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Workforce Management RESET - Lakshmi Satyavarpu

Excerpts From the Interview with Lakshmi Satyavarpu, Director - Talent Management & Business Partners, Morningstar 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 Lakshmi Satyavarpu, Director – Talent Management and Business Partners, Morningstar India Pvt Ltd to take her views on the said subject.

Before the pandemic hit, say in January, what percentage or what proportion of the workforce was working remotely? And now that you look at it, how do you see the way forward?

That's great question to start off with. Back in January 2020, 100% of our workforce was working from office, and end March 2020, 100% of our workforce was working remotely. So, we have touched the extreme ends of the spectrum in a span of three months.

And now, planning forward, there is enough and more thought going into return to work. We are aware that many other organizations have opened up and started encouraging employees to get back to work. From a Morningstar perspective, we want to make sure that we really take it slow. We want to make sure that employees feel comfortable, safe, to travel to work and be in office and be productive. We are going to split return to work into phases. In phase one, the decision to come to office will be completely voluntary for employees, preferably those who stay near the office or who have their own personal transport. In phase two, we will start encouraging at least 50% of our workforce to come back to the office.

As you are planning the return to office, are there certain aspects which are more important? Apart from considerations like social distancing, sanitization, etc. are there any other thoughts which are also impacting your plans?

Morningstar is an organization which has roughly about 2,000 employees and growing, but the complexity really sets in because we work in shifts. And most of our seats in the pre-COVID times were shared seats, which meant that somebody would come in at the 5:30 am shift and move out at 2:30 pm. The same seat would then get occupied at 3:00 pm by another employee in the afternoon shift. The challenge for us now post COVID is, how to make the seats non-shareable, and stagger our workforce timings to make sure there is maximum sanitization and minimum sharing of equipment (seats, headphones) and infrastructure.

Besides, a large portion of our population travels to work using public transport. Even when public transport becomes operational it is going to be a risky proposition for them. So that is something we have to think about as well. These are some of the key parameters that would impact our return to work policy. Morningstar is an organization that has always encouraged employees to come to office, because we really feel that when employees work in a cohesive environment it encourages bonding and they get to learn about the culture at Morningstar.

There has been a lot of talk about multi-skilling the workforce to deal with unusual situations like what we are facing right now. Given that a lot of your workforce would be specialists, are there any thoughts on looking at a flexible workforce or multi skilling employees? And how can your workforce deployment be made more easily manageable to deal with such situations?

I think our employees across the company are well qualified in terms of the skills we need for all the roles we have. There has been a constant endeavor at Morningstar to cross-skill people. Morningstar always offers opportunities for employees to see what career option suits them best, and what role in the company closely matches their career aspirations. So, in that sense, the organization is open and very flexible, in terms of upskilling people and giving them the opportunities they need to skill themselves for different roles in the company.

Are you experiencing any shortage of workforce availability?

We see shrinkage in the availability of a certain type of skilled resources and the highest impact of this is really felt at the mid-tier kind of roles. The entry level roles, however, still stand unaffected and there is enough supply as much as there is demand.

What about workforce utilization and productivity? You mentioned about the drastic shift from 100% workplace staff to 100% remote working. How are you looking at those 2 areas?

 So has there been any thoughts? Or are there any ways to get on this?

Pre-COVID I do not think, some of our large teams ever dreamt that they could work remotely because they're so data oriented. A small group of managers even admitted that productivity in the past three months is higher than what they would have normally seen in the office. The reason could be that people get the opportunity to have their Flexi time in between calls. They also save on travel time, in return for which they are happy to contribute towards their office deliverables. We also have internal systems to track productivity through parameters like accuracy and timeliness. We use a combination of our internal systems and the workflow trackers to measure productivity across the company.

We have really taken a lot of steps to boost our productivity and ensure that all our employees are efficient even while working remotely. We have shipped every kind of end user device and equipment to employees' homes. We have designed a policy to support various types of reimbursements like broadband expenses, furniture expenses, etc. Most of our employees traveled back to their hometown or their PGs/ rented homes which may not have adequate infrastructure in terms office chairs or desks.

A lot of our process-oriented teams have daily targets which they found challenging to achieve as they would face intermittent internet connectivity and power outages. So, we decided to convert them into weekly targets, which eased the pressure of daily targets and gave them some flexibility. These kinds of measures ensured that we have high productivity, reaching beyond 90 to 95% each day. This and the great amount of trust that we place in our employees helped to deliver on their goals.

The above measures must have increased costs for your organization by giving marginal benefit. How can organizations optimize cost in these times?

Morningstar is being overly cautious about expenses. Globally we have taken the decision to completely cut down all but extremely critical travel. Second, any new contracts or renewal of contracts, whether software, people, purchases, will be routed through the global executive leadership team. We've slowed down recruitment and taken to hiring only for business-critical positions, which have to be approved by the executive leadership team. We also took a decision to postpone our merit hikes which are normally applicable 1st April every year, so that we could safeguard the jobs of our employees. These merit hikes will now be reviewed at the end of Q2. These are some of the measures that we put in place to optimize costs.

Now that you have tasted success with remote working, do you expect real estate usage to come down?

I think Morningstar will still encourage employees to come to work. So, we will still require a real estate in that sense, but, may not be for 100% of the workforce, 100% of the time in the office. So, it would be more like a hybrid model, with maybe 50% of the workers coming into office for two days a week to start with and then the others come by rotation. For the rest of the days you continue to work from home. Discussions for this are still underway.

With staggered working, and rotational staff, do you see diversity policies evolving over a period of time?

Over the past few months, we reviewed some very crucial policies that needed tweaking, because we wanted to make our employees very productive. But I think people policies will continue to be reviewed to accommodate this so called new normal. For example, we had a work from home of policy three months ago, which is completely obsolete. Given the COVID situation, I think we will be more diverse and more inclusive - whether it's for working mothers, working fathers, employees who are personally undergoing stressful situations, etc. I think our policies will continue to be reviewed from time to time to make sure that employees are well taken care of, because at Morningstar, we really believe that people are our biggest assets.

With remote working, engagement has been a key focus area and concern for a lot of organizations. Do you think shortening the pay cycle to weekly or fortnightly can help in more engagement of employees?

We have not thought of that, but that's a great idea. Morningstar is one organization that is really prompt in paying out salaries. I know of organizations that have cut salaries or delayed paying salaries, but at Morningstar come what may we will make sure that salaries are credited into people's bank accounts on the last working day of each month. We have done this consistently over the past ten or eleven years, and there has been no reason for us to deviate from this now. I do not see any reason for us to change pay cycles, because I don't think that's going to keep our employees any more or less engaged.

You mentioned about going from 100% workplace to 100% remote - is technology enabling this transition and what were some challenges you faced? What has been the impact of mobility solutions, for example? And how prepared were you when all of this happened?

I do not think we were prepared to suddenly start remote working. At Morningstar we had already adopted a digital work methodology to create an enhanced employee experience. It was further galvanized and improvised during the COVID situation when it was decided that all employees need to work remotely. So, it was indeed beneficial for us to adopt mobile technology solutions like virtual private network, or virtual collaboration tools like Microsoft Teams, Zoom etc. I think was very useful for us to get our employees connected from day one. As far as adapting to remote working is concerned, Morningstar has been very agile.

To deal with the epidemic and the aftereffects, Government has announced a few labor reforms like reducing PF deductions. Do you think those are enough or adequate? If not, which areas would you like to see more reforms?

I am not much of a labor law expert. But I believe that there is definitely an urgent need for the government to step back and take a view on how these laws are impacting corporates and which of them need a review. Salary may need to be redefined to clarify work from home compensation, and work from office compensation. At Morningstar, we are also trying to see if, things like travel allowance, shift allowance, hardship allowance being paid out to employees are relevant anymore. Do we need to substitute them with say, internet reimbursement allowance? And that is why I say that the government may need to take a step back and review what's relevant and what's not.

Any further thoughts on how the workplace and the work will change? Please elaborate.

One of the things we did at Morningstar is where we really reached out to a random set of employees across the company, asking them their personal preference and whether the kind of work they do in the company, really warrants that they should come to office or continue to work from home, and other such questions. We got feedback right from the ground level upwards. We found that 90% of our people said, "we want a hybrid environment". I think that's largely because obviously human beings are social animals and need that social interaction to learn, share and grow. So, I think there is a need for organizations to keep, the real estate or the office space, intact and active. I do not think that we can continue working in a virtual environment in the long term. I think the office will still be the center where people would like to congregate, to share ideas and be with each other. This kind of office culture is not going away anytime soon.

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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