“We are now trying to adapt to WFH”: SVP-HR, Vistara

A look at how Vistara staff remained engaged and productive through the crisis

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Of all the sectors affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, aviation has been the hardest hit. With travel restrictions, grounded fleets, benched staff, schedule uncertainties, ticket liabilities and cash burn, concerns are being raised as to whether the sector will be able survive or not.

Amidst such uncertainties, full-service carrier, Vistara, which has been facing the heat of the pandemic, just as any other business, is striving to not only continue with its operations smoothly but also uplift its employees’ work life.

When lockdown was announced, along with other industries, the aviation industry too had to adapt to new ways of working. Apart from preparing for closure of business and operations and many other related tasks, there was a need to communicate with the airline staff on a frequent basis.

Deepa Chadha

“Around 90 per cent of our staff is at the airport, of which 50 per cent is flying, so very few remain in the office. Therefore, there was no concept of work from home for the larger population in the organisation.”

For Deepa Chadha, SVP-HR & Corporate Affairs, Vistara says, “The most critical part during lockdown was to engage our staff to work from home. Remote working was a completely new and unlikely concept for the industry. It is more prevalent phenomenon in the IT sector, BPOs and other industries.”

She adds, “Around 90 per cent of our staff is at the airport, of which 50 per cent is flying, so very few remain in the office. Therefore, there was no concept of work from home for the larger population in the organisation.”

The lockdown toppled everything, and overnight, the ‘new’ concept of remote working fell into the laps of several Vistara employees.

The workforce was divided into two categories — rostered and non-rostered staff.

For the non-rostered staff, including HR, IT and finance, the work was far more defined, and there was far greater clarity with regard to operations and tasks.

“Our first priority was to prepare our teams and make sure they managed from home. So, they were engaged through the digital calendar in a big way,” she adds.

Nonetheless, engagement for the rostered staff was also equally important. “Ensuring engagement and productivity was critical because we had to be able to resume our operations the moment we received the signal to do so. Therefore, we had to be in touch, connected and prepared to restart at the shortest possible notice,” explains Chadha.

For both the workforce segments, engagement was a common factor and technology played a vital role in ensuring seamless engagement and productivity. Effective communication and improved employee experience during such times is extremely important to ensure that the show goes on.

Once this crisis is over, the people have to muster the courage to bounce back with double force. Therefore, a potent communication strategy during this period is extremely crucial to build trust and develop connections.

Along with technology, at Vistara, learning and development (L&D) has also played an important role in enabling engagement. At the same time, the Company had to balance its costs and conserve cash.

The airline initiated its online skill-building workshops for the employees, offering nearly 30 courses through virtual sessions. These are aimed at supporting their personal and professional growth. This initiative saw great success, with over 2500 employees participating in various workshops facilitated by internal SMEs.

Soon after the lockdown was relaxed, the next challenge the leadership at Vistara encountered was to decide who should come to work and who should not.

“Phases of lockdown and unlock have not been significantly different, because even unlock 1.0 or 2.0 have not brought the entire population into the workplaces. As per the Government guidelines, only a certain percentage is allowed,” Chadha states.

There were other constraints, related to staff residing in contaminated areas or facing issues with public transport or being home quarantined.

To overcome these issues, the Company has divided its staff into three teams to work from office on a weekly rotational basis. “The biggest achievement for us has been the tweaking of interventions, making the SDM measures more stringent, depending upon which stage we were in,” Chadha points out.

In the month of May, when there was a rise in the number of cases, Vistara made it mandatory for all the staff coming to work to wear masks in the office and cafeterias.

“We identified some of the vulnerable spots where people tended to take off their masks, including the dining hall. To avoid crowding in the area, we kept all the microwaves in separate corners. This minimised the conversations to a great level,” Chadha shares.

Engagement in terms of building a connection, communicating, as well as recognising and creating awareness was important. The whole campaign was amped up and divided into various sub-interventions. The overall objective was to create a sense of connection, boost the morale of the staff, ensure collaboration amongst the employees and recognise those who walked the extra mile during the crisis.

In order to keep the employees engaged despite limited physical interaction, the company has also introduced several initiatives to reassure that we are all #InThisTogether. One of the  key initiatives, #OneVistaraStory, was aimed to showcase stories of how the COVID-19 taskforce and team members displayed courage and resilience in these tough times.

“Whether they belonged to the security staff, night guarding the aircraft; operations staff at the airport, taking care of the assets; or the pilots and cabin crew doing cargo flights in these unknown and uncertain times,’ adds Chadha.

#StayHomeStayPositive, is another initiative for employees working from home, to appreciate the way they managed to navigate through this completely unknown setup and still remain positive.

Other initiatives such as #SaluteOurSuperheroes, #WorkFromHomeBingo and #MessageOfHope enabled Vistara to ensure that its employees remained consistently engaged, even while they all worked remotely.

According to Chadha, the first communication for the employees went out in early March, a month before the lockdown, when the Government tried to get Indians back from Wuhan, China.

It was a very sensitive and emotional message by the group chairman, to the entire staff, expressing gratitude for their commitment amidst what was happening around the world at that time.

For Chadha, that was a kick-off to the formal COVID-related communication with the entire Vistara family. “That message set the tone for the way we should respond and look at things; balance compassion and uncertainty, even while preparing ourselves for what lay ahead of us,” she states.

Soon after, the full-service carrier initiated a COVID taskforce, headed by its flight operations head, Basil Kwauk. Most importantly, Chadha continues, “Even before we announced work from home, we introduced technology interventions so that the staff had VPN on their laptops, and were equipped to be able to work smoothly from home.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected the aviation industry across the world and the scenario in India is no different. After a prolonged period of no revenues, as Vistara gradually resumes operations, the focus continues to be on rationalising expenses.

“We have been revisiting existing contracts/business agreements with suppliers, vendors, and other partners to trim or delay non-customer facing costs. As part of a number of steps to conserve cash and save costs, we had to also take the difficult decision to reduce staff costs with an objective to preserve jobs,” reveals Chadha.

It has launched VistaraCARE, which is an employee safety and wellness programme, to build awareness and ensure safety at all times.

“As an HR leader, my constant endeavour has been to ensure a safe and motivating environment in the organisation. I am glad of the complete support from the organisation and its employees,” states Chadha gratefully.