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Learning from Each Other During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Insights from CEOs of India’s largest manufacturing companies

  • March 2020

Leaders from six major industrial and manufacturing companies and groups operating in India gathered on a video call on March 13 to share how they were handling the crisis now, and how they were planning for what is to come. Most of these companies have operations in India and overseas; and together have over 130 factories and 120,000 employees.

Here is what we learned.

This is first and foremost a humanitarian crisis.

There was a clear sense that we were beyond this being a business crisis. The need for empathy was a key theme, and everyone echoed that business must reach to every employee we have; not just in our
workplaces but also in our homes. 

Care is a key quality to hold on to and reflect on in these times. Not just for employees, who are looking for clear guidance and direction, but also for ourselves.This is a crisis unlike one seen before and is a new challenge for everyone.

This is going to get much worse before it gets better.

Everyone agreed that we are in a very tough period, which will last for the next 3-6 months at least. It is going to get much worse. The impact of this multiplied across the economy will be felt not just on organizations, but on those that partner with companies as employees, vendors, customers and on their families. To prevent an even more significant humanitarian crisis down the line, one has to focus on the business today and act decisively.

Travel cancellations, remote work, focus on personal hygiene are the norm.

All the companies agreed that they have started doing the basics: cancelling travel and gatherings, introducing health checks in the plants and offices, making sanitizers available everywhere, practicing social distancing, and evaluating and implementing working remotely where possible.
Most companies have put in place protocols for working from home, protocol on how to respond to a infection on their premises and more.

Companies are experimenting, making mistakes, and learning fast. Here are some ideas on how to manage that everyone should consider.

  1. In a crisis, with things changing fast, it’s important to give “local” leaders – those in plants, in branches, or in overseas offices, the empowerment to make decisions as they feel appropriate within certain guidelines. It is not only difficult but also not effective for the CEO or her leadership team to personally direct responses across the organization.
  2. Listening deeply to employees through multiple channels is very important. Being heard and responded to helps manage anxiety. One company has a daily call with all “local leaders” in the organization. What started as a way to discuss actions to be taken has become a great forum to understand employee’s anxiety across the organization and address them with clear, frequent, and transparent communication. Another company has a 24/7 helpline to “listen” to employees and provide appropriate social, managerial, or psychological counselling.
  3. While several organizations are focusing on business process continuity, few have paid attention to continuity of executive leadership. One company has identified “stand in” successors for the top 25 roles in the company in the event of any individual being incapacitated. The successors have been told and briefed on the actions expected of them.
  4. Isolating plants to ensure production continuity is critical. One company given instructions that no one external to the plant (from another plant, from HQ, or an external) would be allowed in. When statutory provisions meant that auditors had to enter the plant, they were requested to self-certify that they had not travelled internationally recently; and also get a clean bill of health.
  5. Another organization has analyzed the geographic footprint of its employees by department and made decisions that support both employee productivity and employee health. e.g., they realized their finance department had several people based in one particular Mumbai suburb. They quickly set up a satellite office and gave the finance team an option to work together, from an office close to home, so they would not need to travel on public transport, but also would be protected from exposure to a larger number of people in headquarters.

The silver lining: The crisis has created opportunities to both grow and to strengthen the business.

  1. Despite the challenges, the absence of travel means leaders have more time that they ever had before. There was resonance that this time should be directed towards “stepping-back” and looking structurally and strategically at the business.
  2. With many organizations around the world getting impacted by supply chain challenges linked to China, companies are seeing the opportunity to position India as a meaningful second supply base, both internally and with customers. This has already begun to happen opportunistically, with some companies have been getting inquiries from customers in geographies they have previously not focused on.
  3. The crisis has exposed significant vulnerabilities in their own supply chains, exposing concentration risk and providing opportunities to even further localize at lower costs.
  4. Several organizations are recognizing the value of multi-skilling employees in their plants. With many plants having specialized workers reducing those that have to come in to work has been a challenge.
  5. One organization shared how they have always wanted to find a new technology-first way to address sales and distribution, particularly in Tier 3 and 4 towns but had not been able to do so. The crisis was now pushing them towards piloting these “remote” solutions quickly.

There is a call for business to co-operate to help each other; and to help the community.

Everyone is dealing with a challenge that’s not been seen before. Instead of everyone making the same mistakes, there is a case for companies to learn from each other and manage this a little better, or a little faster.
There is a strong belief that this is a challenge that will require the public and private sector to work together. Could there be a role for companies to come together in the communities they are a part of and brainstorm how they can collectively buttress the government response?

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