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EXCLUSIVE | COVID-19 2nd wave took everyone by surprise, things getting better: Info Edge CEO Hitesh Oberoi

Info Edge CEO Hitesh Oberoi is optimistic that the pandemic situation will begin to normalise within weeks and that things are already getting better, but the country needs an effective advance-warning system to ensure that people don’t drop their guard again.

May 12, 2021 / 11:19 AM IST

Info Edge CEO Hitesh Oberoi wasn't active on Twitter before but he has been using the platform extensively in the last few weeks to source beds and oxygen supplies for employees and their families, as the second wave of the pandemic hit India like a tsunami.

He said that while things have improved, there is a need for an early-warning system so that people don't let down their guard again, at least until they have taken both shots of the vaccine. Info Edge, which owns portals such as Naukri, Jeevansathi, 99acres and Shiksha, is also an investor in Policybazaar and Zomato, which filed for an IPO recently.

Q: The last few weeks must have been harrowing for you. You've been trying to source beds, oxygen cylinders, etc for people who were impacted by the second wave of COVID-19. But compared to the desperate situation we saw in Delhi-NCR a couple of weeks ago, have things gotten better? how has the second wave impacted Info Edge overall?

A: The second wave took everyone by surprise, we were all shocked at how rapidly the number of cases went up. Everything was fine, we were doing very well and we were setting aggressive targets as a company. And suddenly, things changed pretty quickly for everybody. Before we knew it, we were running around, trying to help our employees get oxygen and get hospital beds. In fact, luckily for us, we moved quickly, we were able to lay our hands on a few oxygen concentrators early.

We saw it early. And we set up a helpline internally, to help employees with information with oxygen concentrators with medical assistance wherever possible, you know, we have 4,000 people that are spread out all over the country; many people, working from home in their hometowns. It was a harrowing time for the last two weeks, it was very tough for everybody.

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I think maybe 25 percent of the employees were directly impacted by COVID-19 and maybe another 15-20 percent had some close family member down. So, productivity, of course, took a massive hit. Clients are also impacted, a lot of us got busy with our families trying to get help to people, both inside the company and outside the company.

Of course, the good news is that things are now beginning to stabilize, it's getting a lot better. The number of calls we are getting on our internal helpline has fallen, and have come down significantly in the last five-seven days. And, hopefully, at least Delhi seems to be getting a lot better. Mumbai got a lot better some time back.

Q: What should the government have done? Many experts predicted a second wave and now there is going to be a third wave. So, is there a business risk that you at least have baked into your projections, your pipeline going forward?

A: I think all of us, including the government, thought COVID-19 is over. I started going outside for meetings, I always thought that the worst was behind us. And this has taken us totally by surprise. Going forward, I think we have to assume the worst till the time everybody gets double vaccinated, which could take a few months, by the way, maybe we need to have an early warning system to warn people that this is the time to get serious.

Because human memory is short, if things improve in the next two weeks, I think, within a month, people will be behaving as if there was no COVID-19, but I think we need to be on our guard. We can't let this guard down. We need to of course add to our healthcare capacity, which I think governments are doing everywhere.

Q: You said that, before the second wave of COVID-19, things were almost business as usual. How has this impacted you from a business aspect? You have Naukri, Jeevansathi, 99 acres, Shiksha and you are also an investor in 2 unicorns- Zomato and Policybazaar.

A: Business was actually almost beginning to boom by March. It was almost like we were entering a sort of a period of high economic growth, once again. Attrition rate was going up. We were preparing to give very good hikes to people. The mood was very buoyant and very bullish. The pandemic has catalysed the move to digital.

The move to digital is only accelerating as a result of what's happening around us. You know, even people who are 50 years old, 60 years old, 70 years old, they're becoming better and better at using the internet to do more and more. Working from office may get pushed back by another six, eight months, and then habits might change. And people may never want to go back to the office. Who knows? Right?

You know, remote work could become the norm, right? going forward. So, what we're seeing now is that the demand for digital talent continues to be high. So, if you have IT skills, if you have digital skills, you're still very much in demand. Right? So, what we are seeing is, on the one hand, demand for such people is going through the roof. I mean people are still in short supply with the right skills. On the other hand, certain sectors are terribly impacted. And people who don't have digital skills, they will have to actually re-skill themselves if they want jobs going forward because some of these sectors may take a long time to recover.

Q: In terms of the overall job market, Naukri's monthly jobs report for April 2021 said there was a decline in April but it wasn't as bad as March 20. But even the IT companies, tech companies saw a dip during this period? Are these jobs coming back now?

A: April was pretty bad. It was not as if demand took a beating, but everybody was distracted. So, people who are looking for jobs were down with COVID-19 recruiters and companies that were looking to hire, they were down with COVID-19, you know; so, everybody was distracted. Productivity at every company was, I think, down to 50-60 percent levels, because everybody was dealing with COVID-19, in their families, or for themselves, families trying to help friends etc.

So, jobs on our site also took a beating, even in the digital space for about two, three weeks for this reason. But my guess is that they will come back faster than you think, you know, once the situation starts to normalize, which I think it's only a matter of weeks now. The investment in digital startups continues to be very, very high.

I mean, there is enough money being poured into digital startups as we speak, right? Every traditional company is trying to go digital as well. So, transformation is the story of our times. And I think digital transformation is here to stay. And for the next few years, anybody with digital skills will continue to be in demand.

Q: In the last few months, people always used to talk about how growth is coming back to pre-COVID levels. Do you think the new normal will be pre-second-wave levels?

A: I don't think so. I think if we get our act together, businesses will bounce back fast if COVID is brought under control.

Q: 2021 is a significant year for Info Edge, with two of your portfolio companies set to go public. Zomato has already filed its DRHP while Policybazaar is expected to file its IPO towards the end of the year. Has the second wave impacted those plans?

A: I am not very updated, because like I said, we've been all fighting fires for the last few weeks. But my sense is that, it's not as if something, anything, has changed materially as far as Zomato's prospect is concerned. So, you know, of course, if the market can take it, I'm sure they will want to go ahead. Policybazaar is still a few months away.

Q: And if you have to share your experiences with other entrepreneurs or startup founders in terms of how to really navigate an unknown like this, what would you say? What was your biggest learning in the last few weeks and how do you keep the morale high?

A: One, we need to take a long-term view; and then, we need to have a short-term view, I think the long-term view is going to be different for different businesses. Most digital companies should be in good shape in the long run, because you know, people are more digitally savvy going forward. So, given that the long-term prospects, at least for digital businesses look very, very bright.

Therefore, I think one should not be cutting down on long term investments, right? Of course, you need to survive in the short term to be around. The short-term story has to be about survival, has to be about focusing on the health of your employees, ensuring that everybody is taken care of. You have to keep your morale high, because you have to be able to think positive, you have to be optimistic, you have to believe that this too will pass and that all will be okay.

And, we saw what last year was like, we had a tough three, four months, and then everything was almost back to normal. And I think the same will happen going forward. In the meanwhile, of course, you have to be empathetic, you have to be supportive. You have to lend a helping hand and you have to communicate with employees. You have to give them all possible support.
Chandra R Srikanth is Editor- Tech, Startups, and New Economy
first published: May 12, 2021 09:16 am

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