Kaustubh Sonalkar talks to Human Capital

The Oil & Gas Sector, particularly in West Asia, has been greatly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. What according to you are the challenges it brings to the oil & gas sector in India?

The oil & gas sector has a symbiotic relationship with many other sectors associated with it, like Automobile and Aviation, all of which being considered as the bellwethers of the economy. The outbreak of COVID-19 and the resultant nationwide lockdowns have severely affected the demand for oil & gas products. The saving grace is the fact that essential services have been exempted, and have necessitated consumption of fuel, albeit at significantly reduced levels. This is bound to have a ripple effect on ancillary industries and on the livelihoods of the people working in those industries. The fact that many of these industries are part of the unorganised sector compounds the problem even further.

What according to you is the one remarkable transformation that has been brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic to the Oil & Gas Sector?

According to me, the most remarkable transformation was the sharp drop in urban pollution levels during the lockdown. However, with lockdown restrictions being eased, there is a likelihood that private vehicles will be favoured over public transport, thereby helping to save on use of fossil fuels and reduce pollution. Private vehicles enable social distancing far more effectively than public ones. While this bodes well for the oil & gas industry, it is a matter of concern for the environment.

In your opinion, what has COVID-19 changed the most for HR professionals? What are the areas of concern that employers might be called upon to address going forward?

The pandemic has forced HR professionals to review organisational structures and evaluate whether some roles can be performed predominantly in a Work From Home environment. This will not only help save costs in terms of office space and overheads, but also help companies ensure the safety and security of their most important assets, their people. With no cure for COVID-19 in sight, and the economic implications of protracted lockdown, companies will need to find ways of ensuring operational synergy and maximising productivity, without jeopardising the health of their employees.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been responsible for the rapid transformation and extinction of certain job roles and the emergence of newer job roles. What possible changes does it bring about for the oil & gas sector?

In the oil & gas sector, Essar’s refining and marketing operations are in the UK where we operate the Stanlow refinery (that produces 16% of the country’s road transport fuels) and a 70+ network of retail outlets. In India, we have a CBM gas production business in Raniganj, West Bengal. Since the business supplies CBM gas to nearby industries that come under the essential services category, it was imperative for the block to continue with roundthe-clock operations through the course of the successive lockdowns. The contingent strategy was to sustain 24×7 operations with the lowest possible number of crew members, while making sure they adhere to the highest standards of safety and strictly maintain social distancing norms.

The lockdown in various forms owing to the COVID-19 pandemic has reinforced modes of working like Telecommuting in a big way. Considering the fact that the oil & gas sector cannot function efficiently via telecommuting, what are the alternatives that the sector can function in such situations?

As I have said before, organisations must make employee safety their topmost priority and evaluate which jobs lend themselves to telecommuting with minimum disruption of the status quo. At Essar, majority of our workforce has been telecommuting over the last two months. Most our India-based businesses, like oil & gas exploration, power generation, ports, and power, provide essential services and have continued with reduced number of staff managing operations on site. This, of course, has been done with zero compromise on their safety, while maintaining government mandated guidelines to curb the spread of possible infection. We have continued to hire at all levels through einterviews and virtual onboarding during successive phases of the lockdown.

What according to you are the biggest HR opportunities that the COVID-19 pandemic has brought forth for the oil & gas sector?

The biggest opportunity that the present crisis has provided is to be able to engage with our people in a focused manner. I feel that it is during this phase that we have been able to effectively communicate the concept of OneEssar, a unified organisation held together by certain shared values that have stood the test of time and circumstance. Essar Radio has brought our people together through daily shows featuring interactions with a cross section of employees. Essar Learning TV has prompted our employees and even their families to join Zoom sessions with celebrity trainers and pick up life skills. Our CSR arm, Essar Foundation, is doing exemplary work towards providing food and medical relief to marginalised communities affected by the pandemic. It is our people who are the forefront of these activities, and who are spreading the good word through social media sharing