Openpay HR lead on transparent leadership: 'Absolutely nothing was off limits'

Openpay's chief people and culture officer talks to HRD about the importance of transparent leadership

Openpay HR lead on transparent leadership: 'Absolutely nothing was off limits'

Almost a year on from Australia’s first lockdown, people leaders across the country are taking stock of the last 12 months.

They’re looking at what worked well – and what didn’t – as they redesign a more resilient, adaptable workforce for the future.

As an organisation which almost doubled its Australian headcount over the last year, fintech company Openpay is now expanding into the US market.

HRD spoke to Openpay’s chief people and culture officer, Marcus Waterreus, about how the company has weathered the COVID-19 storm.

“I think we learned some very valuable lessons at the beginning of COVID and moving to a remote work environment,” he said.

“There's always been that element of remote within the organisation but this really took it to a larger scale.

“In the space of 24 hours we evacuated what was a relatively new office into a total remote work environment, and that for us really spelt a change in how we will operate moving forward.”

Read more: PepsiCo HRD on how to make a flexible working policy successful

The Buy Now Pay Later market has expanded rapidly in the last decade and with advancements in technology, it’s continuing to grow.

But with COVID-19 taking a direct hit on consumer spending and the uncertainty of the ASX, Openpay, like most business, had to make some tough decisions – and fast.

Waterreus said in a time of global panic, maintaining honest and open communication with all staff members was an immediate priority.

“Within 24 to 48 hours we'd sat down with every single individual in the company and spoken to them openly, honestly and with transparency around the challenges we were going to face as a business and how we could support them to preserve, not only the organisation, but also their roles and their position within the company,” he said.

The business implemented frequent welfare checks with individual employees and initiatives like wellbeing walks to connect staff in a COVID-safe way, even when offices remained closed.

They also increased the frequency of communication between the exec team and staff members, using technology to create an anonymous portal for a fortnightly Q&A session.

But it was the senior leadership team’s commitment to honest communication which proved the most valuable aspect of their town halls.

“We made the commitment that absolutely nothing was off limits,” Waterreus said.

“Team members thrived in being able to ask the questions that really mattered to them. There were some hairy ones at times but the senior leadership team stuck by their commitment to openly and honestly answer anything they asked us.”

He said it was one of the measures they have taken into the future because it played such an effective role during the early days of the pandemic.

Read more: How to help your team find purpose at work

Employee engagement levels have gone up, despite all the challenges of the last year, and it’s buoyed enthusiasm for a hybrid working model going forward.

With Openpay’s main HQ based in Melbourne, people strategy has needed to be extremely responsive.

The state experienced one of the longest lockdowns of anywhere in the world and fresh outbreaks continue to create an air of uncertainty.

“We’ve noticed that people's mental health can change very quickly as a result of those decisions which are largely out of our control,” Waterreus.

“So we just want to enable team members to have freedom and flexibility but with a level of support from not only the manager, but through people and culture initiatives, opportunities for learning and development and through EAP.”

They’ve implemented a desk-booking system to allow staff to come into the office to collaborate in a COVID-safe way and also changed the language around deadlines to make coping with sudden lockdowns easier.

Instead of asking for tasks to be completed by ‘close of business’, they now use ‘open for business’ the following day.

Waterreus said this small language change took the pressure off those who might be juggling homeschooling or childcare demands in the day as a result of lockdown, and who may need that added flexibility.

Going forward, Openpay will continue to foster a flexible work environment, with plans to expand the recruitment talent pool to regional areas.

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