The Covid-19 pandemic has dealt a body blow to businesses across the world, across sectors, with many having lost business almost overnight. From hospitality to aviation to automobiles, no sector has been spared the impact of the biggest challenge any business entity has faced. For Keshav Murugesh, the chief executive officer of the NYSE-listed business process management (BPM) giant WNS (Holdings) Limited, this was, however, a huge "Supernova" moment, a massive explosion which nudged businesses, including his, towards a transformation people never knew could be achieved in such a short span of time.

"Covid has completely changed the way we live and work," Murugesh told me recently over a Zoom call from his Mumbai home. The peripatetic Murugesh has had to be locked inside his apartment since the pandemic hit, and has been marshalling his troops and top management remotely. For background, WNS clocked FY2020 net revenues of $896 million, up 55% from 2017, and has a global headcount of over 43,400 as of June 2020. It has 61 delivery centers worldwide including facilities in China, Costa Rica, India, the Philippines, Poland, Romania, South Africa, Spain, Sri Lanka, Turkey, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

In an industry like BPM, where employees need to operate from a workplace to attend to customers, transitioning to a work-from-home (WFH) environment during the pandemic was the biggest challenge Murugesh, a past chairman of NASSCOM, had ever faced.

"Supernova 2X is what I would call it," said Murugesh, adding that the pandemic has literally brought the future forward in a matter of days. "We executed a sharp ‘Trifecta’ model – a three-pronged strategy prioritizing employee safety, delivering on client needs, and adapting to the changing contours of the new normal."

In terms of client break-up, the insurance sector is WNS' largest, comprising 25.2% of its business, travel and leisure 18.6%, healthcare 16.4%, manufacturing, retail, consumer products, telecom and diversified business 17.1%, among others.

Transitioning to WFH

Immediately on Covid-19 being declared a pandemic, WNS rapidly deployed WFH solutions across all locations – this was done "literally overnight." The company faced a host of challenges - including regulatory issues in some countries. With as much as 65% of WNS' workforce based in India (about 28,000 people), the company, working through NASSCOM, worked closely with various government departments to secure relaxations to enable WFH on a war footing.

"It was a seamless transition of work – with smooth delivery of desktops and laptops to employees’ homes, robust end-point strategies to minimize residual risks, deploying customized WFH solutions to ensure information security and data privacy, and boosting internet connectivity speeds at employees’ homes to offer consistent levels of delivery," Murugesh explained. Importantly, while WNS managed discretionary spending, there were no significant changes to its global headcount levels. "I think we were one of the very few companies that gave the bonus on time as expected," he added.

The employee connect

Importantly, with just about 12% of its global headcount able to work from office (in India it was just 5% of the 28,000 employees), HR measures and employee engagement took top priority. "We devised an effective, seamless and connected HR communication strategy for employees, with a special focus on managing their security and welfare. We created multiple employee engagement initiatives to ensure every employee felt a part of the organization wherever he or she was," Murugesh explained.

WNS launched two HR platforms during Covid. The first, Amelia, was an AI-powerd HR chatbot which raised awareness about the contagion and disseminated information, and also responded to queries from employees.

The second, GLINT, is a full-stack AI-led digital learning and knowledge platform and offers a learning experience through tailored modules that are mapped to WNS' specific business needs. It uses the power of AI to aggregate, create and curate, transfer and apply learning. Learning on GLINT is supported by a business intelligence (BI) engine that provides insights on learner behaviour and preferences.

Eyes on the prize

As the transition to a WFH environment was taking place for the BPM giant, there were also client wins beginning to happen despite the pandemic. Among new clients were a fintech bank in North America, a U.S. property and casualty insurance company, a privately-owned transportation and supply chain management company, a leading healthcare company in Australia, and a global logistics company providing mission-critical supply chain services.

During the height of the pandemic in the April-June 2020 quarter, WNS managed to clock net revenues of $201.4 million, with adjusted net income of $26.1 million. It added seven new clients in the quarter, and expanded 13 existing relationships. The market has been keeping a close watch on these wins, and the WNS stock, which hit its historical high of $75 in February this year, is currently moving back up, trading at around $68. WNS will announce its second quarter results for FY21 on October 15.

Murugesh said there were essentially two stages a BPM company like WNS looked at in terms of addressing client needs. First, immediate recovery, which WNS calls HyperSurge. "It is about how we enabled clients to deftly navigate through the turbulence". The second is revival for the future. This is called HyperLead. "This is about our clients recovering and outperforming their peer set in the new normal."

Tapping into the gig economy

Another important fallout has been the ability of companies like WNS to identify a large new talent pool enabled by the "gig" economy. Murugesh pointed out that there are two essential requirements to enable these outcomes in India. The first is a conducive policy climate that encourages part-time employment. WNS is working closely with the government and forums like NASSCOM to drive the right policy-making. This apart, there needs to be relevant tweaks in client contracts that will allow companies like WNS to deploy talent for their processes under this model.

The big advantages will be the ability to tap into new talent pools like millennials, specialized retired professionals and women with secondary degrees who can devote three to four hours a day. "This move can actually bring over 110 million women with secondary degrees who don’t participate in the workforce," he pointed out. This will also enable the inclusion of a huge untapped workforce across the country, including tier 2 and tier 3 cities.

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