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Uncertainty Kills Employee Engagement: Shiv Shivakumar

“Why have employees checked into a company and checked out in their minds?” Pre Pandemic people started asking this question as the global average of employee disengagement was somewhere between 60-70% and in some organisations it was as high as 87%. In a recent virtual interaction, Shiv Shivakumar, Group Executive President, Corporate Strategy & Business Development, Aditya Birla Group talks about employee engagement during the Pandemic, aspects of employee engagement which have changed and not changed since the Pandemic and his personal lessons from this period.

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Shiv Shivakumar, Group Executive President, Corporate Strategy & Business Development, Aditya Birla Group

What is Employee Engagement?

Shivakumar defines employee engagement as an emotional commitment to an organisation’s vision, values and goals. For him it is not about salaries or some employee satisfaction survey. It is something which is always a work in progress for any good organisation. Elaborating on the context, Shivakumar says that uncertainty kills employee engagement and today uncertainty is about salary, future work policies, physical office reopening and so on. “Until the employee has some clarity on a particular uncertainty it is unlikely that an HR Leader or CEO can say that they have a grip over employee engagement,” he adds. He believes that a constant effort and personal commitment is required from senior leadership to attain engagement.

Shivakumar feels that given how the work from home scenario has unfolded and how about 75% of the workers feel more productive while working from home, organisations will have to think about the quality of work delivered as opposed to the quantity of time an employee spends in front of his boss.

Some Commonalties of Pre and Post Pandemic Phase

Shivakumar further lists some commonalties of the pre and post Pandemic phase and describes “Feeling Valued at Work” as the number one attribute that drives employee engagement. “Feeling valued at work doesn’t mean only good things. It means being appreciated if I do good work, being challenged from time to time so that I raise the bar. It also means that the organisation enables me to do good work and hence I feel valued at work,” he elaborates. Personal growth and development take the second spot in his list where he believes that a lot of personal growth has happened in terms of online training courses and webinars but not in terms of salary, promotion or job role change. 

He also talks on the aspect of changes in organisation and clarity on direction and feels that people want to work for an organisation where they have better clarity and more transparency in terms of where they are headed. “As leaders we have to clarify the business models, the cost structure and how are we going to compete, that’s what our employees want to know from us,” he adds. Finally, he believes the concern for well-being is still paramount but now it is about being responsible and delivering a workplace which is safe in terms of health and at the same time ensuring the employee’s mental well-being.

What has not changed during the Pandemic?

Shivakumar says the most prominent aspect which has not changed even after the Pandemic is “Communication from Leadership.” He believes that in the past most leaders adopted “Management by Walking Around" or what he calls as MBWA but today it has become “Management by WhatsApp.” In essence he emphasises on the fact that communicating directly and being in touch with the top leadership matters a lot for employees. The other aspect which Shivakumar believes has not changed is appreciation. 

“Today in the social media world people want more recognition and more rewards. They want more frequent recognitions. The more you put out certificates, well done messages etc. that is what the employees want and that’s what leads to higher engagement,” he elaborates.

Some Personal Lessons

Shivakumar also talks about his personal lessons from the Pandemic phase and lists out some practices that he adopted to increase employee engagement such as frequent plant visits and interacting with employees on the challenges they were facing during the Pandemic. He also started the concept of a Virtual Town Hall where a global phone call at 12 noon would connect the top leadership with the employees to review the business.

For Shivakumar the one initiative that sharpened his concept of employee and their family’s aspirations was of Family Calls. Every 6 months, Shivakumar would talk to top 60 people who reported to him and their families which gave him insights about the family’s aspirations about their child’s future and how they were performing at work.

Among the challenges, Shivakumar says that there are a lot of variables which are at play in a work from home environment so responsiveness becomes a big challenge. “When you are at work, if something strikes me, I’ll just walk across talk to the relevant employee and finish the work. In a work from home environment when I used to call some of my employees, sometimes they used to say you know what Shiv I’m sitting with my father, I’ll call you back later,” he describes.

Shivakumar believes that employee engagement is indeed a very broad term especially after the Pandemic and at the end of the day nothing can substitute for one-on-one engagement with the employees.

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