Bringing Staff Back to Work in India

By Shefali Anand June 16, 2020
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Indian woman at her desk

​As Indian businesses start to reopen following the lockdown to curb the COVID-19 pandemic, companies are gradually asking workers to return to the workplace. While staff at factories and other essential service providers has returned in full force, office-based staff is still largely working from home.

"We just don't want to start pulling people back, given that we have not seen the peak yet," said Latha Nair, Mumbai-based HR director of the Indian unit of DuPont, which manufactures a range of materials, including protective gear. Around 5 percent to 10 percent of DuPont's office staff returned to the workplace on June 1 and plants have been functional since late April, Nair said.

As lockdown restrictions ease, companies need to watch out for employees letting their guards down and falling back into old social behaviors.

"People are itching to go and interact," said Shefali Mohapatra, chief people officer in Bengaluru for ACT Fibernet, a cable and broadband service provider. The company made several changes to office space to ensure distance between workers.

Companies should be vigilant about identifying new company rules that aren't working and should tweak them as needed. "Keep testing your protocols," said Rajesh Shetty, Mumbai-based vice president, operations excellence, at Mahindra Logistics, a provider of warehousing and transportation services.

Safety Measures

Companies are taking several measures to make the workplace safe, including conducting temperature checks at factory or office entrances, asking employees to wear masks at work, placing sanitizers around the workplace, and taking extra care to clean the premises thoroughly.

"Everything is ramped up two- to threefold in terms of sanitization," Nair said.

Capgemini, a consulting and technology services provider, has installed foot pedals to open doors so employees don't have to use their hands to touch surfaces. Plus, company vehicles that bring employees to work are being sanitized and physical distancing is maintained while entering the worksite or being seated.

"We're going that extra mile that's required to support our staff coming back," said Pallavi Tyagi, Mumbai-based CHRO for Capgemini in India.

About 5 percent of the staff is coming to work at present, Tyagi said, and that number will increase to 25 percent in a phased manner over the coming weeks, depending on need and government regulations.

At Mahindra Logistics, Shetty said, "disinfection tunnels" have been set up at warehouses. All employees and visitors pass through these tunnels, which spray a bio-neutral sanitizer.

Most companies have coached employees on maintaining physical distancing at the workplace, especially in common areas like the cafeteria and elevators.

"Even when we are in the same office, we are encouraged to have our meetings through Zoom or Microsoft Teams," said Tojo Jose, CHRO of Muthoot Finance, a financing company headquartered in Thiruvananthapuram.

ACT Fibernet has provided personal protective equipment to all field workers—those who have to be outdoors to maintain the broadband network or who need to enter customer homes. "We didn't want a single case of an employee getting an infection because of work," Mohapatra said.

Communicating Protocols

Ahead of reopening, companies have been communicating protocols that employees are expected to follow at the worksite.

Mahindra Logistics provided online training, produced videos and placed posters at the company's premises on what to do and what not to do, Shetty said.

All Capgemini employees are encouraged to complete a learning module that includes guidance on new behaviors for the workplace. The company also created an animated video showing all the precautions taken at the workplace so that both employees and their families would feel more comfortable, Tyagi said.

"When our leaders are also coming to the office, they are sharing their experience through video communication to the employees," she said.

Employee Health Reports

Companies have been using different tools to keep track of the health of their employees, especially those returning to the worksite.

DuPont has been running a health survey at regular intervals, Nair said.

At ACT Fibernet, returning employees must give a daily health declaration to their manager. The company is creating an application for its field staff that will track attendance and ask workers to report if they or a family member has any COVID-19 symptoms. "This app is going to enable a daily check," Mohapatra said.

Capgemini has created an app that asks employees for information such as the location they travel from and how they would describe their physical health. If the information meets the company's criteria, the app generates a quick-response code, which acts like a digital pass that allows entry to the office premises. "Only authorized and selected employees are coming to the office right now," Tyagi said.

Mahindra Logistics has made it mandatory for employees to download the Indian government's Aarogya Setu app, meant to enable contact tracing, Shetty said. Around 64 percent of its blue- and white-collar workers are back at work, up from just 30 percent a few weeks ago, he said.

Beware Behavior Issues

Despite extensive training, behavioral challenges have cropped up at the workplace.

In May, as local authorities began easing lockdown rules, some field officers of ACT Fibernet decided to get together for a meal at one of the company's area offices without informing their managers.

"They started feeling that the risk has gone," Mohapatra said. "When we came to know, obviously we were quite unhappy."

The company has since removed chairs in common areas and stopped the free tea and coffee service at its offices to discourage employees from congregating.

Shetty said Mahindra Logistics conducts surprise audits at the company warehouse and other premises to check that all physical-distancing norms are being followed.

"No matter how you train them … the behavior of people can't be changed overnight," Shetty said.

The company has also tweaked protocols as necessary. For instance, wearing masks all the time at warehouses without air conditioning was cumbersome given the high summer temperatures, so Mahindra Logistics now allows employees to take off masks when they are alone.

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Coronavirus and COVID-19

Infection Preparation

Most companies have prepared plans for how to react in case an employee tests positive, typically putting a person or team in charge of handling the situation.

At DuPont, all sites have an Integrated Health Services team, which includes professionals trained to handle first response should someone display COVID-19 symptoms, Nair said.

Capgemini has an ambulance on standby.

Support for Extended Work from Home

Since many employees continue to work from home and may need to do so for some time, companies are striving to keep them engaged and comfortable.

At DuPont, "HR has been actively engaging with the entire India organization, and they act promptly for any matters that need attention," Nair said. The company has also organized weekly companywide talk sessions to hear and appreciate individual stories or team achievements by employees working from home, she said.

Capgemini has emphasized wellness, Tyagi said, arranging for counseling services and regularly conducting wellness programs on topics such as guided meditation.

ACT Fibernet has allowed staffers to take home office chairs. "Ergonomics matter," Mohapatra said.

Shefali Anand is a New Delhi-based journalist and former correspondent for The Wall Street Journal. You can follow her on Twitter.

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