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Workforce Management RESET by Suresh Kumar

In Conversation with Dr. Suresh Kumar, Senior Vice President HR - Aurobindo Pharma

Suresh Kumar

Dr. Suresh Kumar,
Senior Vice President HR, Aurobindo Pharma

Dr. Suresh Kumar, Senior Vice President HR - Aurobindo Pharma talks effective workforce management in view of productivity, cost, compliance and the incoming new labour codes,  in an interview with UKG's (Ultimate Kronos Group) Sumeet Doshi, Country Manager - India , and SHRM India's Dedeepya Ajith John, Director - South & Advisory Services.

Sumeet: The current pandemic has put HR right in the center of the organization's efforts to fight back. HR is driving the workforce management on one hand, and relief initiatives on the other. In terms of the workforce management aspect, what are your key challenges in the immediate term?

Dr. Suresh: HR has been instrumental in our collective response to the current situation. I was a part of the core team which created the strategic response framework to this situation, which we call as the "PLM strategy document"; where PLM stands for - Post Lockdown Measures.

The biggest set of challenges for us is with regards to the technical assistant or executive pool, which constitutes 80 - 85% of our workforce. These challenges are:

  1. How to take care of this pool's health and well-being?
  2. How to take care of their family's health and well-being?
  3. How to provide accommodation to those from this pool who are staying at places which are vulnerable and coming under government regulations applicable due to the lockdown?

Sumeet: It is a well-known fact that your mantra for driving employee relations is - "Give more, take less." When it comes to deploying this mantra, especially for your shop-floor employees and full-time contract employees, what role can technology play to manage this workforce?

Dr. Suresh: I believe technology acts act as both, an enabler as well as a driver to optimize end to end HR processes. When an organization has a large and diverse workforce, like ours, we categorize our critical HR processes as "Lifeline processes" and look forward to automate all of them. Talent acquisition, Talent management, capability building, employee engagement and well-being are all very crucial in supporting the business. Hence, I see technology as something which enables all of them together and at the same time also helps us drive our initiatives in the right direction.

Sumeet: Your point on focusing on optimizing and automating HR processes end to end is very insightful. Today, we are talking about "employee experience" and all HR processes contribute towards this experience. Our next question is – how do you drive this employee experience, not just for your white collar workforce, but also for your blue collar workforce? Please share tech- based as well as non - tech based initiatives.

Dr. Suresh:  A very valid question. Blue collar employees constitute 82% of our workforce, and we constantly look forward to creating a culture of engagement with these colleagues through technology. For this pool, our initiatives are designed with an aim to enhance the "entry to exit" experiences for the employees. Let me share a couple of these initiatives, to give you a perspective:

  1. When the pandemic struck, we removed the biometric attendance system and installed a touchless attendance mechanism. This gave the employees a lot of confidence to enter the premises.
  2. We brought information to the employees rather than having them go to different departments to look for it. We installed fully sanitized self – help kiosks, where right from applying for leaves to getting information on their salary slips, every information was made available. In earlier days, the employees used to physically visit the HR department and meet people to discuss these aspects. With the pandemic hitting us, we realized that they will be averse to doing so. That is how is self- help kiosks idea was conceived and implemented.

These examples highlight our core approach towards technology. The requirements should be fully understood, and then technology should be deployed. This is when technology contributes towards a positive employee experience.

Sumeet: When it comes to talent management, the majority focus is on the white collar workforce. What is your perspective around managing talent for the people who are on the shop floor, the blue collar employees, the frontline workforce, maybe even the contract workforce?

Dr. Suresh: We have a very requirement driven approach here, as I have emphasized earlier as well. Let me give you some examples, where we have implemented technology to align with the requirements of the blue collar workforce.

Let's talk about hiring talent. Today, if a technical assistant or a supervisor working on the shop floor needs to hire a team member, the entire process is automated. They just need to upload the candidate's details on the system. The HR team accesses those details, and if the candidate's credentials are in line with the HR SOP, the offer letter is given. Even the joining can be done virtually.

Let me now go to the other end of the employee life cycle and give an example of the full and final process. The whole process, right from getting clearances from various departments to the generation of the full and final calculation is automated. There is no need for a blue collar colleague to physically visit multiple departments for clearances.

If I talk in terms of benefits and facilities, we never differentiate between a contract worker and a full time employee when it comes to basic facilities like sanitization, food services or transportation services. Let me elaborate on the transportation services aspect as an example. There are handful of organizations who are complying fully with the government's "Home to Work" health protocol, and we are one of them. To do so, we have increased the number of buses from 32 to 64. Each bus is fully compliant with respiratory and hygiene protocols. In the course of implementing this, we are incurring an additional expenditure of 1 Cr per month, and this is just for one manufacturing unit. But we are spending it, because we want our employees to feel comfortable, confident and secure to come to the office.

Sumeet: That's a great point. Let me zoom into the compliance aspect mentioned by you, which is particularly important for the Pharma industry. All the local labour law compliances are applicable; Plus there are compliances like the FDA. As an HR leader, how do you balance this whole equation between cost, productivity and compliances? Please elaborate with a point of view which is beyond the immediate context of the pandemic, and more long term.

Dr. Suresh: In this regard, we have a very effective governance mechanism in place.      We are certified under SA 8000:2014 compliance standards. SA 8000:2014 is a combination of fair and progressive HR as well as EHS practices. It automatically incorporates all the applicable labor law statutes. To drive accountability in the entire organization, this compliance is reviewed by the board itself. The compliance status visibility is tech enabled by a software package called Vision 360 degrees. Unless these compliances are not met every month, a manufacturing unit cannot generate the compliance certificate and escalation mechanisms are activated. Around 116 compliances are a part of this SA 8000:2014, and, consequently, also of the internal audit mechanism. All levels of management drive the effectiveness of these compliances in a very practical way, since it is reviewed by the topmost level of the organization, that is the board.

Sumeet: Talking further about the compliance aspect, let us focus on the new labor codes which will be implemented sometime in the future. I have two questions for you in this regard. First, what do you think will be their impact on the Pharma industry? And second, how will they impact the management's relationship with the trade unions?

Dr. Suresh: I believe that if your existing governance system is foolproof, you need not to worry too much about the labor codes and their impact. The labor codes by and large are just making the existing provisions more robust and more stringent. Let me give you an example. The new labor code stipulates that at least 50% of your salary should be your base pay. But in case of Aurobindo, base pay already is around 57 – 60% of the overall salary structure and we are taking care of all related stipulations. Yes, there will be some additional things to figure out, for example – for contract segment, how will the aspect of fixed term employee's bonus and gratuity payment be worked out. But, my opinion, largely we are already aligned to the new labour codes; and thus the impact will be limited.

In terms of the Aurobindo management's relationship with the trade unions, the new labor codes provide a win – win solution for both the management as well as the trade unions. I am confident of this because the labor codes expect the management to be very, very proactive towards employee welfare, and Aurobindo already operates on these lines. And if something is proactive oriented towards employee welfare, the trade unions automatically have a big stake there.

Sumeet: Let us now discuss about your book - "Hard Leads to Soft or Soft Leads to Hard", which approaches the aspect of employee relations from a win-win approach. What are the takeaways for us in the current times, with dynamics of the workforce evolving faster than before?

Dr. Suresh: I believe that irrespective of the time period, management adopting progressive and employee friendly policies is a pre-requisite for a healthy management – trade union relationship. Another aspect which makes a difference is, how is HR positioned within the organization. If HR is positioned in a strategic way and provided with the necessary wherewithal to deal with evolving situations, then the organization is well placed to maintain a harmonious management – trade union relationship. I don't think handling trade unions is a rocket science. If the management is seen as humane and transparent, the message goes down across the hierarchies of the workforce. In my experience, I have signed several settlements, many a times dealing with so called "aggressive" trade unions. I strongly believe that if the management adopts fair and firm policies while dealing with trade unions, it is easy for the workforce at large to understand the management's positive intentions. And when the workforce at large carries a positive perception towards the management, it becomes easy to maintain a harmonious relationship with the trade union.

Sumeet: A final question - with the workforce dynamics evolving and a "New normal" setting in fast, how will the workplaces of the future look like? And how is the pharma industry preparing itself for this change?

Dr. Suresh: We have discussed that compliances are all the more crucial for the Pharma industry as compared to the other industries. Hence, if more and more compliances can be made electronically enables with less and less dependence on manual labor, it will be a key differentiating factor to sustain the Pharma industry in the future. 


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