Tapaswee Chandele has worked in HR at Coca-Cola for her entire 20+ year career. She started in India as a management trainee, has moved all across the world, and now sits as vice-president for talent, development and system partnership at the drinks giant’s headquarters in the US.
At Qualtrics’ recent X4 conference in Salt Lake City, Chandele tells UNLEASH “one of my big learnings…in the last few years in HR has been that, as HR professionals, we always go in by saying, what’s the policy for things? Then you realize that the minute you ask the question you’ve lost, you’re already behind”.
So, Coca-Cola’s HR team has been working hard to dismantle policies and processes. Instead, the company focuses on creating “the right enabling environment” for employees, trusting “them to do the work they want to do”.
Flexibility is key to experience
In the words of Chandele, Coca-Cola is trying to lead by principle, not policy – and this mentality underlines Coca-Cola’s Thrive strategy, which has three core tenets: flexibility, transparency and choice.
Let’s focus on flexibility. Chandele shared that when Coca-Cola realized that it was essential to improving employee experience. The drinks giant, like other companies, was unsure where to start.
So Coca-Cola led with its values, tried “to create an environment where people can thrive”, and started by “thinking what we need to do away with, and we did away with a load of things”.
In the spirit of treating employees like adults, there are no mandates about how many days people have to be in the office, and for frontline, field-based employees, Coca-Cola is careful “that we’re not manding that they have to show up in the Sales at six o’clock in the morning – go be in the field, go be with the consumer, the customer”.
Linked to this, Coca-Cola provides all of its employees with the right technology to do their jobs effectively, so “they don’t have to remain tethered to a desk”.
SHRM CEO Johnny Taylor’s keynote at X4 really struck a chord with Chandele. “People tend to confuse the topic of flexibility with remote work”, but they are not the same. According to Taylor, “generally speaking, people like other people”; they want to come into the workplace at least part of the week, rather than work fully remote from their own homes.
Empowering managers at Coca-Cola
A key part of Coca-Cola attitude towards employee experience and the current of work is empowering managers.
Chandele shares that moving from policy to principle also transforms managers into “enablers of dreams”, rather than director of tasks.
With flexible working, managers are empowered to “have conversations with their teams to work out what works out best for them”, adds Chandele.
“People are starting to come back to the workplace very naturally, they’re making choices… If something different happens, we will talk about that in the future.”
Coca-Cola has been using Qualtrics technology to monitor employee engagement – but importantly performance enablement, as Chandele terms it, isn’t just top down. Employee engagement data is democratized, and not only do managers give feedback to employees, but employees also give upwards feedback.
“I, as a manager, can get my upward feedback every single month from my team, and I can see how I’m trending. It’s important that is available to me as a manager; I can see what impact I am having,” shares Chandele.
She explains that this isn’t about naming or shaming leaders. “We just wanted them to do better, and we wanted them to have more frequent information”, so the data is just about their development, and is only available to the manager themselves.
Ultimately, listening to employees, and taking action based on their feedback, is key to employee experience. “It’s not that complicated” – it is crucial to be human-centered, and to be employee-led.
The role of HR is not to have all the answers – for Chandele, “I just need to know where we were going”, and then pivoting if things don’t work.
“We tend to overcomplicate things”, and instead need to focus on “actually building the tools, the infrastructure, the technology to make [work] simple for people”.
Leveling the playing field
Being employee-centric is key to thriving in this challenging labor market. “People are less worried now [about] just dropping things that won’t work for them, whether it’s a product, or a company, or a relationship. They’ll just move onto something new.”
This has been playing out for the past two years in the so-called Great Resignation. But Chandele is clear that Coca-Cola hasn’t been affected by sky-high attrition rates.
“We were very lucky – I say this with humility. Maybe it’s a factor of just the industry that we are in,” shares Chandele.
Another part of the reason may be the reorganization that Coca-Cola underwent during COVID-19 – the purpose wasn’t downsizing, “but instead right sizing ourselves towards putting the right resources” in the right place.
But that meant “coming into 2021, a lot of people had new jobs, a lot of people got promoted. People tend to not leave…the first couple of years after they have a new role”.
Another factor was that in 2019 Coca-Cola had redesigned its learning and development strategy – this was the focus of talent director Caitlin Motley’s session at UNLEASH America.
The aim was to ensure that Coca-Cola was to level the playing field and “building capabilities and skills for the future” – remember, a lack of internal mobility has been a leading cause of the Great Resignation for the past couple of years.
“People are going to stay if they know that by working for X or Y company, they’re building the skills and capabilities that they need to be more employable. Our hope that employability keeps you at Coca-Cola.”
“We are at the start of this journey. There’s a lot to be done, but we have been able to embed in our employees the importance of building skills for the future,” notes Chandele.
At the end of the day, for Chandele personally, the key to success around employee engagement, and keeping attrition down, is not saying what you don’t mean.
It’s all about “staying true to your values, being authentic” and transparent – “people make their own choices ultimately”.
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