Discussing Back-To-Work Strategies With Susan Uthayakumar

Susan Uthayakumar is the Canada Country President at Schneider Electric. Throughout her 15-year tenure with the company, Susan has been instrumental in transforming Schneider Electric from a product manufacturer to a specialist in energy management and automation technologies. Starting in mergers and acquisitions for North America, Susan went on to lead finance for North America, the low voltage and channel business for Canada and national sales for Canada, and was appointed the Canada Country President in 2018.  Prior to joining Schneider, Susan led strategy and M&A projects globally with McCain Foods Limited, an international leader in the frozen food industry employing over 20,000 people and operating 57 production facilities in six continents with annual sales of $6 billion. Susan also held various leadership positions with Deloitte, a global advisory firm.

 Susan has extensive board experience with both for-profit and industry boards, where she is dedicated to driving reduction in carbon emissions using technological solutions, enhancing electrical grid innovation, safety and operational efficiency.  Susan is passionate about developing future business leaders and is a champion of weaving diversity and inclusion (D&I) into the Schneider Electric company fabric through her active membership on the company’s D&I board. Susan is a strong advocate for the UN Women Empowerment Principles, and is working to increase diversity and inclusion in the workplace and to increase labour participation among under-represented populations. Susan believes in using her work and her platform to drive impact both in business and in her community, championing innovation, advocating for women in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), and building the leaders of tomorrow.

 Susan has an Executive MBA from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University with a focus on international business practices. In addition, she holds a Master of Accounting (MAcc) and a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Waterloo. Susan has also completed the Women’s Senior Leadership Program and Executive Scholar Certification from the Kellogg School of Management, and holds the Chartered Accountant (CA) and Certified Public Accountant (CPA) designations.

 Susan’s interests include travelling and experiencing the diversity offered by different cultures, theatre, and reading.

You’ve been with Schneider Electric for over 15 years and have played an integral part in driving transformation and growth of the company. What are some of the strategies you used that have contributed to the company’s success and how important are these strategies in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic?

Since joining Schneider Electric over 15 years ago, I have truly come to appreciate that it takes more than a technical background to be a leader in a technology and engineering organization, and within the industry. In order to bring success to a company, there has to be true alignment with what the company does and your values and passion.  Schneider at the core is about sustainability and I feel very strongly about mitigating the climate impact on our planet.   

Like all businesses, we’re facing challenging times brought on by the global pandemic. What positions Schneider Electric for continued success in this climate are the core values that make it a great company. Keeping these pillars at the forefront of the business ensures all employees feel purpose in the work we’re doing. Schneider is a strong advocate for women in leadership, and champions diversity, inclusion and belonging as part of the company fabric. Employees are at the centre of the organization, which has been demonstrated in Schneider’s strong response to prioritize employee health and safety throughout the pandemic. Schneider’s vision is to be a leader in sustainability through use of technology and automation, and the commitment to doing what’s best for people and the planet. These core values, ones I share with the company, guide how I navigate the Canadian operations in today’s climate. 

We have been transforming constantly to service our customer base and address the energy dilemma that the world is facing. This has made us extremely agile. We have also embarked on the digitization journey a long time ago. All of this and the focus on our people has allowed us to minimize the impact on our business during this unpresented health and economic crisis. 

COVID-19 has had a huge impact on many organizations. As President of Schneider Electric Canada, what would you say has been the biggest impact that the global pandemic has had on the company and what approach have you taken towards it?

Like most organizations across the country, the COVID-19 pandemic raised unprecedented challenges that required quick collaboration, leadership and creative pivots for business recovery and growth.

We’ve put policies in place to support work from home and a safe return to workplaces, prioritizing safety for our employees and our customers. We’ve improved flexibility for our employees and pivoted to digitally supporting our customers to minimize on-site visits. 

Mental and physical health is of the utmost importance, and so we have also launched new employee programs, which includes a well-being diagnosis tool, virtual access to healthcare and mental health professional and weekly well-being tips.

Of course, we are also focused on preserving the financial health of our organization. As such we implemented cost savings opportunities that not only allowed us to protect the sustainability of our company, but also to safeguard jobs. The pandemic has opened up opportunities for us to find more creative solutions to how we work, which will all ultimately bring us closer together and strengthen our business in the long-term. 

The impacts of COVID-19 have been challenging for many companies. Do you believe that Schneider Electric was prepared for the global pandemic and has what it takes to survive a major crisis like this one?

All businesses have been impacted by the pandemic, and Schneider Electric is no exception. As a company, we have benefited from our collective global knowledge, experience and perspective, and embraced a dynamic and adaptable approach to navigate the impact.

We put our people at the core of our business, therefore ensuring the financial stability of our company and protecting jobs is critically important. One of the programs we have implemented to ensure this stability is through a new Open Talent Market program for professional development, upskilling and mentoring. The benefits of this program run deep. It fosters a culture of mutual support, while also introducing new perspectives and encouraging knowledge sharing across all levels of the company. 

 Thanks to our hard-working and resilient teams, we have been able to continue our mission by keeping our critical manufacturing and service teams connected to our customers while working from home and ensuring physical distancing and safety protocols.

Now that many companies are preparing for their employees to return to work at the office, what do you believe is the biggest challenge that they will face to ensure the safety of their employees?

The biggest obstacle in returning to the office will be the changes that will need to be made at physical locations. It may seem simple, and somewhat obvious, but ensuring robust health and safety protocols are closely followed, clearly communicated and understood will be a key factor in the safety of employees that need to work in the office or workplace. 

Office spaces themselves will also certainly change as businesses look at their overall real estate footprint based on a larger number of remote employees. Many organizations will have fewer sites with new layouts, perhaps encouraging larger, controlled collaboration areas that keep physical distancing measures in mind.

However, in order to operate in the physical space, businesses must also consider their building operations As the role of the office and its day-to-day occupancy changes, companies may want to consider the way building technologies can improve employee health and safety. Things like IoT connected HVAC and filtration systems, or sensors that can help manage occupancy and employee traffic, highlight a natural opportunity to digitize building operations for efficiency, sustainability and resiliency. 

What do you believe are the three most important aspects that companies should consider when it comes to implementing strategies that will ensure a successful return to work for their employees?

As companies and business leaders work towards the successful implementation of a return to office strategy, efforts will be highly dependant on factors that are centered around the need for trust between employees and leaders at all levels. These include:

  • Consistent and transparent communication between business leaders and employees about the strategy and its development and implementation. Leaders should be consulting employees at all levels to ensure the strategy reflects their needs, expectations and concerns, and that the strategy incorporates as many considerations as required to optimize alignment across the company.
  • Robust training and education of employees on the return to office strategy to ensure an adequate understanding of procedures and the potential risks of not following protocols. Companies may want to consider having “champions” who are trained and tested on the procedures who can act as a point of contact for employees who have questions or concerns. 
  • Developing contingency strategies that ensure preparedness if local government mandates and guidelines change due to a rise in positive COVID-19 cases. This could include being prepared for potential positive cases among your employees or another widespread lockdown that impacts non-essential businesses.

Many companies have implemented new policies and procedures for their employees during the COVID-19 period. Do you believe that some of these new policies should remain even after COVID-19? Why?

Over the past months, we’ve seen many organizations implement new policies to help their workforce adapt to these changing times. Of course, procedures adopted to adhere to public safety guidelines and mandates should stay in place as long as local governments deem it necessary.

In addition, many of these new policies have been developed to help employees, customers and partners of organizations across the country adapt and succeed as they continue to do business in this uncertain and evolving time. Our society has undertaken a large-scale and mostly unplanned remote work experiment, and many companies that had been resistant to employee flexibility have now seen that it’s possible for employees to do their jobs and be just as productive working from anywhere. Flexibility in how and where employees work, and offering balance, is also important as we look to combat remote work and virtual meeting fatigue over the long term.

I also believe many of these policies, particularly regarding workplace flexibility, have increased trust between employers and employees, leading to greater job satisfaction, which is an important factor in building a successful and sustainable workforce. 

We have seen increased opportunities for two-way communication across the workforce, introducing surveys and other feedback mechanisms to gauge employee sentiment on important topics like comfort level in returning to work in an office, as well as productivity gains or losses and overall job satisfaction.

These new policies and procedures will continue to have positive benefits for organizations that carry them forward, even into the post-pandemic world.

On a final note, many entrepreneurs have already implemented strategies for success to come out of the second wave of COVID-19. What advice do you have for entrepreneurs that can be beneficial for their business during the second wave of the global pandemic?

Organizations of all sizes need to prepare for the upcoming challenges by planning and thinking strategically to weather the second wave. We’ve been through one wave and seen how our society, our economy and generally our human behaviours have changed to adapt. With this knowledge, entrepreneurs should ideate now to uncover potential opportunities to pivot their business operations or products to meet anticipated needs so they can be as ready as possible when the time comes.

As an example, many Canadian businesses took a drastic pivot in the spring to support essential workers and other groups affected by COVID-19, many launching new products or services such as developing consumer-grade PPE or implementing curbside and contactless pickup options.

The resilience of our entrepreneurs throughout the spring wave was inspiring, as was the creativity and the willingness to be nimble and adapt in order to stay afloat. 

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