The pandemic has brought in a host of challenges to the world of HR. New strategies by leveraging new technologies had to be devised to keep the business going and to simultaneously ensure the well-being of the people. In a recent interview with People Matters, Esha Gulati, Regional HR Lead-Asia, ZS talks about the evolution of HR and its key priorities since the pandemic and the crucial role of technology in employee experience and business impact.
Gulati has 17 years of experience in consulting and HR field. She has collaborated with various leaders and the broader HR team to align people strategy to business objectives. During her consulting stint, she has worked on sales effectiveness, market research and voice of customer areas with clients in multiple industries and over the years in HR, has worked on varied areas such as engagement, leadership performance and wellness initiatives for employees. Prior to joining ZS in 2009, Esha worked with an IT consulting firm for 5 years and led ERP implementations for Fortune 500 manufacturing firms.
Here are the excerpts of the interview:
How is the role of HR evolving and emerging as an accelerator to business? How has its key priorities changed over the past 18 months?
So, the way I look at it, the role of HR has been, in fact, evolving and emerging over the years. Earlier, it was more compliance and administrative driven, then it moved into talent management followed by innovation. But it was still very process oriented. And the pandemic definitely kind of threw an opportunity, in a way, right?
It was a big challenge with hardly any time to respond to but when HR and Business Leaders evolved to be more agile, to be responsive, to be resilient, the organization inevitably became resilient as well. But given that we are still in the pandemic, there are uncertainties and while there were predictive models, the second wave was far more unpredictable than what we saw in 2020. This is pushing HR to be a lever to make the organization future ready. All the aspects of an organization from business to people have to go hand in hand.
There isn’t enough time to wait until this phase is over to think of the future.
HR needs to ensure that the organization and its business leaders and its people must be future ready.
For an organization to be future ready, one has to pay attention to building an agile and adaptive culture and leadership as well as investing in the right skilling for the employees. In the uncertain and ambiguous environment that we currently live in, how can organizations build a strong foundation in terms of culture and then have leadership lead from the front in terms of percolating the values of agility and adaptability to the entire workforce?
It's important to see how culture has a very strong coherence with the values and purpose of the firm but at the same time, what's important for firms and even HR leaders to be thinking about is how values need to be at the foundation of everything even when culture needs to change with the changing environment and times. Only then the impact of the cultural shift will be made at all the levels of the organization.
As we move forward, a key element of the cultural shift especially in the current model is to recognize the intermingling of the personal and work life of employees. We need to give due importance to it, with a lot of empathy and ensure that the employees feel that they are being taken care of. While organizations have been thinking about their larger purpose depending on their industry, it is equally important to focus on individual purpose. When you have someone who's going through a personal loss, they might question what it means for them to be spending so many hours at work. Organizations must help their employees move past this phase and have them focus on their purpose and link it to the larger organizational goal.
When it comes to business leaders, the first thing in my mind is for everyone to acknowledge that each one of them have their own individual challenges, regardless of their position or role. And that it's okay to have these challenges. It is very important for the business leaders to be empathetic about what someone in their team is going through, or feeling. While I may not be feeling or going through the same feeling, listening to the other person, and ensuring that I empathize with them, without necessarily challenging it or always finding a solution is important.
When a leader acts in a certain way, it does have an impact on individuals as well, if you, if a leader says that it's okay if you're going through a tough time and the rest of us will take care of it, another person also does the same thing when there is another team member who also needs to be taken care of. All of that then becomes natural. And while I'm talking about a lot of things which are at a connection and cultural level, it's important for us to realize that businesses also need to run and show results. In the face of so many technology disruptions happening, organizations must help their people embrace the change and prepare them for being agile in terms of upskilling themselves.
It becomes important for organizations to focus on leveraging technology in correlating the purpose of their employees to the change that is required to be done in order for us to really be upskilling ourselves and continue to deliver business impact.
In terms of the possibility of a hybrid workspace being adopted in the future regardless of a pandemic, how do you think tech can play a role in ensuring that organizations are able to create a good employee experience? What will be the shift in the partnership between HR tech leaders and business leaders?
Technology will definitely continue to play a role in the hybrid workspace. But what we must recognize is that the impact of technology differs across employees. There is one segment of the workforce who is really enjoying and is able to effectively make this remote working work for themselves. There is another segment who enjoyed it for a while. But now given that this time has been stretched, they want to come back and socialize and meet people, and come out of those constraints that are being imposed on them by their environment. And then there is another segment who has always kind of really felt that they are absolutely more productive in office. So, the way in which one really looks at all of these segments is important for an organization.
As one moves forward to a post-pandemic world, people and organizations will have to make their own choices while continuing the business aspect. This is where I feel technology definitely needs to come in place to be able to facilitate this better, to offer the choice of flexibility while focusing on business outcomes and allowing the space for innovation. Teams really need to come together, collaborate through technology, and ensure that we are pushing the envelope as well.
The human aspect, the business aspect, and the technology aspect need to really come together to be able to think about how we leverage technology and to identify where exactly the organization would want to make an impact.
For example, let's talk about how upskilling would have different meanings for different individuals, along with business needs. How do we really enable our people to be able to learn the way they would like to learn? And that is what technology can enable us to understand based on the preferences and the historical usage of an individual. Technology can customize and personalize the learning experience to a certain extent by the business needs, which sums up the potential of the partnership between HR Tech leaders and business leaders.
As organizations embrace many changes and try to ensure business continuity amid ongoing uncertainty, how can organizations keep employee experience in check? Can you share some examples or best practices that have been working for your organization in maintaining the ‘human connect’ in a digital workplace?
When we shifted into the remote working model back in 2020, we were expecting a lot from our leaders who were supporting the teams such as being empathetic at all times but we had to pause and reflect on the fact that they are also going through a big change. We felt that it was important to understand the situation of our leaders and in order to do so, one of our office leads made individual, ten-minute calls to a lot of the business leaders who were managing large teams. And that ten-minute conversation, just to understand and empathize really went a long way in acknowledging their vulnerability and enabling them to do the same for their teams. And when the second wave hit, HR leaders were at the forefront who brought in the actual 24 by seven task force which took calls from people who were in need.
However, there was always the possibility of some people not reaching out to us so we used technology in designing a short survey and then calling those employees who had not filled out the survey. While a lot of them were doing well, a lot of them were also going through some tough challenges. As soon as we found out, we were able to offer them support through the services that were already part of the organization, for instance, those which would cater to their mental well-being. We also gave up to 10 weeks of relief to people who were impacted by COVID, which was related to both their physical health and mental health. All of these experiences built a lot of trust and made employees feel that they were cared for and part of a larger family which was the organization.
Finally, what are your thoughts on some of the key priorities that HR leaders are focused on at present?
HR leaders are firstly definitely focusing on digital or technology transformation. Secondly, they are trying to ensure that people feel connected and included. A lot of business and HR leaders are realizing what needs to be done, getting up to speed on their skills, and ensuring that the business results are not impacted. All of that kept on going and there were talks on increased productivity from home. But what did get impacted to a certain extent was the inclusion and the connection. And especially for the people who joined remotely, and did not have an opportunity to experience what culture is really like when you are side by side, along with your teams. And that is, in my mind, a continued focus for HR leaders to be able to ensure that integration has a very clear component of inclusion. We must also be able to identify those segments of people who did not feel as connected to the larger community and see what we can do to embrace and include them in our culture again.
In the face of uncertainty and complexity, we have to make sure that we are able to focus on all the aspects of well-being of people, be it you know, the top most leader of the firm, our HR team, or our employees, and I say it in that order because if we are able to take care of them in that order, we will be able to make the key decisions.
We have to make sure we are prepared for any unforeseen things that come up our way as we move forward.