Effective recruitment and retention of right people are crucial to our growth and success

Practical Action is present in Nepal since the late 1970s when the organization came to Nepal as Intermediate Technology Development Group (ITDG). The UK-based development charity is active in a number of areas ranging from helping communities to develop appropriate technologies in renewable energy, food production, agro-processing, water, and sanitation to small enterprise development, climate change adaptation, and disaster risk reduction. For a development organization working in diverse areas, efficient people management is crul. 

In an interview with the HRM, Prajana Waiba Pradhan, Head of People and Culture – South Asia & Global People and Culture Manager – International Operations of Practical Action talks about the practices the organization adheres to in managing people to achieve organizational objectives and challenges in people management, among other topics. Excerpts: 

How have these years been for Practical Action Nepal in helping communities across the country in different areas ranging from economic empowerment to disaster risk reduction?
Practical Action started with a lowkey presence through technical assistance from 1979 with Agriculture Development Bank and the National Trust for Nature Conservation (then KMTNC) on micro-hydro technology. We also contributed to the establishment of the Alternate Energy Promotion Centre (AEPC) through engagement and lobbying with the National Planning Commission.

Practical Action’s major contribution has been in the establishment of Gravity Goods Ropeway and improved Tuins (hand-powered ariel lifts) which supported more students to enroll in schools and helped in the mobility of women when there were no pedestrian bridges.

Our USP lies in the clean energy sector where we have previously contributed to water, wind and solar energy and are currently promoting innovations in electric cooking together with productive end use to make sure that energy transforms, for example, helping women to grow as agribusiness entrepreneurs with the availability of energy.

We have also been a pioneer for early warning systems (EWS) in Nepal with an evolutionary approach starting from visual-based EWS to telemetric, and now on forecasting models. We have been supporting the government to make sure that they drive the process which is required for policy improvement for bigger systemic changes to create a bigger impact in reducing the loss of lives and assets.

Practical Action has been supporting innovative ideas to make the agriculture value chain stronger through the development of market systems and regenerative agriculture with more environment-friendly approaches.

We have also been involved in innovative approaches in WASH while working for the social recognition and protection of informal waste workers. Our work on waste to energy, solar water lifting, and innovative water-efficient agriculture techniques in the Karnali region has helped poor farmers grow off-season vegetables and provided them with market access.

What role people management in Practical Action Nepal has played in terms of achieving the organizational objectives?
Our vision is for a world that works better for everyone and to achieve the change ambitions we have put in place some enabling objectives, of which one is people. We have a culture of effective recruitment, communication, feedback, engagement, and trust that inspires, supports, and empowers our people to contribute to individual and team strategic objectives which ultimately facilitates achieving organizational objectives. The people management process starts from our robust pre-employment screening checks that are conducted as part of the recruitment process to support our commitment to safeguarding and safer recruitment practices. We also believe that having a diverse workforce and inclusive workplace culture based on respect will enable us to be an effective organization. The learning and development of each employee are supported by line managers and are planned through the global learning and development hub and development plans.
We also look at “performance appraisals” differently from the traditional appraisal which is normally a once-a-year activity. We adopt an approach of ongoing feedback and dialogue, and our Be Your Best Platform is a tool for managers to help shape these conversations and set objectives that are dynamic and responsive to change. This continuous cycle isn’t about micro-managing but enabling employees to grow and develop professionally through setting quality objectives, gaining new work and learning opportunities, and receiving feedback in the right way.

What key objectives Practical Action Nepal follows in people management?
We are a globally connected and integrated organization and we strive to be agile and responsive to change. We value and nurture the skills and knowledge of our people in support of our strategy. We encourage all leaders to lead by example. We also support the wellness of our people and embrace diversity, equity and inclusion. We value the differences that a diverse workforce brings and seek to build a culture of meritocracy, openness, fairness and transparency where we benefit from a variety of viewpoints and perspectives.

We aim to create a work environment in which all individuals are able to make the best use of their skills, free from discrimination or harassment and with consideration of any disability. We recognize that promoting equal opportunities may involve adjustments being made to the working environment or other employment arrangements e.g. for people with disabilities or to enable women and men to progress within the organization.

How are learning and development programs conducted in Practical Action Nepal to enhance the skills of staff and boost their efficiency?
Learning is the practice of improvement and change. Practical Action believes in the organization’s growth model to capacitate its staff. We have adopted the 70-20-10 principle of learning and development where 70% of learning is achieved through a more challenging job and developmental tasks in the current job which means development would be from on-the-job experience. 20% includes role models, coaching, mentoring and regular feedback. 10% includes courses, training, readings and personal learning. Staffs are provided with learning and development opportunities right from the induction process for new staff. We also conduct internal group initiatives on leadership and management development, secondments, workshops/seminars and exposure visits. The Global Learning and Development (L&D) team also supports our teams by providing L&D input to people and culture strategy and initiatives, L&D guidance and resources for teams and L&D expertise to relevant organization-wide strategic objectives.

What challenges are there for your organization in people management? How are you facing the challenges?
It is important to remember that no matter how many good policies you have in the organization, people management will vary from employee to employee as it is very much related to the people skills of the manager. Some challenges include working with diverse individuals and understanding perspectives in a team, balancing between delegating and micromanaging. Sometimes, it is also a challenge to do more with less especially when funding is scarce. Talent acquisition and retention also become challenging at times when we are not able to attract or retain the best.

We provide more support to managers with respect to people management through specialized in-house support for manager training that the UK office conducts. Very soon our e-learning course on the same is also being rolled out. However, we encourage every manager to talk to their respective line manager for support and the People and Culture team for assistance. Coaching and mentoring is an option that has also worked well in the global setting where people learn from each other around the global offices.

The last two and a half years after the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic were very difficult for development sector organizations. How was this period for Practical Action Nepal?
Like the rest of the organizations, it was difficult for us as well. However, we tried to manage our work in the communities with safety standards and the team’s relentless hard work in the field offices. We also realized that a lot could be done working remotely but also understood that organizations like ours that work with and for the community need to be physically present in the community to demonstrate impact.

We prioritized the wellbeing of our employees throughout the pandemic. We managed to put in place a COVID Contingency plan for the country office and had regular online check-ins with our staff. A global employee assistance program was also set up by the UK office. We introduced special leaves for those that were infected with the virus. COVID insurance for all staff was put in place and various means of online wellbeing classes like yoga and meditation were also conducted.

What changes in people management has the pandemic brought into the development sector? 
The development sector has always been a forerunner in terms of staff wellbeing, and it occurs to me that the pandemic has enhanced it more. Many organizations have now opted for flexible timing and agile work provisions. To date, some organizations have a hybrid work provision where staff can come to the office only on certain days of the week or when they have to attend a meeting in person. Diversity and inclusion of the workforce have also been boosted in human resource planning and planning of activities in the projects. Staff wellbeing has been at the top of priorities for organizations while investment in new technology has also grown.

The job market was affected by the pandemic, and it also hit the development sector. While many refrained from leaving their stable jobs for better opportunities, some lost theirs due to funding cuts. As the pandemic hit all the sectors including but not limited to education, agriculture, tourism and health, all development activities related to the same were also affected.

How is Practical Action Nepal responding to these changes?
Some of the changes have been challenging but I must say that we have become more agile and responsive to change. We have become adaptable and flexible in terms of responding to the relevant environment. We have also learned a lot and developed a culture of trust. While work-from-home arrangements existed before the pandemic, it was not something that one would use unless it was an absolute necessity. These days caregiving responsibilities are also acknowledged in our everyday work to work from home. While it was difficult to manage separate COVID insurance after the Government announced one was withdrawn, we managed to procure insurance for our staff and dependents for a year. The job market remains fairly dynamic to date, and we still struggle to find the right talent for some specific job roles.

How different is people management in the development sector from other sectors?
I think, there isn’t much difference in how we practice people management from other sectors as the crux is the same. From acquiring talent to retaining them, we all use the same strategies that involve motivation, wellbeing, and acknowledgment. The culture of the development sector however is quite different which makes people management a bit more consultative and a learning pathway for both the employee and the manager. I somehow consider the development sector to be more open to new perspectives and keep learning as the key agenda for people management.

How do you see the availability of human resources in the sector at present? How is Practical Action Nepal fulfilling its workforce needs?
The job market keeps fluctuating. However, I have noticed a distinct change pre and post-pandemic. Earlier the availability of human resources was quite plentiful if you had the right offer for them. Post-pandemic, it has been a challenge to attract the right talent. I could sense a hesitation for many to join a new organization when compared to their current organization that had retained them even during the pandemic. On the other hand, there were also human resources who were actively seeking a job due to job losses during the pandemic. We can see the number of open job vacancies but unfortunately, it has been a challenge in recruiting the right talent for those positions.

The market also depends on which type of talent we are trying to acquire. For example, the field of business development has been very parched. The development sector has been struggling to find the right talent in the past few years. In some cases where we could afford it, we plan to hire human resources and groom them to build capacity through the growth model with a commitment to focus and support people’s professional growth to develop valuable organizational capabilities. Our growth model requires a shift in our focus and activity whereby we provide structured support for lateral & seniority progression.

What specific set of skills your organization seeks while recruiting employees?
Practical Action recognizes that the effective recruitment and retention of the right people are crucial to our growth and success. Skill sets vary as per different job descriptions. We have six practical behaviors that we expect people to model and demonstrate. We believe these behaviors represent our values and principles. The most important practical behaviors, for role success, are Completing, Collaborative, Creative and Dynamic. In addition, we expect staff to demonstrate honesty and ethics; promote an environment where people with whom we work, feel able to raise any concerns; comply with the rules and procedures; treat others with dignity and respect regardless of any personal characteristic; maintain and promote a safe and secure working environment and mindfully reduce the impact of your work on the environment.

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