Anjali Chatterjee is the Head, People & Culture at AirAsia India. She has been with the organization for two years now. In her current role with the organization, she is responsible for facilitating the creation and deployment of effective people strategy in line with business goals, leading talent management, training, employee engagement, and the like. Prior to this, she served as the Vice President - HR at Tata Communications. In her 15-year stint with the organization, she was leading operations in India, APAC, and MENA. Her experience in the field is over three decades across industries such as hospitality, telecom, manufacturing.
Read this cover story interview to know Anjali’s insights on how the seismic shifts in the world of work induced by COVID-19 will evolve in the coming days, how the pandemic offered us an opportunity to create a better and more equitable workplace where everyone is able to unleash their full human potential, the changing role of HR post-pandemic, how leaders should sail through uncertain times and manage talent, and what is most critical for HR and talent leaders at a catastrophic moment like this.
How do you see the seismic shifts in the world of work triggered by the pandemic evolve in the coming days?
Pandemics have always been of enormous proportions and so are the changes that they bring along with them. In my view, the shifts occurred suddenly and rapidly in the first year of the pandemic. Now, as we continue to navigate through the second and hopefully final year, these shifts have become the new normal. The obvious disruptions have been due to the increased use of automation and on the physical dimensions of the ‘workplace’ which are now being debated and redefined. In the travel industry, where our AllStars (as we call our employees) interact on an everyday and continuous basis with guests at the airports and inside aircraft, AirAsia India brought in tremendous automation to enable a contactless travel experience at every step of the process, so as to ensure a healthy and safe journey. Non-operations functions, which largely include laptop-driven work that requires minimal/moderate physical proximity have witnessed more disruption. We believe that this remote working environment is likely to continue through the course of this year and it may probably move to a flexible arrangement with a pragmatic mix of working from a traditional office space along with the continuation of work from home.
Do you think the pandemic offered us an opportunity to create a better and more equitable workplace where everyone is able to unleash their full human potential?
The pandemic and its resultant effect of remote working has certainly made us realize the importance of compassion and empathy to an even greater extent. There is immense potential in the arena of diversity and inclusiveness and understanding that there are no boundaries for sourcing talent, and that talent can be found anywhere. This includes several groups who were previously excluded from office-based roles, including but not limited to people with disabilities, people from remote and rural areas, women who have been traditionally homemakers, as well as individuals from underrepresented groups. Not only has this drastically widened our talent marketplace, but it has also rendered opportunities to several individuals across the country who are realizing and unleashing their fullest potential.
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?
The hybrid or flexible model of work is undoubtedly here to stay and organizations have increasingly realized the significant benefits of flexibility which have markedly shown immense results and improved productivity. Organizational cultures are dynamic and forever evolving with regard to the diverse workforce and varied employees that contribute to their growing culture. The pandemic has created the impetus for organizations to be more agile, which has further built flexible workplaces of the future. Company cultures can survive and thrive in hybrid setups as long as constant communication and engagement are the norm and companies make the effort to keep checking the efficacy of these measures. AirAsia India continues to focus highly on its core values of Safety Always, Being People First, Guest Obsessed, Collaborative as One Airasia, and making things happen while focussing on Sustainability. This pandemic has also reiterated the importance of health and wellness of our AllStars and their families, which includes mental wellness. This is an important strategic business agenda for the company and we believe that healthy and talented employees help us achieve our objectives.
The pandemic has changed the priorities of HR leaders globally. How do you see the changing role of HR post-pandemic?
The pandemic has enabled HR leaders to introspect and align their vision of building future-proof workplaces with a heightened focus on employee health and wellness while being cognizant of and prioritizing mental wellness. This unprecedented situation has further developed leadership capabilities for business results as this is the era of digital leadership, and an important leadership requirement is the ability to successfully transition into newer ways of working. This includes the following :
- Management by objectives in every sense possible: Ability to virtually set clear goals not just on an annual basis, but breaking into quarterly/monthly sub-goals, and milestones while successfully managing business
- Management by high communication, collaboration and engagement: Ability to engage with teams and communicate on a regular basis by establishing a cadence of communication, to be highly motivational, give a sense of belongingness virtually to each and every member of the team
- Management by trust: In the time of remote working, relationship building becomes highly critical which helps build trust. This also makes the teams comfortable with each other and help in giving and receiving feedback virtually.
HR leaders should prepare themselves for new-age technology entering the HR sphere whether it is AI, the use of VR for learning, expansion of cloud-based HCM tools, Chatbox, blockchain, among others. The integration of these technologies will require us to get a deep understanding of and hands-on knowledge in order to provide the best business solutions.
New variants of COVID-19 are creating chaos in several countries, especially India. What’s your take on how leaders should sail through uncertain times and manage talent?
My take on this is for us to continue the work that we have been doing so far, master the art of remote management, have a keen focus on self and team development, invest in consistently upskilling and reskilling oneself, put health and wellness as a key priority and have open channels of communication.
Work-life balance, flexibility, and mental health are front-of-mind for employees, according to a report by WEF. How are organizations upping their employee support systems?
The focus on health and wellness has been a core pillar in the organizational support system for employees and their families. Organizations around the globe are rising to the situation and extending their support through varied means. At AirAsia India, we firmly stand by supporting our employees through both tangible and intangible means during this period of time. We have introduced several measures towards securing their health and well-being.
How are you preparing as a leader to deal with the next phase of challenges? What are your top priorities?
As we move to the next phase, we continue to increasingly focus on talent development. As the world opens up, the travel sector will inevitably boom and each one of us needs to be ready to take on this new era with resilience, planning, and organization, and the best way to do so is to have the best talent ready to help us take our airline through this rapid phase of growth. Apart from skill development, our teams are regularly updating their SOPs for long-term impact, planning for the immediate future i.e. when the world opens up, so as to be fully ready on time.
What is most critical for HR and talent leaders at a catastrophic moment like this, according to you?
I believe that the complete and absolute health and wellness of our employees is the most critical aspect for HR and talent leaders, and specifically for myself at this juncture. Healthy and talented employees are at the heart of our organization, and undoubtedly are the core to ensure business objectives and continuity. No other factor precedes the health of our AllStars and their families.
Where do you see the world of work in 2023? Will technologies such as AI, machine learning augment human intelligence?
The pandemic has created a massive shift in reshaping the way we work and the technologies that we use to stay connected and manage projects. I believe that HR leaders and more importantly, future HR leaders should prepare themselves for varied emerging technologies that will enter the HR sphere. Not only will these create a greater premise for us to learn and equally utilize their potential, but will also enable us to develop skills on how to partner with these technologies in order to provide the best business solutions.
How are HR leaders rethinking talent management as they come out of this pandemic?
If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that change truly is the only constant. Learning and growing in the new normal will be key; and towards this, the focus will be on broad-based digital training, data analytics, harnessing artificial intelligence in operations, digital marketing, and through it all, leadership development including emotional and cultural intelligence will be paramount. Managing employee performance by investing in the coaching abilities of managers to enable frequent and effective feedback, keeping employee goals closely linked to business priorities, and celebrating good performance will help manage the shifts post COVID-19. The employee experience including feelings of inclusivity and engagement will need to be constantly monitored, evaluated, and developed. Planning for continuous development of critical talent pools to meet shifting business demands remains an important aspect.