As remote work rises, HR tech firms spot an opening

If you live in Singapore, this might be your fourth consecutive month of working from home (WFH) since the Covid-19 pandemic began.

Economies across the world may have taken a beating from this unprecedented crisis, but hiring activity in the Asia-Pacific region is now showing signs of recovery. Workplace norms have also evolved to suit the new normal, leading employers to rethink their human resources strategies.

Hiring in Singapore has shown a ‘notable’ recovery since the start of June / Photo credit: LinkedIn

“Many employers have realized that having very productive remote work is very possible,” Oswald Yeo, CEO of talent recruitment platform Glints, tells Tech in Asia. Many startups, including his, are rushing in to help manage the transition.

In the past quarter, Glints has seen an increase in hiring between what it considers “demand markets” for labor like Singapore and Hong Kong, and “supply markets” like Indonesia, Vietnam, and Taiwan. Revenue from the company’s cross-border hiring business in April grew 4x year-on-year.

While demand has gone up, so has supply. Searches from candidates in Taiwan looking for work in Singapore have tripled organically since the start of the year, Yeo says.

A new normal?

Remote hiring can do away with costly relocation packages, which may include travel, accommodation, and family allowances. It also allows employers to tap into each market’s relative strengths: Singapore for its managerial talent, Vietnam and Taiwan for skilled engineers, Indonesia for digital marketing talent, and the Philippines for digital design staff.

In Hong Kong, a substantial number of employers that tap Glints’ services are from gaming, ecommerce, and logistics. Of these businesses, 40% are seeking to hire remote engineering teams across Indonesia, Vietnam, and Taiwan.

Glints CEO and co-founder Oswald Yeo / Photo credit: Glints

The appetite for such services is expected to climb. CloudStaff, an outsourcing company based in the Philippines, says it’s seen a “sustained and significant” increase in businesses looking to outsource since March.

“Professional services such as accounting, finance and collections roles have been proving very popular,” CloudStaff spokesperson Toby Longhurst tells Tech in Asia. The firm has also been seeing demand from ecommerce, digital marketing, and IT support sectors from markets across the US, Australia, and Hong Kong.

Educational technology startups Geniebook and Snapask, which have seen a lift amid a boom in online learning as schools across the region suspended classes, are hastening their hiring of overseas talent.

At present, Singapore-headquartered Geniebook has a workforce that spans 16 countries. CEO Zhizhong Neo believes that the hiring of talent “should not be limited by international boundaries” and plans to recruit another 150 staff in the next 12 months globally.

“Great teachers, engineers and scientists come from around the world, and these are the people we need to help students achieve learning successes,” he says.

asian primary school students studying in classroom

Edtech startups have seen a lift during the pandemic amid a boom in online learning / Photo credit: 123RF

Hong Kong-based Snapask shares this view. How it chooses staff “has very little to do with where the candidate physically is, as long as the skill sets and experience matches our scope and responsibilities,” says founder and CEO Timothy Yu.

Even norms among local teams are changing. “In Japan, tech startups as well as large traditional companies such as Hitachi, Fujitsu, and Shiseido have begun to shift to and continue to use remote work as the primary mode of work operation. Such a move was previously unimaginable,” says Toyofumi Miura, CEO of Tokyo-based employee analytics startup Laboratik.

Trade-offs in remote working

Despite its advantages, remote working isn’t feasible for all roles. For instance, those in marketing, operations, business development, and research and development may still require people with an understanding of local nuances, compared to those in product and design.

It’s also been more productive for some, and less for others. Alia Bei, regional HR manager for Hong Kong-based logistics startup GoGoVan, has seen productivity spikes, but the same can’t be said for all companies.

In a workplace sentiment survey of over 18,000 respondents in Singapore conducted between April to June, HR analytics firm EngageRocket found that while 16% of its respondents found WFH productive, a majority – 40% – thought the opposite.

EngageRocket Team / Photo credit: EngageRocket

Generally, tech firms have seen greater productivity boosts compared to traditional industries, observes EngageRocket co-founder and CEO Chee Tung Leong. Its clients include ecommerce platform Tokopedia and telecommunications firm Starhub.

Arrif Ziaudeen, CEO of restaurant reservation startup Chope, said at a Tech in Asia live session in June that his company measures “the velocity of the engineering team” through user stories, and this increased dramatically while they were working from home. In non-technical roles, however, productivity can be more difficult to measure.

Where companies need help

The rising trend of remote teams, coupled with the struggles of helping these workers stay productive, has created opportunities for HR-related startups.

The two biggest challenges companies face in managing a remote workforce are managing communication and tracking work and productivity, says Katy Stevens, vice president for Asia Pacific at Australia-based employee analytics platform Culture Amp.

Photo credit: Culture Amp

The Sequoia China-backed startup, which helps clients monitor employee sentiments, counts the Singapore Exchange, Circles Life, and PropertyGuru among its clients in Asia. In the past months, the company has seen more interest from governments, financial services, and utility sectors, which are going through a “rapid transformation.”

Even firms used to remote working arrangements may struggle with doing so at scale. Financial marketplace GoBear had flexible working policies even before the pandemic, but maintaining engagement and camaraderie among a fully remote team “is by no means an easy task,” says Chanel Lim, GoBear’s chief HR officer.

As remote working becomes the norm, some startups are offering innovative HR solutions, including the remote supervision of jobs involving manual labor, such as cleaning services. Some co-living operators have also refurbished units to accommodate extra desks and office amenities to incorporate remote working.

Here’s a look at more opportunities that HR startups are tackling amid changing norms:

1. Remote onboarding tools

Companies looking to hire during this period are ”very concerned about having to onboard their new employees remotely, when they might never have done so before,” EngageRocket’s Leong says. “Being able to track sentiment on new hires in the first 30, 60, 90 days, and so on – that’s something that has been of interest.” The company does this monitoring through surveys.

Inbound inquiries for EngageRocket’s productivity and engagement tools between April and May alone exceeded what it received for the whole of 2019, which was a good year for the startup, Leong notes.

Because pulse surveys are brief, they can surface what’s top-of-mind for your employees and help you respond quickly.

GoBear is one company that had to remotely onboard 40 new employees, following its acquisition of AsiaKredit in May. To keep employees engaged, it maintains an internal wellness page on its site and conducts WFH surveys.

Culture Amp has similarly launched a remote onboard survey amid the pandemic to better understand new employees, including their expectations and perceptions about their new roles as well as how well they’re adapting to the company. “Because pulse surveys are brief, they can surface what’s top-of-mind for your employees and help you respond quickly,” she adds.

2. Employee engagement

Employee engagement and communication tools have also seen a spike.

Among Japanese companies, decreased communication has been cited as a key concern faced by those having to manage remote work, Laboratik’s Miura notes.

Known as We, Laboratik’s flagship product uses natural language processing technology to examine a company’s interactions on work chat software Slack and identify communication issues between teams and people. By the end of the year, We will also integrate Teams, Microsoft’s collaboration platform.

Laboratik, which counts nursing care-related staffing agencies to entertainment and gaming companies among its clients, is seeing three to four times more inquiries than usual on its analytics services in the past few months.

3. Advisory services

Another major area of interest is the skills that leaders or managers need to have to operate remote teams. After pinpointing and assessing gaps, EngageRocket suggests steps that companies can take to help managers become better at handling remote workers.

EngageRocket has collected data from over 120 companies in Singapore to date. Clients can use this information to benchmark themselves against others in the industry, checking the effectiveness of their WFH, mental health, and employee engagement, among other factors.

“We’re sitting on pretty much the largest representative sample of sentiment-related data at the workplace in Singapore, from the start of the circuit breaker until now, which is quite exciting,” Leong says.

4. Post-hiring services

Remote hiring has also boosted demand for post-hiring services from firms that want to build teams abroad but may not necessarily have an office or the administrative capabilities to do so.

Glints Talent Office Indonesia

Glints Talent Office in Nongsa, Batam, where talent working there get support in terms of coworking facilities, regular community events, and upskilling opportunities. / Photo credit: Glints

“When you hire someone in foreign markets, many employers don’t usually want to take care of things like insurance, office seats, tax calculations, or BPJS – Indonesia’s equivalent of the Central Provident Fund in Singapore. So after we hire a candidate for them, we offer this full-stack solution, and HR services as well,” Glints’ Yeo explains.

Glints has placed over a hundred engineers on behalf of AIA Singapore in Indonesia and handles payroll, taxes, insurance, and the provision of offices through partnerships with co-working spaces there. But the firm didn’t have a breakdown of how much demand for these services have increased in the past months.

Will the trend persist?

Not all recruiters are as optimistic as Glints. Eng Chang Chua, a director at recruitment firm Space Executive who hires senior roles in legal and compliance, thinks the phenomenon temporary, given the current restrictions on travel.

“For some of these hires, especially senior key functional heads, [the arrangement would be] to move after the borders open up,” Chua says, referring to a recent placement involving senior staff for a leading fintech company in Singapore.

The feasibility of cross-border hiring also hinges on seniority and the requirements of the role. Face-to-face interaction isn’t as important for legal work involving contract advisory and reviews, which can be completed through digital means, he observes.

Hiring CEOs who are not yet in the country they are supposed to head, on the other hand, would be tough, according to Chua.

Overall, most companies are still expected to adopt a local-first approach to train and hire talent, says Daljit Sall, senior director for Randstad Singapore’s technology practice. While the cross-border trend can complement local hiring efforts, it’s unlikely to be a priority.

Nevertheless, it’s a practice that’s likely to stay, despite mixed results. According to global LinkedIn data, 44% of senior leaders said they’re evaluating more permanent remote work policies.

“Even in our own internal data, only 2% want to be back in the office five days a week. This is a big change that organisations are going to have to grapple with,” points out Culture Amp’s Stevens.

Time spent on LinkedIn learning has surged before and after the pandemic

Time spent on LinkedIn learning has surged before and after the pandemic / Photo credit: LinkedIn

Employers are doing their best to adapt. Searches for “remote working” on subscription-based tool LinkedIn Learning have tripled between January to June this year, says Feon Ang, the professional network’s vice president for talent and learning solutions for Asia Pacific.

“This may be indicative of the future of work, where remote work or work flexibility is no longer a perk but increasingly becoming an expectation,” Ang says.