COVID and The Great Resignation Changed Many Things for HRs

Dr. Manoj Prasad, Vice President - Reliance Industries Limited, Mumbai

Calling “upskilling” and reskilling” necessities of the 21st century, Dr. Manoj Prasad, Vice President (Talent Development & Digital Transformation) of Reliance Industries Ltd, explains how digitization has disrupted human resource functions. A crusader for transformation and agility in the VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity) world, Dr. Prasad spoke at length with Education Post about aspects that are impacting the domain of people management. (All the views of speaker are personal and none of the views are related to his current organization.)

QueTell us about the concept of talent transformation.

Talent transformation is not a very dogmatic term nowadays. Over the past two years, due to several events around the world, organizations have been practicing this concept.

Every organization is going toward a digital transformation, and human resources (HR) is also going witnessing a major change.

In any organization’s HR department, the focus is more on changing from engagement to empowerment. Most organizations have accepted the hybrid working model, including those in the manufacturing sector. Companies have started seeing talent transformation as smart, fast and effective. To enable the transformation, they are creating a lot of touchpoints within the organization that can prove to be an immersive experience for employees.

Digitization does have its advantages. For example, if I want to see something related to talent data or talent analytics, I can go to some of my firm’s systems and I can see how many people have gone for the new training session or any other change. So, while those advantages are there, talent is becoming core for any supply chain management in the organization.

People should be the focus of any firm. You can change the technology and the process, but the people will remain the same. Therefore, companies are also becoming very knowledge-focused and knowledge-oriented and there are no more only blue-collar or grey-collar employees.

And, the methods of engagement with employees have also changed. Earlier, it was working in silos, and a lot of things used to depend upon HR, whose face value is now diminishing gradually. What matters now is what value you can add to an organization.

Things are becoming very proactive in that way and I can see the way HR is changing – upskilling and reskilling has become the focus. Business operations are changing very fast; you might have seen that many start-ups are coming up with very different values related to HR.

So, if you aren’t focusing much on people – your employees – you’re going to be out of the market in no time.

“The Great Resignation”, which is happening globally, has also taught HRs many lessons because, in this period, around 40 to 45 percent workforce has left organizations. Take the example of Infosys, where almost 75,000 employees have left the organization in the last three years. Hence, whether you are working as a CEO or MD, the focus should always be on people. This will make HR more relevant going forward.


Engaging employees effectively in a virtual setting can be challenging. What steps do you take to ensure engagement?

I guess, now, the well-accepted work model is hybrid. What I have seen in the hybrid way of working is that employees have started losing their psychological connects with their colleagues, seniors, and managers. This has emerged as a big challenge for HRs. However, the way we handled this particular problem, is highly effective. We adopted four Es to address this situation.

“Enablement”, in which you provide all the relevant tools pertinent to remote working in the pandemic. Also, employees must be provided with very secure methods of networking, which is going to be one of the challenges right now. Several organizations, have already started securing their workplaces. Earlier, it was only confined to the physical part. Now, people are not only working from home but from multiple locations also. During the last two years, I have worked from almost 15 locations. Hence, supporting and securing multiple locations is becoming important. Moreover, you should provide an enablement tool in such a manner that employees should be self-sufficient, instead of being dependent on others. For instance, if an employee has to download any software, he must take into account all the security aspects.

The second E is “energy”. During the Covid19 pandemic, the focus of HR has gone from “work only” mode to “work-life balance” mode. Taking care of physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health has become equally important. Firms have been organizing yoga and meditation sessions which an employee’s family is also welcomed to attend.

The third is “empowerment”. Sometimes, when an employee applies for leave, he has to wait for several days to get approval. But, if you empower your employees in such a manner that if a senior doesn’t act on that leave application within three days, it should be considered approved. People are thus really empowered with the help of such system and tools.

The fourth is “encouragement”. Seniors should appreciate employees for their good work and give them rewards. They should be recognized for the contributions that are significant to the organization, processes, and workplace.

So, this is how we have taken the journey from engagement to empowerment, and I think employees are finding themselves more connected to their teams and managers. And it also helps control attrition in the organization.


How do you ensure your employees stay relevant during the fast-changing business operating model?

You need to be agile in learning, which means that the organization should provide ample opportunities to learn any new relevant thing in the domain to upskill and reskill. Previously, upskilling programs were being pushed at the employee but now we have created a pull. Employees realize that they need to stay informed about relevant subjects.

The learning format has also changed. Earlier it used to be classroom learning. But, now due to digital technology, you can access the learning material any time, and also, it’s at your fingertips. Now, one can have different formats of learning like Coursera, LinkedIn, Educast, SimpliLearn, etc. Also, many organizations provide portals to learn those skills within their interfaces which may be related to the domain, technology, or behavioural leadership.

Moreover, learning durations should also be in byte size. Now, employees feel bored in a training session that lasts three. Therefore, learning has also been changed to byte size.

If I see some reports by World Economic Forum or other research firms, they have identified two baskets of learning. One is related to behavioural learning like problem-solving, critical thinking, design thinking, etc. The second is related to the technical learning part that relates to data science, IoT, blockchain, and machine learning as they are gradually becoming very important, whether you are in HR or production, or even finance.

These are the niche skills that you’re supposed to learn if you want to stay relevant. You need to make a kind of learning basket, from which learners pick the relevant subject and upskill according to the need of the organization and role.


How important is continuous learning when it comes to hiring or assessing an employee?

Continuous learning is the only mantra if you want to stay relevant in the organization. I can give you one example. I recently conducted one session with IIM and it was more of a conglomeration of the HR fraternity. When I started talking about something related to data science, SQL, python, etc., some of the participants stared with a perplexed look, as if they have never heard of these technologies. Then I told them that they have to keep a tab on the latest developments in their field if they wanted to stay relevant.

Also, try to learn new technologies. Every technology has a different application and it depends on you how you want to apply it to your domain. For any kind of assessment, you shouldn’t be alien to any new skills. You should continuously learn by acquiring different kinds of certification programs, or degrees that are important to keep you relevant, agile, and productive. In the past two years, I have completed my Ph.D., and six other courses that are related to data science, python, fraud detection, etc

You may wonder how cybersecurity or AI are relevant to the HR field. Consider the concept of a chatbot, which is related to the HR assistant, a virtual assistant. If you have some expertise, it can help you in handling the volume of queries when the HR person is not available. That artificial chatbot can provide level 1 or level 2 solutions, and address superficial queries by the employees so that you can focus more on the developmental part of the HR. Such monotonous transactions are being taken over by the AI-based chatbot and machine learning, enabling HR to focus on employee engagement and project handling.

The gig economy is also booming since you are working for a purpose or project. When the project is completed, you can go to the other projects as well.


Digital platforms are the new way of working. How do you manage change in your organization?

When you talk of change, there will always be some resistance to change, whether it is related to HR or any business aspect. Managing change is a kind of mixture of art and science. The first and foremost thing to manage change is to create an urge or requirement for the change. That comes only if you show its benefit to your employees. So, those benefits will be bifurcated into many things; it may be related to the process that can save their time, or maybe it will reduce the time wastage to improve productivity.

HRs need to have effective communication with employees because until and unless they are not able to identify what’s in it for them, they aren’t going to come on the same page in terms of upskilling or reskilling. Because when you talk of change, changing technology or the process is easier than changing the mindset of people.

So far, my experience of working at a Fortune 100 company, is that it is people who drive any kind of change. Once you have a buy-in from the leadership, and a buy-in from employees then I think you’ve already created a business case for change. This change is bound to happen as the benefits are very clear to impacted stakeholders and employees.

If you talk in terms of changing the ways of working, you are going to need a new training process and new technologies. You need to provide some training, handholding and create a psychological connect with employees. With support from HR and subject matter experts, create a burning platform that helps employees in their transition from a legacy system/process to new ways of working.

Many leading research works available show that 70 percent of the proposed changes have failed because the organizations were not able to handle the people part of the change. Now companies are becoming sensitive to this aspect, and they are getting the buy-in from people first.


How do you compare personnel policies followed in Indian companies with those in other countries?

If I compare the HR policies of Indian and global organizations, I can say that there are huge gaps in many ways. Most of the HR policies in India are “reactive”. For example, If a female wants to work at any gold or coal mine, they aren’t allowed to work. But if you compare these policies with those in Australia or the UK, they don’t just have a policy on diversity, but on the inclusion of diversity as well. So, they are multinational, multicultural, and multi-ethnic organizations. Their HR policies are very proactive to the changes, which is required, and they make the changes well in advance.

Let’s talk of only one parameter – diversity. Developed countries have around 40 percent of male to female employee ratio, while in India, we are still struggling at around 2 to 3 percent. If we look at some typical manufacturing organizations, this percentage further gets reduced. In IT companies this workforce ratio is around 20 to 30 percent, but we are still lagging far behind developed countries.

Currently, we have implemented the new labour code which works as a kind of bandaid solution for HR and Indian companies. It says that women will be allowed to work in SEZ (special economic zones) or the STPI (Software Technology Park of India), SPZ (Special Promotion Zone), etc. But when it comes to the freedom of agility and focus on the well-being part, there are many miles to go. Take the example of the UK. Its social safety net is so strong that once you retire from the job, they take care of every kind of requirement be it related to your unemployment, allowances, health, or food. This is lacking in India.

Also, the way they raise their issues and address managers is very different. While working in Copenhagen and the UK, I noticed that there is good team spirit between the employees and the manager, irrespective of the seniority level or hierarchy. But in India, still there are lots of hierarchies that have to be followed in any organization. Government organizations have many layers of bureaucracy, but even in many private Indian companies, the culture of addressing as “sir” still exists.

So, there is a huge gap, but we have started the journey and we are also trying to adopt some of the best policies and the best practices. But it will still take 10-15 years.


What would be the future of HR five years down the line?

Whether it is a developed country or India, diversity and inclusion are going to be the thrust areas for organizations. Many things will become digital, but the most important part will be related to high-tech, and high-touch is going to be the focus. Third, the organization will start focusing more on wellbeing. Managing the employee’s spiritual and mental life is also going to be the prime focus.

Organizations will also focus more on humancentric designs, that are related to enabling and empowering employees so that they can take charge of their growth and career path.

Also, “gig talent” is going to be a new way, because if you see the Gen-I and Gen-Z, their focus is more on the agility of the work. They will look for those organizations where they could get meaningfully engaged. They won’t look for those organizations where they could get employment for a lifetime or only salary hikes. While salary is important, the work culture of the organization, flexibility in work, and meaningful engagement will be the key factors in the future. HR will always be relevant in any organization, whether it is system-oriented or process-oriented or even a technology-oriented organization because the focus will always be on being human-centric.


You have persistently reinvented yourself. Share with our readers some qualities that will help them become productive and resourceful assets to their workplace.

First will be, of course, the learning agility. To quote American writer and futurist Alvin Toffler, “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.” So, the first thing should be the ability to continuously learn new skills, which comes under learning agility.

Secondly, one should have a mindset for change, which means whatever comes under your domain, you should learn fast and scale yourself fast. Try to position yourself as a productive and differentiator person. You must have a uniqueness that will benefit the organisation. In my current organization, the number of employees is almost 3.5 lakh, and bringing change is like boiling the ocean. But, with top management support and commitments, change is a smooth process.

At last, I would say, you should always keep a tab on anything that is emerging as new technology. If you can learn, adapt, implement and show the impact on your organization, that will be the mantra for you to succeed in the VUCA world.


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