Rohit Kumar is a strategic HR and talent leader with over twenty years of illustrious experience in providing strategic direction and action in rapidly growing organizations as well as in businesses going through change. He has led talent strategy across diverse industries including CPG, technology, manufacturing and financial services.
Rohit joined General Mills as Talent Director – Asia in 2018. Prior to joining General Mills, he led talent and organizational development for several global brands in the likes of Dyson, HSBC, American Express and HCL, among others.
In conversation with People Matters and ServiceNow, Rohit talks about the role of digital workplace solutions in the emerging workplace construct, how overdoing empathy can be troublesome, the increasing need for leaders to ‘be visible and communicate’, and the evolving interplay between workplace, workers and work.
Here are excerpts from the interview.
As a talent leader, what key factors are shaping your outlook towards the new ways of working in the emerging hybrid workplace?
My outlook towards the new ways of working involves three things: the work, the worker, and the workplace. All these three components and the interplay between them is what's going to impact how we are looking at ways of working in the future.
If we look at the workplace, for example, the whole definition of workplace is changing. Workplace is a strong part of an individual's social identity and it does have a lot of meaning for people. But then what is it that people really want to do at work? And as we spend more time discussing and talking about it, it stands out that for people, workplace is about collaboration and a way for people to develop a connection with the company.
Further, we looked at the workers themselves, very clearly there are some people who are required to be at the workplace on most days and then there are some people who probably don't need to be there on all days, and then there is a third group, who may not even be in the same location as the workplace. So there are all these different work arrangements that workers are considering as we move to more result based working.
And the third thing is work itself. What is going to be the interplay between people? That's where it came out that the purpose of people coming together now will have to become even clearer. When people come together now, there's a very clear purpose as to what needs to be achieved, what needs to be done, clear decisions are made, and then people go off and do their own thing.
The more people sort of look at the interplay between the workplace, workers and work, that is where you'll see the emerging ways of working.
When I look at all of these three aspects, collaboration comes right on top in terms of how people are thinking about ways of working. Collaboration will have a very clear and distinct meaning for people in terms of setting expectations. What are they required to do, and how is communication happening between different teams? This will become truly important in the new way of working.
The other aspect which will be important will be practicing inclusion. What are the inclusion practices that companies are thinking about? With differing work arrangements, it will be important for companies to ensure that people see it as fair and inclusive. You could be in a situation where the manager has part of his team sitting with him in a room and part of the team is online. Organizations will have to support their managers' build capability so that they are able to not just make sure that people in their team are all on the same page but also in terms of making sure that there is trust and every individual feels that they're included in the process.
What essentials must employers cater for as they crack the code for the right employee engagement strategy? How has the renewed focus on communication, engagement, wellness and productivity impacted your employee experience strategy?
There are four things on my mind from an engagement standpoint:
- How employees feel in terms of how they're supported by the organization?
- How do they feel in terms of being supported by their managers?
- How do they feel in terms of being connected with their teams?
- How do we continue to invest in the development of our people?
To begin with from the point of the organization, engagement is about making sure that we continue to align the organization and the employees’ values. We do that by engaging our people through consistent and multiple channels of communication. We are creating platforms where people can hear, respond, exchange ideas without judgement. Another aspect is how we provide care and support for our people in terms of well-being.
It’s important to provide people with access to resources where they can reach out and seek support if they feel stressed, physically or mentally.
In addition, support from managers. And this is a time where beyond the pandemic, there are other changes that are happening, and the fluidity of the situation is impacting people. That's where managers play the role of making sure that while there is the reaffirmation to the bigger vision that the company needs to achieve, does the team understand their near-term goals? How do they make sure that people know what they need to do? Managers will need to actively work towards making sure that employees remain focused on the big rocks of what they need to achieve and deprioritize everything else. Another thing that managers will need to do is to recognize people for what they have done. It will give employees a sense of being appreciated and staying connected with their managers and organization in these times.
The third one for me is how connected do employees feel with their teams. The informal chats and water-cooler conversations are a thing of the past so how do we create informal platforms for employees to come together and share things.
Managers do not have to go in and be the one who is constantly dispensing advice, but just encouraging their teams and listening to them.
In our organization’s networking service, I see a lot of people are just going out and sharing their experiences or saying little words of praise and encouragement, which I find amazing. It’s very nice to see people just write to each other and say, ‘hey, great work on that!’.
We continue to focus on supporting the development of our people by bringing in cutting edge technology and content. When the pandemic caused some of our businesses to be on hold, we used the downtime to create learning tracks for our employees. These learning tracks were a combination of both functional as well as professional development. The employees invested their time on upskilling and engaging with their managers on the learning. At the end, employees were excited about it and they learnt skills that they could apply when businesses resumed.
Can you tell us about how good leaders sometimes end up doing more harm by overdoing empathy? How can talent and business leaders today strike a balance between empathy and productivity?
It's probably more of my hypothesis, but how I see it is, leaders need to balance empathy and productivity.
Empathy at both emotional and cognitive level is important.
We should let people feel that they are cared for, both emotionally as well as their perspectives are considered. In our organization we constantly reinforce a people first culture to ensure people are safe and their well-being is a priority. We make sure that we are providing them with the right level of care, we are providing them with the right resources, tools, etc.. We are constantly looking for ways in which we can provide the right level of support for our people and be present for them. We have institutionalized surveys that help us keep our ears to the ground, making sure that we are listening to the needs of our people. We have also educated our leaders to ensure that they are spending time with their people to make sure that they are focusing on the most important priorities only.
Beyond empathy, there is a need for us to look at how we are doing as an organization. At the end of the day when as an organization we are successful then thousands of other people who are directly or indirectly connected to the organization are also successful. People are able to send their children to school, afford a house, manage healthcare, buy a vehicle etc. That’s the responsibility of all of us as leaders in the organization to make sure that we keep our people on track, in terms of what we are required to achieve as an organization, and meet our customer and stakeholder requirements. So that balance between empathy and productivity is very important. And tipping over to either one side can be catastrophic.
A leader who over does empathy might lead his team or organization to a state of slow decision making and near paralysis to the point where productivity will start to get impacted. And, if people only focus on productivity, while maybe in the short term they might be successful, you can be rest assured that in the long term, people will jump the ship as soon as they can.
One of the ways in which leaders can manage the balance between both empathy and productivity is by creating formal windows where they will hear the perspective of their employees both at an emotional and cognitive level. In terms of business decisions, they can make sure that they hear their employees but if they find themselves in a stalemate situation, then take the responsibility of making a decision and moving ahead.
How do you see the role of digital workflow solutions in enabling workplace communication and efficiency, especially cross-functional communication?
Whether it is in the space of human resources or other functions, digital workflow solutions are really helping change the landscape of how teams collaborate. As I look at specifically people processes, replacing a lot of the legacy workflow with digital workflow solutions has really helped us drive efficiency by removing reliance on manual intervention. Whether it is our selection, onboarding, performance management, development or even offboarding, replacing with digital workflow has helped us cut through hours of back and forth with various stakeholders while ensuring that the employee experience is not compromised.
If I look at digital workflow solutions, there are various advantages to it. It's a clearly more efficient process and is easy from a compliance and accuracy standpoint. Everything is in one location; you can track back and see a complete audit trail.
When we move to any digital workflow solutions, especially as they become more complex with multiple functions and people involved, the change management process is crucial from the point of making sure that everybody goes on the same journey.
To ensure support and collaboration between teams we spent time talking about why we are making the change, the problems it will alleviate, making sure that stakeholders understand the objective and the support people will get as we embed the new workflow.
What is General Mills doing differently to drive and enhance digital cross-functional collaboration? How have employees responded to the methods implemented?
There are different tools that we use for enhancing cross functional collaboration. .
In the organization for the purpose of networking we have Yammer. There are various subgroups and we have found it to be an extremely engaging tool for people to share functional updates, experiences, top tips and tools especially as people were working from home. It is a great platform to keep up to date with what’s happening in the organization and employees can customize feed by selecting groups that they want to be a part of.
We also use tools from MS Office like TEAMS. This is our default platform and small teams to large cross functional teams have found it to be extremely helpful in communicating, collaborating, and connecting on projects. The tool has helped aggregate all key aspects of digital collaboration by building in instant messaging, content sharing, news feeds etc. However, we have not left it at just implementing TEAMS. Our digital teams constantly keep our people abreast of how the technology is evolving and how people can make it more engaging and interactive on TEAMS. This has been really helpful as we have had to work virtually in most locations, so keeping the high level of engagement was critical, which is where we found TEAMS to be extremely helpful.
We also use our digital work process tools for managing projects and approvals that determine what the project is, who the approvers are, what is the status, and as people approve they also have the option to put in any caveats. We also use ServiceNow as the platform for uploading and sharing of content. The content could be policies or guidelines that are meant for sharing with a large audience. This is extremely helpful in our case as employees are geographically dispersed and need one consistent source of information.
Overall employees have found the various digital collaboration tools implemented helpful as they have promoted engagement, accuracy, greater transparency, and efficiency in terms of sharing information on a real time basis.
If you could offer one piece of advice for leaders in the new world of work, to improve workforce and workflow management, what would that be?
If there is one thing that I could say to leaders to improve work, workforce and workflow management, it will be ‘visibility and communication’. Be visible so that they continue to provide emotional reassurance to their people and communicate so that they continue to hear what’s working and what’s not in an ever increasing volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous [VUCA] times.
The reason I lay emphasis on being visible is because that is a big change from how things worked in the past. If people have different working arrangements, they may have reduced face time with their leaders and therefore may feel disconnected. Being visible will help leaders maintain that connection with their employees and ensure they don’t feel marginalized because of their work arrangements.
Communication will help to understand if employees and teams want to do things differently for the future – this could include redesigning how individuals and teams interacted, how work processes were accomplished and establishing work cultures. In the way I am seeing this in our organization, individuals are asked to reflect on what works for them and then to engage with their leaders on their preferred work arrangement. Leaders are then working with the teams to put together team norms for how they will engage, technology norms for how they will collaborate and rethinking established workflows to see if they continue to make sense in the new environment.