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Learnings from handling the Covid 19 crisis: VS Parthasarathy, Group CIO & Group CFO, Mahindra & Mahindra

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A large conglomerate, Mahindra & Mahindra, has taken a series of steps proactively to ensure business continuity in the midst of a huge crisis caused by the Coronavirus. VS Parthasarathy, Group CIO & Group CFO, Mahindra & Mahindra shares the key lessons from this crisis and how his group has tried to weather the storm through adoption of best practices and processes. Some edited excerpts from an interview:

From an IT standpoint, what are some of the key initiatives initiated by your organization in ensuring that business continues as usual?
From an IT standpoint, we at Mahindra have always spearheaded the best practices and this did help us greatly in rising to the challenges posed by the coronavirus. We implemented Work from home almost immediately after the advisory/circular from the State Government and this was possible because of the following initiatives:

Formation of Emergency Response Team – to ensure the lights are on in the current BCP implementation situation we are in. This team meets daily and addresses and manages all challenges faced by the Group and its Group-wide employees across the globe. The Group IT Head & CIO play a pivotal role in this team.

Effective Connectivity & Information Security – We ensured that people could access applications/folders even from remote locations and ensured the safety of the internal servers and devices through EPP + DLP. We also used the WAF for portal access to strengthen security measures.

Harnessing the power of mobiles – We at IT ensured that all important programmes were available as apps on the mobile, the examples being One drive, Outlook, MS Teams & MeCentral (employee portal of Mahindra)

Constructive Communication – We conducted various webinars and disseminated information through mails to all employees to apprise them of various ways by which they could operate smoothly from remote locations. Daily COVID 19 Updates and awareness on precautionary measures to stay safe and work from home.

Online Learning – Ability for Employees to explore a variety of digital learning opportunities and make the most of their available time.

Through collaboration and gracious guidance of the board, we have been successful in this endeavour (Work from home) and have minimised the disruptions to a great extent.

What are some of the key challenges faced to ensure a Work from Home Policy (if adhered to in your organization)?
Apart from the numerous technological and logistics challenges (enumerated below), the greatest hurdle faced by us was of mindset. Many people in the organisation had never worked from anywhere but a workstation, they were unsure whether they could perform all their activities effectively from a remote location. They were not aware of many applications and had not explored them fully. We conducted webinars and circulated detailed SOPs to quell these apprehensions. We even initiated a support helpline for solving online queries so that the employees could work from anywhere they want.

Few technological and logistics challenges faced:

Not all employees had laptops, some worked exclusively on desktops – Rental laptops as an option was explored and people with laptops at home were requested to use their machines once safety measures were installed into the machines

WAF helped to provide secure access to internal portals – The IT team worked round the clock to ensure the same

VDI/VPN for ERP transactions & approvals through MeConnect app

Data Centres and key positions to keep the lights on need to be manned – even in the current situation

IT Security Issues and Increase in volume of threats

Employee Insecurities during these challenging times

What are some of the key lessons learnt during this crisis?
One of the biggest lessons is Agility and Adaptability. In this uncertain world with ever changing dynamics, organisations and its employees must be agile and adaptive. Changes have to be embraced quickly.  Disruptions must be viewed as opportunities and quick fix solutions need to be incorporated.

The other lesson is importance of communicating the right information and making sure it’s reaching the people. (example the stay safe thread initiated for employees). This helps in giving solace to people around and reduces rumour mongering and panic. When an employee receives communication from the organisation telling him of the steps being taken by the company for his well-being, it reiterates his faith in the organisation and forms strong bonds.

Another key learning is that adoption of any disruptive/new activity is successful when it is driven by the top management (which happened in our case as well). People were willing to experiment with newer ways when they learnt and saw their bosses trying the same. When senior leaders propagated these measures to their teams, adoption was easier and pervasive.
May this time get away soon and we recover fast from this scene. But the learnings of these, will go a long way in bringing the digital world closer to everyone.

What are some of the technology tools used to facilitate smooth collaboration between employees?
Some of the technology tools used to facilitate smooth collaboration between employees are as below:

Use of Office365 to its optimum (Outlook for mails, OneDrive for storage and Microsoft teams for virtual meetings and instant messaging), MeConect App (one stop destination for all employee and employer engagements (claims, approvals, leave sanctions). A shared workspace platform, acting as a digital “home base” for employees, Scopia/WebEx/Internal Webcasts for disseminating information to large groups (largely for IT applications, SOPs and queries), Online learning tools, Secure File sharing tools such as Onedrive, Online File & document management, Secure VDI and remote access to critical systems not in cloud
VPN and RSA secure for mobile security

Do you believe that the current mandatory use of remote work for business continuity is a signal to all organizations that it’s time to revisit their remote working policies and redesign them for wider application for business as usual? Please share your perspective

We’re being forced into the world’s largest work-from-home experiment and, so far, it hasn’t been easy for a lot of organizations to implement. We have seen work from home/remote work being implemented in many tech/IT companies however the current mandatory use has allowed other sectors to rethink their policies. One cannot argue that disruptions are not present, yes work does take a toll and for some time one may not work at optimum levels however, as things settle and people get used to the new ways companies can realise that this is feasible in the long run.

A lot of meetings can be conducted smoothly from remote locations (which earlier were done through physical congregation) thus saving time and improving efficiency. Working can truly transverse working hours in this way as the employee is not yearning to head home.  One can save a lot of precious time and energy in long commutes (as a Mumbaikar, one can absolutely relate to this!!), thereby improving efficiency and effectiveness. Our homes however are not equipped for this dramatic change yet.

Meetings can be disturbed by doorbells, cooker whistles or young children peering into the screens but if one can make concessions for these, it’s a win-win. The employers too benefit out of this measure. Costs of setting up and maintaining large and swanky workplaces is reduced drastically (lower demand for workstations, internet bandwidth). They reap the benefits of increased productivity and increased job satisfaction among employees. The organisation by conducting day to day operations electronically also helps protect the environment and can position the business as a good corporate steward. Thus, we believe that this mandate will allow many organisations to rethink and redesign their remote working policies.

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