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“Leaders need to embrace uncertainty, explore new opportunities that any crisis brings along”

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Cactus Communications has been part of the remote work culture for the last 17 years, with global offices in China, Japan, Korea, Europe and India. Yashmi Pujara, Chief Human Resources Officer, Cactus Communications gives Viveka Roychowdhury details of the measures taken to cope with COVID-19 and the role of HR and senior management when dealing with employees transitioning to a remote work culture

What were the support systems provided to employees as they transition to working remotely due to the COVID-19 lockdown?As soon as we realised that the number of (COVID-19) cases were on the rise globally, we took the following measures:
· We created a BCP team to monitor developments on a daily basis and deploy measures as required.
· A dedicated page was created on the organisation’s intranet to create awareness and provide updates on the situation and our offices. Email updates are shared twice a week with the entire organisation.
· All international and domestic travel has been curbed across the organisation. This decision was taken even before government mandates in India, Japan, Denmark, the US, and the UK.
· We gradually and systematically moved to work-from-home, starting with our Shanghai and Beijing offices and followed by Seoul, Tokyo, Singapore, London, Princeton, Aarhus, and all India offices.
· We have been operating business as usual with the support of strong communication, admin, and IT support systems. In India, where we have our largest office operations, we had conducted a function-wise work-from-home pilot from the beginning of March as a proactive measure to test our preparedness. Additional infrastructure like external monitors for design teams, internet dongles, IP phones for employees in client-facing roles, and work desks/chairs (for those who needed them) were arranged well in advance

How do HR personnel train themselves to anticipate the motivational and emotional needs of a workforce, many of whom they may have never met in person?
The HR team undergoes various programs designed to understand our employees better. These include daily standups in all HR hubs, weekly HR leadership meetings and monthly HR team meetings where the team shares past experiences and plans to address the anticipated needs of our people. There are periodic learning sessions where an external perspective is built to help us understand the needs and psyche of both onsite and remote workers.

We have dedicated HR Business Partners who already have a relationship with each employee since they are involved in the hiring process and they conduct regular surveys and one-on-ones. They also ensure our remote workforce remains integrated with their teams and the organisation through regular video calls, planned office visits, and quick turnaround on queries.

HR has also helped leaders share their perspective through our intranet using videos/blogs, sharing tips with people and leaders on working virtually. The ensuing feedback and comments help the HR anticipate the motivational drivers and provide further softer engagement through initiatives like exercise videos, tips for managing children at home, and ergonomics.

A survey through the IT team to understand the state of infrastructure of everyone in client-facing roles also helped us in gauging the pain points and pulse of teams and address these quickly.

How does HR train line function leaders to create the same teamwork across virtual teams? What are the red flags to watch out for?
Our function leaders go through a comprehensive training programme with specific modules designed to manage and integrate virtual teams. HR also trains them on the functional aspects of managing remote teams in addition to sharing best practices by mail, through intranet posts, and in meetings. Most of our team is already trained to work virtually; however, the biggest red flag to watch out for is the feeling of isolation. HR drives managers to conduct daily standups with their teams, including fun virtual meetings to break the monotony and the feeling of isolation.

As an ongoing process, HR Business Partners conduct a quarterly team health check with all people managers to understand team dynamics, work stress indicators, learning and career progression, recognition opportunities, and physical and mental wellbeing. Learnings allow both managers and HR to calibrate on next steps for any focus areas and execute them in a timely fashion. We have created a special interest group called [email protected] that has a group of volunteers from within a cross-section of the entire organisation that routinely comes up with initiatives related to physical and mental well being.

What should be the role of CEOs and other senior management at a time when a pandemic throws up the possibilities of layoffs, downsizing?
The role of CEOs and other senior management becomes very crucial in testing times like the one we are facing right now. Amongst other challenges, there is a lot of emotional upheaval they undergo. They need to first develop emotional balance so that they are able to work with clarity and do what is right for customers, employees, and stakeholders.

Leaders need to constantly communicate with their teams through the organisation and increase their visibility through messages, videos etc. They also need to maintain a fine balance in motivating employees that there is light at the end of the tunnel and at the same time not lose grip of the reality/macro indicators that are likely to impact their business.

Leaders need to embrace the uncertainty and explore new ideas/opportunities that any crisis brings along. Being emotionally stable also allows them to guide employees with transparency and increases their ability to engage and drive change that may be necessary for the business to outlive the crisis and discover new opportunities.

Not all functions of the pharmaceuticals sector or the healthcare sector can work remotely. How does HR deal with the fallout of some team members having to work at site, while others have the choice to work remotely?
One of CACTUS’s USPs is flexible work location. Most of our employees are comfortable working from home and have had home offices already set up. We proactively provide infrastructure for those with specific requirements, like external monitors, internet dongles, phones or work stations. This agility and readiness have allowed us to move completely to a work-from-home model and continue to execute business seamlessly.

Many more organisations have the ability to work from home but not the will—as a result, they don’t think about it deep enough to set up processes and systems that allow them to work from home. Trusting that the team will do what needs to be done is the biggest cultural change that many organisations will need to deal with.

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