Resilience, tenacity, and perseverance are absolutely essential for a leader to face unprecedented crises.

Asma is a seasoned HR professional with almost 28 years of multi-industry & multi-cultural experience in fast-paced dynamic industries including Banking, Pharma, Petroleum, E-Com, and Logistics.

She has more than 18 years of experience, as Head of HR, for organizations like Deutsche Bank, HSBC, Dubai Islamic Bank, Barclays Bank, NIB Bank and TCS. She has been an active partner in driving business transformations through building Talent Capability, Competency-based Career Development Programs, fostering CBA-Management relations, building a Performance-Driven Culture, and developing Women Empowerment Initiatives at workplaces.

Asma was an essential founder member of Dubai Islamic Bank by building the Bank’s people infrastructure from scratch. She was also an instrumental player in the performance turnaround at Barclays Bank Dubai and Africa through robust Performance Management and launch of Career Path Programs.

In her current role, Asma is working as CHRO with National Bank of Pakistan.

Asma is a certified Executive Coach by International Coaching Federation (ICF) and also certified as Director of Board by PICG.

On a personal level, Asma aims to alleviate gender equality in the Pakistani workforce while providing tools and tips to young girls who want to build their careers.

Thank you, Asma, for agreeing to do this interview with us. Kindly be as candid as you can.
Let’s Start!!!
How does the pandemic year affect you? What changes, professional and personal, does it bring into your life?

It has been an extremely tough and challenging time for people across the world including Pakistan. In my current organization, which is part of the public sector, challenges were different as work is more manual and paper-based and being out of office due to lockdown posed serious concerns. However, we transitioned swiftly in order to survive. An organization of over 15,000 people spreads all across the country was suddenly required to move towards digitalization and automation of processes. It was extremely taxing as moving from a paper-based environment towards digitalization is no small task, but it was managed well and smoothly in response to the unique situation without disrupting work. The recruitment targets were successfully met, and even international placements were done virtually. From conducting performance appraisals and promotion interviews to new ways of catering to customers online, entire processes were redefined and automated; we used the pandemic as an opportunity to move towards digitalization.

In the new normal, some employees will be mandatorily working from the company premises, some will be allowed to permanently work-from-home, and others will be following a hybrid schedule. How do you foresee the future workplace? How will companies ensure employee engagement? What will be the prominent elements of NEW work culture?

Work-from-home is the new reality and organizations need to transition, embrace change and be more cost-effective. It is an exceptional tool that few companies had explored in our country, Pakistan. In my previous organization, we successfully launched a ground-breaking initiative that hired skilled personnel to work from home. Social constraints limit a large number of skilled, highly qualified, and passionate women from pursuing their careers outside their home in Pakistan. For these women to venture out in the corporate world, family support is a must. With the advent of work-from-home opportunities, we can utilize these professionals’ skills and give them a convenient source of livelihood. Keeping these dynamics in mind, we succeeded in catering to an untapped market of the talent pool and recruits and provided employment opportunities. These talented resources ranged from trained female doctors unable to join work due to family restrictions to young students with some spare time looking for financial independence. In organizations adapting to the new normal, people are provided flexibility to work from home and successfully deliver on their targets.

Digital adoption has taken a quantum leap at both the organizational and industry levels. During the pandemic, consumers have moved dramatically towards online channels, and companies and industries have responded in turn. Small businesses in Pakistan, especially female-led operations have had to adjust by moving from office premises to online portals and providing services at doorsteps keeping SOPs and hygiene protocols. As there was a lack of access to telecommunication and the internet, it brought a number of small businesses to a standstill. It took a conscious effort on the part of various stakeholders, including NGOs and the government to provide a platform to these females to take SME businesses online. These women were provided mobile devices and basic infrastructure to go through an overhaul and reap profitable benefits. Bottom line- agility and flexibility are key for your business to flourish in the future.

Post-Pandemic, in the new normal, what will be the critical expectations of CEOs from their HR Leaders?

I believe investing in digital infrastructure and innovative solutions is a make-or-break decision for all HR leaders. At the moment it seems costly, but the benefits you will get in the next few years will far outweigh the expense you are incurring now. Companies have switched to remote work model, for instance, and replaced face to face interactions with video conferencing using Google Meet and Zoom. We have witnessed a very profitable year at my current organization thanks to the timely measures we took to adopt virtual and digital platforms, especially SAP.

During the pandemic, businesses had to shut down, many employees were laid off and downsizing was widespread. HR leaders are expected to manage and manoeuvre in the new normal and keep achieving organizational targets. As slowly remote work becomes the norm, HR will have to keep employees motivated, engaged, and productive, keeping the organization’s culture and values intact.

For instance, in my current organization, we had a very forward-thinking approach and swiftly re-evaluated employees’ health and wellbeing when the pandemic hit Pakistan. To deal with healthcare expenses, we completely revised our employees and their eligible dependents’ medical and healthcare policies to provide COVID-related financial support, along with priority treatment at hospitals and healthcare institutions. This was very crucial for employees to feel that the organization cared for them in their time of need.

“TRUST” plays an important role in the success of a team, more so in a virtual environment (work-from-home). In your experiences, what Team Leaders are doing differently to develop and sustain trust among team-players? How is technology helping in sustaining the trust?

“Trust”, undoubtedly is a crucial factor in all relationships, especially when it comes to teams at play. With over 15,000 personnel, my current workplace takes trust very seriously. You cannot micromanage your employees or pressure them which is what was rampant at the beginning of the work from home during the lockdown period. It is difficult for managers to comprehend that employees work while at home in the local environment, however, globally, it is a very acceptable mode of working. To ensure your teams are delivering, it is important to have clear and SMART goals and expectations. Digital tools that are available such as Microsoft Teams, Google meet, Zoom, etc. have helped our teams to interact and communicate frequently. Developing routine morning meeting schedules and tracking KPIs manages your project deadlines and gives you the focus that is necessary to achieve targets in a timely manner. I meet regularly with my core team via Zoom to update on our plans and how to move ahead in our HR transformation goals.

Lastly, as an HR Leader, how will you prepare future leaders to manage crises of Covid-19 magnitude? What NEW LEADERSHIP COMPETENCIES will become necessary for the success of a leader?

Resilience and open communication are the two major leadership competencies I would highly recommend. Resilience, tenacity, and perseverance are absolutely essential for a leader to face unprecedented crises. A leader’s positive attitude and determination to face odds, find alternates, and deal with challenges makes him/her a phenomenal leader. Such individuals motivate their teams to go beyond the call of duty as and when needed. Additionally, open, and transparent communication plays a vital role in managing teams skilfully. Especially in times of uncertainty and fear, being upfront and straightforward is an excellent practice as it clarifies the organization’s rationale and strategies and helps the workforce see why decisions are being made, what they signify for them. This brings collaboration and unity in times of crisis and chaos.

There is a major shift in the corporate perspective of HR leadership. Embrace technology- digitalization is your way forward! Most companies that thrived during a pandemic and executed successful responses to the crisis report a variety of technology capabilities that others don’t—most obviously, filling gaps for technology talent during the crisis, the use of more advanced technologies, and speed in experimenting and innovating.

The pandemic has made us realize that “work from home”, remote and flexible work is possible, and it is a new reality which organizations should accept, bringing changes accordingly. Adopting these strategies will let employees be productive and maintain a work-life balance. HR leaders need to start trusting more, encouraging innovative and tech-savvy alternates to conventional methods, and develop leaner organizational structures. They need to stop sticking to their usual tried and tested strategies- traditional HR methods should be replaced by agile tools and HR policies that are fast-paced and digital-centric to manage today’s challenges. It is equally vital to have a culture where employees understand the vision and strategy and how they are contributing towards achieving it, so they feel engaged. HR leadership must continue to be open and candid in their communication with all personnel. Employees today need to be heard and listening is crucial in increasing loyalty and employee engagement.

Thank you, Asma, for sharing your insights. We appreciate your time and efforts.
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