By the time the first lockdown was announced in India, on March 24, 2020, most multinational corporations in the country had already felt the tremors of COVID-19 from their global counterparts and were bracing for impact. “By late February, we were discussing how things would be managed,” says Abhay Srivastava, chief talent officer & senior vice president – HR, Cipla. “A week before the lockdown was implemented in India, we had, in fact, declared all our corporate offices closed.”
While the corporate offices and sales and marketing teams warmed up to working remotely using technology, some divisions — those involved in functions, such as manufacturing, in particular, that are simply not compatible with remote work — were completely taken by surprise. “We had four aspects of the business to consider — manufacturing, R&D, corporate offices, and sales & marketing. Each presented its own set of challenges,” recounts Srivastava.
In addition, every city and state had its own set of COVID-19 regulations. There simply could not be a blanket, one-size-fits-all solution for multi-functional and multi-geographical companies, such as Cipla. “We figured out what needs to continue to work, what cannot stop, as well as the issues that can stop the business — not just in India but across the globe,” says Srivastava.
To tackle this, the pharma company formulated division-customized solutions. It addressed micro issues with the help of each department head. “Answers were sought to questions, such as ‘Who are the people that can work from home?’ ‘How will their work be impacted?’ ‘How do we ensure business continuity?’ Then came the task of identifying the employees that necessarily had to come to the office and why,” continues Srivastava.
These decisions were made amidst a list of COVID-19 protocols, which too were evolving fast. “We were working under close scrutiny. However, as a company, we wanted to put the safety of our employees first,” says Srivastava. “We decided that in the short run it was okay to take a little hit if we had to.”
Mobilizing task forces
It is easier talking about it now, six months later, after the dust has settled and companies have had the time to recalibrate. However, at the time, achieving this mammoth task list was no easy feat for HR leaders, who had to mobilize employee strengths running into thousands.
“A lot of work has gone on behind the scenes,” points out Srivastava, adding, “We created a cross-functional international task force. Initially, we used to have a one-hour call every alternate day, which became weekly after a few months and continues until today.”
Coming up with large-scale solutions on the go, meant there was absolutely no time to waste. “We were thinking and talking only implementable solutions,” shares Srivastava.
On their feet
Yet, once the lockdown finally hit, HR leaders soon realized that thinking on their toes was going to be their new reality for the rest of the year. There were unexpected challenges that they could not address until they were actually facing them.
Devising solutions for divisions, such as manufacturing and R&D, in compliance with COVID-19 guidelines, proved the most challenging. Cipla’s R&D division is primarily based out of Mumbai, and therefore, the commute to work proved to be a huge obstacle.
“We never had an official transportation system because our Mumbai-based employees used public transport. Suddenly that became a problem,” recalls Srivastava. Then there were social-distancing norms to be followed. “Our labs used to run at a strength of 400 to 500 people. Obviously, we could not call everybody into the labs,” he states. “We didn’t know how to handle it initially, but gradually we started finding solutions.”
Working in shifts was the best way to get the labs working with social distancing. “In R&D, we had never worked in shifts before,” notes Srivastava. “We figured out who necessarily needs to come.” To solve the problem of commute in the absence of Mumbai’s public transport, Cipla hired an army of buses. “We decided to spend a lot of money on hiring buses. This extra expenditure involved not just the hiring cost, but that of running the buses in two shifts and sanitizing them each time.”
Fear and stress
The most perplexing dilemma with regard to divisions that simply could not remain shut after a point was that “people were scared to come to work,” says Srivastava. Protocols to ensure the physical fitness of employees were in place but, “We realized there’s a lot of stress so the most important thing became giving people the confidence to come to work,” says Srivastava.
As a company, Cipla already engages its employees with several mental health institutions. “We ramped that up, not just for our employees but their families too,” claims Srivastava. It helped that Cipla works in pharma. “We connect with a lot of doctors, and therefore, we asked them to hold virtual seminars to address some of the employees’ concerns related to COVID and stress management, among other things,” reveals Srivastava.
For employees whose role demanded they be at work during the pandemic, Cipla created an extra allowance. “We also set up an ambulance service for COVID-affected employees and their families,” explains Srivastava. “We now also have our own quarantine center in Mumbai, in case a COVID-positive employee doesn’t want to isolate at home,” adds Srivastava.
Cipla has already introduced a program called ‘Caring for Life Partner’. For any COVID or non-COVID death in the company, everyone is encouraged to contribute Rs 100. Therefore, around Rs, 20 lakh goes to the family of the deceased!
Technology saves the day
It is no secret that technology has been the ultimate savior this year. 2020 has forced the shift to digital, whether one likes it or not. COVID-19 became a big catalyst for the Company’s move towards virtual reality. Cipla developed several technology-backed tools to ensure a smooth transition to remote work. “We immediately shifted to apps that helped us monitor and track employee performance,” claims Srivastava.
It has been a rough year for all of us, but the paradigm shift in global work culture perhaps invited the biggest learnings for HR leaders. “Being change-agile is a big one,” states Srivastava, “knowing that whatever you’ve thought can change in a day’s time. Be ready to be shaken with something you didn’t expect.”
Srivastava is already preparing for the post-COVID world. “We are in the ‘during COVID’ phase right now, but ‘post-COVID’ is not going to be the same. There are going to be some drastic changes again. For me, the biggest learning is to be ready for that change,” asserts Srivastava.
“What kind of distributed leadership, cybersecurity, learning development will be required? How do we start using virtual reality or augmented reality to deliver something better? How will we adopt things which we don’t even know exist right now?” Srivastava believes these are some of the key questions HR leaders will be tackling in the near future.