In corporate circles, especially in India, the role of Human Resources leaders is sometimes viewed as being an administrative, almost supportive one. The implication is that in a business-as-usual scenario, the CHRO, unlike his peers in Marketing or Finance, isn’t often called for to lead from the front. Operating within a familiar lattice of policies and procedures, he has supposedly less arduous targets to fulfil, and consequently, suffers fewer sleepless nights through the year. But the global pandemic of COVID-19 has turned this narrative, debatable as it is, on its head. From companies that employ 50 professionals to behemoths deploying a thousand times that number, HR leaders have been put under an unprecedented and relentless level of strain. Companies have to move swiftly to a trajectory of economic viability, while keeping their workforce healthy and motivated. Amid the bleak economic outlook, wage-cuts and down-sizing, the present crisis also presents opportunities for revisiting the ways of working and engaging with employees, which may have outlived their purpose.
Turning the spotlight on the people dimension, industry analysts have posited imperatives and prescriptions, to charter a new role for HR leaders. In some insights published by Korn Ferry, the emphasis has been on establishing a “Human Resources War Room’, where the CHRO is the driving force, holding the organization’s other stakeholders accountable to the common purpose. Accenture’s article, while viewing the situation from the Indian perspective, focuses only on the criticality of workforce resilience, and offers a five-stage plan for building and sustaining resilience in the workplace. Based on two digital gatherings of Italian CHROs in the beginning of May, Egon Zehnder has arrived at a prognosis, where the new leadership in a post-COVID scenario focuses on emotional welfare, trust, generosity, flexibility and resilience.
From an Indian standpoint, the need of the hour is for an empirical, ground-up study that reflects the multidimensional challenges faced by HR leaders in the country and the solutions proposed by them, for a post-COVID paradigm. It’s imperative, too, that discussions focus on positive, forward-looking aspects, for instance a charter for business recovery, as opposed to dwelling on the adverse impact caused by the pandemic.
As part of the ongoing Positive Psychology-based study being conducted by NUVAH ELINT LLP and BIASINC, HR leaders were surveyed and interviewed. Their responses showed why a new set of behavioural skills are essential for making the journey from survival to sustainability, in a post-COVID Indian ecosystem.
Employer – Employee Expectations
In this component of the study, stakeholders were invited to state what they felt were the top expectations of employees from their bosses – and vice versa – in a post-COVID paradigm. The same set of expectations are repeated across both employers and employees, underscoring the need for reciprocity between the two groups. For 50% of the respondents, emotional intelligence and empathy topped the list. Nowhere was this felt to be more critical than in the healthcare sector, where the vast majority personnel comprise COVID-warriors. “Going forward, everyone will need to demonstrate a far higher level of emotional intelligence.” – Says Jacob Jacob, Group CHRO of Columbia Asia Healthcare. “Only when one has a mature understanding of one’s own psychological state can one be aware of external situations and be sensitive to the challenges of others.”
This resonates with Dineshwar Pratap Singh, CHRO of Lava International. “Empathy is the biggest need of the hour. Leaders who can’t empathize with others can’t take the correct decisions. Leadership has to be through a genuine understanding of the needs of others – and the underlying assumptions thereof. Otherwise, it becomes a function of arrogance.”
For Swati More, CHRO – Network, Bharti Airtel, empowerment will become key to a meaningful employer-employee relationship, in the future. “For this work, trust is paramount. The existing protocols, SLAs, frequency and mode of reviews need to be revisited. This means that new procedures and ‘rituals’ need to be defined and established. Instead of micro-managing and insisting on in-person presence, for example, a greater number of online meetings will need to be in process, and all participants guided as how to operate efficiently in the new framework.”
Skills for the Future
The stakeholders were asked to choose from and rank what they felt were the top skills needed by employees in a post-COVID world, from a superset of 24 signature strengths. Curiosity, defined as the ability to not only cope with ambiguity to like it and be intrigued by it, was ranked highest by 45% of the respondents. Fairness, love of learning, perseverance, teamwork and perspective also featured in the skills basket.
“Fairness,” says Vijay Iyer, entrepreneur and former Chief Learning Officer, Deloitte (US India firms), “entails the need for recognizing the extraordinary nature of the current situation, and calibrating expectations accordingly. Recognizing, for example, that when the organization changes to a completely different way of functioning, productivity may dip temporarily. A degree of balance needs to come in.”
For Krishna Muniramaiah, CHRO – Asia Pacific, Altimetrik India Pvt Ltd, love of learning is a key emerging attribute that working professionals need to be equipped with. “Employees need to ascertain what skills they are lacking in, and build on them. Employees of the future need to be truly engaged and invested in their careers. Professionals across domains, including HR professionals, will have to reorient themselves to the present scenario. Even leaders need to ask themselves: how can I best engage my employees? And what do I myself need to learn, to be able to do so?”
In this part of the study, stakeholders were asked to deliberate on what they felt would be the required mindset for the workforce of the future. They were asked to score the importance of three specific constituents – self-esteem, resilience and grit, on a scale of 1 to 10. The scores across all three elements were high. Self-Esteem received an average score of 8.44, while Resilience ranked higher, at a mean score of 8.78. Grit topped the list, with an average score of 8.89.
For Swati More, grit is very closely linked with perseverance, the signature strength she ranks the highest in the overall skills-mix required for the future. “At present,” adds Krishna Muniramaiah, “with wage cuts and job loss, there is much negativity everywhere. Given the multiple things on personal and professionals things they’re having to manage simultaneously, unless employees develop a high level of Grit, there will be burnout very soon.” According to Jacob Jacob: “Grit, requiring determination, is critical. In fact, the definition of determination has changed in our times. One has to be able to not just face all the uncertainties of the future, but have the grit to come out of it.”
Across the board, a clear position emerges among HR leaders: the old frameworks, policies and procedures will no longer work, going forward. Arriving at new frameworks for a post-COVID paradigm requires CHROs not only to invest afresh in employees but introspect and reorient themselves to the unfolding uncertainties of the future.
Avik Chanda is CEO-Founder of NUVAH ELINT LLP, also a business advisor, corporate speaker, bestselling author and columnist. Shubhabrata Roy is CEO-Founder of BIASINC, Board Member at NUVAH ELINT LLP.
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