The Agility To Adapt To The New Situation Has Been The Biggest Learning: CHRO, Tata Chemicals

In the conversation with BW People, R Nanda, CHRO, Tata Chemicals speaks about major areas to focus on during Unlock 1.0, the role of HR as a business partner, and he mentioned, "Businesses can thrive only when society is doing well"


How was that initial phase of 70 days during the national lockdown? What were your apprehensions? How were you feeling?

These are unprecedented times and every industry is impacted hugely with the Covid-19 pandemic. There have been innumerable changes over the last three months. However, Tata Chemicals, over its long history of eight decades has been a witness to multiple challenges. Besides the business challenges of demand/supply, technology, economic recession, etc., we have also gone through multiple business disruptions and natural calamities in the past. However the pandemic was a new experience for all - we had to reassess our plans and re-calibrate our operation strategy, enable more people to easily work from home in a short while and yet at the same time ensure minimal impact to the business. Almost all across the organization and across all functions, teams had to collaborate at a different level altogether to keep things running.

The pandemic did cause temporary disruption to the operations at some of our manufacturing locations and research centers. However, most of them were soon back on track and started operations fully complying with the directives issued by the authorities and our own internal protocols for safe working that we quickly put in place.

Our biggest concern was ensuring the safety of personnel – not just employees, but other suppliers and vendors and those involved in transportation activities. In addition, there was a large township where the hospital and shops also catered to the local surrounding community, thereby increasing the risk. Then we had to work on ensuring social distancing in the plant operations where in some areas it was a practical challenge as well as having to educate the workforce on the changes needed.

Personally, for me, this translated into a completely different work routine, long hours, regular conversations with key managers and their teams, tweaking certain HR policies to adjust to the new situation, and being available at all times to address employee concerns.

 What are the major actions you were taking to keep the morale of all the employees up?

In this new world order, ensuring employee well-being has taken precedence and is part of our core values. Throughout the course of adapting to this transformation, we have ensured that we constantly communicate and engage with our employees apart from issuing regular advisories and updates.

Using our in-house hospital, we quickly set up a 24-hour COVID Helpline to enable employees to call and get their medical-related queries answered. This was also supplemented with a dedicated HR Helpdesk email id where employees could write in and seek guidance. We also launched an Employee Assistance Programme through which the services of external expert counselors were available both for employees and their family members to handle issues related to emotional and mental well-being in these uncertain times.

Being a chemical company, Safety is an integral part of our DNA as a core value. Hence, the entire comeback plan is entirely focused on employee safety. We have put in a place a rigorous protocol of

screening and examining employees. A mobile app has also been launched wherein each employee who is rostered to attend work, registers and makes a self-declaration of their own health and others residing in the same household, so that any situation that requires to be managed can be done promptly by the respective HR and Admin teams.

Additionally, as we all witness a transformation in the job scenario, it is imperative to reinvent ourselves and what better time than when you’re under lockdown. We gave our employees this opportunity by launching numerous learning and development courses using our existing platforms and also leveraging on the group-wide resources made available to us – and it was gratifying to see the significant rise in the enrollments.

We also hosted periodic Open House sessions involving the senior management team to provide an update on the business challenges, mitigation steps and what the Company was doing to keep everyone safe.

For some employees their personal situation at home has not been conducive to work from home – either due to the presence of children, elderly folks who need care as also issues relating to availability and consistency of internet connections. Managers have been asked to be mindful of such situations and not put undue pressure on their teams if they are unable to find immediate solutions for such situations.

As an HR leader what do you think; HR leader is a crucial role player in business continuity?

During this global pandemic, HR leaders across sectors and industries have played one of the most challenging roles, from ensuring readiness to commence work from home to ensure their safety, benefits, engagement etc. Hence, it can be said that HR leaders do play a crucial role in business continuity. This is a situation nobody had imagined in the recent past and we all are facing different types of challenges to deal with the crisis. Especially in times of crisis, HR leaders also play a fundamental role in holding the fort together, by which it means, safeguarding employees and in turn, the company.

My first priority is to take care of employee’s well- being and their safety as they go about performing their roles. To that extent, my challenge is to make sure that all our staff and their families remain protected from the pandemic and as an enterprise we are able to work with minimal disruption. Due to transportation restrictions and the lockdown situation, a significant part of our workforce based at the offices across India are all confined within their homes and are adopting the new work culture of being connected virtually to their teams. For a traditional manufacturing organization, this is not an easy shift to make. But it must be said, that collectively, we are all supporting each other to adjust and adapt to the situation.

On the other hand, this situation has also forced us to relook at the way we are organized and to think of ways and means by which the benefits can be sustained even when the situation becomes normal. There will be greater use of technology and digital tools to get work done in a location-agnostic manner questioning the need to even have a full-time need for physical workspaces. Even the way we engage with our customers and other stakeholders will undergo a significant shift thereby having a direct impact on the quality and nature of the workforce we will need for the future situation. In this context, HR leaders have to play the role of shaping the thought process within the organization to quickly adapt and align with the new requirements and seize the advantage from a business perspective.

Major challenges that you have faced in keeping employees healthy mentally and physically as well?

We are an organization that has workforce across multiple age groups so it is not a case of a one-size-fits-all approach that could be applied. Hence it was essential for the HR Teams to understand the specific requirements within their workforce segments and address them using a wide range of interventions. To a large part of the population suddenly being away from their colleagues for an extended duration is a totally new experience and can be unsettling for some. We had to use not just the HR teams but seek the help of all Managers to have continuous interactions with their teams and establish a working rhythm so that the virtual world can be made to feel as close to the regular working environment they have been used to.

We have also arranged a host of health and wellness initiatives to keep people motivated and look at the situation more positively. Teams have engaged themselves through virtual get-togethers, birthday celebrations etc to keep up the spirit and morale. We launched an Employee Connect Week during which every employee was spoken to individually by one person from the HR team and concerns if any immediately addressed.

We also created a special video bulletin showcasing in a very humorous way how employees have carried their regular roles into the work-from-home situation and all of these were completely enacted by our employees recording them using personal mobile devices.

What are the major focus areas to operate in Unlock 1.0 in a much stronger way?

Our preparations for a comeback post-lockdown began well ahead of the actual lifting of the lock-down in areas where resumption has been permitted by the local authorities. We are adjusting to the new normal. As we get ready to reopen, restart, and scale up our production and operations, it is not going to be the same as in the past. This new normal won’t be a temporary measure but will surely mesomorph into the new order.

The focus has been to ensure safety during the commute to work, while at work and on return to home. Elaborate guideline documents, posters, checklists, briefing sessions have been done with the teams to make them aware of the protocols to be followed.

What are those values much more during this crisis hit situation that will help people to be a much better and efficient professional?

This crisis is the best teacher our generation could have got. With the learnings from the current crisis, we will see the emergence of leaders of tomorrow who will be much more prepared to deal with similar situations in the future.

The agility to adapt to the new situation has been the biggest learning in the past few weeks and of course, we all have become more digital and tech-savvy in our professional and personal life.

Thinking of society and community ahead of business has always been the philosophy of the Tata Group and that commitment has been reinforced during this crisis. Businesses can thrive only when society is doing well and we, at Tata Chemicals, are doing our best to support this cause.

What are those things that helped you personally to be sane and upbeat

I am generally a die-hard optimist and a strong believer in “this too shall pass” philosophy. I have not let go of any opportunity to add the daily dose of humor in all the interactions and making time to engage with issues with the team even outside of work. Due to personal reasons, I have been at a different city away from the immediate family since the lockdown commenced and therefore had to make a lot of adjustments to quickly adapt to the new way of life. The lockdown brought with it, the absence of domestic help so it meant fairly long days trying to manage both home and work issues.

Fortunately, even in normal times, cooking has been both a passion and a de-stressor so that skill came in very handy and one did not have to survive on biscuits and instant noodles! Yes, one does miss the presence of the family and the teams with whom I have worked on a day to day basis, but one has to make up with the best possible alternatives in the current situation. I continue to stay positive and grateful for having access to the several privileges that many others have been suddenly deprived off. The magic mantra is to always remain as optimistic as possible and never let-go of the strong belief in the “this too shall pass” syndrome.


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