Building on its diversity, equity, and inclusivity agenda, Amazon India last week announced the launch of its first all-women Virtual Customer Service (VCS) site in Bengaluru. VCS was introduced in 2017 to address customer requests remotely long before working from home was the new normal, and is an extension of Amazon’s Customer Service (CS) network. Through this all-women VCS site, the company has extended flexible career opportunities for women across the city, empowering them to pursue their careers from their homes.
This site will enable Amazon India to reach out to a wider talent pool of women who prefer to work from home, as it seeks to bring greater diversity across its teams. This could include women who are resuming their careers after a break or women who require flexibility in their work schedule to attend to personal commitments during the day.
Swati Rustagi, Director of Human Resources, Operations, Amazon India spoke to us exclusively about the launch of the all-women VCS and how it ties in with Amazon’s diversity and inclusion agenda and the concept of hybrid workplaces.
Here are a few excerpts from the interview-
What was the idea behind launching an all-women VCS site?
Having an all-women cohort is a first for Amazon. And one of the reasons we thought we should attempt this was how do we keep innovating constantly to increase workforce representation and to make sure that we make opportunities for different genders and communities that are underrepresented in the workforce today. Virtual working is very suited for women-and hence the idea for this unique cohort. So this cohort is sort of an incubator for us and we have launched it with 60 women. And we are trying to understand how we can really scale this up. The women can either work part-time or full time with a large break shift in between. This helps them manage both professional and personal worlds.
The idea is to create more opportunities for people to join the workforce and not get constrained by the idea of having to leave the house or having to find a break shift option-how we can do this creatively is something we will continue to do.
We did very targeted hiring for this cohort and all training has been virtual. We are also supporting it with a cohort experience as to how can they reach out to people or HR or their managers. We will also be creating an affinity group for say women who are working virtually so that they can connect with each other and share best work practices and once the pandemic is over, we hope to bring them into networking events as well.
How does this launch take Amazon India's Diversity & Inclusion initiative further?
We have been committed to diversity and inclusion for a long time and it’s nothing new for us. That stems from the fact that we are customer-obsessed- and the reality is that your customer is diverse. It’s not any one type of customer.
To be able to serve your customers it is important that the same diversity is reflected back in your workspace. Because that’s the only way you can innovate on behalf of the customer, understand the challenges they ae facing and solve for them.
We have done multiple things on this count-we have been very consistent in our efforts to create workspaces for women, right from logistics to delivery; how do you have a good representation across levels and in the leadership. For instance, in our frontline in 2017, we had 5 women, this Diwali, we will have 13,000. We have made the same conscious effort for people with disabilities and similarly, we have done a lot of focused work on the Military Veterans program wherein we have hired 140 veterans in a year’s time. So we continue to innovate to get more people in the workforce.
What you are doing with VCS ties in very well with the concept of a hybrid workplace. What are your thoughts on the concept of a hybrid workplace and would Amazon be also experimenting more with it?
Hybrid workplaces have existed and are here to stay. Hybrid workspaces are fundamentally about three things-they are about physical workspace, they are about mental workspace, and thirdly, about what is acceptable to society. Because whether I like or not, there is always going to be government legislation which either allows or does not allow hybrid workspaces. India has taken some wholehearted steps on the gig economy. Working with regulators to identify how can you keep creating these new economies of workplaces, which will continue to evolve. The physical workspace will continue, I don’t think it is ever going to go way-because somethings will just have to be done physically.
What will also be interesting is to start realizing that even if you have chosen one or the other, there will be a continuum- because there is some kind of work that is best done when you are alone. But there is some kind of work that is best done when you are together- and that co-creation or ability to discuss and debate new ideas cannot go away. So we have to keep innovating and see how we combine all of this.”
In our VCS women cohort, one of the things we talk about is how you create mentoring circles-so creating those opportunities to discuss and co-create becomes very critical for that workspace to thrive.
What are some challenges you foresee in implementing a hybrid workplace model?
We have had multiple virtual centers since we started in 2015. One thing we have learned in the journey is it is very easy to create a virtual space but it is important to create mechanisms around that space to thrive. So be it affinity groups or networking events, the moment you get into a workplace, you crave company, you crave ideation, you crave a social circle. And providing that is very critical.
I feel the new generation of HR professionals will learn a lot about that. Traditionally, we are all used to engagement in a physical workspace. But how do you create engagement in virtual or hybrid workspaces and create that sense of team, of pride, and of constant learning and innovation? These are going to be critical asks from next-generation managers and HR professionals.
How are you thinking about employee experience in a hybrid workplace?
I think the tenets on how you create employee experience do not change. The workspace changes, how you apply them changes but the basics don’t change. The first thing you have to do is put in place a broad framework because, in the absence of that, it becomes very hard for both the employee and the employer to intervene. If I know the ground rules when I work from home, it helps both parties to set expectations and not disappoint each other. Once you create those guard rails, you also create a degree of freedom or flexibility around it, which is true for physical workspaces as well.
The third tenet is around creating mechanisms for engagement and connects and those could be around learning, sharing new ideas or experiences that you go through together as a team. Then comes the hard part-how will you manage performance, how do you identify and intervene at the right times.
The fundamental aspect to remember is that there is nothing different about hybrid workplaces-so whatever works in physical workspaces, can you disseminate it, see what makes it work and apply it to hybrid workspace is what is important.
What do you think the future holds for HR in a data-driven, hybrid model-driven world post the pandemic?
I think understanding technology becomes far more important. It has always been important and its role for HR has only been increasing in the last few years. If I need to create work experiences or design organizational behavior, unless I understand the basic architecture of the workplace and how will it actually flow, it will be hard for me to advise. The currency of technology is becoming more and more important for HR.
Secondly, it requires us to deeply understand the subject of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Because as you go into more hybrid workspaces, these concepts will actually become suddenly raised to the power n as compared to physical workspaces. So it becomes very important for us to create far more inclusive, empathetic, and flexible workspaces going forward.