Article: The pandemic has been an opportunity to innovate and adapt: Neerja Bhatia

Life @ Work

The pandemic has been an opportunity to innovate and adapt: Neerja Bhatia

Virtual, on-demand training, delivering beyond your industry, and increased focus on wellness are some of the trends that Neerja Bhatia, Etihad Airways' VP, Indian Sub-continent would like to sustain even beyond the COVID-19 crisis. Here are the excerpts from a recent interview with her.
The pandemic has been an opportunity to innovate and adapt: Neerja Bhatia

In India, at present, airlines are allowed to operate only 33 percent of their total capacity, which would slowly be increased, as per government rules. Additionally, international air travel remains grounded. As per the date from the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA), domestic air passenger traffic fell by 43.39 percent year-on-year in January to May, due to the lockdown. Among the many sectors hit by the pandemic, aviation is of the worst hit. As travel demand is likely to recover only in the second half of FY21, according to the rating agency Icra, the present and the future of the aviation sector looks bleak. 

In a recent interview with Neerja Bhatia, Etihad Airways' VP, Indian Sub-continent, we discuss how Etihad Airways is battling the COVID-19 crisis and how the pandemic is disrupting the present and the future of work for the aviation sector.  

The aviation sector has been one of the most affected sectors by the pandemic. How have you been coping with the crisis? What key business and people decisions have you taken?

Several industries across the globe are facing predicaments due to the global pandemic, and one cannot deny that this has affected the aviation industry as well. At Etihad Airways, we have ensured that we are well prepared to weather the impact of this ongoing situation. The airline’s transformation over the last three years has positioned the business well; it has provided the business the agility to better manage its operations through the coronavirus crisis.

We have been adaptive and have responded quickly, redeploying our fleet and right-sizing as the market changed. Over the past few months, Etihad has operated special humanitarian services to over 30 cities, including Lucknow and Bhubaneswar, all of which are not currently served by the airline’s passenger or cargo network. Earlier this month, we also introduced special transit flights connecting key cities on our global network – these include 20 cities in Europe, Asia and Australia via Abu Dhabi.

Even before the lockdown was announced in India, we had implemented work from home. Etihad has been an early adopter of Microsoft Teams. 

We are leveraging the power of technology and digital mediums to connect virtually with all our employees and partners.

Etihad has invested in various development platforms. We are encouraging employees to use this time to learn new skills and have made Coursera available to them. We’ve modified existing sick leave policies, keeping in mind those who have been affected by the virus. Some customer service staff members have been redeployed to our call centres to ensure maximum support is extended to all our guests. We’re doing everything possible to navigate these times with adaptability.

As the lockdown slowly eases but the fear of COVID-19 still persists, how do you plan to resume work? What changes are you making to ensure employee safety and wellbeing?

The industry that usually connects people and nations across the world is witnessing minimal movement but as lockdown slowly eases, we are keen to have our aircrafts in the sky again.

We have been working from home globally and through the past few months, we have run comprehensive risk assessments to strategize and plan better, whether it’s about identifying opportunities for training, extending support or introducing special policies. 

Regarding returning to work, the teams have done a thorough analysis of the workforce to help protect high-risk employees and ensure we have a structured and phased approach. We have also implemented various training programs for our staff, to increase awareness about ensuring a safe workplace.

To ensure the safety of our staff members who are working on-ground, we have introduced several temporary measures. Earlier this month, we announced ‘Etihad Wellness’, a comprehensive health and hygiene programme. Strict measures will be implemented at check-in counters, to practice social distancing and a safer airport environment. These include floor marking to ensure social distancing, check-in teams wearing gloves and face masks and regular sanitisation of check-in counters. On-board, our cabin crew will be wearing approved protective gowns, surgical face masks and disposable gloves at all times.

They will also limit direct interaction with guests on-board and restrict their presence in the cabins. We are doing everything possible to limit the spread of the COVID-19 and protect citizens, residents, international travellers as well as all our employees. We truly respect the loyalty of Etihad’s workforce during these unprecedented times.

With some employees working from home and others on ground, how do you plan to manage this new hybrid workplace? How do aspects like culture and employee experience get affected?

Etihad has been committed to fostering a culture of inclusion and establishing a workplace where every employee from over 150 countries is valued and supported. Working remotely during these unprecedented times has become the new normal, however, we have been mindful of maintaining a conducive work culture and employee experience. 

There has been a greater focus on frequent and more timely communication. We have extended additional training to enable managers to virtually lead their teams and to do so effectively. These included sessions related to navigating this crisis and also financial management workshops. 

We have also been conducting virtual town halls to ensure the teams are connected, despite working remotely. Some of our teams have been working around the clock to support trade partners and guests. As part of the airline’s latest wellness programme, Etihad introduced ‘Wellness Ambassadors’, who will be available 24/7 to assist guests. Etihad Airport Services Catering (EAS Catering) has prepared and delivered over 15,000 meals a day to people self-isolating or under quarantine, frontline medical staff, humanitarian drives and for various businesses across Abu Dhabi. Since the outbreak of this pandemic, over 3,000 Etihad Airways Employees have volunteered to support a number of government entities and initiatives. This truly showcases the culture that all Etihad Airways employees have embodied over time.

How is the role of HR professionals in the aviation sector transforming given the new challenges of the new normal of work?

Adapting to the changing dynamics, our HR teams have responded to the crisis quickly. 

In light of the situation, the advisory role played by HR has grown a lot more significant and they’ve extended maximum support to navigate this new normal. 

Their role has become much more strategic and forward looking, ranging from operations, workforce planning, training, guidance and policies. With people being at home for over two months, ensuring their wellbeing and focusing on their mental health has become an utmost priority.

Do you think that post pandemic trends like remote working and flexi hours will become a common trend? What other trends at work, do you think are here to stay?

Yes, the growing work-from-home movement could set a new normal for industries across the globe. We have noticed that despite working virtually, the productivity of our team has remained at an all-time high. Some other learnings that might sustain are: 

Virtual, on-demand training: What we are witnessing today is an inexplicable digital transformation of organizations. 

Laying down a strong digital framework for employees to work remotely has transformed the manner in which we have operated. Virtual trainings have become widespread and might be the new normal in this hyperconnected world

Delivering beyond your industry: Organizations have pivoted and leveraged their strengths to help combat the impact of the virus. For instance, as part of its CSR initiative, Etihad Airways Medical Centre (EAMC) collaborated with Etihad Engineering to develop personal protective equipment (PPE) for healthcare professionals across the industry. The team at Etihad Engineering also used its facility to develop over 1,000 face shields.

People have challenged themselves and stepped up to help in every way possible. 

Increased focus on wellness: Since the outbreak of the pandemic, organizations have put the wellness and wellbeing of their employees and customers at the core and this is sure to sustain.

Lastly, how are you dealing with this crisis? What are some personal challenges you think leaders often face these tough times? How are you ensuring that you keep calm, sail through and help others also in these tough times? Share your tips.

It can surely get tough, from having to make quick but high-impact business decisions to managing teams virtually, ensuring they remain driven without burning out. It has been imperative to be agile and respond quickly, with the situation evolving at such a rapid pace. 

Navigating through uncertainty has surely been challenging, but in retrospect, has been a great opportunity to innovate and adapt, in more ways than one.

Despite the current pandemic and changing situation, it is important to remain calm and collected through this phase. I believe in the concept of personal enhancement and wellbeing. Over the years, yoga and meditation has helped me immensely, and has been my support system through these times. It keeps me calm, focused and energized. I am also fond of gardening as I believe that it helps me maintain an intimate connection with nature and life.

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Topics: Life @ Work, #ResetWork, #COVID-19

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