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Workforce Management RESET - Amit Sharma

Excerpts from the Interview With Amit Sharma, CHRO, Volvo Group India


SHRM India in association with Kronos India conducted a joint study in 2020 - "Workforce Management RESET: Strategies & Implications for Changing Times"; with an objective to explore the emerging workforce requirements in the new normal. Further the study also deep dived into how organizations are evolving with their workforce planning strategies and management systems to manage the work, worker and workplaces during times of uncertainty.

Taking the discussions ahead, SHRM interviewed Amit Sharma, CHRO, Volvo Group India to take his views on the said subject.

For the purpose of this study, I'm going to refer to three groups of employees - front line or the workplace staff, remote workers and then the composite staff who have the flexibility to either operate out of premises or remotely. Keeping this in context, my first question is, how have you been addressing the workforce priorities for these 3 set of workers in the new normal?

This pandemic hit us all of a sudden, not giving anyone much time to react, and we are still grappling with it's consequences. Interestingly, while we do Workforce Planning and Business Contingency Planning, however we never accounted for such unforeseen situations, which may not allow the workers to come at all to the workplace, thus disrupting the business! We have all the three types of staff which you mentioned above, the workplace staff, the remote staff, as well as the composite staff. We are diversified organisation, having multiple businesses in India, and each business has varying workforce demographics and needs.

For workplace staff, it was about ensuring that we provide them with the psychological comfort that the work place is safe. We took all possible measure to ensure best infection prevention protocols at all our sites. We ensured social distancing at the sites and also in the employee transport; created a technology based solution for determining the risk profile of the employees and ensuring that only those employees are called to office/factories who clear the daily risk assessment. These measure helped us in ensuring the safety of our employees, while I office/factories.

For remote workers, we ensured that they have right IT tools with them to deliver. We also took care of their social and mental health through various engagement interventions. Starting the meetings with 'Check-Ins'; in the calls, asking them first about their health and then coming to the work topics; building manager capabilities towards managing remote workers; sensitizing the meeting organisers towards inclusion of all and ensuring everyone's voice is heard are some of the measures we took for them.

For composite staff, it was about following the both of the above measures.

The larger point was to address their psychological safety concerns, infection prevention at our offices/factories, ensuring that they have the tools to deliver and taking care of their insecurities, mental health, socialization and fears.

Another dimension of this is the dynamics of core staff v/s contingency staff.

For businesses that employ more core staff, contingency plans needed to be made for times when the demand dropped suddenly. On the other side, businesses which have more outsourced staff, there was dip in their workforce availability even though there was demand. People were just not willing to come in and the outsourcing agencies with whom we had partnerships were struggling to find people who would come to work or even work remotely.

Today we are actually discussing what that right workforce plan for us would be, considering that both high core and high outsourced staff models have their own set of challenges. Earlier, the demand forecasts were clear and one could ramp up or down and accordingly the planning. This isn't the case today. We need to have something which is more hybrid, which takes into consideration both these aspects of core versus outsourced, and at the same time have flexibility that can meet the sudden demand fluctuations.

Can you share a little bit more about some of the challenges that you faced when you got back from the lockdown?

Multiple challenges, I would say. The first one was getting people back to work. People who were in town, were just not willing to step out and come to office.

When the first lockdown was relaxed, the government said not more than 33% of people could come to workplace. And there was also an advisory during the lockdown that we shouldn't be deducting wages or asking employees to take forced leave. So on one hand, we were paying people during the lockdown, not just because of the advisory but also because we felt it was the right thing to do, on the other hand, we had to convince people to come to work when the lockdown was relaxed. We got exemption from the government to operate our sites, which were classified under essential services. But people were scared about their safety, and also were reluctant to come as there were other employees, not under essential services but were being paid without having to come to work. This was the first big challenge we faced.

Second challenge was the availability of workers. In many cases, we found that the workers had gone back to their native places. They had to vacate their homes, because some of the PG accommodation owners did not allow them to continue staying there.

Third was that even with the availability of skilled workforce, it became difficult to run the factory with only 33% of people. We needed to ensure that people with all the critical skills were present. In that 33%, we needed to have the right balance of people coming into factories, who had the skills required for manufacturing that particular item.

The fourth challenge was about ensuring that we have adequate infection prevention protocols in place. That was an easy challenge to manage because that was something which was in our hands. Ensuring sanitization of buses, workplaces, entry / exit points, providing the masks, maintaining social distancing in cafeterias, etc. were taken care of. However, all this added to our operating costs.

And the last challenge was due to the stigma attached to COVID. Many people preferred not to disclose that they had fever or flu like symptoms. As a result, we had to use adequate technology to identify people with symptoms and immediately isolate them as well as ask them to stay at home.

So those were some of the challenges which we faced when we started unlocking and getting people back to office.

Do you see a labor shortage going forward? Or is this just temporary?

I don't see labor shortage in the country. I think we have adequate labor. But I do see the patterns definitely changing. There may be less of interstate movement going forward, because people realize that when they move from one state to another, they are called a migrant labor, as this has it's own challenges. There was a clamor to go back to their home states. Now that might shift the future dynamics, where people might prefer to stay at their home states rather than moving across the country, which is not good, both socially and also from an industry perspective. This will impact the business as industry won't be able to leverage the right skills, if people are not mobile.

But that will also mean that people will be upskilling themselves in line with industry needs of that region. For example, when people move from Region A to Region B for jobs, it's because the skill is not sufficiently available in Region B and that's when arises the need to hire from other regions. Going forward, people will understand what is required in their ecosystem and acquire those skills, so that they are employable in their regions

Has there been a difference in how productivity is being defined in these times? Or the way it is being measured? And if there are any thoughts on how workforce productivity can be increased?

I firmly believe that work is what you accomplish, and not a place to go to. There's a difference between work and workplace. I'm predominantly working from home, and I can tell you, I'm probably even more productive because I'm actually working for more hours. I'm saving a lot of time which I used to spend on the road earlier. And at the same time, my working hours are longer today. So from a technical definition of productivity, probably I'm giving much more output, and that's true for many other people.

When it comes to people delivering on their outputs, I don't see it getting impacted negatively. But there are other factors that indirectly impact productivity for which organizations need to be mindful.

When you work from home, which is not designed to be an office, the lines between office and home responsibilities get blurred. Unless people are able to effectively manage this work life integration, productivity will get hampered. Productivity will not be governed by number of hours you are logging in - it has to be purely from the point of view of output, and output can be delivered anytime. The work schedule can be such that it accommodates the household chores as well, and organizations have to be supportive. Work and personal life have got very intertwined in these times.

The second piece which organizations also need to take care of, to ensure the productivity remains high, is to ensure the employee socialization continues to happen. We don't work in silos. Our work is interdependent and workers need to collaborate with each other. So the question is, how do you create those channels of socialization in these times? Sometimes, virtual meetings are ineffective, because you're not seeing a person face to face. They can create more conflicts, because people are hiding behind those computer monitors and they are not looking each other in the eye.

Many things often tend to get resolved face to face because of personal rapport. In a virtual setup that becomes difficult and at times those meetings become less productive or the conflicts get worse. Organizations have to take care of these aspects to ensure that the social connect is maintained and conflicts avoided. If these are being taken care of, I don't see any reason why productivity should be in anyway lesser than you have, when you're operating from a designated workplace.

A lot of organizations are thinking about optimizing costs and eliminating leakages while protecting jobs. What is your take on that?

Looking at cost only from an employee centric perspective is a tunneled vision. It is too simplistic to say that if I have to reduce my employee cost by 20%, I reduce everybody's salaries by 20% and, lo and behold, we have a 20% cost saving! It doesn't work like that. When we're looking at costs, we need to understand the total cost structure in an organization. When the revenues are down, cash becomes even more critical. If there is a bad cash flow situation, you may fall in a debt cycle, even though you may have a healthy balance sheet, and you are unnecessarily paying interest. Cost and cash both are equally important.

But both have to be looked at from a more holistic perspective. So for example, if I'm looking at my cost structure and if I'm able to make 20% to 25% of my employees work from home, I can offset my additional employee costs with the cost saving on the real estate side. I can also further save money by negotiating better with my suppliers without impacting my employees. It's always about looking at cost in totality, across all elements – marketing, suppliers, admin and process costs. Can we optimize our manufacturing lines in a better way to reduce the cost and wastages there? Can we reduce our sales and general administration expenses? Can we reduce our real estate costs? Can we look at our costs from a point of view of optimizing some of the benefits which may not be relevant at this point of time? Can we look at cost by redesigning the compensation and benefits structure? One has to look at cost in a very holistic manner. And that's how, we at Volvo India, have taken a very conscious approach of cost optimization.

Given the divergent needs of different set of workers, do you see a diverse set of policies emerging in the new normal?

You will definitely see separate policies for remote versus workplace workers. That's the process of evolution of policies in any organization. When we create a policy, we create it in a particular context. Now, when the context changes, the policies also need to change. But unfortunately, in many organizations the policy change doesn't happen as dynamically as the context change happens. If we look at the current situation, there is going to be a change in the way HR policies are going to be defined. We may have to relook at policies around the current and future employee needs, which may be different from the historic ones – Employee Transport, Employee Health, Home Office, etc. are some examples towards this.

Apart from these, there are also other policies to be looked at such as; How do you deal with Employee Relations when people are working from home, for example, if somebody meets with an accident working from home, do you call it accident at work or not? How do you deal with a situation with somebody who is on a video call and let's say has a beer mug on their table? Now, do you see that as drinking while on duty? Or alternatively, if that call is at seven o'clock in the evening, does it qualify for working hours? We'll have to find answers to all these questions and thereby craft out policies accordingly.

Considering the different kinds of staff you employ, what are some of the enabling technologies and mobility solutions that your organization is leveraging to gain those efficiencies or better manage the workforce?

We are currently using Microsoft Teams and Skype calls for most of our meetings. All our laptops are already enabled to work from home with all the security systems put in place. To conserve the bandwidth on our servers, we segregated the official and personal traffic, with only the official traffic moving through company servers and personal ones, bypassing it. This ensured that there was enough bandwidth available for more office work for people working from home.

There have been a lot of reforms and measures which have been suggested by the government, including the PF, relaxation of certain labor laws, reforms, either in the regulation or in the enactment stage. Given the situation that you're facing, are the proposed labor law reforms adequate? Are there any other areas that you would want to see more reforms?

I actually am part of CII's subcommittee on this topic. We are in talks about what changes need to be made in terms of labor laws of India, and especially around the industrial disputes. I think the steps taken so far by the Govt. - Central as well as the State - are in the right direction, in terms of some of the relaxations which have been given recently.

Karnataka state has amended the Industrial Disputes Act towards governmental permission on retrenchment and changed the threshold from 100 to 300. The rules under the Code on Wages are expected sometime soon. New Codes on Industrial Relations, Health & Safety and Social Security are in the Parliament. I think our government is moving in the right direction.

In terms of the labor law changes, some of them didn't make much impact. For example when we asked our employees if they wanted to reduce PF deduction to 10%, most said they wanted to continue with 12%. So maybe it would have had impact in some of the smaller organizations, but not in organisations like ours. Overall, I think steps the government has taken to liberalize some of the labor laws, are in the right direction

What we need is flexibility to the industry to be able to ramp up or reduce the labor depending on the need, however with sufficient safeguards for the employees and suitable compensation.  This pandemic has shown us that there can be sudden uncertainties. Hence, it's important that we balance out the flexibility vs taking care of your employees in the long term.

It is very heartening to see that many state governments are trying to make a positive impact. It's a step in the right direction and we are looking forward to much easier business environment to work in.

Any other final thoughts?

There are 2 key aspects which need to be taken care of, in these times. One is building manager capability of dealing with remote workers. Earlier as a manager, one could gauge the pulse of the employees and appropriate action could be taken to manage the emotions. But when you are working remotely, it's very difficult to do so. I feel that very different capabilities are needed to manage teams remotely.

The second aspect revolves around the mental health and we haven't talked much about it in HR circles. This pandemic has also impacted people's mental health. Health & Safety was earlier more focused in the manufacturing industry and there too it meant more of physical safety or physical health. The shift is that it has become a focus area across all sectors and included mental health too. It is definitely one of the key focus area for HR teams going forward.

Click here to access the full study report: Workforce Management RESET: Strategies & Implications for Changing Times I 2020

Click here to access the Future of Work Report I 2019


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