Every time we speak to an entrepreneur or business owner about challenges they face, the struggle to hire is always a part of the conversation. Either finding the right talent or retaining the ones who are good is a huge challenge for most companies.

To find out why this is an issue, we spoke to Chung Jaan Ho and Dr. Yvonne Tan from Pulsifi. Jaan is the COO at Pulsifi and the former Co-Founder of the publicly listed MNC Wireless. Yvonne is the lead Organisational and Research Psychologist at Pulsifi. She focuses on organisational behaviours, processes, and outcomes such as teamwork, creativity, and negotiation. Yvonne has published two book chapters and numerous conference paper submissions in international psychological and human resource conferences.

Their work at Pulsifi, an HR technology startup, made them ideal experts to share more about the issues surrounding the HR industry in the region.

Here’s what they had to share.

A recent Business Insider article highlighted how long employees stay at the largest technology companies in Silicon Valley and it isn’t that long. Uber employees stay for as little as 1.8 years before they move on. Southeast Asia doesn’t have much data on this, but from anecdotal evidence and from what the market has told us, this is very much the same in this region. What do you think are some of the reasons for this?

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Yvonne (Y): We actually need to put that 1.8 years into perspective. Business cycles have dramatically shortened in recent times – building a billion dollar company has shortened from decades to years. Against that timeframe, 1.8 years might seem reasonable! The people who are really driven can learn and grow a lot in a few years, such as accumulating knowledge and best practices across different technology, which change and expand very quickly. New roles, employers and industries provide these people more development opportunities.

Changing jobs every two years or so is a growing phenomenon in the recent decade also because some people believe that it can benefit their careers in terms of getting bigger roles and higher salaries faster. These people deserve it if they can back it up with substance!

Jaan Hao (JH): The employer plays a big part as well. People tend to stay longer in companies when they feel that they are experiencing growth, like what they are doing, enjoy good working relationships with their bosses and co-workers, and are fairly compensated. However, not all companies are strategically being people focused to improve the retention of high performing employees. This is exacerbated among technology companies where new roles are being created on the fly without clear indicators of what kind of people are more suitable for these roles. What we end up with is a lot of “trial and error” and “gut-feel” in hiring, poor fit and talent turnover.

For Southeast Asia, do you believe these problems can be resolved, especially as one of the most mature tech markets such as Silicon Valley faces the same issue?

Y: For every organisation that acquires a good talent, another organisation loses that good talent. Retention is an increasing challenge for organisations!
Generally, ensuring that employees get high intrinsic and high extrinsic rewards from their careers improves retention. Employees should be rewarded extrinsically with the fair salary, benefits, and recognition for the work that they do.
In terms of intrinsic rewards, we have to first understand what kind of jobs people are suited for. For example, if a person loves interacting with and helping people, then he/she should not be in a job that is mostly about working with machinery and computers. Such people would not be able to fulfil their interest in the job, would be dreading it, and looking for other opportunities very soon. Leaders should also learn what motivates each employee in order to interact with each employee more effectively. In short, we should endeavour to understand each and every employee on a deep and holistic level so that we know how to support each employee to thrive.
Many technology companies do a great job at rewarding employees extrinsically but may need to look more into intrinsic rewards to keep employees satisfied and committed to their jobs and their organisations.

JH: When we talk about Silicon Valley, free food, glitzy offices, free shuttles and so on come to mind. If Silicon Valley companies with great perks can’t hack it, what chances do other companies have? I am sure that for people who do not work in the valley all these perks sounds awesome, but for those who do, they are common benefits that every other employer offers. I can’t imagine people staying in Facebook because they serve the best bread-pudding among tech companies!
While great vision, culture, perks, salaries, and stock options are important, what I believe really makes the difference is when companies help employees find meaning in what they do, find fit with who they work with, support in their professional and personal growth, and provide an inclusive and open working culture.
It is no surprise that companies that espouse people-centric values and practices, such as Cisco and Adobe, report great talent retention metrics compared to other similar companies.
So I think every company regardless of where they are located, has the ability to improve employee retention but they probably should prioritise job fit, team fit, culture fit, and development opportunities over cool offices and free food.

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What do you believe are some of the biggest mistakes companies make when it comes to retaining top talent in the region?

Y: The last thing organisations should do is only to identify these top talent but provide no opportunities for them to tap on their value further. Do we listen to the voices of our top talent? Do we give them greater autonomy and the right tools to effect change? Do we give them opportunities and break barriers for them to grow and develop? Imagine if you are being told that you have great value, and then nothing else is being done to help you achieve even greater value; over time, you may start asking yourself if your value can be put to better use elsewhere. Some organisations may even diminish the opportunities for their top talent to grow further because they are afraid that investing in the development of top talent will make them become more marketable and leave for other organisations.

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JH: Talent attraction and talent retention go hand-in-hand and should be anchored by the same core values, both in outlook and practice.
The biggest mistakes I’ve seen are when people with the wrong fit are hired, and when there’s a mismatch between what the company says its values are, versus what they really are. The workplace can turn toxic really quickly, such as when ill-fitting hires are introduced to the team or when company values and culture seem nothing more than lip service, prompting top talent to leave.
These problems can happen to companies of any size. The difference is that the impact is felt more strongly at smaller companies.

Is there an issue with the quality of technology talent in the region? Are we not producing enough high-quality developers?

JH: There is definitely a greater demand for good tech talent than supply in the region. To me, a good engineer or developer is someone who has a strong desire to learn new technologies all the time, loves beautiful code, and goes deep into whatever he/she picks up.
From my experience, a lot of engineers in the region generally lack the passion to pick up new technology on their own or do not go deep enough, compared to those I’ve come across from other regions. This is a pretty big deal as technology stacks evolve quickly and what’s taught in schools haven’t caught up with what the market requires. Our hiring principle for engineers at Pulsifi includes personality, job fit, value fit, work interest, predicted performance, and the person’s foundational approach to coding. Skills are secondary because we focus more on the attributes of people who are keen to, and can quickly pick up new skills.
In fact, some of our best engineers do not come from computer science backgrounds. I hypothesise that not everyone who studied computer science is naturally suited for it in the first place, and some probably took that route for the practical reason that it’s easier to get a job when they graduate. When people like that become managers later in their career, it could promote a vicious cycle of creating more so-so engineers in the market. To break this cycle, we need more companies using and appreciating new technologies, school curriculums need to be linked to current market needs, and we need to help young talent discover their passion for coding so that we can nurture them early.

Besides retaining talent, what mistakes do companies make when trying to identify and hire the right talent? What can they do to change?

JH: Hiring mistakes occur when companies are not equipped to find and select the best-fit candidates. Going through a pile of resumes is never fun and even with automation like application tracking systems, the process is error-prone as it still relies on human diligence to read and analyse each resume. Going through each resume almost never happens, especially at larger companies that attract many applicants for each vacancy.
On top of that, most companies rely solely on assessing hard skills in the hiring process. We all work in groups and most of us will have experienced positive situations when good people are added to the group. By good, we would normally associate behaviours such as “passionate”, “cheerful”, “helpful”, “empathetic”, “high integrity”, “positive”, “creative”, “diligent” and so on. All these are soft traits which are rarely measured in the hiring process.

Y: Recruitment is a complex domain that involves many considerations!. The first piece of the puzzle is understanding the mix of hard skills and soft traits required for a particular job in a particular organisation. A sales position is generally different from a finance position; A sales position in a multi-national company may be different from a sales position in a small-medium enterprise. This requires input from the hiring manager, and maybe even the top management for vision, mission, and culture.
The next piece of the puzzle is understanding the candidates. While having the right skills for the job is important, it is equally critical to discern if the candidates have the appropriate personality, interests, and values that would fit the requirements of the job and the organisation. This highlights the imperative to understand each and every candidate across multiple dimensions. It requires employers to go beyond looking at resumes, such as considering psychometric assessments and digital footprints.
The organisation then needs to fit these two pieces of the puzzle together at a larger scale across the organisation – across tens, hundreds or thousands of jobs and candidates.

JH: What really changes the game for hiring is Artificial intelligence (AI) platforms, such as Pulsifi, that automatically find the best fit candidates for organisations, by recommending people based on the ideal mix of hard skills and soft traits for each role.

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A talent deficit seems to be on the horizon based on this study. What do you think companies can do to manage the impending talent crunch?

Y: There are tactical and strategic approaches to do this. One of the ways to tackle the problem of talent crunch is to expand the possible base of candidates that organisations can consider as employees, such as allowing flexible work employment and arrangements. Organisations can offer more freelance or part-time positions, working remotely and flexible work hours, so that candidates with lifestyle and geographical location preferences can be more viable.
In terms of recruitment processes, it is important to recognise that candidates may apply for multiple jobs at the same time, and organisations that take a long time to consider candidates may lose them easily. Hence, reducing the time to hire is critical. To do so, organisations need to improve the efficiency of recruitment processes, such as automating highly manual recruitment processes.
On a more strategic level, a key reason for the talent crunch is because the jobs of tomorrow may not be sufficiently performed by the employees with us today

JH: This is a real problem especially in the current era where market required job requirements are evolving faster than what students are taught in school and the current workforce hasn’t adapted quickly enough.
A recent study by Gartner revealed that only a small proportion of companies possess enough “digital dexterity” to “leverage and manipulate media, information and technology in unique and highly innovative ways”. In a world where consumers have fully embraced digital, this is a serious problem for companies who are lagging behind in digital adoption among their workforce.

Y: To help overcome that problem, we can hire people who are adaptable to meet ever-changing needs or upskill current employees so that they can be in line with current trends. This also suggests shifting the hiring criteria from fit-to-job more towards fit-to-organisation, as the organisation is less likely to change as quickly as the job. Candidates who are hired based on fit-to-organisation will still remain relevant even if their jobs change.

JH: For organisations to get ahead of the curve, HR departments will need to evolve from administration and operations into business units that can make strategic data-driven actions in hiring and talent management. This means using technology to gain a holistic understanding of employees, understand employee competency gaps, prescribe and measure learning and development, monitor and analyse performance and engagement, and so on. While technology advancement is contributing to the talent deficit, technology is also here to help alleviate the problem. All it requires is the willingness to adapt and try new things!

What are the current HR trends you’re seeing in the market?

Y: Definitely the use of technology across HR, including talent selection and acquisition, onboarding, talent management, and learning and development. For example, organizations are using online chatrooms and chatbots to engage with candidates. Organizations are also employing people analytics to understand the traits of high versus low performers. Employees can also be pointed to training that is more suited to their needs by recommendation systems that learn more about the employees over time.

JH: A lot of companies are already looking into HR technology, if not already implemented. What differs between these companies are their areas of focus, stages of implementation and readiness of their own employees. The common HR problems that companies want to solve using technology are mainly better ways to surface the right candidates from passive sources, automatically evaluating candidates across multiple sources of data and relevant benchmarks, and deeper understanding of employees for talent management. We also see some companies who are more advanced in using technology to look at company-wide analytics covering employee engagement, cultural alignment, attrition prediction, and succession planning.

Y: Another trend impacting HR is the rise of the gig economy, which results in decreasing demand and labour shortage for permanent job arrangements. We discussed this earlier.

JH: The growing trend of the increasingly tech-savvy and mobile workforce, where more people are opting to work remotely or flexible, changes how people work and collaborate. While already commonly practised among start-ups, more companies will need to adapt in order to attract the much needed tech-savvy workers who are crucial for innovation in a highly disruptive digital market. We will definitely see more adoption of online collaboration and communication tools among larger companies in the near future.

What advice would you give new entrepreneurs looking to enter the startup world?

JH: “There’s no such thing as a bad idea. Only poorly executed awesome ones.” – Damon Salvatore
Find the right team that can execute from a total go-to-market perspective, start lean and uses lots of data in your decision making.

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