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Sunday July 25th, 2021

The Future of Work: Driving Employee Experience in a Digital Environment

Ramesh Shanmuganathan Executive Vice President and CIO at John Keells Holdings (JKH)

We live in a global village, which is increasingly driven towards hyper-connectivity and hyper-personalization. The separation between any two individuals in a world with a population of close to 8 billion has reduced from six to four, due to this growing phenomenon. Anything that you do today is about connecting the dots. The million-dollar question remains which ones? why? how? and where? Increasingly, the critical dots that we are looking to connect are humans.

We are also seeing that humans are gravitating towards the core of this ecosystem that is evolving worldwide – be it a country, a government, an institution or a business. This, then makes it crucial to have the right humans, at the right place, to create the desired outcome, else the entire ecosystem is at risk of collapsing with dire consequences for many.

Ramesh Shanmuganathan, the Chief Executive of JKIT and the Executive Vice President and CIO at John Keells Holdings (JKH), Sri Lanka’s largest company, shares his views on the future of work in a post-pandemic business world. While organizations continue to embrace technology to drive business growth, creating a compelling employee experience that mirrors the best customer experience the firm would aim to create, is of significant importance in order to retain a talented workforce.

At John Keells IT, employee experience means much more than a policy. It means walking the talk, which the company’s leadership is skillfully driving, mindful of the changing demands of the new age employee.

Organizations now focus on ‘employee experience’ as a key component of their HR strategy. Yet, attracting the right employees and retaining them remains a challenge. What are your views on this challenge?

Employees have increasingly gravitated to the center stage of many organizations in the past two decades, with globalization of economies, and the increasing democratization of education, employment, markets, capital, etc. Today, employees have greater mobility and a multitude of options from being self-employed, to advancing their career through the plethora of opportunities that may be open to them across the world, and accessible at their finger-tips, due to digitalisation. In this context, today, employees want to be in the driving seat of their careers. They are looking for the best vehicle which could get them to their destination, and while doing so, what could give them the best driving pleasure as well.

At John Keells IT, we believe that every employee must be given the best vehicle we can afford, while making their driving pleasure the best possible. In fact, they become our customers first and employees second. They need to have a voice, and we must show that we care about their opinions, and follow through on them. That’s what we are building on at John Keells IT. We have a team that represents the employee welfare, and is chaired by the CEO of the company. They are mandated to look into all aspects of creating that Employee Experience in the company, with the full support and sponsorship of the senior leadership.

With the Covid-19 disruption, we had a few challenges in creating the employee engagement that we would have wished to have created. However, we have made good of what we could do, through the collaborative platforms, and in recognizing their thoughtful actions during the pandemic, in helping us be fully operational. We are not perfect, but we are progressing in the right direction, with the right intent.

What initiatives has John Keells IT taken towards enhancing employee engagement and experience?

At John Keells IT, we believe in creating a culture which is built on openness, mutual-respect, integrity, trust, caring, innovation, diversity, inclusion, transparency, empowerment, and continuous learning.

It’s important that the leadership walks the talk for us to create an organization which lives by its values. The primary focus is on ensuring that we have the right people, doing the right job from top down, in ensuring that we live the spirit of the organization. We invest a lot of time on coaching and mentoring our senior leadership to be able to create and sustain a culture, which can attract and retain the talent we need.

As I stated before, we do have a committee, nominated by the staff, empowered to formulate and drive Employee Experience and Engagement, together with the leadership team.

  • We have an open office and an open-door policy from the CEO downwards, to emphasize that we are one, big family.
  • We engage in open communication, and believe that every employee will be better engaged in whatever he or she does, if we create the right context and understanding of why, what they do is important, and the impact it has on the organization.
  • We are structured into work groups/cells to give each a greater degree of autonomy to function, within predefined boundaries, with flatter structures and greater empowerment.
  • We are very open and transparent about the health of the company, and share widely the opportunities and challenges that the company faces at any given juncture. This helps everyone to engage in areas where they feel they could contribute.
  • We give greater emphasis to what a person does for the growth of the company, than the title he/she holds, and recognize them for it by fast tracking their growth within the company.
  • We share our profits with our employees so that they get the true pulse of the company

We are committed to creating an environment that gives each employee the ability to discover their inner talents, nurture them, and align them for mutual benefits of both, whilst making his/her journey both enjoyable and rewarding as possible.

How does the company measure its investment vs returns on the HR function, from onboarding the right talent to investing in employee-driven initiatives?

We are in the services’ industry and our only asset is our people. Given that HR, for us, is not a mere function abdicated to a handful of members or mandated with a set of objectives and tasks. Rather every one of us in the organization is responsible for the well-being of one another, and the organization at large. For us, the investment we make in people has no measure of return, but will ultimately reflect in our growth as a company, and in our ability to create the brand that stands tall in being able to attract the best talent, loyal customers, committed partners, and create the best economic value for all our stakeholders.

Covid-19 has not disrupted the HR function nor the organization, but it has forced a step change which was long pending

How is the covid – 19 crisis disrupting the HR function, as the WFH model takes off for the second year since the pandemic hit?

In my opinion, Covid-19 has not disrupted the HR function nor the organization, but it has forced a step change which was long pending – it’s a point of inflection. With the advancement and wider adoption of digital/IT, we should embrace new ways of doing things, but we were in our comfort zones just maintaining the status quo.

Post Covid-19, overnight what was impossible became possible, and everyone started looking at new possibilities since status-quo was no longer possible or good enough. Now, we can truly model ourselves as a Global Organization, since our employees can be working for us from anywhere in the world. We were blessed to be well equipped to shift to WFH overnight since we were well geared from a technology standpoint, and most of our employees have settled with this mode of working barring a few initial teething issues. For us this will be the new normal, while we explore what the next normal could become for us to truly be a global company. Obviously, we need to keep reinventing ourselves in keeping Employee experience and engagement alive in the new normal as well.

We do have our staff meetings and employee engagement activities online via Microsoft Teams, and I personally have a daily open hour on Microsoft Teams which anyone of my staff can use to connect with me one-on-one.

Some industries, especially tech can be demanding and deadline-driven. It’s also one of the most competitive industries. Employee retention can be a significant challenge. How does John Keells IT manage employee development and career advancement in a manner that addresses both the individual, as well as organizational growth?

With the rapid pace of development as well as adoption of digital/IT by organizations the demand for tech talent has risen sharply, and we are certainly constrained for talent from the supply side. This is also aggravated by the mismatch in terms of the skills that are in the market vs what is needed by the industry, though there is very capable talent locally. We embraced a strategy to incubate the skills required for our growth very early on, about 10 years back, by launching a Graduate Placement program as well as a Management Training program, whereby we recruit the right talent and put them through a 1-year rigorous training program in areas that are key for our growth. We also offer them a career with us with clear steps for career advancement, as well as opportunities to advance their careers, both in their chosen track as well as with possible lateral growth opportunities.

Furthermore, we align our career tracks to encourage continuous professional development in alignment with our growth strategies, as well as to create the necessary talent pipeline and retain them for the long haul, in alignment with the company’s growth aspirations.

What does the future of work mean to you?

The future of work will be platform driven, flexible, engaging, highly-skilled, mobile, personalized with a global workforce coming together to collaborate, co-innovate and co-create what needs to get done. How all of us will live, work and play will change: people will be accountable for what gets delivered, and will have the total freedom of choice in terms of how, when and where.

Each of us will have a choice as to what we do, how we do it, where we do it, and when we do it. I’m the knowledge worker of the 21st century!