"Tough Times Define Company’s Culture" Parag Kulkarni, Managing Director, AO Smith India

In an interview with BW Businessworld, Mr. Parag Kulkarni, Managing Director, AO Smith India talks about employees’ health, safety, work ethics, resilience, flexibility and safety protocols. Excerpts:

What are the major challenges that you have faced due to Covid-19 and how did you overcome those challenges?

The COVID-19 pandemic has defined new levels of speed in both decision-making and innovation to address new and evolving needs. The sudden lockdown and shift to working from home brought about several challenges, and continues to do so, particularly in supply chain management, timely communication with retailers and managing logistics. For the first time, we found ourselves working 100% remotely, relying entirely on technology to facilitate collaboration, communication, and productivity. One of the key trends we witnessed as a result of the pandemic was the significant channel shift from offline to e-commerce. As a result, we quickly adapted our business approach to reflect these changing customer behaviors and re-shaped our messaging to better connect with our customers’ new reality.

They say a crisis brings out the best in people and I have been amazed to see how my team has stepped up at a time when we are facing one of the biggest challenges ever! I am proud of the way the team met each obstacle head on and found creative solutions to every obstacle. People are indeed your best assets and we remain focused on weathering this storm together as a team to emerge stronger than ever!

In the current scenario, how do you think that leaders can come forward and lead by example? Has the pandemic changed the priorities of a leader?

Leaders have had to evolve and adapt quickly to seize opportunities and overcome challenges. Demonstrating strong leadership at such a time is crucial, as priorities are changing. For leaders, when the team is worried and anxious, it’s important to be composed and comforting. It is also the time to be decisive while keeping a positive outlook and staying focused on creating opportunities out of impediments. Some of the decisions you make may not always be right, however, in the current scenario, ‘wait and watch’ is simply not an option. You have to do what you think is best. Another important thing is that people want to hear from leaders during tough times - so make sure your voice is heard and that you are communicating frequently. There is also a need to lead with empathy and provide support in every way possible. Even a small act of kindness goes a long way in easing someone's concern in the current scenario.

Today, the health and safety of the employees are a topmost priority for any organization? What steps were undertaken by AO Smith for its employees’ wellbeing?

Employees’ health and safety is an integral part of all our initiatives and has always been a priority. This year, it was especially important to take extra measures to make employees feel safer and assure them their safety and health was of utmost concern. We have undertaken a series of initiatives focused on employees’ wellbeing and we communicate about employee health and safety regularly.

In these desperate times, we procured oxygen concentrators to be utilized by the employees and their relatives in case of any emergency. To help employees meet their healthcare needs, we gave employees the option to increase their insurance coverage and also raised the upper limit for the insurance coverage. Our insurance policy covered all COVID-related hospitalization expenses. COVID leaves, including quarantine days, are paid leaves and do not count against employees’ annual earned time off. We created strict standard operating processes to be followed by sales and service during customer visits. Along with my HR head and other leadership members, I stay in regular contact with employees who have been impacted by COVID and inquire personally about their and their family’s health to help ensure they are getting the care they need. Additionally, there has been a constant communication with our employees through mailers and posters at the workplace reminding them of our safety protocols.

How can companies enable a positive work environment during the current crisis?

Communicating responsibly during a pandemic environment is the key towards creating a positive work environment. It’s also important to encourage employees to ask questions and maintain open lines of communications with employees. At A. O. Smith, we kept in constant touch with our employees during lockdown and post-lockdown through the use of various channels of communication. We also believe that happy employees make for successful workplaces, hence it’s important to celebrate small milestones during these tough times. We celebrated various milestones across the year, such as the launch of a new product, involvement of employees in company-led initiatives, and employees demonstrating their talent through our initiative called Mehfil, a virtual talent show. In fact, in this tough year, our employees voted us as a ‘Great Place To Work®,’ which I would classify as one of our biggest achievements. Finding joy in the small things can give team members a sense of belonging during these tough times.

What are the key learnings as a leader from the Covid-19 pandemic?

Staying calm and focused while building resilience and confidence among my team has been my priority. Showing kindness and compassion towards one another and offering assistance wherever possible helps reduce stress levels. Times like these define a company’s culture and the way you manage your team through these challenges is a reflection of the company’s values. The importance of constant communication within an organization is paramount and technology plays a critical role in conducting business more efficiently and effectively.

One thing is certain: the world has entered a stage of rapid flux, where changes happen at breathtaking speed. Being prepared for crises such as this, and others in the future, requires having a solid business continuity plan in place and being ready to implement it at a minute’s notice. We have all learned so much during this pandemic. Resilience, along with flexibility, have proven to be the keys to successfully navigating these difficult times.

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