With companies around the globe coming to terms on navigating a post-COVID-19 world, leaders are facing many challenges. Leaders are tasked with enabling remote teams to realign business operations, resetting business goals. It is helpful to learn from other leaders how they are managing in times like these.
In this week’s “Business (un) Usual” series – which aims for us to learn from other’s experiences and offer support to teams and individuals as we navigate these tough times, we have leaders from India talk about how their companies are managing changes brought by COVID-19, how they are making ‘work from home’ work and more.
In this edition, Ria Shroff Desai, Associate Vice President – People Operations, Sula Vineyards, and Varun Deshpande, Managing Director, The Good Food Institute India, share how they are finding ways to grow in these difficult times.
How has COVID impacted your business or businesses you work with (positively or negatively)?
Varun: At the Good Food Institute India (GFI India), we work with pretty much anybody who can impact the food supply from governments, philanthropic organizations, entrepreneurs to large corporations. We work to accelerate protein transition from unsustainable animal-sourced foods to plant/fermentation/cell-based meat, egg, and dairy replacements. All the stakeholders we work with are impacted by the crisis- government agencies working to mitigate the fallout, large corporations disrupted by lockdowns, and entrepreneurs had to pause product development and defer go-to-market.
That said, the pandemic has also brought forth the need to provide viable alternatives to animal-sourced foods, increasing their demand globally, so a lot of projects have moved faster for us than we otherwise expected.
GFI India is lucky to be a part of an international network very much geared towards remote work and a self-starting culture. Our counterparts in the U.S., E.U., Brazil, etc have ‘remote work DNA’, so we were well equipped to make the switch to working from home. We will continue to remain in this mode till August and then reassess. All in all, we are counting our blessings and focusing on staying safe and doing good work!
Ria: For us, like other businesses, a “negative” impact has obviously been a lack of clarity on how business should continue. Sales halted for a few months, affecting cash flow, so we had to take certain decisions to eliminate non-essential services, cut budgets, and put some programs on hold. We took great pains to ensure salaries continued uninterrupted, but increments were put on hold or were significantly reduced.
A “positive” has been overwhelming acceptance by senior management for the concept of ‘Work from Home (WFH)’. Whereas earlier we would have had to make a strong business case to allow WFH as a “perk” or “reward”, it was accepted overnight as a way to do business. And not just our senior management, but almost every company has accepted this as the new normal and saw the benefits of allowing employees the freedom to get work done without micromanaging. I am optimistic that this will introduce a new aspect to work-life balance for all Indian employees.
What’s one tip you have for working remotely? What has been something special you or your company has done to make it a bit easier to work from home and/or preserve team culture and spirit?
Varun: Working from home can be a challenge at the best of times. We are highly focused on maintaining our team’s camaraderie and supporting their mental wellness during this difficult time. My tip is twofold – make and communicate decisions early, and focus as much as you possibly can on staying connected through non-work activities.
We decided fairly early on to stay in remote work mode through August and move our events and other meetings to online-only, preventing potential uncertainty and anxiety among team members. We have also focused on social activities outside of work – watching Netflix together, scheduling morning coffee chats, etc, and have allocated a budget for team members to spend on items such as standing desks, exercise equipment, and mental health counseling, to make their work-from-home life more comfortable, happy and productive.
Ria: Remote working is a new phenomenon in India – until now for people anyone working outside the office was considered a “freelancer”. So there is still a bit of stigma associated with it – families do not fully comprehend the idea of working from home and may not give you space and privacy needed.
If you work remotely, it helps to structure both your day and work environment as if you were still in an office (at least to start with and get disciplined). If you are working with a company, throw in some company swag like banners, posters, team photos, office branded mugs and calendars just to pull you into the mood. Continue some existing traditions online – such as 4 pm chai breaks, or weekly recognition meetings. Invest in a good pair of noise-canceling headphones.
And if you continue working remotely even after this lockdown lifts, make sure you do enough work outside a desk as well – continue having informal and networking meetings with other people, attend meetups and workshops, and more importantly, stay active and stay healthy!
Do you think that this will signify a shift to more remote work in the long run? Why or why not?
Ria: We must remember first and foremost that currently, we are working remotely during a global crisis with other facilities (like domestic help, childcare, education, public services, etc) unavailable to us. As a result, I don’t foresee this current WFH model sustaining without causing significant burnout to employees, especially women, who are managing a triple burden of housework, childcare, and work. We need to be mindful of WFH in the Indian context as a vast majority of Indian households are with joint families, elders, and children, which are often not the most optimal circumstances of WFH.
What I do foresee is more flexible work arrangements becoming the norm – structuring roles around deliverables and meetings, so that employees are free to decide if in between they want to work from an office/co-working space or home. I predict that companies will probably rethink their definitions of employee expectations to be “present” in office and invest less in fancy infrastructure and more in technical products to encourage collaboration and remote working.
Companies that manage to realign their expectations of ‘WHAT work needs to be done’ to now ‘HOW work should be done’ will emerge as the winners.
What’s your favorite thing about Working from Home?
Varun: The GFI India team has unanimously voted ‘no commutes’ as their favourite thing about working from home. In a city like Mumbai, that can save you 2.5+ hours per day – that’s giving you back 15% of your waking hours! We have always been flexible about office timings, and we do expect that even after August, we may continue working from home and offering our team members even more flexibility on this front.
Who’s someone that motivates you?
Varun: I resonate deeply with the principles of ‘Effective Altruism’ – that we can apply reason and expertise to the ideas of impact, to tackle the world’s most pressing problems. It is why I chose to join GFI to tackle one of those pressing problems, and it is also the kind of mission-alignment we look for in all new team members.
I greatly admire many who embody this spirit – some who come to mind immediately are development economist Jeffrey Sachs for taking on extreme poverty, Kiran Mazumdar Shaw for building the Indian biotech industry and tackling disease, and Azim Premji for his philanthropy.
[Are you passionate about pushing back against climate change, food insecurity, and future pandemics? GFI India is hiring for a Science and Technology specialist, apply for the role here.]
What’s an inspiring story you’ve seen as a result of COVID?
Ria: I have seen a lot of innovation, pivoting, and repurposing existing products and services to meet changing needs. I have seen a lot of inspiring stories about neighbors and communities reaching out and supporting one another, regardless of cost or difficulty. I have seen entrepreneurs and businesses cross-promote each other and encourage business.
I am hopeful that these bonds of service, outreach, and support continue even post this because we continue to live with a lot of other unseen hardships daily even after this pandemic is over. Collaboration and support are going to make good business sense in the long run – it is fine if it took us a crisis to realize that, but it’s what we do now that will make the real difference.
Look out for the next piece in this series where we’ll continue featuring advice, insights, and tips from business leaders on how they stay adaptable and move with change.
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