How do you teach the core tenets of human resource (HR) management, when the whole world of work has turned on its head? That’s the problem Manish Singhal has been grappling with lately. Singhal is a professor of organisational behaviour—a branch of the HR discipline—at one of India’s premier B-schools XLRI. The institution has a number of reputed courses in HR, and churns out HR managers for India’s corporates each year with alacrity.

“How do we run role-plays and simulations in online classes? How do we deal with lessons on conflict and negotiation? All that has become quite hard,” says Singhal. A curriculum restructuring committee has been set up, says Singhal. A team of HR professors, which includes Singhal, will meet soon to decide what changes to introduce in the core curriculum.

“Covid is not going anywhere. So we need to figure out how virtual teams are going to work,” says Singhal.

When work as we knew it changed almost overnight in March 2020, HR teams became the first port of call. And not just to implement hastily-constructed work-from-home (WFH) plans, either. 

By day, HR managers were shipping off laptops to employees and by night, they were often arranging hospital beds for their family members. “We were on calls for 20 hours a day, of which maybe four were spent on strategic work,” says the chief human resource officer (CHRO) at a leading retail and FMCG company in India. He wished not to be identified as he’s not authorised by his company to speak with the media. 

The pan-India retailer never had a WFH policy before the pandemic struck. As a result, the company had to crunch a two to three year process of change into five to seven days, says the CHRO. Especially as some of the group’s businesses like supermarkets were designated as essential services. “The HR team had to first convince itself that work from home was even possible,” he says.

The pandemic’s business fallout had its own complications. While chief executives (CEOs) and chief financial officers (CFOs) huddled to manage plunging revenues and rising costs, CHROs and their teams became the “voice of the employees” in front of the management. 

Once hidden in the relative shadows of more business-oriented functions like sales, HR has now been thrust into the spotlight. And the HR manager has become a sort of conduit between the pre- and post-Covid workplace. This mid-career HR professional, who joined a Gurugram-based consumer internet firm at the start of the pandemic, hasn’t had a single-day of what she calls “old-school” HR work since she joined. The most critical challenge, she claims, is employee engagement, because what works for a team of interns doesn’t work for a camera-shy tech team. She wished not to be identified as she’s not authorised to speak with the media by her company. 

AUTHOR

Olina Banerji

Based in Delhi, Olina writes about mega-trends in urban mobility, education, skilling and the environment, with a focus on how institutions and innovations can help cities grow sustainably. She is a graduate of the London School of Economics, and has worked previously with India Today and global non-profit Ashoka.

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