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The Next Normal: How HR personnel are innovating to keep employees engaged

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With shopping centres being shut for so long, the organised retail sector has taken a severe hit. Social distancing norms and ever-increasing COVID-19 cases across cities have dented footfalls in shopping centres that are now open for the public. As a result, several brands are re-strategizing their business plans. Lay-offs are inevitable for most brands, but some are also managing with pay cuts and furloughs. In some cases, leave without pay is also being rolled out. Hiring has been frozen for most retailers.
Despite the dismal turn of events for retail with COVID-19, the HR departments of brands are launching a slew of initiatives to engage their employees gainfully, while keeping their safety and health in mind.
Engaging Employees
One brand which launched a slew of initiatives to engage its employees is IKEA. Through its various initiatives, IKEA’s aim has been to support all its – both in terms of staying connected and engaged and in terms of their physical and emotional health.
“We devised an initiative called ‘Learning@home’ to support our co-workers across our locations in Hyderabad, Bengaluru, Mumbai, Pune and Gurugram. Focus was to use the lockdown period to upskill their current knowledge and build new competencies that will be required to meet our customers, once the lockdown is over.,” says Parineeta Cecil Lakra, Country People & Culture Manager at IKEA India.
“We seamlessly managed to onboard new co-workers through virtual inductions. Existing co-workers continued to connect with their managers and teams through relevant digital platforms. We curated and supported teams with a playlist of digital training with several existing and new e-learning modules available on our in-house learning platform called ‘MyLearning’. During the period of lockdown, our co-workers in total completed ~41,000 hours of learning,” she adds.
Fashion brands Celio* and Benetton also used the lockdown to stay connected with workers as they believe that an engaged employee is an asset for the organization.
“We designed a holistic 360-degree engagement approach of Connect, Collaborate, Contribute and Develop to navigate change with clarity and purpose. We adapted swiftly to the new normal, collaborated virtually and connected with each other more deeply and effectively. We came together as a team like never before, explored our capabilities and shared them with our colleagues with positive spirit and celebrated each other’s happiness and successes more unconditionally than we ever did,” says Sundeep Chugh, MD & CEO, Benetton India.
Communication: The Key to Success
With the unprecedented situation the pandemic has thrown us in, healthy and timely communication is keeping the co-workers and colleagues together.
“We believe that teams coming together enables change and prepares them to sail through any difficult tasks. Since the beginning of the lockdown, we observed that setting an advanced schedule, respecting our coworkers’ time, and most importantly being flexible has shown dedication and productivity. We also believe that communication is essential to remind everyone that these are difficult times, but we will sail through this together,” says Lakra.
“We have regular virtual office meetings, team meetings, leadership interaction and also informal chat sessions to stay connected. This new normal also bought various opportunities for IKEA India to learn, adapt and chalk out new ways of shopping for customers. We introduced Click & Collect, an almost contactless service in India, to ensure both co-workers and customers remain safe as business continues. We implemented guided safety measures for our online, Click & Collect delivery measures. We took additional care to ensure customers can remain as safe as possible while shopping at our Hyderabad store. Co-workers were supported with all the safety measures in workplace with hygiene practices, social distancing etc. Transport support was also provided for those who did not have their own safe way to commute. All these activities were done smoothly through effective communication across all our units,” she further adds.
“It is imperative to ensure that employees are staying healthy and engaged as we navigate through these uncertain times by being empathetic and understanding towards them. The best way to sail through this is to provide clear and consistent communication and support. At Benetton, we conduct regular virtual meets encouraging candid conversation among employees and senior management. These sessions aren’t just discussions, we play some fun and engaging games as well! It is very important to stay connected with our teams to ensure each other’s well-being, understand the insecurities and challenge areas, make them future ready, counsel them, and keep each other inspired,” states Chugh resonating the same thoughts.
Benetton has carved certain initiatives and restructured the previous ones to suit the current times. As the brand continues to live and cherish the culture of listening and communicating transparently, it conducts exclusive sessions of Heart to Heart with The CEO, wherein the employees have the freedom to connect with Chugh without any inhibition, Take a Break with Vivek (Director, HR) to provide more platforms and opportunity to the employees to reach out and make a difference by candidly sharing thoughts and ideas directly with the senior management.
As slowly and gradually businesses have started resuming operations, it has become essential to counsel people in terms of safety and precautionary measures.
“Our people are given avenues to collaborate and share their ideas, inspire each other, tune in to their passions and talk about their life goals. This certainly leads to an increase in team synergy and allows everyone be on the same page,” adds Chugh.
Similarly, Celio* also conducted town halls, communicated, and connected with employees through video calls, Zoom calls, Google meets and gave every employee confidence that we are all in it together. The objective was to help employees understand that we would sail through this crises and make each day better than the previous one.
“We regularly updated our employees on facts pertaining to COVID-19, insured all our employees and regularly communicated on how to stay active during this lockdown. ‘Ask your HR Team’ platform was widely used by the employees to pose questions, queries, concerns, give feedbacks, talk about their anxiety etc thereby ensuring that our employees felt safe and stress-free during this lockdown phase. The HR team also connected with the families of the employees which bought about a sense of solidarity amongst all of them. Surveys were conducted to understand the pulse of the employees at all times,” asserts Binny Ashish, Head – Human Resources, Celio*.
New Learnings & Development
Learning is not limited only to offline modes. With the vast improvement in technology, learning and development can happen anywhere at any time. IKEA and Benetton created bite-sized learning modules to help co-workers absorb and learn information at their pace.
“In the process of ‘Learning@home’ and what we now call ‘learning digitally’ as we are returning to our workplaces, our co-workers have developed an in-depth knowledge of their areas of responsibility. They understand the range in more detail which further helps them sell the right products to our customers. They are also more equipped to meet our customers in areas of the business that they were not specialized in before. Earlier customers who visited our stores were just limited to co-worker interaction on the store floor. Co-workers are now more efficient and prepared to meet customers on an online platform to support in the best way possible during these times,” says Lakra explaining it further.
“We have taken this opportunity to conduct various bite-sized virtual and interactive sessions on exclusively curated content such as: SOP’s on store resumption, Role Model Store Manager (based on Henry Mintzberg management principles), Service Excellence, Product Refresher courses, Understanding of different body types, Visual Merchandising basics etc. We have also created a platform for peer to peer knowledge sharing and leveraged our internal talent pool to impart various basic and advanced trainings to employees. To continue enabling and delivering value for our capability building efforts, we have designed, launched and in the process of building various e-modules to promote and enhance digital learning.
From webinars on strategies to evolve through change, LIVE sessions for new-skill training, from fun quizzes to online counselling sessions and e-modules, we at Benetton are passionate to help our employees stay ahead of the curve.” states Chugh resonating the same thoughts.
Brands have leveraged pandemic as an opportunity to upskill themselves to the fullest. This learning is happening through multiple touch points as every day.
The in-house mobile learning app of Celio* – C*Squad – was the highlight during the lockdown phase. The brand has clocked in more than 4,500+ hours of training with 800 employees.
“We introduced pocket learning modules, educated employees on retail math, trained employees on the new products through video-based learning and introduced ‘Learn with Your Manager Series’ which had the maximum participation. The modules were followed by tests. We also conducted live quizzing which was the highlight of the whole learning curve. It not only created healthy competition amongst the team but also created positive vibes. While the employees were getting trained to do their job better, we also used this time to develop their soft skills and personalities by giving them projects, book reviews etc. We conducted coffee-table discussions aiming to help employees become agile, have a winning attitude, display our values and address all challenges that come their way. Imparting knowledge was not restricted to only our internal employees, we also trained our channel partners on our upcoming products. This was very well appreciated by our channel partners,” Ashish asserts.
Maintaining Work-Life Balance
COVID has brought new working arrangements in place with interrupted childcare, chores to take care of and lots of fear, uncertainty and lack of motivation due to isolation. It is extremely important to set clear work expectations during these times. Integration and trust are the key words. As the pandemic has shaken the work and personal dynamics, we must reflect that Work Time and Home Time does not have to be distinct. During these challenging times, it is more realistic to integrate work and rest of the domains of our lives.
As employers, we must trust employees for the job assigned and should be flexible with the working hours. To help employees cope with the burnout, at Benetton, we offer flexibility and never overlook the importance of fun at work! Even during the lockdown, we celebrated all important days with not just our employees but with their families and loved ones, hosted scavenger hunts and fun challenges, conducted in-house dance and musical treats and got an extremely enthusiastic response. We also encourage employees to take leaves.
With a considerate approach of management and flexibility in operations, work-life integration is the new normal which would encourage social collaboration that leads to increased happiness, creativity and productivity and thus more balance in life,” says Chugh.
For various brands, the engagement of co-workers has never been limited to just learning, as their well-being is also of utmost importance to the brands. To help co-workers connect better with their mind and body, brands connected various sessions to keep their employees’ mind and body healthy.
“We conducted daily yoga and mindfulness sessions. All our co-workers have access to fitness apps which helped them stay fit and healthy. We held sessions focusing on home gardening and how to be more ergonomic whilst working from home. Wellness for IKEA India is beyond health-related aspects. We encouraged managers to connect with co-workers as much as possible to support respective teams in every possible way. We have organised multiple sessions on emotional wellness – mindfulness, counselling support and meditation sessions. Additionally, sessions were also conducted for co-workers across all units by medical professionals around getting the right information, medical insurance top-up, etc. We also continue to support vulnerable co-workers and co-workers with vulnerable family members to continue working from home in a good way,” Lakra states.
“We ran contests right from cooking to gardening to painting to music. This lockdown not only ignited childhood passions but also helped many employees learn many new talents. A number of employees across India helped the needy and we are proud of our associates. It is important for all of us to help our employees stay motivated, reduce their anxiety and come out with a winning attitude. Employees are the backbone of any business and the only way to safeguard the workforce is through collaborating and staying connected with the employees,” says Ashish resonating the same thoughts.
“To help employees maintain work-life balance, several companies are now considering various options depending on their business viability such as:
– Flexible work times and, where available and applicable, tech-enabled remote work options
– Increased focus on productivity rather than hours of work
– Several employers have also realised the importance of creating awareness about the mental health and are thus organising online workshops, seminars and training programs for their employees,” adds Sukhdeep Aurora, Chief People Officer, ANAROCK.
The New Normal
The world we are now living in is completely different from the one we had before COVID-19 struck. The retail sector has been one of the worst hit due to the pandemic. It is natural for the employees to feel anxious and insecure during these testing times. Thus, it is important for the brands to be connected and regularly acknowledge that their employees are critical to the company and assure them that they are committed to their safety and well-being to help them adapt to the new normal.
“Our retail store staff are most affected by this pandemic as a result of being at the forefront of the brand and engaging with customers on a daily basis. Their safety is our utmost priority. We continue to engage with all the store ambassadors who are on a downtime due to the lockdown and state restrictions by conducting activities with them and their families through our various connect initiatives. This also creates in them a feeling of inclusivity and a sense of belongingness with the brand. We hope and believe, that together we will again conquer and bounce back stronger and faster,” says Chugh.
With the crisis of this magnitude, it is crucial that we embrace this ‘New Normal’. Masks, sanitizers, social distancing and namaste will become the new way of life. The new normal for the store team would be safety first – safety of the customers and their own safety. Booking appointments for shopping, planned video calling customers for showcasing the new merchandise, home delivery, social distancing in store with floor markings, sanitizing the items that are touched, contactless payments would be the new essentials in the stores. The next-gen workforce are here to drive the change. A whole new range of skills are going to be required to integrate the pivoted demands of a largely digitally driven marketplace. Emotional intelligence will be the highly required soft skill. Being agile and coming out strong will be valuable to meet the future head on,” Ashish states.
IKEA is offering the employees a variety of internal training programs to adapt to the new normal. With changing customer demands, coworkers are being equipped for the future with a major focus on competence and new capabilities.
“Retailers will have to invest big into technology and into their digital platforms because their previous offline customers are now going online, with a distinct predilection for contactless shopping. Retail employees will need to get on a steep learning curve for learning how to use technology, and how to stay within the bounds and strictures of the new normal,” concludes Aurora.

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