Indian businesses invest in employee safety as lockdown eases

A man sprays disinfectant to sanitise a passenger bus to prevent the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), after authorities eased lockdown restrictions that were imposed to slow the spread of the disease, in Ahmedabad, India, 1 July 2020.
A man sprays disinfectant to sanitise a passenger bus to prevent the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), after authorities eased lockdown restrictions that were imposed to slow the spread of the disease, in Ahmedabad, India, 1 July 2020.

Following a strict, nationwide lockdown that lasted more than two months, Indian businesses are struggling to survive a lack of working hands, resources, and liquidity. But since parts of India’s economy have begun to reopen, the daily number of new infections has jumped, keeping business leaders mindful about employee safety even if it means going light on profits and growth.

The Indian government shut down the economy 25 March and extended the lockdown three times. Manufacturing was allowed to resume in certain sectors beginning 20 April. Since 8 June, as India reopened, restrictions have been considerably eased, interstate movement has been allowed, and states have been authorised to impose their own rules based on their coronavirus spread and sensitivity.

Spread of the virus has also increased. India’s expanding caseload of about a half-million infections now ranks fourth in the world. With COVID-19 hot spots in several areas, Indian businesses are learning to live alongside the coronavirus and realising that the cost of contamination would be steep.

This has brought about an unprecedented mindfulness towards employee health, hygiene, and safety.

Rajnish Magan, FCMA, CGMA, the CFO at Beumer India, part of multinational operations of Beumer Group Germany, an international company designing and manufacturing intralogistics systems, worries about catching up on lost revenue and sales in the coming months. Beumer India’s factories have been running since 20 April and are working in two shifts now, with 100 workers instead of the pre-pandemic 250. Production and revenue have been drastically affected.

The strict national lockdown forced daily wage earners who mostly came from other states to leave for home. The fear of COVID-19 is preventing the return of many of them. “We have the resources and client orders but few workers to execute the projects,” Magan said. “We could still catch up on the lost revenues over the next six months had they returned by June.”

He estimated this might impact 20% to 25% of the topline revenue.

Employee health and safety to remain supreme

Magan predicts Beumer India will spend almost INR 5 million (about $66,000) this year on disinfectants, sanitisers, masks, and best practice. Buildings, office vehicles, cellars, and parking areas are being sprayed with disinfectants three times a day. Food supplies from third-party vendors have been cancelled. Reminders to wash hands and maintain hygiene have been installed through corridors. Protective gear has been distributed to all employees. Rosters have been created to ensure rotational duties for staff so that only 30% to 50% of the employees are present at any given time, conforming to social distancing.

“It’s difficult to practise social distancing in India, especially in the factories,” said Magan, adding there’s little choice, though, as the cost of employees falling sick is very high.

“Not all organisations have the luxury of space required to maintain social distancing at work,” said Rajesh Ray, FCMA, CGMA, the CFO and head of finance at ZeOmega India, a subsidiary of a US-based IT software product company serving mainly US insurance companies.

Indian workspaces, especially in IT and the IT-enabled services (ITeS) sectors, are typically a crowd of glass cubicles. Although his organisation is revamping its workplace to conform to new guidelines, safety and health is of paramount concern for their 400-odd employees in India, so they have been encouraged to continue working from home.

Working from home is here to stay

Organisations and employees in India unequivocally agree that if there’s one thing that the pandemic has changed, it’s the culture of going to the office.

“We had all kinds of business continuity plans in place, but nobody had planned for such a massive pandemic-driven lockdown,” said Gaurav Jain, FCMA, CGMA, the CFO at the Indian branch of French reinsurance company AXA.

Once AXA got over the initial shock, the company adjusted, and employees started to work from their home stations. “We found that we achieved more and produced greater bulk of work,” Jain said, adding that they’ll prefer to stay this way for the rest of the year, considering employee health and safety.

At ZeOmega, employees may choose to work from home on any given day to minimise health risks, Ray said. Realising that these are unusually difficult times, employees took ownership, worked convenient hours, and delivered quality work on time, he said. “There have been no complaints or escalations from our clients, rather they hailed our efforts around continuous delivery in the face of the pandemic.”

Policing doesn’t work, according to Ray. “You have to have faith and give them ownership. Make certain benchmarks for assessment, and empower them,” he said. 

Skill upgrades, lifestyle corrections, and health insurance

“Not only did we achieve more while working from home, we also found time to develop our skills, something that always falls through the cracks,” said Bhaskar Ranjan Das, associate director of the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants’ Indian chapter.

Businesses across India encouraged employees to learn new skills through online learning programmes. Going forward, this will remain a key method to keep them motivated and in a positive frame of mind, Das said.

To address mental health issues resulting from isolation, organisations encouraged employees and family members to use counselling helplines. As COVID-19 figures exploded across the country, weekly calls inquiring about overall wellbeing, one-on-one counselling sessions, regular advice on nutrition and health, updates on the COVID-19 situation and related best practice, and yoga sessions over Zoom and other video platforms have become routine, he said. Many organisations are making use of in-house specialists to provide guidance and health advice.

“All our employees have health insurance provided by the employer,” Jain said, and COVID-19-specific support is being contemplated.

Ray confirmed that although employees have health insurance coverage, a separate programme has been set up for people who have reached coverage limits. Since it’s not mandatory for Indian businesses to provide health coverage for employees, this is an area on which many are still working.

High dependence on technology

In May, the Association conducted online exams for more than 150 candidates in India. Candidates took the exams from their homes.

“Technology to supervise candidates, address issues, avoid unethical practices were used successfully,” Das said.

Getting on the work-from-home bandwagon had its own challenges, but the IT teams most often rose to the occasion. “We couldn’t have done this 15 years ago,” said Jain, indicating individual technology infrastructure just took centre stage.

Meanwhile, India’s growth was a meagre 3.1% in the January-March quarter and is expected at 4.2% for 2020. Indian businesses are staying cautious and don’t expect to quickly return to pre-pandemic results. By placing emphasis on employee safety and workplace hygiene, they are taking a more deliberate and cautious route to revival.

Swati Sanyal Tarafdar is a freelance writer based in India. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Sabine Vollmer, an FM magazine senior editor, at