How Is Amazon India Playing At The Forefront Of Workplace Innovation And Women Empowerment?
"We have Pinnacle and Transcend leadership development programs, which help build diverse skills for women leaders. Through science and Learning Genome (LG) technology, we invented autonomous learning programs and development tools (Manager learning hubs and Interactive success profile) that provide fairness of access, opportunity, and advancement for women leaders."
Amazon India believes in fostering a culture that offers people with equal opportunities to unlock their full potential while empowering them to do more. Keeping this belief at the core, it has continuously introduced initiatives that further strengthens their culture of diversity and inclusion, and empower the women workforce.
For example, across Amazon’s operations network, there is a women-operated delivery station in Chennai and there are centres run and managed by transgender individuals. Another important initiative which was introduced last year is Amazon’s all-women ‘Virtual Customer Service’ (VCS) facility in Bengaluru. The flexibility, job security and opportunities for growth in the program have facilitated the increase of women’s participation in our customer service teams. Whether its homemakers, new mothers, or stay at home parents, this innovation is also serving as a launchpad for many women looking to re-join the workforce without having to compromise on their many responsibilities.
With regards to above, Swati Rustagi, Director of Human Resources for Amazon India Operations came forward to interact with BW Journalists as she was really keen on having a detailed interaction as to how Amazon India has worked towards encouraging women empoowerment.
1. What are the initiatives undertaken by Amazon India Operations for encouraging women empowerment, especially in the context of work from home or remote work culture? Also, how has it brought about changes in the existing framework?
Over the last few years, Amazon India has launched multiple initiatives to bring diversity, equity and inclusion into the workforce. From an operations perspective, there are roles that can be carried out remotely but there are also roles that require on-ground efforts. We have created initiatives for women to thrive in both these areas. Several women work with us in full-time roles, and there are also flexible work opportunities for women in our network. Thousands of women work as associates at our Fulfillment Centers from neighboring villages and communities, playing different roles and excelling in them – they are pickers, packers and supervisors.
Even in our last-mile operations network, we support women entrepreneurs to grow. Our Delivery Service Partner (DSP) and I Have Space (IHS) programs have been instrumental in furthering the business of several women across the country. The two last mile models enable individual business owners to act as Amazon India’s local distribution network providers.
Jamuna Rani, who manages an all women delivery station in Chennai began her journey with Amazon as a Service Partner in 2016. Today, she employs other women delivery associates to deliver in and around Ramapuram area in Chennai. The station, which is a first-of its-kind women-only delivery station in India, was launched in 2016 and is completely managed and run by women. Women deliver packages on two-wheelers, covering a radius of 2-3 km from the delivery station. The woman associates have been successfully running operations from this station while ensuring a seamless customer experience.
Amazon has also launched another women-operated and owned delivery station in Kadi, Gujarat, which is creating opportunities for several women in the area. Our Silent Delivery Station in Mumbai, a facility which is run and managed by individuals with speech and hearing impairment, has also enabled us to provide meaningful employment opportunities for women.
We have also created several opportunities for women to secure leading roles in Amazon India’s Security and Loss Prevention division.
- Ashwati Krishna, joined us as a Security Specialist in the North Region in 2018. Within a span of a few months, her inspiring dedication and hard work led her to become a Security Coordinator. She secured the title of FC Shrink Champion for three months in a row and was a proud recipient of the Best Investigator Award 2018 in Amazon Fulfilment Centre. Her strong leadership skills along with admirable results fetched her the Incident Handling and Management award as well. Ashwati had to move to Kerala due to personal reasons and took on the new role of overseeing Delivery Service Partner stations and a Sort Centre. She has emerged as a strong and powerful leader, and an inspiration for women across the country to take up challenging roles within this space.
- Dolly Katharia is another formidable force at our Security & Loss Prevention team. With almost a decade-long experience in security management, Dolly joined us in July 2018. She was one of the brave members of the team at Taj Hotel, Mumbai on the day of the terrorist attack and won an award for her bravery. We are proud to have women like Dolly in our team, who have taken on challenging roles.
We have also launched an all-women Virtual Customer Service (VCS) facility in Bengaluru recently reaffirming our commitment to empower women with flexible and safe livelihood opportunities. The launch of the all-women VCS facility stems from our endeavor to strengthen women’s inclusivity across all our teams, in this case, Amazon’s Customer Service (CS) community. Parallelly, as the first all women site part of the World Wide Communication Service (WWCS) network, this facility will also enable us to increase gender parity for CS India. With our VCS teams continuing to work from home, we are extending opportunities for growth to many more women to augment our team’s efforts.
We are continuously introducing initiatives that further strengthens our culture of inclusion and enables us to serve our customers better.
2. How did the pandemic impact HR policies? How is Amazon ensuring flexibility for women employees to distribute work hours during the day? What are the other measures taken with regards to pandemic?
With the onset of Covid-19, one of the first things we initiated was work from home option, wherever it was possible. In any organisation, like ours, there are jobs that cannot be done from home, like a delivery person cannot deliver packages remotely. For those who could, we enabled them to work from home since February 2020 and continue to do so till June 30th 2021. This will be further reviewed closer to the time.
For people who were in the field, our focus was on ensuring their safety. Our policy changes have been more about empathy. We made about 100 changes in our frontline operations to ensure that people have the flexibility and the safety. For example:
- We allowed people to carry their phones - because of the uncertainty, people always wanted to be in touch
- We suspended our screening processes to avoid queues and ensure social distancing was maintained throughout
- We found ways of virtually training and onboarding our associates and ensuring efficiency at the workplace despite not having the standard mechanisms
- We introduced a policy where people who were quarantined or diagnosed could get 14 days of paid leave
- We launched the Amazon Relief Fund that supported people who are directly or indirectly associated with Amazon
- We carried our education programmes for families to help them understand how to take care of their health and take care of mental health
- With people working from home, how do you create policies around engagement and ensure people continue to feel a part of the organisation and their teams
These are just a few of the several changes that we made. However, there are some things that don’t change. Our intent is to ensure that we deliver the best experience to everyone who is working on the ground to make sure they can perform at the highest level. As long as that remains, policies can be tweaked to overcome any barrier that the situation presents.
3. What are the different training and L&D programmes provided for women workforce by Amazon? How differently have they been designed, keeping the women aspect in mind?
We have Pinnacle and Transcend leadership development programs, which help build diverse skills for women leaders. Through science and Learning Genome (LG) technology, we invented autonomous learning programs and development tools (Manager learning hubs and Interactive success profile) that provide fairness of access, opportunity, and advancement for women leaders. Through coaching circles and mentorship programs, we expand women leaders’ reach and make them feel more valued and connected. At the same time, through cultural intervention programs, we create and entrench inclusive culture, providing immersive experience and broadening perspectives, for all leaders (Women and Men) to actively participate in the gender diversity journey.
4. What does Amazon think about increasing women’s representation at the leadership level? How is it ensuring the same within the organization?
We, at Amazon, are firm believers that diversity of thought at every level enables us to deliver continuous value to our customers - this is also aligned with our mission to be Earth’s most customer centric company. We have several women serving in multiple leadership roles across functions, who continue to steer our efforts.
We believe that it is important to ensure the right input, to get the desired output when it comes to diversity and inclusion. For instance, we ensure that 50% of resumes are from women for any given role, without which we don’t move forward with the hiring process.
5. Please share details about the all-women VCS centre? What was the thought behind an all-women VCS launched?
The launch of the all-women VCS site in Bengaluru last year is an extension of our continuous efforts to strengthen opportunities for women across all our teams, in this case, Amazon’s Customer Service (CS) community. Many women, especially in India, find it difficult to go into the workplace or are compelled to drop out early. The reasons could be anything from societal pressure to working late hours, leaving their hometown to work in metro cities, or having to choose between their personal and professional commitments. Flexible options of working from home (WFH) represent ‘opportunity’ for growth, independence and empowerment.
Through this initiative, we are providing women with a channel to integrate themselves into the professional world as well resume their careers. Be it homemakers, new mothers or single parents - The journey will provide them with opportunities to continuously leverage their skills, strengths and capabilities, from the comfort of their homes, all of which will have an impact that goes beyond economic development.
6. What is the entire process at all-women VCS and how does it help the women employees?
The launch of this initiative stems from our commitment to increase workforce representation and to ensure communities that are underrepresented have access to the same opportunities. Virtual working is very suited for women and hence the idea for this unique cohort. This cohort operates on an incubator model and we are exploring ways to scale this further. Women can either work part-time or full time with a large break shift in between. This helps them manage both professional and personal commitments.
Be it homemakers, new mothers, single parents or those looking to resume their careers - The journey will provide them with opportunities to continuously leverage their skills, strengths and capabilities, from the comfort of their homes, all of which will have an impact that goes beyond economic development.
7. What has been the response of the women employees who benefitted from the VCS program?
The versatility of the VCS work model has benefited many women across the country, who are looking to resume their careers and are now able to balance their personal and professional responsibilities with ease.
- One of them is Priya Merlin from Bengaluru. With a health complication in her family and the lack of flexible opportunities, Priya moved away from the workforce for almost 9 years. Missing the work, Priya jumped at the idea of joining Amazon’s VCS team after hearing about it. The gap in her experience didn’t stop her and her dedication to working enabled her to upscale quickly. Two months in, she couldn’t be happier. The dignity, and independence accorded to her is unparalleled. Within a short period, her customer-thinking approach has made her a star performer and she hopes that many women take advantage of this model. With Priya donning several hats - wife, mother, daughter-in-law, the versatility of the model enables her to switch between her roles seamlessly and not compromise on any of her responsibilities.
- Another example is Parul Chadda from Chandigarh. Parul joined our VCS team two years ago after looking for a flexible opportunity that didn’t require 4 hours of commute time. When she joined the team, she was a novice to both customer service and the working from home concept. Her strong leadership skills, process-oriented approach and hard work have driven her efforts to move up the ladder. Today, she is a group manager and leads a team of VCS specialists. The flexibility of the program has enabled her to balance work and personal commitments with ease.
8. Pandemic has led to imbalance of work and life commitments, especially for women. How can organisations step in and create better learning opportunities that fit employees' daily life?
With virtual working, it was important to assess the ways of keeping the interest of the group and still create a nice experiences for people. We have continued onboarding people while working virtually and this has been a huge learning for us.
As an organisation, we have always been obsessed about servicing the customers, always putting customer first, however, as human resources, it is our responsibility to make sure that they put themselves first as well.This is a fine balance that we have been going through the last year and we learned a lot of lessons in this aspect.
We ensured that our employees understood the importance of wellness, understood what signs to look for themselves and for people around them to understand that someone could be deeply stressed or emotionally disturbed.We also ensured that every person in the remotest part of the country is aware of all the facilities that are available to them, especially the new benefits that we introduced in such situations, and the ways through which they can leverage it.
Employee wellbeing, both mental and physical, has been a key focus area for us at Amazon. We embarked on this journey over 6 years back and created a wellness initiative branded as “Svasthya”. This has been an evolving initiative over the years and has programs like annual health check-up, employee assistance program (EAP), online wellness webinars/support, diet & nutrition counseling, doctor teleconsultation, etc. offered to employees. While core focus of these programs tends to be employees, but some of these initiatives are also available to their family members. Employee Assistance Program forms a key part of our initiative and supports us in managing stress, which an employee or their immediate dependents might be facing. Along with our various wellness initiatives, we also encourage employees to participate in virtual fitness sessions along with gamified wellness events conducted by us or choose from various virtual fitness programs made available to employees at a discount.
Since last year, initiatives have scaled and evolved to address the prevailing situation and also to cater to diverse needs across all employees. Virtual wellness programs cover areas of mental wellbeing, meditation, yoga, fitness, experiential sessions, etc. All of these options together help in de-stressing and promote overall employee wellbeing. At same time to ensure employees are not stressed with ambiguity around COVID-19 and related treatment, we have setup comprehensive support mechanism for employees to benefit from.
There has also been a huge discussion on working life and balancing boundaries and we believe that these are fast disappearing with the current context. Today, it has become extremely normal for a working mother to say in the middle of the call that she needs to feed her child and nobody blinks an eyelid about it.It is natural that while you are working from home, you need to take care of the kids as well. It is great to see that empathy sinking in with people.
9. Please tell us about ‘I have Space’ programme. How programmes like this have helped women entrepreneurs to grow and be self-dependent?
At Amazon, we are rooted in empowering thousands of local women entrepreneurs across the country to leverage our platform to scale their business. During the lockdown last year, the ‘I Have Space’ (IHS) Program has helped us extend our reach to the customers as well as unlock the entrepreneurial potential of these women store owners, allowing them to supplement their regular income and generate more footfalls in their stores.
Under the ‘I Have Space’ program (IHS), Amazon India partners with local store owners to provide pickup and delivery services to customers across different cities within a 2 -4 kilometer radius of their store. These local entrepreneurs understand their area well and have immense goodwill in their neighborhood to efficiently deliver and receive products. On an average, Amazon India’s store partners deliver between 30 to 40 packages a day, earning a fixed amount per delivery.
10. Can you share some stories of women IHS partners who have benefited from the program?
There are many IHS women entrepreneurs who have been instrumental in furthering the business of several women across the country. The two last mile models enable individual business owners to act as Amazon India’s local distribution network providers.
Prime examples of women who have seen success through these programs are:
Jayashree, an IHS partner from Indore and owner of Mahi Silai Centre: As a single mother, Jayshree found that the earnings from her tailoring shop were limited and it was challenging to provide for her children. However, her determination to provide a secure future for her children saw her looking for an additional source of income and subsequently joined Amazon’s IHS program in 2019. Since then she has seen success, both professionally and financially. When she was forced to shut down her store due to the lockdown, the earnings from ‘I Have Space’, continued to provide for her family and empowered her with access to a steady income.
Priyanka, an IHS partner from Delhi and store owner of Maa Communications, a mobile accessories store: Prior to opening her store, Priyanka used to work at a salon. Her earnings from the salon were inadequate, which is why she wanted to explore an alternative source of income. At this juncture, she learnt about Amazon India’s I Have Space (IHS) program through a delivery associate who had once come to deliver a package at her salon. Priyanka used her savings to open a mobile accessories store and enrolled herself as an IHS partner in January 2020.
During the beginning of lockdown, Priyanka had to shut down her mobile store but through the program, was able to earn. “I have always relied on myself for my financial needs. When I had to shut down my store, it was reassuring to know that I can continue earning through Amazon’s IHS program,” she says.
Priyanka always makes sure to wear a mask and sanitizer with her when she is out making deliveries. She is proud that she could continue to help the people in her neighborhood during this difficult time by ensuring that they receive essentials at their doorstep.
11. How will Amazon ensure a strong diversity workforce in a hybrid model?
Hybrid workplaces have existed and are here to stay. Hybrid workspaces are fundamentally about three things - physical workspace, mental workspace, and what is acceptable to society. Whether we like or not, there is always going to be government legislation which either allows or does not allow hybrid workspaces.
India has taken some wholehearted steps on the gig economy. Working with regulators to identify how we can keep creating these new economies of workplaces, will continue to evolve. The physical workspace will continue, don’t think it will ever go away because something will just have to be done physically.
What will also be interesting is to start realizing that even if someone has chosen one or the other, there will be a continuum, as there is some work that is best done when you are alone. However, some work is best done when you are together- and that co-creation or ability to discuss and debate new ideas cannot go away. Hence, we have to keep innovating and see how we combine all of this.
In our VCS women cohort, one of the things we talk about is how you create mentoring circles-so creating those opportunities to discuss and co-create becomes very critical for that workspace to thrive.