Top HR Challenges in Total Rewards landscape

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Manu N Wadhwa, Chief Human Resources Officer, Sony Pictures Networks India (SPN)

An exclusive conversation with Manu N Wadhwa, Chief Human Resources Officer, Sony Pictures Networks India (SPN).

Manu has over two decades of experience in the human resources function across various industries and countries; she has piloted workplace and people agenda of globally dynamic organizations like GE and American Express.

Her expertise lies in Organization Design & Effectiveness, Talent & Development, HR Transformation, Change, and Digital Innovation. Interestingly, she started her career in 1996 in Tata Unisys as a financial analyst. 

She is an alumna of SCMHRD, Pune and the GE Human Resources Leadership Program (HRLP), Wadhwa is a member of the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) – National Leadership & HR Committee, Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM) – Asia Pacific Advisory Board, Chandigarh University Corporate Advisory Board as well as the Jombay Think Tank Forum.

Q- You have almost 2 and a half decades of experience in Human Resources working with fortune 500 companies like GE, American Express, and The Coca Cola, etc. Tell us more about your time at Sony Pictures?

Sony Pictures Networks India (SPN) is a media giant reaching 700+ million viewers in 167 countries through 29 Channels and 1 digital platform. As the custodian of the people agenda at SPN, my goals have been to steer the transition from broadcaster to a content powerhouse, paving the way for a digital transformation across the organization.

Given our intent to Go-Beyond our comfort zone, there was a need to proactively evaluate our journey and determine our North Star. In this regard, my role has been to catalyse the organization’s rewiring journey, which has culminated in the following:

  • Revamping the Vision- By rallying people together to pitch the diversity of thought and deed to determine the way forward, along with the CEO, we have beautifully co-created SPN’s Vision 2025
  • Strengthening the DNA, the New Values- To align with the new vision, we had to reconstruct the cultural thread that weaves everything we do here at SPN. This caused our Values to undergo a much-needed transformation in line with the changing times.
  • Breaking Traditions, The Era of Continuous Performance- Yet another cross-collaboration effort, we were able to herald our Continuous performance philosophy- Connect, Plan,  Mentor, that aims to transform SPN into an agile, high-performing, customer-centric and future-ready organization. 
  • Building a Culture of Collaboration- During my time here at SPN, one key cultural shift has been the value of ‘Collaborate to Win’. Today all organization priorities are overseen by a CXO-led Apex council and are co-created with a cross-functional team.
  • Focus on Inclusion- One of our Corporate Values is to believe in the Power of Diversity. We have been furthering inclusive workforces through people practices and initiatives, such as our landmark #PrideInDiversity, that embraced the gender diverse LGBT+ community.

We truly pride ourselves in Telling Stories Beyond the Ordinary. The omnipresence of warmth in our people practices is what sets us apart from the rest and gives our people the bandwidth to find meaning at work and challenge the status quo every day. 

Q- We have stepped into 2020, a new year, a new decade, and new goals to achieve. In your opinion what are the top 5 challenges HR leaders are facing today?

I find it a great time to witness Industry 4.0 first-hand and the way it transforms organizations. As a leader, these changes leave us with the responsibility to manage the ongoing volatility with speed and agility.

In Media and Entertainment, the digital revolution is having an unprecedented impact on content creation, its distribution, and monetization. Shifts in consumer behavior and demographics are altering business models by unprecedented on the go content formats. All of this is redefining competency needs in the industry like many other industries.

Currently, these are the five domains where leaders must proactively address challenges today:

Refresh – Fostering organization performance through combining experiences

The need for cross-pollination for solutions is the way to work. As a member of the leadership, my focus has been to leverage our collective abilities and experiences to build integrated solutions and pursue success.

Rewire – Moving out of the box to build network-based working structures

My stint here at Sony Pictures has truly demonstrated the power of collaborating to win. Hence, organizations must build talent practices and foster behaviours that fully support a team-based operating model. Fortunately, the market is tapping into this mindset and there are several technologies that ease this shift to team-based models of work.

Reimagine– Building personalised experiences for a diverse workforce

The war for talent has challenged organizations to appeal to the most in-demand and diverse workforce. Now, new and hyper-personalized opportunities, movement within and between jobs and non- linear career portfolios are curated to appeal to talent. Also, new models of life-long learning and alternative forms of learning, which instill meaning to work, are being brought in to entice talent.

Rejig–The boon of analytics in people practices

From the first contact as a potential recruit to the last interaction after the end of employment, superior employee experiences offer a distinct competitive advantage to employers, boost employee satisfaction and productivity, as well as brand salience and sustainable growth. According to Bersin, high-performing organizations are six times more likely to use data and analysis to understand the rewards preferences of their workers compared with their lower-performing counterparts; however, only 2% of them have an institutionalised and business integrated model. Predictive analytics, which can impact HR processes and hence employee experience has a long way to go.

Reach Out – Juggling generations and the gig

The demographics of the new-age workforce is leaning towards diverse, agile workforces and the advent of the gig format has simply elevated the war for talent. Companies’ rewards practices must be designed to retain the best of the lot.

Q- Compensation & benefits help organizations to engage, retain and attract great employees. What have been the most significant developments in C&B over the last few years especially and how rewards strategy will be shaped in 2020 and near future?

We are living in a VUCA world, where market dynamics are shifting by the minute. While compensation is a key factor in retention, it no longer serves as a differentiator. Instead, the mantra of flexibility in total rewards has been getting louder – today, we must cater to changing demographics that have different expectations from employers.

Also, the external environment has been instrumental in shaping rewards strategies in recent times. Regulatory revisions, designed to make employees more tax compliant, serves them limited options year on year to avail tax savings. Offerings such as medical reimbursements, conveyance, and periodicals have been reduced or done away with, thereby increasing pressure on the upcoming Wage Bill.

Industries, on the other hand, are witnessing challenges in growth due to the economic slowdown, which results in unsustainable increases in year-on-year pay-out to employees. Other than niche industries, high growth (e-commerce, tech, AI, etc.), or companies breaking ground in new zones, all other industries are seeing a correction in overall salary increases. In the M&E space, we are witnessing a shift from traditional broadcasting to digital, platform-agnostic and diverse content offerings, to remain sustainable.

Q- What are the top challenges that HR leaders face in the Total Rewards landscape when it comes to framing a successful strategy and implementing a total rewards system?

In any Rewards strategy discussion, there are several challenges that are posed, not just from the external market, but also from balancing the needs of all stakeholders.

With the future being gig, we may have employees working with multiple employers, or even otherwise, are actively comparing perks and benefits that are being offered by organizations today. Therefore, we need to clearly build demarcations between employee segments and actively listen to provide the optimum benefits plan that builds mid/ long term value creation. These days, organizations often resort to reward sharing and risk-taking offers to bring stellar talent on board.

This is contrasted by the shareholders’ perspective, who are often more concerned about onboarding the best talent and the performance part of the pay-for-performance model, which poses a challenge while maintaining internal parity. Therefore, the HR function needs to balance both sides of the people flux scale, i.e., attraction with retention. While market competitiveness serves to attract, internal competitiveness challenges retention. This is where variable pay comes into play, serving as a motivator and offering a fine balancing act.

Q- Nothing has changed significantly in areas of Variable pay but many changes are noticed in non-cash benefits, maternity leave, family leave, pension, etc. How do you see these innovations in employee benefits?

It is well known that pure monetary benefits have limited impact as a differentiator in compensation packages: the impact is derived through benchmarks, and there is limited elasticity which results in a short-term psychological impact rather than a factor for retention for the niche talent of today. What demarcates top employers of today are performance-based perks, which offer high gains for high risks, and the buffet of non-cash benefits that positively impact employee satisfaction.

In today’s era, Total Rewards is undergoing a radical change – comprising between 60% and 40% fixed-to-variable and between 38% and 85% intangible-to-tangible. Of the variable bracket, the umbrella of wellness benefits – physical and mental wellbeing, family care, financial wellbeing, childcare, as well as the flexibility in working conditions – is a genre that caters to many of our employees’ needs. However, despite providing a plethora of options, 85% stick to consistent patterns. HR is, therefore, tasked with decisively putting together benefits plans that would be valued basis the target strata of employees.

A close runner-up to wellness is the opportunity to develop and grow within the organization. At SPN, for example, learning opportunities and non-linear career paths that span the breadth of the organization make us lucrative in the eyes of niche talent. Our people policies that offer employees the freedom to pick their own path within the organization emerge as clear winners in retaining niche talent.

Q- What is the best rewards strategy especially when we are going through a slowdown?

During a slowdown, the key to running a business successfully is to maintain services at the most optimal demand level at minimal costs and ensuring minimal impact on human capital.

The approach to tide through a slowdown is having a long-term focus on rewards. Organisations need to stay strategic in their approach towards rewards and the wider HR policies that make up their employer brand. The most sustainable route towards attracting and retaining top talent is to build a total rewards strategy that offers more than monetary returns.

A broader view of rewards works effectively to motivate people. Offering flexible work hours, work-life balance options, time-off work, beyond-the-ordinary medical benefits, etc. All the above help build exceptional employee experience, while not over-relying on very high raises e.g. at Sony Pictures Networks, we have Best-in-class medical insurance which provides for parental cover, pre-existing diseases to infertility and congenital cover to name a few.

Also, today employees are seeking deeper meaning in their work and organizations are striving to create a greater human connection with their employees. While the non-cash benefits cited earlier are an incredible motivator, providing ample opportunities for employees to grow internally through flexible role changes and learning opportunities can greatly boost employee morale and improve their psychological contract with the organization.

Q- How the advancement of technology, especially analytics, helped the Rewards space and how are they transforming pay and benefit practices?

At the barebones level, analytics aids us in benchmarking against the market, in terms of compensation, and skills required. This gives us a head start on preparing attractive compensation packages tailor-made to incentivise top talent to join our ranks.

In recent years, predictive analytics is greatly helping HR professionals stitch their story using data, to highlight their contribution to the business. Organizations are now able to put a value to human capital assets and are starting to leverage online listening portals and other sensory information to track workforce productivity.

At SPN, we leverage analytics to gain a perspective on distinct personas, by clustering attributes such as age, income, life stage, career level, and certain preferences, that should be offered different combinations of rewards and benefits. Data such as HRIS, past pay, and promotions are used to determine differentiated rewards for niche skills and increased impact. Additionally, we also determine our wellness calendar basis an analytics-backed study on our employees’ overall wellness.

In conclusion, forecasting using predictive analytics provides us the necessary groundwork to decide the spheres of human capital that are imperative to invest in, and the reasons behind the same.

Q- What is your Total Reward strategy? Can you share an instance of a successful total rewards implementation at Sony Pictures?

At SPN, our business strategy drives the Rewards philosophy, which in turn, serves as the bedrock for org effectiveness. Through the three pillars of rewards synchronization, differentiation and communication, we aim to maintain an equity-driven rewarding system.

Our Rewards philosophy is four-fold: we not only offer Pay and focus on best-in-class Benefits, but also have a robust Recognition program, not to miss, the Opportunities we provide in the form of Learning and internal career paths.

As you asked, for instance, a key component of our pay philosophy is our Pay for Performance plan, IGNITE (I Gain when the Network, Individual and Team Excels). True to its name, IGNITE adequately apportions pay basis individual, department and organization-wide performance, but the weights assigned to each component increases based on the scope of contribution and leadership in the organization. In a nutshell, IGNITE, enables us to lavishly reward our top performers up to 2.5X the average increment, and helps retain 95% of our top talent.

IGNITE ensures that everyone up to the last mile has clarity and is aligned to larger organizational goals and can see their contribution through the achievement of their goals. I am proud to state that, our Total Rewards strategy offers a unique mix of choice and equity, to ensure that anybody joining forces with us has a truly rewarding time.

Q- How important is Total Rewards Communication and how do you do that in your organization?

It is found that organizations on average are spending approximately 20-30% of the fixed pay of an employee as additional costs in the form of several benefits including rewards. Therefore, communications that are targeted to inform various employee segments go a long way in improving employee morale and understand the bigger picture beyond traditional monetary compensation.

At SPN, the practice of regular communications and recognition is ingrained in our culture. At the start of every financial year, the CEO shares the corporate strategic priorities and IGNITE goals of the network for that year, which are cascaded to every department and individual. This plan is also available on our internal comms platform, Workplace.

Our formal system of recognition, called World of Winners (or WOW in short), helps us identify stellar performance and reward it on an instantaneous, quarterly or annual basis, be it individuals or teams. A unique angle to our WOW awards is that they also recognize adherence to our Corporate values.

Our engagement scores are above par, primarily due to the excellent benefits we offer, that are regularly communicated in the most unique ways. A recent example would be our launch of our #PrideInDiversity, where we handed out unique merchandise that highlighted our extension of policies to the LGBT+ community and our stand on inclusion. By investing in diverse benefit offerings and successfully communicating the value our total rewards programs, we can experience higher operational efficiency among our workforce and lead us to feature in some of best workplaces lists, such as the Working Mother-AVTAR Best Companies for Women in India three times in a row and Aon’s Best Employers (2017).

Q- What is your career advice to new HR professionals?

  • Understand and speak the language of the business: This fundamental step is what differentiates strategic partners from the rest of the lot. Only based on the depth of understanding, can the course of action and goals as well as the purpose of objectives can be set.
  • Be the Change Agent: Understand how organizations work and the best practices for success, act as catalysts to accelerate change in an organization to meet business imperatives.
  • Employee First: HR professionals should consider themselves as Human Experience Officers; improving your employees’ lives can cause a ripple of the effect in improving customers’ lives.
  • Be Flexible and Solution-Oriented: One size does not fit all. Being open and flexible in deriving solutions to business problems and deviating from the beaten path, while remaining compliant in approach, yields unimaginable returns.
  • Data Analysis:  Use data to make decisions and help others ask the right questions to get the right answers.
  • Network, Network, Network: The power of multiplying ideas is immense while exploring dimensions beyond business and HR. Additionally, networks help you get your job done along with mentoring and sponsoring you.
  • Keep it Confidential: As custodians to a wealth of information, keeping it confidential is a given.

Thank you, Manu!

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