People Management in a Post Pandemic World

the HRM
Before the Covid-19 pandemic struck Nepal in March 2020, Nebico Pvt Ltd was doing exceptionally well. The production, according to the pioneering Nepali biscuit maker, was 600 tons a month. The company which has been producing biscuits, cookies and confectionaries since 1964 has a strong presence in the domestic market.

However, the company saw its production plunging by more than 50 percent after the government announced lockdown in late March. Nebico slowly began to lose its hold of the market as Indian biscuits and confectionaries started taking over the domestic products.

“The restrictions related to Covid-19 hit the industry hard. In the first month, the factory was shut down. And after the operation resumed from the second month, the production started to fall as it was difficult for our employees to come to the factory,” said Rajesh Sharma Adhikari, HR and Admin Manager at Nebico Pvt Ltd.
According to Adhikari, the operation of the company was a major challenge during the pandemic as many employees were panicked about the situation and didn’t want to come to the workplace. “As the production and overall business went down, the company had to slash employees’ salaries by almost 50 percent,” said Adhikari. He shares that human resources management has become a cumbersome issue to deal with for the company after the start of the pandemic. “It is still a difficult area even after the forces of Covid-19 have subsided,” he said.

The problems faced by Nebico show how Nepali companies are facing challenges related to human resources at present.

According to HR managers, companies first adjusted to a ‘new normal’. As Covid-19 is subsiding, companies are now trying to get back to the ‘old normal’, but with a lot of challenges, they say.

A study by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) shows that at least three in five employees of private enterprises lost their jobs during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic.

What has changed?
HR managers say that human resources management in the post-pandemic times is not easy. A consensus among them prevails that HR management in the pre and post-pandemic has been completely different due to several factors.

After the lockdown was imposed, organizations had no other options than to resort to remote working due to restrictions in travel and transportation.

“The pandemic helped organizations realize the importance of remote working. However, this is not a new concept,” said Prajana Waiba Pradhan, Global People and Culture Manager-International Operations at Practical Action Nepal. “Remote working was already in practice in the development sector. But there was always a question: Are employees fully dedicated to work while working remotely? The pandemic changed the mindset,” she said. “As the situation has normalized, organizations are now realizing employees should come back to the workplace.”

According to HR managers, if employees start working remotely for a longer period of time, the bonding and ‘professional attachment’ in the workplace start to fade away. “At this point, organizations and HR professionals fear losing workplace culture as a result of remote working,” said Waiba.

“Having said that, there are both pros and cons of remote working. If employees are called to the workplace on a rotation basis, it can be one of the best cost-cutting measures as a significant amount would be saved in rent and electricity, among other office expenditures,” she said.

What Waiba said has been implemented in IME Ltd. In a recent interview with the HRM, Suman Pokharel, who is now Senior Vice President of IME Group, said that the post-pandemic people management and work culture will change noticeably. “I think Nepal will not shift to remote working completely, but things will change for sure. At IME Ltd, we have many employees who are still working from home. The company provided all the logistics for staff to work from home.,” said Pokharel. The company even managed internet connection, chairs, and tables for its staff to work from home. The decision, according to Pokharel, has helped IME Ltd manage staff as the office already had space constraints.

While the work-from-home model was applicable to ‘white-collar’ workers despite initial difficulties in implementation, this type of work arrangement was of no use for ‘blue-collar’ or factory workers. This type of working system was a boon, especially for IT, banking, media and some other technology-based sectors.

Even after the situation has normalized over the last couple of months, sectors like manufacturing and tourism are still reeling from issues related to human resources. Producers of goods designated as essential items such as food and medicine alongside logistics services providers, and retail businesses need on-site employees to maintain their production and service.

According to Adhikari, manufacturing businesses need a constant presence of workers for full-fledged operation. “Unlike in advanced and emerging economies where factories are mostly automated, most manufacturing plants are operated manually,” said Adhikari. “The pandemic has taught us that automation is the way forward to face emergency situations. Automation is in fact the future of production and we are working on it.”

The hospitality sector has witnessed a sea change in the past two years. As the hardest-hit sector globally, organizational management and business operation have become different compared to the pre-pandemic times.

“In hotels, you need a full-fledged team working 24 hours. But we have realized the need for reducing the number of employees in the workplace. For the same, the hotel has already brought technical equipment. This will reduce the human engagement in HR, finance, and some other departments,” said Chudamani Parajuli, HR Head at Soaltee Hotel Limited.

New Hiring
With the business is slowly recovering, many organizations that had axed jobs as a cost-cutting measure are back on a hiring spree. As the business is getting back on track, organizations need additional human resources, but it has become difficult to get skilled human resources, say HR professionals.

According to Sachendra Gurung, Vice President, Human Resources at Subisu Cable Net, the company is planning to hire more staff with the growing business and expansion of services. “Business sectors are recovering from the impacts of the pandemic and they need more internet connections. Similarly, individuals have also increased their reliance on the internet.

So, we will hire new staff to fulfill our business needs,” he explained.

In the meantime, banks and financial institutions are also looking for fresh recruits as the opening of new branches across the country has increased the demand for new staff.

NCC Bank Limited, for example, is adding 23 branches in different parts of the country. “Every branch would need at least five staff. The expansion plan was halted during the pandemic. As the situation slowly normalized, we are aggressively recruiting new staff,” informed Julie Shrestha, Chief of Human Resources at NCC Bank.

In the post-pandemic world, the process of recruiting, employing, and retaining human resources has changed to a greater degree. Also, many organizations are opting to outsource certain types of work and functions rather than hiring full-time staff. “It is a win-win situation for both employees and employers. Employees don’t have to work full time, while employers can pay according to the nature of the work,” said Parajuli.

HR managers cite the human resources crunch as the major reason behind outsourcing. The skilled workforce is not getting paid sufficiently in the country at present. So they want to work for several companies. Outsourcing of work functions offers them a lucrative opportunity to earn more. At the same time, it also offers organizations to cut down expenditure on the remuneration of employees and some daily expenses.

According to Neha Joshi, Head of Human Resources at Dish Media Network, the tendency of many people toward jobs has changed in the past two years. “Staffs have enjoyed freedom as organizations were flexible in working hours in difficult times. Now, many young people don’t want to stick to one job. Looking for flexibility, they move to a new organization. This is one of the reasons behind organizations preferring outsourcing,” she said, adding, “The organizational modality needs to be changed in a good way. The pandemic helped organizations realize the need for hybrid work culture.”

According to her, Dish Media Network has been outsourcing the customer support unit for the last eight years, which she describes as a ‘win-win situation’ for both the company and its employees.

After the lockdown was imposed, NCC Bank started outsourcing its internal audit functions to a private firm. “It is one of the cost-cutting measures. We have outsourced internal audit as it required a big team. Earlier, we had a team of six members, but after we increased the number of branches, it was impossible for the audit team to work in all the branches,” said Shrestha.

“As per the regulation of the Nepal Rastra Bank, we should conduct an audit once in six months in every branch. We currently have 123 branches. If we create an internal audit team, we need more than 25 staff for the purpose. The bank would not have to bear this additional liability when quality work is being done by outsourcing partners,” she said. According to her, the bank has outsourced functions related to internal audit and marketing after the start of the pandemic.

The ‘Human touch’
Executives of the organizations feel that as a result of the crisis, their institutions had a little presence of humans in the workplace for almost two years, resulting in losing organizational culture.

“When everything is virtual, the connection is lost. The connection is only limited to the internet. I felt like the human touch is missing when work was done remotely,” mentioned Shubhra Rayamajhi, Head of Operations at Dolma Impact Fund, adding that in-person meetings build connections among employees.
Gurung of Subisu Cable Net said that his company organized regular training during the pandemic. “But even then, we felt something was missing. In the initial days of the pandemic, the participants were not excited about training,” he said, adding that the interaction between participants and trainer is limited through a virtual medium.

Post-pandemic, the recruitment process is another area where changes are likely to occur. Till now, in-person interviews, interactions and evaluations of job applicants at workplaces are the preferred processes. However, virtual interactions are also being used for staff recruitment at present.

Nevertheless, HR managers who talked to the HRM shared their experiences that recruitment through virtual means has been the toughest job. It is because they cannot see how confident the applicant is while interviewing virtually. You cannot see the body language and sometimes you may just select the wrong applicant, they say. But all agree that the future of human resources management in Nepali organizations would be guided by digital transformation.

“In the modern world, including developing countries like Nepal, HRM is evolving. In the changed context, the HR system must include both human and digitization for a hybrid working space. This would bridge the gap the businesses are witnessing in the post-pandemic era,” said Gurung.

When asked how important is the ‘human touch’, Julie Shrestha of NCC Bank answered that HR professionals are having a tough time understanding employees after the pandemic. “During the pandemic, we conducted interviews through the virtual method. But we failed to analyze the body language, confidence, and attitude of staff through virtual. This was one of the drawbacks of going digital,” she said.

“The virtual method was a blessing for the bank in the pandemic. But now, what we have realized is that the ‘human touch’ is equally important when recruiting staff. So when hiring branch managers, we conduct in-person interviews.”

According to Nishma Bajracharya, Strategic Business Manager at Nepal Pharmaceuticals Lab Pvt Ltd, HR officials used to see the body language and attitude of interviewees while interacting with them in person. “But the HR practices have evolved lately. In difficult times like the pandemic, HR officials are left with no other options than to conduct virtual interviews. It has both pros and cons,” she said. According to her, virtual interviews save time for both interviewer and interviewees. “If I am based in Kathmandu, I can conduct interviews for posts in Pokhara through a virtual medium. It also saves traveling and other costs,” she mentioned, adding that Nepal Pharmaceuticals Lab has 12 offices across the country, and it is hassle-free to conduct virtual job interviews.

Towards Digitization
The pandemic has helped the corporate sector realize that there is no future in their business without digitization. According to HR managers, had there been no Covid-19, the corporate sector would need another 4/5 years to realize the need for advanced technologies and digitization.

Corporate institutions are investing more in technologies, especially in advanced HR systems. “Digitization makes work easy and reduces overall cost. Likewise, even small details don’t need to be kept on record on paper. The paperwork is reduced, so is the human effort,” said Neha Joshi of Dish Home.

According to her, an in-house team develops software for the organization at Dish Home. Likewise, the company has also purchased HRM software and other necessary systems for its drive to digitization.

Well-being of Employees
A couple of years ago, only a few organizations in Nepal used to follow proper health safety measures to keep their staff sound and active. But the pandemic forced organizations to focus on the well-being of employees as restrictions and long working hours had an impact on mental as well as physical health.

Today, health safety has become a major concern in workplaces.

“Due to salary cuts and lay off, employees had an impact on their mental health. And the restrictions that confined them to their homes made it even worse. Thankfully, our company didn’t slash salaries or ax jobs. Staff at the NPL enjoyed all the benefits during the pandemic,” she said, adding that the company organized different motivation sessions for employees.

According to her, the measures helped the employees feel secure and had a good physiological impact. “Now the company regularly organizes motivational sessions for the well-being of employees,” she shared.

Likewise, Gurung of Subisu Cable Net, also said motivational sessions during the pandemic have helped a lot in the overall well-being of employees. “We found that such sessions were helpful. So, we have continued the sessions.”

As per HR managers, organizations will be more concerned about the physical and mental well-being of their employees in the post-pandemic times. The hardships faced in the last two years have made many organizations realize that maintaining a good level of physical and mental health is important for the overall productivity of employees.

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