The crisis-induced agility will remain prevalent in the industry: IndiGo's SVP and Head HR

The crisis-induced agility will remain prevalent in the industry: IndiGo's SVP and Head HR

Raj Raghavan, Senior Vice President and Head of Human Resources at IndiGo, shares how the pandemic proved to be a decisive moment for digital transformation and enhancing capabilities in the aviation industry — which was hit harder and faster by COVID-19 than most industries. He also discusses what the future of aviation might look like, how HR leaders can help organisations emerge on the other side stronger than before, and what recent graduates and young professionals need to keep in mind to succeed in the airline job market going forward.


Airlines have been among the hardest-hit industries by the COVID-19 crisis. What would you say is the biggest transformation that the pandemic has brought forth for the aviation sector?


Around the world, the aviation industry has had a massive hit as travel operations came to a halt due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Even as Indian aviation is inching back towards normalcy, the pandemic will change the way people travel forever, as there will be various norms that passengers may have to follow for a long time, or at least until an acceptable vaccine is developed. From social distancing to wearing PPE gear and getting COVID-19 tests done before boarding a flight, there will be a whole lot of changes that the industry will see in the long run. 


Our transformation at IndiGo has been several-fold:


1.Our customer-facing digital capabilities have improved tremendously with seamless and contactless reservations, check-ins, and baggage tagging, extending all the way to meal selection on board.


2. We have significantly enhanced our cargo business by converting several aircraft to be cargo-friendly.


3. A brand new business emerged by way of Passenger Charters, especially meant for tour operators and those wanting to travel with families and small groups.


What are the areas of concern that HR leaders in the airline industry might be called upon to address going forward?


IndiGo has always prided itself in being customer-friendly as well as employee-centric. Partnering with my colleagues at the Executive Committee in communicating the realities of the business to the employees across the company was the first imperative. Rono Dutta, our CEO, has a personal yet effective way of speaking and writing, which makes this somewhat manageable. We implemented pay cuts and a reduction in force. As we made these difficult decisions, my HR colleagues and I ensured to execute them in the most compassionate manner possible.


One of the most significant commitments we made to our workforce was that whenever we started rehiring, our first approach would be to bring back those who left us. We stand by that commitment, and as things begin to ease out a bit, we are already starting to witness some green shoots in this respect.


These said, how we keep costs across the company – not just employee costs – in control will determine how successful we will be at getting back towards normalcy.


Additionally, how our customers perceive us will be equally important. My theory is that employee engagement has a significant role to play in delivering customer satisfaction. My HR colleagues and I are addressing these areas on a continuous basis. “6e Speaks”, our twice-a-month pulse survey, is giving us rich information on what we should be doing to sustain high levels of employee engagement.


We continuously monitor not just the data but also qualitative comments of our colleagues and swiftly take corrective action.


At the end of the day, what is a better way to drive engagement than employees feeling that not only are they being heard, but actions are also being taken to resolve issues?


The pandemic has been instrumental in the rapid transformation and extinction of certain job roles and the emergence of newer ones. How are job roles changing in the aviation sector? What will be the most in-demand roles post-COVID-19?


Transformation in our digital capability, the introduction of passenger charters and enhanced cargo handling capacity have resulted in improved business results during these challenging times. I do not like to hand-pick one skill over the other, but I would reckon that the ability to multi-skill will come in very handy. Willingness to learn and experiment will be key.


How do you see the job market in the airline industry? What would your advice be for recent graduates in the aviation field who are struggling to enter the job market and feel uncertain about their future?


My personal sense is that young employees will no longer put all their ‘eggs’ in one company or career basket. The gig economy is growing and becoming a mainstream phenomenon not just in the West but in India as well.


So far, gig working has been prevalent primarily with the entry-level careers that formed the initial core of Uber-type businesses, which did not present a conflict with the work and time demands with their regular job. With the “uberization” extending to professionally qualified and managerial employees, work norms and expectations will have to be rethought and re-designed. Remote working will add its share of spice and excitement to this mix.


While the pandemic has sped up many work trends that were already underway, it has altered the direction of others and initiated some future trends. Which COVID-induced changes do you believe will persist in 2021 and beyond for the airline industry?


The crisis-induced agility will remain prevalent for the medium term in the industry, as it is still uncertain as to when this pandemic will be over entirely.


One is already seeing technology firms almost permanently shifting to a work-from-home model and coming to office buildings only when necessary. As for onsite customer-facing businesses like hospitality, offline retail, aviation etc., while quite a few changes may be temporary until a vaccine is developed, there will be some residual impact from the pandemic. For instance, maintaining adequate social distancing, wearing PPE kits and sanitising aircrafts in short intervals will continue to be the norm, as the world will not be the same for quite some time.


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With 5+ years of experience, Ankita has performed diverse roles across the entire spectrum of corporate HR — from hire to retire. She is currently Deputy Editor at Human Capital.


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