Harsh Times Define Company Culture Parag Kulkarni Managing Director AO Smith India

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In an interview with BW Businessworld, Mr. Parag Kulkarni, Managing Director, AO Smith India, talks about health, safety, work ethic, resilience, flexibility and employee safety protocols. Excerpts:

What are the main challenges you have encountered due to Covid-19 and how did you overcome these challenges?

The COVID-19 pandemic has set new levels of speed in decision-making and innovation to meet new and changing needs. The sudden lockdown and shift to working from home have brought on, and continue to do, several challenges, especially in supply chain management, timely communication with retailers, and logistics management. For the first time, we found ourselves working 100% remotely, relying entirely on technology to facilitate collaboration, communication and productivity. One of the main trends we have seen in the wake of the pandemic has been the significant shift in the channel from offline to e-commerce. As a result, we quickly adapted our business approach to reflect these changing customer behaviors and reshaped our messaging to better connect with the new reality of our customers.

They say a crisis brings out the best in people and I was amazed at how much my team has grown at a time when we face one of the greatest challenges of all time! I’m proud of the way the team tackled each obstacle head-on and found creative solutions to each obstacle. People are indeed your best assets and we stay focused on this storm together as a team to come out stronger than ever!

In the current scenario, how do you think leaders can come forward and set an example? Has the pandemic changed a leader’s priorities?

Leaders have had to evolve and adapt quickly to seize opportunities and overcome challenges. It is crucial to show strong leadership at such a time, as priorities change. For leaders, when the team is worried and anxious, it is important to be calm and comforting. This is also the time to be decisive while keeping a positive attitude and staying focused on creating opportunities from obstacles. Some of the decisions you make may not always be right, however, in the current scenario, “wait and watch” is just not an option. You have to do what you think is best. Another important thing is that people want to hear from leaders during tough times – so make sure your voice is heard and that you communicate frequently. It is also necessary to lead with empathy and provide support in any way possible. Even a small act of kindness goes a long way in assuaging someone’s worries in the current scenario.

Are the health and safety of employees a top priority for any organization today? What steps have AO Smith taken for the well-being of its employees?

Employee health and safety is an integral part of all of our initiatives and has always been a priority. This year, it was especially important to take extra steps to make employees feel safer and to assure them that their safety and health was a major concern. We have launched a series of employee wellness initiatives and regularly communicate on employee health and safety.

In these desperate times, we bought oxygen concentrators to use by employees and their families in an emergency. To help employees meet their health needs, we have given employees the option of increasing their insurance coverage and also raised the limit on insurance coverage. Our insurance policy covered all hospital costs related to COVID. COVID time off, including quarantine days, is paid time off and does not count towards employee earned vacation leave. We have created strict standard business processes for sales and service to follow when visiting customers. Along with my human resources manager and other members of management, I keep in regular contact with employees who have been affected by COVID and I personally educate themselves about their health and that of their families to make sure they receive the care they need. Additionally, there has been constant communication with our employees through workplace letters and posters reminding them of our safety protocols.

How can companies enable a positive working environment during the current crisis?

Communicating responsibly in a pandemic environment is the key to creating a positive work environment. It is also important to encourage employees to ask questions and to maintain open lines of communication with employees. At AO Smith, we have kept in constant contact with our employees during and after the lockdown through the use of various communication channels. We also believe that happy employees create successful workplaces, so celebrating small milestones in these difficult times is important. We celebrated various milestones during the year, such as the launch of a new product, employee involvement in company-led initiatives and employees demonstrating their talent through our initiative called Mehfil, a competition virtual talent. In fact, during this difficult year, our employees voted us “Great Place To Work®”, which I would call one of our greatest accomplishments. Finding joy in the little things can give team members a sense of belonging during these difficult times.

What are the main lessons as a leader of the Covid-19 pandemic?

Staying calm and focused while building resilience and confidence within my team has been my priority. Showing kindness and compassion to one another and offering help when possible helps reduce stress levels. Times like these define a company’s culture and the way you manage your team through these challenges is a reflection of the company’s values. The importance of constant communication within an organization is paramount and technology plays a vital role in doing business more effectively and efficiently.

One thing is certain: the world has entered a phase of rapid flux, where changes are occurring at breakneck speed. Being prepared for crises like this, and others to come, requires having a solid business continuity plan and being ready to implement it down to the minute. We have all learned a lot during this pandemic. Resilience, along with flexibility, has proven to be the keys to successfully getting through these difficult times.



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