The COVID-19 pandemic is still fledging its wings and we are still battling the fire blind-folded. The recovery time might even take more than a year for businesses to come to normal. But as experts say, leaders who can best prepare their businesses for a more digital future will be the winners at the end.
Bhisham Wadhera, as the Chief Executive Officer of Godfrey Phillips India Limited, is at the helm of managing and supervising all domestic and international businesses of the organization. Bhisham joined Godfrey Phillips India in 1991. He brought with him his vast experience of ITC Limited and VST Industries and used it as an impetus for both the Company and his career. In an interaction with People Matters, he mentioned what all he has learned during this pandemic, and he believes all leaders are in the exploratory stage in the present times. Read the edited excerpt here-
Managing employee experience has especially become critical during the tough times we are going through on account of the Coronavirus epidemic. What are some of the ways employee experience is affected by a crisis?
During a crisis, an organization is the sum of all its strength and weaknesses. The pandemic lockdown brought in a total breakdown of processes and systems, interrupted the flow of information, removed comfort of the physical presence of leaders and employees, and brought in anxiety and fear – for health, of pay cuts, and redundancy. These had a domino effect. It impacted the entire happiness quotient, the engagement levels, sense of wellbeing, safety, and security. Employee's experience is then an outcome of companies either managing the response or leading them through it.
COVID-19 seems to be accelerating digital transformation in the workplace across industries. How are businesses fast-tracking their digital agenda amid this crisis?
The lockdown hastened the entire process of digitization in Indian companies. With the sudden closure of the market, offices, institutions, and travel ban, relying on digital tools to have some semblance of business continuity became imperative. The biggest move was the adoption of technology for communication. It enabled working from home, learning remotely, taking part in virtual events that seemed futuristic sometime ago. Another part of the transformation was connecting and remaining connected with customers digitally & selling remotely. It also made a lot of companies explore e-commerce and online channels to reach consumers. This was a big move for many traditional companies. The biggest change I felt was that digitalization moved to the core of business strategy thanks to this crisis.
The FMCG sector is in dilemma and workers are crying with job losses, especially in the manufacturing segment. How is Godfrey Phillips planning to get the workers and the business back on the track?
We understand how difficult it has been for many companies. In Godfrey Phillips, with our People First policy, employees are the fulcrum for all business decisions. During this pandemic, we focused on the safety and security of all our employees and workers. We were firm in our belief that to be able to recover at a fast speed, it was imperative that employees and workers were protected in employment, irrespective of the fact if factories were running or not or business was down briefly.
For our employees, we created two teams, one to work on the present during the lockdown and one to plan for post lockdown. We connected and communicated consistently, transparently with clear objectives and goals. It not only kept all the employees focused on work but also allayed fears and anxiety. In fact, I would say that some of the most inventive work has been produced by our teams. With the lockdown easing up in critical markets, our teams have already started working on taking the business forward. However, I reiterate, we are not compromising on the safety or health of any employees. In fact, even for our associates we are very stringently following precautions. This has been amply championed and supported by our President Dr.Bina Modi.
In a digital world with increasing transparency and the growing influence of millennials, employees expect a productive, engaging, enjoyable work experience. What are the three key steps employers should take to maintain a seamless experience?
I believe the 3 steps should be
- A very strong culture that is authentic and a strongly defined sense of purpose that every employee is clear about.
- Continuous development of employees and empowerment and finally
- Consistent and credible communication. For example, with the lockdown and remote working, there were various degrees of isolation in pockets. In some areas where the cases were high, a certain category of employees who could not do their work remotely, and some employees who are seeing their roles now redundant due to the changing environment and need reskilling. Communication is critical to the experience of an employee and is able to support all other pillars that the company values.
There will be large portions of the workforce that will not return to a traditional office post-pandemic. How prepared are you for that?
I don’t think we can claim we are fully prepared. We have explored various scenarios, have initiated processes and preparation. Presently we are reaching out to employees, listening to needs while preparing for the immediate future. Identification of roles that can continue to operate remotely even in normalcy is underway and we are looking at SOPs on working under those circumstances.
Do you see a new tech infrastructure in the making that will help economies recover after COVID-19?
I believe the required infrastructure for the network, internet, data, smart technology & AI that plays an important role in fast progression was already in place. What we need to do to recover is proactive and agile adoption of it. Companies can no longer dally on technology integration with the business.
Godfrey Phillips suspended operations in three factories in March. Have you reduced the workforce/ opted for a pay cut in the last few months?
I am happy to share that we did not have to resort to drastic measures. We have taken care of all our employees, emotionally, physically, and mentally.
Are some of the new workplace practices you have adopted during lockdown to be continued or scaled even after the crisis gets over?
I would say the biggest change has been Work From Home practice that has been successfully adopted. We are delighted the way our people have remained committed to giving their best under all circumstances. This would be a practice we may adopt.
How are you and the rest of your leadership team adapting your personal styles to better handle the situation?
I don’t have a pithy response to this. I believe we are all in the exploratory stage in the present times. There is no formula, or research or tried and tested methods to replicate. We are all evolving, adapting, and adapting to the new. I feel most of us leaders are grappling with identifying our personal styles that will not only lead us out of this situation but also sustain over the ‘new’ era. I think this is an important time to share experiences, talk to each other, and have an open mind.