What lessons has India Inc learnt as it prepares for life after lockdown

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What’s worked during the lockdown and what hasn’t? Can what’s worked become a permanent feature of the workplace? Are there any unexpected positive outcomes? What lessons can be extrapolated and applied in future? As the corporate world tries to answer these questions, it’s clear that one feature — working from home — has been a success.

So much so that Japanese automotive paints company Nippon Paint (India), as it prepares for life once the coronavirus (Covid-19) outbreak slows down, is closing its sales office in Mumbai.

The Gurgaon-headquartered company, with marquee clients like Maruti Suzuki and Tata Motors, has been so surprised by the success of the ‘work from home’ rule that it is thinking of asking staff at other locations to continue working from home too or go in for co-working space. Both measures will save high rental costs.

Nippon Paint (India) is also planning to reduce the number of warehouses, even if it means a slight delay in delivering its products. To strengthen health and safety in its three factories, it may opt for professional sanitation companies instead of depending on its in-house team.

The social distancing imperative has prompted the company to consider rejigging shifts, so that there is no overlap of workmen between two shifts. Said Sharad Malhotra, president, automotive refinishes and wood coatings: “There is no doubt that business and the way we run manufacturing will change fundamentally for corporates and manufacturers after Covid.”

If not closing offices, other companies are looking at shrinking them. The chairman of a leading Mumbai-based conglomerate with interests in autos, financial services, hospitality, defence, and information technology (IT), has asked his business chief executive officers (CEOs) to consider the following: Can employees in departments such as marketing and sales or departments, where there is no strict need to work from the office, can come in on alternate days to save rental costs?

Top managers across broad swathes of industry are busy on video calls and emails to rework their business strategies, products, and standard operating procedures in manufacturing units for a post-Covid world.

“It is not about the lockdown being lifted. The key for us is to prepare workers for a completely different standard operating procedure, with many health and safety measures that are here to stay,” said R C Bhargava, chairman, Maruti Suzuki.
Many manufacturing companies, anticipating mandatory directions from the government after the lockdown has been eased, are already taking measures such as installing thermal scanners and reworking the pre-start-up check list. Before any machine is turned on, a longer health checklist list will have to be observed.

They are also looking at more automation and a push for localisation. Said KEC International CEO Vimal Kejriwal: “We are working on designing some special purpose machines, which will ensure manual operations are eliminated and increase productivity.” An auto industry CEO said: “It might not be good news for employment, but automation will increase productivity and give more flexibility to us — if workers migrate suddenly or, as social distancing becomes a norm, if workers don’t come at all. Localisation instead of importing will reduce costs. Everyone has to do a balancing act.”

In the services sector, companies are reworking their product to make it safer. Transport aggregator Uber India is considering tweaking its cars. Perhaps add some roof-to-floor plastic sheeting to cordon off drivers and protect them? A mandatory protocol for sanitising the car, including hand sanitiser, for customers.

“We are doing pilot runs on 150 vehicles which are restricted now for the exclusive use of health workers. We are still working on how to scale it for over 200,000 vehicles after the lockdown is lifted and individuals want to move around safely,” said Pradeep Parameswaran, president, Uber, India and South Asia.

Employee engagement will also change. Fast-moving consumer goods major Nestlé India is learning from its experiences in China. Chairman & Managing Director (CMD) Suresh Narayanan says that working from home, while it has advantages, can also lead to stress and anxiety in some people who feel isolated.

Nestlé has rolled out ‘virtual’ engagement programmes, training programmes, mental health initiatives, free advisory calls with accredited doctors, and even check-in programmes for young employees who live alone or far from home. These programmes will continue even after the lockdown is lifted.

The more immediate challenge, however, is what can be done to cope with a certain slowdown or recession. Top CEOs are devising blueprints. The key, for the moment, is conserving cash. Said Thomas Cook India’s CMD Madhavan Menon: “We have a significant amount of cash in our balance sheet and we are reviewing all our cash sources and payables. All non-essential expenses have been stopped to conserve cash.”

The chairman of a leading conglomerate with interests ranging from tyres to IT, has sent a note to top managers highlighting key areas: Take all profit and loss hits, but postpone cash outflows, be ultra-sensitive to marketing costs as consumers are busy with survival, use all statutory concessions, review foreign exchange cover closely, don’t dodge associates, i.e., vendors and suppliers with whom we have contracts, re-examine all contracts, convert bonus targets to cash, go slow on capex, and modify offerings to fit the current situation. Business continuity plans are also being reviewed as they had obviously not factored in a pandemic. 

Jignesh Thakkar, global compliance solution leader at EY India, said that companies will want to plug any deficiencies caused by various factors such as timelines of action, lack of infrastructure, labour shortages or external environment issues.

“Firms will then want to put in new internal guidelines based on the lessons learnt as well as solid contingency plans to respond to future crises,” said Thakkar.

Inputs by Aneesh Phadnis, Arnab Dutta, Sudipto Dey, Amritha Pillay

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