Putting people first

Mitch Haney shares some corporate HR advice for an effective remote workplace

As organisations find themselves adopting a culture of remote working, keeping employees connected and engaged is more important than ever.

UOW commerce graduate Mitch Haney is a career HR professional who has led the ASEAN HR transformation practice of Ernst and Young (EY) for the past nine years.

The Singapore-based Director of EY’s People Advisory Services recently shared his insight into employee engagement and the critical role for HR in putting people first and ensuring the health and well-being of employees in the workplace.

What do you see is the role of HR and employee engagement in responding to COVID-19?

Many people are struggling with increased anxiety and stress in response to the COVID-19 Pandemic. This is exacerbated by the uncertainty of how long the impacts of the crisis may last. HR plays a critical role in ensuring the health and well-being of our people in the workplace. By helping leaders and employees to be able to recognise anxiety in others and providing information on the signs to look out for when someone is experiencing symptoms of anxiety, all of us can do our bit to look after each other.

It is sometimes difficult to know how to approach someone who may be going through a difficult time or experiencing increased anxiety or stress. HR can also help by coaching people leaders so they feel comfortable letting the individual know that they care and want to support them.

Is HR and staff engagement being transformed as a result?

Whilst the current environment has accelerated many organisations focus on employee engagement, the realisation that it’s no longer just about what we do at work; rather how we feel at work, has been gaining importance over the last few years. Trends I see for staff engagement or ‘employee experience’, include:

  • The role of digital. The speed of change is a challenge for many organisations. Technological change isn’t just a constant today, it’s accelerating. Technology will never again change as slowly as it does today and it has never been faster.
  • ‘Always On’ workday. ‘Always on’ no longer describes only work, but life and play. This creates a real challenge. Whilst, technology makes a 24-hour workday possible, it also impacts all aspects of each day– our work, our play, and our life.
  • Automation and artificial intelligence. Robotics and predictive analytics have moved well into knowledge work, forcing the question “Is your experience evolving for new roles and purposes?”
  • Variable work locations. Investing heavily in office environmental contexts misses a large contingent of people experiences shaped beyond the direct control of organisations.
  • Changing workforce. Organisations must evolve their understanding of the ‘employee experience’ to the ‘people experience’. Work is no longer limited to the workplace, workers are no longer strictly employees, and workdays are no longer strictly 9-to-5.

How organisations use these enablers to drive an inspiring experience for their people (and thus, customers) is the true value driver of the future.

What advice do you have for organisations around improving employee engagement?

  • Be unapologetically ‘people obsessed'. Think experience first. It is easy to have this as a principle for an organisational transformation, but once you get into the detail it is hard to stay true to this course.
  • Test and learn, start small and scale. Employing agile, iterative approaches to improving the experience; putting your people first throughout the process, learning then extending will result in better outcomes.
  • In terms of wellbeing, managers and people leaders should hold regular check-ins with their team members to ensure and support the mental well-being of people working remotely. Use this as an opportunity to build rapport and trust. Discuss goals and progress, struggles, and development opportunities. As leaders empathy is key. Disruptive events lead to new tasks meaning teams being pulled in multiple directions. Many will also have unique circumstances such as family care. Having realistic expectations and communicating these can go a long way in minimising team’s anxiety and helping them to adapt to these challenging circumstances.

What tips do you have for effectively working from home?

When it comes to remote working effectiveness, there are a few things that have helped me, including:

  • Establishing a work zone. Setting up a dedicated workspace at home is crucial to your productivity and focus. Have a professional workspace that you can go to for work and that you can leave or walk away from after the work day is done.
  • Sticking to a schedule and routine. For anyone based in an office, physically leaving the building at the end of the day provides a natural closure to the working day. Home workers don’t experience this and may find it particularly difficult to switch off. By failing to have proper breaks from work, home workers could be in danger of ‘burn out’. I recommended waking up at a regular time and pausing for lunch each day so you keep your routine.
  • Limiting unnecessary notifications. Setting-up protocols with your colleagues for appropriate times for work and personal communications is helpful to everyone. Establish boundaries with your team to limit work communications outside of work hours. I also recommended you avoid non-urgent personal communications during your work hours to minimise distractions that can contribute to stress.
  • Moving and practice self-care. If you are working from home, it is easy to spend hours in the same position, as you don’t have these natural interruptions to your day. I’m a type 1 diabetic myself, so making sure I take time each day for exercise, meditation or other self-care practices is important. I suggest you take time to cook and have lunch moving away from screens and the work area. Pause for snacks and drink water to prevent fatigue.
  • Using time productively. I found that staying focussed in a casual environment can be tricky. I set an alarm for 90-minute work intervals where I work with no distractions, then take a break. For me this aligns to my body’s natural energy peaks and dips. I also decide the evening before on the most important task for the following day and do it first thing in the morning for 60-90 minutes without interruption. 
  • Last but not least make sure to reward yourself! Build your own rewards. Break down tasks into manageable chunks and receive at the end of each a mini achievement or your favourite reward, for me at the end of each mini achievement I leave my workspace and spend 10 – 15 mins with my son, playing reading books, singing songs. Great motivation for me to be productive.

What role does communication play in keeping employees engaged?

Communication is key. While the improved productivity and convenience of home working has its advantages, humans are naturally social beings and employees need to feel part of a team. The primary objective of internal team communications is to keep people safe, informed and productive. Communication also plays a critical role in helping teams stay on track, embracing virtual team dynamics and bridging the physical distance between us as individuals.

I use daily stand-ups where my teams actually stand and share lightning-round updates, ask questions and clarify tasks. I find this to be an effective way to keep accountability, focus and a sense of belonging. For some teams I use daily ‘check outs’ to debrief at the end of the day, incorporating the ‘Rose, Bud, Thorn’ technique to ensure real-time feedback and team learning e.g. Rose = what’s a success for today; Bud = what’s an opportunity to be explored; and the thorn = what’s something that didn’t go well/can learn from.

What are the advantages of working for a large organisation like EY?

I joined EY in 2011 and was extremely fortunate to be able to work with a great team of people and learn from some of the best mentors and individuals. For me the culture of EY and the relentless focus on building relationships based on doing the right thing is the key. As a firm, the philosophy and approach to managing people and teams is about creating exceptional experiences. The firm’s investment in its people means I have been able to continually refine my skills and capabilities to help clients to innovate their HR service delivery models, leverage emerging technologies, and manufacture employee experiences that delight rather than disengage, amplify business outcomes as a result.

Why did you choose to study Human Resource Management?

I was always passionate about people, and one of my personal strengths has always been in building trusted relationships with others. For me, HR was a natural fit. I believe that organisations centred in purpose, powered by people and augmented by technology make extraordinary achievements possible. As a HR professional I get to work with leading organisations around the world in different sectors to achieve their aspirations and help solve the most complex people issues.

Why did you choose to study at UOW?

I grew up in Wollongong. Graduating from Keira Technology High School around the corner, UOW was close to home and was internationally recognised for its student outcomes. I was also fortunate to be selected for the UOW Management Cadetship Program which allowed me to work full-time and develop critical business knowledge and skills that still serve me today.

For me personally, I learn best by doing, and the cadetship program provided the context to match the learning in the classroom with real life business situations. I completed my studies over 5 years on a part time basis, whilst working across the different business functions and selected faculties within the University.

What do you hope to share with students in your new role lecturing in HR Robotics at Singapore Management University?

I’m really excited about the opportunity to work with the SMU Academy. As an institute they have a strong reputation for leading-edge research with global impact. To be a small part of the great team focused in producing creative and entrepreneurial leaders with broad-based knowledge, well-prepared for the needs of the economy is a true honour.

The impact of smart technologies on the workplace has been incalculably huge to date, and we are seeing a seismic shift in the way humans work alongside machines and algorithms. Robotic Process Automation (RPA) is one of the key building blocks in the intelligent automation journey for any organisation and within this course we are adopting a blended learning approach with practical hands-on experience, facilitated by myself and my team from EY who are industry practitioners and experienced digital leaders.

The exciting part is that despite the current environment with COVID-19, this course is available fully online and really talks to the innovative nature of the SMU Academy. After the course students will be able to explain how to harness the power of RPA to transform operations within their organisation, understand how to assess and select suitable process candidates for automation, and be able to build a bot using common commands and understand where to go for support in development.


Mitchell Haney
Bachelor of Commerce, 2007