Employee well-being initiatives cannot be approached with a one-size-fits-all mindset: Zendesk’s Meiyea Neo
Meiyea Neo is the Senior Director, People Partner at Zendesk APAC. She has over 20 years of HR experience, largely in technology and consulting. Her experience lies in business partnering, coaching, leadership, talent and organisational development, as well as change management. At Zendesk, Meiyea is tasked with evolving the employee experience at Zendesk’s offices across the rapidly growing region. In an exclusive conversation with People Matters, she shares her expert insights on designing wellness frameworks, keeping a pulse on evolving employee needs, the critical role of leadership in championing wellness initiatives and more.
As employee wellness and well-being become a critical facet of any people-centric organisation, what key areas do leaders need to prioritise when designing wellness and benefits frameworks?
We have learnt over the past 2.5 years that treating employees with empathy and seeing them as a whole person—not just a coworker—is an imperative. The COVID years definitely accelerated the need for a stronger focus on mental health and well-being in the workplace. People managers and leaders need to identify what matters most to their employees, what they care about and why. At a time when employee retention is a challenge, it’s important for leaders to pay attention to the physical, emotional and psychological well-being of their employees as more express concerns with digital burnout. Keeping in touch with employees’ sentiments and their needs must therefore be followed through with action.
What challenges do organisations need to address to ensure that their well-being policies actually address people's needs? How can we keep them relevant and measure their impact?
Organisations need to recognise that employees’ well-being needs are dynamic and constantly evolving. It’s important to be in sync with employee sentiment and needs to ensure well-being initiatives are relevant to what’s top of mind for them. At Zendesk, we do this through regular pulse surveys to identify and align our policies with employees’ needs.
Taking care of our employees is very important to us, and we invest heavily in developing programs that create better employee experiences that help us attract, engage and retain our talent. Our regular pulse surveys provide a well-structured feedback loop ensuring we understand our employees and find opportunities to do better in terms of well-being initiatives. Managers can leverage the data for insights into their team's challenges and how best to support them.
The fact that our workforce is now more distributed than before with our digital-first policy makes it more challenging for organisations and managers to keep up with their people’s needs. Leadership teams also need to significantly dial up their listening and be more intentional in communicating and getting feedback from their teams and the broader community. This can be done through employee groups representing a range of diverse interests. At Zendesk, we have created more opportunities for leadership to step into AMA (Ask Me Anything) sessions in order to have more frequent dialogue in the organisation and better understand what’s top of mind for our people.
By listening more, organisations can better support their employees where it matters most to them, be it well-being initiatives, diversity and inclusion initiatives, listening circles with leadership or digital-first policies. This approach can help businesses facilitate more opportunities to connect with employees and ensure their needs are met.
Given that diversity and inclusion intersect with wellness programs to accelerate or hamper accessibility, how can organisations ensure accessibility to these wellness programs and policies? Additionally, how are diverse sets of needs addressed?
Each company is different, made up of a different workforce with different needs. That’s why employee well-being initiatives cannot be approached with a one-size-fits-all mindset. This is where employee communities come into play, ensuring the diverse range of needs are heard and addressed. Our Employee Communities at Zendesk consist of employee volunteers with shared values, identity, and experience who lend their voice to specific causes. To ensure accountability, each EC has an executive sponsor from our leadership team to champion their voices. Our Pride community ensures all LGBTQAI+ employees are valued and seen; Women in Engineering and Women at Zendesk celebrate our women employees at every level and help them achieve their personal and professional goals. And our Mosaic community encourages people of different ethnicities to celebrate their differences.
What is the role of leadership in championing the cause of employee well-being and wellness? What are some of the initiatives that have been taken up by leaders at Zendesk?
Oftentimes, employees actually look to their leaders to set an example of their company values. While it’s important for leadership to lead communication efforts around well-being initiatives and flexible work culture, it’s equally important for them to walk the talk and experiment with new initiatives. For example, through our regular pulse surveys at Zendesk, we knew our employees were facing burnout. Alongside the company’s commitment to embracing a more dynamic work style as part of our digital-first approach to work, the leadership team endorsed and supported the launch of a few crucial initiatives, including our company-wide Recharge Fridays program. It involves one paid Friday off every month throughout 2022 to give employees much-needed time and space to focus on self-care and work-life balance. This means taking the second Friday of each month off for most teams. For certain teams, they have adjusted work hours, such as a half-day off every Friday, to ensure our customers and partners still receive continued support and service.
We also encouraged our leadership team and employees to share on company slack channels what they did on their Recharge Fridays to encourage employees to disconnect from work. In less than six months, we have seen the positive impact of this program, with over half the comments from a recent employee engagement survey citing how positive Recharge Fridays has been for their wellbeing.
The other role of leadership in championing employee well-being is listening actively and understanding employee needs. Besides surveys, company-wide town halls, and Ask Me Anything sessions, our leaders also opened up to share their personal journeys and how they cope through our internal blogs. We also got our leaders involved in the Empathy Circles initiative, a safe space created for employees to talk, vent and share with a guarantee of being listened to. Leaders join these sessions to listen and learn, helping to break the echo chambers and to encourage sharing about employees’ experiences. Over 900 employees have joined these circles with strong participation from Zendesk’s senior leadership, and we’ve received overwhelmingly positive feedback, including a 95% approval rating.
As leaders and people managers, it’s important for us to be intentional - with our people’s time, career development and overall well-being. I’m currently working with my People Partner team to address feedback from recent engagement surveys. These include Focus Fridays - a meeting-free afternoon - on the other Fridays we do not have Recharge Fridays; monthly development days where we spend focused time on personal and professional development activities; and monthly cafe sessions for casual team bonding activities and top-of-mind business updates. It’s been an invigorating yet necessary process of listening, experimenting, adjusting and repeating to ensure we stay abreast with evolving employee needs and significant events.
Finally, what would be your advice to leaders as they increasingly prioritise employee wellbeing?
Pay attention, listen and communicate with compassion. Empathy is key when designing any employee well-being policy or initiative. And creating psychological safety plays a crucial role if you want to develop an accurate picture of what challenges employees face and what exactly they need to be happy at the workplace. Without this, well-being policies are at risk of being ineffective as they may not address the true concerns at all. Practising empathy goes a long way in nurturing great employee relationships and delivering a better employee experience.