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COVID-19 impact | Inspirational leadership is need of the hour: Harshvendra Soin, Global Chief People Officer and Head of Marketing, Tech Mahindra

"COVID-19 has initiated a 'Big Reset'. We expect to see a hybrid model of working - a mix of remote and physical working mode. This will be the new paradigm for a long term," he said.

June 24, 2020 / 09:41 PM IST

The COVID-19 outbreak has forced organisations across the world to realign their workforce operations and many companies realised that the transition is going to be filled with operational roadblocks.

IT major Tech Mahindra has, however, managed to tackle this period of uncertainty with astute planning and has put in place measures to ensure that productivity and engagement levels of employees don’t take a hit.

In an interview with Moneycontrol, Harshvendra Soin, Global Chief People Officer and Head of Marketing, Tech Mahindra, speaks at length about how the company is looking to ensure the work culture and ethos of the organisation stay intact despite the upheavals caused by the pandemic.

Edited excerpts:

Q: How has COVID-19 reset the work mode in Tech Mahindra?

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A: COVID-19 has initiated a 'Big Reset'. We expect to see a hybrid model of working - a mix of remote and physical working mode. This will be the new paradigm for a long term.

Q: Can you elaborate on the 'Big Reset' aspect?

A: The ‘Big Reset’ has three phases. The first phase is ‘Survive’, which has already happened and where we have used our existing infrastructure to ensure there was business continuity. The second phase is ‘Revive’ – the current stage – where we are reintegrating the workforce by making improvements related to social distancing. In the third phase, which is ‘Thrive’, we will have to reimagine the workplace with sign-based workplace solutions that deliver touchless work experience.

The first big shift will be from shared devices to personal devices. Touch will be replaced with voice, gesture and facial recognition, especially in terms of safety and social distancing this will be the key enabler.  At Tech Mahindra, in 2019, we had already introduced K2 which is our humanoid which responds to employee queries around the globe. We also have a facial recognition system, which apart from including our daily emotion analysis, takes our attendance too through facial recognition. Our chatbot UVO has been taking care of everything which has to do with first level recruitment, filling up your travel vouchers applying for leaves and so on.

We also have a virtual onboarding app — DOVE — that does virtual tours, leadership videos and also enables all the joining documentation for people. Even during the current crisis and prevalent social distancing norms, we have also come out with various apps like the ‘BookMySeat’ app and a Cafeteria/Canteen app. We have been recognised as one of the 50 Best Companies to Work for in 2020 by the Great Place to Work Institute for our employee friendly initiatives and people first policies recently.

Q: What percentage of people will continue working remotely or come back to office premises?

A: Majority of our associates are working from home but gradually, we are getting people back into the workplace. However, we are not in a hurry to do so because we want to comply with the state- wise regulations and norms, which are still evolving. So, we have about 10-20 percent of people back at office premises and the remaining are working from home.

Q: Has WFH effected the productivity levels in any way?

A: Though initially, productivity dipped a little, very soon we saw an increase in productivity and efficiency like never before due to commute time being saved and various collaboration tools brought on board. People have also started attending meetings on time. It was also driven by the instinct to survive which ensured we were efficient and productive.

However, we have clearly seen that screen fatigue and a double shift fatigue has started to affect employees. While working from home, people have to balance both office work and home chores. Also, there are difficulties like lack of infrastructure, power cuts, Wi-Fi issues, etc. So, while the initial euphoria and productivity is high, for it to be sustainable, we will need new technologies like 5G to come up in a big way. We will also need the pricing of devices to go down. It is then that sustained productivity levels will reach high levels.

Q: The leadership paradigm has changed. Given the present challenges, how would you identify new talents and leaders and also maintain employee- organisation trust? 

A: Leadership has undergone a revolutionary change from the earlier command and control leadership to a more inspirational and resilient one. We have seen a rise in flexible workforce and gig workers with people working from home. We have also seen that a thrust on overall wellbeing and employability has taken over the whole salary fundamentals in retention and value proposition.

Collaboration and inspiration have been important constituents and in times of crisis like this, we have observed, wherever the leader is inspirational and resilient, you will see a higher productivity and better customer feedback. We have many 'Peace Time Generals'. But we are now witnessing 'Peace Time Generals' change to 'War Time Heroes'. People who have taken up the challenge and reacted to the crisis, have emerged as 'War Time Heroes'.

Q: With the COVID-19 having 'eaten away' into the 'human touch' at work or the 'water cooler moments' at work, do you think this will increase the stress levels in associates? How do you plan to tackle this problem which may also adversely affect their productivity?

A: 'Water cooler' moments are important because they connect people on an emotional level but in the situation created by COVID-19, we had to resort to a technology-enabled, high touch environment which replaced the human touch aspect. To tackle this, we at Tech Mahindra have introduced something called ‘TechmighTea’ an AI-driven collaborative tool which recognises the need for two people to meet. For example, it randomly picks up and combines people from two different units or two different areas and invites them for a virtual cup of tea.

We also have an ‘AI Coach’, which recognises your normal style of writing mails and actually stops and asks you when you are writing a mail during a stressful moment. It also coaches you on specific areas that under normal circumstances you may not want to get coached on and it will be almost like a friend available to you where we don’t have a real physical friend.

Our yoga bot - ‘Aasana’ is on display every time you open your computer. Everybody has to opt for a five- minute Yoga or 40 second Yoga session.

Tools like these ensure make sure that while we miss the physical, we don't miss being together. Virtual parties and meetings all help us to stay 'in touch'. I think really, the future is a high tech-enabled high touch environment, because whatever happens, technology has to be used to really create moments of truth which are human and that is the whole belief of Tech Mahindra. Functioning and productivity are based on human experiences and this basically means that we can use technology to enable the human experience.

Q: In what ways has this situation affected your business and when do you see things going back to normal or rather to pre-COVID times?

A: Tech Mahindra was one of the first companies to respond and keep connected with clients during the lockdown and we were functioning at 94 percent levels in the first 72 hours itself. We worked intelligently and instead of ordering laptops we asked our employees to give us their laptops. We rented their laptops, converted them, put a two-layered security into it and gave it back to them. Employees were promised reimbursement for the use of their personal laptops.  For the rest, we moved desktops from our offices to their homes. It was incredible to see people taking desktops in their car, people taking laptops on their two-wheelers. But it was a huge win for us because we were agile in the first 72 hours.

This was an important task because we have clients in banking, e-commerce, police; our customers are in every kind of essential services. If we would have been delayed, it would have meant a direct delay in essential services reaching the common man. In a way, our response time was quite incredible, and it was because we were nimble in our thinking.

Follow our coverage of the coronavirus crisis here
Gaurav Choudhury
first published: Jun 24, 2020 09:41 pm

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