HR dept has its work cut out as companies manage layoffs, work from home

HR departments are learning to manage a remote workforce.
They say it’s the new normal. If Covid-19 is changing the workplace, the human resources (HR) department has to step up the game to lay the edifice of the new digital office, enable employees to match up to the demands of the new place and make both the corporation and its employees more productive.

So far, the focus of HR has been on prioritising the health and safety of em­ployees and in some cases, enabling re­mote working. Now organisations are considering medium- to long-term solutions as to how they can continue to leverage virtual working and other technological tools to run their businesses. This is a watershed moment for the HR, says Major Mithun Sasi (retd), vice-president (VP) and head, HR, at MGS, the technology partner of UAE’s leading bank, Mashreq. “While businesses are changing, the HR has no option but to relook at how we operate, and acquire and manage talent.”

Here are some of the complex questions before the HR today: How should HRs and managers monitor the remote workforce? What constitutes leave in a wo­rk environment where one is perpetually co­nnected through phone even if she is not sitting at her workstation? How does the earned leave model change when an em­ployee is not expected to show up at office?

But first things first: What has cha­n­ged? The biggest casualties of the pande­mic-induced lockdown were jobs and em­ployee morale. With this came the biggest challenges for the HR teams — from keeping the workforce, spread across different geographical locations, motivated to being sympathetic to retrenched employees to inducting new ones, all virtually. Willy-nilly the HR teams have had to come up with fresh ideas to upgrade the skill sets of their workforce. Some of the buzzwords that we have been hearing these days are polyskilling, upskilling or cross-skilling.

Take Sun Life Asia Service Centre (ASC), India, which has launched a job ro­tation framework to polyskill its employees. Rajeev Bhardwaj, CHRO, says the nu­mber one reason millennials change jobs is they get bored of what they are doing. “Our intention is to channelise that boredom towards learning and getting them into alternative career paths within the organisation. Our experience says if we do it within the first three years (of hiring fre­shers), they will learn to be more focused, in the initial part of their career itself.”

Talent and its sourcing will increasingly become geography-agnostic, thereby giving both organisations and workforce more choices, feels Sunit Sinha, managing director, India strategy and consulting, talent and organisation, Accenture.

Another visible shift is the move of em­ployees towards freelance work or joining the gig economy, which used to be a la­r­gely employee-led concept. Sinha says the concept of the “workforce” will expand beyond traditional organisational boundaries and this will be further augmented by the drive towards increased automation, contact-less and digitally-driven processes.

According to Anandorup Ghose, partner, Deloitte India, the coronavirus-led up­heaval is an opportunity for Indian em­ployees to tap into customer-centric or product-management jobs as virtualisation of the workplace is making the world flatter. He says this “on-tap” model of em­ployment — as suggested by Accenture’s Sinha — will find greater acceptance and adoption by employers with increasing re­alisation that fixed costs need to be made more variable. “There is an interesting co­nfluence happening — freelance workers have become more aware of the challen­ges of not having company benefits or the assurance of an income stream, but em­ployers have also created benefit structures that cover some off-roll employees. This balance will make it more sustainable,” he says.

“The only requirement for HR and employees themselves is to be able to rapidly develop skills/competencies that allow them to take some of these opportunities,” he adds.

This is where the HR department of an organisation will have to step in to de­sign specific compensation packages for diffe­rent groups of employees. A lot of traditio­nal benefits like fu­el/uniform/driver allowances are becoming less relevant today, while compensation for broadband or home furniture are becoming more im­portant. As Sun Life ASC’s Bhardwaj puts it, organisations will have to have a cafeteria-like approach to compensation.

Bhardwaj says just before the Covid outbreak, the firm had moved to an online learning tool at a global level, which has proved handy now. “We are encouraging employees to utilise this scenario by getting new certifications online, for which we have an education system subsidy. We reimburse the cost once they share with us the proof of clearing the course.”

The advantage is employees themselves seem more amenable to reskilling exercises to improve their employability in a volatile market.

Another big shift that has been observed is that many more corporations have started prioritising the physical and mental well-being of its people. Take Wipro. Ayaskant Sarangi, senior VP, HR, says the company has provided employees with an insurance cover for Covid treatment, besides encouraging them to take personal time off to recuperate.

Life science company, Bayer, has recently rolled out services like teleconsultation with doctors, online order of medicines at a discounted rate, and so on, says K S Harish, the company’s country group HR head, South Asia.

Above everything else, the HR teams will now have to look into the information security and data privacy requirements of employees as more and more people work remotely. Take Bangalore-based MGS, which has all of its employees working from home, of whom 50 per cent are even outside the city. Though Covid has shattered fears of data breach, MGS, being in banking services, is sensitive about it. Here what it has done. It has invested heavily in beefing up its cyber security infrastructure and made employees aware of the various possibilities, and responsible for their own security.

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