Ravi Santhanam


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  • The role of Human Resources, has never been more important. We all rely on Team HR to guide us past the current crisis and get to the Next Normal. Here is a first attempt at setting an agenda

By | Ravi Santhanam | ex MD of Hindusthan Motors, Mahindra Holidays | Zeus Consulting | Executive Coach

In a pandemic, a chief people officer can make or break a company. When the financial crisis rocked the business world in 2007-09, boardrooms turned to corporate finance chiefs. A good CFO could save a company; a bad one might bury it. The covid-19 pandemic presents a different challenge—and highlights the role of another corporate function, often unfairly dismissed as soft. Never before have more firms needed a hard-headed HR boss” says The Economist magazine, in its issue dated March 24.

Clearly there is merit in the respected magazine’s observation. Covid-19, has brought to the fore how important Human Resources are. Now is indeed HR’s time to shine!

Looking at HR’s role, in the current context, from the outside, as a lay / non-HR person, “Making Dispersed Working Work” and “Train on New Behaviours for the Next Normal” struck me as the two broad themes, HR Teams ought to focus on right now. Since the two themes are interconnected, I am listing what I believe may be the Five Big Priorities, for HR Teams to focus on, as a single set.

  1. Organisation designed for dispersed working: Working From Home (WFH) is the most visible form of dispersed working, and it is on fast forward. Some estimate that WFH has scaled up faster in the in the last 10 weeks than in the preceding ten years. While that is wonderful, our organisation structure and systems need to be redesigned for this new reality. They are by and large designed for co-located teams working synchronously.

It is also possible that new ways of dispersed working emerge! May be, distributed offices to minimise commuting or a hybrid arrangement of co-locate for half a day a week and disperse for rest of the week. We will definitely need to re-design our organisation structure and systems as such arrangements evolve. It may well be a combination of current practices and agile principles.

  1. Transition to Video from Face to Face: Broadband and video conferencing tools, have given us this wonderful convenience and the lockdown has familiarised all of us with VC-ing. That said, there is still quite some distance to go. The more obvious one is the loss of personal greeting, interplay of body language and personal rapport. The less obvious one is the “intensity” of the medium. Arvind Krishna, the CEO of IBM, reckons a 40 minute video interaction to be as demanding as a 60 minute face to face interaction, as implied in his public pledge to fellow IBM-ers. Microsoft’s Work from Home Guide, is another document that recognises many of the new pressure points from a video intermediated interaction. Every organisation needs to develop their own pledges and guides, appropriate to the unique context and requirements of their business.
  2. We Can Win Spirit: Optimism and hope for a better future has always been the engine powering human progress. We are now going to need these two, optimism and hope, more than ever, given the perfect storm of medical, economic and humanitarian crisis. How can HR help the organisation create and spread this spirit? The last few weeks have shown that that sugar-coating and cheer-leading don’t work. Only determined and pragmatic actions do. How can HR help leaders across the width and depth of the organisation, act with determination and pragmatism?
  3. Collaboration: Seasoned managers know that this a challenge, even when co-located, working the same hours and interacting often. Can you visualise how big a challenge this is going to be in an environment of dispersed working? Try a simple experiment; ask a group of ten managers to agree on definition of coordination, cooperation and collaboration. See for yourself the spectrum of opinions that emerge. This raises the question, “How does one retrain a team habituated to running relay races to excel in football?”
  4. Social distancing in daily life: We now know how insidious Covid 19 is. It sneaks in and infects you without your knowledge, and then it takes a full week or two before you even realise you are infected. Worse still, during that period, you will be unknowingly infecting others you live and work with. The only proven offence / defence we have against the Covid-19 virus is Social Distancing. How do we encourage all our employees to practice it at work and home? Physical infrastructure such as The 6 feet office and redesigned plants and work sites, with clockwise only movement, will of course help. But, they will not be sufficient in themselves.

We all know how difficult it is to change our own behaviour, leave alone getting others to change theirs. Social distancing has to become a deeply ingrained behaviour, in our daily lives. How do we do that, in such a large scale in such limited time? Role modelling? Communication, communication and communication?

The above is merely first thoughts of a lay / non-HR person. The HR specialists, will undoubtedly have a broader and deeper perspective. May I invite all from the HR fraternity to add and subtract, praise and criticise this document, with a view to developing an Agenda for HR to play its all important role, to the fullest?

Originally first published by Ravi Santhanam in LinkedIn



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