Disruption is a precursor to innovation, much like change is the precursor to evolution, while also being an inherent part of it. Conversations today are centered around agility, innovation, adaptability and similar themes, but at the core of all these themes lies one common factor - people. The only way out of the current slowdown is if people become agile, become innovative and adapt to the emerging demands of the existing extraordinary circumstances.
While that’s the focus for a majority of organizations to pull themselves out of the pit that COVID has put them in, it’s needless to say that while those are expected behaviours, the other side of the coin does in turn require organizations to provide a conducive working environment that enables building said behaviours. In her session at People Matters TechHR India 2020, Deepti Varma, HR Leader - Corporate, APAC & MENA, Amazon talks about how Amazon is building such a working environment that caters to the diverse workforce needs while keeping innovation at the centre.
“Organizations today are focusing on innovation in order to stay relevant and prepare themselves for the future,” emphasized Deepti.
Read on for highlights from the session.
Intent and vision before action
Deepti kick-started her session with a few lines that Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos shared with the workforce, “Although these are incredibly difficult times, they are an important reminder that what we do as a company can make a big difference in people’s lives. Customers count on us to be there and we are very fortunate to be able to help them with our scale and ability to innovate quickly. Amazon can make a positive impact and be an organizing force for progress.”
Talking about how the employees were encouraged to be agile and the approach behind identifying the way forward, Deepti said, “What really helped was that we came together like a cross-functional team. We started thinking about solutions collectively and it really helped us to react fast in these unique times, and keep pace with what the world around us is doing, what the government is expecting us to do, and also make sure that we are taking care of our employees.”
Beyond being a successful e-commerce giant, Amazon has multiple product lines. Every product line is unique in its way and has different expectations from frontline workers. Throwing light on the diversity of products within Amazon, from technology to operations to labs to individual product lines such as Alexa, Amazon videos and more, Deepti shared that each domain, each function had its own unique challenge.
“We needed to understand what this diverse workforce needs and work backwards. Similar set of guidelines could not be followed for each and every employee.”
Keeping people at the centre of it all, Amazon has shaped its practices to address not just the business needs but also the needs and challenges of employees. Speaking of the balance to drive business success in unprecedented times like the present, Deepti shared, “The world has witnessed a massive transformation in a short span of time. It has pushed companies to adapt and thrive in the virtual world, it has certainly opened doors for many opportunities, while ensuring the right balance of agility, and innovation.” Emphasizing the need for innovation to be extended to and inclusive of internal customers, i.e employees, she added, “Each organization is trying to innovate and trying to stay connected and that will be most important for us in order to be able to take care of our workforce for future.”
Pillars of a thriving diverse workplace
In the current environment, building a workplace that caters to individual needs and provides an ecosystem that enables employees to be productive and feel fulfilled is critical.
Deepti highlighted three key focus areas to build such a workplace, “Being empathetic, having the right tools for effective communication, and continuously innovating will be the three most important mantras to thrive in the new normal.”
To serve a diverse customer base, Amazon had to innovate to make the shopping experience for customers seamless and convenient. But most importantly personalized. Similarly HR needs to look at employees as internal customers and replicate a similar mindset to develop a convenient and personalized ecosystem for employees to function in through innovative methods that are simple, scalable and relevant. To achieve this end in mind, Amazon adhered to two pillars,
- Be empathetic and make sure that the employees feel they are cared for: The truth is shifting to a virtual workplace was a big shift for everyone, said Deepti. “Employee experience is paramount,” she added. This calls for leaders and managers to be empathetic towards the overall problem areas encountered by employees.
Having unrealistic and demanding performance expectations without being accommodating of the situation individual employees and frontline workers face, that is going to be highly detrimental not only to business culture and continuity in the long-term, but also to employee productivity with signs showing up in the immediate future, given we are more than five months into this routine.
- Communication and empowerment of frontline leaders: “The key leadership challenge from an HR perspective is how to stay connected to the frontline employees and how do you communicate with this workforce effectively in a period of high uncertainty,” stated Deepti.
“It was important for us to invest a lot on manager capability building because at the end of the day managers are also employees and they are also going through their own share of stress and questions around how to keep the workforce engaged.”
She shared that it was very important for the organization to have the right kind of communication because a manager who is dealing with an employee on a day-to-day basis needs to be empowered, “they are the ones employees are interacting with on a daily basis”.
- Innovation: Stating that technology today isn’t available only to get work done, it can also be leveraged for physical and mental well-being for employees, Deepti urged leaders to innovate their approach and mechanism as they address employee experience in these times. One such innovation for Amazon has been ‘Connection’. Connection is a tool used by Amazon to help them capture employee sentiment every single day. “It helped us not only to stay connected with the employees, but also be agile to influence our policies, work flexibility benefits and also processes to support this change.”
The existing circumstances are here to stay for time unknown. There might not be a way to snap out of the crisis, however, to be able to successfully navigate the uncertainties, focusing on values such as empathy and empowerment will help organizations build a high performing culture where innovation and agility are second nature across the workforce, as they thrive in the face of the unknown.