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New Rules of Engagement for India's Hybrid Workplaces

A woman in a sari sitting at a desk with a laptop.

​As companies in India adapt to the new hybrid workplace, HR teams have to tread a fine line in managing engagement for two sets of employees—those working in the office versus those working from home.

Employers are following a range of different models. While some companies have specified how many days each week, as well as which days, staff must come into the office, others have left it to employees to decide. Some companies have embraced having some permanently remote employees, making the workplace highly distributed. Others are hiring employees for what had been full-time jobs but on a part-time basis onsite, which complicates the makeup of the workforce.

"When you juxtapose these realities—of a highly complex workplace and a highly complex workforce—the challenge for HR leaders is immense," said Avadhesh Dixit, chief human resource officer for Acuity Knowledge Partners, a research and analytics provider in Delhi. "HR teams are going to struggle for a long time to get this entire cultural integration, communication integration and employee engagement right."

Communication Channels

With more offices reopening, companies are ramping up their in-person communication with employees. At the same time, many are stepping up their e-mail and other digital communication to stay connected with remote staff.

"We have enhanced our communication channels significantly in terms of the number of employee-connect initiatives that HR and managers are expected to take," Dixit said.

Acuity's policy is fully flexible, allowing employees to work from anywhere with no mandatory requirement to come into an office. Still, on any given day, 25 percent to 30 percent of their employees are present in person, Dixit said. The company is hosting more town halls and team meetings online, while also scheduling periodic in-person team meetings. In those cases, if a remote employee has to be called in, the cost of airfare and hotel is paid for by the company, Dixit said.

To build informal channels, Acuity is encouraging managers to take their teams out for lunch or other similar gatherings at the company's expense. "In the coming days, I will be enhancing the budget so people can come together more often face-to-face," Dixit said.

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Seeking Work/Life Balance

In a hybrid workplace, there's a risk that the line between the office and home is blurred, so more organizations are creating policies to keep the two separate. "It's important for the leader to establish and clearly communicate the company's policies around work/life integration to its employees and adhere by it," said Sailesh Menezes, India HR head for Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE) in Bengaluru, an information technology firm.

Since all employees are not present in the office daily, impromptu events to engage and support employees are a lot harder to pull off, said Garima Pant, group HR director at MullenLowe Lintas Group, an advertising and communications company headquartered in Mumbai.

Pant says staff is being called into the office two days a week, but those days are not fixed, which initially created a quandary. The HR team wanted to organize in-person activities twice a month to make people excited about returning. They found that midweek was the best time to hold such events because that's when most employees were working in person.

"Wednesday is the new Friday from an employee-engagement perspective," Pant said.

Accelerated Induction

In a remote environment, helping new employees connect with the organization becomes even more important. At the Indian arm of Stryker Corp., a medical devices and equipment manufacturer, onboarding was handled completely online during the past two years. Lately, however, it's being managed in person but differently from how it was done pre-pandemic, said Rajiv Oza, Mumbai-based head of HR in India.

The firm adopted an accelerated induction program two months ago when a group of new employees joined the division in Gurgaon, Oza said. Since company policy changed to require employees to be in the office for just 12 days each month, all new hires came to headquarters to attend a two-day orientation program with workshops and sessions with leaders. After the two days, many of these new employees returned to different geographical locations.

Oza said this induction program was more intense than before the pandemic, because staff back then would continue to be in the office five days a week, which provided more time and opportunity for them to be engaged. As a result, Oza said they're encouraging managers to schedule more frequent meetings and offsite functions with team members. "The culture should not get diluted because of [the hybrid environment]," he explained.

To cater to multiple employee audiences, HR teams also are using a mix of online, offline and hybrid engagement events. At the India unit of Hewlett Packard Enterprise, for example, most employees are working remotely but are expected to visit the office one to two times a week for team meetings, seminars and engagement activities. "Hence, we have redesigned all of our offices as spaces for collaboration," Menezes said. More than 25 percent of the overall workforce is in the office on any given day, he noted.

To familiarize employees with redesigned local offices, HPE launched a "Site QR Hunt" in which employees have to find QR codes hidden in different parts of the office. The company is also running in-person "speed-mentoring" sessions at the offices.

Online activities that were launched during the pandemic also continue. To connect employees in different geographical locations, HPE launched the "Mystery Coffee" initiative. In this, the system matches employees within HPE's global workforce based on interests, and then connects them for a 30-minute video meeting in which they can talk about their work, personal issues and more. "It's all about creating positive relationships and connecting with other people," Menezes said. 

In addition, there are hybrid events in which some participants are present at the office and others participate virtually. These events feature interactive platforms, which encourage remote workers to participate.

"We believe the hybrid work environment is here to stay, at least for the foreseeable future," Menezes 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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