Sheela Parakkal was appointed Chief Human Resources Officer of Prudential Singapore in September 2015. In this role, Sheela champions the human capital value chain and leads the HR function to develop and drive people strategies in line with the business goals. This includes building best-in-class HR practices in recruitment, talent and succession planning, reward and recognition programmes. Sheela’s 25-year career spans across a spectrum of industries, specialisations, and geographies. It includes 17 years with PricewaterhouseCoopers Singapore where she moved from being an auditor to a HR professional.
Sherwin Siregar is Head, People Experience at Prudential Singapore. A transformation and people leader, Sherwin has led the transformation of a traditional brick & mortar specialist store into multiple channels of distribution, commercial projects, and e-commerce. Sherwin was previously with Grab, ATLAS, and Sovis Pte. Ltd., among other firms.
In this exclusive interaction with People Matters and ServiceNow, Sheela and Sherwin talk about the emergence of the hybrid employee experience at Prudential Singapore, prioritising well-being and shifting the narrative on flexibility and workplace.
Read on for highlights from the interaction.
In your opinion, what key trends will redefine work, workforce and workplace for Singapore’s financial industry this year?
Sheela: Advancing our journey of digitisation, placing even greater emphasis on employee well-being and experimenting to remain nimble and agile in our ways of working are among our key focus areas this year.
There will be a constant need for robust IT infrastructure and tools to ease challenges of working remotely. Since the start of the year, we have added more technological capabilities to promote engagement and collaboration amongst our people in the virtual space.
As a business, we must continue on our journey of digitisation to create the workplace of the future and embrace new ways of working, so as to ensure business sustainability. Only then will we be able to cater to the changing expectations of our employees, financial consultants, and customers, who have become more tech-savvy and are demanding greater flexibility and convenience.
Amid COVID-19, the narrative has been around encouraging flexible work arrangements, and getting people to appreciate that employees can be high performers regardless of where they work from.
We have the basics in place – such as flexi-work arrangements with technology as an enabler – and we want to continue to remain nimble and agile in our ways of working. One of the ways we are doing this is by experimenting and piloting trial programmes in an effort to better serve the needs of our people.
We introduced a four-day work week pilot scheme at the end of last year. Most of us would have heard about companies trialing a four-day work week, but we want to make it a reality, especially for an insurance company like ourselves in a developed, progressive market that is Singapore. We are experimenting by starting with a few departments within the company to assess the preliminary results of this change.
The insurance industry is based on a high-touch and high-interaction model, so naturally there was a fair level of skepticism that flexi-work was actually possible. In the last year, we enabled our financial consultants to continue engaging their customers through virtual means. Our financial consultants were able to sell policies remotely, using ancillary tools equipped with video conferencing and e-signature capabilities. This was actually quite a big shift for all of us, and the journey continues.
Experience and productivity are critical to organisational and people sustainability as businesses aspire to move from recovery to growth. How is Prudential striking the needed balance to design a seamless employee experience?
Sheela: There were a couple of things we did on the back of the COVID-19 pandemic last year, which was quite important to help settle people into what was the working norm. We loaned large computer monitors and ergonomic office chairs to those who needed them, so that they could work comfortably at home. We continue to engage and interact with our people via email, Teams, and virtual town halls. This ensures that our communication is consistent and clear. We also hold health and fitness classes such as virtual meditation, exercise sessions, etc. to ensure our employees stay healthy.
As we look ahead - regardless of whether people return to a physical workplace or not – we need to focus on thinking about how and what we are doing to support our people. This is not just in the basic sense of ensuring everyone is able to carry out their jobs and earn a salary. We need to go further and examine the importance of well-being through multiple lenses. We have the basics in place, so what else can we do as an employer to help our people navigate a hybrid work set up which is going to be the norm going forward?
We piloted a four-day work week in late 2020 and it is gaining greater traction in 2021.
Our initial thinking was really around well-being, and helping our employees who face extensive challenges when it comes to splitting their professional and personal lives. We also wanted to give them back a day in the week, so that they are rested and well-placed to tackle the next four-day work week. By drawing attention to productivity, we are able to explore how people can work in a shorter space of time, and in the most efficient way possible.
For a start, we are experimenting by starting with selected small teams within the company to assess the preliminary results of this change, and seeing how we can make it more pervasive across the organisation. We also need to examine how it fits into our overall work ecosystem to ensure a seamless experience for our stakeholders and customers.
What has surfaced during this pilot stage is growing awareness around conversations about productivity: people are placing greater focus on examining the quality of their work. They are also looking at things from a new lens and asking the right questions, to ensure they can be productive and deliver quality outputs. These are the very early signs of success that we are seeing.
In a recent ServiceNow Work survey, 54% of executives expressed worries on account of remote work about outputs, such as delays in product or service delivery, and 48% of employees expressed worries about inputs, like reduced collaboration between business units. How can employers address these concerns?
Sherwin: The steps taken by our leaders to keep the focus on continuous improvement have been great. When it comes to people, the more transparent you are with them, the better abled they are to grow and perform. This transparency is helping people see that they are actually in the driver's seat of what they can do for themselves so that they can continue growing with us as a company.
We are very open about our business results, what’s being done, and the asks we have of our people. These are things that we are committed to, and have continuously articulated in a clear and consistent manner.
It also makes a difference if you provide people with the right resources. We have been upgrading our technology and tools to foster engagement, communication, and collaboration. We continue to explore and delve into the effective usage of these technological tools, especially as they continue to evolve.
In a hybrid work setup, how can employee experience be standardised for those working at home and those working from office?
Sheela: A large part of the whole employee experience is how we interact with people using technology. We have a robust IT infrastructure, and are looking at tools that will help foster ideation and collaboration among teams during their virtual interactions.
Employee experience goes beyond the job that you are tasked with, the salary you receive, the flexibility you have from wherever you may be working, and the organisation’s investment in your development.
It is also about ensuring that you are heard, and that you feel like the organisation you work for actually does act on your feedback.
At Prudential Singapore, the commitment to act on our people’s key concerns goes all the way to the top. These are addressed through platforms such as our employee and agency town halls. There is always this continuous feedback loop on actions taken. More importantly, we want our people to know that their welfare, well-being, and experience at work are important to us.
We intend to continue with what we have done well in 2020, and ensuring that people stay connected. With the introduction of home as an additional point of interaction with our employees, our people should also have the opportunity to connect with one another regularly at an enterprise level. This means encouraging our leaders to continue reaching out to and engaging with our people via townhalls, etc. so that everyone has equal information in terms of how the business is progressing.
As talks around 'return to workplace' emerge, in your opinion, what are some non-negotiables that employers must account for?
Sheela: We are very clear on employee safety being paramount. Our people are coming back to work in the office, so our safe management measures must be comprehensive.
The other part is amplifying conversations around well-being. This is also a significant part of our business agenda. Our digital health and wellness app, called Pulse by Prudential, is centered around the importance of health and wellness. It is not just something that we tell our customers about; it is also a useful tool for our people. Pulse helps our people to better understand their own well-being, get timely health advice. Self-care is where it all starts. We want to ensure that we are sensitive to people's comfort levels, and more importantly, their own well-being as well, especially as we pivot towards the hybrid model.
What key goals - business and people - is Prudential working towards this year?
Sherwin: There are multiple areas that we are looking to grow. As a responsible leading life insurer, we want to provide our customers, employees, and stakeholders with peace of mind. We introduced cash allowance for individuals who are hospitalised for side effects resulting from COVID-19 vaccinations. All in all, ensuring our customers, people, and stakeholders, have the protection they need is really important for us.
From a people perspective, we want to move the yardstick from people just surviving, to be actually thriving.
How do we set up people for success within the context of a hybrid model, and what are the elements we need to embrace to help people succeed? We need to help our people with their needs, so that everyone can grow and work together, while also achieving business goals.
Sheela: A huge part of our employee experience initiatives this year is centered around what our people can do to continue upgrading, upskilling, and reskilling so that they are ready for the future – pandemic or no pandemic. We have embarked on this in a big way by partnering local government agencies and playing an active role in promoting reskilling initiatives, which are aligned with the national agenda on capability build.
A key piece of the HR agenda is to get our people to be ‘digitally aware’ and digitally savvy. As part of our digitisation push, we want to get our people to be digitally savvy and help them reach their full potential. Our people have access to over 16,000 online courses that essentially cover anything that is upcoming, current, and relevant today. The message we are driving is that life is one single huge learning opportunity; building capabilities, learning new skills, and getting certifications are ways that people can better themselves. We want to get our workforce excited about it and to really feel that they are part of a movement of continuous improvement.
Throwing light upon inclusion: how do we ensure every segment of our employees, specifically the silver workforce who have a legacy and experiences to share, continue to stay engaged for the next 20 to 30 years of their work life? How do we ensure that we challenge ourselves in areas of diversity and inclusion – for example, bringing more women into technology roles?
As we go through 2021, I’m excited at the prospect of covering even more ground in terms of bringing diversity of experiences for our people.