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An exclusive Human Resources interview with Gurpreet Grewal, regional head of HR and organisation at Generali Asia on weathering the workplace storm of 2020, leading from the front and how HR can step up to the C-Suite level.

What strategies has Generali used to help employees get through the challenges of 2020?

As the pandemic continued to unfold in the first few months of the year, we realised that in order to support our employees through the upcoming challenges we had to transform the way we work – and in doing so it would have to be holistic. While it was clear that large periods of uncertainty lay ahead in the months that followed, we also had to prepare our employees for the long-term fundamental impacts that Covid-19 would have on the workplace.

First and foremost, it required us to be upfront with our employees about the challenges we were facing. Then working with our teams to rethink and re-engineer how we were going to work towards our objectives, and this really played to our strengths of being an agile and flexible organisation in the region.

Generali’s digital agenda was accelerated in response to the pandemic, transforming the way employees and agents work and enhancing the experience for our customers. So being agile and flexible enabled us to quickly adopt new working practices that would support the digital transformation strategy.

Ensuring our employees understood how this would enable us to operate through the pandemic but also build resilience in the years ahead, was vital.

Moving towards a virtual way of working necessitated an approach that was supportive and understanding of each employee. Central to this was providing employees with appropriate control and flexibility over how they do their work, regular communication, offering information and practical tools to support positive mental health, regular check-ins and ensuring the lines of communication were accessible and always open.

Interestingly, in the virtual workplace we have discovered that our more introverted employees have thrived. They said they feel more comfortable speaking up and expressing their ideas on a conference or video call than if they were in a physical meeting.

At the regional level this required an approach of working with the relevant managers and business units to ensure they were well equipped and supported to work with a changing environment and ensuring they remained engaged.

How is the leadership team at Generali steering a course through the pandemic?

The pandemic has forced us to reimagine the way we work and do business. For our leaders it has made us recognise the importance of leading from the front, to create the right environment for transformation to take place, and to ensure we exhibit the values and behaviours that we expect from our teams. 

Everyone has been impacted by the pandemic and I feel in many ways it has made us more human. For example, seeing your colleague’s children in the background when you’re on a video call and regularly touching base with your team members to understand how they are feeling.

It has really forced leaders across the board to adapt their style because being an effective leader under the current circumstances requires greater empathy, humility, and transparency. 

Interestingly, in the virtual workplace we have discovered that our more introverted employees have thrived. They have said that they feel more comfortable speaking up and expressing their ideas on a conference or video call than if they were in a physical meeting.

We are looking at how to leverage this understanding back to the office environment and exploring ideas to help introverts feel more comfortable in the physical workplace.

What is the biggest lesson you have learned about employee management during the pandemic?

The pandemic has been a stressful time for everyone. In the context of the workplace this has created a heightened reliance on managers to maintain the wellbeing, health and safety of their teams and at the same time, ensure they remain engaged and productive. This sounds like a lot and that’s because it is.

The lesson here is to take care of your own needs as a leader because it is difficult to lead effectively if you’re also struggling.     

I don’t believe in hierarchy. For me it is all about collaboration and working together as a team, and this is why I am so respectful of people’s time, irrespective of their level.

There is also the importance of leading with empathy, transparency, and humility, which I mentioned earlier. Difficult times reveal why these attributes are important in leadership as teams led by people who possess high emotional intelligence tend to work hard and persevere.

Describe your leadership style?

I am very hands on and consider myself to be an authentic and honest leader. I can also be very direct.

I don’t believe in hierarchy. For me it is all about collaboration and working together as a team, and this is why I am so respectful of people’s time, irrespective of their level.

Best advice on how HR can ascend to the C-suite level.

In many organisations, such as Generali, HR has already ascended to the C-suite. Those businesses recognise the paramount importance of their people and how HR can improve a company’s bottom line.

For those HR practitioners who have not ascended to the C-suite, I advise the need to communicate the key message of the significant role HR plays in executing the company’s vision for the future, such as succession planning, hiring strategies and employment branding. These aspects have a long-term impact on the health of an organisation and the business planning process.

It is important to remember that “people” are one of the key assets in a company’s balance sheet – and hence having a strong focus on this asset is critical for any business to grow and be sustainable.

How have you stayed motivated during 2020?

Leading from the front has kept me motivated. I need to stay motivated to keep morale and motivation high for our employees. But, at the end of the day, I am only human.

There have been times this year when everything has just felt overwhelming and this goes back to what I mentioned earlier. Recognising these moments and realising I need to take care of myself, such as taking a break or just a short, quiet moment to step away from work.