How Employers in India Are Responding to the National Lockdown

By Shefali Anand March 25, 2020
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As India shuts down to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus, companies are opening up to new ways of working.

So far, India has reported many hundreds of cases of COVID-19 infections, though the number is expected to rise further given the experience 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.

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 starting March 25, all offices and factories across the country are shut with some exceptions. Most have switched to a work-from-home policy for all employees, which brings its own challenges.

"Our main focus here it 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 are steps companies in India are taking to steer 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 zip-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 healthcare products, an online 'Situation Room' has been set up that is continually being updated with guidelines, guidance on employees can stay healthy, answers to FAQs on coronavirus, and actions being taken by Dabur.

A similar portal is up and running at Hewlett Packard.

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

Infrastructure for Remote Workforce:

While many companies have asked all 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, may not have access to high-quality internet at home.

Some companies planned for this early.

Hewlett Packard Enterprise, 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 between employees who were in non-critical roles to those who were in critical roles and needed to be connected. This saved the company time and resources which might have been spent trying to buy laptops which are in short supply.

Engaging the Work-from-Home Employee:

At Hewlett Packard, planning for a complete shift to work-from-home had been ongoing for a while, so the transition was smooth, said Menezes. Now, their 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," said Menezes.

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

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 to tide over any financial need in these unusual times. 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 who have lower incomes.

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

Precautions at the Workplace:

The lockdown allows certain essential services to be operational, which means people are still going to work in some factories and offices.

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

Information-technology firm Tech Mahindra, which requires some of its staff to come to offices since its business is considered an essential/emergency service, 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 temperature 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. 

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