Good leaders create clarity, generate energy, and deliver success: Ira Gupta

Good leaders create clarity, generate energy, and deliver success: Ira Gupta

Ira Gupta, Head of Human Resources, India at Microsoft, shares how the organisation is rethinking, reimagining, and resetting people strategies to build a thriving workforce amid the disruptions of the pandemic and its raging second wave. She also talks about how Microsoft uses technology and people analytics to enable, engage, and empower employees to succeed in the new world order and how cultivating learn-it-alls is at the core of their culture.


Since the pandemic, every HR leader has been managing some large-scale shift, whether it’s building digital capabilities, developing a new talent strategy or implementing new work models. What is the most significant change you’ve led at Microsoft India over the past year?


Through the pandemic, our goal at Microsoft has been to better understand the impact of remote work on our employees and help them adapt to do their best work during these challenging times. Supporting our employees and their families has been our biggest focus, reflected in our culture, policies, and how we have enabled Microsoft employees to navigate this pandemic. Our culture centered on empathy, inclusion, and flexibility remains our guiding force during these uncertain times.


As we live through a second wave, we have mobilised multiple resources to support our employees. These include exclusive 24/7 telemedicine helplines through partnerships with leading hospital and medical service providers, enhanced insurance cover for hospitalisation and out-patient treatment, hospital-assisted COVID care quarantine support at managed medical facilities, vaccination assistance, enabling access to testing, ambulance support, medical supplies, food delivery and more to support affected Microsoft employees and their families.


With schools and childcare facilities across the country staying closed, we added a new leave option to support childcare: ‘Paid Pandemic School and Childcare Closure Leave’ that provides our colleagues who are parents the option to take up to 12 weeks of paid leave for childcare.


Early in the pandemic, we realised the absolute importance of mental wellness during this time of significant change. We provided resources ranging from webinars, workshops to curated content developed by experts on our wellness platform to support the mental and emotional wellbeing of employees and their families. We also added mental health to our sick leave policy, renaming it the Sick & Mental Health Leave, enabling employees to take time off for themselves or for a family member for mental wellness, similar to how they did for physical illness in the past. Moreover, we introduced time-off in the form of Wellbeing Days, a five-day paid leave, in addition to the standard leave policy to encourage employees to focus on their wellbeing. We are also integrating wellbeing experiences into our products to help prioritise wellbeing for every employee.


For many of our employees, their homes may not have had the required infrastructure for an extended work-from-home arrangement. Therefore, we launched a work-from-home buying program to support them to procure the necessary equipment for creating a conducive work environment at home and a more comfortable WFH experience.


Our endeavour has been to provide support and care for our colleagues during these unprecedented times. I am deeply humbled and inspired to see how each member of the Microsoft family has come together to enable this for employees at Microsoft India.


How does technology enable employees to do their best work and feel supported and cared for amid the pandemic-induced disruption at Microsoft?


The nature of work is changing. In a remote environment, work is no longer just about productivity and output; it’s also deeply about flexibility, wellbeing, and effective collaboration between remote and physical workers. Technology has a significant role in enabling each of these elements and keeping teams together during the pandemic.


For instance, we are reimagining every aspect of the meetings experience in Teams to make virtual interactions more natural, engaging, and human.‘Together Mode’ is a feature in Teams that helps participants feel closer even when they are apart by placing them in a shared background. While working remotely, we encourage colleagues to turn on their camera and video for a strong virtual collaboration experience or make space for fun by using GIFs, stickers, and emojis to express themselves.


To prioritise wellbeing for every employee, we are introducing new wellbeing features in Teams that help employees structure the day, make space for breaks, and stay on top of tasks. We are also partnering with Headspace to bring a curated set of mindfulness and meditation experiences into the flow of work in Teams.


In a regular office environment, everyone had access to the same technology, infrastructure, and space. Remote work changed that completely. Technology will be a key enabler of inclusion in the remote workplace, empowering every employee to do more, including people with disabilities. Live closed-captioning for meetings or customised reading and viewing experience for different visual and cognitive needs on Teams are good examples of how technology tools can enable virtual interactions to be more valuable and engaging for everyone.


Today, people-related data is everywhere, and it is growing ever more enormous. What are some ways in which Microsoft puts data to good effect, extracting meaningful, value-adding insights to make employees more engaged and productive?


At Microsoft, we’re studying the new world of work to provide data-driven insights that help people and organisations thrive in a rapidly changing world. We use workplace analytics to better understand how collaboration, productivity, and worklife balance are changing over time.


We also analyse trillions of productivity and labour signals from across Microsoft 365 and LinkedIn to derive powerful insights about how people work and collaborate through our Work Trend Index. Altogether, these aggregate emails, meetings, searches, and posts create a window into human interactions at work. We combine this data with surveys and interviews with information workers, frontline workers, and business leaders from across the globe that are part of the Work Trend Index survey.



More importantly, these insights have informed new wellbeing features in our products.


Studies from Microsoft Research showed that commutes could serve as meaningful transitions at the beginning and end of the workday. The reflection we do during that time can increase productivity by 12-15%. Our new virtual commute feature in Teams is designed to help people enjoy a productive start in the morning and mindfully disconnect in the evening. Using insights from the report, Microsoft has partnered with Headspace to bring a curated set of mindfulness and meditation experiences into the flow of work in Microsoft Teams.


This is one of the many instances where we’ve relied on data and insights to shift our focus from building products to designing technology experiences that help organisations and individuals work in smarter, more productive and efficient ways while prioritising wellbeing.


Satya Nadella is known for instilling a growth mindset throughout Microsoft and for striving to create a culture of “learn-it-alls”. How do leaders embody a growth approach and enable others within the organisation to adopt this mindset?


As an organisation, we’ve made a conscious decision to ground ourselves in a growth mindset, which is the foundation of everything we do. It starts with the belief that everyone can grow and develop; that potential is nurtured, not pre-determined; and that anyone can change their mindset. We need to be willing to lean into uncertainty, take risks and quickly move when we make mistakes, recognising failure happens along the way to mastery.


We need to be constantly learning, which is what Satya says about moving from a “know-it-all” mindset to a “learn-it-all” mindset. Our leadership principles and values ladder up to this principle, suggesting that while people differ greatly in aptitude, talents, interests or temperaments, everyone can change and grow through application and experience.


We take role modelling very seriously at Microsoft. Our leaders and managers are trained to lead through empowerment and accountability, something we call the Model-Coach-Care framework. We see three things as making good leaders: they create clarity, generate energy, and deliver success. We have rolled out these principles to all employees, believing everyone can be a leader.


Never has our collective growth mindset been as important as it has in coming together to fight COVID-19, and we believe that the role of managers and leaders is fundamental to enabling an inclusive, effective and consistent employee experience today.


Depending on the sector, the nature of work people do, and the setup that an organisation prefers, many companies are rallying to get employees back in-house or piloting a hybrid working model. Do you think the office is an important hub for collaboration, connection, and shaping and sustaining culture?


Workplaces are becoming increasingly hybrid. There may be no singular solution to the future of work, given the variety of roles, work requirements, and business needs that exist in any organisation. We should be cautious not to replace one dogma with another. It is important that we maintain the social capital which comes from being together in the same workplace. Flexibility and finding the right balance will be key.


Technology will continue to be a key enabler in the future of work. Organisations are quickly adapting to new ways of working and serving customers, transforming products, services, and business models to stay relevant. For example, before the pandemic, few organisations would have had a live Teams call while running a meeting in a physical room, but running a Teams call or chat simultaneously will likely become a norm to allow for people to participate from varying contexts.


Employee expectations have changed for good, with more than 80 percent of managers saying they expect more flexible work from home policies post-pandemic, and more than 70 percent of employees saying they plan to take advantage of them, according to data from Microsoft’s Work Trend Index. The way companies approach the future of work by embracing the positives (such as flexible working) and learning from the challenges (lack of social capital) will eventually determine the attractiveness and productivity of organisations.


Technology will play a major role in enabling collaboration, connection, and innovation to happen from anywhere. We will no longer rely solely on physical spaces to collaborate, connect, and build social capital. We know that belonging is a core human need and that feeling a sense of connection is an intrinsic motivator. Organisations are likely to redesign office spaces to bridge the physical and digital worlds and meet the unique needs of every team.


It’s also critical to think about bridging the gap between in-person and remote experiences. Working together when everyone is in the office is straightforward. Over the last 12 months, we’ve figured out how to get things done when everyone is at home. Inclusion will become even more essential when some employees are physically together while others might join in virtually.


Although the blending of workforces (full-time, part-time, contingent, bots, in-office, remote, etc.) is not a new trend, it has gained new momentum following the pandemic. Do you see the non-traditional workforce as a strategic part of your talent pool? Are certain full-time jobs in your industry veering outside the traditional structure?


2020 was a year of transformational changes, compelling organisations to reimagine previously held concepts about work, culture, and talent. Hybrid working has brought forward the possibility of greater inclusion of people who have typically been disadvantaged by the work system.


We have always been intentional about increasing the inclusion and representation of talent across identities, abilities, and backgrounds. Our commitment involves a wide-ranging set of initiatives geared to provide skilling, training, mentoring, and scholarships to build an equitable workforce for a new world of work.


Microsoft’s annual Springboard internship programme is an effort to foster equality in the workforce. It encourages women on a career break to feel motivated and confident to return to a career in technology. Last year, 75% of the interns joined us in full-time roles. One is a 22-yearold college student from Siliguri. She has no formal education in software engineering, but she taught herself coding through Microsoft’s self-learn skills programme. She recently joined us as a support engineer intern. Codess, a hackathon for women engineers, encourages women to build, innovate, and use technology to solve some of the most critical problems around us.


We have seen an increase in the adoption of democratised content from technology providers such as Microsoft, along with a sharper focus on industry certifications to help organisations keep up with the rapidly evolving industry. Given the everchanging nature of the technology industry, there is a far greater emphasis today on skills-based and role-based hiring. Digital skilling will go a long way in building a strong future workforce for India that is equipped to thrive in a tech-intense world.


It is equally important for leaders to pursue a broader reskilling agenda that develops employees’ digital expertise and their cognitive, emotional, and adaptability skills. Building this reskilling muscle is the first step to ensuring that organisations’ business recovery model is successful and can sustain the test of time.

Ankita Sharma is working as Senior Editor with Human Capital. With 6+ years of experience, she has performed diverse roles across the entire spectrum of corporate HR — from hire to retire.


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