How Zong’s HR team dealt with the stark shift to remote working: retaining culture, maintaining communication, and re-defining roles

Sahibzada Junaid, Manager of Organizational Development at Zong, remembers it as clear as day, 24th March 2020, when it was announced Zong, like most other organizations around the world, was going fully remote for an undetermined period of time. It made sense at the time, Covid-19 was on the verge of being termed as a pandemic, and Zong couldn't afford to risk jeopardizing the health of thousands of employees. Junaid found the decision both inevitable and reasonable, especially as government orders of a nation-wide lockdown followed soon after. 

What he didn’t expect, however, was the longevity of this arrangement and that they would still be working remotely more than 2 years into the global pandemic. 

Junaid has spent a significant part of his career in the department of Human Resources. As a result, he has gotten acquainted with its complexities and nuances, becoming completely at ease with them. The more time you spend in a department, the more experience you gain, and the more natural it feels to perform your duties seamlessly. So, after a while, his job became second nature to him. Recruiting employees, managing their performance, devising their training and development interventions, and integrating company corporate culture: It’s a beautiful dance he’s done a million times before. It started coming easy to him after a while, the rhythm never changing drastically. There are hurdles, of course, but you can trust the processes in place. They built a solid foundation and, hence, were always there to lean on. Well, that was until Zong went remote. Suddenly, there was nothing to fall back on. It was pure chaos, with no visible end in sight.

This was true not only for his team, but also for other departments within the organization. It wasn't merely a matter of transferring all communication from offline to online. Instead, it quite literally meant everyone had to re-learn how to do their jobs effectively. For Junaid and his team, this move posed challenges they've never had to encounter before.

‘Openness’ and ‘collaboration’ are at the heart of Zong’s cultural values. However, integrating these seemed more impossible the longer Zong employees worked remote. So, the HR team knew they needed a change, a re-hauling of primary HR processes, and a vastly different way to approach things in this unexpected foreign environment they found themselves in. And that’s exactly what they did, brain-stormed on how to get things moving and figured out they needed to introduce new ways to inculcate the company’s culture in the minds of its employees. 

For starters, HR started holding regular virtual two-hour long sessions. Employees in these sessions engage with each other using virtual gamified tools, quizzes, puzzles, and activities. All this is designed specifically to strengthen Zong’s corporate culture values, pillars, and behaviors in the minds of new hires or employees who don’t get to physically interact a lot with their respective teams, e.g., those who reside outside of the twin cities. 

Besides this, there are also virtual tea sessions held every now and then with the departmental HODs. "It’s to make everyone work more in harmony," says Anum Zafarullah, Assistant Management Organizational Development at Zong. "We’re aware of the distance between them that working remotely has inadvertently caused."

Realizing the technological behavior shift from laptops to mobile devices, Zong was also one of the first few organizations in its respective industry to make its employee portal into a mobile-friendly app. Here, in Zong Employee App (ZEA) employees can easily access their Quarterly Performance Reviews, Employee Handbook for Policies & Corporate Cultural literature, Leave Management, Online Learning Resources, and other company communication.

With the advancement of technology, Zong recognizes that it is difficult to accelerate innovation and stay ahead of the competition without a clear grasp on digital skills. Therefore, the organization provides a number of resources for employees to acquire the most in-demand digital competencies. Skills that can in turn add value to their work and, as a result, allow them to explore various professional opportunities. International instructors lead company-wide training and departmental brainstorming sessions. Sessions address topics including 5G, data science, AI, and the IoT, all of which are relevant to the future. To help employees study on the go, Zong has also developed an e-learning module as a digital learning platform.

Now, at Zong, teamwork is not only applauded but also rewarded. HR takes nominations for the best digital contributors and awards employees who have showcased excellence at their work. This approach has been taken to foster digital transformation and more cross-team communication in such isolating times.

Whether it's Eid, Independence Day, or even the Chinese New Year, all cultural occasions are celebrated at Zong with enthusiasm, both virtually and physically. 

However, even with these unique approaches and resulting positive outcomes, remote working, for the HR team at Zong, doesn’t quite come close to being in an office. "It simply does not guarantee the same prior level of engagement and reciprocity from employees," says Anum.

"There’s also a much bigger reliance on team leaders to integrate those working under them into the company culture," Junaid adds, "We have to sometimes let nature take its course.”

The journey has been strenuous, with natural disasters, technological constraints, and human nature all creating obstacles in the way. However, they've come a long way from where they started. What was once thought impossible by many has been made possible by Junaid and his team. They've successfully cracked the code to creating a culturally robust remote working environment. Utilizing technology to help employees from varied backgrounds attain their full potential. It is indeed a remarkable achievement that collaboration and teamwork still remain at the heart of the organization even in these circumstances.

Yes, obstacles exist even now, but Junaid believes they are fully equipped to face any challenges that may arise in the future. Slowly but surely, everything is falling into place.