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Welcome to office 2021

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Photo: iStock

  • We may or may not return to our desks but employees can look forward to changes in reward systems and a greater focus on wellness
  • Since coming to a physical office or shifting cities is no longer a criterion, HR experts believe 2021 could be the biggest for diversity, equity and inclusion

It’s going to be a long time before we resume going to the office. Like a relay race, 2021 is going to carry on the baton of remote work. While organizations had to quickly adapt to digitizing every aspect of office life, this year will be about defining the contours of the new changes and further refining it, say experts. The focus on wellness, productivity and health will continue, as will the spotlight on managing teams remotely.

The continuation of remote work means that organizations will seriously have to consider having better leadership discipline to extend a sensitive workplace ethos, believes Prabir Jha, founder and chief executive of Prabir Jha People Advisory. “The psychological implications (of blurring of professional and personal lives) will get more severe going forward. Beyond the standard employee assistance programmes for virtual workplaces, a more substantive shift in work design will need to happen," explains Jha. “Better leave practices will get designed. Cultures will need to accept that leave is not absence from the workplace, but a switch off from work."

Viewing 2021 as a game changer for conventional workplaces, Awfis chief executive officer Amit Ramani says companies are already experimenting with floor plans to ensure safety and ensure physical distancing.

It’s all virtual

Virtual career fairs are only going to increase this year, at least in the preliminary stages. “Most premier graduate schools will increasingly start offering placements and opting for internship interviews via video calls," says Anuranjita Kumar, founder of Women in Technology, India, and former human resource head of RBS Bank.

What’s more, for organizations, virtual hiring will enable them to tap a talent pool across the world. It will, however, bring in its own challenges, especially when hiring talent from outside India. “It can put a strain on the payroll system as the salary structures will have to be constructed basis the state laws," says Amogh Deshmukh, managing director of talent management consulting firm DDI India.

To ensure the remote hires integrate well into the organization’s culture, Deshmukh says leaders will have to work on their networking and influencing skills, move away from building their inner circle and be more inclusive.

Since coming to a physical office or shifting cities is no longer a criteria, Kumar adds 2021 could be the biggest year for diversity and inclusion.

While all aspects of businesses have had to shift to the digital mode, the change was felt acutely by human resource (HR) professionals, as the focus on employee engagement skyrocketed. According to Nitin Sethi, chief executive (performance and rewards) at Aon India, companies will make significant investments in upgrading and implementing new HR tools and platforms. “As tools come into place, companies will have more data on employees, and their ability to take more data-backed decisions on increasing engagement," believes Sethi.

Another talent pool that companies will lean into in coming months would be the skilled freelance consultants.

“With a focus on the gig economy and better utilization of resources for full-time and specific business needs, organizations must invest in enhancing capabilities and giving employees the opportunity of micro-learning in order to develop fungible skill sets," says T.R. Ramachandran, group country manager, India and South Asia, Visa.

Who will win the talent war?

In a virtual workspace, there are no pats on the back. Going forward, one will see evolution in reward and recognition policy and processes of companies, says Suvarna Mishra, vice-president (HR), Sodexo Benefits and Rewards Services India. “With continuous feedback mechanisms and the focus on performance, organizations will need to have more frequent, inclusive and transparent reward and recognition systems, not just based on performance but also appreciating the effort and perseverance of employees towards achieving their goals," she says.

The other aspect will be continued focus on holistic wellness of employees. HR will not only focus on the physical wellness of people, which was the case before the covid-19 outbreak, but also their emotional and mental health, and provide support accordingly, says Mishra.

Salaries and benefits will have to be reorganized, since some of the benefits no longer serve the purpose. Instead of cash-driven compensation, the focus will shift to total rewards, Sethi insists. It will encompass culture, simplifying compensation and benefits structure, career opportunities, etc. “Companies that will identify what is unique across these factors for them and communicate effectively will eventually win the war on talent, he says.

Since people have adapted to holding virtual inter-team discussions, collaborations and virtual nudge techniques are only set to increase. Coaching and supporting managers who can handle remote teams will become imperative, says Jha. “CHROs (chief human resource officers) must help coach the line leaders to be better virtual leaders. Many line managers need to know how to practice empathy and delegation from afar. More digital platforms, more agile leadership norms and a high learning ask will continue apace. Smarter ways of designing and delivering outcomes will evolve a new talent mix in the workplace, including more freelancers and gig advisors and doers," Jha says.

The right stance

Considering the inclination of employees and consumers towards organization’s stance on societal issues, CHROs will have to make their positions clear on social and political issues, says Abhijit Bhaduri, former chief learning officer for Wipro, who recently authored Dreamers And Unicorns: How Leadership, Talent And Culture Are The New Growth Drivers, a book that imagines workplace and organization post-covid-19. He also believes that companies will also have to grapple with fake news.

While 2020 has paved the path for new and permanent changes in 2021, companies that accept them and make progress will be the ones who will be able to transform themselves.

Aon’s Sethi says: “Those that leave lessons and learnings from the 2020 behind will find themselves struggling to remain relevant to their existing and future talent. Best companies don’t see the future as a new normal but a better normal, where integration of learnings from the last quarter will change or modify some elements of what work and employer means."

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