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 T.N. Hari, Head - HR, Big Basket, to take his views on the said subject.
I think it has been an exciting last four months now starting mid-March, especially for the retail industry. If you could please outline how the new normal has brought about a change in how your organization is functioning?
The questions I keep getting asked are, going forward, what is leadership? What are the three competencies that will matter? What is the new normal? My own view is that there is no single new normal, each of us has been impacted differently in different groups and different companies. So all of us are in the same storm, but we are in different boats with different new normals. For a company like Big Basket, this has been a very positive tailwind. It has given our business a big boost. And we have been able to scale very rapidly.
In the pre-COVID days, we needed to convince reluctant customers to shop online, while we still had our set of loyal customers who love the convenience and assortment that Big Basket provides. However, companies like airlines, entertainment, physical retail (especially malls), restaurants, pubs, etc., that depended on people congregating under one roof, have been badly hit. For them, the new normal is about how to optimize cost, how to deliver more with less, how to be much more efficient? I think these are the questions that are bothering them. Whereas for us the question that we engage with is, how do we make the best of this opportunity, of what situation has presented for us? And therefore, I think New Normal is different for different folks.
Having said that, I think one way in which this crisis has affected all of us is that it has made social distancing very important. With people not being able to go to work they are missing out on face-to-face conversations. Many meetings are happening online and with people working from home, there's a great degree of loneliness. If you ask me, I love these watercooler, cafeteria, and lunch conversations with different teams. These unstructured meetings where people chatted casually are nourishment for the soul, which is missing for all of us. And this can, over a period of time, result in depression. The absence of conversation I think makes existence very tedious.
The pandemic has also impacted the way companies do business for instance, warehouses can no longer employ as many people as they did before. Factories are allowed a fewer number of people per square foot. So all these organizations are trying to figure out, how they can become more efficient and how to get done more with less.
You mentioned that meetings are being replaced by emails and managers are trying to over manage. How is that impacting the productivity and the utilization of workforce in these times?
I feel that managers trying to over manage is not a good sign. They unnecessarily create a lot of stress, and team members tend to get frustrated. Weak leaders tend to create a lot of stress in the system. Whereas strong leaders who have no insecurities, who are confident about themselves and self-assured are able to use this work from home in a very positive way. They are just providing them with some broad directions. They call virtual meetings to encourage, recognize and reward people, to make them feel good. Such managers are not there to micromanage but allow teams to do their own jobs without supervision. The pandemic has actually separated good managers from the mediocre managers. Team productivity of mediocre managers has dropped, whereas, teams that are working for good managers have seen a sharp rise in productivity. The reason could be that they let their team use the extra time available to relax, spend time with family, watch a good movie, or read a good book. This helps them to bounce back and be far more productive.
I think this entire pandemic has also brought back the discussion of people being specialists versus people being multi skilled. It appears that many organizations are trying to use multi skilling to their advantage. What is your take on the same and how is Big Basket moving towards this?
It's not a very easy question to answer. Most people are reasonably effective working from home. So, for example, take the corporate functions of big basket. All the functions are working from home and there is no change in their structure of work. Now let's move to warehouses where for example, people need to be physically present and wherever we have experienced a shortage of manpower, we have looked at, out of the box ways in which we can enhance productivity and efficiency. We have explored to see if technology and some process changes can enhance production and efficiencies. And this is where we have seen some multi-tasking. For example, few who are receiving goods are also stacking goods, and those who are picking are also stacking. So I think we are seeing people are multitasking to some degree in these environments.
You did touch upon the interesting topic of labor shortage, what aspects of this shortage are being currently seen?
The whole world has grown on the back of migrant labor. The same is the story of India. Anyone who's lived in cities like Bangalore, Gurgaon, Pune, Hyderabad, or Noida will tell you that specific trades are dominated by people from specific parts of India. For example, security staff are dominated by people from Assam and Bihar, carpenters are largely from Rajasthan, people in hospitality and healthcare are largely from Kerala and the Northeast, people in construction are from Bihar and UP. So I think, in India, you know, people have specialized in some ways in skills and all of these growing parts of India have depended upon migrant labor. And what this crisis has resulted in is, these migrant, daily wage laborer were stuck in cities with no means of earning a livelihood. When the lockdown started; in a systematic way, all of them returned to their hometowns or villages creating a shortage. My own sense is that 50% of them will return as soon as the economy begins to open up, 25% will be reluctant to return to urban areas, they will pick up jobs in and around their hometowns, the remaining 25% will stay on in the villages. So this shortage of labor, I think is going to continue for a reasonably long time. And as the economy is opening up, there is enough labor to service the industries. Some degree of substitution is possible where local people would find employment, but this is not enough.
The cost of doing business therefore is going to go up and we are already seeing pay cuts, and to some extent job losses across industries. So, how can organizations optimize costs, and eliminate leakages and more importantly, protect jobs?
Companies tend to, give huge discounts, cashbacks to acquire customers, not realizing that it's not sustainable, especially when a crisis hits. When the going is good, a well-funded company goes on a hiring spree taking thousands of people onboard, paying them very high salaries. And then when a crisis hits and revenue shrinks, and investors put pressure, they try to cut costs by laying off people. So it is my belief that good companies should try and cultivate good habits in good times, because then the ability to bounce back in a crisis is much stronger.
Once the crisis strikes, you need to still take the right steps by striking a good balance between emotion and reason - both are essential. There is a need to be rational, to understand that there will be some collateral damage. You need to understand that you need to protect the interests of the larger group. You need to be able to take calls in a detached way. At the same time, you must also remember that there is a degree of emotion in the employer-employee relationship. People who have been loyal to your organization must be treated in a considerate manner. You should be a little more thoughtful in laying them off. So you need to walk the tightrope and get that rational-emotional balance right.
Do you see a diverse set of policies evolving for different categories of workers over a period of time? For example, a separate set of policies which would be applicable to people who are working from home and a separate set of policies who have to come to work?
We are not seeing this trend. We had different categories of people in the pre-COVID time as well. There were people who were employed via the gig model, they were called micro entrepreneurs, and were paid based on outcomes, for example, number of orders they delivered. They could work for as many days a month as they liked and for as many hours a day as they wanted. They were micro entrepreneurs who had to figure out how to optimize their earnings with multiple organizations – there was no exclusivity with Big Basket. So the agreement with them was to get paid piecemeal or based on the number of orders they delivered. Another category was of contractual workers, and there were also employees earning fixed salaries. So irrespective of performance and irrespective of outputs and outcomes, they would get paid. So these were different employment agreements or arrangements to suit different purposes.
We have not thought of different policies for people working from home and those who are physically present working at the warehouse or doing deliveries on the road. We have recognized them in some ways, in different forums for the risk that they are putting themselves and their families in. We have not yet consciously taken a call to design a separate policy for them, but this is something that we need to think about.
There is a debate regarding the engagement of employees who are working remotely. Do you think payroll can be a good motivator to drive a better engagement – for example, if people were to work on shorter pay cycle, such as weekly or fortnightly. Can that help drive up engagement?
I am not sure! So even pre-COVID, the micro entrepreneurs had a 10-day cycle, and they would get paid out every 10 days and salaried employees had monthly payouts. In administering payouts, one has to consider a trade-off between the administrative difficulty of paying at more frequent intervals vis-a-vis helping employees manage cash flows. Many companies find one month as an optimal pay period. But I don't believe that the pay cycle period will impact employee engagement.
The government has come up with a slew of initiatives be it the PF deductions or the fixed term employment contract. And there's a lot of discussion on the wage code bill, including suspension of minimum wages and few other incentives. Do you think those are adequate for the time being? If not, what more would you expect?
I think India does not need any more labor reforms. I think we have reasonably good labor laws. I think the problem is with the implementation always and I think we need to tighten that. This is not the time to have knee jerk reactions, on tinkering around with labor laws because labor laws have been created after a great deal of thought. Labor laws and regulations are a fine balance between protecting the labor from unscrupulous contractors and companies on the one hand, and on the other, allowing honest companies reasonable freedom to run them without harassment. And I think we have as a nation strived for the fine balance and we have achieved it. Although I will say that there is a lot of complexity in the labor laws, and the government has already even before this crisis started the process of simplifying these labor laws, for example, labor codes, or labor laws are being subsumed under four broad labor codes. The basic problem of corruption on the group has to go away. Those employers who are honestly trying to comply with labor laws and are progressive in their approach need to be encouraged and protected.
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