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COVID 19 crisis in India- What can we learn from the great workplaces?

If you are a CEO of a company this is your time. People may not remember your predecessors, but they will never forget you!

What were you doing or not doing when your company was hit by the COVID 19 induced Tsunami? This will be a question that will follow you for the rest of your life.

Trust, Pride and Camaraderie are the three pillars of a great place to work. Never have they been more relevant than today. The good news is that principles that build a great workplace work in any kind of organization – commercial, public sectors, NGOs, even socio-religious organizations.

Indeed, they should work for a country too. Read this article if you are leading a company. Also read this article if you are inspired to do something for the country.

If you were running India, what could you learn from the experience of the best workplaces?

1. Credibility of our leaders – people follow leaders who are credible

Effective communication is the key to credibility. Some of the practices that can be used effectively for building credibility of our leaders are as follows:

Each elected representative should have his communication budget, supported by a communication infrastructure. Starting with MPs, the government and private television channels should give a fixed “air-time” to the MP & the District Commissioner to address each constituency. The Prime Minister, council of ministers, leader of opposition, and the opposition shadow cabinet (make it, if it is not there!) should conduct webinars twice a week to share updates on the evolving situation and key actions. Key messages should then be transmitted by each party to millions of their members, so that each member is able to communicate  with people around them  by phone.

Communication is more than just talking and listening. Elected representatives must learn from role models like the Prime Minister on how to change behaviours of people through effective communication.

For this to happen, people in power must recognise and encourage those in other parties who are doing a good job. For example, Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan has been giving a press conference every day at 7 pm to update and educate the state’s citizens.

If there is one thing that best workplaces know how to do, it is communicate in times of trouble. Communication that is transparent, focusses on one audacious goal, create hope, and above all, unite all.

2. Respect for the ordinary citizen – citizen’s perception of respect with which they are treated by their government

Respect is not about trying to generate false pride by massaging the ego of people, appealing to their narrow sense of identity or giving false platitudes. When citizens feel that their government respects them, they are more likely to cooperate with the government in ensuring that the crisis is faced with their active participation.

Respect is enhanced when people experience the following:

a. Support:

Hundreds of our countrymen (and women), experienced it when we flew them back to our country in chartered flights. Right now, the best workplaces are looking at all options to support their people- protecting jobs, paying salaries in advance, increasing paid leave, giving work-from-home support, increasing wellness measures like counselling, getting in touch with families.

The best workplaces are taking actions daily. Why? The answer is their phenomenal communication channels which tell them what is happening with their people daily. They do not have to depend on external television channels to tell them what is happening. They are in touch with the ground realities. Their people are not scared to tell them if things are not going as planned. Their senior managers know that the CEO cannot be shielded from bottom up feedback.

b. Collaboration:

The management of the best workplaces know that regardless of how proactive they are in taking decisions and making announcements, in times of crisis they need voluntary collaboration of all their people, commitment to common goals and sacrifice, without any short-term benefits like variable pay!

For example, India is the global leader in Information Technology. Our IT companies or the industry association NASSCOM can easily create Apps like  Singapore’s community-driven contact tracing app “Trace Together”. This App reduces dependence on memory and identifies people who have been in close proximity within two meters for at least 30 minutes.

What is the collaboration that exists between the government and various groups within the country?  If legitimate bodies like industry associations, consumer associations, trade unions and others are involved, it is easier to receive feedback on the effectiveness of the emergency measures being announced.

The CEOs of the best workplaces know that the biggest driver of collaboration are their people managers, that is, line managers who have teams reporting to them. One of the biggest levers that these CEOs use is Appreciation.

Appreciation for role modelling right behaviours is another way of expressing respect. There are 720 districts in India, each being led by one District Commissioner. Who are the best performing DCs? How do I make the performance of each district transparent in the COVID dashboard( https://www.mygov.in/covid-19/)?

c. Caring:

The rich, including our rulers, had no interest in public healthcare since they and their family members could always go to expensive private healthcare facilities, or go abroad for treatment.

Until now.

COVID 19 is a great leveller. For the first time, we have an ailment, which has become a global pandemic, that does not distinguish between the rulers and the ruled, the rich and the poor, majority and minority! Whether it is a Prince or Princess, Prime Minister or Superstar, COVID 19 does not distinguish.

This is the time to tackle public health on an emergency basis. We are at the bottom of any list in human development, often beaten by neighbours like Bangladesh and sub Saharan countries who are known as failed countries. Our under five years mortality rate is 3 times more than China, maternal mortality rate is 10 times more than China, and per capita expenditure on health is one fourth that of China.

Private Sector players like Reliance and L&T and many others can help create the necessary infrastructure and environment. We eradicated smallpox and polio. This crisis is too good an opportunity to lose. If we use the sense of urgency induced by COVID 19, we can provide affordable healthcare for all.

3. Fairness – citizen’s perception of getting a fair deal

Citizens are far more likely to collaborate in case the State and its arms treat them equally, with impartiality, and they are confident that they will get justice if they appeal.

a. Equity: We now have special quarantined wards in high end private hospitals and even five-star hotels available for those who can pay for luxury quarantine. Contrast that with the plight of migrant workers forced to walk hundreds of kilometres with no food or drinking water.

Even in the best workplaces, people are not equal. The CEO gets a salary far higher than the median salary. Equity does not mean equality. It simply means creating a level playing field. Anand Mahindra can afford to donate one year’s salary for COVID care. Most of his employees cannot. Mahindra is one of the best workplaces, so we can predict their moves fairly accurately. When the current situation prolongs, their senior management will take pay cuts, before ordinary employees are impacted. All employees will take pay cuts before jobs are lost. Layoffs will be the last resort.  We do not need to ask them to know that right now, they are taking many steps outlined in this article.

As in the case of our treatment of the poor, our government machinery merely reflects this all-pervasive mindset of inequity. Is this not the right time for our elected representatives to pull back on some of their perquisites, like Anand Mahindra?

Regardless of the rather critical assessment above, we have two more levers that are available.

4. Our sense of national pride

It is common to see groups of Non-Resident Indians or people of Indian origin cheering for the Indian cricket team outside India. Similarly, Indians  feel a huge amount of pride whenever anyone of Indian origin achieves something. The Governments of UK, Canada and many other countries are run by people of Indian descent. Many of the global multinationals are led by non-resident Indians.

No generation in post-Independent India has been able to stand up to the world the way the current generation has been able to. Gone are the days when India was a “retirement posting” for expatriates in multinational companies. Today’s generation of Indians is neither apologetic nor does it have a chip on its shoulder. It is not willing to be second to anyone. And it doesn’t have to be aggressive to prove a point. That point has been proved. Any global list of who’s who in any area will throw up several Indians. India today is confident.

A great workplace will turn an adversity of this magnitude as a great opportunity to get everyone in the Organization focussed on one superordinate goal – not just overcoming the clear and present danger, but no less than transforming the Organization.

While the primary task is controlling the spread of COVID 19 and protecting the life of citizens, particularly the poor, this is the time to unfold a transformation road map for India. From Swach Bharat, to Fit India to Make in India to Jan Dhan to Skill India- These are great ideas. Let us start creating a post-COVID transformation plan now. From Amazon to Intel, from Domino’s to Ford, the transformation of their businesses started when they faced an existential crisis.

If I could recommend to the Prime Minister, I would recommend a Government of National Reconciliation, incorporating talent from major parties. It is nobody’s case that only one political party has all the solutions. The time has come for all our politicians to prove that they are Indians first. They can go back to fighting each other during elections.

The time has also come for all our Corporate leaders to do the same.

5. Camaraderie of the Citizen Elite

Any country has residents who enjoy rights under a Constitution. Some of the residents are citizens who display the duties expected under the Constitution. But all major changes require a Citizen elite. Is democracy driven by citizens or by the citizen elite? Acclaimed sociologist and author Dipankar Gupta argues that at every historical juncture when democracy made significant advances, it was the citizen elite, or the elite of calling, who led the charge, often going against the grain of popular demands and sentiments. Change requires active intervention by the citizen elite, who are not concerned with short-term electoral calculations but have a vision for the country. As India has not delivered meaningfully in terms of universal health, education and livelihood, it too needs a band of citizen elite to initiate change.

An example is Mahindra volunteering to produce ventilators or Compass and Swiggy volunteering to feed the daily wage earners going without food.

It is my submission that we have at least one thousand leaders who have successfully created high trust- high performance cultures within Organizations. The time has come for them to stop asking what the country can do for them and start asking what they can do for the country. Imagine what they can do collectively, if they have already done so much individually!

Do we have Corporate leaders willing to pay additional corporate tax? (Big Corporates were making good profits even before the reduction on Corporate tax)

We do not expect everyone to be an Azim Premji. But do we have Corporate leaders who are willing to recommend inheritance tax? (For princelings who inherit huge wealth with no effort on their part)

Do we have Corporate leaders willing to partner Government in Healthcare, Education and Employment generation (The Government has the primary accountability in each of these areas)?

Do we have a Government that is willing to partner with Citizen elites who are not seeking quid pro quo benefits? These citizen elites are not seeking political power, they are merely seeking opportunities to make a positive impact.

The COVID 19 virus has done something that all kinds of activism could not achieve. It has shown us what it means to have cleaner air, no noise pollution, hear birds chirping (and even the chirping of crickets). It has given a much-needed break to Mother Earth to repair herself.

Remember, over 50 per cent of our population is below 25 years of age. That means they have never breathed clean air. Now they do! Do you think they will allow the political parties and their electoral bond sponsors to continue their pillage of earth and its environment? It is ironical that many of the worst offenders are now queuing up to make donations to COVID 19 relief funds.

We are at the crossroads. Whether you are the Prime Minister of India or a CEO in an Organization, you do not have an option not to act.

Your action today will determine whether you will make history by transforming your Company or our nation.

Or, you are just one more person destined to be consigned to the archives of history.

You could be Winston Churchill during the Second World War, or are you Nero who fiddled, while Rome burnt?

– Prasenjit Bhattacharya
CEO, Great Place to Work® Institute, India

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