HR Is at the Front Line of India’s Lockdown

By Shefali Anand April 8, 2020
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HR at home

​How does a company bring essential employees to the workplace when a country is locked down? That's been the biggest challenge for CHROs of employers in India that provide essential services, such as hospitals and pharmaceutical companies.

These companies have been striving to receive permits to move staff, organize transport, ensure the safety of workers and reassure their families while keeping the work-from-home staff engaged.

Companies started preparing for these efforts before India announced a 21-day lockdown starting March 25 to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, but plans have had to be improvised daily since.

"There was nothing that we did today that would be appropriate tomorrow," said Saurov Ghosh, group head of HR at the National Stock Exchange (NSE) of India in Mumbai. "Every day, we have a war-room scenario where we find out what the day was like yesterday, what were the operating hassles, and address those then and there."

Here is a roundup of how CHROs working at essential-services firms are navigating the lockdown.


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Coronavirus and COVID-19

Hospitals

Since mid-March, hospitals had started preparing for a possible influx of coronavirus-infected patients. Post lockdown, the closing of public transport posed problems in getting nurses, paramedics and other staff to their jobs.

At the CK Birla Group of Hospitals, which has two hospitals in Kolkata and one in Jaipur, buses were arranged and offers of carpools by staff were taken up, said Indrani Chakraborty, Kolkata-based CHRO.

At Fortis Healthcare, a chain of pan-India hospitals, in addition to transport, arrangements were made for some workers to stay at the hospital, said Sanjay Sinha, Gurgaon-based group CHRO.

To keep staff updated, information about how employees are being protected was quickly disseminated via e-mails, WhatsApp groups and posters in the hospitals. Protective gear for all staff was procured, and training programs and mock drills were conducted on the protocol for receiving and treating patients.

After the lockdown, most nonclinical staff were asked to work from home.

"We make sure that people who are on the ground do not feel that they are left alone," Sinha said. Senior leaders have been sending messages frequently to all staff, especially those on the front line, and there have been regular video meetings, he said.

At CK Birla, managers were nudged to recognize the little things that employees are doing while performing their duties. "You amplify the appreciation quotient," Chakraborty said.

Fortis now has 262 isolation beds across the country, Sinha said. "The good news is we have cured and sent back lot of patients," he said.

Vendors also required attention. Chakraborty's team pushed its payroll company, which was not prepared for remote work, to manually process payroll to ensure that staff salaries were processed on time.

Many hospitals outsource jobs like housekeeping and cafeteria management, so staff for these vendors were also given protective gear and counseled.

Pharmaceutical Company

Dr. Reddy's Laboratories is focused on meeting the high demand for medicines from India and overseas while ensuring employee safety, said Archana Bhaskar, CHRO based in Hyderabad.

Post lockdown, Dr. Reddy's also faced problems in bringing staff to factories, with some workers stopped or roughed up by police on the way. The firm arranged buses for workers but filled them only by half, to maintain social distancing.

Despite the prevalent atmosphere of fear, most of their workers are motivated to come to work, Bhaskar said. "Today's situation is extraordinary, and everybody is working extraordinarily hard," she said.

For staff who were nervous, the firm has been educating their families and creating assurances. At the factories, multiple safety measures have been taken. Other challenges also emerged, such as how to provide quality food to factory staff, since many service providers aren't functioning. "There are a lot of practical challenges to keep things running," Bhaskar said.

Company leaders have been visiting the plants by rotation, talking to small groups about their concerns, she said. Meanwhile, more than half of Dr. Reddy's 20,000+ employees are working from home. For them, different initiatives have been rolled out depending on their needs.

Recently, the firm partnered with an organization to provide emotional wellness and counseling services to all staff across the globe. "I'm really surprised by the number of people who need it and are logging in to avail [themselves] of this," Bhaskar said.

For vendors that provide housekeeping and other low-income staff, Dr. Reddy's has pressed for proof, like bank statements, to show that these workers are being paid even if they can't come to work. "We don't want these people to suffer," Bhaskar said.

Stock Exchange

Making the country's largest stock exchange run seamlessly under all conditions is the goal of the NSE. "There is not a single day or a minute where the markets or systems have failed to operate. That's the best proof of success," said Ghosh of NSE.

But the journey was hardly seamless. The exchange is a high-tech operation, and running some of its applications requires massive Internet speeds that are not available at most homes. Plus, it has sensitive financial data that is kept secure in systems on NSE's premises. 

"For an organization that has never done work from home, to do it was a learning curve," Ghosh said. Preparation helped. By early March, a core team, including the M.D., chiefs of risk and technology, the CHRO and other leaders, started considering how to make the exchange run in case of a lockdown. A plan was ready by March 12. Laptops were rented and tied into required systems, and by March 17, the company announced work from home for most of its 1,000 employees.

Still, a team of around 110 people, including critical staff in technology, information security and regulation, needed to come to NSE headquarters in Mumbai. This includes staff from technology vendors, Ghosh said. 

The next step was to figure out the logistics of bringing these critical teams to the office. They are housed, at NSE's cost, in serviced apartments and a hotel that are walkable from the stock exchange. The staff then is sent home on weekends, during which time their rooms are sanitized, and they are replaced by a fresh team of employees on Mondays, Ghosh said.

Parents of some of these employees have called supervisors, who have reassured them on the steps being taken to ensure safety, he said. For the work-from-home staff, communication has been stepped up to let them know that the "organization is connecting with you," Ghosh said.

Online Grocer

Grofers, which offers grocery-delivery in 32 cities, has been focused on providing essentials to as many people as possible but not without challenges. "We had to convince local authorities that if you allow 200 people to work in my warehouse, you're stopping 30,000 people from coming out of their houses and shopping." said Ankush Arora, head of HR at Grofers.

As a technology company, most of Grofers' 2,000 employees could easily shift to a work-from-home setup. Vendors supply more than 10,000 people to work at its warehouses and for delivery. "As a principal employer, I take care of everything pertaining to their safety, health, everything," Arora said.

This has meant making the warehouses safe per government and World Health Organization guidelines, including providing masks and sanitizers, as well as checking the temperatures of staff frequently. However, more had to be done to allay fears among workers. At one location, a local civil administration official addressed workers and assured them that they were doing the right thing by coming to work, Arora said.

Meanwhile, some Grofers leaders and city heads have been visiting warehouses and listening to workers' concerns while also rushing to get more permits to allow staff to move easily. As more people have returned to work, more deliveries are happening, Arora said.

The corporate team is staying connected via Zoom calls and live sessions with city leaders and pitching in wherever possible. "Everybody is doing everything," Arora 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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