7 Big Takeaways From SHRM's India Annual Conference 2019

By Shefali Anand October 22, 2019

Leaders and HR professionals are elevating their focus on people, by engaging employees at multiple levels, enhancing their employability, and preparing them, and the organization, for the workplace of the future.

That was one of the takeaways from the SHRM India annual conference, titled 'Elevate', that was held in New Delhi earlier this month. More than 1700 HR and business leaders, from 15 countries, including Singapore, South Korea, the U.S., Bhutan and Sri Lanka attended the event. They participated in more than 80 sessions including CEO talks, panel discussions, and master classes, and learnt about a range of topics - from how to engage with gig workers, to using storytelling for leadership, and theatre techniques to manage life situations.  

Here are 7 of the many takeaways from the conference:

1. Make Cheaper Goods to Double India's Economy to $5 Trillion 

To fulfill Prime Minister Narendra Modi's vision of doubling India's economy to $5 trillion, one key step could be setting up factories in challenging parts of India, like the state of Bihar, where there is a lot of population but poor infrastructure.

By manufacturing products in these areas, India could make cheaper products, which in turn would meet the demand of 500 million domestic consumers, said Rathin Roy, Director of the National Institute of Public Finance and Policy, a research institute in Delhi. 

Roy gave an example that currently, shirts that cost $40 are being made in India, whereas $6-shirts are being imported from nearby countries like Bangladesh. To produce cheaper shirts in India "we will require firms to be more productive," said Roy. 

Experts agreed that India also needs to take steps to encourage entrepreneurship and take away policy uncertainty. 

"We need more people who take risk," said Sumant Sinha, chairman and managing director of ReNew Power, a renewable energy company based in Gurgaon. "It's really about creating this very different kind of economy from where we are right now," he said. 

2. Gig Workers Like Routines

As more companies take on "gig" or freelance workers, it behooves them to understand what makes this workforce tick.  

Contrary to what some think, gig workers like routines, as that helps them strive for perfection, said Raghavendra K., Senior Vice President and Global Head of HR at Infosys BPS, a multinational IT services firm with headquarters in Bengaluru. Citing research published in the Harvard Business Review, Raghavendra noted that gig workers also want a 'place' of their own, which is an environment where they can thrive, and a 'purpose', which could be to prove themselves and get recognition from organizations for whom they work.

In India, gig workers perform a variety of roles. Some companies hire them for entry-level jobs, say for a one-off project, while others use them for specialized high-end tasks. Infosys has contracted gig workers to work on some older technologies which engineers nowadays don't want to work on, said Raghavendra. 

Experts agreed that gig workers will become a larger part of the workforce in the coming years, working closely with machines and full-time employees. "It will be a good balance," said Rohit Thakur, managing director and HR head for India at consulting firm Accenture.

3. Machines Are More Here Than We Think

There isn't much time before automation and technology impact the workplace in a big way. 

"We have at best three to four years," said D.P. Singh, Senior Executive Vice President of Chandigarh University and former Vice President and HR Head, India, for Information-Technology major IBM. Mr. Singh said that IBM in India today has less than 20% of the staff in its payroll processing than it did until a few years ago. "Let's all be prepared," he said. 

Jayant Paleti, co-founder of Darwinbox, an HR software-maker based in Hyderabad, shared statistics from an EY study which said that 25% of jobs in the financial services industry would be replaced by machines by 2022. "Machines are more here than we think," said Paleti. 

This puts the onus on HR to make the organization ready for roles of the future. "Invest more in Learning & Development," said Paleti. 

First, HR teams should be equipping and re-skilling themselves, without waiting for the company or the boss to do it for them. "You need to invest in yourself," said Singh.

4. Hiring Mistake: Losing the Human Touch

HR experts expect that in the coming years, at least half or more of the hiring process will be automated or 'touchless'. But not having the human touch at the right time, could be a mistake.

In India, the hiring process can take anywhere from 60 to 120 days, right up to getting the employee on board.

"We have made sure that there is a touch point once every two weeks in the entire hiring period," said Ankur Berry, site HR leader at insurance firm Allstate Solutions Private, the Indian arm of U.S. insurer Allstate Corp. The company has hired 4,000 personnel in India in recent years. 

In some cases, candidates jumped ship during the hiring process. "We could not retain their interest," said Berry.  

Now, for candidates who have stuck around for more than 60 days in the hiring process, the company has more interactions with the hiring manager. For candidates who are due to join within 30 to 60 days, Allstate organizes a high tea, takes them around the offices, to meet department heads, and to keep them engaged, said Berry. 

5. Need to Go Beyond One-Off Engagement Activities

In today's hyper-connected world, to keep employees engaged, companies have to look beyond the occasional "fun" activities and the annual festival party. 

Employees' have multiple "moments of truth" in which they have an impression of what the company stands for. So, the company has to be there for the employee at multiple levels and occasions. 

At British Telecom, they call this the "Colleague Experience", said Pooja Sharma, Gurgaon-based director of HR India at British Telecom. She said her company is currently doing interviews with employees, including spending half a day with engineers on the field, to understand what irritants they face. The goal is to understand "what is our colleague experience and what can we do to make our colleague experience better?" said Sharma.

At software-maker Adobe Systems, a number of measures have been taken, including increasing the period of maternity leave, offering health insurance to same-sex partners and providing gender pay parity among all employees said Chandrashekarr B.S., Head of Compensation and Benefits for Adobe Systems India. "All these things will create employee experience," he said.

6. Companies that Make Workers Employable, Stand Out

In modern companies, employees work across teams and may not only be answerable to a single boss. In such an environment, the old saying that employees leave bosses and not companies, may not be work anymore.

So, the onus is back on organizations to retain the employee, said Ruben Selvadoray, Pune-based CHRO at Bajaj Allianz, an insurance company. 

While all companies now offer the standard benefits and engagement packages, companies that can increase the employability of their workers can differentiate themselves from the rest, he said. To do this, companies need to provide employees with a range of experiences, and challenges. "How many different options can you create?" for your employees, said Selvadoray.

7. Don't Make Bonsais of Women 

At the current pace at which women are being added to the workplace, it will take more than 100 years before there is gender equality at the workplace globally, said Apurva Purohit, Mumbai-based President of the Jagran Group, a multi-media conglomerate.

Companies need to quicken the pace of change, she said. 

The responsibility for this lies with both, the women, who must gather confidence to ask for senior roles, and on company leadership, to get rid of subconscious biases.  

Purohit gave the example of a company where the boss had set aside a senior role to be filled by a woman but which stayed vacant for months. When Purohit asked the company's HR managers why they weren't picking one of the capable women from within the company, she was told that the role required 240 days of traveling, which HR felt the women would not be able to handle given their family obligations. "What is this but sub-conscious bias?" said Purohit. 

She said this kind of paternalistic attitude is stifling the growth of the staff. "We end up bonsaing our women." 

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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