How HR Can Support Businesses Amid Coronavirus Uncertainty

By Shefali Anand April 27, 2020
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​In times of uncertainty during the coronavirus pandemic, HR executives can step up to support their businesses in new ways.

"We don't have to limit ourselves to our functional boundaries in a scenario like this," said Apurv Choubey, Pune-based CHRO of Bridgestone India. Choubey said he is leading the company's efforts on business continuity planning, looking into, for instance, how to ramp up manufacturing once factories restart.

India has been under a nationwide lockdown since March 25 to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus. The lockdown is due to be lifted May 3.

As a result of the pandemic, businesses have asked employees to work from home where possible. But revenues have tanked, and there is growing pressure to cut costs.

"HR faces the dilemma of managing the fixed costs of employees and at the same time keeping the morale and motivation of people who are working from home always higher," said Adhir Mane, Mumbai-based CHRO of Lifestyle Business at Raymond, a fabric maker and fashion group.

HR also needs to prepare for the long term, as the coronavirus could change the way companies work. "Become nimble," said Rahul Sinha, Mumbai-based CHRO of adhesives maker Pidilite Industries.

Here's how experts suggest India-based HR professionals support business during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond.

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Coronavirus and COVID-19


Get Creative on Cost-Cutting

Employees are often a prime target when it's time to cut costs, but experts advise that HR push for other cuts first.

Get into "a change-driver's seat by being creative around work, worker [and the] workplace," said Manu Wadhwa, CHRO of Sony Pictures Networks in Mumbai, during a webinar for SHRM India. Companies can reimagine the workplace by having more staff working from home in the future, which could help bring down the cost of maintaining offices. For work, think about "how much can you automate, digitize," Wadhwa said.

Ensure that the company's key talent is being productive and will be ready to work on the company's growth when operations resume.

To save on employee costs, some companies have already implemented pay cuts and leave without pay. If employees have to be let go, experts advise staggering the layoffs over a year.

Mane explained, "One has to really think in terms of the structure of the organization for the future."

Reopening the Doors

Before the end of the lockdown, HR should work with businesses to answer the question, "How do you get people back to work?" said Anandorup Ghose, a partner at consulting firm Deloitte India in Mumbai. This could involve modifying factory workers' shifts to ensure their safety with the least disruption to the business. It may also require creating new norms such as checking employees' temperature, requiring them to wear masks, and limiting the number of staff in common areas and cafeterias.

At Pidilite's factories, Sinha said, the company plans to create a separate area where workers can sit down and wait for their turn in the cafeteria. They are also considering changes to how food will be served to minimize personal contact, he said.

Sinha's team is dividing office staff into groups and plans to bring only one group into the office at a time. This means that only 16 to 17 people will be operating on a floor that can seat 60 people, Sinha said. "Automatically, social distancing gets created," he said.

Planning for a crisis is always advisable. "If a couple of our employees tested positive, how will we manage?" Choubey said.

Prepare Staff for New Skills, Change

While employees work from home, HR should use this time to train them and build new skills that will serve the business's growth plans. There are many online training programs that companies can take advantage of at minimal cost. For example, Raymond is using its "One Button Connect" application to train factory workers, supervisors and others on products, risk management and skill building, Mane said.

Pidilite has advanced the learning and development calendar for its employees. "You have to ensure that they stay productive … while they are working from home," Sinha said.

Besides technical and basic skills training, companies are coaching employees on rules of working from home and managing remote teams. HR "has to hand-hold not just employees, but also a lot of leaders, because people are not used to working from home for such long periods," Mane said.

Prepare staff for changes in the business environment. "We need to make sure that our employees understand and adapt to change," Choubey, of Bridgestone, said.

New Business Models, New Investments

Even when the lockdown is lifted, business will be far from normal. Customer demand is expected to change, and there will be greater competition, requiring companies to operate differently.

"This is a time to reset the entire thinking of business models," Mane said. For instance, Raymond, a brick-and-mortar retailer, would look to boost its online sales, he said. These new business realities will require HR to think differently about talent acquisition, workforce planning, and learning and development.

A result will be more investment in digital and infrastructure improvement, such as in technologies to manage data and run business analytics, Sinha said. "We have to [develop] more capacity to do these things remotely."

Take Care

One way HR can support business is by keeping employee morale high so that they help fuel business growth when the time comes. To keep employees engaged and let them know they are cared for, companies have stepped up communication in recent weeks.

At Raymond, Mane said, business leaders and HR business partners have been sending videos, articles and WhatsApp messages to employees to understand how they are doing and to coach them on working in the new remote workplace. Many companies also have launched contests and quizzes for employees, while others have rolled out help lines to tackle stress or emotional well-being issues.

A panel of five doctors is available to Bridgestone employees 24/7 for online consultation, as well as home visits, Choubey said. Bridgestone has also created WhatsApp groups of employees living in the same area and trained those groups on how to help each other in an emergency, as well as how to stay safe.

Despite the many challenges, the first priority for HR executives is to take care of their people. "That is the asset that you are here to manage, and that is the asset that is at risk right now," Sinha 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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