Sonica Aron is the Founder and Managing Partner of Marching Sheep, an HR advisory firm specializing in Strategic HR advisory, Diversity and inclusion interventions, employee health and wellness and capability building. An XLRI post graduate, Sonica has worked with companies like Pepsico, Vodafone, Roche Diagnostics and ICI paints. She started her career with a sound understanding of business where she went route-riding with Pepsico and was part of the team that launched Pepsi 200 ml at Rs 5. She was the first lady HR Manager stationed at a factory in Upcountry UP and there the seeds to her diversity practice were born.
The New Year 2022 was anticipated to be filled with growth and opportunities. However, Omicron reached reared its headjust as everyone thought India was gradually inching towards the endemic stage. As per the World Health Organization, until early January 2022, it had infected over 300 million people worldwide. As a result, home isolation, weekend curfews, closure of public spaces, remote working, and online learning have again emerged as the way of life! On the whole, our lives and businesses are once again facing disruptions!
Revisiting the WFH concept
With Omicron striking and the memories of the second wave still being fresh, the fact of the matter is that the people, as well as the businesses, are being cautious. This has prompted employers to reconsider the work from home concept. Working with a balanced view, the majority of the organizations have re-transitioned to remote working so as to ensure the maximum safety of their employees. Gartner in its recent report highlights this trend and states that 44% of the global companies surveyed were forced to revisit their office reopening plans due to the surge in the cases.
Reimagining work policies: Employers’ response to the third wave
The third wave has pushed the employers to reimagine their work policies. Consequently, they are once again prioritizing employee health, well-being, and engagement as highlighted by Gartner in its recent research.
COVID policies for employees
The workplaces are reinstating the COVID policies and are also modifying theirorganizational regulations for the benefit of their workforces. Be it providing paid leaves for the infected employees, for the team members undergoing challenging times due to their family members fighting the infection, or arranging required medical or routine supplies; businesses are offering assistance at various levels to comfort and support their employees.
Working with the employee-first approach
Dealing with the first and second waves, there is much that India Inc has learnt. Also, employee expectations have evolved significantly from their employers. An empathetic, supportive, transparent approach during times of crisis along with collaborative team environment, policies and practices that provide emotional, mental, physical and digital wellbeing are being worked on.
Organizations now work with an ‘employee-first’ policy. They understand that the majority of the team members are still battling with the aftermaths of the second wave. While many are trying to cope up with the loss of their loved ones, others are still reeling under the emotional aftermath of the traumatic hospitalization period. The employers are thus attempting at first understanding the concerns, vulnerabilities, and apprehensions of their employees. They are then constantly looking out for viable solutions that could ensure their workforces’ safety and holistically address their issues as well. The fact that Omicron is also infecting children is an area which hitherto was not a concern and hence not a part of most medical support being extended by organizations however needs attention.
Offering psychological support
The importance of mental health and mental health issues had long been subjects of debates and discussions. However, with the coronavirus outbreak, the pandemic-induced lockdown, social distancing norms, and remote working; employees juggle between working from home and working for home. Being confined in the four walls and surrounded by uncertainty, fear of infection, pressure of getting things done, remote working is usually accompanied with extended working hours. This often leads to mental exhaustion and burnout. Hence, striking work-life balance can be tough andmost employees have been undergoing withdrawal, anxiety, stress, depression, panic attacks and other such conditions.
Employers need to build offer a holistic work environment where employees feel psychologically safe while juggling their multiple priorities. This requires a multi-pronged approach from providing Covid assistance to those who are sick, medical coverage and assistance, building managerial and leadership capabilities to building psychological safety in teams.
A lot of organizations have taken a step towardsproviding flexible working hours,reviewing deliverables and outcomes and not time at work, stepping away from micro-management, enabling and empowering employees,introducing innovationsin their work culture, and are being considerate to stand by their team members through thick and thin by introducing concepts like wellness leaves. Many organizations have taken steps towards building capabilitiesof their management and HR teams so that they can meet the needs of their diverse workforce.
Ensuring business continuity with a sensitized perspective
With the New Year, businesses had planned extensively for achieving stretch targets with an ambition of business recovery and accelerated growth. The surge in the COVID-cases disrupted their plans and they had to once again focus on business continuity. But the employershave gathered their learnings from past experiences and are now working with a practical approach. They are well aware that maintaining the optimum quality of work is essential for the survival and growth of businesses.
Theemployers are thus focusing on achieving the deliverables of the January month by taking an expedient yet sensitized approach. They are viewing the situation from a pragmatic perspective and are introducing modifications to ensure that the operations happen seamlessly without compromising on the employees’ health and wellbeing.
During such challenging times and while working from home, communication is the key. Hence, employers are offering various channels to bridge the communication gap. Gartner highlights this trend in its recent study and states that employers are ensuring that conversations happening with their workforces virtually are transparent and authentic. This is essential to maintain the pace of work and to keep a check on the employees’ physical as well as mental health.
The fear and paranoia associated with the pandemic existsand needs to be addressed. It thus becomes imperative for businesses to reinforce positivity, ensure engaging work culture along with a cohesive work environment, and focus on employee-friendly practices. This will help in reassuring the employees that their employers prioritize their well-beingand would enable organizations to instill motivation amongst their workforces so that they can work to the best of their abilities.
The first wave caught India Inc unawares and there were many knee jerk reactions. Some were required for business continuity, to manage cash flows and to help with transition but were tough on the workforce- furloughs, layoffs, salary cuts, restructuring, ambiguity and what not. By the second wave, there was much learning and agility, and India Inc stood by the workforce. The second wave however was so lethal that itsimpact has left long lasting scars for many. The fact that employers have become agile and flexible in their approachwill go a long way in effectively dealing with Omicron. A holistic approach that meets the needs of the current workforce offering is required financial, emotional, and psychological support to employees so that they can deal with the Omnicron surge collaboratively and effectively.