S01 E06: Normalization of Remote Work Across Organizations

Kailash Ganesh
23 min read

COVID-19 has indeed challenged the status quo of organizations and pushed industry leaders to rethink their employee engagement strategies. With the advent of this pandemic, HRs across organizations have been obligated to change their people strategies to match their remote culture. This scenario has not just led to technical or business challenges, but cultural challenges have emerged too.

In the pre-COVID era, remote working was always seen as a blessing for the selected few. But in a country like India, the challenge of implementing an organization-wide remote work was greater because Indian managers or team members have never really experienced complete remote working until recently.

In Episode 6 of CultureClub featuring Saurabh Nigam, Vice President - Human Capital, Omidyar Network India, we explore the impact of COVID on company culture extensively. Saurabh, an engineer turned HR, is a thought leader who speaks in various forums and aims to create a lasting impact on people. Saurabh has always believed in setting up innovative people practices, and this has helped him face the challenges that COVID has brought along.

In this episode, Saurabh converses with Ketan Krishna (Head of People Function, Rentomojo) and Senthil Kumar M. (Founder & CEO, CultureMonkey) about the rise of micro-culture in remote working and the importance of creating mechanisms to stimulate a homogeneous environment as in physical offices.

Watch the videocast to listen to the entire conversation between Saurabh, Ketan, and Senthil.


Ketan [00:00:27] So, people who are listening, we have Saurabh Nigam with us. Saurabh right now is the Vice President at the Omidyar Capital and a few things that would describe Saurabh very well is he's a human capital specialist, great leader, speaker. You can see him in a lot of forums creating an impact on people. He's a startup enthusiast for sure and he believes in setting up innovative people practices. He's been the HR 40 under 40. So Saurabh is on both the list. The people matter and HR 40 under 40.

Ketan [00:01:08] He holds his Post Graduate from the XLR institute. And he's also one of the probably the one among the first 10 people globally to hold the SPHR, GPHR in HR PM Certification from  SHRM, USA. But then when I think of a brand like the eCommerce was picking up, Saurabh was a part of leading the human capital function for Snapdeal for a very, very long time. And then he took the plunge and joined something interesting. So Saurabh, welcome again. Would you like to talk to help us and the audience know a bit more about your organization and what are you guys into?

Senthil [00:02:11] I just want to add one more point. All of this with an Engineering background right? I wanted to re-ensure that.

Saurabh [00:02:19] Absolutely. Like many other people in my generation, I am an Engineer by my graduation. an electronics engineer from Pune University did my share of coding for about three years. So yeah, I do understand how coding works though my experience of coding dates way back to 2002, 2003. But I must say that my background in Engineering, especially coding helped a lot, not just in the HR journey which I had for the last 13,14 years. But overall from a personal perspective as well, I see coding as a life skill. It just helps you structure your thoughts, it helps you in your decision making. Yeah, so definitely an Engineer at heart, a coder at heart for sure.

Senthil [00:02:57] I just want to reiterate that because solving people's problems requires a lot of different sets of skills and coding is more analytical, it's not psychological. There is no soul in coding. It's a very pure mind at first, but from the beginning to this kind of a role, so now, you are now an expert at both - mind and heart. That's one way to look at it. But yeah, I think we can go back to the Ketan questions.

Saurabh [00:03:48] It's kind of you that you call me an expert. I don't think I'm an expert, it's still a journey I am on. But yeah, I do understand both the worlds.

Ketan [00:03:57]  I must tell out, I have never seen Senthil so happy in any of the conversations.

Saurabh [00:04:11] Right. About the Omidyar network in India, we're an organization. We call ourselves an impact investment firm, what that basically means is, we focus on making investments into both for-profit organizations as well as doing grants to non-profit organizations, and the good theme around which we make our investments or do our grants is around impact. So we really focus on making sure that we are partnering and working alongside entrepreneurs and businesses, non-profit organizations, which are focused on creating an impact on the lives of people in the country. So that's really in a nutshell what our organization does. We do it in six different verticals.

Saurabh [00:04:56] Our investments for grants are in six different verticals and they are education, technology, financial inclusion, property rights, government, and citizen engagement. So as I speak to you, we have close to 90 plus active portfolio organizations in the country across the six verticals. The way we operate and the way we are structured is, providing financial capital is only one part of the work. We also partner with our entrepreneurs in their journey to create these beautiful, lovely organizations, which is creating an impact on the ground by providing them support around pretty much the entire gamut of functional areas like, legal, finance, human capital which I lead. So it's almost like an end to end service which we provide to our entrepreneurs and we truly believe that the real heroes in the ecosystem are the entrepreneurs that we work with and we are just facilitators in the ecosystem in order to create impact. So that's really what we do as an organization.

Ketan [00:06:08] So I will come up with the first question Saurabh and this has a lot of connection to the current conversation everybody is having around. Now the first question is, what challenges do you think the CXOs and the entrepreneurs or the young bunch of people who are leading from the front dealing with post COVID when it comes to culture, especially with the world going remote. What do you think are the challenges that people are facing in the case of young entrepreneurs and leaders?

Saurabh [00:06:40] So Ketan you will agree with me, we are a social animal and the basic human need is to have that connection with each other and I think that's what makes us what we are. And I think that has taken a beating, so to say in these difficult times with all the teams moving in remotely and working remotely. And I think that's where the biggest challenge lie. How do you maintain that connective tissue in the organization amongst people, amongst teams, especially when everybody's working from different parts of the country, different parts of the world?

Saurabh [00:07:17] To me, that's really the biggest challenge with which the CXOs and the CHROs are facing today and I'm not going down the path of managing your business, maintaining your business because we are focusing only on culture. So if I start with that, I'm a huge proponent of managing by walking around, that is only possible when you're sitting in the office. You get up from your desk and go, walk around, speak to people, have those conversations just to ensure that you understand the pulse of your team, the pulse of the organization, but also connect with them. Now that's missing. Obviously, you can't do that on a zoom call, you can't do that when you are sitting at home.

Saurabh [00:07:56] So how do you maintain the connective tissue within your team, how do you ensure that you understand the pulse of your organization, pulse of your team, the pulse of your people, and how do you, if I may use that word, how do you make sure that, in spite of all the technology which we're using, in spite of all the zoom calls which we are doing, we still come across as humane. I think that's very, very important. It's not how do we make sure that it's not a transactional relationship which we are moving into, which is based on zoom calls which are based on technology. I think that really, in a nutshell, is how I would define as the biggest challenge which we are facing at this point in time across the board.

Ketan [00:08:47] So that brings me to the second and subsequent question here linked to that. Now, have you seen this remote working, bringing in certain positive changes that we as HR folks of business guys have been looking at for very, very long for a change to happen but now the CXOs are actually approaching that matter in organizational culture? Do you see a silver lining?

Saurabh [00:09:14] Absolutely. So Ketan you would know this, till say about four months back before we moved into this such and these difficult times are there that notion of remote working or flexible working or flexible working hours or working from home while it was spoken a lot about in different parts and different industries and different organizations and I am going to talk from an Indian context, I don't think it was prevalent as much as possible we as HR professionals possibly would have liked to see or even team would have liked to see and it was definitely not consistent and there were different reasons and issues there were, question marks in the heads of managers and leaders that, will the productivity go down and, if everybody is working remotely and things like that.

Saurabh [00:10:01] I think, what these difficult times have done is that notion of people being productive when working remotely and working from home, I think that has gone and that has been thrown out of the window. I think that has been the biggest silver lining here, that people can be productive irrespective of where they're based on. I think that's been the biggest learning sort of say across the board and to me, that's the biggest positive which has come out of this and now if you really take it a step further and if you go and speak to individuals and people and I've been doing that for the last few months, not just within my organization, but across the portfolio organization. Obviously, there are positives which have come out of it.

Saurabh [00:10:43] So if I take my own example, I, in my career in the last 13,14 years, I've not spent as much time with my family, that includes my parents, my wife, and my kid as well as I have done in the last four months and I think that's a big positive and I feel fortunate. But, I also do understand that not everybody as a person would be as fortunate as I am that I have my family right next to me. But I think that's the other piece which is really that, the mental peace which you get when you are able to spend quality time with your family. I think that has been enabled because of the fact that you don't get moved into these difficult times and you've been forced to stay indoors. Let's put it that way. So there's definitely a silver lining there as well.

Saurabh [00:11:28] The third piece which I would say is, you might think that I'm contradicting here, but I certainly believe that the fact that we've all moved into remote working while into the challenge, it is posing a challenge to maintain the connective tissue in the team. But I also see the emphasis and the effort which is being put by, not just the leaders, but the teams across the board to figure out ways and means to stay connected with each other. I think that wasn't the case when everybody was sitting inside the office. So this is like a very, very simple example.

Saurabh [00:12:07] If we were to do any activity or an engagement event in the office, say four months back, the rate of adoption of that piece or that activity was the rate of adoption of what I'm trying to do now. Even though it's much simpler, much easier and it's not rocket science and it's not even innovative so to say, is much higher. So the point I'm trying to make is to say that, the realization in the minds of people that it is important to stay connected, to stay connected with each other, to stay connected with each other beyond just the professional definition of work, I think is another silver lining. So those three, I would say, definitely are things which have moved the needle in the positive side, if I may say or as you said, are the silver lining which I have seen in today's time.

Ketan [00:13:03] Thank you. Thank you. Very interesting. So what do you think this means for the HR sector?, what all things would it redefine as a young HR leader? What do you think it means for the overall HR fraternity? What more, what difference, what new should we adopt to get accustomed to, and to focus on?

Saurabh [00:13:33] So first thing, first Ketan. A lot of people ask me this, do you think that remote working is the end thing and this is the new normal and we're never gonna go back to the prior office hold. I kind of disagree with that, I don't think that we will ever be in a situation where a hundred percent or a majority of the people are going to be remote working forever. That's not going to happen. And the reason that's not going to happen is, I will not go to the business side of it, I will still stick to the human side of it which is, I would love to do this conversation sitting face-to-face with people. Let's put it this way. I think that will never go away, at least in our lifetime it's not gonna go away for sure and the reason it's not gonna go away is, that's our inherent need.

Saurabh [00:14:22] I want to meet Ketan, I want to meet Senthil, shake hands, sit face to face, and have this conversation and that piece is never going to go away, at least in our lifetime. That's what I think. So, I think, what the new normal would look like is definitely there would be much more acceptance of the fact that people have this need to work remotely, whether It's because of their personal reasons, because of the professional reasons, whatever may be the case and there will be a far more accepting of that. That's a given which also means that far more people would be working remotely compared to what it was the case three, four months back.

Saurabh [00:14:58] I don't think it will continue the way it is for sure. Now, what that means is that as HR professionals, the luxury or the liberty which we had where a hundred percent or a majority of the people work under one roof, even though they might be geographically spread out in different offices. That's gonna go away. So, more and more, we are going to move away wherein we can't see a split of people working across different locations, working across different environment, I think the biggest challenge, which an HR professional is going to face is the fact that everybody used to be in office meant that there was a homogenous environment in which all of us were working when we were in office.

Saurabh [00:15:40] Now, that's going to change, because the moment you have even 50 percent of your population working remotely from different places means that, each one of them is possibly working, in a different environment and I always use this example because I have heard this life from teams in our portfolio in my organization. Working from home for a 25-year-old bachelor is very different from working from home for a father of two or for a mother of two, 35, 40 years old. Different challenges, different environments, different things which you face. Now as an HR professional, therefore, 'How do you create a mechanism to maintain the connective tissue for people who are in different environments at any given point of time?' is one of the biggest challenges we are going to face, it was very easy when everybody was under one roof, under one environment.

Saurabh [00:16:34] You could think of an intervention, you could think of things which you could do because everybody was in the same environment. So just as an example, if I were to think about running a team engagement activity at 10 am on a Friday morning and to expect that everybody is going to turn up, is foolhardy. Because, I should not assume possibly that, as I said, a father of two or a  mother of two would possibly be able to engage at 10am on a Friday morning simply because their kids might have a virtual class and I need to be cognizant of that. Simply to acknowledge that I can possibly set up a meeting beyond 5 PM on any weekdays. I should understand that may not happen simply because the environment people are working in, is very very different.

Saurabh [00:17:24] So as HR professionals, how do you make sure that you create your processes, policies, mechanisms, or even culture where people understand, where leaders and managers understand that the context of the environment of individuals have changed and therefore there is a need for us to re-tune ourselves in terms of how we define work, how do we define the ways of working? I think that to me is this is the biggest challenge that HR professionals are going to face going forward. And then obviously there are various nuances attached to that.

Ketan [00:17:56] Thanks so much for putting that across. I've been a great subscriber of this philosophy also, of being a student of biology also of the final deal to an extent. So 60, 70 percent of people would want to come back to work and this isn't sustainable from how we are constructed as a human. And I think it would matter even more to like, at least for me, I have a family around. I still get that, those are hormones and connections long at home because I have people. But yes, adding the plight of somebody who's all alone and not able to go out, there are no bonds, there are no shopping complexes, there are no friends that you could meet, this is going to be difficult and that's my hypothesis also that 50, 60 percent would come back and with which you complete that, it creates a lot of room for flexibility.

Ketan [00:18:45] I and Senthil were having a conversation, the terminology I give to this is, personalizing the experience and creating that, a smaller segment where different people have different needs and it brings together. I think that's going to be super amazing for HR as a function. I'm happy that I'm seeing this apart from the difficulty that people are going through because of COVID, but this transition, I think is helping me relearn, unlearn and learn. Lot of things that essentially we should focus on, but glad that you brought it out.

Senthil [00:20:12] To add one point here, like you rightly said the environment was homogenous and now this would give birth to a lot of micro-cultures within organizations and that also, it's not work from home only, it has become like work from anywhere. So some small groups will work from the beach, some small groups will work while they're traveling. So this, though it's great flexibility, it also poses a lot of challenges to the HR and this would call for an individual's discipline to manage themselves better, that's when they can really pull off the actual work that is given to them on that day. Yeah, yeah Saurabh?

Saurabh [00:20:12] Adding to what you and Ketan said, definitely there are going to be, and I agree with you by the way that, we are moving into that zone wherein personalised experiences is going to be the norm or Senthil as you said, there are going to get these micro culture which are gonna get built, it's already building, we're already seeing it. So, there are those micro or smaller groups within the organization, so there is a smaller group for as I said, bachelors who are staying alone. There's a small group and they are exchanging ideas. So that's going to happen and I'm just gonna add a layer to it.

Saurabh [00:20:48] So, there's no way you are gonna prevent this from happening,  you're gonna create personalized experiences, you're gonna have microcultures getting created. But as I said at the beginning, on top of all of this, you still have to have a connective tissue because it's still one organization, it's still one team. So how are you gonna do that, that's the challenge? So I'm just, as I said, microcultures existed even in pre-COVID days when we were all under one roof. So every team has its own culture, depending on how a leader would lead it, and Chetan, you, and I've seen that in our retailer as well. So that was a given. But, within that, there was still an opportunity to make sure that there is that overarching cultural unity among different teams because you are still sitting under one roof. So microcultures will exist in a remote environment and then you have to cope it up with a unifying cultural bond in a team. That's a challenge. That's a real challenge we are talking about here.

Senthil [00:21:45] It's right. Yes.

Saurabh [00:21:46] And then top it up with, I'm a firm believer that any company culture has to be built on the foundations of trust and transparency, you can have various other values but, whether you call it out or not, you need to have trust and transparency in your culture if you want to build a strong organization, forget about strong organization. Now trust and transparency in a physical world or physical set up when we were all together, that itself was tough, and when we could or if I had a disagreement with Ketan, I could walk up and speak to him and clear my doubts or clear my angles and, you're done with it. Even then it was difficult because people were reluctant to have conversations. But That's a different conversation altogether. But think about trying to build a culture of trust and transparency in a remote environment or in an environment where we beings split up. It just adds even more pressure and adds even more complicit to the jobs of leaders, because ultimately culture is driven by leaders in that sense. Hope that makes sense by the way.

Senthil [00:22:49] I think this calls for higher expertise from not only HRs, from leaders as well. Now they need to be with themselves to handle this kind of new people's problems. So. Yes, micro-culture and the main founder's vision should coexist and that's going to take a new strategy and I think as Ketan nailed it, like we talked about this concept like three, four months ago in terms of personalized engagement and at Culture Monkey we were the first folks that we have some features, from within the platform as well on how to personalize engagement. So we recognize the managers are the ones that can really personalise the engagement and we can talk about it. But, yeah, let's go to the next question Ketan.

Ketan [00:23:44] What is that and this is more of a messaging or something for the people who are working in organizations and corporate? Now, what is the new thing as individuals, one individual needs to be open to as we embrace this new world? This is more like not limited to HR folks, but generally, people who are in the corporate, and what do you think are the things that are changing? What are the things people should accept in this next one year, two years,s or the different ways how the world is evolved?

Saurabh [00:24:10] Yeah. Great question, Ketan. And I will break it down into short term and long term. And short term is something which we can talk about because it is kind of unplanned. In our organization and also facilitated these discussions in our portfolio organizations as well. I think that the statement that we are in a new normal has almost become cliched in four months, but I think what we realized very early on as an organization is that, the fact that we are moving into a new normal is a given.

Saurabh [00:24:41] Now, how long will it take to define the rules of this new normal is anybody's guess. But I think fundamentally, as leaders, as managers, and then therefore as team members, it is important, if to first of all the knowledge that we are moving into a new normal and therefore if we're moving into a new normal, there is an absolute need for you to revisit your priorities which you have set at the beginning of the year. As an organization, as a team, as an individual and that's really the flow of how I will take it. Simply because. Because if you're acknowledging that we're moving into a new normal, there's no way you can possibly still have the same priority which we had in January 2020.

Saurabh [00:25:18] So it starts with that. I think if organizations of leaders have not done that, I think that possibly to me would be the one the first thing you need to do is to go back to the drawing board and reassess and review that, given what they what we know of and there's still a lot of unknowns here, including that, when are we going to come out of this? and what that new normal would look like? But with whatever knowledge, the information we have, try and define what the priorities are for you as an organization and therefore trickle it down to your teams and individuals. I think that's one of the fundamental duties and responsibilities leaders and managers have towards organizations, their teams and their team members.

Saurabh [00:25:59] So to me, that's very, very important. And as you would imagine, it's not easy to do, especially when you're running an organization, when you're running team and running priorities and suddenly come to an end for this unknown and then be forced to think and reprioritise. It requires effort and reprioritization when there's lot of unknown variables. But to me, that's your openness to do that, I think, will go a long way in how resilient you are becoming as an individual, as a team, as an organization. So to me, that's really fundamental and I'm saying this out of the experience, because we've done this in our organization, we've done this and all facilitated these discussions in our portfolio organizations.

Saurabh [00:26:38] That to me would be number one. Number two and which I think, as I already pointed out, the need to communicate and over-communicate and figuring out various means and not shy away from using various means to stay connected with your peers, with your managers and that, I think, is super, super important because it just makes sure that your bubble remains in the center as you were saying. It's very easy to lose it, especially when you're indoors, especially when you don't have your social connect if you don't have your family around. So I think, your openness to communicate irrespective of your mental makeup and it goes beyond saying that I am an extrovert or I'm an introvert.

Saurabh [00:27:25] I think it is important to communicate in whichever form and ways you would do. So that to me would be number two and connected to that is, making sure that you find out various means and ways to understand the pulse of the team irrespective of the fact that we're still working remotely.  So management by walking around is not possible and therefore what are the alternatives? That's how I would put it and be innovative about it. I don't think there's a cookie cutter solution. And therefore, it is coupled upon you to think, how do you make sure or how do you replace a water cooler conversation in a remote environment. And I think it's very important, both from a leader perspective as well as a member perspective. So if you have the way to walk up to your leader and speak your mind in an office setup, making sure that that means intact, even in a remote environment, is extremely important. Those three things I would say are important.

Ketan [00:28:30] The last part of the question, it is kind of assimilation of a lot that you have said in, at the cost of repeating myself, do you think that the e-culture is the next future or do you think it's already there? What's your thought? I am adding the word 'e' because with a lot of digitization, I think, everything gets an 'e' that comes along. But do you think, it is here or this is going to happen? What's your point of view on that?

Saurabh [00:28:54]  So Ketan, honestly, I think technology is an enabler and it should and it will remain an enabler. Now, when you talk about e-culture, I am assuming, you're talking about the use of technology to enable a culture in the organization. That's what you're trying to tell. I think it's the need of the hour, I mean, we've talked enough about the fact that microcultures are going to get belt driven and therefore you still need to maintain the connectivity, given the fact that people are working in a different environment. In all these, how much you can leverage to achieve all of that, I think technology is going to be the only thing on which you can.

Saurabh [00:29:33] I don't think there is any shying away from the fact that there would be more and more use of technology to solve first the challenges which we have talked about in the last 30 minutes to maintain or to create that unique culture in the organization. But, to say and I am gonna repeat, what I am gonna say that will it completely replace face to face human connection? I don't think it could happen and the kind of culture which gets built when 20 people come together under one roof and they create something unique, something meaningful, something exciting, something they can be proud of and I'm talking beyond just business success. I don't think that can ever be replaced by technology. But yeah, technology is going to be the tool which will help us solve many of these challenges, which we are gonna face or which we are already facing with this new normal.

Ketan [00:30:29] Thank you. Thank you so much. This part, there's some four, five interesting questions and it's kind of a rapid fire that we do towards the end Saurabh. I think I enjoy this part the most. I get this opportunity to ask a few interesting questions. So the first one for you, if not HR as a profession, what would you have been?

Saurabh [00:30:59] I will be teaching in a primary school. No doubt about that and I will do that eventually. I'm very sure about that.

Ketan [00:31:07] Cooking, cleaning, mopping during COVID, which was easier?

Saurabh [00:31:14] Actually, I haven't tried cooking and I don't think I can ever try cooking, it's beyond me. I have done, so you said cleaning and what did you say the other thing? Oh, cleaning was easier. Mopping is tough.

Ketan [00:31:30] The next big personal goal you've set for yourself? If it is not too personal to share in terms of personal growth, kind of.

Saurabh [00:31:39] So I'm not the kind of person who sets these five-year goals at all Ketan. I have never been that kind of person. In fact, if you ask me what in the next two years, I would still not be able to answer that. That's not how I have made my professional journey, God has been kind and the opportunities have come my way and I have taken them up. But yeah, from a personal side, the last three and a half, four years have been really exciting with my daughter coming into my life and I am trying my level best to be the best father that I can. So it's still a learning journey, I would say it's still a journey there. Yeah. I mean, I think the next three, four, five, 10, 15 years, seeing her grow up and trying to be as best a father that I can be, is really what I'm looking forward to. Professionally, I will not be able to answer that question, really. I mean, I don't really set my goal.

Senthil [00:32:32] That's so sweet. Yes. That's so honest and sweet.

Ketan [00:32:36] One book that had maximum impact on you?

Saurabh [00:32:42] So there are two actually, one from a professional front. I think and I advise this to pretty much everybody who asks me if there's one book which I can talk about, 'crucial conversations'. And I firmly believe that every person should read that book and on a personal side, I would say, 'Tuesdays with Morrie' by Mitch Albom.

Ketan [00:33:00] One more added to my list . Next questions, one thing you would personally like to thank COVID for?

Saurabh [00:33:06] Time with my family, the amount of time that it allowed me to spend with my family.

Ketan [00:33:16] Good guys. That's Saurabh for you. Saurabh, thank you so much for your time. It was an amazing conversation. Senthil, thank you for being able to add value. We promise to keep on coming back with a lot of content and a lot of insights from people who are going to shape up the HR fraternity.

Saurabh [00:33:36] Thank You Ketan and thank you Senthil, this was amazing, truly enjoyed the conversation and all the best in your journey would love to hear great things from Culture.

Senthil [00:33:44] Yes. Yes. Yes. Let's connect offline and this session, I think was very overwhelming, extraordinary points were discussed. So, yeah, this is gonna be a great value for all our listeners. So thanks a lot. And yeah, let's take it I will connect with you Saurabh.

Saurabh [00:34:02] Thank you, guys.