Mixing science with art

HRD chats to an HR leader about breaking stereotypes and the unique challenges facing HR in a rapidly growing global tech company

Mixing science with art

HRD chats to an HR leader about breaking stereotypes and the unique challenges facing HR in a rapidly growing global tech company

“What I like about HR is that it’s art and science,” says Rachel Chung, HR director Asia Pacific at Unit4. “It’s neither art nor science but it’s a good blend of both. You can’t just rely on all the facts and figures because you’re dealing with people. People are the unknown element – so it’s almost a science but not quite.”

It’s that philosophy that has guided Chung’s career for the past 30 years. Since starting at Unit4, she’s had plenty of opportunities to get that balance between art and science right.

Initially, her role was typical of that at most rapidly growing companies; it started with culture, change management and people strategy as she worked to implement solid foundations. Chung is gradually moving on to providing more innovative HR initiatives for employees, including a fresh approach to employee empowerment and a unique approach to L&D.

While Chung concedes that every HR professional must have a “flair” for people and people management, she says she’s “not your typical HR person”. For one thing, she has more hobbies than most people, including Argentine tango dancing, haiku writing, photography and painting, not to mention running, Zumba and mountain bike riding – and she loves fast cars. She tells HRD she likes to break the stereotypical view many have of HR. “I like to think outside the box,” she says. “The traditional response from HR when a new idea was presented was, ‘No, you can’t do that.’ It was a bit rigid. I value and respect every individual’s views and experiences. I encourage people to think out of the box. There’s usually something we can do better than what we’ve always done. We will never know if we do not give our ideas and suggestions a chance.”

She shares her story with HRD.

HRD: Can you share some background about your career – key roles, for example?
Rachel Chung:
I started as an HR generalist, covering all aspects of HR. After this I wanted to make sure I dived deep into the various HR functions, so I moved into different dedicated HR functions – for instance, training and development, compensation, industrial relations. Then I moved into a generalist regional role where I gained exposure to M&As. That was just the start of HR being involved in playing a key strategic role in M&A activities. Before that, HR was seen only as a support function and was rarely involved in those large-scale changes. Subsequent to that, I worked on the necessary culture and change management and transformation projects at various merged and acquired companies.

HRD: Can you outline your role at Unit4?
The role is focused on strategic leadership in APAC and also, being a smaller organisation in this region, tactical support. A major focus is on business integration, transformation, culture change management and people engagement. I need to also consider the most effective way to implement global initiatives in this region, and to instil into our employees our values and culture.

We have approximately 140 people in the region across Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and Australia. It’s not so much about the size of the workforce; it’s the complexities and the work that needs to be done in the region. It’s not just setting up the fundamentals [of HR] but also growing and making sure we are prepared for the future.

Before I joined the company, there was just an HR administrator. It became apparent that there was a business need for HR in this region, so my role has since been ensuring our people strategy and people practices keep pace with our growth and plans for the future.

HRD: Tech companies are perceived as being great places to work. Would you agree with that perception?
A couple of large tech companies have done a great job with their branding being great places to work. This has definitely created a market benchmark, particularly during these times where we are facing a tight talent pool. Regardless of whether this is just a perception or not, this is a wake-up call for me as an HR practitioner. Times have changed; today it’s about creating a compelling employee experience with greater user experience and greater personalisation – that is, an experience at work that is comparable to that at home. When done right, it will result in a great, seamless work-life experience that will effectively engage employees and boost their productivity and performance.
In Unit4, we give our employees a level of personalisation relating to flexibility that they both expect and resonate with. We have flexi work hours and work from home policies, whereby if employees really need to they can make these arrangements with their managers.

Coming January, we will be implementing an employee benefits program, where they are fully empowered to pick and choose a benefits package they want according to their needs. All benefits claims will be based on e-claims submissions.

HRD: Are there any other innovative people-related initiatives happening at Unit4?
We’ve set up a People Pillar consisting of various volunteers from different departments. They constantly come up with many activities targeting employee engagement, with a focus on employees’ wellness revolving around mental and physical well-being and healthy living. For example, we introduced office stretch exercises at desks for those who do not like or do not have time to exercise. We also introduced a healthy cooking workshop, where employees learn from great chefs how to cook healthy dishes during lunch hours; this has been the most popular initiative among our employees. We also do monthly beer and board game chillax evenings. We are also big fans of giving back to the community via CSR initiatives, and we organise at least three activities a year.

The People Pillar also plays a supporting role in other people-related initiatives. For instance, these employees are instrumental in our annual leave entitlement benefits review across APAC. We shared the market data with them and they came back after several reviews with their proposal, which was adopted for implementation early this year.

Unit4 produces various products, one of which is our HR platform Prosoft, which has won several accolades. So our people are very savvy about HR matters; they know the legislation and market practices. HR can’t bluff its way through.

We prefer to leverage the team where possible by offering this level of empowerment; others may say this approach is too transparent. However, our employees propose what they believe is fair. They’ve also realised they don’t have it too badly. I see this as a great example of the partnership we have with our employees, which brings about transparency and greater trust, coupled with empowerment, accountability and ownership.

In addition to the above, we will also be focusing on employee development over the coming year. We’ll fast-track any employee who has the potential to grow – so we’ll place them in a new role and help to make them successful. For example, they may not be individuals who have managed teams before, but if this is what they aspire to be we’ll give them the opportunity and fasttrack their development. It’s an approach that involves some risk, but we believe this is one way to inspire them and help them grow with Unit4.

Not many companies will take the risk to invest in employees this way. They will ask questions such as, ‘Is this person ready?’ Traditionally, HR would say, ‘Let’s take some time here.’ I feel ‘new HR’ should be more forward-looking in its people strategies and just go for it with the right individual. Millennials don’t have time for you – if they don’t see potential they will move on.

In an age of digital disruption, is the composition of HR teams changing? Do HR teams need data analysts, for example? Rachel Chung responds: 

“HR uses lots of data, metrics, parameters and dimensions for HR reporting and HR effectiveness. I see that people management needs to become even more strategic and evidence-based to accommodate a more flexible and diverse workforce in the near future. To gain meaningful insights into the workforce, we need to move from tracking to business impact analysis. It would be good to have a dedicated HR analyst within the HR team, or as a shared resource.

“We could possibly include someone without an HR background who would likely see a different picture based on facts as they are, without diluting it with other observations or experience. However, in today’s economy, where greater productivity is expected across the entire workforce, HR may need to leverage shared resources or technology instead. We need to always consider the business and how HR can add the most value. Personally, I would like to build my own big data skill set.”

HRD: What are the future HR challenges for Unit4?
Just like any tech company, the turnover of employees can be quick and cyclical. While a few may move to another company for just a little more money, others move for a more exciting application/solution to work on. This employee movement challenges our employee development plans. We have since stepped up our employees’ development programs with an aim to cross-train every individual so that they can be an expert in any applications/solutions they have within their product practice.

We choose to invest in our employees by offering growth opportunities and fasttracking career development possibilities so that all employees can have a fulfilling job and career experience with us.

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