LIFE stronger than the lockdown

Managing people demands quick thinking, reimagining teams and workspaces as well as constantly upgrading policies and frameworks to match the dynamic work environments we live in. KS Harish, Country Group HR Head – South Asia talks about the many ongoing organizational changes as well as the impact of covid-19 on current and future work trends and culture. He also shares examples on how the well-embedded Bayer LIFE values became even more prominent during the lockdown.

Much before we were impacted by the covid-19 lockdown, we had two major projects ongoing within Bayer South Asia. First, we had the post-integration activities to seamlessly transition employees after the merger of two companies - Bayer and Monsanto. The second was our global Bayer 2022 project which aimed to put into practice new processes and ways of working in order to strengthen innovation and productivity, accelerate access to future technologies, and further enhance competitiveness and profitability. The biggest task on hand, therefore, was to redesign ourselves as a ‘Fit for Purpose’ organization in terms of structure and culture.

Subsequently we completed the re-arrangement of all our offices by consolidating, adding, removing or retaining some of our workspaces. As part of the next phase, we kick-started a campaign under ‘InfinitUS’ – an internal employee-driven community platform – to help us reimagine agile workspaces and routines that could help increase productivity while allowing for flexibility and higher adoption of virtual work models. This program has received an unintended boost since the lockdown as employees are able to experience first-hand the pros and cons of flexible working conditions across the organization.

From an organizational structure perspective, our goal was to simplify accountabilities and reduce interfaces. While most of the restructuring activities including personnel changes, movement between departments and options for early voluntary separation were completed by February this year, the last phase was still remaining. Since it coincided with the pandemic, we suspended all activities and shifted our focus entirely towards the health, safety and well-being of our employees as well as the continuity of business operations. In the midst of all this, we had a wonderful opportunity to witness the deeply engrained Bayer LIFE values of Leadership, Integrity, Flexibility and Efficiency among our colleagues. No matter which part of the restructuring journey they belonged to, our employees took the lead to ensure business continued during the crisis so that our customers, doctors, patients and farmers continued to receive the most essential access to medicines and agri-inputs. It was the combined efforts of all our employees whether working from home, on the field or in the supply chain that ensured smooth delivery of our products.


Stories of heroism

It was not an easy ride for all our employees. For example, colleagues at our production sites in Vapi and Himatnagar, Gujarat were apprehensive of their safety and the health of their loved ones. Although we had received permissions to continue basic operations in a phased manner, the pandemic paranoia combined with heighted security at various public check-posts, especially for two wheelers, meant that the initial response was not as expected. We invited employees to attend work on a voluntary basis and managed non-critical operations with limited staff. Those who lived in the vicinity were preferred while those who played the role of a caregiver or resided with high risk family members were discouraged from coming to work. During these exceptional times, our floor managers displayed leadership and flexibility by continuously engaging with the employees and building their confidence which enabled us to continue the production and supply of essential inputs for the agricultural and pharmaceutical industries in a phased manner in alignment with government regulations.

When we started sharing updates internally of our progress during the pandemic, we began receiving more and more examples of leadership and flexibility from our sales colleagues at various locations who while working from home went out of their way to connect with their customers through innumerable calls. They continuously engaged with farmers, doctors and channel partners on various digital platforms, trying all sorts of video calling apps and adapting quickly to the new circumstances. Anticipating the needs of farmers for completing sales, accessing liquid cash, linking to markets and receiving essential agri-inputs at their door-step, our colleagues from the Crop Science division came up with innovative solutions or networked with industry partners to provide the much-needed support. On the other hand, our Pharmaceuticals team not only ensured a continuous supply of medicines for doctors and patients but also facilitated training to enhance digital consultation and talks by healthcare professionals on social media. What we saw eventually was a heightened display of LIFE values and commitment to our company vision of ‘Health for all, Hunger for none’.

The pandemic brought to the forefront exemplary stories of employees rising above their roles to benefit not only customers but also the neighbouring communities. And we, in fact, call them our Bayer Heroes. These individuals have made contributions in their own personal ways to enable farmers to harvest and market their produce, provided vendors in the vicinity with home-made masks and supplied food and other essential items to police personnel, healthcare workers as well as homeless neighbours. They have taken upon themselves to find innovative solutions and make a positive impact bearing testimony to our employer value proposition - ‘Passion to Innovate | Power to Change’ both within the company and externally.


Employees come first

On our part as an employer, we have continued to support our employees in many ways. First, we have ensured that all our employees not only receive their complete salaries on time, but also their scheduled merit increases or planned promotions and short-term incentives. Further, we have fully sponsored an enhanced health insurance coverage for all our employees to support them during these special circumstances. As an extra protection for the elderly parents of our employees, we have a separate insurance program where the company and the employee share the premium cost equally and the coverage under this program has also been recently enhanced. We have recently extended the benefits of a telemedicine service for employees where they can avail of teleconsultation from an online panel of doctors, order medicines at a discounted rate, get comprehensive health check-up packages at attractive rates and many other value added services.

Knowing what a toll the lockdown could have on our employees and their families, we renewed our commitment to their physical, emotional and mental well-being through our ongoing Employee Assistance Program. We encouraged colleagues to avail of the confidential toll-free helpline if they find the work from home environment stressful or are struggling to balances work and home responsibilities or are facing any other challenges whether in their professional or personal capacity. Through this program they can connect with an independent panel of qualified and experienced psychologists in complete confidence. While we have had the Employee Assistance Program active in India for the past several years, we recently extended similar services to Pakistan and Bangladesh during COVID-19. We also organized virtual yoga and zumba sessions to keep our employee active and engaged during this period. And lastly, we have looked after not only our employees, but also our contract staff by making bi-weekly payments to our partners in the last three months (from March to May) and in turn requesting them to pay it forward in the same format so that their staff also receive fortnightly instead of monthly allowances during these challenging times. These are some of the reasons that make us proud to be a part of #TeamBayer.


Lockdown uptrends

We noticed an interesting insight during this lockdown period – employees were taking proactive measures to upskill themselves with the help of online courses during the lockdown. More than 30,000 training hours were clocked for the period of two months (mid-March to mid-May). Over 2700 unique employees were recorded through our online training portal – who make up around 70% of the workforce with access to Bayer online training systems.

We also conducted a recent employee survey across Bayer South Asia to gauge the pulse of our people which revealed that most of our employees were managing quite well in the new lockdown induced ‘work from home’ situation, albeit with slight adjustments. Two of the key motivations were recorded as ‘better work-life balance’ followed by ‘no commute’. A further dive into the responses brought out multiple triggers like better focus, freedom, good food, safety, own pace of working, etc. Interestingly and undoubtedly, what was cited as a key challenge was the lack of face-to-face interactions with colleagues - a key element of team-work! For those on the field, difficulties in connecting with doctors and farmers topped the list, trailed by distractions like internet bandwidth, home-place ergonomics, technological snags and power cuts. As a next step, we are working on initiatives for employees to facilitate the easy procurement of items in line with ergonomic recommendations – like an additional keyboard, mouse, etc. We have addressed exceptional cases by shipping across chairs for those with medical problems or for those who were stuck in places with no furniture. We also reached out to our contingent workers across India and were pleased with the survey results that showed almost 90% received their salaries on time, 99% were aware of safety guidelines to be followed and 97% wanted to continue working at their current locations if given an opportunity.

Personally, I believe the lockdown will change how we work in the future. ‘Work from home’ or rather ‘work from anywhere’ will be extended to those who find it more productive and comfortable. Although our leaders have been successful in driving teams effectively and efficiently through the lockdown induced disruptions, in future our training programs will focus more on developing and managing remote teams. Companies will start looking at ways to tap into the gig economy as more people seek self-employment—both out of necessity and by choice. There will be a surge in new roles that can be performed from home (or anywhere) with options that fit individual lifestyles. Ramping up of digital interfaces and strengthening of cyber security will be an absolute mandate for businesses. Appreciation frameworks will continue to evolve and include the new work environments and formats. Engaging with the holistic health of employees will be a priority as organizations reprioritize their spends towards employer value proposition. A lot will depend on how companies manage to stay emotionally connected with employees as emotional intelligence takes precedence in leadership roles. Through all these changes, what will remain constant is the ability for people to unite in the face of any challenge and to push themselves towards a common vision/goal equipped with the right set of corporate values.