Have the curiosity of a child, and you will never have a dull day: Deepti Varma
Deepti Varma, Director – HR for Amazon in APAC and Middle East, is a natural with people. With an innate urge to spread light to others, perhaps she draws inspiration from her name, which means “bright flame.” Her background of professional endeavours across diverse sectors forms an interesting biography of an HR leader who has worked wholeheartedly to bring out the best in everyone.
She possibly imbibed a poised temperament and the ability to adapt to ever-changing scenarios from her mother, who once told her that “the greatest form of creativity is the recreation of oneself.”
Passionate about diversity, equity, and inclusion, Deepti currently leads crucial initiatives for a creative and diverse workforce at Amazon — a company resilient enough to thrive amid any number of disruptions and nimble enough to take advantage of any opportunity that arises.
One of the key sectors to discuss in light of the pandemic is e-commerce, which has been seeing accelerated growth since the past year. From an HR standpoint, how did Amazon India overcome the slew of challenges in the initial days of the crisis, such as dealing with a surge in demand and supply chain disruptions?
At Amazon, the pandemic has been an opportunity to embrace change and innovate processes. Despite the challenging situation, we were nimble and quick to react, which helped us optimise process efficiency and the employee/ candidate experience.
As an example, by mid-March, we had conceptualised and implemented a virtual onboarding program that started as a pilot at Amazon India and has since been scaled globally. Virtual onboarding at scale was a novel experience. We had to adapt fast to the dynamic environmental shifts, which meant making changes to our onboarding processes, new hire documentation, IT enablement protocols, and ensuring that new hires continued to get a great onboarding experience. Our culture of moving fast by taking quick two-way door decisions helped us react well to the fast-evolving situation.
Even before the pandemic, the global concern about mental health at work had reached such proportions that it had been dubbed the “trillion-dollar taboo.” This term references the World Health Organization’s pre-COVID estimate that depression and anxiety cost the global economy $1tn in lost productivity every year. In recent months, work-related stress and burnout have been off the charts. What are some ways in which Amazon supports employees’ holistic wellbeing?
Employee mental and physical health is of paramount importance at Amazon. Our wellness initiative ‘Svasthya’ includes health checkups, an Employee Assistance Program (EAP), online wellness webinars/support, and diet and nutrition counselling. The Employee Assistance Program forms a key part of our wellbeing initiative and supports us in managing stress an employee might be facing.
We have many guidelines that allow employees to choose their working hours and take breaks when appropriate. Apart from that, most leaders are creatively trying to find an approach that works well for their team as we have a diverse workforce, and one size cannot fit all.
What role do leaders at Amazon play in creating and sustaining a company culture that is wellbeing oriented?
While Amazonians work backwards from customer needs, we make sure to understand the pulse of our employees, too. We’ve launched a daily feedback survey called ‘Connections’, to understand the factors that influence our employees’ day-to-day experience on a real-time basis. Team leaders leverage this program to understand employee experiences and build action plans to address the focus areas. During these challenging times, we have leveraged ‘Connections’ questions to understand employee wellbeing better.
The pandemic has exposed whether organisations view D&I as a nice-to-have box-ticking exercise or as a core value. Has the post-COVID future, which heralds a hybrid way of working for many companies, rendered DEI more critical than ever?
Irrespective of COVID, Amazon has always believed diversity is important. Jeff Bezos has said, “It’s not only that diversity and inclusion are good for our business. It’s more fundamental than that — it’s simply right.”
Diversity for us is a combination of unique skills, experiences, perspectives and cultural backgrounds that make us who we are. A few programs that we rolled out before COVID-19 include:
♦ Rekindle — an initiative designed to encourage women on a professional break to resume their corporate career through structured onboarding, focused mentoring, and on the job training.
♦ A Virtual Contact Center (VCC) that enables employees to work from any location, such as smaller contact centers, branch offices, retail stores, and home.
We are always looking at creating more opportunities within Amazon for diversity and inclusion. During the pandemic, we orientated our managers on how to interact with teams virtually and promote inclusivity while being sensitive to their own needs, as managers need to be enabled, too.
What are the recent initiatives taken up by Amazon India to level the playing field and support women, LGBT+, people with diverse abilities, and under-represented groups to flourish at work?
We are constantly working to create an environment that promotes diversity. We recruit diverse employees across the company — from entry-level roles to the most senior positions. Several initiatives promote women empowerment and gender diversity amongst the local communities. Additionally, we launched our LGBTQ+ affinity group called ‘Glamazon India’ in 2017. It has employees from the LGBTQ+ community and allies passionate about building an inclusive environment by providing support through peer-to-peer mentoring, networking, creating enabling mechanisms, and raising awareness around related topics. We have also hired transgender associates and will continue to focus on this group.
In the last couple of years, we have enhanced our focus on hiring persons with disabilities (PwD) across India, including those with speech and hearing impairments, as well as locomotor disabilities. We intend to broaden our scope by hiring more individuals with diverse abilities in the coming years, working in partnership with our PwD affinity group, and preparing our infrastructure from an accessibility standpoint. We have also started a pilot program for hiring people with learning disabilities (e.g., autism).
Furthermore, Amazon made a public commitment of globally hiring and training former defense service personnel and their families to create fulfilling alternate career opportunities for the military community. We have an affinity group called ‘Amazon Warriors’ to help ex-service personnel make a successful transition from the Indian Armed Forces to meaningful roles at Amazon.
To what extent does the highly digital and fragmented workplace of the COVID-19 era aid or hinder psychologically safe work environments? What are the top strategies employed at Amazon India to create psychological safety for employees — be it for the on-ground teams across your supply chain and delivery networks or those working virtually?
We have always promoted a culture of ‘ownership’ at Amazon, where every employee is empowered to make decisions instead of following instructions, thus creating psychological safety.
In January 2020, when Jeff Bezos came to India, he made a commitment of investing $1 billion in SMBs, enabling exports, and creating one million jobs by 2025. Although these are increasingly difficult times, when employees know that we are working towards a larger purpose and allowing them to shape the future, they feel charged up.
Also, we recently announced the deployment of ‘Distance Assistant’ across our operational sites in the country, following the successful rollout of the technology in the US and a few other countries. The AI-powered innovation will remind on-site associates to maintain a minimum distance of 6 feet from others by providing social distancing feedback in realtime.
With social distancing continuing to be a preventive safety measure amid the pandemic, this smart solution is another step to ensure the safety of tens of thousands of associates in the buildings. The self-contained standalone units will be stationed across entrances and high people traffic areas across Amazon India’s fulfilment centres, sort centres, and delivery stations. As employees walk past the camera, the monitor will display a live video feed with visual cues to show if associates are within 6 feet of one another. The on-screen indicators have been designed to remind associates to maintain an appropriate distance from those around them. Individuals remaining 6 feet apart are highlighted with green circles, while those closer to each other are highlighted in red.
Up-Close and Personal
What is your most significant learning from the pandemic experience?
My key takeaways from this experience are building agility, being empathetic in order to understand your team, enhancing the ability to learn and change, and being willing to own your mistakes and learn from them.
Are you planning to do something new in 2021 that you've never done before?
I want to get fitter and try bungee jumping.
How do you set boundaries between personal life and work?
Personal life and work go hand in hand, and some days one of them takes precedence over the other. However, I usually block out a few hours on my calendar for my family and personal interests.
What would we be surprised to learn about you?
My husband and I have been learning to dance, and it is a great stressbuster.
Favourite quote: The greatest form of creativity is recreation of oneself. My mom wrote this. I truly resonate with it.
A movie title that best describes you: Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara.
For me, it’s not the end but the journey that is most important. I enjoy what I do and have fun while doing it. At Amazon, we say, “Work hard. Have fun. Make history.”
Complete these sentences:
i. If not an HR, I would have been… enabling women to be self-reliant. On a lighter note, I would open a dance school.
ii. I strongly believe in… what Rumi says: You die only once but you must live every day.
What comes to your mind when you hear these words?
i. Resilience: Makes successful people stand out. While it grounds us, sometimes it also gives us wings to fly.
ii. Curiosity: Have the curiosity of a child, and you will never have a dull day.
iii. Setback: It gives us a green field to start things over. The only way from there is to find a solution.
Do you look forward to permanently working from home after the pandemic subsides?
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