Organizations will have to re-design an eco-system to engage employees

Neetubala Raina is an ICF Coach and works as a Director – Talent Management and Learning Solutions in her current role, at a fortune 500 American MNC. She is also a freelance magazine writer and loves to paint in her free time to re-energize herself. She believes self-care and self-love are the powerful life practices everyone must benefit from, so as to evolve and grow gracefully despite tough life situations.

Thank you, Neetu, 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?

The pandemic year certainly has affected each one of us in a big way!

Unlearning in order to create space to learn new relevant skills is not easy. However, 2020 left no option but pushed me to unlearn to learn newer ways out faster so as to re-create and re-think the way projects/processes are managed not only in my professional but even personal life. Pandemic year threw challenges at us unannounced which I believe made me take a stock of my daily life activities holistically. I felt a sudden dire need to re-evaluate and prioritize all that needed my attention and time and energy. Professionally, of course, I had to switch gears to be able to operate efficiently in the virtual environment. Personally, life and work had blended but gradually we all know how to navigate our way out and we must else it could be detrimental to our wellbeing, so I again prioritized all that needed my attention to ensure equilibrium in my everyday life. I realized how important was it to explore all possible techniques to stay self-sufficient given the fact that we needed to stay indoors and manage all the work and household chores on our own. That was the time when teamwork at home was excessively important to ensure teamwork at work remains a success!

I would like to state that nature wanted us to undergo the test of time, i.e., 2020 TEST to recognize the value of the key resources that each one of us is blessed with:

  • Time(you have 24hrs, so prioritize, as you cannot collect time but optimize!)
  • Energy(infinite resource but your wellbeing impacts your energy levels!)
  • Senses(hearing and seeing in the virtual world became even more important to listen well!)
  • Thinking(what you think and believe you manifest, so think positive!)

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?

I believe the dynamics of the future workplace are evolving in a way that will teach employees to take full accountability as the CEOs of their careers and life. Organizations will have to re-design an eco-system to engage employees. Employees will be no different from consumers of the goods and services today and so they will identify what engages them to stay energized.

New work culture will become truly REAL pushing us to own the consequences of our every action; the REAL work culture means:

  • Results-driven performance & rewards: looking busy will make no dent but the deliverables! We will have a bit more control over our schedule; our intent will determine our focus.
  • Ethics and integrity: One is either ethical or not! In addition, integrity is doing the right things when no one is watching you! Now is the time when leaders and employees will have sufficient opportunities to continue practicing these values to evolve as role models.
  • Additional flexibility: Additional flexibility will be quite challenging to tackle for a lot of folks. The real time application of the four quadrants of time management will be interesting, as it will essentially reflect how adept we are at managing time and prioritizing tasks.
  • Limited supervision: hybrid schedule would mean not much scope for micromanagement.

Additionally, employees may not have the manager’s guidance readily available so planning a daily schedule well would become critical to stay efficient. This means the workforce will be pushed to evolve to become highly accountable for their deliverables, irrespective of their level/title. At the end of the day only results will speak up for you as in all probability, others may not be privy to your busyness for being tied up with their own business.

The new normal requires a new definition for work-life-balance. In your role, do you think work-from-home is a boon or a bane? What challenges, if any, did you face in maintaining a work-life balance? What will be the new definition of “work-life-balance”?

Initially managing this abrupt change in the Q2 of 2020 was not easy as everyone was dealing with change, both at the office and at home. Therefore, it is only in Q3- 2020, I could gain some insights for clarity. I opine that concepts like work from home emerge as an outcome of the evolution of the society/communities, so we are able to fulfil our basic responsibilities as humans. It allows us to take care of loved ones when in need besides helping us to work in isolation when there is a need for us to just be in our own company to focus better. So, for me, WFH is neither a boon nor a bane, it is a part of the process of evolution, so we stay balanced as a society. It is need of the hour today to enable us to find balance. In any landscape, engagement plans will undergo changes; however, I think the engagement plans must be disrupted only to enhance the experiences of people who are the source of emotions and that precisely shapes up the culture of an organization and our societies.

In the future, the surveys would be more about gauging if we are living a balanced life! Work and life have blended largely so organizations have to cultivate a culture that supports employees to live a balanced life although I would believe besides the organizational culture which is based on the leadership styles, a lot would also depend on an individual’s abilities to manage life overall.

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

HR landscape has evolved naturally as one of the most critical and key strategic roles today. I think it is important that while CEOs set expectations from HR Leaders, even HR Leaders must set expectations to be able to co-create an ecosystem that boosts sustainability and growth for high engagement levels. Despite HR Leaders having catered to what has been asked for there is always an expectation that XYZee must have been served for a better experience. The fact remains what was served is what was asked for and HR cannot serve alone, every leader must practice servant leadership to serve their people well! HR Leaders will have to assertively lead and gather what does the organizational system desire, in partnership with the business leaders naturally. Needless to mention, all leaders are the guardian of culture! More so, a post-pandemic era will demand immaculate collaboration and synergy between leaders to deal with randomness that may seep in any time in the world we are expected to thrive in. To build a culture that fosters engagement, two dimensions are critical, Rational engagement and Emotional engagement. Of the two dimensions, Emotional engagement is not possible unless the leaders are emotionally engaged and significantly involved in engaging teams. Hearing is not listening and, in a hybrid, model developing sharp EI skills will be the key competence of leadership!

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

We are living in unprecedented times. The traditional approach to managing tough situations has to change drastically and that will change if there is a paradigm shift in our mindset first. Each one of us will have to rise up as our own competitor. Simply put, “What got us here won’t get us there!” Some survival tips and workshops to combat sudden calamities will have to be mandatory. Employees and people, in general, must learn about managing life in the VUCA world. Every time it amazes me to read about how buildings in Japan are built to withstand earthquakes. People follow survival tips whenever hit by an earthquake. Nevertheless, they found a balance as their outlook changed to live life well. I also think it is high time organizations invest in developing the spiritual dimension of leaders, as this will empower them to stay resilient and inspirational. Spirituality is about the internal atmosphere we create within and has nothing to do with the external surroundings. Imagine the magic this dimension can create as it helps one stay connected with one’s inner self. CEOs and HR leaders must focus on amplifying leadership skills by ensuring leadership practices BEST competencies to acquire key skills in the current times.

  • Building coaching capability (important to deal with randomness and yet inspire people!)
  • Emotional Intelligence (to foster a servant leadership culture to infuse authenticity in every act one performs through deep awareness and compassion! An inside-out approach!)
  • Storytelling (to break down complex strategies and data and inspire through true stories)
  • Trusting the laws of nature. Breaking the obsession with speed and learning to take a pause (Both day and night are equally important for healthy living; hence, the superfluous obsession with speed must break for a fresh restart!)

What are the primary challenges of virtual collaboration?

Virtual collaboration visibly has some challenges. Building trust remotely is difficult so a hybrid model will remain critical. Looking at how things are shaping up, a smooth infrastructure to be able to operate virtually in a seamless manner, across the globe may not be as easy. All the continents will have to build and invest in their virtual infrastructure to remain aligned. A lack of office culture again is a tricky situation to be in unless all individuals are highly self-disciplined. Despite robust engagement plans in place in a virtual environment, establishing an emotional connection is not possible unless leaders demonstrate strong EI competencies. In addition, I believe the holistic development of people is possible only when they also meet people in person. We are humans and all our faculties must be exercised to stay healthy and to grow ourselves.

The pandemic has put many in the workforce in a very slippery position. They need to UNLEARN and RESKILL themselves to stay relevant in the job market. As a Talent Development Leader, what are the major challenges you are facing in reskilling the workforce? How are you identifying employees who need to be reskilled? And what role companies are playing in facilitating reskilling?

Unless you decipher what the “new” will be about, slowing down a bit is being wiser as you need some data to analyze to make some predictions. Perhaps new technical skills may emerge to manage the remote working efficiently or some skills may become differentiating skills or critical. The interesting thing to watch out for is what trends will surface post-pandemic that will necessitate technological interventions to make remote working smooth and a way of life across the globe, regardless of whether we are in a developing or developed nation. There are work-related interdependencies between various nations, and all have to rise up, stay aligned to benefit from each other’s capabilities and strengths. Organizations have been working on reskilling the workforce well and the post-pandemic approach would not really change much just that virtual learning had to be resorted to and that has been managed successfully. Developing leadership competencies requires us to follow a blended learning approach if not the in-person learning model completely. Leaders and managers must be skilled to hold developmental conversations with their talent and I am sure if employees identify their IDP goals, it makes their career journey meaningful, and they trust they are being valued as an asset and not just a resource.

We all know the importance of mental health. In the past, many companies tried to downplay the element of mental health. As an HR Leader, what is your take on the mental health of employees? What are you doing to influence the leadership team and put the criticality of mental health on their discussion table?

I was always convinced that wellbeing is about holistic wellness of your system, that requires us to strike a balance. Nature teaches us the first lesson of balancing life since our toddler days and the day we learn to balance and walk a few steps we know how everyone around applauds for such a huge accomplishment. The irony of the human development process is that you understand the last stage only after having crossed it, in retrospect. As a toddler everything is balanced once you learn to walk but as we grow striking a balance is a perpetual challenge as there lies a great deal of learning that does not come easily, while you strive lifelong to be the converging force to keep your mind, body, and soul in unison. This balance is not difficult to achieve if we co-create an eco-system that rewards emotionally intelligent behaviors as mental health issues are a fallout of insensitive environment that we construct inadvertently perhaps in our urge to excel beyond and above humanity, confusing our own species in return.

So, the mental health of your employees naturally reflects the mindset of your leadership and organization thereby. Today, organizations have tie-ups with firms that provide direct counselling services to the employees. I would rather suggest organizations strike off a few fancy projects that suck time and energy and train and encourage managers to contribute positively towards the mental health of employees by holding fulfilling conversations, removing ambiguities that only increase cortisol levels, for lack of communication and time. It is during the epidemics; you see a large team of Doctors and nurses arranged to take care of sufferers. So, when organizations are willing to spend a huge sum on making such services available to the employees, it calls for some serious deliberation as the assumption is already made that we have enough mental health issues prevailing in our system. Why not equip your managers with some “healing time”, the right competencies, and awareness, as they perhaps are the source of illness and accidentally although! Sometimes it does a lot good to run periodic roadshows and campaigns to make people aware of what cultural elements are beneficial and what must be avoided. Such endeavors help establish a psychological contract as you are reiterating “Dos and Don’ts” of building a mentally healthy culture.

Lastly, what is your message for those students who will be graduating during this difficult time? How should they keep their morale high and stay motivated?

We are talking about the Zee generation. I have had opportunities to work closely with the Zee generation as well and they are an amazing bunch of talented folks. Tech-savvy and quick learners. Believe in equality and speak up their mind. My message to them is they are the future leaders, and they must continue to innovate, experiment, explore but also listen well and leverage the experiences of the seasoned people around. A successful project is a result of a diverse set of skills, capabilities, and experiences as there is this huge collective wisdom hidden beneath that just needs a bit of patience for you to unearth that treasure. Books may tell you what did not work well in the past, but these experienced leaders will show you what will work in the future. This generation oozes energy and they are a great example of self-motivation as my experience with them is they are born navigators. All they need is some free space and an apolitical culture to thrive in.

Thank you, Neetubala, for your time and for sharing your experiences.
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