“Stay strong and work hard. We shouldn’t let ourselves get bogged down by difficulties but always look forward and get on with life. Sometimes progress is fast, sometimes slow and incremental, and at times we need to take a step back, but through it all stay strong and stay focused,” said Sonali Jayasinghe, the Senior Vice President of DFCC Bank PLC.

From working frontline customer focused roles at DFCC Bank and thereafter taking on interesting and yet challenging roles in Human Resources (HR), Sonali considers it an opportunity and privilege to add value and make an impact on someone’s life.  She says, “since we are dealing with human emotions, needs and dreams, we are expected to be many things at different times. We need to listen, be empathetic, empower, mentor, educate as well as discipline. We need to be flexible but equitable, accommodating but ensure productivity, understanding but exercise discipline.  The complexity in HR roles arise, since at times, these requirements do seem to be mutually exclusive.”

Sonali believes that the role of HR has progressively advanced in significance and complexity due to changes in workforce dynamics where they have evolved from labour based to service focused, requiring HR to shift from administrative centric function to a worker centric function.

She went on to state, “The multigenerational workforce of today is increasingly diverse, restless and agile, with varied motivations, values and expectations which, therefore, requires the HR function to demonstrate a certain nimbleness in approach.”

Furthermore, the Senior Vice President spoke on productivity and retention in the industry, “In an increasingly competitive market in terms of the available talent pool, we need to work towards improving the overall employee experience by focusing on aspects such as consolidation of processes and building a culture of reward and recognition in order to sustain employee productivity and retention.”

Speaking about the pillars that need to be in place for HR to be a partner of the strategy level, Sonali mentioned that the focal point in HR should be to improve business performance and to drive shareholder value by maximizing employee performance and output as well as to implement policies, processes and systems to retain talent, institutionalize knowledge etc.

In order to add value as a strategic business partner, she stated that understanding the organisation’s business, including its strengths and weaknesses, is essential. This will enable HR to ensure that HR practices are aligned to meet the needs of the business.

In terms of gender balance in the banking industry, Sonali is of the view that while there is improvement in terms of diversity at entry level, higher up the career trajectory there is still significant imbalance and this is not limited to the banking industry. “The reality is that in Sri Lanka as well as globally women do take longer to reach managerial and higher level leadership roles”, she says. She observed that there could be multiple reasons with the most obvious being general societal expectations that necessitate women playing a larger role in domestic affairs and child rearing.

“Women themselves, propagate this expectation as we ourselves believe that we have a larger domestic role to play than our partners. There is also an inherent social expectation that in a partnership, the male counterpart would reach a higher level in terms of career and this expectation results in women usually compromising.”

She noted that women can add value in leadership roles by bringing in different styles and perspectives to the table and, in order to realize this potential, organisations need to prioritise and execute sustainable strategies to enable women to progress in their chosen careers.

Elaborating on the performance evaluation process, Sonali emphasized on the importance of defining specific and measurable goals and further elaborated that the HR function increasingly relies on the availability of data and analytics to measure delivery in a fair and consistent manner. However, she added, “I believe that there are certain qualitative components that need to be taken into cognisance when evaluating performance. For example, demonstrating organisational values, ethical behavior, etc. when delivering on KRIs are pertinent aspects to consider to ensure a holistic performance evaluation.”

According to her, ‘work-life balance’ could mean different things to different people depending on age, interests, career positioning, etc.

“Work life balance from the perspective of the employee would mean the availability of a flexible work environment that would be relevant across generations of workers. However, the challenge to the employer is accommodating this flexibility without compromising the bottom line.”

“’Balance’ is the key word in my view. Practically, while we expect our organisations to make certain flexibilities available to us, we too need to take a balanced approach if we choose to progress in careers. As such, the reality is that there are times we need to prioritize work over life and there are times certain personal sacrifices need to be made.”

On the impact of the digital age in Sri Lanka, she said that, as the country has made significant progress in the arena, the pandemic too has prompted businesses, including banks, to speed up on adoption of digital innovations in order to remain relevant and cater to increasingly tech-savvy and fast-paced customer segments that value their convenience and time.

She continued: “With mobile connections equivalent to around 150% of the population and the increasing penetration levels of internet and social media users in Sri Lanka, the potential for use of digital platforms for communications, perception building and enhanced market reach is significant.

“In addition, with increasingly thinning margins and business pressures, in order to ensure sustained growth and productivity, there is a need to utilize our valuable human resources more productively. In this context too reliance of technology and digital innovations for routine and repetitive tasks frees our employees to focus on more productive, value adding and personally satisfying roles. “

Addressing the issues of workforce pressure due to the COVID-19 crisis, and how local companies are geared to handle work from home, Sonali stated, “travel restrictions, remote work, roster schemes, rigorous social distancing have become a new norm. Although many businesses globally were compelled to implement layoffs or furloughs, reduce salaries and benefits, at DFCC, despite the difficulties, we managed to ensure job security for all employees.”

She also continued to say that though working from home has its positives, it also imposes certain stresses on people due to social distancing and possibly reduced cross functional collaboration, blurring of work hours and schedules which impact work life balance.

“Moreover, domestic circumstances may not be conducive for some employees to work from home due to disruption by young kids or lack of a quiet dedicated space. However, I do believe that flexible and mutually beneficial work arrangements are the way forward and as such we need to prioritise and continue to build on the progress made in this area.” 

On a final note, Sonali defined her vision for a corporate young female, “I envision an individual who is confident, articulate and driven with a strong sense of self-worth, a woman who appreciates and values female solidarity and actively supports the progression of other women.”