Dr. Shalini Lal is the Founder and CEO of Unqbe, an education and advisory firm around the "Future of Work". She works with several leadership teams to build the Leadership Styles, Cultures, and Organizational Structures that support Innovation and Agility. She is also the host of the "Future of Work Show" on LinkedIn, where she hosts conversations with leading global academics, practitioners and thinkers around different future trends. She also is a published author (The Secret Life of Organizations, Hachetter India), and often writes for leading magazines and papers. Her past roles have included Director HR (Deustche Bank); CHRO (Escorts Agri); Chief, OD and Change (Airtel). She is a UCLA PhD, Wharton Fellow, IIM-A MBA, and Stephens Eco Grad; and enjoys bringing together insights from academia with the wisdom of practitioners.
April 2021 has brought with it a ravenous hunger for an open heart. As family after family around us fall prey to Covid-19, it is hard to find a single person today who doesn’t know anyone else who hasn’t either had or has suffered from it.
Everything happening now is something we had been warned of, at least in the very early stages of Covid-19. But over time, we had forgotten that the virus still exists. As our own governments focused on other things, this pandemic left the ordinary person completely on their own, and today every WhatsApp group is filled with daily appeals for oxygen, beds, or Remdesivir.
In such a time, what should be the role of organisational leaders? And how are they doing?
Last weekend, I did a quick dipstick survey with HR leaders to understand how their organisations are responding to the current situation. To be honest, what I heard was very heartening. Where governments have failed, organisations have tried to step in.
For some, this has meant setting up oxygen or ventilator beds within their campus for employees and their families. For others, it has meant securing contacts of people who can help out in the case of emergencies. And for still others, it might simply mean having a verified list of people to reach out to for oxygen or medicines when the need arises.
For the employee, this means a great deal. It means not feeling so completely alone at a time of great personal anxiety but having an entire organisation to care for their well-being. This general sense of having someone to turn to is invaluable.
And many have gone many steps ahead and introduced HR practices that match our times. For instance, the introduction of 'Covid-19 Leave' of up to 14 days that can be used if an employee or a family member falls sick, for much-needed caregiving. But this is not all.
Many organisations have also tried to make things easier for employees by setting up vaccination camps for employees and their families. And granting vaccination leave of one or two days as required. Many HR leaders also shared personal stories of volunteering at these camps.
Still others have set up links to donate oxygen and medicines to those who truly need them. At a time when private citizens are taking initiatives and setting up helplines, this is truly commendable. All this goes on to show a shift towards generosity and empathy experienced in 2020.
Several organisations, for instance, recognised the unprecedented circumstances and softened KRAs (Key Responsibility Areas). Several others tried hard to protect jobs by instead announcing pay cuts, a practice that has always, historically, led to a much stronger bond within an organisation.
As work moved to the virtual world—almost overnight—leaders learned and adjusted. They learned that when employees are stressed, they are looking to their leaders for reassurance that they will be cared for and that they matter. Pretty much around the world, leaders have been engaging with their team members through informal one-on-one chats or townhalls, that in pre-Covid-19 times were considered as activities that were a ‘waste of time.'
We have learned that the move to the virtual world, in turn, demands greater trust and greater clarity from the leader. In the absence of the physical structures that remind an employee of their organisation and their role, it is the softer structures that rule.
Do I feel I belong here? Do I feel my manager understands me? Do I feel inspired by the work I do? These questions are asked by employees of your organisation, again and again. And they hope the answer will be yes.
While this pandemic has brought with it so much personal tragedy and devastation, there has never before been a time when it has been so acceptable for organisations to show their softer side, and to show that they care.
So if you are a part of an organisation that has done well—kudos! You have done the right thing and built the deeper connection that will keep your best people with you much longer. If, on the other hand, you are yet to discover this side of your organisation, it may help to remember that employees are always assessing whether you are a good place to work by how well you did when there was a crisis and when it was their time of need.
For there is a call to leaders everywhere—the call to have an open heart when there is so much suffering.
Dr Shalini Lal is the co-founder of Unqbe and works at the intersection of ‘people and organisations’ and ‘the future of work’. She has a PhD in organisational science from UCLA and has been a senior HR leader