RAJKAMAL VEMPATI, chief human resources officer (CHRO), Axis Bank, says this is perhaps the best time to be a human resources (HR) professional. Her eureka moment came when people practices became a strategic theme at the bank’s board meetings a few years ago. “Four strategic themes are being discussed at board level today — people, risk, business and execution. There is an understanding that if you look at growth, profitability and sustainability, HR manages sustainability. Large, regulated organisations are focused on getting the right people to ensure long-term sustainability,” says Vempati.

The role of an HR manager is no longer limited to hiring/onboarding or launching employee engagement initiatives. In a world where change and uncertainty are constant and disruptions frequent, getting the right talent and, more importantly, nurturing and retaining them has become vital. The HR manager is bombarded with questions such as how she is scaling up talent pool and working on change management.

“The most important factor that determines if a company can meet goals is its people strategy. Tackling the complex skill gap issue, driving innovation and leading from front are core tenets of HR today. To stay ahead of the curve, organisations must listen and grab opportunities, for which they need a future-ready workforce,” says Ruzbeh Irani, president (group human resources), Mahindra Group.

“My goal is to enhance talent density, which is the quality of people in the organisation. It is to do with the kind of product we are going to build, because tomorrow, if that product is not cutting-edge, we will feel it as an organisation,” says Ashish Kumar Singh, CHRO, Meesho.

HR has also become a more complex function than before considering the challenge of managing a multi-generational workforce where Gen-Zs and millennials have to co-exist with Gen-Xers and baby boomers and each of them has a distinct mindset. The challenge is to get them to work seamlessly. For instance, Gen-Zs and millennials, who will comprise more than 50% workforce over next decade, have short attention spans. How can organisations keep their interest levels high?

Such challenges mean the CHRO can no longer limit herself to classical HR tenets. “Is the candidate abreast with generative AI? Does she have strong business acumen? These are some of the questions that organisations are asking while searching for CHROs. The new breed of CHROs has to be part of a continuous learning process in order to remain relevant,” says Aditya Mishra, MD, CIEL HR.

“When we conduct our monthly HR meetings, the first presentation is always on the company’s business. We review that first so that the team understands the business. We talk about HR only after that because an HR programme in isolation has no meaning. It has to be relevant for the business,” says Rishikesh Raval, president, group human resources, Zydus.

Hiring And Retaining Talent

One major change over the years has been that the employer no longer has the final say in choosing or rejecting a candidate. Gen-Zs and millennials are obsessed about purpose and often don’t have qualms about rejecting an offer if they feel the organisation’s purpose and values are not strong enough. Employers have to go the extra mile to attract such talent.

India’s leading infrastructure major, L&T, has increased trainee retention up to 63% after a period of five years from joining, through a programme called ‘Grace’ (get ready for an awesome career in engineering). “Millennials and Gen-Zs are aligned to purpose. We go to campuses and talk about our purpose — ‘make things that make India grow.’ We are builders for the nation. We talk to them about projects such as Atal Setu and airport and metro projects. We select candidates at the end of the third year and make them join our learning portal. We keep sending information about L&T and keep them engaged through activities,” says C. Jayakumar, CHRO L&T.

Bulk of attrition happens two-three years after joining as this is the time the employee is looking to go for a master’s degree. L&T has been trying to reduce this by partnering with tech and business schools for offering post-graduate courses. The company has even partnered with institutions for designing courses aligned with its business. “If someone wants to become a specialist in construction technology, we have a tie-up with IIT-Delhi, IIT-Chennai, NIT-Trichy and NIT-Surathkal for masters in construction technology management. The philosophy is to get them in, train them and ensure they get education. If a person stays with the organisation for five-six years, attrition is controlled.”

Similarly, Axis Bank has partnered with business schools and launched specialised programmes on java and artificial intelligence which students can opt for as electives. “The idea is to get them contextualised with our business before we hire them,” says Vempati.

The hiring process has evolved, too. It’s not about getting a candidate with spectacular academic qualifications; it is more to do with whether he/she fits into the organisation’s culture and purpose. Companies have not only put in place a host of parameters for hiring, they are also investing in training their hiring managers. “It is critical to acquire talent with future-fit skills to help us achieve our goals in a rapidly evolving external environment. With this in mind, we build capabilities of our hiring teams for better understanding of business through talent acquisition business academy sessions on future-ready skills. This helps the talent acquisition team play an advisory role and truly partner with business in finding the right talent,” says Nagina Singh, people lead, Mondelez India.

Companies are even doing away with interviews. Validity of interviews at the bank is just 27%, says Vempati of Axis Bank. “We have a profiler, we do a cognitive test and then hire. It is about context, culture and assimilation. Asking questions like where you see yourself after five years doesn’t make sense because the world is going to change by then. Through interviews, people were trying to hire their clones. There can be no impact on productivity if you hire clones of yourself."

Anjali Raghuvanshi, chief people officer, Randstad India, agrees. “A lot of AI tools assess a candidate on parameters such as skills. Organisations don’t want to waste time talking to candidates about all that. Hiring managers are more interested in finding out if a candidate fits into the culture of the organisation and adds to its culture and values.”

Multi-Gen Workforce

Gen-Zs and millennials comprise 30% of global workforce. In India, it is close to 50% in many organisations. From offering flexible work options to re-working performance management systems and revisiting training modules, companies are going all out to retain this segment. One of the things being done is reverse mentorship. “Most senior management employees in their fifties aren’t conversant with new technologies. A number of organisations are getting new-age workforce to mentor seniors,” says CIEL’s Mishra. The Mahindra Group, for instance, has multiple leadership forums and roundtables which bring senior leaders and younger workforce on a platform, the objective being to break silos and create an inclusive environment that drives synergies.

Also, the new-gen workforce doesn’t have the patience to wait for years for their dream role. That is why most firms are fast-tracking performance management timelines. “Earlier, a person would handle a ₹2,000 crore project closer to retirement. Now, even a young graduate engineer can handle a ₹2,000 crore project,” says L&T’s Jayakumar.

Axis Bank has shortened promotion eligibility period from two-and-half years to 16 months. Similarly, Raval of Zydus says promotions today are completely on merit, and age has no role to play. The company runs leadership programmes such as Prism which are not for senior leaders alone. “Around 80% members who are part of this are below 35. When we look at promotions for leadership roles, we also look at younger employees.”

Companies are tweaking their training modules, too. Thanks to technology, a lot of them have been able to democratise learning and training. Most have partnered with the likes of Coursera and Upgrad. Internal training modules have also become shorter keeping in mind the attention span of the younger generation.

Embracing AI and Tech

The one thing CHROs of India Inc. can’t stop talking about is how generative AI and technology has started playing a huge role in not just hiring and onboarding talent but also day-to-day operations.

Mondelez India has a technology-enabled onboarding programme to help joiners experience the culture first-hand. “It includes a virtual reality experience that gives a tour of all our sites in India. Mondelez in India is perhaps the first entity to launch a metaverse onboarding experience that has been subsequently launched in other markets,” says Singh. The chocolate manufacturer also has an integrated people services app, which is a digitised query resolution interface for its shop floor employees. Singh claims 20% increase in efficiency through these digitisation initiatives.

Most organisations are using AI to screen resumes, too. The machine tells them whether a candidate fits into the role or not. It can measure a candidate’s functional as well as culture fit. “If we are interviewing a person, a screen co-pilot captures the minutes of the discussion. It presents a summary of the interview and, accordingly, I give feedback. The co-pilot can also suggest questions that can be asked on the lines of what the interviewee is talking,” says Meesho’s Singh.

Technology has made HR operations more efficient, says Jayakumar of L&T. “Earlier, even to get a staff count, we had to collect staff data from all the units and consolidate. It was time-consuming. By the time we got the data, new people would have joined, while some would have quit. Today, I have a single system providing single source of information. We have staff data and HR analytics at our fingertips,” he says. L&T has a shared service centre which handles all standardised HR activities of all the business of L&T. “We have 12-13 lakh resumes in our talent data bank,” he says.

Even chatbots for day-to-day HR operations are a given in most organisations today. Raghuvanshi of Randstad agrees that technology has made HR more efficient but says it can’t completely replace human touch. “Technology can confuse employees if not thought through. The tools need human assistance to perform better in servicing people.”

The transition from a back-end function to a business role has made HR glamorous. The day-one of hiring on leading business school campuses has as many takers for HR roles as marketing, finance or operations. India Inc. doesn’t have too many HR professionals in CEO roles but they are definitely getting there.

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