“Every organization must have a business continuity plan to face a situation like the Covid-19 pandemic”

Roshan Koirala is the Chief Human Resource Officer at Nabil Bank, one of the largest commercial banks of Nepal. The HRM talked with Koirala on the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on HR management, lessons learned from the crisis and new HR practices in the banking sector. Excerpts:


What changes in HR management the Covid-19 pandemic has brought in Nepal’s banking sector? 
The Covid-19 pandemic disrupted activities of organizations and forced the leaders to think differently for survival and then the growth of the business as the whole world was adjusting to social distancing practices and a new work environment that we had never ever imagined. Being providers of essential services, banks were required to remain active for services when fears about the coronavirus were overblown. Making employees ready to provide services to customers was itself a difficult task when the first lockdown was announced. Emotional and psychological support to employees were of utmost importance. Flexible working hours and work-from-home (WFH) modalities were uncommon in the banking sector before the pandemic become a new normal.

The pandemic has opened the doors to options such as remote working and assembling of virtual teams and we developed new HR practices accordingly. Employees’ wellbeing, working conditions, rigorous protection measure in physical presence has become a major area of concern. Besides playing a crucial role in managing the Covid-19 response at an organizational level, HR has been the driving force in keeping the workforce and organization engaged, productive and resilient.

What opportunities in HR management have emerged during this crisis? What challenges banks might face in managing their human resources going forward? 
The lesson of the pandemic to all organizations is to be resilient, agile, and sustainable. There is an opportunity to redefine work, workplace, and workforce. As banks have invested huge amounts in their IT infrastructure and cyber security to allow staff to work from home, you do not need to be in a physical office to perform those jobs which do not require face-to-face contact with customers.

American author Thomas Friedman has observed that “What’s going on is that work is being disconnected from jobs, and jobs and work are being disconnected from companies, which are increasingly becoming platforms.” We all can observe that the growth of platforms markets was phenomenal during the pandemic. Now you can get your job done from anywhere and the talents available in Nepal are now also available globally. Rapid reskilling and upskilling of employees and managing virtual teams were major achievements during the crisis.

The pandemic caught organizations of every sector off-guard across the world. How Nabil Bank faced HR-related disruptions and disturbances in the beginning? How has the bank managed the disturbances in the past one and a half years?
You have rightly said that the pandemic caught the world off guard. When the coronavirus outbreak hit China, most of us thought that the virus will not come to our country. But when cases appeared here, we were adequately prepared. None of us knew the behavior of the virus. The only things we knew were casualties caused by the virus and there was a huge fear factor amongst ourselves.

Employees were not willing to go to work, family members were not ready to let their loved ones get exposed to other people, and so on. Getting back the confidence of employees was the challenge. We conducted webinars for experts on Covid-19, safety measures, and extensively communicated dos and don’ts about Covid-19. When we had the first lockdown, our bank assured it’s all employees that it will take care of employees in case they are tested positive. Personal Protective Equipment (PPEs) to customer-facing employees and face masks to all the employees were provided. Face masks were not easily available at that time. Office premises were regularly disinfected. These initiatives increased the comfort level of the employees and give them the confidence to work in uncertainty and the bank was able to post good business growth as well.

Right before the first lockdown, considering the possibility of the spread of coronavirus in the country, Nabil Bank had formed a high-level committee to oversee the Covid situation in the bank and its impact on the employees. General awareness about Covid-19, precautionary measures to be exercised by staff, program on physical and mental wellbeing with pranayama, etc were massively organized. Employees who were reluctant to join the office initially, were eager to join the office despite the number of employees with physical presence was restricted by local government. Despite around one-third of staff being tested positive so far in the bank, our bank has been able to provide uninterrupted services to the customers due to the support of all the employees.

How difficult it was for you and others in your team to get things right during the crisis? What are the major lessons learned?
Every organization must have a business continuity plan to face a situation like the Covid-19 pandemic. But continuing business in this type of situation was very challenging. Coping with stress, fear, and worry itself was challenging for all. There were things that you can control and things that you cannot. Despite exercising adequate precautionary measures, employees were getting tested positive. We focused on things that we can control such as regularly disseminating covid awareness messages, covering employees under Covid-19 insurance, issuing travel advisory & health advisory frequently, getting employees’ health status daily, and providing medical and emotional counseling services to employees testing positive. During the first lockdown period, the bank provided cash incentives to all the employees attending the office in lockdown period. All these activities made all of us ready to face the difficult situation.

When an organization becomes empathetic, all its employees reciprocate the same. Employees who were tested were entitled to Covid leave in case of testing positive, also were involved in office work voluntarily during their quarantine period. Another major lesson is that we have the capacity for resilience. Transition in this difficult period was possible due to communication thus organizations should have an effective communication system and should invest in internal communication platforms for virtual meetings and virtual networking and investment made on technology pays off. The work is anywhere now. The human dimension while dealing in this pandemic contributes to organizational success and finally, individual and social wellbeing is instrumental to cope with any undesired situation.

New practices such as remote working emerged as the new normal in the corporate world. Is this an indicator of the things to come in the future? 
The pandemic has made many of us more tech-savvy. As schools and colleges had virtual classes, employees had to work-from-home during the lockdown which has opened opportunities for remote working. However, most organizations are still not fully ready for remote working. In order to allow remote working in the banking industry, a significant amount has to be spent on IT infrastructure and IT security to make remote working fully functional. During the work-from-home period during the lockdown, I personally used to miss lunch with my colleagues and the human element of the office. Many of the things we did under duress in lockdown will become normal going forward. What I believe is that working from home won’t be obligatory, neither will be going to an office.

There might be a transition to the hybrid working module with increasingly flexible arrangements that allow employees and employers to benefit from the hybrid module. With the increasing reach of broadband and stable electricity connection, remote working is sure to come into practice in our country within a couple of years in many sectors.

Was the productivity of staff affected by the work-from-home modality?
Due to IT infrastructure and cyber security concerns, there were issues with employee productivity while working from home initially. However, banks immediately invested to enable work-from-home for their employees. Some organizations might have a remote-work policy, but, as you can imagine, it was not designed to handle a situation where everybody would work remotely, nonetheless employees gradually became accustomed to remote working. It took some time to develop a fully functional ecosystem and the impact on productivity is a common issue during the transition phase. we have observed that some of the functions in the remote working setup performed better than in physical working environments. I think that research on Nepali organizations on the effectiveness of work from home modality is yet to be done. However, several studies in other countries have shown that productivity while working remotely from home is better than working in an office setting. On average, those who work from home spend 10 minutes less a day being unproductive, work one more day a week, and are 47% more productive.

The Covid-19 outbreak pushed all corporate institutions to focus on their digital transformation efforts be it in business or their organizational management. Even before the pandemic, Nabil’s digital adoption was considered stronger than other banks in the country. What are the major changes or strategies that Nabil adopted in last one and a half years in digital transformation in terms of work culture, office management and HR management?

Nabil is the first Bank in Nepal to provide a computerized and modern banking experience to customers. The Bank established “Nabil Digibank” on its 36th Anniversary (July 12, 2020). Nabil Digi Bank, a bank within a bank, has been set up to transform the bank into a fully digital bank and we aim to meet the need and expectations of customers to enjoy banking services at the time, place, and device chosen by them. The establishment of Nabil Digi Bank was a reflection of the bank’s commitment to its mission to provide complete financial solutions to the Nepali market with a singular focus on customer needs and aspirations while creating the best-in-class customer experiences.

We have already started our business transformation process with a comprehensive digital strategy at the core with an aim to develop the bank’s ability to use digital solutions to touch the lives of all its customers. This will eventually lead to the transformation of the bank’s culture towards digital orientation and will have an impact on HR practices as well. Once the operating modules got changed, you need people with different skill sets and talent and the role of HR is instrumental in reskilling our staff in the digital environment.

Health safety of staffs and safe working environment is likely to remain as the biggest concern even the coronavirus threat is receding. How has Nabil managed in this area? What are your priorities in ensuring the well-being of staffs and helping them achieve a good level of work-life balance during these critical times?
The pandemic has caused many people to work from home, causing the lines between work and home to blur. Work-life balance is essential for physical and mental health and long-term success. In order to address the well-being of staff, Bank is very concerned with the health and safety of staff as well as customers and has been taking necessary measures. Similarly, we encourage staff to have work-life balance, and leaves are also designed accordingly. Bank collects every employees’ health information daily and based on the report, support is being provided to staff. We foster a healthy work environment to achieve the organizational goals maintaining a good level of work-life balance.

With Nepal adopting the federal structure, banks and financial institutions have also changed according to the new governance setup. How have the HR departments of banks like Nabil adapted to the new scenario? 
After the country adopted the federal structure, we were the first bank to set up provincial offices. The central bank later made it mandatory for banks to have provincial offices. All branches within the province are being taken care of by Province Heads and this mechanism has impacted positively. In order to have efficiency, expertise, and uniformity, some of the functions are handled centrally. However, we have been continuously strengthening province offices.

You have been an HR professional for a long time. What are your observations on the changes that have occurred in the HR landscape in Nepal’s banking and corporate fraternity over the years?
The role of HR is continuously changing in Nepali banks and the corporate sector. HR which was considered as a support function till some years ago has now become more strategic and aligned with the business objective. Banks and corporates in Nepal have been developing and deploying best practices and strategies in human resource management. If you observe the number of HR professionals, the number is continuously increasing. You find many MBA graduates specializing in HR in different business schools. This reflects an attraction toward proper human resource management by the organization. Further HR importance is for having HR practices to maximize values and minimize cost and there is not fit for all formula. The best techniques today may not be the best technique tomorrow. Best practices for one company may not be suitable for another company.

The banking industry is highly competitive and achieving healthy growth is not easy as imagined. This would be possible if a team works together and transforms itself into a new team. Fast-moving and complex world of new techniques and skills has forced many organizations to consider it and adjust themselves to the changing banking environment. The leaderships of the organizations have now realized that the best weapon with them is their employees who are instrumental in organizational turnaround by having best HR practices.

What are the most challenging parts of talent acquisition in the context of Nepal?
When we talk about talent acquisition, it depends upon organization to organization based on their policy. An organization developing a talent management program has initially to make two policy decisions. The first decision is whether to adopt a ‘talent on demand’ policy. The second policy decision is on who should be included in a talent management program. The choice is between an exclusive (talented people are the high flyers in an organization) and an inclusive (everyone is talented) approach. Based on their policies, organizations have their talent acquisition initiatives. In our context, talent acquisition is difficult as there are very few organizations that are able to create pool of talents required for them. Further, suitability/ performance of talent could be an issue as there will be a different context in new organizations.

What advice would you like to give to people who are looking to start careers in HR management?
Working in HR gives you very good experience to look outside word. Job in HR is very challenging and invites extra commitment. HR has a wide variety of jobs from recruitment to separation activities employee besides your role in the strategic level. You will be the one to implement and drive change in the organization. If you want to join any organization in HR, you must know the organization and business modules for effective HR management. You need to carry out your role which depends on the context in which you work (the size and culture of the organization, the types of activities it carries out, and the requirements of senior management), their skills and disposition, and importantly, the values you adopt.

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