How Employers in India Are Responding to the National Lockdown

By Shefali Anand March 26, 2020
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Mumbai

​As India shuts down to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus, companies are opening up to new ways of working.

So far, the country has reported many hundreds of cases of COVID-19 infection, though the number is expected to rise given the situation in other countries. In recent weeks, Indian companies and business leaders have been pulled in various directions as they try to ensure business continuity while keeping their employees safe.

"People safety is first," said Ajay Oberoi, chief people officer at IDBI Federal Life Insurance in Mumbai.


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Coronavirus and COVID-19

Most companies across India had stepped up precautions and created task forces comprising senior leaders to monitor and respond to the evolving situation. With the nationwide lockdown that began March 25, all offices and factories across the country are shut with few exceptions. Most have switched to a work-from-home policy for all employees, which brings its own challenges.

"Our main focus here is to keep our employees engaged, to keep them feeling good about themselves," said Sailesh Menezes, Bengaluru-based senior director and head of HR in India for Hewlett Packard Enterprise, a technology products and services provider.

Here is how companies in India are supporting their staff at this time:

Authentic Information

Given the flood of information on social media, some of which is dubious, companies are focused on giving employees reliable information.

"We're communicating to people not to panic and to maintain safety," said Anil Tandon, Gurgaon-based chairman of Tex Fasteners, a zipper-maker with factories in India, Bangladesh and Vietnam.

Communication from companies is valuable. A recent online survey in 10 countries revealed that more employees believe information from their company than from other sources like government websites or traditional media.

At Dabur India, a manufacturer of consumer goods and health care products, an online "situation room" has been set up that is continually updated with guidelines, guidance on how employees can stay healthy, answers to FAQs on coronavirus, and actions being taken by the company.

A similar portal is up and running at Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE).

Companies are also using other means of communication, such as e-mails and webcasts, including webcasts by doctors, to share information on how to safeguard against the virus and what to do if symptoms occur.

Infrastructure for Remote Workforce

While many companies have asked their staff to work from home, a lack of infrastructure poses challenges. For instance, many employees don't have laptops or, in some parts of India, don't have access to high-quality Internet at home.

Some companies planned for this early.

HPE, which provides laptops to all employees, recently also provided Wi-Fi dongles and equipment for power backup where needed.

At IDBI Federal Life, Oberoi said they swapped laptops from employees who were in noncritical roles to those who were in critical roles and needed to be connected. This saved the company time and resources that might have been spent trying to buy laptops, which are in short supply.

Engaging the Work-from-Home Employee

At HPE, planning for a complete shift to work-from-home had been ongoing for a while, so the transition was smooth, Menezes said. Now the company's focus is on keeping the remote workforce engaged and motivated.

"When employees work from home, there's a sense of isolation that can set in, because we are all social beings," he said.

To pre-empt this, managers are required to check in frequently with staff and to look out for their well-being. HPE's portal has resources and information for managers on how to manage their teams remotely, Menezes said.

Freshworks, a software firm with headquarters in Chennai, has been hosting online workshops and webinars on internal portals to keep the workforce motivated and engaged, said a company spokesman. These webinars share tips about how to collaborate and be productive in a remote environment, he said.

Support to Indirect Workers

At IDBI Federal Life, one priority has been to process salaries of employees earlier than usual. This includes payments to outsourced employees who work for the company via an agency, such as IT technicians, as well as support staff, such as housekeeping and security personnel.

"They need maximum support at this time," Oberoi said. He said they are pressing their vendors and agencies to pay workers a week ahead of their usual salary day as an offer of support.

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Precautions at the Workplace

The lockdown exempts certain essential services, which means some employees are still going to work in factories and offices.

In these cases, companies are taking steps to make the physical workplace safe.

Information technology firm Tech Mahindra, which is considered an essential service and which requires some of its staff to come in to its offices, has been fumigating and sanitizing work spaces, providing sanitizers, and stocking up on emergency medicines. Also, personnel at the company's security gates have been given infrared sensors to check the temperature of all employees and visitors entering the premises.

"Our focus is on ensuring the well-being of all our associates and partner ecosystem," said Harshvendra Soin, chief people officer, Tech Mahindra, in a statement.

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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