Virtual-workplace is the new normal.

Pallavi Jain, Principal HR Business Partner,  is a seasoned HR professional with 12 years of experience and strong expertise in Strategic and Business HR roles. Career experiences include key achievements in areas of Business transformation, successfully deploying HR strategy aligned to business strategy, Cultural integration and change management, Organization Design, Talent Development, and more across high growth, complex and matrix organizations (Mercer HR Consulting, Max India, Bank of America). 

She has strong leadership skills and the ability to navigate relationships across different levels in an organization. Adept at collaborating with diverse stakeholders (both at MNCs and promoter-led organizations). 

Strong educational foundation with one of India’s premier schools and colleges. 

  • Post Graduation in Management (MBA) from Symbiosis Institute of Business Management, Pune
  • Graduation from Lady Shri Ram College for Women, Delhi University
  • Boarding school life from Mayo College Girls School, Ajmer

A certified scuba diver, avid traveler, and passionate about health and mental fitness.

Thank you, Pallavi, for giving your valuable time to this interview. We look forward to your candid responses.

Let’s start!!!

We would be pleased to learn about your professional journey from the beginning. So, please share with us about your first job interview. 

  • I would say that my professional journey started from an MBA at Symbiosis Institute of Business Management, Pune. Day 0 (as we called it) is usually one of the most exciting days when your dream companies start to pour in as part of campus placements. The next few days are only about hoping that your resume is shortlisted by your dream company and that you get through the interview or group discussions.
  • Preparation for campus placement is of utmost importance as organization you get placed with at the start of your career definitely leads the way forward. The starting point is building a strong resume which tells your story and outlines your strengths. If the resume gets shortlisted, the chances to get that dream company increases.
  • How I prepared –
    • Firstly, build a strong resume. I didn’t hesitate to share my resume with seniors, batchmates, and relatives in the corporates for their feedback which went through more than 20 iterations
    • Secondly, research about companies. I had no corporate experience and could only apply to a few companies that were coming (as per our placements norms). A basic study that I did – Company profiles, Values, broad Industry study, what has the company been in news for recently, Role of HR, any best place to work for companies
    • Third, prepare for basic interview questions. It helped to form my story, be more articulate, and build confidence.
  • I remember my Bank of America interview experience vividly. When I entered the interview room, the usual set up was not there. There were just two chairs in the room, no table that distances the interviewer and interviewee. This set up exposes the interviewee’s body language which is a big part of an interview. Some tips here - hand movements like touching fingertips, clasping palms, and moving fingers as you speak – are signs of honesty and openness. You can also try resting your hands in your lap at a time. Clenching fists and waving hands while speaking opines nervousness.
  • I was asked to sit on one of the chairs. The key aspect that was being assessed was handling stress and tough situations. The whole set up took me off guard, but I remember telling myself is to be confident. My earlier preparations also helped build that confidence.

As the first job holds a special memory, let’s discuss your first year at your first job. How was your experience? What were your expectations of your employer and your role? Were they all fulfilled? What didn’t coincide with your expectations? 

  • First jobs are always memorable. In many ways, they shape your journey ahead. At the same time, in your first brush with corporate life, you make mistakes, establish connections with colleagues, and learn a lot in the process.
  • I think like everyone joining their first organization, I wanted to work for a company with a good brand and reputation that made me proud, have a job that uses my ability, recognises my efforts, and at the end of the day gives a feeling of accomplishments. In the beginning, there were two more aspects that mattered to me – what we study during my MBA and how it helped me explore my abilities as a successful HR professional.
  • I joined Bank of America as a Management trainee. I had to report in Hyderabad. It was a new city, new people, different local languages, and it was slightly difficult to adjust in the beginning. However, I was blessed with a great boss. I was able to adjust very soon; I realised corporate can be a scary place in the beginning but with the help of colleagues, mentors, it can become a memorable journey. It is at your first job that you truly understand a lot of concepts that were taught in college.
  • I worked with BoA for about 3.5 years. At my first job, I built my capability of HR Business Partner, learned stakeholder management and communication, gained an understanding of people's challenges in an outsourcing environment. I gained much more than what I had expected from an organization.
  • During college days, one might have some myths like more hours mean more productivity, women don’t get promotions or appreciation for their work, money is the biggest motivator. I realised early in my career that none of them were really true. At the end of the day, what matters most are quality work done, having an independent point of view and recognition for work which is a bigger motivator.

Why did you choose HR as a profession? What was the motive and what was the motivation?

I had entered an MBA with an open mind. During the first semester, we got a chance to learn about each stream – marketing, finance, HR. I was inclined towards finance or HR basis the subjects that I enjoyed. When it came to making a choice, I spoke to a few seniors in both the streams, gained a better understanding of the competency or skills required. For e.g., finance needed excellent numerical abilities, while I was good at it, it was not a strength. Similarly, I was worried about my employee relations knowledge, but I knew I could gain better understanding and learn on the job. More and more conversations, thinking through each stream motivated me to choose HR as my main subject. As I learned more about Organization Behaviour during my post-graduation, I realized that my skills and my interests were both aligned to HR as a choice of a professional career. Now, when I look back, I am glad that I chose the stream as it allows me to positively impact the organization’s strategy towards employees and thus, impacting so many lives.

Do you think workplace mentors and coaches play an important role in settling fresh graduates in their first job? How was your experience? 

Absolutely! Mentors give confidence in your ability to manage performance and steer you in the right direction especially at the beginning of one’s career. Workplace mentors and coaches help navigate through the first 90 days in a new workplace. They are instrumental in understanding the processes, policies, culture, clear doubts, set clear goals, etc. Many organizations have buddy programs to help freshers and new hires settle into the new system.

My mentor had a huge role in starting right at the beginning of my career. He not only helped me with the lay of the land but also guided me to understand the culture of the organization, build my network, counseled, and encouraged when needed. He was instrumental in helping me identify my career path. My mentor’s confidence in my potential to shoulder such responsibilities saw me through many situations. I believe had he not been there, my entire career journey would have been very different. Even today, when I face a professional conflict, I do reach out to my mentors for counsel.

After gaining some experience in my professional journey, I actively mentor folks from my company, college, and professional forums. In fact, I am mentoring a women entrepreneur from Nigeria to handle her organization management goals.

The key is to establish a very healthy mentor-mentee relationship. Communication plays the most important aspect. You have to be approachable and allow the mentee to articulate the real problem. You have to ensure that you create a process to train mentees to develop a framework to identify problems and as a mentor, your job is to steer them in the right direction.

COVID-19 has changed workplace dynamics in many ways. What has been your learnings during this phase? What permanent changes do you foresee at the workplace post-COVID-19?

We have all gone through significant changes in the last 5 months. ‘Virtual workplace’ is the new normal and organization has to keep employees more focused, motivated, connected, and engaged.

When I look back, I am deeply proud of how we responded to the pandemic and the resilience our workforce has shown. Some of my learnings through this time are -

  • Respond with Agility: During COVID-19 it was important for organizations to adapt quickly to enable the workforce to work-from-home and ensure business continuity. For e.g., shipping laptops or desktops to employees homes through the lockdown, providing dongle, reimbursing internet charges, Implement policies and processes like virtual onboarding, hiring, reimbursement claims.  
  • Balance economics with empathy: Organization can balance economics with empathy by finding solutions across three crises: health crisis (e.g., providing employee health support package, Special leaves for those tested COVID +ve), digital crisis (e.g., ramping up work technology to work from home) and an economic crisis brought on by the disruptions of COVID-19 (e.g., not laying off employees, instead, explore alternate ways to reduce cost).
  • Communicate more than ever. Leaders must communicate by acknowledging the change, be open & clear, communicate organization future plans, and well-being initiatives. Use Pulse surveys to continuously assess employee engagement and wellbeing. Take actions to improve employees' mental and physical health.

I honestly believe that when we all fight together for a single cause, nothing is impossible.

The pandemic has changed organizations perspective on how future workplaces will look like. The focus will shift to remote work, more flexibility to employees, hiring more contingent employees; technology enhancements measured productivity and better data privacy norms; focus on business continuity planning. Employees’ mental and physical well-being will be one of the top priorities for most of the organizations in the coming years.

Organizational Culture is a key differentiator between successful and not so successful organizations? What determines the organizational culture? What is the role of HR in creating organizational culture?

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast” - Peter Drucker. Top organizations align their culture for success and transformation. Organizational Culture connects employees to the mission/vision of the company. A positive organizational culture can influence many aspects – Brand identity and reputation, values, attracting the right talent, retaining key talent, productivity, and profitability.

HR plays an important role in transforming and influencing the organizations’ culture:

  • Drives organization’s values by building progressive policies and practices that influence employee behaviour and enables an open and transparent workplace
  • Guides people managers and provides tools that enhance employees experience, help them manage teams remotely and successfully meet the organization's objectives
  • Builds Employee Value Proposition: Designs an energising employee experience, support the workforce through difficult situations like a current pandemic, refreshes programs, policies with changing time to attract future talent
  • Governs cultural metrics: People analytics to help leaders build stronger strategies and drive organizational excellence and success

What are your thoughts about layoffs? What is the role of HR in layoffs? According to you, what is the appropriate way of managing layoffs?

Layoffs are always difficult and unpleasant. There could be various reasons for a layoff – poor performance, loss of business, unethical behavior, etc.

  • HR must ensure clear guidelines and policy for layoffs
  • Clearly define parameters that can lead to layoffs. For e.g. define what poor performance, unethical behaviour, harassment means for the organization
  • Give a chance for employees to improve. The policy must include a clear guideline for managers and employee
  • Guide managers through this process
  • Ensure consistent implementation of policy across the organization
  • Educate and create awareness around policy and right behaviour
  • Define a Code of Conduct
  • Run a fair investigation and make decisions based on facts and data

One of the difficult experiences that I can recall was to layoff a differently-abled colleague due to poor performance. The said colleague had difficulty in hearing and used sign language to communicate. The colleague was not able to clear the mandatory domain training to become productive. We followed our performance improvement process, gave constructive feedback, met trainers to understand the gaps, assigned differently-abled colleagues as a coach to help with process knowledge, given sufficient time to improve the learning curve. However, after all attempts, he was unable to clear the mandatory domain training.

Layoffs must be most human and should be handled sensitively. In this case, we did not want the employee to lose hope. We called a specialist from a partner NGO to influence and help bridge gaps if any. We also ensured that he had the right help to find the befitting job. This was heart-wrenching but also the right thing to do. We ensured that the employee understood why he was laid off and that he left with hope in his heart. We also followed up and checked about his employment status after a few months.

How do companies identify their FUTURE MANAGERS? According to you, what are the key skills and competencies of successful and effective MANAGERS?

The role of future managers is critical to the engagement, performance, and development of employees. Companies may assess the potential of the manager/to be manager through interviews, rotational programs, mentoring & coaching programs, and talent reviews.

An effective manager must –

  • optimize outcomes by aligning work to company goals
  • make decisions quickly and fairly
  • influence team to maintain a high standard of output
  • give constructive feedback
  • recognize good work
  • delegate and drive performance
  • make sure employees are rewarded for high performance
  • develop capabilities, provide coaching and support to the team
  • engage employees and promotes an inclusive and thriving work environment

Lastly, what is your message for fresh HR Graduates? How should they prepare themselves for a career in HR?

Get Hands-On. There is no shortcut to success. Be the one who gets work done. You learn most by shouldering responsibilities, especially early in the career. That is the key to success.

Identify your skills and strengths and choose your career accordingly. Understand organization culture and assess if it aligns with your values. HR is a vast function so be open to exploring different areas within HR – Talent Acquisition, HR Business Partners, Training, Talent Management, Rewards & Benefits, HR operations, Employee Relations, etc. You can also get into a consulting role. Do an internship with companies to understand the different areas. Be open to making changes at the beginning of your career to find the right role for yourself.

And lastly, find a mentor who you can turn to for counsel and guidance.

Thank you very much, Pallavi, for sharing wonderful insight. We appreciate it.  

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