Fundamentally, the role of HR is to organise people around missions and goals, and to create systems of incentives and disincentives, as well as amplify culture, Sunil Setlur, Chief People Officer, Gojek, affirms.
"Curiosity is a superpower. Don't crush the side of yourself that wants to explore and be curious and try different things – be it at work, a little bit outside of work, or totally outside of work."
This is something Priya Sunil learnt in a recent conversation with Sunil Setlur, Chief People Officer, Gojek – a trait that the leader and his team are embodying in everything they do for their workforce of thousands.
Having worked in HR for close to two decades — a career that has taken him across most countries in the Asia Pacific, and even the US — Sunil’s learnings and growth are aplenty. What stands out to him, he shares, is that the longer he works in HR, the more he realises how vital a role the function plays, in helping organisations meet their goals and be successful.
"Fundamentally, the role of HR is to organise people around missions and goals, and to create systems of incentives and disincentives, as well as amplify culture.
"When I learned all these in school, it felt very theoretical, and it was very hard to see, but the longer I've been doing this, the more evident it's become and it's been super evident in Gojek because as a company, anything we do has either an indirect or a direct impact on our partners, customers and employees.
"On the personal front, the journey has altered the way he sees and explores the world, and even processes information, which Sunil attributes to “the privilege of working among so many different cultures and learning that things are not the same everywhere.
"You can't have a one-size-fits-all approach. There's this element of customisation and nuancing that you have to do that's relevant to the region."
Importantly, working in the region — not as a stint, but living in it — has made the stakes of some of the things he has done “very real,” he points out. “If I make a mistake, I'm living with that mistake. I'm not making a mistake and going off to another country. But if I make a good decision, then I live with the consequences of that good decision.” And all that pays off when you not just see the positive impact you’ve made across many different cultures, but also get to be that voice of reason. Sunil reflects: "It has changed me as a person. It has made me listen a lot more, and made me much more dependent on observing behaviour — while I would usually tend to speak more in the past, I now tend to observe a lot more."
All these translate into the two key lessons the journey has taught him.
Lesson #1: You have to listen. "My preferred style of communication is to be direct, and it’s a two-way street – I also appreciate it when people are direct with me. However, that's not going to work in all contexts everywhere. So you really have to listen and adopt active listening as a way of life, not as a coaching technique or as a meeting tactic."
Essentially, a way of life he tries to imbibe every day.
Lesson #2: Understand that while people largely have similar things that make them tick, what's important to each person is different. "I like comparing it to having a tailored suit. Everyone's wearing a suit but your suit is your suit. It only fits you," Sunil aptly describes.
It all boils down to a culture that cares
Taking all his life lessons with him, Sunil joined Gojek in 2019, where he has since been a part of its large-scale transformation over the last three years, into what he fondly calls a global technology company that was born in Indonesia. When asked about any specific initiative he felt passionate about, Sunil noted that it wouldn’t be one, but rather would be a collection that stands out.
He elaborates: “One of the more memorable moments is when COVID-19 struck. During that time, instead of being in reaction mode, Gojek went a step further by analysing the opportunities that the pandemic created for self-transformation. We looked at it and asked: what inner ways of working needed to change, in order to keep our culture alive or even amplify our culture?
"And that has been the journey. We’ve set in place a lot of employee listening programmes — and they are truly listening programmes because employees have a voice in multiple channels and they get responded to very quickly. We've become a deeply product-focused company. We've brought in world-class talent. The pandemic and remote working have had a very democratising effect, because everyone is operating with the same level of access to information and resources.
That was a big part of our culture — we have a very strong bottom-up culture, and the pandemic allowed us to give our employees even more authorship and voice in how they craft their own experience at work.
Among many ways the company adapted, it was one of the first in Indonesia to go fully remote, and one of the first in Southeast Asia to give employees an allowance to work from home, Sunil notes.
Apart from that, he adds, Gojek was also among the first companies to progressively have Zoom-based ergonomics and movement intervention. "It was fun, but there was also the science behind it," he explains. To share an example – many employees had shared about their stresses as parents and caregivers. To help them cope, Sunil and team decided to create dedicated activity sessions for the employees’ children — on top of other online activities it had introduced for employees such as virtual workouts — so parents could enrol their children in a Zoom session and get an hour’s break for themselves. This, Sunil affirms, is a huge testimony to how much the leadership team listens.
It all boils down to a culture that cares, we learn.
"We are a purpose-led organisation that cares a lot. You might have seen recently that we care so much that we want to include our driver partners in our success, by giving 600,000 eligible driver partners equity as part of our public listing, which is a first of its kind program in the region. We care a lot, but this did not happen automatically. It is the product of a culture that genuinely cares about the impact it is having.
"We do everything we can to connect people to the impact of their work. Especially when you're working from home, everything can feel a little video game-y — you don’t know what’s happening, you are just interacting on the screen."
As part of this, the company ran (and still runs) monthly town halls inviting drivers and merchants to share about how Gojek has changed their lives, and how it has changed society or families. Sunil proudly shares: “When the pandemic hit, we made a whole bunch of choices that kept millions of people resilient throughout the pandemic. People were able to feed their families because they were a part of the Gojek family.
"Again, those decisions don't happen automatically. They're a product of a culture that cares. And it's been a joy to put in place mechanisms, initiatives, rewards, and incentives that focus everyone on the impact they're having. And that journey of becoming even more impact-led and even more impact-driven has been great!"
Keeping employee engagement and productivity at the forefront
With employees at the heart of it all, the results have been positive for Gojek. Not only has the employee engagement score gone “Northwards”, but the average tenure in the company has also improved “ with employees staying longer and remaining “highly energised” by their work.
"And it's having an impact! I recently had an opportunity to visit Jakarta for the first time in two years. In Singapore, we currently only have the ‘ride’ version of the product. But in Jakarta, you get over 20 services on the Gojek app. I looked at it and realised, this is more than two years’ worth of work because the last time we used this product was in 2019, and the next time I’m using it, it’s 2022. I was so proud of how amazing it was because this was something that happened while working from home and it's a world-class experience born right here in the region.
"It was a moment of pride and realisation for me, personally as a customer as well," Sunil says.
Looking ahead, the leader tells us, the journey is an iterative one.
We do have a longer horizon vision statement, which is that we want all our employees to feel inspired to do their best work with us every day. That's our North Star – how you show up to work and how you feel like you can do your best work.
In driving this, the company is aiming to amplify its learning culture; create a culture that emphasises product empathy, where people feel connected to the company’s products, and “again reinforce the fact that our values have led us here and these values will lead us into the future”, ensuring decisions made and the way employees work are truly value-led.
Those are the three big pillars that are differentiating elements, he adds, and each comprises a series of initiatives.
"First, we have strengthened our focus in learning. We are also working on a virtual reality intervention, where we will help employees experience what it's like to be a driver for a day, through the eyes of a driver. We are recording that experience and hope to make it available to employees imminently.
"Essentially, we are experimenting with a whole bunch of avenues that will generate product empathy – for instance if you know what a day in the life of a driver in Jakarta is like, what choices are you going to make that can make a difference?"
Gojek has also adopted two new values that will be embedded in addition to its existing 10, to reflect just how the impact it has made as an organisation has made has evolved.
Keeping all of the above learnings in mind, we asked Sunil – if there are three things HR leaders should take note of when building an engaging workplace culture, what should they be? These are what we took away:
#1: One size does not fit all. You have to, as an HR person, be a good tailor and see what organisational processes make sense for your workforce in your company.
#2: As a huge fan of working in an agile way and being able to pivot very quickly, Sunil notes that the way to do so is to listen to your employees to see what the impact of work is for them, and what transformative things you can do to make work easier for them. This is less about doing things a certain way, and more about helping people achieve the flow they need to achieve, to give you the best outcome as an organisation. It includes being inclusive and adapting yourself to many different styles – a working parent, versus a fresh graduate, versus someone with maybe two to three decades of experience – they all have different drivers and different life stimuli, so you have to build an organisation that is able to bring all of those things together.
#3: The current fad is to say all companies are tech companies, but there's an old saying which is that all companies are employee-led. How can you be more employee-led, versus leader-led? "Your employees know more about the guts of your company and the opportunities in the market than anybody else – so how can you create the avenues to listen to those voices and get those inputs in a very serious way?"
Sharing an example, Sunil talks about mental wellness and inclusivity at Gojek. In addition to virtual mental wellness talks, the company introduced an initiative called Yoda days — because Yoda is wise and likes to think, he says — where there are no large meetings on the first Friday of every month and no meetings at all on the third Friday. "It was hard to get the discipline in but now we have the discipline and most Yoda days have no meetings."
The company also has in place diversity-driven programmes, taking into consideration that employee resource groups (ERG) post- pandemic are very different from what they were pre- pandemic. "So how do you enable a virtualised employee resource group, and how do you energise them? We've focused a lot on helping set those up. We've got great success and traction with the women's ERG, and we have many more coming up."
It is also about access to tools and productivity, whether everyone in your company has access to all the right things, for example the basics such as the right laptop or the right machine, all the way to having all the software licences you need to do your work, and understanding and respecting that everyone's time is valuable, he adds.
Summing it all up, Sunil says: “First, personalisation and customisation are here to stay. Second, being able to be experimentative, iterative, and try things quickly and move on to the next thing is necessary because even if the pandemic is somewhat predictable now, there's a lot more happening in the world that will change the way we work. And lastly, how leaders can tap on the collective wisdom of the people who work in your company to have a true oversight of sentiment from the ground up.
Words of wisdom
Rounding up the conversation, we asked Sunil for the best piece of advice he has ever received, and what he would like to share with his own employees. His response is one we found ourselves bookmarking — and we’re confident you will too.
"I've received a lot of advice that has been relevant at different points in my career, but one thing that's held true always is: listen more, talk less, pay attention. That has never gone away as advice, and that's the best piece of advice for me.
"For employees or even for anyone else, I would say: curiosity is a superpower. Don't crush the side of yourself that wants to explore and be curious and try different things – be it at work, a little bit outside of work, or totally outside of work. Curiosity is a superpower, so use it and let it lead you to wonderful things. You never know what amazing things you will end up doing, because you followed your curiosity. So that's my one piece of advice to everyone."
Image / Gojek