How Takeda's Project Explore takes a holistic and science-driven approach to engage employees across APAC
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How Takeda's Project Explore takes a holistic and science-driven approach to engage employees across APAC

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In this interview with Lester Tan, Janice Yee, Head of Human Resources APAC, Takeda shares:

  • Strategies for the future of work through Project Explore and [email protected] Day;
  • The challenges a hybrid work routine might pose (i.e proximity biases), and
  • Toolkit to tackle mental wellness, Zoom fatigue, and more.

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Those who have read David Epstein’s Range would understand how important the idea of ‘experimentation’ is. Having read the book, I can’t help but be reminded of Janice Yee, Head of Human Resources, Takeda APAC, and the conversation we’ve recently had with her.

Because of the way Yee understood herself as she set foot in the corporate world. And how her ideas - around experimentation, learning, and building a fulfilling career – are brought into her work, her people, and her working environment.

“It was a twist of fate really, totally unplanned,” Yee shares with me on how she ventured into the realms of HR. Before furthering her studies in business administration, Yee thought that HR was the department organising all the fun events - which she found “pretty cool”; something that she’d like to do for a living, and went ahead with a post-graduate diploma in HRM. After which, she realised the true nature of HR, and has never looked back since.

Yee started her HR career at manufacturing operations company Alstom, before furthering her career at Yara, Baxalta, Shire, and then Takeda.

As many would know, Takeda Pharmaceutical Company Limited (Takeda) is a R&D-driven biopharmaceutical leader headquartered in Japan, focusing its R&D efforts on four therapeutic areas: oncology, rare diseases, neuroscience, and gastroenterology (GI). Present in approximately 80 countries globally, in the APAC region, Takeda has an employee strength of over 800. The company is also invested into sustainability and wellbeing, with its a net-zero carbon emissions building, a first-of-its-kind in its global network, in Singapore.

So not only is it committed to caring for patients, but also to protecting the environment. With Yee’s help (and spirit), the organisation is also attentive and supportive towards its employees.

“What keeps me going? The passion for the work and the impact that it has!”

The future of work

“Takeda celebrates its 240th anniversary this year (2021) – and this rich heritage and impactful legacy would not have been possible without the people who each play their part to address the unmet medical need of patients.

“People have always been the cornerstone of our success, and as we pivot towards hybrid working practices, we are taking the utmost care to ensure our employees are involved every step of the way,” Yee says.

One of the ways this is coming to life is in the form of Project Explore, Takeda’s approach to engage employees and bring them closer to the future work environment in a post-pandemic world – with flexible ways of working taking up the chunk of airtime (which is undeniably an important topic of late).

Yee explains: “We cannot deny how much the pandemic has transformed how we work and engage with our employees, partners and stakeholders.

“We pride ourselves on being flexible at Takeda, but when COVID-19 hit us, and the different countries were going into various degrees of ‘lockdown’, the notion of flexible ways of working definitely evolved. Employees who once found themselves commuting to the office five days a week may now prefer more flexible work arrangements, and the workforce has now adapted to predominantly operate from home for a prolonged period of time.”

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Project Explore

Enter Project Explore. By gathering and accounting for the opinions of Takeda’s people—through an Explore Survey—Takeda takes “a holistic and science-driven approach” to create a future of work (FOW) environment that engages employees across the organisation. According to its survey data that garnered views from over 10,000 people globally, the concept of “Borderless Workplace” is coming to life, which Yee shares is about “an environment in which they would feel inspired to collaborate, build relationships, and innovate in.”

To me, that environment is subjective; it is a social construct. An environment that is inspiring for John, might not be inspiring for Mary. Be that as it may, Yee is undeterred. With her team’s support, experiment they did, and the results have been exciting not just for Takeda, but for the industry.

“Our Singapore offices will be one of the first globally to launch the Borderless Workplace, a design concept created through research, industry benchmarking, and feedback from our people,” Yee says.

In addition, it was designed to achieve Singapore’s BCA-HPB Green Mark for Healthier Workplaces, and the global Fitwel certification status, which “is part of Takeda’s commitment to employee health and wellbeing”.

Yee explains that the design is underpinned by six key principles:

  1. A hybrid experience;
  2. A hospitable workplace that provides a seamless experience for Takeda employees and visitors;
  3. A variety of work settings at the office, with the right technology to be virtually inclusive;
  4. Enabling mobility through technology for seamless operations;
  5. Balancing mental and physical wellbeing through space, programming and policy, and
  6. Designed for longevity and the ability to swiftly adapt to changing business needs.

“Pre-pandemic, offices were places with a focus on individual work. However, the past two years have challenged the way we view the workspace.

“We want the ‘Borderless Workplace’ to be a place where meaningful experiences are had, rather than where tasks get done. Embedding these values into our design of the new office will create a place where employees will genuinely enjoy and eagerly anticipate coming into work when they plan their week,” Yee adds.

An example of this vision coming to life is in the workspaces being equipped with telepresence rooms along with more immersive, improved technologies that will allow hybrid meetings to be conducted seamlessly.

[email protected] Day

Don’t you wish that you could catch up with your colleagues in person after the long absence we’ve all had away from the office? After all, nothing beats that in-person camaraderie, water-cooler catchup, just sharing a joke or asking about each other’s weekends. Takeda is well-aware, and is making that possible with the consciously-planned [email protected] Day.

“This is a day each week where we would encourage employees to plan to work in the office – so we’ll get to see everyone and share a sense of belonging and connectedness, of course complete with a good healthy lunch, coffee and snacks!

“The intent is to attract people to come to the office by creating a pull factor to overcome the inertia of being comfortable working from home. With so much time spent in video calls behind a screen at home, we want to support the strengthening of our culture, foster a sense of belonging, and shared values through these initiatives.”

Indeed, promising, especially in reinforcing culture. However, we had doubts about its implementation – especially with the ever-changing pandemic landscape.

“Navigating the present-day working landscape is a challenge, especially where it is moulded by ever-changing restrictions and limitations,” Yee admits.

She cites the ‘Project Explore’ survey which “definitely helped” as the organisation used the initial feedback from employees as well as external research and analysis to come up with global guidance.

“One of the key learnings for us is that while the flexibility of virtual work has been a key component we would like to embrace in our new working models, there is no ‘one-size-fits-all' solution for all roles and teams at Takeda. Each country and team should find the right hybrid balance between frequent, in-person interactions and productive virtual work.”

She then advises her peers: “Do engage your employees (not just your leaders) in the journey! Co-create with them the future of the workplace they want by having surveys, focus groups, change champions and regular communication around the changes to come. Understanding the sentiment of our people and their personal concerns will go a long way in shaping the way we craft our return to work.

“It is a challenging time for many, and the past year has proven that recovery is not linear at all. Therefore, what we can do for our people is to put them at the forefront of our minds when we make plans for the future, no matter the timeframe.”

Evidently, understanding the sentiment of Takeda’s people and their personal concerns will go a long way in shaping the way Yee and her team craft the workforce’s return to the workplace.

The challenge in flexible working

We thought about the phenomenon of ‘proximity biases’. Won’t employees find themselves at a disadvantage if they choose not to return to the office when others choose to – or perhaps, perceive to find themselves at a disadvantage?

Yee addresses our query head-on, saying: “Humans are predisposed to favour people who are in their immediate vicinity, especially those they physically engage with on a regular basis.

“Hybrid working has of course called into question the parity of evaluating remote and in-office employees. Rather than tackle this phenomenon as it emerges, I see Takeda’s response to this challenge as one of strengthening what was already in practice, pre-pandemic.”

As such, the answer, she suggests, does not lie in face-time but rather in goal clarity and transparent performance management.

Takeda uses performance evaluations that are “descriptive, continuous, and transparent regardless of an employee’s favoured style of work”, as a result the organisation is poised to successfully bypass proximity biases.

Managers have been empowered managers to deliver quality feedback and assessments through investment in training and performance management modules. From these trainings, managers learn to raise their unconscious bias awareness and how to guide their employees to create measurable, SMART goals that will remain relevant regardless of where they work.

“We also train managers on how to lead in the new norm and encourage frequent one-on-one catchups between managers and employees, as communication helps managers and employees set and agree on expectations,” she adds.

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The road ahead

Takeda’s work doesn’t end there. As ‘Project Explore’ goes full throttle, Takeda will continue to give guidance on how often employees can come into the office – while maintaining full trust in its people to plan their work week, Yee says.

What impresses me most is how Yee acknowledges that these initiatives do continue to face challenges, for example, around “work-life balance, and the ability to disconnect from work”.

She explains that with WFH as the default for many countries, the lines are often blurred and it can be easy to work past normal office hours unconsciously. When it’s prolonged, it can result in stress, burn out, and in extreme scenarios, disengagement and resignation.

Thus, Takeda is looking to ensure, for the foreseeable future, that its people will not have trouble disconnecting from work to make time for rest.

“Mental wellness has since been an area of continued focus – we have introduced monthly ‘No Meeting Days’ in APAC – where no big or long video meetings should be organised on every third Friday of the month to combat ‘Zoom fatigue’,” Yee takes me through one of the many examples.

“In our last employee experience survey held in September 2021, we were delighted to see a significant 14% improvement across the wellbeing index, and feel proud that we are able to play a part in supporting our people through a very challenging period.”

Yee adds that Takeda and her team are also looking at “discovering” what the Future of Work means for the organisation, and its people; that it is “a journey we will continue to grow and learn from”.

“It is important to know that we will pilot, experiment, and tweak our approach from time to time with the feedback given to ensure we’re always delivering what our employees need best.”

For now, while she (and her colleagues) look forward to moving into Takeda’s new office, Yee shares with glee that she is proud of where the organisation is at right now, and is most certainly looking forward to her next “experiment”.

“In the end, creating a flexible, hybrid working culture that our people resonate with is crucial to developing an exceptional people experience, which will then translate into delivering the best for the patients we serve.”

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Image / Provided

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