No function has become as important as managing human capital during the pandemic. WFH (work-from-home) has emerged as the most fashionable mantra today even while companies are busy rewriting the rules in office attendance and supervision. Some are also handling emotional trauma of those employees who have been cooped indoors for months on end.
Rajeshwar Tripathi understands these challenges only too well. As Chief Human Resources Officer, Automotive and Farm Sectors, Mahindra & Mahindra, he says it is important to prepare for tomorrow right away. “Some people call it the future of work, sustainability or de-risking the organisation, especially after Covid, where building resilience across formats is priority,” he adds.
Events like the pandemic are once-in-a-lifetime occurrences which have ensured that life will never be the same again. Yet, even in this backdrop, companies such as M&M believe it is critical to stay ahead of the curve on areas like technology, product and people.
“If your core is not sound, it becomes tough to navigate changes at the speed with which they are happening. By core, I mean culture, systems and processes, physical infrastructure, people . . . and M&M has leveraged these to the hilt,” says Tripathi.
Despite WFH, the emotional balance “we have built with our people has really helped us” and this is what has made the difference despite such strong headwinds. “Our focus on building a leadership/talent pipeline, caring for our people etc has paid off,” he says.
According to Tripathi, this is evident from the feedback coming in from employees who say M&M is a “great place to work in and has only been getting better over the years”. Through the pandemic, the key was to ensure people’s trust while going all out to take care of them. “Employees have a sense of pride about working at M&M . . . it is a good workforce which is motivated and raring to go,” he says.
Challenges of being future-ready
Of course, there are huge challenges for the future in terms of talent disruption, growing aspirations of youngsters, changing skill-sets and so on. As Tripathi explains, technology/product/business models are the three “buckets of disruption” which are happening together — a truly rare phenomenon. Sometimes, technology is the sole disruptor and at other times it is the product but right now all three are in change mode.
“This is really altering the expectations and skill-sets of people. Development and grooming is completely different today and you will not survive if you do not have them. Human obsolescence is the worst of its kind and will be a disaster if it is unchecked,” cautions Tripathi. It is to safeguard against something like this that organisations have had to constantly invest in people and ensure that they are coping with the needs of the new era.
According to him, the workforce at M&M is resilient and has constantly risen to challenges even during a period as grim and surreal as Covid-19. “We have not felt a shortage on the skills side because of an innovative young generation which is energetic and equipped with an entrepreneurial mindset,” elaborates Tripathi.
Right now, it is the digital space that is “hot” and companies are now on the lookout for highly skilled people. Not too long ago, a similar scramble was seen while hiring talent in electrical and electronics when the auto industry was moving from BS IV to BS VI emission norms.
“We have seen those sudden spikes but availability of talent has never been an issue especially for companies like ours which have a strong brand. We are getting the right quality and numbers at M&M,” says Tripathi. According to him, automakers will also need to collaborate “much more closely” with others in the ecosystem.
There is so much happening that it will be difficult to “do things on our own”, which means that it is critical to reach out to academia and start-ups that constitute a huge knowledge base for tapping talent. By the end of the day, it is not as if everything can be done in-house and it is always more pragmatic to have two heads (or more) instead of one.
As Tripathi says, the current and future generation of leaders across organisations will need to have an open mind and shed their egos. The feeling of ‘‘I know everything’ will have to give way to greater humility, openness and inclusivity. “This is how leaders can leverage skills and knowledge better,” he says.
Focus on skill-based hiring
Various dimensions are also changing in the hiring process at M&M where “we are moving away” from the conventional wisdom of experienced-based to skill-based hiring. This is the “most dramatic shift” which has happened in recent times and is accelerating by the day.
For many roles/positions where experience was critical — it continues to be relevant and will not go away in a hurry — there are now “various things happening” like a focus on skills. If the company needs someone in the digital space, he/she does not need to come from auto alone but from another sector like FMCG or IT.
“More than 50 percent of lateral hiring is happening from outside of the industry which was unheard of till a while ago,” says Tripathi. For instance, a new recruit on the shop floor needs to be digital savvy which means companies like M&M can look at picking up someone from industries that use robots.
“The talent pool is widening by the day and with a good employer brand, we can attract people from all walks of life. This is precisely what is happening in talent mobility across the country,” he adds. Opportunities are growing which means people are constantly moving from jobs especially when “this generation is more aspirational and focused on following its dreams”.
In the process, companies are benefiting from this move across industry segments since this is spawning more talent versatility. There is greater focus on multidisciplinary skill sets and today someone who specialises in strategy for instance will also need to be thorough with auto and digital while keeping face with finance.
This is equally true for HR professionals like Tripathi where a “massive business understanding” is imperative in terms of knowing more about other verticals. “This change is happening in all functions — a purchasing guy needs to understand product design, component development etc,” he says.
Going forward, versatility is the name of the game where individuals will mandatorily have to spread their cerebral wings and stay abreast of other functions. “I can still have my core expertise but that doesn't mean that I don't appreciate marketing, finance and so on. This is truly a dramatic shift now happening,” explains Tripathi.
Beyond this, M&M is also paying a lot of emphasis to diversity in gender, thought processes, culture, ethnicity and so on. “We find this is a good source of bringing fresh ideas and innovation,” he says. Generational diversity is as important and this is happening in a big way — almost 65 percent of the company’s workforce is under 35 and for an organisation which is 75 years old, this is significant.
The average age is a little over 33 years today which is a welcome move. “It has come down over the last 3-4 years because of retirements but more importantly, we reflect what is happening in the country demographically,” says Tripathi.
Interestingly, HR policies are also seeing some significant changes and the idea is to go in for greater simplicity and transparency, keeping in mind the needs of the younger generation. As a case in point, travel policies would initially have different buckets on grades and hotel eligibility.
These layers have now been “demolished” and there is just one category for everyone below the level of general manager. For those who are at a higher scale, all reimbursements are made on actual expenses even while everyone is aware of the need to be careful. With greater empowerment comes more trust and yet people are quick to realise by way of reciprocity that everything is a cost and one must, therefore, be cautious about high spends.
Tripathi laughs when asked if all moves towards a flatter organisation could even lead to designations being dropped. Another automaker had attempted this some years ago and had to quickly revoke the move following protests from employees. Clearly, designations do matter and it is important to be “in sync with society and the realities of hierarchy”.
HR lessons from the pandemic
As for the lessons of the pandemic, he says a whole lot of myths have been shattered. “There were many of us who did not believe that roles could be done remotely or from home,” admits Tripathi. Yet, WFH showed that efficiency levels were not compromised at all.
The lessons from the pandemic have been “vital” and many companies plan to leverage on some of them going forward. Clearly, there were huge savings on costs and there is no reason why frugality cannot be practised going forward.
“We will be more structured and set the ball rolling . . . we are now asking ourselves questions on budgeting and costs,” he says. Equally, it is not as if everything that happened during Covid will be the template for the future since people have to get back to work.
By the end of the day, man is a social animal who cannot stay in isolation forever and needs to go out. In the case of M&M, there could be some restructuring when it comes to events for instance where some could “continue digitally” and others at a lesser cost or in a phygital (combining physical and digital) mode.
From Tripathi’s point of view, one of the biggest takeaways from Covid-19 has been greater empowerment since close supervision was not possible. It was a “big eye-opener” which helped forge greater trust among people without the need to breathe down their necks constantly. Companies will want to retain this template when everyone begins returning to work: it just makes life easier across the ecosystem.
Tune in to Autocar Profesional's September 15 issue for more details.