Q&A: How Agoda fosters a culture that

Experimentative, entrepreneurial, ambitious and collaborative — Agoda’s company culture is all about trying out new things as fast as they can, together, shares Eliana Carmel, Chief People Officer.

Together with her People team and senior leadership team, Eliana Carmel, Chief People Officer, Agoda (pictured above), is enhancing the company’s approach to talent management — with a focus on empowering managers for their day-to-day roles on the ground. All of this includes ensuring the group’s leaders have the right tools and information they need to be able to lead their teams effectively and at scale.

As a result, Agoda is enabling all managers to hire, inspire, and retain top talent, she shares.

Currently, Agoda’s workforce comprises more than 6,500 employees across over 30 markets around the globe, coming from varied educational and personal backgrounds, and hailing from more than 100 nationalities.

Sitting on the People team with Carmel are close to 200 employees who support the employee lifecycle end-to-end, focusing on the development and engagement of the people. “As part of our key culture and routines, the Agoda People team is highly data-driven and involved in the key decision-making processes of managers and the Agoda senior leadership team,” the leader tells us.

Over the past few years, the team has introduced new programmes supporting employees’ wellbeing, such as its employee assistance programmes, flexible budgets for learning and wellbeing, and hybrid work arrangements.

In this Q&A, Carmel shares all with Arina Sofiah, from how the People team keeps workforce morale and resilience going through ups and downs, to how the organisation’s new programme, Agoda Leap, encourages a culture of entrepreneurship,  and more.

Q As an online travel platform, Agoda would have seen a fall in customer demands while borders were closed in the past few years. On the people front, this meant coming up with new ways of working to keep talent equipped for rebound & recovery. How did you and your leadership team adapt to these changes, while maintaining workforce morale and resilience?

As with many other companies, Agoda had to rethink the ways of working during COVID-19 and we needed to react quickly. Our key principles were to keep our employees safe and to provide them with as much certainty as we could.

The next priority was to ensure our business continuity and that we were agile enough to switch to a hybrid work strategy that remained productive – ready for the travel rebound.

We ensured leadership communication was effective and frequent and that all our employees received the support they needed to perform their roles at their best, including a budget for desks and screens at home. We kept morale up with online social gatherings and fun courses like cocktail making and coaster design workshops, sending year-end care packages to our employees to thank them for their hard work during tough times. The little ways we could spark some joy during these lockdown periods.

Coming out of COVID-19, we found a way to keep some of this flexibility. We introduced our remote working programme to enable employees to visit their loved ones or simply change scenery for a period of time every year, and we launched our hybrid working model of two days a week working in the office – allowing our teams to get more time with their loved ones or simply have a better work-life balance. Through these programmes and our consistent communication approach, we have seen an increase in our employee engagement scores and retention.

Q Fast forward to recent months, travel has returned full force and customer demands have surged. Did you find your workforce needs accelerate in terms of numbers and skills required? What steps have you been taking to meet these renewed needs to prepare employees, and what works now that didn’t work then?

Yes, as we have done before and during the pandemic, our recruitment capabilities are set up in a way that we can flex to demands. When travel returned, we had to increase our hiring numbers and address new requirements from high-in-demand tech talent as well as remote hiring and remote starters. With the new initiatives we introduced during COVID-19 focusing on the wellbeing of our employees and our hybrid working model, we were set up well and were able to attract the needed talent. As our teams are spread across the globe and several markets and time zones, we have been developing new ways of working more productively together.

For example, we are introducing more ways to work asynchronously, reducing simultaneous meetings and replacing them with shared working documents and meeting pre-reads. This enables us to keep the same level of productivity, encourage greater collaboration, and cater to diverse working styles across a global team.

Q Agoda has introduced Agoda Leap to encourage a culture of entrepreneurship. How does this programme empower employees to generate innovative ideas? Do also share how this programme was conceived.

As a business, we are always looking to grow and find better ways to do what we do. We are big on speaking up and experimentation, and we believe that it is critical to be constantly challenging ourselves with new hypotheses, experiments and ideas, especially from the bottom up. Even if what we are testing out fails, there is a lot to learn from the process itself and we want to encourage every employee to be a part of this culture.

In previous years, we have conducted learning programmes with our senior leaders, where they came together to pitch ideas on what and how we can do better as an organisation. But there are a lot of good ideas that we miss out on by restricting the programme to just leaders. This year, we wanted to open up the opportunity to all of our employees with the launch of Agoda Leap. The programme allows any Agoda employee – regardless of their department, role or level – to work closely with mentors to build out their ideas and present them to the leadership team.

Entrepreneurship is a core value for us. A programme like this encourages the team to generate innovative ideas, learn how to develop go-to-market strategies, and maintain curiosity and ownership over the work they do here. We also want to give all employees an equal chance to present their ideas and build confidence in their thinking, and to then carry that forward as they advance in their career.

Game-changing ideas can come from anyone – even an entry-level employee brings a unique perspective as they view our processes with fresh eyes.

Q Could you share more about your role in the project, and how you have set the project up for success?

Ensuring that everyone who wanted to participate in the programme was adequately prepared for the ideation and pitching process was a crucial step in allowing them to make the most out of the opportunity. Our talent development team focused on providing all participants with the necessary learning resources and workshops to hone their skills. This included learning more about how to build effective business ideas, as well as presentation training to maximise the impact of their pitch.

Q What were some challenges you faced in doing so, and how did you overcome them?

We were lucky that this programme was not that challenging to sell to our participants and mentors, as they truly believe in this programme and want to invest time and effort in learning and growing while innovating our products. I suspect the main challenge will be that we will have too many great ideas! And that’s a positive challenge to have.

Q How are you measuring effectiveness and ROI on the programme? How do you link it back to business outcomes, if at all?

Culture can make or break an organisation, and Agoda Leap is just a part of our larger training & development efforts to foster and encourage a culture of entrepreneurship at Agoda. This is critical as it shapes the way we move and operate as a team, influencing all processes and ways of working within the company, ultimately leading to business outcomes.

Q What are some of the feedback you’ve received from employees?

Positive feedback as an overall learning experience – employees were satisfied with the opportunity to work cross-department, and gain direct feedback and visibility from the leadership team.

Q Apart from Agoda Leap, what are some future initiatives at Agoda we can look forward to?

As we transitioned towards a hybrid world model, we’re constantly looking at data and benchmarking ourselves against best practices. We want to ensure we have the right programmes and initiatives for our employees to feel connected and engaged with both their teammates and leaders across the globe

We’ve brought back many in-person activities again, including our annual parties, family days, CSR activities, and social events that everyone loves. We’re seeing more activity-based social groups, volunteering initiatives, as well as employee resources groups, being led and organised by individuals globally.

Learning & development is a continued focus for us. We have a wealth of resources available – from skill-based learning programmes to a variety of resources and tools for employees to consistently sharpen their capabilities.

We recently hosted our global learning event, aGROWda, in May. This is a more mindset-focused programme that aims to help employees develop a healthy outlook on learning, featuring sharing sessions from our senior leadership team, and departmental workshops on self-awareness and relationship building. Additionally, we’re concentrating on efforts to train and empower our managers with the right resources, skills and support for them to bring out the best in their team.

Q As you reflect, how has your People team facilitated the growth of Agoda as an online travel platform?

We firmly believe that people are our biggest strength, and at Agoda, we name our department the ‘People team’ to reflect our people-centric approach and commitment to everything we do. We partner closely with the leadership team and stakeholders, to enable all managers to hire, inspire, and retain top talent. We employ a strategic and data-driven approach to hiring and are especially focused on creating a collaborative culture that empowers our employees to be curious, learn by experimentation, and be their best. All of which are core Agoda values.

This includes ensuring our leaders have the right tools and information they need to be able to lead their teams effectively and at scale, while implementing the correct frameworks to help them work towards their goals. Our tools vary from dashboards, to employee performance data, industry benchmarking, rewards frameworks, and more. This helps give various teams the tools to help them set targets and succeed within their own departments as well. Additionally, continuous learning is a big focus at Agoda, and a large part of what we do entails enabling growth through an extensive range of practical, tailored learning programmes and support to our managers and employees. Fostering a curious mind helps create a nurturing environment for innovation.

Q If you could describe the company culture in one sentence, what would it be?

Experimentative, entrepreneurial, ambitious and collaborative. We are all about trying out new things as fast as we can, together.

Q Tell us about your journey to becoming Agoda’s Chief People Officer!

I studied finance and business in university, and worked in finance roles on large information system transformations. When I moved to Thailand, I was in search of a new role and was referred to a position within Agoda’s People team. I was attracted to Agoda’s people and culture and even though I was in a new city and new industry, I decided to step out of my comfort zone and take on the challenge. There were similarities and transferable skills from my finance experience, from introducing measurements and data while designing new and effective business processes to solving difficult operational problems. All with the goal of making people’s work easier and contributing to employee happiness.

I fell in love with the People space, and I really believe it’s all about the people. I had the opportunity to grow and learn, gradually leading more teams, and eventually was offered the chance to lead the team as Chief People Officer.

Since then, I have been on a journey of constant learning. Together with my team and an extremely smart and curious senior leadership team, we are enhancing our approach to talent management, focusing on the empowerment of managers as they are the ones on the ground day to day, and providing the data, tools and trainings needed for management at scale.

Q What are some recent talent challenges you face as part of this role and in the sector, and how are you tackling them head-on?

The challenge is to predict market changes and trends, and we do a lot of internal work to create models that will help decision-making.

It’s a continuous learning journey for all of us at Agoda. Workplace expectations and trends are forever evolving. We’re all learning first-hand as we transition from a full work-from-home arrangement to hybrid work. No organisation had the right answer and a playbook that we could have adopted. As a team, we’ve had to be agile and data-driven, as we learn and adapt many best practices, including our benefits, compensation, and way of working to balance the needs of the organisation and the wants of the people.

Q If you could write a book about your career, what would the title be?

‘Keep on going’. Leading a people function through the last year’s challenges would have been tough for any leader, and probably more difficult for people leaders. Resilience has been a key part of it and even in the toughest times, I try to tell myself to keep on going. If you don’t let things stop you, most likely you will be able to overcome them, learn from the challenges and mistakes and take them with you onto the next challenge.

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