What should labor-intensive industries keep in mind as they prepare to reopen, not as interim but long-term sustainable measures? We looked within to find out.
What a first day should look like.
Since our inception in 2007 we have worked, on different projects, with over 50,000 workers in India, mostly from the garment industry.
Unique in their stories and united in their aims — to make something valuable out of their lives — each worker has added to our collective understanding of worker wellbeing. Our mission, to lead businesses to improve the lives of all workers, set us on a path of identifying workers’ needs, designing solutions, testing for wellbeing impact and financial returns, and driving adoption of proven solutions, at scale. Thus, through rigorous research, building a business case for worker wellbeing programs.
Marooned in the present with increasing uncertainty on the plight of workers and faced with the limited capacity to contribute during a nationwide lockdown, we dared to look Beyond COVID-19 and put to test our skills as holistic researchers.
We reimagined our position as a labor innovation lab and brainstormed ways we could leverage collective action to strengthen the message on worker wellbeing, and prepare labor-intensive industries to open shop responsibly.
Adhering to the same design thinking principles that conceptualized Inache, a worker-voice tool for garment industries, we meticulously planned and organized a 2-day virtual hackathon, in collaboration with our industry partner Shahi Exports — India’s largest exporter of readymade garments — and external expert facilitators.
When we first proposed the idea, Mr. Venkat, Chief Compliance Officer at Shahi, was happily surprised at our “COVID-19 gesture.”
That a research organization like ours was willing to serve as a compass in this time of need, and help businesses prepare contextual guidelines balancing both their limitations and worker wellbeing concerns, was surely a first.
At the beginning of April 2020, we thus held an intensive 2-day hackathon in which 3 teams participated, comprising 18 participants from GBL and Shahi Exports. Together, they were tasked to design a blueprint on how to create an anxiety-free environment for workers in factories as operations reopen following the lockdown period.
A panel of 5 members from Shahi senior management was set up to share constructive feedback on ideas at the end of each day, to guide the final output.
In the 2 days that followed, the 3 teams battled with a whole array of questions:
How do we prevent individual anxieties from snowballing into system-level anxieties?
3 teams, 2 days, 1 challenge later, we came up with a set of exhaustive guidelines on Designing an Anxiety Free Space for Workers in Factories, accessible here. This document takes into consideration the different kinds of workers and their prevailing circumstances, as depicted above. Chitra Ramdas, General Manager, Organizational Development, Shahi remarks:
It’s easy to make guidelines, difficult to implement them. This document is unique for it lays stress on the latter.
Five main realizations informed and inspired the guidelines:
The employer-employee relationship has come to test in wake of COVID-19. But businesses must not lose their team when the tide is high, definitely not the team spirit. Businesses can help workers now, and workers can help businesses later — it’s a relationship that needs to be invested in, and not reneged in pressure.
Inspired guidelines: Appreciate your workers and make them feel valued. Work with your business development teams to figure out how workers can be assured of their job security. For example: While uncertainty with respect to COVID-19 lingered in early March 2020 for India, Shahi Exports made a commitment to pay all its workers full salaries. For April, the same commitment was met though the payout happened in two stages separated by 8 days, to cushion the cash crunch faced by the business.
While all businesses might not be in a position to take this route, it’s important to prioritize workers, just as governments prioritize citizens.
It’s often easy to overlook anxiety in others when you’re suffering from it yourself. The new normal demands cooperation, understanding, and solidarity at all levels.
Inspired guidelines: On Day 0, the first day factories reopen, workers should be welcomed with a Welcome Kit consisting of masks, shields and gloves where required, and handwritten messages to show employer support. Acknowledging that acclimatization to the new normal is bound to take some time, Day 0 should be spent touching base with workers, boosting their morale, updating them on the new protocols, and extending an unwithering arm of support.
Tackling this gigantic task of fighting or rather protecting everyone from the Coronavirus, cannot be done alone. Set up a central task force at each factory. Make sure there’s representation from different departments (eg: HR, Organizational Development team if existing, Medical Team, Production Team etc.) and let this team serve as the central point of contact for all COVID-related planning and coordination.
Take it easy, together.
Human distancing shouldn’t create a distant humanity. Now, more than ever, authenticity is required to get workers through this time of stress and uncertainty. Don’t let the social distance create barriers in communication. Be kind, be considerate, and communicate with an understanding of the underlying times.
Inspired guidelines: Maintain social distancing norms and reduce touchpoints through subtle nudges like reimagining work-station arrangements and keeping all doors open. Remember that even while at work, the mental burden of second-guessing the company’s plans can be daunting for workers. As a business, be transparent with respect to updates without increasing panic or fear. While it is difficult for anyone to currently predict what may happen next, be open about that. Outline possible scenarios or new measures that could come into play, and most importantly, provide set timelines for when you’ll be able to share more information or confirm any next steps. This responsibility should be owned at the HR and Leadership levels.
Important to maintain distance without feeling distant.
Misinformation has always existed on the internet, but with COVID-19, the risks can be greater.
Inspired guidelines: Use Whatsapp to trump WhatsApp. Companies should build strong networks of trust and awareness to check how well-informed workers are, and ensure that regular updates are shared with them, perhaps via a company WhatsApp group. This platform should also be used to break myths around the spread of and measures that help deal with the Coronavirus. Other forms of communication like announcements, videos, random check-ins by the welfare officer, or tapping existing communication tools (an existing in house platform for voicing grievances perhaps) should also be leveraged.
As the pandemic reveals the weaknesses of our economy, business, consumers, and governments worldwide must rethink what they value.
Inspired guidelines: Utilize the capital your business has to ensure safe living spaces, especially for migrant workers in this time of need. Be a pioneer in leading a paradigm shift to focus on “worker satisfaction” over and above “worker productivity”. Shift strategy to commence business reports with updates on worker wellbeing, and focus on social profits before economic profits. Take a subtle stand.
Time to rethink matrices of value.
The complete set of guidelines is more detailed and has passed through several rounds of fine-tuning where concerns on feasibility, practicality, and what best suits both worlds (business and worker wellbeing), were addressed.
Shahi Exports’ final SOPs on reopening all 50+ of their factories across India, were largely guided by the efforts that backed the hackathon.
Though organized in response to COVID-19, the guidelines are made keeping COVID-like situations in mind, thus, designed to ensure long-term resilience and sustainability in operations.
Today we reckon we must learn to live with the COVID-19, and that it’s time to take the tourniquet off. While the COVID-19 experience has made us question our propensity to wrestle with the future, it has also prepared us for a mind-shift change to what the coming time may look like, especially for business and worker wellbeing around the world.
As the next chapter of COVID-19 stares us in the face, we hope our guidelines can help labor-intensive industries adapt better, and realize through practice, that worker wellbeing is indeed good business.
Good Business Lab
Illustration credits: Siddhesh Gautam