Q&A: The Future of Workplace Benefits with Priyal Choksi

Q: How long have you been working in Human Resources? Can you share your work experience and specific skills you have in this field?

Academically, I learned about subjects like organizational psychology, human resource management, and talent management, but the real taste of HR was given when I picked up an 8-week rotational internship at Jet Airways in the HR team. Here I learned everything from recruitment, l&d, performance appraisal, HR operations, etc which generated a deep interest for the profession

After graduation, I worked at a financial services firm as a HR generalist, where I got first-hand experience of building everything under the HR umbrella, such as planning employee engagement activities, carrying out recruitment across teams, conducting performance appraisals, etc. Given the limited academic knowledge and skill gap, my founder encouraged me to pursue a master's degree in HR. To gain international experience, I went ahead to pursue my masters in human resource management. In the US, I started my professional career in one of the ESL wings of the university, which majorly involved cross-cultural communication and developing internal processes for hiring. I also had the privilege to work with the UNFPA, where the majority of my work was in the areas of Learning and development and HR operations for volunteers recruited across the globe for humanitarian work

Back in India, I joined startups, enjoying the challenge of building HR processes from scratch. In my current role at Stoa, I oversee career development and help companies find suitable talent. I also guide professionals and startups to make informed hiring decisions. My focus includes learning and development, connecting with partners, and supporting individuals in their career journeys. I also help professionals identify career paths.

Q: What crucial lesson or insight have you learned and think is absent in Indian HR? What specific knowledge do you wish more Indian HR professionals had, and why is it important for their understanding?

In my journey from being a recruiter to being on the other side, I've learned that a person's education doesn't define their capability. What truly matters is their attitude and hunger to learn. I've seen individuals without extensive degrees excel due to their self-learning attitude. Personally, my major hiring mistake was focusing on academic marks. I want to emphasize to all recruiters that judging solely by academic qualifications is a mistake. Even though many big companies prioritize hiring from top colleges, I believe it's not relevant. Attitude and eagerness to learn matter more.

Q: How can you identify passionate and skilled individuals regardless of their college background? What methods do you use in the hiring process to spot exceptional candidates based on their capabilities rather than their alma mater?

I've primarily used traditional online job postings across multiple platforms like LinkedIn, IIMJobs, Naukri, and various smaller portals or Telegram/WhatsApp groups for recruitment. However, my key method to identify strong candidates involves practical tests based on real work scenarios. For instance, engineers get realistic coding tests with actual numbers, not just hypothetical situations.

Another innovative approach I introduced was a live project program where candidates would work on a real company-related project. This helped assess their practical skills and motivation, distinguishing those genuinely eager to contribute from others.

I focus on judging candidates by their practical skills rather than just interviews or their academic records. I ensure everyone gets an equal opportunity. Offering real projects and obtaining feedback directly from clients or their team heads, irrespective of a candidate's college pedigree.

Q: What factors do you think drive the shift in corporate employee benefits from traditional perks like cars or banking benefits to digital offerings such as Amazon vouchers or remote work options?

Societal changes, such as shifts in lifestyles and increased awareness of social issues, have driven the evolution of employee benefits. Younger generations have influenced a stronger focus on mental health and well-being. The shift from joint to nuclear families has prompted companies to offer benefits like family insurance and remote work options.

Furthermore, health concerns and the need for balanced home responsibilities have led to the introduction of benefits such as wellness programs, flexible working hours, and extended leaves. This change in benefits reflects the evolving values of society and the preferences of individuals.

Q: How can evolving employee benefits, mainly intended for urban settings (India 1), be adjusted to support individuals in rural areas or less tech-savvy regions (India 2 and India 3), especially small business owners?

In various industries, including hazardous jobs like mining or transport, basic labor laws and insurance play a crucial role. Companies often provide basic insurance coverage, especially for employees in hazardous areas. Laws or industry standards may also regulate the required rest periods for truck drivers or flight crew members.

Businesses are becoming more aware and empathetic towards their employees. They tailor benefits based on local cultures and preferences. For instance, companies with offices in multiple cities prioritize local hiring and acknowledge diverse cultural holidays. Some offer personalized leave allowances for cultural or personal events.

Employers strive to support their employees' well-being and retention by providing unique benefits and understanding diverse cultural influences. Ultimately, regardless of business scale, companies aim to retain their workforce without compromising on training or development opportunities.

Q: How do benefits impact India's working culture, and what prevents it from resembling countries like Japan or China, known for long working hours and labor-intensive jobs?

Certainly! First, when considering the working culture of countries like Japan and China, it raises a crucial question: Do we aspire to emulate their work practices, considering the potential exploitation and controversial treatment of employees in some instances?

India has made strides across various sectors, and it's crucial to prioritize employee well-being. For instance, ensuring the safety of workers in hazardous industries by providing protective gear or fostering a healthier work-life balance, especially in the tech industry or startups, becomes vital.

Managing stress and promoting fitness shouldn't just mean having a gym; it's about holistic well-being—both physical and mental. Unfortunately, stress management and leadership development remain unexplored. The lack of strong leadership hampers growth, and mentorship, especially for new entrants, becomes critical.

Moreover, the appraisal system needs an overhaul, incorporating data-driven decisions and leveraging tools like data analytics and AI for better evaluations and organizational decisions. While we're progressing towards a data-driven world, there's still ample room for improvement in understanding and implementing these changes.

In essence, while India is making strides toward embracing technological advancements, improving leadership qualities, stress management, revamping appraisal systems, and utilizing data analytics will be key to fostering a more conducive and growth-oriented work environment.

Q: How significant are employee benefits and rewards in motivating and retaining high-quality talent?

Employee benefits and rewards hold a pivotal role in motivating and retaining top-notch talent. Think of it like Maslow's hierarchy of needs from school. As basic needs are fulfilled, motivation increases.

For instance, e-sops or stock options generate a sense of belonging and commitment to the company's growth. It's like saying, "I'm invested here; I'll work harder for it." Loyalty emerges. Benefits like insurance, family support, or unlimited leaves assist employees in managing life's hurdles, fostering a positive competitive environment.

Moreover, programs offering education loans or sponsorships can empower employees to explore personal ventures within the company. This also enables personal growth and continuous learning. This care from the employer fuels dedication, ultimately leading to a better work environment.

Take the example of the Taj Hotels; their benefit system intertwines with their culture. They recognize employees immediately, often within 48 hours, for exceptional guest service or achievements. This swift acknowledgment, along with incentives like vouchers or flight tickets, boosts morale significantly.

Also, some Taj hotels offer split shifts, allowing flexibility, and extend special opportunities to employees' children based on merit. This comprehensive approach, catering to everyone from bottom-level employees to management, fosters a sense of belonging, resulting in long-term employee retention.

Overall, while benefits aren't the sole motivator, they undeniably stand as a crucial element in how employees perceive a company and their dedication to it.

Q: What's your view on the adaptability of employee rewards and benefits programs? How often do you think these rewards should be updated—annually, every two years, or perhaps every six months?

The frequency of updating employee benefits depends on a company's growth rate and stability. For instance, fast-growing startups might need bi-annual reviews, whereas established companies could consider annual or bi-annual revisions. Some benefits, like insurance, may not need frequent changes—every five years might suffice. Regular feedback from employees helps determine if changes are needed annually. Monetary versus non-monetary benefits vary across segments. In Tier 1 cities, employees might prefer a balance, while those in Tier 2 and 3 might lean more towards monetary benefits, depending on personal circumstances and life stages.

Life stages significantly impact benefit preferences. For instance, experiencing medical emergencies personally highlighted the importance of insurance and support during difficult times, adding perspective to the significance of benefits at different life stages.

Q: How can you personalize rewards for 150 diverse employees efficiently? Consider universal benefits or monetary rewards as a base, and add extra perks based on achievements, balancing uniformity and individual incentives.

Certainly, here are the key points that I have in mind right now:

  • Identify Demographics: Know the age groups and lifestyles of your employees.

  • Conduct Surveys: Conduct a survey and analyze the workforce to understand their needs. If feasible, tailor rewards based on individual preferences, considering the company's budget constraints.

  • Customize Rewards: Offer universal benefits (like ESOPs, insurance, and food coupons) and customize choices based on preferences.

  • Example Scenarios:

    • Consulting firms: offer Educational Sponsorship, Special Recommendation to the children of the employees to specific schools, etc

    • Salesforce: Implements equal parental leave policies for both mothers and fathers, granting 26 weeks of leave to each.

  • Adaptation to Culture: Tailor rewards that align with your company's culture and diversity, providing options where the culture is varied.

These steps ensure personalized rewards, considering employees' needs and company culture. Adjustments cater to specific demographics while keeping some benefits consistent. Remember, understanding your workforce is crucial to designing effective reward programs.

Q: In the next decade, what's your estimate for the percentage of Indian companies offering employee benefits beyond the current 40%? How do you see these benefits evolving, expanding beyond insurance to cover necessities like food allowances?

In the upcoming years, I foresee a shift in company benefits towards broader areas like mental health, diversity and inclusion, and sustainability. Many firms, not just in India but globally, are keen on fostering inclusive hiring practices, targeting returning mothers or disabled individuals. Sustainability initiatives might include rewards for using eco-friendly transportation, supporting public transit users, and promoting healthy lifestyles beyond gym memberships or food coupons.

Moreover, there's an increasing focus on overall well-being and health benefits, especially considering the growing interest in travel. Ultimately, while monetary benefits are prevalent now, I predict a rise in the significance of non-monetary perks, potentially leading to a more balanced offering in the future.

Do you work in HR?

Email abhash.kumar@springworks.in and let’s talk :)

Note: All views expressed in this interview are personal and not linked to any organization.