We remain mindful of communicating with a sense of compassion: Emrana Sheikh

We remain mindful of communicating with a sense of compassion: Emrana Sheikh

The hand of destiny pushed Emrana Sheikh (Enterprise HR Head – India & South Asia, Johnson & Johnson) into the role of sales training manager more than two decades ago, making her realise she felt most in sync by inspiring and enabling others to do their best. What had started as an inkling soon turned into a purpose she simply couldn't shake. From equipping herself with degrees and certifications to gaining hands-on experience in HR, Emrana nurtured no illusions of an easy path or shortcuts. She pursued her calling vigorously and fully, facing the struggle, the risk, and the unknown with great intent. Since then, she has reinvented herself time and again to lead wide-ranging roles in HR across diverse sectors and geographies.

The global pandemic has compelled every organisation to put a “re-” into everything: to reset, reassess, reimagine, redefine, and reboot how they work and run their businesses. Please share some initiatives taken at Johnson & Johnson (J&J) to support employees in being productive, motivated, connected, and healthy.


J&J has been at the forefront of worldwide efforts to tackle the pandemic in multiple capacities, and our teams in India have also been working relentlessly. While one-third — or 40,000 — of our employees globally, primarily in manufacturing and R&D, or as we call them Onsite Superheroes, continued to work in a J&J facility, two-thirds transitioned to remote work at home.


Since flexible working arrangements were already in place at J&J India, the transition to a work from home scenario was seamless for the majority of our workforce. We revisited employee well-being strategies, vendor engagement models (from onsite to virtual engagement), and programs and policies to enhance our health & wellness resources. This included a digital resilience tool to support mental well-being, an online activity to encourage healthy movement and social connectivity, and enhancements to live virtual classroom training to help employees be more productive and effective while maintaining their overall well-being.


We also conducted ergonomics training and provided ergonomic home-office equipment. Keeping in mind the extended needs of families and working parents, we introduced ‘Care Giver Leave’ of up to two months. Additional insurance and special medical coverage were offered to support employee financial health and help cover expenses related to healthcare and hospitalisation during these times.


It has certainly been a complicated time for everyone, so we remain mindful of communicating with a sense of compassion. To ensure that J&J employees in India were truly supported and closer to their teams, we launched the ‘Open for Smiles’ initiative, that celebrated the theme ‘separated by distance but united at heart’ to bring forth our employees’ talents and personalities and give everyone an empathetic glimpse into each other’s lives amidst the new normal.


Additionally, through weekly sentiment surveys, virtual townhalls and open mics, we listened to what our employees had to say, which helped shape our approach and response. Hearteningly, the participation rate and results of our global engagement survey, called Our Credo Survey for 2020, have been an incredibly positive testament to the actions we have been taking, which are aligned to ‘Our Credo’ values that guide our behaviour.


Several companies prefer employees to return to the workplace to foster creativity, innovation, and collaboration through in-person experiences in an office. Many are also converging on different hybrid working models, combining co-located and remote work. Which way of working has J&J adopted (or plans to adopt) in 2021?


“We are responsible to our employees who work with us throughout the world.” This is one of the most important lines of ‘Our Credo’ that has guided us for 78 years at J&J. Since our company has always believed in empowering employees, flexible and remote working arrangements were already available to many of our employees located in India. Thus, at the start of the lockdown, we were uniquely positioned to respond quickly and support our distributed workforce with capabilities to work anywhere.


We operated as per the Government guidelines during the lockdown, as our teams across our essential businesses in India mobilised with urgency to address the critical needs of our patients as well as customers.


Heightened safety measures, social distancing requirements, logistical boundaries, rotational shifts and staggered work hours are outcomes of the pandemic that have compelled almost every organisation — including ours — to reevaluate the fundamentals of workplace operations. We are taking a scientific-led approach, informed by employee feedback, to return to the workplace that puts the well-being and safety of our employees first. This approach is based on meeting external and internal criteria, including reduced disease transmission, governmental recommendations, infrastructure openings (including schools) and facility readiness.


COVID-19 has provided us with many learnings about where and how work happens, and we are continuing to evaluate our current policies and adapt as needed to ensure we are best supporting our employees and their families while meeting the needs of our business. We recognise that the future of work will be much different than work as we knew it before the pandemic, and we have a new perspective on how our business can operate.


We have been successful in building our capacity and capabilities to embrace innovative working models, including virtual collaboration, hybrid onsite/remote time, and people management of in-person, remote and hybrid teams. We are listening to feedback, learning from our employees and engaging them in our decision-making.


What are the top strategies employed at J&J to create psychological safety for employees — be it for your front lines or those working virtually?


Keeping our workforce safe is our top priority — and doing this requires a great deal of collaboration and strong communication. Regular check-ins with smaller worker groups and teams are held to address their questions and concerns. They are encouraged to make use of our counselling resources for emotional and mental health support. For those onsite, site managers also keep workers informed of the latest developments on-the-ground so that they remain aware and alert. These essential workers are our ‘Onsite Superheroes’, and we are facilitating robust training on procedures and the latest guidelines to ensure the safety and continued health of these employees.


At J&J, we aspire to have the healthiest workforce in the world. Our Integrated, Holistic & Strategic Pillars include Occupational Health & Disease Management, Energy Management, Healthy Lifestyle Programs, Personal Healthcare Services and unique work-life integration policies. During the pandemic, we continued to offer our programs virtually and enhanced some of them, such as our global exercise reimbursement program, to cover both physical and mental well-being expenses, including the purchase of home gym equipment and virtual subscriptions (including mental health apps). We also provided 24/7 access to telemedicine and Employee Assistance Program (EAP) services.


We conducted multiple enterprise-wide townhalls encompassing all sectors and functions focused on health and well-being and to build a connection to our purpose. We organised over 75 health and well-being webinars for employees and their families, including mental well-being, yoga and home workouts, healthy eating, good ergonomics, eye health and fun sessions on Zumba and gardening, to name a few.


The COVID-19 pandemic, its economic fallout, and the new ways of working have disproportionately impacted various people, families, and communities, creating a host of questions about workplace equity. How is equity being fostered at J&J?


We take great responsibility as a company to create a culture of belonging where every employee is valued, heard, and empowered to play their part in creating a healthier and more equitable world. This prompted us to launch ‘Re-Ignite’, a program that empowers and motivates STEM women professionals in India who’ve spent more than two years away from the workforce to return to work. We believe pausing your career to pursue something important shouldn’t stand in the way of your next breakthrough; it should enhance it.


We also focus equally on building a culture of inclusion that transcends barriers and biases and views inclusion as an indispensable part of the work environment, virtual or not. One way our diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) philosophy is driven is through our employee resource groups (ERGs). These are voluntary, employee-led groups that focus on sharing identities/affinities and experiences to advance a culture of belonging and to provide insights and drive tangible outcomes on behalf of our colleagues, patients, consumers, and communities. These ERGs range from Mental Health Diplomats to Women in Leadership and to Open & Out for LGBTQ+ employees and allies.


Together, we contribute our perspectives, insights, and experiences to help drive innovation, cultural understanding, and business results at J&J, helping us all create a greater impact in the communities we serve.


Up-Close and Personal


You started your career in sales. What prompted the switch to HR?


As a 16-year-old, I dreamt of being a professor, but life had other plans. A vacation sales job became a remarkable full-time sales role and taught me a lot. I am ever so grateful for this foundational experience as it is the source of my business intimacy and bias for measurable results. Two years into the sales role, I was promoted to the role of sales training manager, which was my first step into a career in people development and human resources. It echoed back to me the “circle of life” — the beginning of a career embedded with my purpose of catalysing human potential. From sales training to more than a decade of organisation development and capability building, followed by another decade-plus of strategic human resource management across multiple industries — I realised my true calling!


Have you had an ‘aha!’ moment when you learned and experienced something so profound that it changed you forever?


I didn’t have a passport till I joined FedEx in 1997. But that job changed it all — I remember excitedly searching for Basel, Switzerland, on an atlas, which was where my two-week induction was planned! Soon, I found myself travelling around the world for an average of over two weeks per month. This era truly marked my transformation into a global leader. I was able to forge strong personal and professional relationships around the world. More importantly, I received a global platform from which to experience rich cultural diversity and create impact across geographies.


Has there been a moment when you felt overwhelmed as an HR leader since the pandemic?


Our leadership was truly tested in 2020 when we found ourselves in situations where there was no playbook. It was deeply unsettling and humbling as the pandemic inched closer to our employees, friends, and family. But a heightened sense of safety and responsibility prevailed. ‘Our Credo’ at J&J reminds us of our responsibility to each of our stakeholders, and during times of crisis, this commitment is even more important to ensure we address the critical needs of families, communities, and especially those healthcare providers we are privileged to serve. As a healthcare organisation serving essential goods, all our plants were permitted to operate on a limited basis, even at the peak of the pandemic.


As a people leader, the onus was on my team and myself to communicate with our employees and facilitate robust training to ensure employees’ safety and continued health. I am so proud of our leaders and HR team, who passionately partnered to enable business continuity in plants manufacturing essential goods during the lockdown, and of our employees working virtually. A year later, there is nothing but an overwhelming sense of pride to see how agility and resilience came to life at J&J.


What’s something you are doing or want to do in 2021 that you’ve never done before?


I consider myself a digital advocate. I have always been passionate about technology and how it can transform businesses and the work that we do. My goal this year is to accelerate my own learning in digital by no less than 10x. The intent is to go deeper into the science of digital and data to be able to catalyse transformation in the work that I can influence.


What would we be surprised to learn about you?


I have a deep aspiration to grow the community-impact quadrant of my life. I am a keen supporter of causes around child welfare and believe in transforming underprivileged lives through the power of education.


A Workday in the Life of an HR Leader


♦  Mornings: Shaping near- and long-term growth agenda with regional colleagues


♦  Afternoons: Curating outcomes with country teams and leaders


♦  Evenings: Connecting experiences with global alignment


♦  What is the one thing in your workday you cannot do without?


Purpose-driven and meaningful conversations


♦  What’s your favourite indulgence when you need a break from work?


Listening to new ideas through a podcast or watching an inspiring TED Talk


♦  Do you have some productivity hacks that you simply love and would recommend to others to make the most of their workday?


A scheduled quiet hour every day, limiting meetings to no more than 30 minutes, walking or standing meetings whenever possible, and ruthless prioritisation!


Rapid Fire


♦  Describe the year 2020 in 3 words: Resilience, gratitude, humanity


♦  Describe the year 2021 in 3 words: Optimism, agility, transformation


♦  What’s a movie title that best describes you: The Pursuit of Happyness


♦  Complete these sentences: 


--> If not in HR, I would have been… a professor. It is my life’s purpose to catalyse human potential.


--> I strongly believe in… human power and its transformative energies. 


♦  What comes to your mind when you hear these words?


Rejection: The opening of another door of possibility


Curiosity: Road to Innovation


Setback: Pause for reflection and unlearning to re-learn



With 6+ 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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