As COVID-19 becomes a reality we will have to live with for a while, countries and well as organizations are slowly finding their ways to bring normalcy back. So, as we open up our workplaces in phases with the easing out of the lockdown, what would this entail for the workforce? Preparing for the “new normal” at the workplace post COVID-19 is going will determine a lot about the future of organizations as well as the workforce.
In this exclusive interaction, Kaustubh Sonalkar, Group President Human Resource, Essar, and CEO – Essar Foundation takes us through what the ‘new’ world of work would look like post COVID-19, how organisations would need to bulk up their technology infrastructure to enhance productivity, and how businesses will re-strategize keeping employee well-being at the heart of their strategy.
With over 20 years of experience, Kaustubh has a rich and vast experience of having worked in multiple sectors and geographies, with renowned companies. This is Kaustubh's second stint with Essar – he was affiliated with Essar Energy for 9 years. Prior to this stint at Essar, he was associated with Future Group as the Group Chief People Officer. He was also a Partner/ Executive Director at PWC.
Kaustubh holds a Bachelor’s degree in Science from the University of Mumbai and has a master’s degree in Personnel Management from the University of Pune (HR & Behavioural Sciences). He also has an MSc from the London School of Economics. Additionally, he is a Chartered Fellow of CIPD (United Kingdom) and Chartered Fellow of CPHR (Australia).
Here are the excerpts from the interview.
As the world of work finds newer ways to battle the COVID-19 outbreak, what will the new world of work or post COVID-19 workplace look like, according to you?
The COVID-19 tragedy is an opportunity in disguise. The Digital India dream will be accelerated and take many forms, the most important being the virtual workplace. We will witness a rapid evolution in technology-driven ecosystems resilient enough to adapt to any major disruptions that the future may hold. India Inc. will become more accommodating of the work-from-home model. A more digitally savvy workforce may even end up favoring contractual employment and consider multi-tasking with several jobs at the same time.
What do you think is the most positive change the workplace is seeing today? How can this be capitalized on to shape the future of work?
The Coronavirus disruption has caused an increase in productivity because of better work-life balance, zero commute time and improved emotional well-being. Virtual work is, undoubtedly, going to be the new normal. Organisations need to bulk up their technology infrastructure to accommodate seamless and regular video-conferencing to enhance productivity. Businesses will re-strategize keeping employee well-being at the heart of their strategy.
A huge positive of WFH is the reduced load on urban infrastructure, especially in metro cities. Companies will save substantially on overheads and electricity. Hot-desking or leasing out unused office space will be considered.
What about the most negative change? How can its effects be eased or reduced?
Some organizations may not be ready or equipped for the sudden thrust on adopting WFH practices. Employees who aren’t accustomed to WFH may feel disconnected from the regular corporate environment. However, ingenious remote employee engagement initiatives will smoothen the disconnect and help build team cohesiveness. For example, we have adopted tools, like Essar Learning TV and Essar Radio, to smartly engage our employees and even their families. While Essar Learning TV teaches new skills and encourages people to pursue new hobbies, Essar Radio helps connect all our employees through music and informal conversations with senior leaders.
Having gone through the period of restrictions on business activities, do you find that you’ve reconsidered how essential roles are defined and assigned?
Some sectors will continue to need men on the ground. Through the course of the successive phases of the lockdown, Essar has been sustaining operations in businesses that offer essential services, like power generation, port-based cargo handling, sea transportation on ships, oil & gas exploration & production, etc. So a certain percentage of the workforce has been deployed at our facilities to ensure the wheels of economy do not grind to a halt. However, these people are working under stringent safety protocols and maintaining strict social distancing norms. High mechanization across our businesses ensures that the requirement of people on the ground is minimal. In large teams, some resources may end up being underutilised in a WFH setup. For them, motivation and growth will become an issue. That is where HR can intervene by organising off-work interactions with managers where such concerns can be articulated.
How do you think COVID-19 has changed, or is changing, the discussion around productivity - its definition, measurement, how it can be improved? What are your own thoughts on the matter?
I think several burning questions have emerged in the wake of this crisis. How do you now assess performance? How do you motivate? How do you reward and recognize? How do you create a sense of oneness across the workforce? How does your organizational culture manifest itself in an environment where less and less people come together under the roof of an office building? I think we are still learning and looking for answers.
The time has come to evaluate if some roles in the organisation can be discharged in a predominantly WFH setup. I think in the foreseeable future, HR will be looking at remapping the organisation and playing a more active role in promoting a WFH culture in consultation with company management. Going forward, Human Resources will play a huge role in engaging the workforce across the work-life spectrum, helping them pick up new skills and rewarding them fairly and consistently. They will continue to help companies retain their best people and reduce the organization’s spend on rehiring and retraining.
In view of the changes that have happened to the workplace due to the COVID-19 pandemic, how are you looking at the goal-setting approach for your organization for the year 2020-21? Are you going ahead with the usual or are you looking at a new approach and timelines?
While we are in the process of goal-setting in consultation with businesses and line managers, it will take a while before we can lay down the new ground rules and our people can adapt to the modified parameters. The timelines therefore will definitely be more relaxed than they were under normal circumstances.
What new or refreshed insights do you think COVID-19 has brought to the forefront around organizational views of well-being - physical, mental, emotional, social, family?
I think the most trenchant message that this pandemic has brought to the fore is the primacy of employee safety. The realization is dawning that securing the talent and the skills that the employee brings to the table is the most sustainable way of nurturing an organization’s most important asset—its people. This will now become the benchmark for devising HR policies and protocols.
Which of the changes we see today do you think will remain, or even become more pronounced and entrenched, in six months’ time? One year’s time?
Like I have said, remote working and virtual meetings will become the norm and remain so for some time to come. Also, some roles may be discharged in a predominantly WFH setup, and perhaps under a contractual agreement between employer and employee.