The Covid-19 pandemic has changed the world as we know it. Masks, sanitizers, disinfectants are the new regulars in our shopping lists, ‘stay safe’ is the new standard greeting, and home is the new office. Implementing “lockdowns” in many geographies happened quicker than people could say ‘plan’, so businesses had almost no time to strategize movement from office to home and most companies are learning by trial and error. Recently, I came across an article in Wall Street Journal (“The Work-From-Home Shift Shocked Companies—Now they’re Learning Its Lessons”, Christopher Mims, July 25, 2020) which got me thinking on the same lines about how we have handled the shift and our learnings from it, at MattsenKumar (“MK”). MK is a full-service BPO outsourcers providing a host of back office, voice, and specialized technical services for many large global brands spread over five continents. We have operations in Gurgaon, Jaipur, and Bangalore, India, and boast both long-term client collaborations (many who have been with us ten-plus years) as well as one of the lowest employee attrition rates in the business. A privately held LLC headquartered in the US, my business partner is Aarati Kumar, someone I have worked with on three different business ventures since first meeting her at the turn of the century. We formed MattsenKumar LLC to leverage all that we had learned and knew that demanding clients expected….but like all industries, we never quite expected Corona to throw us the curve-ball it did.
It was March 22, 2020. I had been in India since late February, a few days from my planned return home, when the India Government announced a country-wide “lockdown” that included immediately stopping all international flights. What was a planned March 26th departure meant several extensions of my Air BnB and remaining in India until mid-July, instead. I got to “experience” the lockdown and India’s initial fight against the pandemic from my efficiency apartment in Sushant Lok, a neighborhood in Gurgaon, Haryana—part of what is considered the “NCR” (National Capital Region) of India. Like residents themselves, I was only allowed to venture off the complex grounds to purchase necessary groceries or medicines—-no other excursions out were allowed those first several weeks. Like all other residents, I “hunkered down”—thankful for decent internet, as “Zoom Meetings” became the new normal method of inter-company communications with immediate effect.
When the lockdown was announced, we had three days to develop and implement a specific plan to maintain our service delivery for our dozens of global clients without being able to have any employees come to our service delivery centers. Up until this moment, 100% of our team (2000 FTE) worked in office—only occasional “remote work” was allowed and in fact, the government of India had strict rules prohibiting home-based employment. Specific actions taken will be addressed below, but I do want to mention from our first “Zoom” meeting called to address this dynamic, Aarati and I established three primary objectives and mandates that our entire leadership team embraced and supported throughout the pandemic: 1) Employee safety and health is our top priority, and operational decisions would always be assessed against this priority; 2) Doing all that we can for our clients, while ensuring #1 will be our mission; and 3) We will continue to operate as a business—understanding that ultimately, revenues must exceed expenses and prudent, disciplined business decisions must be made while focusing on objectives 1 and 2.
And now, some learnings and lessons:
Lesson 1: Utilize Existing Resources
While we maintained up to date Business Continuity Plans (BCP’s), no disaster scenario envisioned required a 100% shift from ALL centers to homes, so our team immediately revised existing BCP’s to address this dynamic, and this revised plan became THE roadmap for the next 72 hours. Of course, various factors had to be kept in mind while doing so, how would we be able to physically get thousands of devices FROM offices to employees’ homes securely and maintaining proper asset control was one challenge, for example. Keep in mind that some states were already restricting access and the National Capital Region (that’s where our Gurgaon center is) consists of three different borders (Gurgaon, Delhi, and Noida) where many of our team members live. While we set out to get necessary permits to cross these borders, one additional thing that made this process easier for us was to make optimal use of ALL resources at hand. Hence, we quickly did an analysis of not just the company’s IT assets, but also of employees’ personal IT assets and supplemented these with a stream of supplies and upgrades, as per need. We also ensured that non-company devices had the same security compliance infrastructure that the company devices do. Similarly, we continued to use all such internal and external tools that we had already been using and made modifications to make these more remote workforces compatible. This not only ensured that employees didn’t have to adapt to entirely new tools or systems when there was already so much changing around them, but also economized our expenditure on new assets, tools, and related training. All of these activities involved extensive multi-department coordination – Finance to procure new devices or ensure employees had necessary authorizations to upgrade home bandwidth, IT to configure and help a vast array of skillsets connect with necessary applications from home, Admin to coordinate delivery logistics and to ensure proper paper trails, Service Delivery to get necessary approvals from clients for evolving service delivery norms, and HR to ensure all employees understood we were there for them and would still be there as this transition evolved, and then all available hands (including many of the leadership team) leveraging where they lived to get permits enabling actually getting devices to our folks. Truly a team effort that reminded me that when the going gets tough, the tough get going…and the passion of our team across ALL departments was, and remains, inspiring.
Lesson 2: Employee Engagement Was (And Remains) A Priority
We have a unique culture of voluntary employee committees in MK. Each committee has a different focus area such as sports and games, cultural activities, social outreach, food, all with the common goal of promoting broad employee engagement from ALL. This is over and above department-specific activities, and many newer employees cite how “easy” it is to become part of our team via this voluntary channel—it’s truly a hallmark and differentiator for how MK operates—and has been since our team started back in 2003. This culture of “everyone chipping in” really served us well as we quickly worked to get our remote workforce operational—and also while we settled into a “new normal” service delivery model. Once operational in the new 100% remote model, we did not let the remote work structure restrict these activities. In fact, we acknowledged the need to increase our efforts, to make up for the loss of direct face time. In the past several months, we have had many online events and seen enthusiastic participation from our employees. A few examples of particularly popular activities were “a virtual potluck” where hundreds shared pictures of favorite foods they prepared at home, or a chance to decorate and showcase home workspaces for all to see, or even online gaming contests—the idea was to give all many chances to participate in “fun” beyond the work to keep folks feeling a part of something bigger. Also, many of our meetings end with fun activities often focusing on team bonding—for example, all will play “Bingo” or perform a dance or skit of some type. On the direct work front, we have not only been conducting regular Rewards and Recognition events virtually, but we have also increased the number of such events by introducing new categories, such as work from home heroes, more tenure appreciation rewards, and other employee appreciation related categories. We also realize how imperative it is to check on our employees and while production-oriented touchpoints are frequent (immediate supervisors and skip level reach-outs happen frequently—several times daily), we’ve been conducting employee wellness surveys to hear directly from our team members. In fact, we have also evolved our regular employee satisfaction survey so that it can take into consideration new factors that have emerged as a result of this shift. The good news? So far, these employee E-SAT surveys show slightly ELEVATED scores—our team has embraced the new model and even acknowledges our efforts to ensure all “feel connected” during these “once in a lifetime” times.
Lesson 3: Flexibility Is Important
One size doesn’t fit all, hence we have always tried to be flexible to our employees in terms of work perimeters such as precise schedules (subject to specific client requirement), and the pandemic didn’t change that. While one hundred percent of our team were office-based, we often have allowed some flexibility toward working remotely (our focus has always been on the output achieved) and that culture helped in this transition. We acknowledged that the work environment at home is not nearly the same as it is in the office. Internet bandwidth, power connectivity, chores, space availability, all of these dynamics become decisive factors in employees’ productivity. While maintaining necessary production objectives (remember mandate #3—we must operate as a business), we have encouraged individual departments to be as flexible as business needs allow. We also regularly provide updates on when remote work situations may change—as of this update (early September 2020), we are STILL 90% remote worker. As stated earlier, employee safety is our PARAMOUNT concern—and we are not going to “rush back to the office” until we are certain that it is safe to do that. While many have expressed a desire to return, all understand that it serves no purpose to move too quickly and to then have a pandemic related setback. Transparent communications are helping ensure that all know the situation.
Lesson 4: Reinvention Isn’t Easy
Many industries have suffered in the pandemic. Companies are losing business and people are losing jobs. We have not been fully immune to this dynamic, because we rely on revenue from companies who outsource to us. We lost a fifteen-year client impacting dozens of senior team members. However, we are approaching this differently by inventing new opportunities wherever we can. To the extent possible, we are retaining employees by offering some new roles, customized specifically to match their skills, so that it’s not their second-best option. In fact, we are also absorbing new talent and our hiring mechanism has undergone a complete revamp to make it easy for candidates to interview and be inducted into our organization. We are also constantly working on the evolving dynamics with clients by stepping into their shoes. Short-term variable non-enforcement of contractual volume minimums was a painful, but necessary concession that meant we also had to temporarily spread this “pain” across our team via reduced employee comp. Flexible payment plans, even amended contracts on a couple of occasions, have been outcomes of thoughtful discussions with valued clients. We’re still focused on the achievement of the win-win, for sure, but we’ve had to manage through these dynamics by being disciplined and conservative in approach. Through all of this, however, we have strived to fully embrace our “Be Transparent” part of our tagline—-developing new communications tools to ensure all could be kept appropriately in the loop and MOST importantly, have the ready ability to reach out to not only their management hierarchy but also Employee Relations (ER) and even the “MikeAarati” direct channel (an email that goes just to us). Have there been some missteps? Sure. Sometimes in our quest to ensure critical decision making (even within the confines of the three mandates), we’ve made a call that we soon realized need to be pulled back. But even when this happened, we did so transparently….and a byproduct of that has seemingly been a team that understands the broad goals…and also by and large supports them.
Lesson 5: A Day At A Time
I could not now predict when we will have even a majority of our team working again from our offices—much less a return to the “old way” of a primarily office-based infrastructure. Through September, we know that the current 90% remote workforce will only reduce slightly—and until, overall pandemic numbers improve significantly, we will likely stay the course. But while we do, we will also continue to learn and evolve. We will continue to ensure that we try to get better at all aspects of ensuring a productive, motivated, satisfied remote workforce. Every decision we are taking is made while looking at the bigger picture and considering the impacts it will have on each member of the company and our clients. The three mandates remain.
They say, you either adapt or perish. We are adapting, and how! MK’s journey has been about constantly evolving and the pandemic is not going to hold us back. In fact, we are using our TANIAP (turning a negative into a positive) approach even with this, and the results, knock on wood, are encouraging and motivating. We have even added six NEW clients since the pandemic started.
It’ll be a while before things can go back to how they were—if they EVER will—-but whatever happens, we will be embracing all the new best practices that we have learned. We still have puzzle pieces to solve and we’re looking at this as a once in a lifetime experience to learn from. Yes, challenges face us all but remember when the going gets tough, the tough get going! Aarati and I know that we have the responsibility to guide the organization to ensure that our clients remain happy —that they SEE an ROI and value from our work—-and in achieving that, our team remains gainfully employed and even grows like what we’ve been seeing SINCE the pandemic started. It has truly been a team effort and it’s reaffirmed both, my confidence and appreciation for the team we have here within MK. I could not be prouder that through thick and thin, our team faces challenges head-on. Onward and upward!
(Apeksha Pathak, Senior Manager within MK, also contributed significantly to this article).