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Workforce Management RESET - Mahesh Medhekar

Excerpts from an Interview with Mahesh Medhekar VP - HR Mercedes - Benz Research & Development 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 Mahesh Medhekar, Vice President - HR, Mercedes - Benz Research and Development India,  to take his views on the said subject.

How are you dealing with your workplace staff, who have been coming almost on a daily basis, braving the pandemic, and braving psychological fears as well?

We see this COVID-19 disruption as VUCA 2.0, being completely different from the earlier VUCA which was primarily due to digital transformation. I think COVID-19 has accelerated the digital transformation in many organizations. Is this the new normal - I would say yes and no. I will connect it to the kind of business what we are in which is a captive business with a larger part being engineering. We are neither an IT organization like Amazon or Google, nor are we a full-fledged manufacturing unit. This posed a unique problem for us, requiring a creative solution.

When we went under lockdown, we had to balance working with colleagues in office alongside those working from home. We streamlined a lot of our processes and put in the enabling tools / technologies etc. We had to have some employees present onsite to take care of our labs, with its special hardware. And that is where we spent a good amount of time. We worked together with our security and facilities team for the re-entry plan that would be safe for our employees. We started with 4 to 5% employee strength. Later, with the help of our rostering tool we rotated 10% of our people every two weeks – this eliminated any chance of infection spreading from batch to batch. And now after two months, we have comfortably expanded to 20% of our strength. This just shows what amazing results we could achieve by really working with people. Undoubtedly, communication was the key for the smooth transition to bringing people back in office.

There are certain questions that we are working upon:

  • One is obviously ensuring the deliveries and efficiency when employees continue to work from home.
  • Second one relates to the emotional aspects of working from home.
  • Third question pertains to how much demand, there will be for real estate.

Fourth question is - what does the customer really want? Is the customer working out of office? In which case do they want you to work alongside them? I think this is what will decide the work from home/ office argument.

We are currently in discussions with a group of people to really figure out what is going to be the new normal, but at the same time, we were able to generate confidence in our employees and able to get people back through 20% rotation every fortnight. And I feel this will continue into the foreseeable future, unless the vaccine is out.

Now that you have implemented this rotation-based system, I'm sure there would be certain people who have specialist skills, while others may have multiple skills – how are you balancing this out? And which one do you think is going to be more important going forward?

When it comes to choosing between multiple skills and specialist skills in one particular domain, what matters is the project which has been assigned and the employee's consent. Managers take a call on who to rotate based on the business needs. The project manager selects employees having the skills needed for that particular project, keeping in mind the maximum cap set by HR. Employees have the option to accept or reject the roster. In addition to that, we have also given a choice to employees to self-roster.

Interestingly, many employees do not mind coming to office because they feel connected and safer in office than their own apartments, or out shopping for groceries.

Are you experiencing any shortage in the workforce given these times?

There is shortage but not to the extent that it is impacting business delivery. On one hand there is shortage, but it is made up for by the fact that people are available and at home, not away for family functions or vacations.

What about productivity and talent utilization given that some people are working from home, some are on the flexible, rotation system? How are you defining and measuring productivity under these circumstances?

Being a research and development organization, we have many tasks which are software related and also to some extent driven by innovation. Obviously, most of the deliveries are result oriented, which is the most important criterion. We do not monitor hourly input or the output of employees, so we do not use time-tracking tools. And most of our people directly interact with customer, since it is a captive unit, with the manager getting involved only during reviews and if there are any escalations.

With distribution of infrastructure, people having to work from home as well as come to office, organizations are reporting higher costs. Are there any thoughts on how cost can be optimized, not only to protect jobs, but also to compensate the shortfall of revenues that organizations are experiencing?

I do not see any increased costs - on one hand there is a drastic reduction of operational costs like, running the cafeteria at reduced capacity, employee transport, electricity, etc. The negative impact of cost is felt as businesses are not able to generate additional revenue. However, in our case, being a captive business that is not a concern. We have also introduced internet allowance to help people to go for additional bandwidth or a dedicated internet connection. But I do not see these as additional costs because we are saving costs in other areas.

Given that there would be some employees operating from home, some may be required to come to office, some may be part time working, some may be flexi working, etc., do you see a diverse set of policies evolving over a period of time for each of these employee sets or groups?

Yes, as I said earlier, we are currently analyzing those aspects with this working group as to what is going to be a new normal. We are looking at how that is going to be from a policy perspective - depending on the skills, project requirements, the family situation, and so on. This does not take into account people who have travelled out of Bangalore during this pandemic. We are not asking them to come back unless they are willing to come, so they will continue to work from home. We also need to take into consideration the Government guidelines. So, our policy will have to take care of these aspects of different kinds of work modules and we are working on the them.

Engagement also is one of the concerns or focus areas for organizations, especially given that some people may be working from home for a prolonged time. Do you see shortening of pay cycle weekly or fortnightly payrolls to drive up engagement?

I do not see shortening of payroll cycles as a means of driving engagement. Earlier the engagement budget was used for some team events, team lunches, team building programs, rewards and recognition events. I think there is a limit to how you can do them virtually.

With the changing work culture and work model, I think all HR functions should get re-evaluated – how the HR business partnering will happen, how the L&D will function in the new normal, how the payroll function will work when people are not physically in the workplace. If this is going to be the new normal for next one or two years, how does HR business partner role work. HR leaders should be connecting with people in other functions and plan for the virtual world. This is the one big change I can see coming.

In managing this new normal or VUCA 2.0, as you called it, what role has technology played in enabling the work from home practice and what has been the impact of those kind of mobility solutions?

We have planned and put a (BCP) Business Continuity Plan in place. On the IT hardware side what helped was the readiness to move things on laptop Mining Engineering cases. We provided mobile workstations to run simulations. Also, there are some measures taken to make emergency VPNs and VDI technology available for people. Before making investments, we looked at Skype, Microsoft Teams, and virtual platforms for town halls and also, conducted a lot of tests on different tools.

The Government announced a lot of labor law reforms like reduction in PF deduction, fixed term employment, be it reduced rate of TDS, etc. Do you think those are sufficient in dealing with the current situation or do we need more reforms?

I think for our kind of operations, and the kind of talent we have people are really looking at the aspects which are cost related or 'cost of living' related or individual taxation related. Any measures in that direction will be beneficial. The cost of certain groceries and daily need items have gone up. If the government can do something to lower the cost of living and lower taxation, that would help the IT or the engineering people.

Any other thoughts from your end?

I would like to share some of our learnings from the past few months.

Our leadership team has approached the pandemic problem with pragmatic optimism or cautious optimism. And that has helped us to bring people back to work successfully.

Our second big learning was our success with constant communication. We had virtual town halls, so we could connect with 2000 plus people three to four times. We asked for questions in advance so we could analyze them and answer them properly. We tried answering all the questions around work from home, around the anxiety, around the preparedness in offices, which got us a lot of appreciation from our employees.

Thirdly, we have led from the front. We have embraced the term - lead by webinars. We conducted some and participated in some of them. Instead of taking webinars from home our leaders, the CEO, the head of HR, the CFO, and all the department heads, were seen taking and attending webinars from their respective offices. This is what made the difference and instilled trust in employees, because from Day 1 leaders were seen working from offices. Thereafter it was not difficult for us to get the first 5% employees in the first batch.

And I think that I would call leading by learning from the front.

And final one is, it is a balancing act between working from home and working from office. We have to take care of employee health and safety but at the same time also ensure the business does not suffer.

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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