Article: Shreya Bhagwanth on stabilizing business and employee experience amid and after COVID-19

Leadership

Shreya Bhagwanth on stabilizing business and employee experience amid and after COVID-19

Shreya Bhagwanth, Head of Human Resources for the India region at 3M, in an exclusive conversation with People Matters talks about 3Ms efforts to stabilize business and employee experience, translating organizational culture into a digital culture and etching learnings from the pandemic into organizational memory.
Shreya Bhagwanth on stabilizing business and employee experience amid and after COVID-19

Shreya Bhagwanth, Head of Human Resources for the India region at 3M, is an experienced HR Leader with expertise in the areas of strategic business partnering, driving change, leadership development, talent management, development frameworks, HR strategy formulation, career frameworks, diversity & inclusion, and employer brand management. Her previous stints include multiple roles in companies including Hindustan Unilever Limited, People Insight, Aditya Birla Group, and Siemens.

In an exclusive interview with People Matters, Shreya discusses the importance of consistent leadership communication, the benefits of having strong rooted cultural pillars and stabilizing business and employee experience amid COVID-19.

Here are excerpts of the interview.

As an industry leader with over two decades of experience across consumer goods, consulting, mining, electronics, and industrial engineering, what was the best experience you had as an employee? Which is that one experience that stands out for you?

There are two experiences which stand out for me. I started my career with Hindustan Lever. After completing my training, I was given independent responsibility as HR Manager in a manufacturing plant. The company was true to its employer brand of giving large and consequential responsibilities to young managers. It stayed true across other assignments and was career defining. 

The other experience that I will call out is in 3M - my current organization. The response of leadership of 3M to the global COVID-19 situation, as a provider of personal safety solutions and as an employer has been outstanding. I could not be prouder of working in an organization that prioritizes people - our employees, healthcare workers and the general public, above all. Times like these are the ultimate test for leadership in organizations and reveal true character. This experience has reinforced my desire to contribute to the organization.

What according to you is more rewarding to build a great employee experience - consistency or scale? In other words, do little things everyday make a bigger difference or large-scale initiatives every once in a while?

It is the “Daily” that matters. The small little things that are reiterated and reinforced regularly. For example, 3M focuses on “Respectful Workplace” being the cornerstone of how employees deal with each other, even in difficult, challenging times.

What matters here is the consistency of experience day after day, across locations, businesses, people managers, hierarchies and geographies.

Consistency of this employee experience represents the underlying culture of the organization. It does not need to be explained and it speaks for itself. Employees see through “Flavour of the Month” initiatives which reflect in the short term only.

Can you share an example of an employee experience issue that you encountered? How did you approach it, what were the measures you undertook and what was the outcome?

3M in India has established a strong process for performance management for our technical associates (blue collar employees). During 2019, the HR and manufacturing teams worked closely together to strengthen this process with the intention of enhancing their employee experience. We did some brainstorming, created templates with greater detail, strengthened the midterm feedback process and enhanced supervisor training for this process across our manufacturing plants. The EPR process is key to our employee experience for the TA cadre. It is important to 3M that we spend similar time and energy across employee groups for this critical process. It is also reflected in our signature Learning program - ACT - Associates Contributing Together - which we run at our shop floor. We were delighted to complete coverage across all our manufacturing units last year. We are now working on Version 2.0 of this program. Consistent focus on our TA employee experience and shop floor culture has enabled us to run our manufacturing operations for respirators and sanitizers with great engagement and dedication from the employees, even in these challenging times.

Employee experience is often replaced with employee engagement. To what extent do you think they overlap, and on what levels are they different?

I look at it as a virtuous cycle - the stronger and more consistent the employee experience, the greater is the employee engagement. An engaged workforce feeds into employee experience and swift addressing of outliers. Different sides of the coin - rather than different processes. 

Traditional models of employee engagement have often captured it as the discretionary extra which employees bring to work, even if they don’t have to. In today’s world, I will take it a step further, it also connects to advocacy - for the organization.

Employee Experience - consistently curated and felt across the entire employee life cycle, becomes a crucial enabler in this process.

As a leader, what have you observed as some of the biggest challenges in replicating successful employee experience practices?

Employee Experience is rooted in the organization culture. Any attempt to address the employee experience without the corresponding sync with culture will have limited and short-term impact. An additional challenge is the capability of People Managers. Notwithstanding the best laid processes and standards set out by an organization, the key to the employee experience is the role of the supervisor / people manager. We have multiple touchpoints and programs with People Managers to ensure common understanding and execution of the employee experience.

With the entire world and the way it works being shaken up by the outbreak of COVID-19, what can organizations do to translate the organizational culture into a digital culture, as they are forced to undertake the biggest remote working experiment of all time?

Digital and virtual collaboration tools exist and are available across organizations. The mindset in the organization and leaders is key.

Culture Pillars like - customer centricity, collaboration, agility when strongly established in the organization, both facilitate and are replicable to a virtual environment.

Consistent and clear leadership communication reinforcing the culture pillars and sharing success stories around them goes a long way to reinforce this digitally. Establishing new archetypes and role models and celebrating their success is necessary.

What are some key factors organizations must keep in mind to ensure a seamless experience for employees as they work remotely?

Organization cultures that place a premium of inclusion make this shift to remote working seamlessly. Leadership communication - to ensure there is consistency and clarity of messaging across the organization reinforces the employee experience and builds trust in the organization. Performance evaluation processes that advocate scheduled check-ins enable greater trust and communication in the remote working times. Ensuring equitable access to information is also key – whether internal job postings, or development programs or customer related information on Salesforce or other internal portals. Employees must feel empowered in the remote working zone, not constrained and cramped.

A part of the sales workforce in most organizations is used to working remotely. The challenge is to upskill employees and team leaders who are not used to it. A focus on wellness programs - emotional / mental - enable employees to deal with the ambiguity and stresses of working remotely. Toolkits for team leaders to manage their remote teams is another enabler. Self care tips for employees to prioritize their own health and wellbeing is important. Ultimately, the organization can provide a menu of options as facilitators. We must recognize that employees will pick and choose what works for them in their individual context.

2020 began with a lot of enthusiasm towards trends that were predicted to rule the world of work this year. However, the last three months have been nothing short of disruption, shocks and finding ways to sustain both business and life. What are you doing at 3M, both across the globe and at regional levels to stabilize the situation for business and employees?

The COVID-19 pandemic has indeed created a new reality for the world. At 3M, our highest priority is the safety of our people and the public. We are committed to supporting public health and government response to the outbreak. Global demand for supplies used to help protect people and prevent the spread of illness, such as respirators, is currently exceeding supply. 3M is increasing output by 40% globally. In the US we are working shifts 24/7 utilizing our surge capacity for their market. In India too we have increased production of our masks and respirators by working closely with our suppliers to understand how COVID-19 will affect their ability to serve our requirements on near and long-term continuity of supplies. We also work with our raw material suppliers, many of whom are in Europe and Korea, to ensure an uninterrupted production of masks at our plant in India. 

During the lock-down we are getting excellent support from government agencies both at the State and Central level to ensure unfettered movement of essential commodities. Our plant employees have been working throughout this time on high production output of masks and sanitizers. 3Mers in India and around the globe are committed to the global initiatives to flatten the COVID-19 curve. We always had an engaged virtual learning calendar and we have dialled it up significantly in the last few weeks. Performance everyday - our new performance system, enables better connect between employee and supervisor both real time and in the virtual format. Our Asia leadership just launched a self-development challenge to encourage employees to seek personal and professional development in these times. Working from home includes video calls, with kids, spouses, pets making appearances to reduce any feelings of disconnect and isolation. We are building fun friday communications and much more to stay connected with and engage our workforce.

What is your message for global leaders as they strive to combat the circumstances the pandemic has led to?

Prioritize people over business. 

A new normal will emerge post the immediate challenges both in business and ways of working - agile mindset is key and early adopters will lead the way here.

The Learnings from the pandemic challenges must be built into organizational memory. It is important not to fall back to some of the “bad habits” that we see today in our ways or working. Always have the BCP/ BRP plans updated and ready. The last few weeks have reflected how important they are. Build the growth mindset muscle. We will then use this opportunity to get better. Lastly but most important, stay authentic in interactions with all stakeholders.

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Topics: Leadership, #CXtoEX, #COVID-19

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