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Written by Karthikeyan Natarajan
on 28 Dec 2020

2020 has been a year of renaissance at multiple levels. It has ushered in and revived the need for real human connections and global collaboration, renewed the faith in democracy, established a keen focus on science and engineering, and at a humane level, gratitude for getting through the year relatively unscathed. It has been a year of tremendous shock and rebirth. For many, a year that brought in personal loss, including me. I still mourn the passing of my favorite, iconic singing legend, SP Balasubrahmanyam, whose songs and voice have been an indelible part of my life.

On the upside, businesses, people, and nations that were agile and quick in responding to the unprecedented changes brought in by the pandemic have survived, and some even benefitted. The pandemic continues to be a headline story even as nations focus on economic recovery, and vaccine administration is on the horizon. I am reminded of a caricature from a leading national daily in March 2020 that showed a globe being pushed into the abyss, presumably to show a concerning economic impact. What we have seen many months later is unprecedented, not just in economic terms but across all facets of individual and public life.

And yet, the coronavirus crisis has opened up the possibility for unparalleled change as we reorganize priorities, put some activities on hold while spurring on others. It has also exposed our deepest vulnerabilities and triggered us to mobilize previously unknown resources and capabilities. As we bid farewell to 2020, I pause to reflect on what lessons we can take away as we step into what will hopefully be a much better year for the world, for society, for businesses, for people.

 

Lesson 1: Organizations with heart win the day.

John Foster Dulles, after whom the Washington DC airport is named in the US and who has been an inspirational force for “mobilization as an art” in the times of peace and war, believed that people’s potentials are reached through their emotions and safety, and certainly a higher calling.

For us, this was true given the scale and to be reaching out to people when the pandemic broke across cities where we had our work or associates. Putting people first, the mobilization was done reaching out to associates across all levels and location. As the pandemic spread in early 2020, getting our associates and their families from different parts of the globe to stay safe, connected, and ready for any situation became a priority. And because the ensuing lockdowns came fast and hard, it was critical to amend existing policies and establish new ones with speed and agility, in some cases even shed the legacy processes.

Equally important was the need for constant communication, engagement, and reassurance across the organization. There was a keen focus on keeping associates informed about new plans and processes, looking after their wellbeing and mental health, and continually reminding them that the organization had their back. Also, ensuring teams stay motivated and coming up with innovative ways to ensure BCP through the unfolding situation became a part of our daily huddles.

It was heartening to see so many leaders and teams rise to the challenge and go the extra mile in ensuring the safety of their colleagues, continuity of business, and unwavering support to our customers. And this collaborative, well-coordinated effort impacted me personally as well when I moved cities during the pandemic with my family. I cannot underemphasize the importance of the tremendous support from the family and friends who are your bedrock during challenging times.

 

Lesson 2: Trust will always be the currency of business.

Mutual trust between organizations, employees, customers, and partners was on full display as people moved to a work-from-home environment at an unprecedented scale. There are some truly amazing stories of trust our associates placed in us and vice versa. I am reminded of one of our associates who took the river route to mitigate the last-mile challenge and ensure his laptop reached him safely so he could resume work. Such tales of courage would be unheard of if there was a paucity of trust.

The social capital that Cyient as an organization has established shone brightly in all interactions with our customers. It took our teams less than two weeks to get all the necessary permissions from our top 95 customers to enable associates to work from home—a feat that would not have been possible without mutual faith. What started as a closely monitored exercise of the number of hours our teams put in eventually evolved into becoming a relationship based on trust and outcome.

In a crisis, when people and businesses are challenged to sustain and survival mode kicks in, it is only with trust, collaborations, and sticking together (figuratively) that businesses can proactively explore new, innovative ways of creating value for all shareholders.

 

Lesson 3: Mind over moment is critical in uncertainties.

Resilience is critical to keep your head above the water during a crisis. Our partner system, customer relationships, associate engagement, and our entire ecosystem was stress-tested during this period. The big question on everyone’s mind was: can we withstand a crisis of this magnitude? We dug in our heels and resolved to get our operations back on its feet while being cognizant of the unique and critical responsibility we have toward our associates, customers, and the community. This feat was possible through mindfulness, collaboration, and diligent actions on the part of several teams. And one pattern that stood out was a disciplined and resilient approach, well-supported by our technology backbone.

This helped established productivity norms and enabled our teams to WFH easily. Even today, with about 95% of our associates working from home, we have been able to sustain productivity levels of more than 95%. Prioritizations and not losing sight of our short-term and long-term measures and goals have helped us survive in these uncertain times. A lot of the credit goes to HR, our delivery teams, support teams, and managers on how they were able to keep teams motivated with their spirit and enthusiasm intact. Being on top of a never-before-seen challenge and historic crisis with sheer conviction and courage was on full display throughout the year.

Interestingly, we have had people supporting WFH and those who yearned to come to offices after several months of lockdown. In my view, WFH will co-exist with office spaces as the latter is key to evolving Cyient’s culture, even as we monitor the safety of the workplace in the event of returning back to office.

 

Lesson 4: Digital readiness will always be the first step to being future-proof.

Enabling WFH in two weeks for more than 10,000 associates was possible only because of our digital preparedness. The systems we had in place provided us with the digital backbone that became the mainstay of this new normal that we are now in. It took our BCP and IT teams a very short time to ensure that our associates received the computing and networking infrastructure. They have also adeptly been able to set up the right cybersecurity parameters to secure customer data and protect the organization from malicious actors.

Besides, our journey over the past two to three years of implementing modern digital tools such as S4 Hana, Workday, Salesforce, and program/project management systems established the base for a digital organization that makes the transition to becoming a largely remote organization smooth and seamless. Michael Dell envisioned a digitally-connected, remotely-located workforce many years ago. What we thought was a sales pitch has ended up becoming a reality today. We would have been caught off-guard in the crisis if that were not the case. Our focus now is on speeding up automation as we prepare for a post-pandemic hyper-automated world.

In addition to our digital readiness, the renewed focus on data-driven decisions will eventually fuel business growth in the future. We have enough data available to us on taking poignant business decisions. And I have even added this data-centricity to my agenda of how we measure business performance with leading and lag indicators.

 

Lesson 5: Being a learning organization is the only option.

The crisis is not going away in the foreseeable future, and this is not the last crisis, anyway. Organizations that can make significant changes in the near term will be the ones to adapt well and grow. We revisited the importance of our purpose and, keeping that at the center, undertook a complete reorg of the internal structure giving more flexibility and power to our teams and people. The focus was on accelerating growth without losing sight of the organization’s humane aspects and ensuring continuity and change.

Continuity and change are two ends of the same spectrum; the need is to build a bridge between the two—continue uploading the Cyient values first and change how we view performance, competitiveness, diligent execution, meritocracy, and data-centric performance goals. Besides, having an outside-in approach and view of the organization was critical. It is imperative to continuously reach out to experts, advisors, and analysts on how we can improve and prepare for the new normal.

We also undertook several initiatives such as CXO Cyience, our signature platform to build powerful, trusted, and progressive conversations on highly relevant topics for today’s disruptive, digital age. Several other training programs were established to ensure smooth change management and to become a truly innovative organization.

 

To New Beginnings                             

The philosopher, Socrates, said, “The secret of change is to focus all your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new.” As we look toward 2021, the pandemic has once again made me recognize the importance of family, values, and keeping inner peace. After almost four years, my family—my wife and two sons—were spending so much time under the same roof, giving me the perspective to appreciate work-life balance. During these past nine to ten months, I have worn many hats, that of a coach, a mentor, a learner, and sometimes even a taskmaster. What I can state with enough degree of confidence is that when an organization and its people are driven by a higher purpose, the team, the people, and the entire ecosystem come together to make that happen. I can feel the magic now as we walk into the dawn of a new year with a different set of challenges.

On that note, a toast to new beginnings. Wishing you all a wonderful, safe, and peaceful 2021.

 

 

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