Consider alternative workforce to augment for changing business conditions

Varshini Iyer is an experienced HR leader having worked across multiple industries.  She is currently working with Johnson and Johnson (J&J) as a Strategic HR Business Partner. Varshini joined J&J as part of the HR Leadership Development Program and has since then done several roles across the company as an HR Business Partner in Talent Management, Leadership Development, Employee Experience and Capability Building. She has supported complex Change Management efforts during times of business turnaround and engages in coaching business leaders to deliver sustainable outcomes.

Prior to J&J, Varshini has worked for Accenture, AP Moller Maersk, Quest Diagnostics, Dentsu communications and Futures Today Consulting in various HR roles.

Varshini holds a Master’s Degree from Columbia University, New York in Adult Learning and Leadership and an MBA Degree in Human Resources from ITM university in Mumbai.

Thank you, Varshini, 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

My very first job interview was with the AP Moller Maersk Group for a summer internship as part of the on-campus placement process. I was pursuing my MBA in Human Resources. The night before my interview, I was nervous yet excited at the same time. Nervous because this was my very first job interview with a big company and I was not only representing myself but my campus and the HR program. So, I personally felt that the stakes were high and I had to put my best foot forward. Excited as there was a lot to look forward to both with the interviewing experience and if I did get the internship, what would the first “work experience” be like. On the day of the interview, along with four of my other campus mates, we went to C.G. House in Worli, Mumbai where Maersk had its Mumbai headquarters. Imagine it to be exactly like a scene from the famous TV show “The Apprentice”.  We were waiting in the reception area to get to the main conference room one by one for our panel round and the excitement was building up.

In preparing for the interview, I researched the company, its business areas, financials, people process, core values, and of course, the typical questions that one expects in an interview such as: Tell us more about you, Why do you want to join us, etc. I also prepared for some questions that I wanted to ask the panelists, in case, there was time left.

The questions that I was asked by the panelists (Four senior and seasoned HR professionals) included them learning more about me, what I knew about the firm already. They also specifically mentioned what the role was and asked questions around how I could support and contribute to a role like that. What were my unique strengths and how I felt after learning about the role? I had a very positive experience overall and felt content that I had done my best. The very next day, our campus got a call to say I was selected for the internship. It was definitely a very special moment and I was truly grateful for the opportunity. There were some key things that I walked away with after this first experience of interviewing and getting an actual offer letter in hand.  

  • Always do your homework before an interview
  • Believe in yourself. Stay optimistic and hopeful throughout the interview process regardless of the outcome
  • Be curious, listen intently and do not shy away from highlighting your key skills and what truly differentiates you

As the first job holds a special memory, let us 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 did not coincide with your expectations? 

Since my first job was the summer internship which got extended later to a full-time offer, I will describe my experience during this time. I was given a project which had a large-scale impact.  I had to design a global orientation program for employees joining Maersk and to come up with a solution that was scalable, sustainable so we did not have to rely on local resources to do in-person orientation. This was way before technology had touched other functions like HR deeply. My solution was to create an online orientation program where people can learn the basics about the company, its policies, practices, and business units. Once they got a good grounding in this, it could be supplemented by manager-employee dialogues through 1:1 connect sessions initiated by the manager for their new hire. My manager and the extended team loved this idea and provided me the autonomy to plan, design, and implement this solution. My own observations and reflections include many positive surprises, such as, to see a forward-thinking organization that was consciously investing in its people and their development. For example, Maersk had a robust online performance management process which was impressive as many other companies were still using manual paper-based performance tools back then. The fact that they were willing to think and embrace an online solution to new employee orientation that I had proposed or were willing to specifically look at interventions to re-shape their talent and learning processes showed ways in which the company was willing to experiment with new ideas and adapt to new ways of working.  


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

I always knew that I wanted to do something where I could help individuals and bring out the best in them. When I was completing my high school, I thought of two career options: to become a doctor, specifically a general practitioner or a pediatrician, so I can treat individuals on the health front. The other option I thought was to pursue my MBA or Masters in HR and work in HR for an organization. As I had studied psychology and literature in my undergraduate degree, I started getting more curious and inclined to learn about individuals in an organizational setting. This curiosity enabled me to decide that I must pursue an MBA in HR where I could learn all about what motivates employees, how does that translate to effective performance at the individual, team, and organizational level, how does that in-turn impact the bottom line, etc.

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

Workplace mentors and coaches play a huge role in all stages of one’s career but more particularly in the very initial stages. This is the reason why larger companies have a well-defined mentorship program and encourage, early in, career talent to have someone as their mentor. It is important to be open to feedback and courageous to ask for help when necessary. I was fortunate to have found a mentor early in my career and always felt comfortable discussing specific issues with her back then. She acted as a sounding board and would validate or provide reassurance when I needed it the most.

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?

The most obvious change and the shift is remote working and what may have until even a few months back, seemed like a distant reality mainly discussed during topics like “Future of Work” and “Digital landscape” is something we have been pushed to live into much sooner than we all anticipated. Therefore, I see more and more companies offering remote working options and in fact, changing their workforce to a large % remote working and maybe just a smaller number of essential workers dedicated to an actual office environment. Flexible work models and more gig workers. Less formal working environments and more open, inclusive workplaces which will shift and shape organizational cultures significantly. More automation and use of multiple forms of online collaborative tools other than ZOOM, Skype, or WebEx. HR function may become more streamlined and more efforts around employee well-being, mental health and wellness, and overall employee benefits.

Leadership and leading with empathy are going to be extremely critical and sensitive now more than ever. Leaders and organizations that take a more employee-centered approach weighing the pros and cons of every situation will thrive on many fronts i.e. reputation, employee engagement, talent retention, etc. Authenticity and “being real” is equally important. In an uncertain time like this, employees will continue to seek answers to questions that do not have a clear YES or NO answer. It will be important for leaders to be truthful and acknowledge that they may not have all the answers vs. providing information that may be controversial.

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?

Organizational culture typically has a self-sustaining pattern of behaviour that determines how things are done. Depending on its strategy, leadership, and external market conditions or environment, corporate culture must self-renew itself at regular intervals. People’s beliefs, values, attitudes, feelings, and expectations all determine corporate culture and how that contributes to the environment of an organization.

As HR professionals, we have a huge role in influencing and creating organizational culture, but it cannot be done overnight. It is an iterative and evolving process. We can focus on a couple of areas:

  • Coaching leaders to role model positive and desired behaviours
  • Align with a common vision and connect with employees holistically (Heart, Mind etc.) This includes how we can connect with employees on the emotional side by creating that shared sense of purpose and motivation.
  • Coming up with quick and timely employee-friendly interventions that can have a long-lasting and positive impact. These can include launching an employee focused learning or reward program or an all employee townhall or building communities of practice etc.)
  • Employee engagement measures include yearly assessments or surveys to seek employee feedback on certain key areas of organizational culture
  • Reinforcing organizational values through specific stories by and for employees or customer stories that show the impact

Based on your experience, what are the primary expectations of a CEO from the HR Function, in general and HR Head, in particular?

Typically, CEOs would want to ensure that their company’s HR strategy is aligned with the overall business strategy. More specifically, the 4 areas that a CEO is likely to focus and look for HR leadership to support are:

  • Talent and Pipeline Health: Attracting, developing, and retaining the best talent and ensuring the succession pipelines for critical roles are reviewed periodically to develop and retain talent
  • Diversity: Ensuring that the talent we hire and develop is diverse and the organization’s workforce is a good mix of talent who bring differentiated skillsets, competencies, experiences, and background.
  • Consistent onboarding/ orientation: First impressions go a long way. Most CEO’s would want to ensure that their company’s new hire orientation is one where the new employee has a great experience as they transition in their roles in the first 90 days. This will enable employee engagement from the beginning.
  • Total Rewards/ Benefits: CEO’s are also learning what specific reward programs and benefits are being looked at organizationally to support and engage employees

Beyond all of these, the main thing to remember is how HR can measure success in each of the 4 areas above that I highlighted. HR should, therefore, be prepared to present fact-based analysis and examples to demonstrate successful interventions and measures taken.

Please share an experience when a person's cultural background affected your approach to a work situation?

A few years back, I had the opportunity to travel on work to Japan.  The purpose was to train individuals as part of a large-scale HR capability building effort. Instead of just preparing to facilitate the session in English, what I decided to do was to learn some basic sentences and words in Japanese that I could use with this audience. This approach worked so well that they genuinely appreciated my effort and thanked me personally after the training. More than anything, they were fully engaged in the training program and felt comfortable to participate more openly in break-out activities.

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 should be an organization's last resort for coping with challenges in its business environment. As HR professionals, we have a huge role to play in ensuring that leaders are not short-sighted and quick to react in determining layoffs as the only quick solution when situation gets tough due to various reasons. Also, as leaders we all must take accountability to help, potentially to be impacted, individuals to find other roles in the organization where there is an easy transferability of skills. We must continue to provide clarity through communication and 1:1 coaching so people feel supported throughout the process. Understanding employee needs and leading with empathy is critical here.

What kinds of experiences have you had in relating with people whose backgrounds are different than your own?

I enjoy working with people from different backgrounds. It helps me learn about their culture, their preferences, and how they approach work. People always find comfort when they have a common language, interest, or liking to something. When we open up and are willing to embrace individuals for who they are and as they are, we are eliminating barriers and creating a platform for more open communication and collaboration. After having worked across continents and in multiple industries, I have come across several individuals from many countries with diverse backgrounds and each time, those interactions have been fruitful.

What do you think about Talent Shortage? What are a few practical tips you want to give to CEO’s and Hiring Managers to manage the challenge of Talent Shortage?

If leaders and hiring managers are willing to look at talent differently there is nothing called a “shortage of talent”. Often, good talent may be right under someone’s’ nose, but people fail to recognize or give them opportunities to develop. There are a few key things I would like to highlight:

  • Strategically moving current employees to available opportunities. This can be tied to re-skilling an internal hire or developing them for a role based on their experiences.
  • Considering alternative workforce to augment for changing business conditions.
  • Invest in branding efforts tied to the company’s culture and use social media avenues to appeal to prospective hires. Also, use employee referral programs to spread the word and get a good pool of candidates.
  • Build good bench strength across the organization for various critical roles.

How Social Media has changed the workplace dynamics?

It has changed many aspects significantly. The world has become flatter with virtual tools internally at workplaces whether it is through use of instant messaging, company WhatsApp groups, Yammer or even Google Hangouts or Skype. These are advantageous as you can quickly see who is online and send a message or chat with them instantly to clarify some information or work-related question. Similarly, social media avenues have truly helped attract good talent mainly through channels like LinkedIn, which has made the entire job search process quite seamless with job postings, network or contacts you can view or connect with. They also offer more personalized services through LinkedIn Learning and LinkedIn Premium etc. In the learning space too, social media has worked wonders with more training programs being delivered virtually on an online platform coupled with social media connects for team building and reinforcement. While this is great in the fast-paced digital age that we all live in, there is still nothing like a good in-person connect. Companies must, therefore, use multiple modalities (online plus in person) to maintain a good balance between connections through social media and a more in-person experience as appropriate.

If you need to draw a landscape of the future workplace, how will it look like? What disruptions do you foresee in HR over the next FIVE years?

Couple of key disruptions that I foresee are:

  • Rise of the alternative workforce (this may include freelancers, gig workers, contractors, etc.)
  • Use of Artificial Intelligence, Predictive Analytics, Robotics, etc. to automate and augment work is on the rise which leads to the redesign of jobs in a growing number of domains.
  • More personalized rewards and recognition programs suited to specifically meet different employee groups vs. just a one size fits all approach.
  • Significant investment in employee health and wellness

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

As a fresh HR graduate, always think about building your “HR Portfolio” of experiences. Spend the first few years getting experience in various areas such as HRBP – Generalist, supporting more specialized areas like Talent Acquisition, Leadership Development, Learning and Total Rewards, etc. As you gain experience in these, you will know where you want to take your career and any future career moves you may want to make that will then determine that path of being a generalist or a specialist.

In addition, a few other things that I will call out are:

  • Always operate with integrity. Never give up on your personal values
  • Be curious.
  • Have an open mindset
  • Look at opportunities for the learning they offer and the long-term career prospects
  • Be creative and innovative. Think of out of the box solutions
  • Always ask meaningful questions and go deeper to understand “the Why” i.e. Why is it that way? Why would we not look at this differently? Why are we doing this? etc.
  • Lead with empathy

Never forget to “Pay it forward”. As fresh graduates, the guidance, mentorship and support you may have received, that might have helped you to get to where you are is great but definitely ensure to help other youngsters similarly in their career journeys.

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

Previous PostTechnology will play a big role in the organizations of tomorrow.
Next PostSocial media has a huge implication on how companies treat their employees.
Leave a Comment