It is important for banks to develop an ecosystem that encourages a performance-driven culture

The banking sector is considered more structured and well organized in terms of people management compared to other sectors, and thus people working in this sector are more disciplined and result-oriented. Pankaj Pant is the Head of Human Resource and Remittance Business Unit at Siddhartha Bank Limited. In a conversation with the HRM, Pant talked about Covid-19 disruptions, new challenges in people management and training and development in the banking sector, among other topics. Excerpts: 

How challenging it was for the HR Department of Siddhartha Bank in terms of people management in the last two years of the Covid-19 pandemic? What are the major lessons learned during this period?
The covid-19 pandemic brought both opportunities and challenges in terms of people management. Banking being a necessary service sector, managing work hygiene, business continuity amid lockdowns and safety of staff, and minimizing the rate of Covid-19 infections amongst our staff were major challenges the HR Department had to deal with on regular basis. Every challenge opens new doors of opportunities and the same was realized during these two years of the pandemic as the adversities gave us time to think prudently and act promptly on how uninterrupted service could be offered even at the pick time of the pandemic.

We learned that:

As Siddhartha Bank had been consistently investing in technology and enhancing digital capabilities, despite adversities, we have been able to keep our operations up and running, and there’s been no disruption. Having sound digital infrastructure made us realize and act quickly on the digitization of many banking processes and services that offered us a prudent ecosystem that created the flexibility between working from a conventional physical office to satellite offices where the majority of the work can be done from anywhere without impacting efficiency and standard control protocols. We adopted to work from home policy for many back-office functions and at the same time maintain the desired productivity.

We learned and quickly adopted digital learning and development initiatives and largely executed training using digital platforms like ZOOM and Microsoft teams and imparted to the large pool of homogenous groups quite effectively.

The pandemic helped us to handle crisis management prudently by forming the Business Continuity Committee which would formulate adequate safety protocols on case to case basis, regularly circulate these protocols, and ensure their adherence and maintenance of discipline within the bank. We learned that these proactive measures would help us on controlling the infection rate and manage smooth operations of branches and departments throughout the pandemic.

It was felt that being close to family during emergency situations like pandemic gives moral support to staff and maintains a good work-life balance. Therefore, the bank also resorted to many staff movements and transfers that would allow them to be with their family during these difficult circumstances.

We also observed that the personal touch of the HR team and telehealth counseling to the infected staff by a consultant doctor can also help in taking preventive measures and medications and also maintaining strong mental health at the time of infection.

We also encouraged and made necessary arrangements for the vaccination of all our staff.

Optimization of resources and bringing operational efficiencies at the time of adversities was another big lesson we learned. The human crunch at the time of the pandemic also makes us understand the importance of cross-functional job knowledge and job rotation to maintain a dynamic workforce ready to face work-related challenges.

What changes has the pandemic brought in people management? 
To some extent, the pandemic has changed the structure of the current working module. It forced the world to shift toward remote working modules such as work-from-home from physically working modules. A decent change has been observed in the people management process, such as well-being and health at work, internal communication, training and development, mobility, and recruitment and selection. The recruitment and selection process, as well as training, became online.

Among these processes in which the most significant changes have occurred is that of work and safety. The arrangements for health and safety at work have been fully prioritized, with a focus on implementing contingency plans and measures to ensure workers’ physical safety, increasing specific training for work and safety, and introducing measures to foster workers’ health. Additionally, in terms of the working situation, there have been changes observed with the implementation of rotating shift work, flexible working schedules, work-from-home and teleworking.

What challenges do you anticipate in people management in the coming days?
I think the world has to live with the Covid-19 at least for some more years as the new normal. But it seems the post-Covid times will definitely pose new challenges and adversities.
The pandemic has affected many of us physically and mentally. The HR Department has a critical role to play by providing the right type of counseling and mentoring sessions/programs that help to boost the physical, mental, and spiritual well-being of our staff so that they can adapt to this unknown situation and effectively cope with radical changes occurring in the work and social environment.

In addition, the simultaneous increment in parental demands from the child when schools are not regular has further increased the inability to separate work and private life might further blur lines between work and family spheres. This all has an adverse effect on the performance of the organization as well as on the well-being of the employees. Further, it will be a challenging job to adjust new and current employees to drastically altered work conditions, such as shifting to remote work environments or implementing new workplace policies and procedures to limit human contact. The major challenge will be to deal with the impact of disproportionate work-life balance on the physical and mental health of an employee.

The changes might not be visible or simply notable, the changes we witness in responses to the current health crisis have already begun to worsen the work-life conflict. The days ahead of us are not easy ones and we need to be prepared for every aspect of employees’ well-being ensuring the sustained growth of the organization.

How prepared is the Nepali banking sector in facing those challenges and how prepared is Siddhartha Bank in this respect? 
The Nepali banking sector has gradually adapted to this new normal by embracing and progressing in the technological field. The banking fraternity’s thrust on upgrading the digital infrastructure has been quite apparent in recent days. Gradually, the industry is now prepared in terms of technical infrastructure and health and safety of employees that enables staff for remote working environment with gradual improvisation in the field of work-life balance as well.

Siddhartha Bank is also preparing itself to face those challenges in the coming days. We have implemented some new strategies which we have learned from the first wave of the pandemic and now we are in the process of developing our avenues to be ready for the future. Siddhartha Bank has kept itself abreast with all possible technical and digital avenues which now enables us to provide services to our valued customers without disruption even in case of the worst pandemic spread. Introduction and effective implementation of work from home policy, cross-functional job rotation system, and remote access of digital platforms/ systems with due adherence to safety protocols have leveraged our capacity to work without diluting our regular operations at any point in time. In addition, we have developed and regularly updated workplace safety and staff healthy related protocols and also ensure adequate medical facilities.

Furthermore, regular counseling and mentoring sessions make our workforce ready to embrace any difficulties that the bank may have to face in case of a surge in infections in the future.

To be better equipped to face the adversities, Siddhartha Bank’s BOD and senior management are constantly striving for developing pertinent strategies to cope with the future challenges and manage the workforce along with their physical and socio-psychological aspect. Today, we are preparing for tomorrow, from the lessons learned yesterday.

How do you see the availability of competent HR professionals in the banking sector at present?
At present, the main source of human resources for banks are fresh bachelor’s and MBA graduates for the entry levels which count as the major recruits. These fresh graduates are enthusiasts who need strong learning and mentoring culture to shape them up as per the values of their respective institutions. By availing them right placement and proper learning environment, we can fulfill our HR needs for generic banking functions at entry levels.

In recent times, banks were aggressive in opening branches which had posed challenges in getting competent HR for the specialized jobs like branch managers, operation and credit sales management mainly for lateral hiring for outside valley branches. I feel that competency development is not the only core function of the HR department as learning while working is more important which calls for knowledgeable supervisors who can guide, motivate and groom the team for constant improvement. Harnessing supervisory and mentorship skills among the bank staff is of paramount importance that can in turn develop competent HR professionals in the banking sector. The HR department, therefore, has to play a role in the development of such an ecosystem that promotes mentorship and self-learning initiatives.

How good and agile you’ve found today’s fresh MBAs to be for banking jobs? How sincere are they in terms of learning?
I have personally found MBA freshers able to learn quickly, adapt, and deal with the situation tactfully. They acquire a good source of knowledge and skills while pursuing their degree whereby gaining enterprise knowledge and technical knowhow about the global marketplace as well. Their grasping ability is even better due to the comprehensive learning system which enables them to manage their affairs with the utmost efficiency whilst being affiliated to banking jobs. They do have better developed critical thinking skills and also possess basic financial acumen to be fit for banking.

The MBA freshers are quite enthusiastic to learn and experiment with new things. Moreover, Siddhartha Bank offers an e-learning portal whereby staff can access learning materials related to various functions/departments and be updated with the current issues in the industry. As they need to possess a good understanding of business acumen and general banking, they are profound and keen to be involved in learning new practices in banking; be it digital banking or the latest current affairs.

What areas of the banking industry are facing a scarcity of staff at the moment?
The pandemic has taught us the significance of the digitization of banking jobs and the processes. Tech-based fintech products and services will be the future of banking. The pandemic in a sense was a blessing in disguise which taught us to be accustomed to digital products services and processes within a short span of time.

Many banks have now focused on the digital transformation of their process and workflows which has created ample demand for experienced tech-based HR. At present moment, the scarcest human resources being faced by the banking sector are skilled workforce in the IT and digital fields. The recently announced vacancies within the last 2-3 months in the banking industry are mostly in the areas of ICT which shows the current scenario of highly increased demand for skilled manpower in these fields.

How do you see the situation of staff training in the banking sector in general?
Staff training and development in the banking sector have always been an utmost priority since the early days. With every passing year, the dynamics have changed and the need for more quality programs with much accreditation for the professional growth of the bankers has grown. Learning among the bankers has always been a focus and the dedicated team is constantly focused on providing learning interventions in various forms to upskill and cross-skill the available human resources in every banking institution. Even the regulatory body has regularized the need for investment in employee development which has given us the insight to look over the human resource development interventions in a more comprehensive and organized way.

How much emphasis Siddhartha Bank gives to staff training? How is the bank providing training to its staff? 
Siddhartha Bank has a dedicated Learning and Development Unit responsible for empowering employees ‘growth and developing their knowledge, skills, and capabilities to drive better organizational performance. Based on the unique need of an organization and strategic plan, the L&D team conducts a Training Need Analysis to design a training calendar with a focus on achieving individual as well as organizational goals as a whole.

Various kinds of in-house programs, on-the-job training, instructor-led programs, online certification courses, customized programs, and e-learning platforms are being provided to staff through both physical and online mediums with the sole objective to enhance the learning curve in order to drive the performance.

How helpful has been institutions like the Nepal Banking Institute (NBI) been in terms of upgrading and strengthening the capacity of the banking professionals? 
Institutions like NBI and many other national and international training institutions are coming up with new ideas and techniques to enhance learning among banking professionals. It is really appreciable that we as HR professionals can have easy access to a better platform where we can collaborate with dynamic subject matter expertise to disseminate their knowledge and share their valuable experiences among our staff. These institutions have been helpful in research and development so that the banking professionals are geared up to take up the upcoming challenges and proactively deliver as per the market dynamics and trends.

What needs to be done more for capacity enhancement of bank staff?
HR departments of banks have to play a pivotal role in understanding competency gaps of staff and work on training and development plans for addressing such gaps. Regular surveys and performance appraisal feedback can help HR departments to understand the kind of programs needed for capacity enhancement. Likewise, senior management’s thrust on investment in the training of human capital is equally important. In addition, inculcating a learning mindset for career progression by recognizing knowledge-driven promotion and performance appraisal system may also motivate staff to strive for enhancing their capacity and skill base.

Many bank staff nowadays seem to be worried about hectic work schedules and their work-life balance due to rising business competition in the banking industry. How do you view this?
Every sector has its inherent demands and expectation from its human capital. Well, it is true that the banking job in Nepal is quite demanding and if one wants to be an office-bearer banker, he/she has to be ready to offer a little bit more personal/family time to meet deadlines and targets. The aspiration of achieving a ‘target number’ beyond the comfort zone and increasing market share does have all led to added pressure on the job. However, those who have understood this sector have also quickly accustomed to this working culture and have outshined their performance.

It is always good to stretch beyond the normal expectation as it makes us more productive, dexterous, better time managers, and smart at work. We have witnessed that in every developed economy and better performing organization, the positivity of going the extra mile for self-improvisation and meeting deadlines in a timely fashion has created synergy. Such culture has proven to encourage its human capital to think out of the box and work out of its comfort area. The banking sector at present is influenced by a similar working environment which has helped the country to generate one of the most professional sectors with a relatively competent workforce.

Hence, it is important for banks to develop an ecosystem that encourages performance-driven culture but should also ensure that we can sustainably continue such a deadline-driven environment by striking a good work-life balance as well. After all, we cannot forget the fact that the people who work for us are humans and they have a social life too. Employees are not the only ones who suffer the pangs of an imbalanced work-life balance structure, the employers too suffer, as, any imbalance in the lives of their employees hampers their own productivity, and reduces the efficiency of the organization, and, creates an unhappy work environment for all.
Many banks including Siddhartha Bank, therefore, have acknowledged that and devised schemes and policies that help staff have time for their family and avail creative leisure time for recreation and self-motivation. Paid annual leaves, substitute leaves, flexible working hours, motivational residential training, and overseas observation visits/training are some of the initiatives by banks to address good work-life balance. The balance between work and life isn’t solely about being able to manage their dual responsibilities-at work and at home, it’s about being able to carry out dual roles without stressing over either. The introduction of a shift system, work-from-home and functional job rotation can also help create an equitable distribution of workload among staff.

However, the scope for improvisation always remains in every system and process and it’s an evolving process.

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