The Present Times Call For Greater Empathy For Employees: Anshul Bhargava, Chief People Officer, PNB Housing

In the interaction with BW People, Anshul Bhargava, Chief People Officer, PNB Housing pondered upon the importance of empathy during these tough times; foreseeable WFH related aspects, and to keep team members well connected and productive.


Anshul Bhargava, Chief People Officer, PNB Housing

How was your work-from-home experience during the lockdown period?

Work from home (WFH) or remote working was a challenge at first. Like everyone else, I had to adapt to the new working environment, coordinating and collaborating with my colleagues and stakeholders over phone, emails, social media etc. Together, we strived to serve our customers as best as we could, just as we did from the office. We ensured that our new and existing customers did not lack in terms of product delivery and service.

On the whole, WFH was a pleasantly surprising and a great learning experience, one that has prepared me for any future eventuality.

In this era of physical distancing, how do you see companies balancing work from home and work from the office? And what will it mean for customers?

In this new normal, most organisations will have to shape a new work from home and work from office culture so as to minimise the health risk to employees. Companies will decide which employees can continue to work from home and which ones have to report to the office. For example, those engaged in backend and support can continue to work remotely. The other option is to have employees report to work by rotation, so that very few people are actually present at one time. Those who may have to attend office will have to strictly follow the safety protocols and guidelines issued by the Central and state governments as well as the medical fraternity.

Companies will also have to educate their customers on the need to shift to digital platforms so as to minimise physical contacts and touchpoints with employees, including sales and service teams.

I believe, with COVID-19 unlikely to go away soon, companies may have to strengthen the WFH culture and environment for the foreseeable future.

Since no one expected this pandemic and no one was ready for it, what steps did your company take in leading the lockdown and a WFH regime?

I remember the day well. It was March 3 when I heard the news of a handful of confirmed cases across India. By then, the pandemic had already spread to over 60 countries, infecting thousands of people. I asked my team to prepare for a work-from-home scenario.

As a first step, we met with our IT team to ensure that our backend infrastructure was in place so that all our employees could work smoothly and efficiently from their homes. Second, we further secured our digital initiatives by strengthening the database system and privacy framework. Third, we ensured the availability of critical resources and planned major business activities. Fourth, we supported our people in the uncharted WFH set-up by addressing their concerns and resolving any challenges they faced. Since we were part of the mega retail industry, we had to go the extra mile to ensure that both, managers at every level as well as their teams, were on the same page.

The first thing we did after the lockdown was formally announced on the evening of March 24 was to take stock of the limited business opportunities and work to a new action plan. At the same time, we were quick to address customers’ queries and grievances via phone, email, online, live chat and digital platforms.

Do you think that WFH-induced programmes have bridged the communication gap between employers and their employees? How has this relationship evolved during the lockdown?

I will give you our own example. Since the lockdown began, my HR team has constantly been in touch with each and every employee to ensure their mental and physical welfare as well as to offer any help that we can. I am sure this is the case in many organisations.

How organisations behave and how they handle situations in these challenging times will define their employer brand. With nearly every organisation facing long-term consequences of the pandemic, HR will have to take employees into confidence about business and managerial aspects, and even tough decisions. Earning the trust of the employees in the COVID-19 era will go a long way to build a healthy and mutually-beneficial relationship for both employers and employees.

As an HR leader, did you have apprehensions about creating a successful WFH programme?

As Head of HR at PNB Housing Finance, my team and I created a network that was conducive to a WFH environment. We also made changes in the way we would all function in the days and weeks to come. I am happy to say that all our remote working initiatives have been successful.

However, I must admit that I did have a few apprehensions in the beginning. First, as an organisation, it was our responsibility to ensure the safety and wellbeing of our employees even as they learnt to adapt to WFH. My second concern was managing time and ensuring performance so that we could put our best foot forward even when the economy and businesses were facing a downturn. Third, we launched various initiatives to connect with our employees and help them deal with stress and anxiety. Above all, we showed empathy and compassion towards our people, assuring them at every step of the way that they had nothing to worry about.

Have there been any pay cuts or layoffs at PNB Housing Finance?

We have not done anything of the kind. The present times call for greater empathy for employees, which we strongly believe in. Instead, we are training and encouraging the employees to put their heart and soul into their work so that both they and the company benefit. This is in our mutual interest.

What are some of the positives from the lockdown and WFH regime?

In spite of the challenges, there have been many positives from WFH.

One, employees owned up to their responsibilities and worked harder for the company. Productivity, in the absence of physical supervision, was much better. Two, our employees took the initiative to join online courses and programmes to acquire new knowledge and skills. Three, our leaders and managers at every level rose to their tasks and performed under immense pressure. Four, the role of HR in guiding and motivating the workforce these past several weeks and till our offices opened on a small scale.

I am proud of our people as well as their commitment and achievement.

As an HR veteran, what advice would you give to those less experienced or about to take up human resource as a career?

As we emerge from the pandemic, organisations will never be the same again. HR professionals need to reinvent policies, processes and competencies. They will have to be the new-age torchbearers for employees with a more human-centric approach than before. It is one thing to work with employees in an office set-up; it is quite another to do so remotely.

Thus, HR will have to initiate new levels of engagement with their employees, one that goes far beyond their positions and responsibilities. Going forward, I see greater engagement vis-à-vis counselling and support programmes, skill and training, health and wellness, performance evaluation, innovation and collaboration.

If COVID-19 has taught us anything, it is this: We have to be there for our employees more than ever before.


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