We’re thrilled to begin our new series of interviews — Coffee with HR — with Alex Png, Chief People Officer for Intrepid Group Asia, as he is not only a senior HR professional but also a recognised expert in the future of work. Here, Alex shares his thoughts about technology, AI and data in the workplace.
Why should you listen? First, because Alex has over a decade of experience in marketing and HR, having worked for all sizes of businesses. Fortune 500 Companies such as Micron and Singapore Airlines, for example, and smaller-scale startups such as Grab and Circles.Life in Southeast Asia.
Second, because Alex has a proven track record of building high-performing teams from scratch. Winning multiple awards in the process! He was recently recognised as one of the Top 35 HR Icons in Singapore (Top 100 in SEA) by leading HR authority ETHRWorld, and was honoured as Speakin’s Future of Work Expert.
Finally, Alex is passionate about the tech sector. He married his love for helping others and that of entrepreneurship by creating his own professional life coaching consultancy NetAGain, where he works with clients to achieve personal and professional goals.
Tell us about your role – where do you work, what do you do?
I am the Chief People Officer of Intrepid Group Asia, a leading e-commerce and digital marketing firm in Southeast Asia. We work closely with ecosystem partners like Lazada, Shopee, Tokopedia and Amazon to help businesses grow their e-commerce potential in the APAC region. Being the pioneer CHRO [Chief Human Resource Officer], I have walked the firm through tremendous growth phases from pre-series to successful exit via M&A last year to a UK-headquartered firm.
My mandate covers all aspects of the People (HR) function, ranging from talent acquisition to talent management, business partnering, employee experience and rewards, and more. As our organisation has always been lean and agile, my team also covers property/real estate, safety and security, IT and operations. As you can imagine, our impact is not just operational but also strategic.
What made you pursue a career in HR? And what advice do you have for anyone considering a career in HR?
I have always believed in the immense impact that optimising people strategies equates to optimising business impact, seeing how talent makes or breaks the ability of businesses to deliver. My knack for relating to and understanding people, coupled with my passion for empowering people led me to consider a career option in HR. Having been in careers in operations, customer service and marketing, I find that HR is indeed the holy grail to influence lives in a meaningful and enriching way.
My advice for anyone considering HR as a career is to assess your enthusiasm for people against the matrices of whether you are good at it against if you enjoy doing it. If you are both good at and enjoy working with people, then just adopt a strong learning agility orientation — make mistakes, seek feedback and learn. You will be an accomplished professional before you know it.
How do you think offices as we know them will change in the next decade?
The office landscape is expected to undergo significant changes in the next decade, driven by technological advancements, changing workforce expectations and lessons learned from the Covid-19 pandemic.
The pandemic has shown that remote work is viable for many roles, leading to the rise of hybrid work models where employees split their time between working from home and the office. This could lead to smaller office spaces, with more emphasis on flexible workstations rather than fixed desks.
The health and wellbeing of employees will likely become a more prominent consideration in office design. This could involve better ventilation systems, more natural light, ergonomic furniture and spaces dedicated to relaxation and exercise.
Related reading: How the world of work will look in 2030
Technological advancements will continue to shape the office of the future. Smart offices equipped with IoT devices could automate various aspects of the work environment, such as lighting, temperature and even ordering office supplies. AI could also play a role in streamlining administrative tasks.
As businesses become more environmentally conscious, sustainability will likely become a key factor in office design. This could involve using eco-friendly materials, installing energy-efficient appliances, and incorporating green spaces into the office environment.
That said, specific changes will depend on various factors, including the nature of the work, the company culture and the employees’ preferences.
What are the top three challenges HR professionals face today?
Remote work has become the norm for many organisations, which presents a challenge for HR professionals. In particular, managing remote teams, maintaining employee engagement and productivity, and ensuring effective communication.
Demonstrating the value of HR initiatives is another common challenge. HR professionals need to identify key metrics and use HR analytics to measure the effectiveness of their programs and show how they contribute to the organisation’s goals. This is getting increasingly tough given cost pressures and the proclivity of organisations to double down on data-driven decisions.
Rapid technological advancements and changing business needs are creating a skills gap in many industries. HR professionals are tasked with identifying these gaps and implementing training and development programs to upskill their workforce. They also need to focus on succession planning and leadership development to prepare for future business needs.
Related reading: What’s behind TikTok’s work trends? Burnout and low pay
What do you think has been the most significant way in which technology has impacted HR?
One of the most significant ways technology has impacted HR is through the automation of routine tasks. HR functions traditionally spend a lot of time on administrative tasks such as payroll processing, benefits administration, time tracking and record keeping. With the advent of HR technology, many of these tasks can now be automated, saving time and reducing the risk of errors.
This automation has freed up HR professionals to focus more on strategic initiatives, such as talent management, workforce planning and employee engagement. It has also enabled HR to provide better service to employees. For example, with self-service HR portals, employees can easily access information about their benefits, update their personal details and request time off, without needing to go through HR.
In addition, technology has enabled more data-driven decision-making in HR. With HR analytics, companies can track key metrics such as turnover rates, time to hire and employee engagement, and use this data to make informed decisions. This can lead to better outcomes, such as improved retention, higher productivity, and a more engaged workforce.
Finally, technology has also transformed the way companies recruit, with online job postings, applicant tracking systems and AI-powered screening tools now commonplace. This has made the recruitment process more efficient and effective and has expanded the pool of potential candidates.
What do you perceive are some of the risks of deploying AI in the workplace?
With AI automating certain tasks, it’s important to consider how employees can be reskilled or upskilled to take on new roles that AI can’t fulfil.
Also, AI systems often rely on large amounts of data, which can include sensitive employee information. If not properly managed, this could lead to privacy breaches.
Thirdly, if the data used to train AI systems contains biases, the AI could also make biased decisions. This is particularly concerning when AI is used for hiring, promotions, or performance evaluations.
Next, over-reliance on AI could make a company vulnerable if the technology fails or is compromised. It’s important to have contingency plans in place.
Last but not least, while AI can make certain processes more efficient, it’s important that there’s still human oversight. Decisions made by AI should be regularly reviewed to ensure they’re ethical, fair and in line with company values.
Has your company leveraged data to personalise employee experiences – including in recruitment – and if so, can you talk us through what that was like?
We leverage HR technology to facilitate personalisation. For example, we use data and analytics to understand our employees’ behaviour and preferences, and AI-powered tools to deliver personalised experiences. This could include personalised learning recommendations, targeted communication or customised learning development paths.
In the recruitment arena, we are creating personas to target candidates for specific roles and engaging candidates through persona-based interactions from sourcing to screening, and from interviews and assessments all the way to offer management. This entailed understanding persona motivations and drivers, objections and preferences, as well as other relevant indicators that help us to better manage communications and expectations. While useful, it has to be balanced against biases and checked for DEI compliance standards.
What is an HR initiative you’ve spearheaded that you are particularly proud of?
One memorable initiative that came to mind is the set-up of a healthy and sustainable workplace culture that enables a young, enterprising organisation to function optimally, and inspires people to give their best at work.
To do that, I worked with my executive leadership on defining my company’s core values (we landed on SPIKIT — six core values standing for Service, Passion, Impact, Kindness, Innovation, Teamwork), communicated them clearly and consistently, and found ways to reinforce them. As part of that outreach to make it stick, leaders were trained on the core beliefs underpinning our workplace — starting from the top and cascading all the way to the frontline leaders. They were then held accountable for leading by example.
We began investing in hiring for the right culture fit, incorporating culture assessments to culture-proof our future. I also started new cultural rituals and tenets that breathed life into what we preached, such as recognition drives, town halls, AMA sessions, engagement polls, pulse check surveys leader briefings etc, where there were none.
That, and many other parallel initiatives later, saw us clinch Top Employer of Choice and Great Place to Work awards in a short span of two years. Our core values have also consistently differentiated us from the talent marketplace — it is commonplace to hear someone say they stay, strive and say good things about us because of them — allowing us to hire, engage and retain some of the best talents in the business that have brought us the success we are enjoying today.
I could not be prouder of what has been achieved.
Our thanks to Alex for spending so much time thinking about these topics and sharing his thoughts with us. If you know of someone who should be featured in our Coffee with HR interviews, please email [email protected].
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