Employee engagement is one of the most important factors that contribute to the success of an organization

Established in 1986, Surya Nepal Private Limited (SNPL) is an Indo-Nepal-UK joint venture with interests in tobacco, confectionery, incense sticks, safety matches, and readymade garments. A subsidiary of ITC Limited, India, SNPL is considered among the largest private sector enterprises and taxpayers in Nepal. 
Like other manufacturing companies operating in Nepal, SNPL has also faced the challenges erected by the Covid-19 pandemic. Debasish Hait is the HR Head of SNPL since September 2015. Before that, he was Unit Head of HR at ITC Limited. 

the HRM talked to Hait about the pandemic›s impacts on human resources management of SNPL and the strategies of the company to face the challenges, among other topics. Excerpts: 

What are the major challenges SNPL faced in people management after the start of the Covid-19 pandemic? What were the responses to address the problems?
No organization in the world had anticipated and was prepared to deal with a situation like the Covid-19 pandemic. The pandemic has had a toll on almost every firm. It has forever impacted the way we work, and organizations are still searching for their footing and adjusting to new ways of working. These abrupt changes in the work environment in terms of remote working and working with limited employees and resources are quite challenging.

One of the most significant challenges that our organization had to deal with was the mental and physical well-being of employees. The sudden changes in the work environment coupled with the chaos and uncertainty all around were undoubtedly stressful. The pandemic has brought employee emotional and physical wellbeing to the forefront.

Similarly, in a manufacturing setup, we also had to deal with managing the remote/ hybrid workplace. Even though the workplace is totally digitalized, transitioning the entire work to a wholly remote environment was not an easy task, given the magnitude of manufacturing activities. Any manufacturing setup requires constant interaction at multiple levels which became the biggest challenge in converting it to a remote setup. All external vendors and clients were transitioning to remote work resulting in a great deal of uncertainty and disruption, and the process was not seamless, leading to challenges in response time.

The uncertainty hit everyone quite hard both professionally and personally. Employees were affected mentally not knowing what the future holds for them and the organizations weren’t ready for such sudden and uncertain changes. Not every organization is designed for agility and can cope with such sudden changes. Therefore it is difficult for the organization to respond quickly and take decisions. We are fortunate because we have the Business Continuity Plan in place which helped us to navigate this pandemic without much difficulty.

Organizations that were proactive during the Covid situation, who were able to excel and quickly adjust to the new reality have done extremely well. Many organizations took proactive steps to build awareness through rigorous communication, drive holistic well-being that caters to physical, mental, and overall wellbeing, ensure a safe and high-hygiene work environment and keep employees engaged and prepared for the new normal in life.

The Covid-19 pandemic is said to have created a shortage of workers for manufacturing companies in Nepal. In your opinion, how are companies in Nepal is dealing with such problems?
The shortage of a skilled workforce in the manufacturing sector has been a perennial problem. The only way the companies can deal with it is to keep a healthy talent pool ready within the organization. Various companies are adopting new ways of doing things, adopting new processes, moving to automated processes to address the skill shortages.

In the long term, industries need to constantly work with technical/vocational skill institutes, universities, and the government to develop institution/industry-specific skill and knowledge-based curricula. This will help to develop skilled resources from various institutes, which are industry-ready. Such a pool can help manufacturing organizations address the issues of skill gap and lack of resources.

How were the staff motivated to continue their work during the times of lockdowns?
Employee engagement is one of the most important factors that contribute to the success of an organization. It not only helps in increasing productivity and improving the quality of work but it creates an emotional connection with the organization. During the times of lockdowns when things were uncertain and physical workplaces were substituted with virtual ones, anxiety and emotional isolation were seen as emerging threats to the employees’ wellbeing.

We had to completely re-strategize engagement plans and introduce new initiatives focusing on employee wellness in terms of physical, mental, emotional, and social wellbeing. The objective of the engagement revolved around creating a supportive environment where the employee feels safe, motivated & engaged during such a pandemic situation.

It was the time to establish a stronger bond and trust between your employees through institutional support and care, recognizing employees, and frequent communication with the workforce remained the key ingredient of employee engagement.

Many organizations went on for job cuts to limit the stress on their financial resources. How do you see this measure?
As organizations of all sizes and industries experienced significant revenue reductions and budget shortfalls, it is obvious for the company to have financial hardship. This also affected companies in Nepal in a significant way which included hiring freezes, layoffs, and pay reduction. These were not in the case with the MNCs. In fact, some organizations invested more than ever during Covid times in training and redesigning their systems to leverage the unique opportunity that the pandemic has provided.

How has SNPL prepared itself for emergencies like the Covid-19 pandemic in the future?
Companies have their business continuity plan in place as the pandemic continued to emerge and rattle the business sentiments. The BCP outlines how a business will continue to operate in the event of an unplanned disruption or emergency in the future too.

The pandemic has tested the ability of organizations to continue their business even during adverse times. I believe an organization’s culture, the resilience of people, commitment to the organizational goal, and their ability to think differently and innovatively are the key to the future of the organization.

How do you view the effectiveness of the response of MNC and private sector organizations operating in Nepal in terms of people management in the last two years of the pandemic? How supportive do you think the government has been in this respect?
Organizations operating in Nepal, particularly MNCs and some private organizations performed admirably. I think they did a good job of managing their employees during times of crisis. Organizations operated in crisis mode for figuring out how employees could work from home and strived to enhance their productivity coupled with agenda of the safety of employees. I believe they focused more than ever on people strategies along with redesigning business operations. During these times, HR of these organizations had also created its position as a strategic partner by navigating people issues and strengthening the people system.
Many good people practices have emerged during these turbulent times which show the resilience, innovation, and adaptability to support business operations. HR was undoubtedly more proactive in making a difference in the lives of the employees by facilitating to set up a comfortable and secure remote workspace that kept them engaged and motivated. The HR management system of these companies has certainly advanced, and this is reflected in how employees were managed during the crisis.

As a senior HR practitioner, what is your reflection of HR management evolution over the years in Nepal? Has the Nepali private sector started giving more priority to human resources management (HRM)?
HRM has obtained a status of importance in the international context. However, in Nepal, we are still very far behind. It is 2022, and there are still many organizations that limit their HR officials to administrative and compliance accountabilities. Even among those who have implemented a more wholesome approach to HR, many use policies and practices that are simply a replication of HR practices employed by foreign organizations. These practices can have little relevance to the Nepali context, and at times end up doing more harm than good.

But there are also companies in Nepal that now consider HR as a business partner where they work closely with senior management to develop a strategic approach to people management. It is important to realize that business strategy can only be successfully implemented, if the structure of an organization, its culture, people processes, reward and recognition systems, policies, and practices are aligned with their business strategy. After all, people are the key source of building a competitive advantage. Businesses which have aligned their HR strategies with Business strategies are able to attract and retain talent leverage their employer brand. Companies in Nepal are also focusing on embracing different HR tools and technology so that they can remove repetitive work and focus more on value-added activities rather than administrative activities.

The evolution has started and companies have started to transform their HR department, it’s an evolving area for many organizations.

What new and emerging trends in HR are changing people management in private sector organizations of Nepal? 
Human resource and people management have been evolving continuously. There have been a lot of changes in the last decade because of workforce diversity, growth in the economy, and the rise of artificial intelligence. Flexibility is no longer some fancy soft benefit that employers used to lure millennial workers under the guise of work-life balance, it’s a need and an expectation post the pandemic, and organizations in Nepal have also accepted this fact. The pandemic has increased the trend of employers playing an expanded role in their employees’ financial, physical and mental well-being.

Before the pandemic, core and critical roles were viewed as roles with critical skills or the capabilities needed by the organization to achieve its strategic objectives. Post-covid, employers are realizing that there is another category of critical roles — roles that are critical to the success of essential workflows. Organizations are slowly transitioning to become responsive organizations by redesigning roles and structures around outcomes to increase agility and flexibility.

Some of the new and emerging HR trends that can be sensed in companies operating in Nepal are:

Work-from-Home (WFH)
Covid-19 has evoked entities to adopt the new working culture which they might have merely imagined. Some organizations are compelled to adopt the work-from-home (WFH) culture due to the global pandemic whereas some organizations are exercising it for employee productivity and flexibility. At the initial phase, WFH was understood as a challenging process but in my opinion, if a company can introduce the right employee productivity management system, this process can turn out to be the best beneficiary approach for company resource management.

E-Learning-Learning Management System (LMS) for Training
Learning and Development is one of the crucial life cycles in any employment journey, however, many organizations yet failed to realize the importance of L&D. The drastic change in the technologies has enlightened HR Personnel to switch the L&D approaches into E-learning culture, easing the administrative process of L&D and enhancing the learning curve of an individual at their convenient schedule.

Automating Routine Tasks (Task Management System)
The classical process of the tasks performed is being replaced and re-engineered with robust emerging new automated AI and ML system that has changed the way things were being performed. Repeated and the manual task is achieved with the help of bots or automated ERP system, and a well-structured task management system assists to ensure the employee productivity up to the mark.

Diversity and Inclusive Workplace 
New emerging entrepreneurs are fully aware of how the right HR strategy would transform the whole business acumen. HRs are being prioritized and involved in top-level business strategies which provide the leverage for HR personnel to develop accurate HR plans that play a significant role in overall people management and development.
It’s truly heartening to see that firms across the world are taking conscious steps towards making the workplace more equal, diverse, and inclusive.

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