COVID-19 has led to significant changes in the way employees experience their organizational culture. Some are positive—people are beginning to express interpersonal care and concern for others more frequently—and others less so, such as the blurring of work-life boundaries. At TechHR India 2020, Ira Gupta, Head HR, India, Microsoft, shared her experience of how these changes have played out in Microsoft's culture.
'Our mission has become a north star'
When Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella stepped into the role in 2014, he enunciated an organizational mission to empower every person and organization on the planet to achieve more. And since COVID started, that mission has become incredibly purposeful, says Gupta.
"Our mission has become a north star in such an accelerated and real manner," she describes it. What's more, it has played out in the behavior of managers throughout the organization: they are making decisions with an increased focus on putting customers first, on making a difference, and on learning and advancing from the experience.
This has had a positive effect on productivity: internal surveys found that since the crisis, people have been working more during what's supposed to be their downtime. For example, messaging used to fall by 25 percent during lunch hour, but after the crisis began, it has only fallen by 10 percent. What's more, there has been a 52 percent increase in the number of messages sent between 6pm and midnight, and the number of employees working on weekends has tripled.
But it also has a negative effect, and that is people are now working too much at all levels, especially managers who are attempting to take care of those whom they feel responsible for and neglecting themselves as a result. "I don't like the fact that work-life boundaries have shifted so much," Gupta says. "My concern now is that people are working too hard."
What works: Clarity, communication, and care
One thing that Gupta believes has not changed at all is the need for human connection. Work relationships are still important and people still need to engage, and this is playing out with more and caring communications. Employee networks have increased during these months, she says; there are more requests for one-to-one meetings; the amount of time spent on casual interactions has increased.
"Meetings are starting with people asking: How are you feeling? How are you doing? Earlier, we would go straight to the topic at hand. Now, people are increasingly not doing it," she says. People whose work involves interacting with external parties, such as sales or supply chain, are spending more time with those connections.
What's more, Gupta finds that managers are playing a major role in driving greater care and consideration in work interactions:
"There is an acceleration in things like empathy. In things like giving grace, care, kindness. I'm finding that managers are demonstrating this to a degree that I am proud to see. They are really stepping up to show grace."
And what's working to enable managers and teams alike, she says, is the ability to communicate with clarity and focus "It's enabling our managers to feel more in control, and enabling their teams to feel more in control," she says.
What else works: Model, coach, and care
One problem Gupta has run into, at least in Microsoft India, is the urge for managers and leaders to "be the hero" and take all the burdens of their teams upon themselves. "That worries me," she says. "We are all in the same storm, and the leader doesn't have to pretend that his boat is stronger than the others. That's too much pressure."
But what's the solution? How can HR leaders nudge managers and other leaders to be more forgiving of themselves? One approach, she says, is role modelling, following a "model, coach, and care" system. Managers and leaders have to be taught to model balanced behavior such as taking time off, so that the people follow them can feel free to do so. They have to be taught to take care of themselves as much as they take care of others.
"At Microsoft India, we've had a 45 percent increase in the number of downloads in employee assistance and mental wellness reading material available on our intranet," she observes. "That's because we are publicizing that. We are making it available in ways that can anonymize you."
Interestingly, she points out, anonymizing the use of mental wellness resources has led to a 6-fold jump in the number of people using it, most likely because they feel a greater degree of safety that way.
What are the top things we need to do now?
Hybrid working has brought forward the possibility of greater inclusion and care for people who have typically been disadvantaged by the work system. Even after COVID-19 ends and the country reopens, remote and hybrid work will continue to be a major part of life, and this will benefit a great number of people who are otherwise excluded from the workforce, especially women who want to come back to the workplace and the differently abled, of whom India has an estimated 25 million.
Because of this, she has a request for organizations everywhere. She asks:
"As a group of HR people, can we think differently about creating workplaces which are more inclusive for women who want to return to work and for differently abled people? And can we start thinking differently about the conversation around mental health?"
And finally, she has some strong advice for HR leaders and team members who are carrying a great deal of weight during this period, when their work has become critical to the organization and the people. "Remember to prioritize for ourselves," she says. "Stop taking on everything. It impacts our team. The HR team's wellness is super important."