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Reinventing HR in the new normal

The sudden rise of the COVID-19 pandemic was a shock to everyone. The world was placed under lockdown overnight. Children could not go to school and adults could not step out for work. Companies had to respond quickly to ensure business continuity.

While many gaps were exposed, it also proved to be a great learning opportunity and provided a chance to reimagine the future of work.

“The pandemic has changed work and workplaces faster than any of us would have ever predicted, but it's also given companies the chance to refresh their HR strategies for the 21st century,” explained Samad Masood, head of Europe for the Infosys Knowledge Institute.

Masood moderated a panel discussion in November 2020 that examined how HR leaders are managing the challenges that remote working brings and how human resources strategies are changing — often for the better.

The panel discussion — which can be viewed here — included leading practitioners in education, utilities, pharmaceuticals, and consumer products companies along with Dinesh Rao, an executive vice president who leads Infosys’ enterprise application services.

Initial response to the “shock”


The San Francisco Unified School District, a public school district in California, has more than 57,000 students, 5,000 teachers and around 2,000 support staff. They followed the same processes for eons. When things came to a sudden halt with the lockdown, they had to quickly work out how each would function in this new scenario.

Teachers, who had not worked much with technology, needed to learn the technical aspects. Next they had to determine how remote schooling would function. And most importantly they had to come up with innovative ways to engage students remotely. The curriculum instruction department had to contemplate how to deliver professional development to teachers.

“Our commodity is people and relationship building with people. And when we were torn apart, we had to figure out how do you build those relationships remotely,” said Sandy Maynard, executive director of enterprise systems for the San Francisco district.

They took it as an opportunity to make changes that were long overdue. Silos were broken down, and people from different groups came together to deliver a new way of learning.

As Maynard says, the “education system is at a watershed moment in history.” Many positives emerged as learning moved from classrooms to the living rooms of homes. “Transparency will probably be one of the best things that a school district has experienced”, she added. As learning moved from classrooms to living rooms, teachers could count on parents for help and parents could see what teachers were doing. Parents could play a more active role in the learning process.


Welsh Water is an essential utility that has to provide 24/7 customer service. Their digital services grew by 400% in certain areas as a result of the pandemic, and their customers had greater expectations of service from their utility providers.

Fortunately, they had the essential facilities for business continuity when the pandemic started. “We just happened to be going live with a new telephony system, which meant that we could transfer all of our contact center operations to be working from home,” said Samantha James, Welsh Water’s managing director of household customer services.

There were many teething problems, but challenging times also sparked innovative ideas. Desktop computers were quickly modified to enable remote connections. Collaboration tools, which generally take months to be rolled out, were adopted in a matter of days.

In the last few months, Welsh Water has transformed the way employees work. “Now we can get all of our company, North, South, East, or West Wales working together. It's a much more efficient way of working for us,” said James. But she also stressed that there are many concerns that they are trying to address. Work hours are extending and there is fatigue from constantly looking at screens.


BioMarin develops and manufactures therapeutics for people with serious medical needs. So, they had to ensure that their production pipeline stayed open when the pandemic hit.

Everyone was forced to work from home for safety. But this hindered research and development projects as staff could not carry out experiments that required physical contact. In response, the organization had to swiftly put together a reservation system to get people to offices for at least a few hours a week. They put processes in place to ensure that few people were there in the lab at a time and safety measures were followed. This also prompted them to come up with alternate ways to maintain productivity.

“The pandemic forced us to think differently about work and come up with alternatives to maintain productivity,” said James Brandt, a vice president and head of total rewards at BioMarin.

IT Services

Productivity is central to a consulting and services company’s business model. Therefore, the most important task for Infosys was to enable its employees to work from home and also ensure their wellbeing. It was also critical to quickly ensure information security and data protection of its clients.

Infosys reinvented a lot of things that earlier needed to be done in-person. Training and package implementations were successfully done remotely. Projects which had always been done on-site, were seamlessly completed remotely. Employee productivity increased compared to earlier times, and customers were extremely happy.

At Infosys, we came out extremely well in terms of productivity and quality of service. Also, in our recently concluded client value survey, customers have expressed extremely high satisfaction.

Consumer Packaged Goods

Culture and wellbeing was central to the response of leading tobacco company Philip Morris International. “The real appetite was to speed up and really put some security around the way that our employees were feeling,” said Andrew Hall, Head of people and organisation enablement operations at Philip Morris International.

An important first action that the company made was to communicate clearly to colleagues that their jobs were protected during the pandemic. On top of this, Philip Morris made a commitment to reward people who went above and beyond their normal work during the pandemic and put restrictions on big restructuring programs. According to Hall, this initial response — combined with the strong culture of the organization — was central to its ability to ensure that employees have retained a positive and productive outlook.

Employee engagement in remote working environment

As the new world of remote working has set in, it has been important for all the organizations on the panel to ensure that teams continue to work well together. Collaboration tools have played a crucial role.

The way meetings are conducted have changed. Companies are trying to put together best practices to ensure maximum effectiveness. Meetings with smaller groups are encouraged in order to ensure everyone participates in the discussion. Employees are being coached on the best ways to conduct meetings.

For instance, Samantha James said that at Welsh Water, “the length of meeting is no longer the default one hour. It’s now 50 minutes or 25 minutes for shorter meetings. There is a meeting free time between noon and 1 p.m. This makes sure that people get some breathing space.”

Working from home has also resulted in extended business hours, eating into the personal time of employees. The companies on the panel have also been encouraging employees to take regular breaks to refresh themselves and spend time with family. Counselling and psychological support is also being made available.

Organizations are making every effort to enhance the quality of work and employee comfort. They are taking conscious steps for regular engagement, creating the right incentive structures and putting together the right career development plans to help foster growth.

“We're trying to come up with a tool set that can help managers be successful,” Brandt said. This tool nudges managers to have more on-on-one conversations with their team members and also receive regular feedback.

Infosys conducts regular surveys to understand the pulse of its employees. It has also come up with four specific codes to guide managers for engaging with their teams. The four Cs are: connect, collaborate, celebrate, and care.

At the onset of the pandemic, Philip Morris started using a net promotor score to understand how people felt to be employed with Philip Morris and how they were engaging with key processes. With vital employment continuity practices and inherent resilience, Philip Morris saw an increase in employee engagement scores throughout the pandemic.

Future challenges and changes

Going forward, one of the biggest changes in work culture will be that people will no longer be tied to geography. This provides an opportunity to tap the best human potential, without being constrained by locations and boundaries.

This will completely change the way hiring is done. People no longer need to live in the same area as the company. Now people can hire from regions with lower costs of living.

“We have a large portion of our population in the Bay area, which is one of the most expensive labor markets in the U.S. and around the world,” Brandt said. “So it is challenging. Now we feel we can hire people in different places and still be effective.”

Maynard, who works with schools in San Francisco, echoed the thought. Schools have never been able to match the salaries that technology companies pay in Bay area. So they always had very few takers for the jobs. “Now we can bring in people living anywhere. Their benefit is that we might pay the wage for San Francisco, and they might live in a place where the cost of living is less.”

On the other hand, remote working can stifle creativity and co-creation as it reduces the employee bonding over lunches and informal discussions. The challenge is how to connect remote workers. Employers also have to assess the impact on performance management, on leadership development, on retention and engagement. “The big challenge for us then is to figure out how we carry that through and maintain productivity and effectiveness as we adapt to the way people are telling us they want to work,” said Brandt.

It also raises regulatory issues. As Hall said, “a person based in Poland might have gone back to Portugal during the pandemic and worked from there. This might be acceptable during the pandemic, but once we come out of this, what will the regulations be and what will the policies need to look like in these situations?”

Philip Morris created its “smart work” initiative, which gives employees the power to decide their future working pattern. They could continue to work from home if it suits them or could go to office on some days if required.

“Now people have become accustomed to new ways of working,” Hall said. “In many cases, they are starting to fit their work around their lives, as opposed to the converse before pandemic. As leaders, we have to react to that.”

Balancing resilience and Agility

One of the biggest lessons is that sometimes the unexpected can actually come true. It’s fair to say all organizations that have managed to survive through 2020 are now better prepared to handle such shocks in the future. They now have stronger business continuity plans in place.

“Into the second wave now, I feel we are in a comfortable position with all the appropriate controls and checks in place,” Hall said. “And most importantly, we are prepared with the answers to those ‘what if’ scenarios that only happen once in a generation.”

But while businesses may be more resilient to shocks, they also have to ensure that flexibility and agility remain a strong part of their future work practices, particularly when dealing with their employees.

As remote working becomes the new normal, companies will have to continue to build new policies to foster employee development, efficiency, productivity, and accountability.

“I think what will be interesting though is now people have potentially gotten used to being at home,” Hall said. “How do we encourage them to go back into the workplace to benefit from some of the things? How have people's lifestyles adjusted to working from home, and how will they be impacted by a return to work?”

Though people have started weaving their lives around working from home, they still yearn to mingle with their colleagues in person. Digital technology cannot fill that void. As the light at the end of the COVID tunnel begins to appear, companies need to plan how to bring back people to the office while retaining some benefits achieved from working remotely.