven into the lives of others.”

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