In 2020, as the world was blindsided by a little-known virus, most corporates scurried to firefight on the go. There were no guidelines, and even less knowledge of how long a shutdown Covid-19 would enforce.
At Whirlpool of India Ltd, too, 2020 was all about getting employees comfortably settled at remote workstations and rolling out the still-nebulous work-from-home (WFH) framework. A year later, the company has emerged wiser, learning to live seamlessly with the troughs and peaks of Covid’s multiple waves.
“What happened in the last 18 months has given us a solid playbook. We saw the results when we returned to office in the first week of January this year, and realised cases have begun to rise [due to the onset of the Omicron wave],” says Vishal Bhola, MD, Whirlpool of India Ltd. “We immediately put this playbook into action and within a few days went back to working virtually, with barely 5 percent of the staff with critical roles needing to come to office.”
The best part though, Bhola adds, was not going virtual effortlessly, but the quick and efficient return to office once cases waned. “Within two days, we got back attendance levels that we desired without having to insist or cajole staff. This is despite the inertia that is expected to set in,” says Bhola. “It shows how we’ve perfected the Covid playbook.”
At the core of this lie empathy and agility. Many of the measures that emanated from these values weren’t formalised through written guidelines, but implemented informally through mutual understanding. “We were completely relaxed on our leave rules, which were allowed no-questions-asked; meetings were limited, and staff were encouraged not to convene meetings beyond 6-6.30 pm to enable work-life balance,” says Rachna Kumar, VP, human resources, Whirpool Asia.
The initiatives were consistent with the office ethos at the company—an open culture where colleagues can walk up to each other and speak, solve problems through conversations rather than emails and calls. “We struggled with this philosophy a bit during Covid, since meetings became slightly formal. Therefore, in some ways, it has been great to get people back,” adds Bhola.
While Covid ushered in the new normal in 2020, it was its second wave in April-May 2021 that struck the most lethal blow. Thousands of lives were lost for want of medical aid as hospital beds and oxygen cylinders ran scarce. That’s when Whirlpool of India worked on war-footing to handhold its staff through the crisis.
The company air-couriered RAT kits and oxygen cylinders from the headquarters in Benton Harbor, Michigan, in the US, and delivered them overnight to employees. “Our office vehicles transported those cylinders and also distributed lunch packets to those who needed them,” says Kumar. “We had doctors on call 24×7 and distributed medical kits among affected staff.” Besides, health insurance covers were increased and offered to partners who visited customer homes to service, repair and instal company products.
Whirlpool of India had already structured the Be Well initiative for employees that had six levers to propel all-round staff growth and well-being. While it was in the embedment phase, Covid catalysed the measures, especially those related to mental and emotional wellness. “We rolled out 24×7 employee assistance programmes, confidential access to counsellors, and organised many activities and sessions on yoga, mindfulness and self-awareness,” says Kumar.
Says Anjali Raghuvanshi, chief people officer of placement agency Randstad: “Today’s job-seekers have evolved preferences while selecting employers, especially post-pandemic. The idea of employer branding has changed as aspirants prefer ‘companies with a purpose’. Whirlpool is one of India’s most attractive employer brands in times where employees have been seeking benefits beyond an attractive pay package. Work-life balance has taken centre stage along with other EVP [employee value proposition] drivers like full-time remote work, a Covid-safe environment at physical workplaces, mental wellness support, etc.”
As more offices open up with the waning of the Omicron wave, Whirlpool of India, too, is bringing back its staff by and by. In about 10 days from returning since early-February, its office capacities were back to about 50 percent. Given the nature of work for most of its functions, Bhola admits there’s no substitute for physical collaboration, but insists he wants to merge the gains of WFH into their current work system.
“We don’t want to throw out the baby with the bath water. There are certain practices from the WFH phase, like flexibility and agility, that we are going to build on, along with getting those in-person collaborations going,” he says.
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(This story appears in the 11 March, 2022 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)