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"This may sound very trivial or even cliche, but it's an incredibly high mandate, especially since the pandemic: whether it is ensuring that the right safety measures are in place, or be a trusted counsel in managing employee relations," says Ingo Laubender, Head of People, foodpanda (pictured above).

In this conversation with Lester Tan, you can also look forward to Ingo sharing about: 

  • The hardest decision he has made as an HR leader (and what he learnt from it);
  • Why the best way HR can add value is to be future-ready, and
  • How foodpanda is advocating mental health of its employees and riders.

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Q Was HR a natural career choice for you? If not in HR, what other career would you have chosen?

Before I entered the HR profession, I was doing a degree in industrial engineering. While I was interning at a tech company, I was tasked with improving supply chains with a strong focus on process optimisation. Midway through, I had an epiphany. I began to wonder about the people involved in these processes: "How do we optimise for them, in order to achieve the best business outcomes?"

Instead of churning out new process flow diagrams, I started to survey every single person from the department head, to engineers, shift workers, technicians and cleaners. This feedback collection alone - giving a voice to people - had an enormous impact on their productivity. Even simple changes like placements of tools or spare parts at the shop floor not only improved the process speed and failure rate, but it also increased the safety of employees.

That experience led to a profound inflection point in my early career. I began to immerse myself in books about change management - centering my work around people and eventually became a management consultant for talent and organisational performance.

What was the most innovative HR campaign that you've worked on, and what was your biggest learning from that?

One of my goals is to provide better employee experiences through the digitalisation of foodpanda’s people operations. I am a firm believer in the use of data and insights to predict and mitigate challenges, rather than just reacting to them. One of my current priorities is to ensure that we’re growing our people practices in tandem with
foodpanda’s expansion plans across Asia. That requires the right tools and technology to operate progressively and in a scalable way.

One of the key learnings when looking into digitalisation is to avoid falling into the trap of implementing tech for the sake of tech. The fear of competition and the lure of catchy marketing campaigns by HR technology providers can create artificial pressures on the HR department.

So when confronted with an opportunity to leverage tech, it is important to ask first: what is the underlying problem you want to solve? This way, you build a solid business case for purpose-driven change vs. technology-driven change, with the latter leading to the inevitable rat-race of driving adoption to justify your investment.

The next important step is to change-manage and enable your teams to extract the value that you and your teams need to serve the business well.

Q On the other hand, what is the hardest decision you’ve had to make as an HR leader?

The hardest task is to strike a balance between optimisation and personalisation; creating solutions that are highly personalised for our employees while optimising for the organisation so that all employees have an opportunity to thrive and ensuring our business goals are met. The most challenging problem I have had to work on in recent times is managing our business continuity and safety measures during the pandemic, amidst the intense speed of our day-to-day HR operations, and major projects such as country launches or M&As.

Balancing sometimes conflicting needs of our business with individual expectations, while growing my own team’s capacity and capability in a fast-paced tech company is as challenging as it is exciting. At times it feels like we’re building the plane and the runway, while the plane is taking off.

Q How closely do you work with the CEO, and what are the specific projects that both of you work closely on?

I work very closely with our CEO, Jakob Angele - and in fact, many of my People Team members do have close interactions with Jakob and the foodpanda management.

We keep our hierarchies flat and foster a strong culture of collaboration to execute with speed and agility. As the Head of People at foodpanda, I have weekly meetings with Jakob and we are connected daily through workplace chats, to bounce ideas off one another and solve problems together.

While foodpanda is a tech company, the management and I believe in a people-centric culture. On almost every major project or initiative, we keep close alignment and constant feedback loops with the aim to provide great career experiences for our pandas. I feel very thankful for the great trust and empowerment by Jakob. His level of engagement is a testimony to his transformational leadership and care to preserve the very best of foodpandas culture, so we can attract the best talent who will have fulfilling careers with us.


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Q Who is the one person who has inspired you the most in your career, and why?

There’s no one person that inspires me — I take inspiration from many different people throughout the different moments in my career.

One person that stands out is German chancellor Dr. Angela Merkel. I admire her for her tenacity in leading Germany and the European Union through various crises while demonstrating boldness and kindness through her servant and self-sacrificial leadership. I take inspiration from Ms Merkel in my day to day work, especially when handling more challenging situations. Taking cues from Ms Merkel, I want to lead my teams with empathy, empowerment, and ensure that employees feel assured and have a sense of direction in times of uncertainty.

On the other hand, I also take inspiration from business and innovation leaders like Elon Musk for their relentless determination and resilience. In dynamic and fast-moving industries like ours, being able to foster a culture of innovation is very crucial, hence my emphasis on building a psychologically safe workplace where employees feel supported and enabled to effect positive change.

Lastly, but most importantly, I feel inspired by my own team, who has been sticking with me through trialing times and yet been able to accomplish a lot for foodpanda and its people. I am incredibly proud of them.

Together, we are geared towards getting 1% better every day - a foodpanda core value that signifies our obsession for progress and impact.

Q How would you describe your leadership style?

I don’t have a ‘typical’ leadership style, I practise personalisation instead, as I recognise that every individual team member has unique strengths, different needs, and working styles. I try to be a better listener — I observe and reflect a lot, which helps me to make better decisions for my team and foodpanda.

I am also a firm believer in psychological safety – in a dynamic environment where we need to react quickly to movements in the industry, we want to create a space where employees feel comfortable about speaking out and sharing ideas, or making mistakes and learning from it and innovating.

Q With today’s rapidly evolving environment, what do you believe is HR's #1 responsibility, and the top way HR can add value?

The top responsibility of every HR professional or department should be the safety and wellbeing of its employees. This may sound very trivial or even cliche, but it's an incredibly high mandate, especially since the pandemic: whether it is ensuring that the right safety measures are in place, supporting individuals that do need extra care, fostering an inclusive culture, upholding high standards of the company’s values, or be a trusted counsel in managing employee relations.

It’s an enormous responsibility that sometimes comes with a heavy weight on a HR professionals’ shoulders. This is why I make hiring decisions very carefully, especially for my own team. I need to be convinced that candidates who want to join our foodpanda People team feel almost naturally drawn to that mandate.

As for the best way HR can add value? Be future-ready. It simply means stop chasing the hockey puck, but skate to where the hockey puck is going to be.

Anticipating and serving the needs of an organisation and its people requires a whole range of capabilities in the HR department:

  • Human-centered workplace design and technology to provide services and experiences that keep people engaged;
  • Data and analytics to obtain insights, measure progress and be able to course correct, and
  • An environment that fosters progress and innovation.

At foopdanda, we have been increasingly driving the implementation of ‘people tech’, where we use digital tools to reduce high-volume repetitive work, use bots to automate services and turn data into insights. This allows the People team to be a strategic function, maximising the impact at the intersection of our people practices and business priorities.

Is there a phrase/mentality that you believe HR professionals should do away with? And what should they replace it with?

Be a champion for people, not for company policies. Don’t get me wrong, policies are a crucial construct of any well-functioning social system. Yet, many company policies are serving first and foremost the company and the majority of the workforce in an equal manner.

However, at times the needs of people can be very unique and deeply personal. That requires us to lean forward with empathy, rather than falling back on one-size-fits-all policies. Only when we listen intently we truly can understand what matters most to people.

And just like our foodpanda app provides choices to our customers, our People Team aims to provide resources and support that are personalised, at the moment of need. This includes flexible work arrangements (e.g. I don’t keep track of my team coming to the office or going on-/offline), flexible benefits, inclusive people practices, or individualised wellbeing support in a scalable way. I am very fortunate to work with a team that is passionate about finding new ways to enrich our pandas’ careers and experiences.

Q What is foodpanda's approach towards supporting the mental health of its employees and riders?

Firstly, I am a strong advocate of creating a culture of psychological safety. It provides a work environment where people can be authentic and thrive to their full potential. In a fast paced tech environment like foodpanda, we see failure as a consequential byproduct of progress and innovation, and mistakes are associated with opportunities to learn, rather than bad performance.

Secondly, leverage data and insights. Every quarter we take a deep dive into vast amounts of data and read through thousands of anonymised comments of our pandas to identify how we can serve them better, and keep our finger on the pulse on their general and specifically mental wellbeing. The insights gained from that data will inform our People strategy and practices to make improvements in those areas.

Enhance your benefits programme. Every year we challenge ourselves to provide relevant and competitive benefits that matter most to our people. We provide a free 24-7 employee assistance programme that offers counselling for emotional and psychological support - not just for employees but also their immediate family members. Our insurance programme covers mental health and with our flexible benefits and learning programmes, individuals can invest in many resources to support their wellbeing. Apart from that, every year we provide a series of programmes such as our Mental Health Week, that also includes paid days-off to disconnect from work.

Educate and engage. Creating awareness is the first step to breaking down stigmas, and provide resources and diverse channels for pandas to engage and seek support at their individual comfort level. Some of our employees started an employee resources group, the zen pandas, which facilitates and encourages open discussions about mental well-being at the workplace. We also sponsored employees to become certified in "First Aid in Mental Health". This training equipped our pandas with the skills needed to act as "early responders" for those who might be suffering from common mental health problems.

Leverage technology to make mental wellbeing accessible, scalable, yet personalised. foodpanda recently partnered with Intellect to offer employees access to a mental well-being app. Pandas are able to personalise their mental health journey and personal developmental goals through guided sessions and meeting licensed professionals (yes people, not bots!). With the app, employees can gain ownership and be proactive in cultivating positive mental well-being in a meaningful way. foodpanda also provides free subscriptions to Headspace, a mobile app on meditation and sleep.


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