COVID-19 brought the world to a grinding halt but work must go on, and it did, albeit virtually. While getting used to the new work normal has not been easy for most, 2020’s real professional trial was reserved for the HR leaders. The year has proved to be the ultimate rite of passage for HR professionals who have been on their toes, mapping out efficient strategies to mobilise massive workforces towards a virtual work life, without losing productivity. Not to mention the ever-evolving code of conduct that came with working in the midst of a raging pandemic.
It is not over yet. With the future of work not around the corner but staring us in the face, HR leaders are grappling with decisions they believed they still had a couple of years to plan. Besides, the year has changed the face of their own work life, taking into consideration that meeting people is, in fact, the primary nature of the job. These are the five ways 2020 has changed the life of HR professionals for good:
1. Doing the unavoidable
Downsizing was a bitter reality for many companies, irrespective of size, particularly for the aviation industry. There is a reason George Clooney’s character in Up in the Air had such a busy job. The fact is, laying off someone, in a year like 2020 to top it, is an unpleasant task but one that had to be done. HR professionals were faced with this unavoidable responsibility.
“We had to be very thoughtful about it,” says Raj Raghavan, senior vice president & head – HR, IndiGo, on navigating this uneasy conversation with employees. “I personally promised them that as soon as hiring picks up, they would be the first ones we would call.” Reducing head count was one of the first tasks on many HR ‘to do’ lists. “We faced it with a straight face but in a careful, humane manner, with compassion and kindness.”
“The basic issues of stress, human-to-human connect, recognition, power and politics will continue to be there, but in a different avatar. These will need a complete rethink.”
2. Real meetings no more
The next big change to adapt to, like all others, was working remotely. Work-from-home was a harsh shift in routine for many but more so for HR professionals. What with the role being all about dealing with people!
“It was particularly challenging for those who are primarily the face of the organisation,” notes Abhishek Khandelwal, global HR head, Welspun India. “For instance, in the pre-COVID world, my day as an HR head was all about back-to-back meetings. There were people in and out of my office all through the day!” It was the same for Raghavan, who adds, “Pre-COVID, we didn’t even dial-in for meetings, forget any other technology. They were all in-person meetings. Now we’re all using collaborative tools. Before this, we never thought we could work remotely.”
The move to virtual meeting rooms did disturb HR activity. “Now everything is virtual so how do I engage my team? How do I know if they correctly interpreted the task I handed them?” Working in this non-physical environment has been a major reconstruction of the HR life. “So now, when I talk to the team, I’m careful about being very, very clear on where things are, what’s happening, what’s not,” adds Khandelwal.
3. Offices one can’t see
Coming to terms with virtual work in their own lives, HR professionals quickly became aware of the new task that had manifested in their job profile — that of employee engagement in a work culture that’s now intangible. “One is now at home so what kind of company would one imagine in one’s mind?” says Khandelwal. “Even more for new joinees — How does one embed them into a culture that doesn’t exist in front of them?”
This is something Khandelwal has observed to be a great pain point for new employees joining the company. “Working remotely is relatively easier when one has already worked with someone in the office. One knows them, their work patterns and personalities. But for a new employee, it is different. How does one warm up to colleagues one has never met but has to work with?”
Dealing with these questions is what the new HR role looks like. “We can’t look at the same routine practices to make it an effective workplace,” points out Khandelwal. “We need to figure out new employee-engagement models, and ways to bring an unseen office culture to life. It’s going to be difficult imbibing the same feeling that they’re used to.”
Abhay Srivastava, chief talent officer & senior vice president – HR, Cipla, adds, “People will remain people. The basic issues of stress, human-to-human connect, recognition, power and politics will continue to be there, but in a different avatar. How does one tackle these things to ensure a thriving organisation? These will need a complete rethink.”
“We need to figure out new employee-engagement models, and ways to bring an unseen office culture to life. It’s going to be difficult imbibing the same feeling that they’re used to”
4. Independent team work
The new problems led to some unexpected revelations too. “I have realised that people, by and large, are very responsible. I think it’s an innate human need to show accountability and responsibility,” says Raghavan, which has inspired him to relook at the concept of self-managed teams.
“Often, as leaders, one tends to think that unless one supervises people, they will not work well. But I’ve come to understand that this couldn’t be farther from the truth,” notes Raghavan, as he talks about the exemplary productivity and proactiveness demonstrated by some of the youngest members in the company.
“I have realised that people, by and large, are very responsible. I think it’s an innate human need to show accountability and responsibility.”
“Quite frankly, I’m amazed at the way some of our people rose to the occasion and achieved phenomenal feats. We’ve found heroes in absolutely unexpected parts of the company, especially those we would consider the quiet achievers,” he says. “I’m personally curious to know what influences the human mind to be consciously accountable and responsible for their own results and how we can introduce this concept into the new workplace?” he continues
5. Best foot forward always
Last but definitely not the least, thinking on one’s feet. Human resources is one of the company divisions that has been on their toes all this year. “When the situation doesn’t allow thinking time, how fast can one respond to the situation? It’s a learning that will stay with me for life,” says Khandelwal.
To be able to do that, he believes, one has to be nothing short of the best at one’s job. “It’s the whole idea of being an individual contributor in so many ways. Everybody has to be at the best of their abilities to contribute effectively in a remote work environment,” adds Khandelwal.