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ET Back to business: Need to bring employees together, say biz leaders

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There is no playbook for what the world is going through right now and leaders need to focus on bringing employees together, being transparent about the state of business and focusing on upskilling not just the workforce but also business partners and the ecosystem at large, say business leaders at a dialogue on ‘New Skills for the Post-Pandemic Workplace’. Edited excerpts of the discussion, moderated by Abhijit Bhaduri, leadership and talent adviser, author and columnist:

What shifts are you seeing in the way people are working?
MILAN SHETH: It’s still early days. Earlier, work from home (WFH) was an option given to a few, this has now completely reversed. WFH will become the norm for many industries and a certain percentage of work will always happen from home. This opens up the talent dimension because it’s no longer about accessing the talent available closest to you. Another interesting thing is tremendous interest from the government to get things digitised. The pandemic has brought in a sense of urgency.

RAJKAMAL VEMPATI: There have been immense learnings over the past few months. WFH has proved to be scalable and now most organisations are doing it. In the early days of the lockdown, we had an outbound call centre train our sales staff to keep them productive in a WFH scenario. The sales cycle completely changed, and that needed a lot of skilling and creativity in selling. From a people standpoint, problem-solving skills and agility to learn will be key. One thing is clear: what has changed is the role of managers and leaders. Traditional skill-sets and traditional ways of communication have changed, a lot of humanness is expected in what you bring to the workplace.

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Shiv, I would like you to take a more broadspectrum view. What is common in terms of the shift in technical skills across businesses and what is unique to any of the businesses?
D SHIVAKUMAR: Look at any large company, if it is integrated into the global economy, the first thing you have to see is if there is any impact of China — some kind of China factor or China-America trade war factor. If you are a purely domestic company, the first thing you have to look at is your business model. Many businesses right now are not maintaining strategy — there’s a paint company launching a sanitiser, an apparel company launching a floor cleaner. These are all exactly the wrong things to do. If you really want best results, focus on your strategy. This is the time for enterprise end-to-end approach because the issue right now is demand contraction, and every sector is facing it. You need to upskill people, not just your people, but your partners, ecosystem, etc.

If we split skills into hard skills and soft skills, in this situation softer skills are so much more important, like adaptability, agility, self-organisation and the ability to be selfless collaborators. If every crisis is an opportunity you shouldn’t waste, then it rests on the soft skills of your employees.

In a startup, will you hire someone strong in technical skills but low on soft skills?
RASHMI DAGA: There are certain roles where you believe technical skills would sail you through. The learning in a startup is that the attitude matters way more than the current capability you bring to the table. The business situation is unique, and your problem-solving skills, ability to navigate ambiguity and ability to persevere, the attitude makes all the difference. We’ll always choose someone with the right behaviour skills, soft skills and hard skills.

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If someone is looking to invest in technical skills, what are the most valuable skills right now?
SHETH: At the top of my list: basic coding; second would be communication and collaboration; and third would be extracting and building the assets of whatever you do.

VEMPATI: Technical skills will remain important, as will data-based decisionmaking, and being comfortable with data. The second part is as we move to WFH, managing your work, project management expertise is critical, and influencing without command and control and having creative problem-solving skills.

When we have a scenario like today — when there isn’t enough data from the past, will sensing be important or will data still be important? And how does one build that?
SHIVAKUMAR: If there’s one thing nobody has, it is a playbook to deal with the current situation. Everyone is grappling with their own set of information, own sensing mechanism. In the last 3-4 months, data and information have become boundary-less, everyone has access to it because of digitisation of the process. There are 10 pairs of eyes looking at the data. If you interrogate data hard enough, it will confess to an insight, based on which you can get to the market. I’d pick three skills: digital, customercentricity, and also, whatever else you do, please experiment. Either you scale fast, or you fail fast. This is not a time to dither.

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During this pandemic, have you built a specific skill, and if so, how did you go about it?
VEMPATI: One important acknowledgement has been that I can’t do everything, and that is okay. As a professional, you’re trying to steer the ship, and I had to step back because one of the things I realised as an HR leader is — the lines of the virtual world have become completely blurred because your home is your office.

DAGA: The biggest change has been to learn to let go. It’s important to acknowledge that things can be totally out of your control, and gratitude is also key — understanding the good things that we have in life.

SHIVAKUMAR: What I’ve learnt is how to move people from grieving to getting the best out of them, on a daily basis. Every day, I have been listening to people telling me about different lockdowns, about losing business, about things going downhill — you have to give them sufficient time to grieve and then pivot them to think about things we can all be grateful for, and approaching problems differently, and looking at options.

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