How Akzo Nobel went people-first through the lockdown

To cope with the unusual turn of events, the organisation trained its managers to treat their team members as their second family and lead them through the virtual way of working

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As a part of its learning efforts, Akzo Nobel, the paint and coating manufacturing major, took measures to ensure that employees were able to work from home without any hindrances and that managers were capable of being up to the task of leading virtual teams. “There was a lot of focus on teaching managers how to lead virtually. Being a hardcore manufacturing organisation, the concept was quite unusual for us,” says Anushree Singh, country HR director, India Subcontinent, Akzo Nobel.

Own your family

A particular initiative that stands out is the ‘own your family’ initiative pushed by the organisation for its managers. The concept required every manager to take care of their team members like their own family at home. All managers were asked to check in on the welfare of their teams regularly, by staying connected and enquiring after their health periodically. In case an employee was found to be suffering from a health challenge, then the health and safety department was notified, who, along with HR, went ahead to support the concerned employee. In addition, managers were encouraged to help their teams plan their leaves so that work did not suffer even while the employees got some respite from the work-from-home fatigue.

Care and concern was not restricted to health alone. Singh mentions that in many cases employees also rose to the occasion personally. For instance, if a colleague staying alone was facing problems in terms of food (as food delivery was affected), during the lockdown, the colleagues staying nearest supported them in such times. Even when it came to checking on elderly parents of colleagues living in another city, colleagues volunteered to visit the parents to check whether all is fine. Such initiatives created empathy and bonding within the team.

Upskilling and bite-sized learning

All employees were provided access to bite-sized learning modules, and encouraged to use this time to upskill themselves. The R&D department partnered with HR to upskill functional capabilities for all teams, including relearning product knowledge, how to manage work-from-home and behavioural competencies. Singh mentions how topics that were a need of the hour, were shared among the employees, as working from home was an unusual change for everyone involved.

Anushree Singh

We introduced an efficient tech platform through an application which has features, such as online doctor consultation, book-a-doctor for appointment, facility to order medicines and appointment for lab tests

Engagement

The organisation encouraged several engagement initiatives during this time. One of the primary ones was a quiz competition called Qurious. Here, participating teams were selected after winning in their respective states and then the competition was elevated to a regional and national level. Around 700 people participated in the virtual quiz event.

Health and safety

In terms of safety and wellness, Akzo Nobel has designed initiatives keeping in mind the core pillars of self and family, team and organisation. Around the beginning of March, it launched its digital outpatient department (OPD) solutions for its employees. “We introduced an efficient tech platform through an application which has features, such as online doctor consultation, book-a-doctor for appointment, facility to order medicines and appointment for lab tests,” says Singh. This offered employees an absolutely contactless experience, while fulfilling their needs during the lockdown.

A preventive wellness programme was introduced three months back along with its OPD and insurance schemes for the general wellbeing of its employees. Under this programme, individuals suffering from chronic diseases have access to counselling sessions to overcome them. Employees receive help in planning their schedules better and in coping with their health issues. In addition, they also have access to an employee-assistance programme to help them deal with the stress and anxiety during these times.

The employees at the depots were trained on protective measures, while the sales team was trained on safe selling practices.

Communication

As a part of its efforts to listen to its employees, understand their concerns and communicate more, Akzo Nobel hosted weekly town halls every Friday. Their duration was extended to last for one and a half hours, to allow people to voice their problems and address questions they sought answers to.

To follow up on its own efforts, the management hosted pulse surveys to determine if all concerns voiced during the town halls were covered and whether employees were satisfied. In addition, the management endeavoured to constantly communicate with the employees and update them on any new developments within the company. Helpful tips and suggestions were also passed on through weekly mails, every Monday.

Akzo Nobel began opening up its manufacturing units in May, in line with local conditions in and around the plants. After June 8, the organisation opened up its regional offices with minimal staffing of 20 to 25 per cent. The corporate office in Gurgaon is still in a work-from- home mode with only the critical staff commuting to work.

The Company has five manufacturing sites at Bangalore, Mumbai, Gwalior, Mohali (Punjab) and Hyderabad. It has its research and development centres at Bangalore and Mumbai along with its regional offices. The Company’s regional offices are operating with less than 30 per cent capacity. The organisation has 1800 full-time employees and over 700 contract workers.

Most of the plants are currently working with 70 to 80 per cent capacity, in terms of workforce. Output varies depending on the forecast and demand from the plants. However, on an average, most of them are running two shifts per day. For the R&D centres, they are running at 50 per cent capacity in terms of the workforce.

Singh claims that the organisation has been running at almost 70 per cent of its 2019 performance. “The pace may pick up as the season is coming up ahead. Decorative paints is our largest seller,” she says.