Article: Hybrid work will continue for the foreseeable future: Chaitanya Rathi, Sula Vineyards

Strategic HR

Hybrid work will continue for the foreseeable future: Chaitanya Rathi, Sula Vineyards

The office is not going to disappear completely but we have realized that we don’t need to be in office all five days, believes Chaitanya Rathi, COO, Sula Vineyards.
Hybrid work will continue for the foreseeable future: Chaitanya Rathi, Sula Vineyards

As organizations reset work and prepare for the new workplace, one thing is clear- remote work isn't going anywhere. At the same time, a gradual return to work is also in progress. In effect, the future of work is hybrid. What does that mean? A hybrid workplace will require an optimum combination of policies, flexibility, culture, and last but definitely not least, technology. 

How do employers need to reset the way they have been functioning through the pandemic? What workplace practices they need to adapt to meet the needs of both work and home? How will HR play an important role in establishing this new future of work? In an exclusive interaction with People Matters, Chaitanya Rathi, COO, Sula Vineyards shares his thoughts on how hybrid work will continue for a foreseeable future.

What trends have you observed around HR tech adoption amid the COVID-19 crisis? How is the pandemic changing investments in HR tech?

There is no uniform adoption across the board-it really depends on many factors especially the life cycle of the company –what I have seen is that startups have adopted HR Tech much faster than the older, bigger organizations. Sula is sort of in between-it’s not exactly a startup and nor a very mature organization. Initially, when the pandemic hit, it took us a while to get used to the new normal-but our HR team has done a fabulous job in picking up the pieces very quickly. 

From Sula’s perspective, we immediately started virtual onboarding for new joinees. We have a comprehensive onboarding program that lasts for a few weeks and we moved it entirely online. As part of our program, we take the new joinees tour winery in order to understand the winemaking process. That entire touch and feel thing was also moved online through videos of the winemaking process and taking them through the entire flow.

Secondly, we have a solid L&D program and the team has done a fabulous job converting all our courses online. We have created a learning and development app for Sula called the Sula Knowledge Centre where all our programs including wine-specific programs are on that and we have seen a good response from our employees. We also have gamified the process so that people who do more courses are rewarded for it, encouraging stickiness and adoption.

Along with that, we have HROne app that encompasses all our employee policies, critical communication, including leave, salary, and pay slips. In addition, all employees are now using collaboration tools that were being used by select employees only nine months earlier. 

What are your thoughts on the concept of a hybrid workplace?

The pros of hybrid work are pretty clear-it’s much more flexible, you get to spend more time with your family, you get more time to spend doing things you enjoy than commuting. So the additional time that you get, the savings that you make because of reduced fuel costs, and the big environmental impact you create because of reduced commute time are big pros.

The cons are less face time with your management, less face time with your colleagues, lesser collaboration on a personal level which does impact your work as well as limits the kind of personal relationships that people can develop at the workplace.

In addition, the line between working and not working is getting blurred. Many people don’t know when their office life ends and their home life starts. In a patriarchal society like India, this is especially challenging for working women, burdening them and causing unwanted stress. 

But all in all, the pandemic has taught us we need to balance both these sides. People who can balance work from home more efficiently will rise faster in the future. The focus now has shifted from how long you are working to how productively you are working. But of course, the office is not going to disappear completely but we have realized that we don’t need to be in the office all five days.

What kind of a workplace model are you considering for your organization? Do you foresee any major changes?

Yes and no- because we are in the manufacturing business. The key pillars of our wine are the manufacturing business, the hospitality business, and sales. These three will definitely have to continue to work onsite-you can’t make wine virtually. You have to be in the vineyards and the factories. Similarly, in hospitality, when people visit, we can’t leave it to a computer- we have to have the personnel touch. Similar logic works for sales-alcohol is an old school industry, as part of this industry you need to go through the typical channels and do sales in a very orthodox way. 

But when it comes to HR, marketing, finance, analytic, or strategy-all these departments can analyze much more of the work from home facilities. And that’s what we have broken it into. So while manufacturing in Nasik will continue onsite with all safety precautions in place, and our head office will work much more in a hybrid fashion. 

We have incorporated a three days’ work from home and two days’ work from office system, so that any given day, we do not have more than 40%-50% of our staff in the office. That’s something we intend to continue for the foreseeable future.

How are you thinking about employee experience in a hybrid workplace? How do you make sure employee experience onsite and offsite experience is pretty much consistent?

The reality is it cannot be 100% same-looking at a person on the screen and looking at a person across the table is always going to be different. What we can do is try to minimize the differences not only from a professional point of view but also a fun point of view. For instance, on Friday we have happy hour sessions with employees joining in for fun conversations and games to connect and keep the morale boosted. Similarly, we have made WhatsApp groups for non-work fun conversations to replicate the banter we have in offices which is not work-related.

From a professional standpoint, as I mentioned, our L&D is completely online, our HR is completely online- anything that employees need to access from the system is available at their fingertips. All these things have helped people to get used to the new normal much faster than anyone would have predicted nine months ago. We had to manage and we have managed and our productivity is more than 90%.

What do you think the future holds for HR in a data-driven world post the pandemic?

I would like to quote here my finance professor from INSEAD who in his last finance class had said that whatever ‘I have taught you in my finance classes will take you to a certain level; after that, it’s all people skills. You will become a GM with great finance skills, but you will become a CEO with great people skills.’ Given the current environment where a lot of people are not getting adequate facetime or hand-holding, I think the HR department’s workload and importance have increased more than ever. 

Today it has become more important for the HR team to actually work harder, be in touch, and give people the tools and the support if you want to retain an employee. Their work has even become far more important to be able to keep the teams together-it has become a matter of survival more than just a matter of convenience. 

Thus having a solid HR function, that is adaptable and supportive has become more important in my opinion.

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Topics: Strategic HR, #HybridWorkplace

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