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As a global leader during the COVID-19 pandemic, Seema Padman —the Senior Vice President of Human Resources for Epsilon in India, APAC and the Middle East — has had a wealth of experience in navigating the delicate balance of leading during times of crisis. “The last couple of years have taught us that we can never be fully prepared or have answers to all the questions; so, it’s important for leaders to be adaptable, flexible and resilient,” Pandam shares. 

In her job, Padman works hard to “shape an engaging and inclusive culture that creates a sense of belonging and offers enriched experiences that help our people grow and learn,” she explains. As for how she manages this during times of crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic, Padman shares her No.1 piece of advice: “Develop awareness, display vulnerability and demonstrate empathy so that you are able to build connections and help people relate to you better,” Padman states. “This truly will help build and foster an organizational culture that is inclusive and engaging.”

Here, Padman shares more about being a leader during shifting times…

How have you had to adjust your leadership style during the pandemic? 

The unprecedented magnitude of COVID-19 meant there was no existing playbook for leaders to fall back on. The decisions we made became even more critical as people looked up to leaders to step up and help navigate crisis situations. Leaders everywhere have had to unlearn, evolve and adapt quickly.

While my primary leadership style hasn’t changed, I’ve put focus on enhancing the communication we do as an organization. Personally, I’ve had to be mindful that everyone’s circumstance is different and so leading with empathy is critical. I’ve also focused on taking a measured approach to dealing with uncertain situations and managing my energy to stay calm and convey optimism. 

At Epsilon, communication is at the center of how we lead our people — communicating with honesty, transparency and, most importantly, with empathy — as is establishing a reliable routine to stay connected and hear from our people.

What strategies have you used that have been most effective in promoting connectivity across your team?

The pandemic taught us to listen more empathetically. We regularly checked in on our colleagues, enabled them to comfortably transition to a remote work format, set clear goals and expectations and fostered a positive work environment overall. 

For us, the health of our people and their families have always been a priority, and we equipped them with the right resources to manage their health and wellbeing.

At Epsilon, we launched the EPIC initiative to extend our commitment to creating an environment of empathy, belonging and collaboration among our people and the communities we serve. We rolled out fun, virtual engagement activities, as well as wellness and community initiatives that have helped us create stronger bonds as teams, raise employee morale and, in turn, increase productivity and efficiency. 

Managing people — especially remotely— is not easy. How has Epsilon and your manager helped set you up for success? 

What’s key while managing people in the remote work model is that we must be conscious of how easily this can easily slip into transactional interactions. We needed to make sure that we stayed connected with people, because we were losing out on all those informal opportunities to engage. This was important because it helps you understand people’s situation outside of work, how they are coping and what’s the best support you can give as a manager. 

At Epsilon, this has not only cultivated an environment of trust, but also made us feel empowered and cared for. 

For me, personally, I have learnt several valuable lessons on managing people from my managers:

  1. Firstly, it’s about building trust with people. 

  2. What follows naturally is autonomy, when your manager feels a certain sense of trust in your competence and decision-making. 

  3. Thirdly, it is about having the confidence that your manager has your back. This can be immensely liberating and propel people in the right direction. 

Across industries, reports show that women are experiencing increasing levels of burnout. How do you keep your employees motivated?

An inclusive culture, a safe and flexible workplace, and equal opportunities for growth — this is not only what women want, but also what everyone deserves. We have been mindful of the fact that the pandemic blurred the lines between home and work for all of us. And women with young children have been burdened even more because of the lack of adequate support systems. We continued to listen attentively to what impacted our employees, especially women in the workforce given that gender diversity was a key goal. We are also vigilant about fairness and equity, making sure women are represented, spoken for and heard. 

We also have active measures in place to eliminate existing biases and barriers to success in the workplace. Last year, we introduced a program named Men Advocating for Real Change, in partnership with Catalyst, to increase the dialogue between men and women and open our eyes to understanding the root causes of the challenges they face. 

Further, we have introduced periodic Days of Rest, in addition to the existing regular time-off options, to enable people to take a break from work to refresh and recharge. All Publicis employees enjoy a free subscription to Thrive Global (a behavior change company created by Arianna Huffington), where employees can access resources designed to help address burnout and mental health challenges. We regularly conduct emotional well-being sessions and webinars, run campaigns and share articles and self-assessment quizzes to equip employees with mindfulness techniques, tools and resources, in partnership with 1to1help. All of this is aimed at enhancing the employee experience and overall well-being of our workforce.

What other resources or support has your company offered employees during the pandemic? 

During the pandemic, Epsilon has supported our people where it matters most — financially, personally and emotionally. Some of these initiatives include: 

  • Additional sick leave.

  • Vaccination drives, COVID-19 treatment, hospitalization and home quarantine support for employees and their dependents.

  • A strong COVID-19 support network, including a dedicated mailbox, helplines and an internal volunteer group.

  • 24/7 counseling by qualified professionals through our Employee Assistance Program, which was amplified during the pandemic.

  • Financial support in the form of salary advances that were given on request

  • Reimbursement of up to $6,500 for any COVID-19-related claims incurred, which were in excess of the applicable corporate insurance limit. 

Beyond all the policy additions and modifications though, was an attempt to change mindsets. We had to be mindful of the fact that it was an extremely challenging time for everyone and provide people the space and flexibility they required. I am proud to say this is a hallmark of our culture that puts people’s wellbeing at its core.

How is this kind of support reflective of the overall culture at Epsilon? 

The countless ways we came together to overcome the challenges posed by the pandemic are a strong marker of our culture. Be it our passion for building relationships — with one another and our clients — our go-getter attitude, never-give-up approach when facing obstacles or our determination to find solutions and explore new technologies, we always find a way to deliver. And this has been reflected in Epsilon India’s recent certification as a Great Place To Work®, where we received fantastic feedback from our people around our culture and people practices. 

What has also stood out consistently during the last couple of years is the emphasis on care for not only our employees but their families — be it by Publicis, our parent organization, the U.S. leadership or the regional leadership teams. Last year’s Pulse survey highlights that 80% of our employees have trust in their managers and feel that their managers care for their well-being and 83% feel a sense of belonging. 



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