Article (October-2020)


Nothing can replace the strength of physical connect at workplace

Prashant Sharma

Designation : -   President - Group Manufacturing and Operations

Organization : -  Zydus Cadila (Cadila Healthcare Ltd.), Ahmedabad


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How do you visualize the new normal of work and workplace beyond covid?

PS It has been six months into the new normal of life, and most of us have learnt to understand the impact, Covid is having on all spheres of our lives. It has spread its tentacles deep into our behaviour and has tested organisations for their resilience and character as it unfolded.

My belief is that the new normal itself is not static. It is organic and will keep evolving based on how the disease progresses and also how our minds - individually and collectively - perceive the risks. The initial few months were spread in some kind of raw shock, coming to terms with the disease and extremely morbid news coming in from everywhere. There was an element of denial as well, with talks of Indian summer killing the virus and our own super immune systems holding the fort.

As we are a part of the essential services industry, being in pharma, I and my team never stopped coming to the workplace. It offered us deep insights into how our employees were responding to the flood of news, what were their fears and their responses. I remember the first Covid case we had and the panic it created. However, I was at the site and we engaged deeply with our employees helping them overcome their fear, while ensuring that they still remained cautious. I will define the major elements of the new normal as:

1. Reduced in-person interactions and a major shift to digital interactions at the managerial level.

2.     A need for multi-skilling at the shop floor that ensures that people can work across areas when there is a need to.

3. A clear need for demonstrated safety and sanitization best practices across the organisation. The fear persists and people's need to feel safe is thick.

4.     A focus on productivity and conserving resources

5.     Managing a higher level of uncertainties of demand and supply. Hence a more agile system that gets together and responds quickly to these variables.

6.     Focus on mental health and well being of people.

7.     Evolving HR policies and rule-books to support people through the new normal

8.     Withdrawl symptoms of reduced physical intera-ction, social meetings.

9.     Pockets of reduced work related stress as well as higher stress levels.

I shall explain more about these in a while.

What may be the stark differences between pre and post covid work and workplace?

PS For me the biggest difference is the sheer level of discomfort with physical proximity and interaction. This difference has multiple ramifications and challenges the organisational design and planning premises that we have nurtured for decades.

With celebrated CEOs, Chief Ministers, film stars and politicians having been infected, there is an overall feeling of secular vulnerability. The comfort with which you would walk into your colleague's office, or walk to the shop floor to meet your people has diminished. Most people have a big incentive to avoid meeting people - not going to the hospital, even though they know that a large majority will never need to.

This is impacting how decisions are being made. While most people are celebrating how digital meetings are fantastic, how WFH is the new normal, I am worried about the quality of decisions we are taking now. Digital platforms can challenge your ability to have deep discussions that are coupled with a solid understanding of ground realities. Many great decisions are based on insights that have been obtained by meeting stakeholders, including customers; shop floor/field based foot soldiers, going to the marketplace/shop floor, skip level casual interactions. That is now getting challenged. So we are indeed moving to fast paced, timed to the second digital meetings that start and end on time. What it will do to the quality and impact of our decisions, time will tell. I am not being pessimistic. I believe 90% of decision making lends itself beautifully to this model. It is the other 10% that can sometimes impact 90% of the business and growth that I am worried about.

WFH will have its own engagement challenges. I am not bringing into discussion challenges of WFH - working couples, small spaces, kids who need to study at home while both parents also need to WFH. That apart, the cold & digital nature of these interactions will create a new kind of bond between the organisation and its people. What will it do to their level of emotional connect, the feeling of belongingness will now be a large social experiment and we will learn over the next 1 year or so.

Other thing that bothers me is the nature of evolving demand/supply scenario and its impact on the skills needed in the new normal. The changing job market. In this new world, some needs and wants will disappear in the short term and others become more prominent. As people re-skill and the post Covid world emerge, will there be a need to re-skill again? Will job markets get redefined again?

Beyond covid, HR professionals will be responsible to create and nurture a work culture that drives mutual trust, empowerment, productivity and inclusion. Can technology help achieving this or HR will have to explore other innovative ways?

PS That will be the challenge not just for HR function, but all line managers as well. And this will indeed be the biggest challenge. The first will be at a hygiene level - create a safe place to work that employees can trust coming to. That will be an important element. Sounds basic but this is a challenge. And I am not talking of only sanitisation etc. Do employees feel secure that if they were to fall sick, the organisation will be able to support them and their family through those days? What have they learnt from the experiences their colleagues who fell sick? Did the organisation support these employees and ensured that the family felt cared for?

Once this is accomplished, and employees feel secure in the knowledge that they work for a caring organisation, a lot of things will be easier to manage. First and foremost, those organisations which have already developed a culture of empowerment and inclusiveness will find it easier to adapt to the new levels that will now be needed. For those that already have these challenges, it will be an uphill task because a lot will be done with much less physical interaction.

Technology is but an enabler. Most of it is commoditised anyway. The world is using the same meeting platforms, many organisations have some kind of Covid app for track and trace etc. Some may have a better one, but it is not a differentiator in creating these emotional connects.

I feel here the leaders who are physically reaching out to their people, who are available at the sites, and at the marketplace, and meeting customers where possible and with all precautions will score. Please do not get me wrong. I am not advocating reckless travel and interactions. HR will have to revisit the way organisation is structured to ensure that the customer connect is not lost. Or an understanding of marketplace or shop floor is not lost. I have been working from our sites for most part of the Covid period, including during peak lockdowns, and it helped me connect with my people in a way no digital platform would have allowed. During the peak of fear, some of our employees took passes and traveled 800 kms on scooter to reach their workplace. Because they wanted to contribute to a larger cause. Because they saw a sense of purpose in what we were doing. Because they saw their leaders at the workplace, and knew that we were creating an inclusive, equal world in which same measures of safety and well-being were available to all. Inclusivity and equality has to be felt. Posters cannot do justice to it. When my people at the shop floor know that their managers are at the workplace as well, working with them shoulder to shoulder, no overt communication is needed.

At the same time, those of our employees who did get infected were cared for, and all organisational resources channelised to ensure they felt safe. What I learnt later was that these anecdotes travel faster than any published email. People can sense if the organisation cares for them. They do not have to be told.

However, HR function does need to revisit its policies, organisational design and make it relevant in current times. Many will look at technological platforms to ensure that their employees stay current on all developments, that they have robust means of communication that workflows are made digital so routine things move fast. Technology will indeed be a great enabler here and will soon turn into a hygiene factor. Over time, all organisations will have a basic level of tech levers. Digital platforms to interview, on-board, induct, cross-skill will evolve. I was in a digital meeting recently with a senior joiner. It was fantastic and I tried to do my best to make her feel welcome. But truly nothing can replace those small gestures like getting up and opening the door as your colleague leaves, or preparing a cup of tea for them as you welcome them into the organisation.

This is where the social connect will have to be proxied by the HR in new avatars. I have started weekly informal Teams meetings with my senior team. Nothing official. Just banter. Can it get monotonous? Yes. Is attendance always 100%? No. But this is an effort that keeps us connected.

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