Considering how fluidly employees and operations in companies today operate in a remote-first workspace, one may find it hard to believe that the pandemic is a little over a year old. However, the pandemic’s most compelling impact hasn’t been the transition to remote work, but how remote work has transformed the world of work and the complete employee-employer experience.
A collision of priorities
Pre-pandemic, a physical workplace held (or was expected to hold) an employee’s undivided workday attention. The office was synonymous with work, giving a backdrop to human resources priorities like employee engagement, benefits and more. The brick-and-mortar workplace was not just the heart of the company – it was the physical setting that helped define and nurture the purpose and meaning that the company brought to employee’s lives.
Today, the entire employee experience - right from onboarding to everyday business - lives inside a laptop and smartphone screen. The office, in its entirety, lives inside our screens. However, the physical world of the employee is set amidst mundane household noises (from the doorbell to the pressure cooker!) and home priorities. For example, the average employee might be helming an intense meeting/review, even as he/she whips up breakfast. Children’s classroom sessions, rushed visits to the doctor, elder care, the needs of parents/in-laws and relatives are all colliding with equally urgent business imperatives & work deliverables.
In short, priorities, often equally compelling and urgent are colliding, and employees, even though they’re heavily strained by the pandemic, must be enabled so that they can prioritise their next actions the best way they can. In this paradigm, how must people managers and leaders of India Inc lead?
Firstly, making conversation count
Thousands of post-pandemic hires across companies have never come face-to-face with the culture that is part and parcel of everyday office life. This 'culture', which companies could once express through leadership interactions, cheery office events, campus & cafeteria conversations and more - has all but disappeared, their colour and accoutrement replaced almost exclusively by online conversations. So, leaders, people managers and HR teams must find ways to make their employee conversations meaningful, because words are all they have in conveying the essence of a company's culture.
It also means going back to basics. Truly listening to employees, giving them your time, ensuring that they’re completely heard, putting on the camera during video calls – these simple touches can bring back some comfort in what can otherwise feel like a unidimensional work life. Only then will leaders be able to resonate effectively with employees who are otherwise often incredibly distracted or taking on multiple, complex priorities.
Secondly, enabling people to bring their best, every day
The pandemic has been perhaps the disorienting experience for people and communities everywhere – and it is far from over. It has not only shattered our collective way of life, but also posed hundreds of complex challenges to employees everywhere. More than anything else, people are looking to employers for ways to make their work and lives smoother and easier. On one hand, employee needs after the pandemic - healthcare, support for teleworking, financial support - are very similar. On the other hand, there are more nuanced, individual needs that vary across employee segments and demographics. Childcare, eldercare, salary advances, pet care – employers have a large number of opportunities that they can better serve their people’s individual needs with, so that they are more effective in work and life.
Thirdly, walking the talk on wellness
It is an unfortunate statement, but when it comes to employee wellness opportunities, employees simply don’t use them as much as they should be. The role that wellness plays in productivity and effectiveness is well understood (and the pandemic has only reiterated its value), yet employees don’t fully leverage the resources at their disposal. Why? Because they need to see their managers and leaders using these resources first. This critical precedent gives them the social license that they too can feel comfortable using it. It also mainstreams the idea that both physical and mental wellness is not a lofty goal, a nice-to-have, but something within their reach that they should also prioritise.
Fourthly, serving as a bridge to opportunities
An entire ecosystem of health, childcare and eldercare, wellness, and personal growth startups and offerings has arisen in response to the many challenges created by the pandemic. Together, this ecosystem represents humanity’s indomitable will over the most difficult circumstances and the pursuit of opportunity in adversity. Companies should pave impactful pathways to experts and teams doing incredible work across various domains in the larger ecosystem, so that their teams can leverage the opportunities available.
Fifth, acknowledge the people managers behind the people
Not many outside the HR fray understand that people managers never signed up for, or are equipped to play the role of quasi-frontline workers in their organisations. This was a role never required or expected of them. That many are playing this role with effectiveness and agility should be whole-heartedly acknowledged. Senior HR executives and corporate leaders should also acknowledge India Inc’s young HR talent, who despite being new to the profession, have taken to its new mandate with enthusiasm and focus. These young men and women are simultaneously HR partner, employee, and frontline worker – a three-in-one job that, amidst the pandemic, is also a non-stop 24X7 role.
As the most stringent litmus test of corporate and people values, the pandemic has thrown into sharp relief the true DNA and ethos of companies. Employees, customers, and markets are all carefully watching how organisations serve their people; the companies walking the talk today will be those that will enjoy greater respect, admiration, and social license in the communities they operate in and serve. The pandemic will soon be a chapter in history books and a case study in MBA textbooks; companies that do what it takes to navigate their employees into a better future will shape India Inc’s collective talent and people development agenda for decades.