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HR needs to get more data from homeworking employees: Q&A with Dorothy Yiu, co-founder and COO of EngageRocket

EngageRocket helps organizations to make better people decisions using real-time analytics.

During the financial crisis of 2008, it was the head of finance who made or broke a company. At the turn of the decade, a new corporate hero is needed to carry us through the fires of a global pandemic—and that could be the chief human resources officer (CHRO).

The coronavirus has thrust CHROs into the spotlight. More than ever do firms need “people analytics” to shoulder the burden of tough decisions: How to maintain morale? How to support employees working from home? How to keep them mentally resilient and healthy? Should we lay off workers? When and how? Organizations that are advanced in using data to make plans, analyze and monitor the workforce have 56% higher profit margins than the less advanced, studies have found.

KrASIA recently spoke to Dorothy Yiu, co-founder and chief operating officer of HR tech startup EngageRocket, to find out more about the future of work, building a culture of collaboration virtually, and how HR can be a true people’s champion in the pandemic. EngageRocket, which helps organizations make better people decisions with real-time analytics, was co-founded by Dorothy Yiu and Leong Chee Tung in 2016. Today the company counts Rakuten, Tokopedia, Mizuho, Mediacorp, NTUC Health, and Sephora among its clients.

KrASIA (Kr): Have traditional industries started to consider people analytics because of challenges brought by COVID-19? How do you think COVID-19 will reshape how people view HR? 

Dorothy Yiu (DY): The speed and magnitude of change that COVID-19 has brought to your way of work has definitely accelerated the awareness of the importance of people analytics across all industries, regardless if they are traditional or not.

In fact, we launched a nationwide “People Continuity Package” within a week of Singapore’s circuit breaker to help augment business continuity plans and ensure that leaders have a solid, data-driven roadmap to improve their employees’ well-being and productivity in the current crisis and beyond.  We received interest from a few hundred companies across all industries and sizes in just the first few days. To date, we have analyzed about 310,000 responses from 12,000 respondents to get a pulse on Singapore’s workforce during COVID-19.

The interest in our package has demonstrated the level of urgency companies are now placing on tracking employee’s experience and sentiment that we have not seen previously. This is an important turning point for many organizations who may have previously neglected the importance of collecting relevant and timely data on their employees, and will help them plan appropriately and react to change.

Kr: Let’s talk about your survey. I found this very interesting: 21% of tech employees would like to continue working from home on a full-time basis, while 88% would like to work at least half of the time from home in the future. These tech employees seem to see gains in productivity. Do you think this is the end of fancy offices with perks such as in-house coffee bars, Instagrammable lounges, and free food? 

DY: Fancy offices, in-house coffee bars and WFH arrangements all service the same purpose of talent attraction, engagement, and retention. The experience of COVID-19 disrupting work has led organizations to rethink how to provide new benefits that will best serve this same purpose.

Our study has uncovered that one of the top three challenges faced by employees during the circuit breaker is the lack of resources and tools. Some of the old perks, like free gourmet cafeteria food on-site, may not make as much sense moving forward than providing better laptops and monitors, stronger internet connections, and equipment for audio and visual web-conferencing.

EngageRocket’s survey results.

Our study reveals that more than 80% of Singapore’s workforce wishes to continue working from home at least 50% of the time after the circuit breaker has ended. This opens up opportunities for companies to expand remote hiring, leading to further rental cost savings, and greater exposure to a larger and diverse talent pool. As such, we encourage employers to rethink their people strategies in line with the changes experienced by their workforce.

Kr: As encouraged by the government, WFH arrangements may continue for some time.  How do you drive a culture of collaboration and connection virtually?

DY: Besides ensuring that employees are supplied with the right equipment and tools to facilitate effective communication, it is also important to foster connection among team members. In the book “Culture Code”, the author Dan Coyle mentions that highly successful teams often pay attention to “belonging cues” such as eye contact, body language, and energy.  While it may be harder to perceive such belonging cues in a virtual setting, some cues—such as how participative your employees are in group chats, facial expressions, and vocal pitch during calls—can still be observed and will be a good place to start. Encouraging team members to turn on their cameras whenever possible will not only facilitate better interactivity but also the ability to pick up on such belonging cues.

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Physical distance does not mean social distance. Employees who are distanced from the organisations’ culture will see functional, social and emotional impact. Leaders also play a crucial role in encouraging authentic connections among employees by encouraging social interactions like virtual coffee chats, remote lunches with team members, check-in calls. At EngageRocket, one of the first things we did was to schedule twice-a-week coffee chats and e-lunches to replace the routines we had when working together in the physical workplace. Managers are also encouraged to schedule daily check-ins with their teams and regular one-on-one catch ups with their team members.

Lastly, running regular confidential employee pulse surveys will also equip companies, HR, and team managers with timely data on employee concerns that may otherwise not surface in a remote working environment where feedback channels may not be well established and in-person conversations are limited.

Kr:  What do you think the future of the workplace will look like? Will physical offices still be necessary?

DR: WFH will become the default mode, at least for the coming months. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey has even gone so far to say that his employees may work from home forever. While remote working becomes the norm, a physical workplace may not lose its purpose. Companies will need to take the importance of in-person social interaction among employees into consideration. This is critical not just for social wellbeing but for effective team collaboration sessions. While employees may not need to be in office on a daily basis, the workplace will evolve to look more like collaboration spaces that are maximized for interactivity, rather than the usual rows of designated desks. The space will be better utilized as a place to facilitate team innovation and discussions rather than just a place to get work done.

That said, employee safety will come first. Companies need to figure out how to make people feel safe to come back to the office. Thus, the challenge lies in how we adapt current workplaces to the changing needs of both the business and the employees.

Kr: How and when should business leaders start planning for people strategies after COVID-19? What factors should be included? 

DR: It should have already started. Planning an organization’s people strategy should be an ongoing process and not depend on a crisis.

Fundamentally, the experience of COVID-19 will change workplaces permanently. The move towards flex-working arrangements has added pressure for companies to speed up their digital transformation. In this digital era, HR plays a critical role in transforming the work experience, equipping employees, re-skilling, and re-tooling the workforce in order to thrive and adapt to this new world.

HR has no time to lose in equipping themselves with timely and regular feedback from employees, in order to make plans and tweaks along the way, as initiatives are being rolled out and tested. Today’s challenge is an interesting problem on that HR can find few past case studies to refer to. Companies will need to equip themselves with data to reach quickly in order not to compromise productivity. To survive and thrive in this time of change, HR will need to innovate based on data from their own employees.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.