Willis was awarded the ‘Global HR Excellence Award 2019’ from Avnet Inc. a globally recognised, multi-billion-dollar, electronics technology company. This was awarded for his significant contributions to accelerate the delivery of Avnet’s overall HR strategy and enhance its long-term effectiveness in 2019. Avnet is headquartered in Phoenix, Arizona.
It is a top three global distributor of electronic components, with FY21 revenue of $19 billion. Avnet serves over 300 suppliers and 100,000 customers worldwide with operations in more than 300 locations and 70 countries in North America, Europe/Middle East/Africa (EMEA), and Asia-Pacific. It has been in operation for over a 100 years. His latest recognition comes from White Page International and Forbes as ‘India’s 50 Best HR Leaders’ in 2021 and top Indian CHROs to follow on Linkedin 2020.
The writer caught up with Willis Langford, to know his perspectives on the ‘Great Resignation’ and the interventions he took to successfully handle the post-pandemic HR challenges. Excerpts of the interview:
Q: Based on your opinion, did many employees in India switch jobs post-pandemic and contribute to the global ‘Great Resignation’?
A: We live in a global economy and India is not isolated from the international world. With leading multinational companies in India across sectors like IT, Manufacturing, Trading, Retail and Consulting, the impact has been as grave as that of the Western hemisphere. We have seen massive resignations across these sectors and I reckon this would continue for another quarter before it tapers off.
The pandemic forced not just employers but also employees to rethink their career strategy. They were waiting to see the light at the end of the tunnel. The older generational cohorts were waiting to jump ship either due to their pandemic lay-offs or stunted growth during the past two years, while millennials are more focused now on moving to jobs that offer them alignment with their personal goals and purpose of life.
Q: As the HR Director for a globally recognised, multi-billion-dollar technology company, how did you handle the post-pandemic influx of digital transformation and remote working whilst ensuring employee engagement and teamwork?
A: Fortunately, many top organisations in India were already embracing digital transformation and we were no different. We were early to adopt to this impending change of virtual environments by launching virtual development and coaching sessions. We also launched a module ‘Learning in The Digital Age’ for which I also composed a rap song ‘Let’s learn let’s learn, let’s magically learn’.
The bigger challenge was of course how do we ensure that our employees are engaged all the time as employee engagement to all of us is always an in-person practice. So, we implemented multiple interesting new measures within a matter of days and ensured that our workforce was completely engaged to deliver their best, after enjoying a great employee experience without defocusing on business. Some of them were:
1. Having JLT meetings (Just like that). Causal virtual huddles to break the monotony of business.
2. Regular check-ins by Human Resources on the employee’s well-being alongside their families.
3. Periodic Senior Leadership virtual group catch-up.
4. Consistent online employee engagement activities by HR which helped the employees to destress.
5. Celebrations of Festivals, achievements and milestones.
Q: The role of HR was thrown into the spotlight when Covid-19 hit globally. How did you realign your organisation’s work practices so that the pandemic created many opportunities and not threats to your business and employees?
A: As an optimist, I always look forward to the silver lining of the dark clouds that may surround us. I am a firm believer that we cannot control the external environment in which we operate, but we can control the way we operate in the environment.
Though simple, the most profound need of the hour which I felt was to have timely communication and updates to our employees. So, we had help desks, periodic check-ins, professional advice administered and many more practices that helped us immensely.
During the entire pandemic, my team and I were clear that the health and safety of our employees superseded all our other objectives. With this as the backdrop, all other policies, be it flexi-working, rotational shifts, etc. were quickly implemented.
Q: Several studies showed that anxiety and depression are increasing as the pandemic goes on. What are the long-term changes you implemented to your workplace culture and other investment decisions with regard to your employees to overcome this challenge?
A: Maintaining consistency in our policies and overall outlook has always been my aim. It’s very easy to have quick knee-jerk changes that are implementable, but the bigger question is would they last the test of time? So, in all our changes we implemented, we didn’t give an opportunity to our teams to think adverse on our direction and strategies. In fact, during the pandemic we received so many accolades and certifications, The Great Place to Work being one of them, which was a great endorsement of our work and workplace culture.
Q: Due to the influx of virtual jobs, leaders are now out of touch with their employees. What are the new practices that you adopted that improved the understanding of your employees’ needs and challenges they faced post-pandemic, which reduced their frustration and ensured their retention?
A: Great leaders always involve their team members and ensure they are given adequate empowerment and independence. The biggest challenge that this pandemic posed to organisations was how to sustain working relationships with employees working remotely.
I was fortunate to be part of many forums and panels and as such, I soon realised that building trust between team members or between boss and subordinates could soon be challenged. Hence, we had many relationship building initiatives (as previously mentioned) which gave the employees the confidence that they are not alone on this journey.
Q: Many surveys suggest that a hybrid model of in-person and remote work would surely continue in the aftermath of this pandemic, but bosses need to customise this model to create a win-win situation. So, how can employers and employees be ready for the future of work and prepare for 2022?
A: I have been personally advocating over the past two years that with the influx of digitisation and digitalisation, we will soon be embracing a new norm. Of course, I must be quick to add that no one (me included) ever knew what the magnitude of this change was and the pandemic has now taught us all the art of surviving. With this said, I believe that the hybrid working model is here to stay.
It could be based on job functions, geographies, and cost. There will be a concept of work from the office and work from anywhere and leaders will need to change their approach just as employees would need to. For this success, new skills such as Critical Thinking, Resilience, Multi-faceted, Dexterity, etc. will need to be part of every employee’s skill sets.
Q: What are your suggestions to help employers combat digital burnouts, zoom fatigue, etc. among the workforce and ensure remote working adds value to business success?
A: It’s an evergreen mantra of mine – “Hi-tech and Hi-touch go hand in hand”. We as leaders are called to be more empathetic at the workplace. Make no mistake that empathy is to succumb to the demands of the employees. But instead, it emphasises the need to give team members an equal seat at the table and to give them a hearing.
After all, these are unprecedented times and a friend in need is a friend indeed. Leaders need to understand that corridor conversations, pre-meeting chats and customer-drive catch ups are no longer going to be a regular feature and hence making ways to virtually fill these gaps become more important.
Sometimes, even a “How are you?” phone call can make their day. Great leaders do not demand respect, they command respect and hence we need to create an environment of trust where employees would voluntarily offer their undeterred commitment even without a request by the leader or by forceful monitoring of their movements.
Q: Most of the employees’ expectations are changing in the post-pandemic era, with regard to attaining personal fulfilment, mental health and career development. What’s your advice for employees who are planning to quit jobs these days?
A: When there is opportunity, there will definitely be change. With the new normal of work from anywhere, employees have soon realised a window of hope in making the best of the given situation. Employees are now looking at a more balanced lifestyle by trying to focus on their personal growth.
Family time, health and well-being have taken centre stage. Given the plethora of opportunities available, employees need to be choosy and pick their next dream job after a lot of thought.
My most important tip to prospective job seekers is to remember that the marketplace is global as the best talent can be tapped from any corner of the world.
Q: What are your key learnings from this pandemic?
Make the best of what we have as God has given us a great gift called ‘life’. To be grateful for what we have and to learn to be more resilient. To carry on learning, be it new skills or unlearning and relearning some of the skills that we already possess. I have maintained over these twenty-two months that this time is a great opportunity for family bonding, a time to embrace opportunities that we probably never had before. Lastly, I have learned to adopt, adapt and adjust to the new norm, as change is the only way forward.