The pandemic has highlighted the changing needs of employees and the responsibility to manage this fell on HR. Which meant HR needed to be tech-savvy and data-savvy.
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Amit is a Senior Analyst at Forrester. He covers the various facets of customer experience (CX) - including strategy, design, measurement, and organizational maturity. His latest research includes uncovering what emotion means in a digital world, and how firms can leverage employee experience (EX) to improve CX.
Amit advises executives in India and APAC on both CX and EX. He is also a frequent keynote speaker, having spoken at forums in APAC, Middle East, and the US. He is an alumnus of the Indian Institute of Management Bangalore and holds a Bachelor’s degree in engineering from the University of Pune.
Here are the excerpts of the interview.
COVID-19 pandemic is still here. How do you the increasing uncertainty and its impact on the world of work?
COVID-19 has affected different parts of the globe differently. The macroeconomic effects have also varied from region to region. In addition, vaccine rollout is also moving at a different pace across the world. Both these factors – macroeconomic effects and speed of vaccine rollout affect the demand and supply of products and services and therefore influence how work will be affected in any region, especially in the medium term. In addition to this, there are some shifts we already see underway: One is, there is a far greater focus on the employee and the needs of employees than ever before. This leads to the other big changes in the world of work: a lot of flexibility is on offer and a lot of focus on health and mental well-being. The other big change, triggered by remote work, is an increased focus on measuring work output and productivity and also well-being – so, a lot of employee data is being collected, with the potential to offer positive (or negative!) effects down the road. Of course, remote work also brings big changes in how workers collaborate internally and with customers; for instance, we predict a lot of non-essential business travel will go away. And lastly, as organizations move to de-risk themselves, there is a ton of interest in automation, not only for jobs at the backend but also for those that require closer customer and employee interactions.
Do you think the pandemic offered us an opportunity to create a better and more equitable workplace where everyone can unleash their full human potential?
Well, this should have been true in theory. The pandemic brought with it enforced remote work, which meant location was no longer a constraint to take up many jobs. Obviously, this created opportunities for those who were otherwise unable to participate in the workforce. In theory, this should have allowed, for example, more women (constrained by family responsibilities) the flexibility to take up paid work. However, the pandemic also brought with it the closure of many support systems that we leaned on earlier – such as schools and house help. So, net-net, family responsibilities only went up. And unfortunately, the weight of this typically fell back on the women. So even as economies started opening up again, we saw fewer women come back to the workforce. Eventually, we may have ended up more than a couple of years behind, as far as diversity goes. But the silver lining is this has not gone unnoticed. Diversity and inclusion is a hot topic across the globe right now, companies are looking at it in a fresh light, and renewing their efforts to ensure the workplace of the future is more equitable than before.
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Most companies are heading toward a hybrid workplace. Do you think the hybrid mode of work is going to stay for long? Do you think company culture will survive in the remote working setup?
I know there’s a lot of talk about hybrid work. And certainly hybrid is here to stay. But not in the way where a large chunk of employees work remotely like we see today. This scenario is temporary. As soon as more workers are vaccinated (and large firms are striving hard to vaccinate their employees), office work will be back much faster than we expect. It is possible to be productive or collaborate or sustain some semblance of company culture in a remote environment; workers are pulling this off right now. But it doesn’t mean they can or will do so forever. As soon as it is safe to go back to offices, firms will want most employees to return. Research shows, many employees want this too; the blurring of lines between home life and work-life isn’t manageable or sustainable for many. Hybrid work will continue in the long term in the sense - a group of workers will continue to work away from the office, but this will be a minority. Perhaps the percent of remote work will be more than what it was pre-pandemic, but it will still remain a minority.
The pandemic has changed the priorities of HR leaders globally. How do you see the changing role of HR Post-Pandemic?
With the pandemic creating a strong focus on the changing needs of employees, the responsibility to manage this fell on HR. Which meant the role of HR needed to change as well. One of these changes which we will continue to see post-pandemic as well will be how tech-savvy and data-savvy HR will need to become, and how closely they will need to work with tech leaders. The improvement in HCM technologies, the tsunami of employee data, the big spotlight on privacy, and the increasing demands of the workforce to receive a consumer-grade employee experience will drive this. With the war for talent becoming more acute, we expect HR to borrow more tools and methodologies from the customer experience side to create a better employee experience. All this will mean HR will need more investments, so they need to not only up their tech skills but also their business acumen – such as the ability to make a robust business case for their requests. With increased HR funding, ultimately, firms will expect HR to play a much larger role in driving business results.
New variants of COVID-19 are creating chaos in several countries especially India. What’s your take on how should leaders sail through uncertain times and manage talent?
Given the uncertainty, one thing leaders should stay away from right now is committing to or creating any long-term work or employee policies. The other thing they must do is keep an eye out for regional policy and regulatory changes. This becomes critical especially if a firm operates in multiple global locations. It’s best to create org-wide guidelines but allow local leadership to fine-tune these as needed. Apart from policy decisions, leaders should keep a keen eye on employee wellness. These are tough times, and only happy and mentally fit employees can bring their best selves to work every day. And one of the keys to effectively manage through this situation is coaching people managers. Unfortunately, not many firms do this well or do this at all. Managers drive a large part of employees’ daily experiences. What they say, how they say it, what signals they give to employees – this influences employee engagement in a big way. So coaching people managers on soft skills – to communicate well, to manage remotely, and watch out for warning signs – is critical.
Work-life balance, flexibility, and mental health are front-of-mind for employees, according to a report by WEF. How are organizations ramping up their employee support systems at a time like this?
Employee wellness is tremendously important in the times we live in. Thankfully, firms are aware of this today and making efforts to do right by employees. We are seeing all kinds of interventions to enhance workers’ physical, emotional, and psychological well-being. For instance, many firms are giving employees access to mental wellness coaches and programs. Others provide access to wellness apps or chatbots. Yet others run short meditation classes during office hours, offer discounts for exercise programs, or even give the odd day off to recharge. Taking leaves is no longer frowned upon and actually encouraged. Apart from this, firms are taking hard steps like blanket bans on meetings during lunch hours, or not allowing employee emails after 6 pm. The point of all these is to give employees the freedom as well as the tools to enable their wellness. Another big way firms are supporting this is by tracking how their employees are faring. Employee listening systems are increasingly popular, going beyond surveys to understand employees’ sentiments, their workload, and their wellness. Firms are also ramping up exercises like employee journey mapping to understand their daily journeys and identify moments that matter and systemic factors that stand in their way. Such listening programs help firms build empathy for what their employees need to be fully engaged. As firms lean into these, they must ensure they aren’t being “creepy” when doing so. Another good practice is to think about wellness as a strategy, not just a program.