The  COVID crisis reaffirmed that business is all about people: R Nanda

The COVID crisis reaffirmed that business is all about people: R Nanda

Opportunities are hidden everywhere, and the people who seize them are the ones who prosper. “What learning opportunities can I carve out of this situation?” is a question that R Nanda, CHRO, Tata Chemicals, seems to ask himself constantly. Having joined the corporate world in the era of bulky desktop computers, Nanda, driven by curiosity, took an initiative that most of his older colleagues did not want to tackle. He went out of his way to understand the workings of a computer in the office and ended up “reverse mentoring” his senior peers long before the concept entered the corporate lexicon.


In this exclusive interaction with Human Capital, Nanda talks about the renaissance in manufacturing and how Tata Chemicals enables employees to learn and grow into more skilled and resilient individuals.

The term “pivot” is all the rage these days, and rightly so. After a year of quick and bold pivots, how are you navigating the second year of the pandemic at Tata Chemicals?


Last year, every organisation was put to the test in terms of its ability to change strategy, pivot, and respond to adversity with agility. 2020 can therefore be defined as a year of resilience and agility. We witnessed paradigm shifts in almost everything we did – be it at work or in our personal lives. The roles of various functions within organisations got redefined, and because a large part of change relates to people, HR found itself at the centre of transformation that businesses are undergoing.


We at Tata Chemicals had our own share of hardships in adjusting to the new normal as quickly as possible. While there were challenges across all domains, the crisis reaffirmed that business is all about people. As India Inc. puts in its might and effort into ensuring business continuity, employee wellbeing will continue to take precedence. In line with the Tata Group’s ethos, we constantly strive to create an inclusive, equitable, and safe environment, the pace of which has only accelerated during the pandemic.


The second wave of COVID-19 impacted far more of our folks than the first. As a chemical company, safety is not only a priority but also an integral part of our DNA. We had to put in place several mitigation measures and take steps to address employee concerns. We recently commenced a vaccination drive at Mithapur, our largest location, for employees as well as residents of the township and surrounding community, for whom Tata Chemicals has been the primary source of support whenever they face adversity.


We are also addressing conflicts and issues that employees may face at home or at work. For instance, our ‘We Care’ employee assistance programme is helping us support their physical and emotional wellbeing, and it also extends to their family members so they can cope with trauma and distress. In addition, professional counselling and coaching sessions available around the clock bring relief as the pandemic triggers stress and anxiety in some individuals.


The pandemic has indeed been a challenge, but it has also created opportunities like more avenues for self-development. Our long-standing objective of democratisation and personalisation of learning experience for our employees has been progressing well. To increase employee engagement and continuous interaction, we launched an e-learning platform in 2020 that continues to gain traction.


There is considerable fearmongering about new technologies disrupting the workforce in the manufacturing sector. There’s also confusion about the impact of automation on job displacement and the emergence of new roles. What’s your take on all of this?


The manufacturing sector has seen constant evolution from the early days of the Industrial Revolution to the Industry 4.0 of today. The nature of work has gradually shifted from being ‘labour-intensive’ to ‘knowledge intensive’ as more sophisticated technologies enter the realm of smart manufacturing.


Although change has always been a way of life, the pace and magnitude of change today are mind-boggling. This gives rise to the fear of whether automation will reduce job opportunities. However, as technology develops, it drives a need for new services and products that, in turn, generate growth and employment. Even as technology displaces older jobs/roles, it creates new ones that require new skills. It has happened in the past and will continue to happen in the future. There will be jobs in the future that don’t even exist today.


Over the years, technology has reduced the demand for low-skilled workers, making a significant social impact. Today’s youth would rather learn about robotics than work on monotonous, repetitive or hazardous tasks that can be either eliminated or executed through technology. 

So while technological advancements will continue to impact the manufacturing sector, we must consider it not only as a means of production but also as a route for creating new roles, careers, and means of livelihood. This will require massive efforts and investments on the part of employers to make their workforce unlearn and reskill, coupled with investments by the government in the education system to prepare a generation that’s ready for the transformed future workplace.


The manufacturing industry, like many other sectors, is facing a skills supply-and-demand problem. Recruiters often end up with a lot of applications but struggle to find talent with the right skills in a technology-altered job landscape. How can this challenge be tackled?


As manufacturing progresses from simple automation to robotics to the age of IIoT, wearables and AR on the shop floor, the skill sets required also keep changing. Addressing the skill gap will take time and will require a collective effort from industries, educational institutions, and the government. While there are many initiatives in place, there is a need for active cross-institutional collaboration.


Getting the right skills for a job has been a challenge both at entry and lateral levels. While there have been industry-academia efforts to design a curriculum that meets industry needs, it requires a sharper focus to ensure that it keeps pace with changing demands.


At Tata Chemicals, we have an Apprentice Training School attached to one of our plants. Its curriculum includes an in-plant training stint where students can learn precise skills through on-the-job training supplemented by classroom sessions by practising managers. While industries have been adopting Industrial Training Institutes (ITIs) and collaborating with other educational institutions on a larger scale, they need to focus on improving the pedagogy of learning and provide exposure to new-generation manufacturing methods and technologies. This will make learning future-oriented and equip students for the emerging needs of industries.


Today’s workforce realises the importance of staying on top of technological developments and enrolling in career-enhancement programmes. Organisations that consistently invest in training their workforce with required skills and offer them challenging growth opportunities are likely to witness lesser employee turnover rates.


Often, you don’t need big budgets for upskilling talent. Prudent use of the available budget and the latest techniques for upgrading skills are adequate. Moreover, there are many learning resources available virtually free of cost — all that is required is identifying the most appropriate ones based on the needs of the workforce.

We have an Education Assistance Policy that provides sabbaticals and financial support to our employees who opt to pursue higher learning. We also offer our employees an array of online education courses from which they can choose those that will help them develop requisite skills.


New kinds of changes that were barely a factor a year ago are dramatically shifting the status quo today. This level of change, which is both continuous and profound, can be daunting and dizzying. What can organisations do to build their change capability and be more comfortable and dynamic in a world of continuous transformation?


HR leaders and teams who have experienced profound upheaval because of the COVID-19 crisis may find it difficult to understand what it all means until the dust settles. The pandemic has created significant and immediate changes in the way we operate and how individuals collaborate. We’ve all witnessed a major shift to remote work, as well as the acceleration of digitisation and automation to meet changing individual and organisational needs.


This disruption has also accentuated the importance of cultivating a mindset and culture of preparedness to respond quickly to uncertainties, as well as the need for managers to be more mindful of the situations their teams may be facing. The key lies in building a resilient workforce to respond to unexpected changes.


Building adaptability entails creating a workforce that is agile, versatile, and capable of dealing with ambiguity. That is why we focus on redeploying talent in different roles, offering training in diverse areas, and providing cross-functional assignments on a regular basis. Besides this, we instill future-ready competencies in our workforce, such as critical thinking, data sciences, design thinking, data analytics, empathy, and D&I. HR will therefore have to look for an adaptability mindset when hiring new talent. Leadership and management competency frameworks need to be recalibrated, with a greater emphasis placed on new skills to face uncertainties.


Collaboration and trust among employees are also crucial enablers in building a resilient workforce. Ensuring the safety, security, and emotional and mental wellbeing of the workforce is pivotal in building capabilities to deal with disruptions.


To usher in the organisation of the future, business leaders and CHROs should do nothing less than reimagining the basic principles of the organisation.

Shared leadership, partnership, open communication, trusting relationships, and compassion for teams, including furloughed employees, are the common themes emerging. How leaders approach and treat all their stakeholders and the whole range of their human needs will be real “moments that matter”, contributing to the ability of the company to thrive.


To “buy” (hire externally) or “build” (develop from within) talent is a big dilemma that organisations face. What are some important considerations you keep in mind when deciding between building and buying talent?


In 2021, many organisations are investing in buying and renting talent in the short term. They want to make sure that before adding to permanent headcount, the organisation can sustain itself in the long term. However, there is no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to deciding whether to build or buy. It depends on the nature of the role, changes in the business landscape, the long-term strategy and the supply-demand dynamics of internal talent.


As a rule of thumb, we must first look within to fill positions since it provides multiple advantages, such as giving opportunities for career advancement to existing talent, increasing engagement, cultural fit, lower costs and hiring time, easier integration into the new role and, at times, even rationalisation of a surplus workforce.


We have a structured programme called SHINE+, which aims to harness available internal talent before we look at external sources. Organisations that invest in developing employee capability and ensuring succession planning across levels are better positioned to build talent. To enable this shift, HR should manage talent carefully by conducting a tech-enabled analysis that mines data to hire, develop, and retain the best employees. This helps greatly in building an internal talent pool.


Internal talent, however, may not have the niche skill sets of a particular domain or may take longer to attain mastery in new areas. In such situations, we need to scout for full-time or part-time external talent, depending on the need. Another issue is that internal talent may be hesitant in disrupting legacy thinking and relationships. Sometimes, when the business needs a significant shift in strategy or a tough turnaround, it makes sense to induct fresh talent who can provide a new lens to better steer change.


Up-Close and Personal


While early job experiences may not be the most challenging or monetarily rewarding, they certainly are formative. Could you give us an account of an unforgettable experience at your first corporate job?


A I started work when the era of desktop computers was just getting introduced into offices – not the sleek machines that we see nowadays but those bulky units that could occupy more than half of your desk. While there were only limited units available due to cost considerations, the reality was that most people those days were scared to use them. The system would take quite a while to boot up, so the standard joke was that you could switch it on, go to the cafeteria to have a cup of coffee, and then come back, by which time it would be ready for use.


As a fresher into the organisation, I had almost unrestricted access to the system with the privilege of having one kept on my desk (purely because no one else wanted it!). For the next few weeks, I spent whatever time I could on it. I came in early and stayed back late just to gain mastery over the system’s functionalities. It wasn’t long after that many of the older colleagues started to seek help for solving their issues. This was my first-hand exposure to ‘reverse mentoring’, much before it became known that way.


How are you taking care of your mental and physical wellbeing?


I don’t have any pre-set formula that works for me as work schedules can be very erratic. One cannot have everything planned to the ‘T’. However, finding time to engage in activities outside of work, even for brief moments, leaves me quite energised. It could be making a quick call to an old colleague with whom I had not spoken to for a long time, rustling up some on-the-go snack, browsing through some old pictures from my archives, or watching something humorous on the internet. These are things that only take a few minutes but leave you with a lot of positivity.


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


Keep a “to-do” list (either physically or mentally), but segregate them into “must” and “desirable.” This way, even if something unplanned crops up that could completely derail your day, you will still know which ones to prioritise focusing on for completion. For those that cannot be dealt with, you can drop them a line or message to say that you need some time to revert.


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


Learning to play a musical instrument has been something I’ve wanted to do for a long time.


What would we be surprised to learn about you?


You might be surprised to know that I got into a career in Human Resources purely by accident.


Rapid Fire


Describe the year 2020 in 3 words: Mask, Sanitize, Online


Describe the year 2021 in 3 words: Double Mask, Oxygen, Vaccination


What’s a movie title that best describes you: Die Another Day (But first finish what you need to do today!)


Complete these sentences:


i. If not an HR, I would have been … a Chef.


ii. I strongly believe in … my intuition.


iii. I’m grateful for … life’s little pleasures and for being content with what I have rather than brooding over what I don’t have.


What comes to your mind when you hear these words?


i. Resilience: Our frontline workers in the pandemic era


ii. Curiosity: Why did it kill the cat?


iii. The future of work: Anytime, Anywhere, Anyone


What’s the one thing you miss most about pre-pandemic times?


I miss the opportunity to walk around the office, bumping into and engaging in animated conversations with colleagues about work and non-work matters.






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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