The pandemic changed employees’ priorities and that change remains even as we have moved into the ‘return to work’ phase. Now, decision makers have to change their leadership styles By Sudeshna Mitra
When the onset of the pandemic made remote working the norm, employees' priorities changed drastically. Mental health and wellbeing surfaced as major criteria affecting employees' willingness to stay with an employer. This mindset has affected even the ‘return to work’ phase, leading employers to rethink their policies to retain talent in the competitive market.
How are leaders recalibrating their policies around their employees under such circumstances? In an episode of People Matters Podcast, Deepti Varma, Director – HR for Amazon in APAC and Middle East described the approaches and expectations of leadership in a flexible working model. We bring you exclusive excerpts of the conversation.
When well-being and mental health surfaced as two major criteria for job seekers and employees, decision-makers had to rework their employeeoriented policies. How do you view this shift?
It was always an employees’ market. We always need to work backwards from the employee base and come up with policies and processes that find favour with them. At Amazon, we say we strive to be Earth's best employer and what that actually means is: “How do we make every day better for employees?”
The pandemic did help us realise that all of us could work in remote setup and collaborate across the globe. But then, remote working or flexibility always existed at Amazon and has been a drawing factor for many employees. So the pandemic hit us, we were better prepared as compared to some in the market, to whom this concept was very new. And we were able to
move quickly towards user tools to empower employees and aim not only at productivity, but also ensure that their wellbeing is met.
You've touched upon a very important thing with the mention of well-being and mental health. While we always thought about employees mental health and wellbeing, these have become even more important in this period. Many organisations have started thinking about the policies, processes, and tools that will enable them to get feedback from employees regarding the same. Amazon has such a tool to ask people for feedback every morning, and we actually used this tool during COVID-19 to understand how people are feeling and what they would need. So, I feel that the focus has always been on the employees. But I think it became paramount during COVID19. And most organisations who would want to win the talent war would need to keep concentrating on this.
According to a recent survey, 96% of respondents seek at least some remote working facilities. How are your leaders recalibrating policies to attract and retain talent?
Amazon is a very diverse workplace. We do not have a ‘one-size-fits-all’ policy because of the many kinds of businesses that we are in: we have the fulfillment centers, wE LEAVE It to tHE BuSINESS LEADERS AND MANAGERS to DECIDE How to GEt tHE oPERAtIoNS DoNE...wE fEEL tHAt ouR LEADERS wILL MAKE tHE RIGHt DECISIoNS oN BEHALf of tHEIR oRGANISAtIoN AND wE wANt to GIVE tHEM tHAt fLEXIBILIty
Alexa labs, Prime videos, AWS data centers etc. People hailing from all these different teams have different approaches and needs. So, we leave it to the business leaders and managers to decide how to get the operations done. We do so because we feel that our leaders will make the right decisions on behalf of their organisation. We therefore want to give them that flexibility. Some teams have ‘no-meeting Fridays’ to allow employees to rejuvenate during that time. So there are different experiments which other organisations are also doing and so are we. But we always believe that the right decision will be taken by the business leader and that is better than imposing an organisational mandate on coming back to offices on a particular day.
With the changing demands of the employees around well-being and flexibility, what amount of investment is being allocated to these?
We've actually initiated loads of programmes through which we aim to attract people during these times. We have a Rekindle programme through which women who take a break are welcomed to join back at Amazon if they want to do
so. Under this programme, we also give them the flexibility to work in different models if they say “I do want to take care of my family”. In fact, in addition to maternity policy, we have also rolled out paternity policy. We have also rolled out initiatives for people who want to take breaks for weeks or months. So these are some heavy investments that we are making in order to make sure that our employees are taken care of and they are enjoying their share of flexibility. During the pandemic, we had spent around $11.5 billion on COVID-19 related initiatives. We aimed to not only get products to customers but also keep our employees safe. In fact, we also rolled out an initiative under which we gave employees a facility to set up an ICU at home in case there was less or no availability of hospitals in their area.
An article published by Forbes states, “Flexibility isn’t just a perk that workers are looking for; it’s essential to their success, and they aren’t willing to let that go.” How do you view this statement?
I think flexibility should have been given to workers even before the pandemic hit. I think that organisations should have flexibility as a culture because at the end of the day, employees are working because they are finding the work meaningful and adding relevance to their identity. Employees should be able to strike the right work-life balance and be productive so that they can leave a legacy behind. But as I said, instead of having uniform policy for all the businesses, we vest the discretion of flexibility with the business leaders. We also try to ensure that flexibility is allowed to those who may have special needs such as caregiving, maternity and others.
At Amazon, what do you see employees seeking in terms of leadership and policies in a post-pandemic world?
I think that employees seek leaders who create a safe, productive and high performing diverse workforce. In fact, they would want to feel empowered by the leaders. Today’s workforce seeks personal success and wants to grow with the growing needs of Amazon.
Employees want to be heard, and they look to work with a leader who can work backwards to meet them where they are coming from. They are also seeking organisations that would trust them because I think that gone are the days where the task to be carried out would be calculated, assigned and mandated from the top.
I also think that employees are putting great priority on looking for flexibility. It is very important to offer the right employees benefits which align with the wellness roadmap of the organisation. The pandemic actually exposed that most organisations have not been thinking through their benefits strategy holistically. So those are some of the top priorities for both company and workforce that organisations should focus on.