S02 E01: Managers - The Key to Unlocking Employee Engagement

Soumya Samuel
17 min read

We’re happy to bring to you the first episode of  Season 2 of CultureClub, where we catch up with Meena Kumari, Director of HR at Airmeet, a remote-first organization that offers virtual collaboration solutions. Coming from an organization that has been remote even before the pandemic hit, Meena has some valuable insights to share on how the roles of managers are evolving with the changing technological landscape, the advent of new work models and the changing work population.

Meena brings with her over 13 years of experience in the field of HR and was awarded the Top #HRs100under40 by Jombay. She has a keen interest in Organizational Development, Employee Engagement, Learning & Development, Talent Management, and Talent Acquisition, and has been instrumental in helping start-ups scale from growth to expansion stage.

Meena has also translated her passion for the HR field by founding HR Folks Community where she takes a people-first approach while engaging in conversations around the HR field.

In this videocast, we capture her candid chat with Ketan (Head of People Function, Rentomojo), and Senthil (Founder & CEO, CultureMonkey) where she stresses the need to redefine the roles of managers in keeping with the evolving business landscape.

Meena starts the conversation and immediately grabs our attention by asking a very pertinent question: Are we hiring managers? Or, are we hiring subject experts and pushing them to be managers? Because she implies that the impact of both on employee engagement can be very different.

While HRs may own employee engagement as a function and enable the organization in the direction of engagement, employees look up to their managers for motivation, which makes it important for people in these positions to have people skills - either trained in or hired for these skills.

She further goes on to point out the changes that are happening within a workplace - a more hybrid work model is emerging, the workforce is now a combination of permanent, freelance and gig workers, and millennials and Gen-Zs with very unique ideologies are part of the workforce. What does this mean for the role of a manager is a question that Meena throws light on, in this episode.

Don’t forget to fill your coffee mugs and enjoy this insightful conversation as you sip on that piping hot coffee.


Senthil [00:00:31] Hi all, This is Senthil from CultureMonkey. We had a great Season One at the CultureClub. The last time we spoke a lot of around, is E-culture is here to replace the culture. This is Season Two of CultureClub. We are targeting a very interesting topic. We're going to talk about the evolving role of managers in culture and engagement.

Senthil [00:01:00]  I have  Meena with me today. She's joining us from Airmeet and I also have our good old Ketan. Thanks a lot for joining Meena and Ketan. So before we go into the actual session. I will give a quick introduction about CultureMonkey and the best way to introduce CultureMonkey is to back it up with a story. For the last 12 years, I've been an engineer and I worked in many cities in South India, North India, Europe, and Singapore.

Senthil [00:01:39]  In all of my journey, I've always noticed that happy employees deliver in the maximum capacity. But then companies don't orchestrate employee happiness. I tried my best to share this point of view with managers with multiple feedback sessions, and I noticed that nothing moved, and when they initiated one-on-one communications with me, I was always scared to be open because there is no anonymity in that. And even if I manage to communicate, in the end, there was no action and I felt like all my feedback went into a black hole. There was no closure, no traceability and nothing circled back to me.

Senthil [00:02:31] That's when I lost hope in this whole process and with this struggle in mind, I partnered with Joseph who is our co-founder. So with Joseph, in 2017, we started the SaaS first company, it's called Effy. We worked with a lot of smart engineers and we were very successful. We were analyzing what's the root cause of our success and we realize that it's happiness at work. We had zero attrition with customers, employees, and every stakeholder. We felt, we are good at this, but how do we manage this? How do we make this a process?

Senthil [00:03:18]  That's when we stumbled upon the fact that this is culture. We wanted to build a SaaS; we wanted to build a culture software, and take this particular DNA and scale it. That's when in 2018, we co-founded CultureMonkey and it's been almost three years now. And with all the work that we have done with enterprise clients and mid-market clients, it is so fulfilling to know that, the problem that I faced, we were able to solve that for seventy-five thousand unique employees, and with that, we have more than 2.5 million individual data points in just two years. And with all of this data that we have, we realized that the key stakeholders here are the managers. So we built a module for managers where managers are the ones that are personalizing the engagement for you in your organization.

Senthil [00:04:19] In the best interest of discussing more in this direction, in season two, we have Meena, to attack more problems around the evolving role of managers. In this journey of building this technological product, we always knew that this technology is just an enabler. We need expertise around HR and people science. That's when we had Ketan join us a year ago and do a lot of initiatives around CultureClub and bringing in that strong domain layer of HR and people problems. This is that short introduction I wanted to give about CultureMonkey and CultureClub and without any further delay, Ketan back to you. Let's get started with this new season, with a new vibe.

Ketan [00:05:14] Thank you, Senthil. That story always is inspiring because that is precisely the reason I decided to help and be associated with CultureMonkey. It helped me solve a problem at the organization and I firmly believe that bringing technology and people together from our perspective is very powerful. So thank you again for having me here, Senthil. And for the audience. We have Meena Kumari, who is the Director of HR at Airmeet. If you guys haven't tried Airmeet, should explore that. I have been a user of Airmeet for quite some time and it's great!

Ketan [00:05:52] Meena worked with brands like Concero, CoreEL, and Capillary Technologies prior to Airmeet. She's also been awarded the top 100 HRs under 40 published by Jombay. She brings a lot of expertise in all the interventions, talent acquisition, employee engagement, L&D, talent management, the entire gamut of the core HRM and she has been instrumental in helping start-ups scale growth to the expansion stage. She's an alumnus of XLRI and Periyar University. I know Meena from a common group where we had interaction and exchange of notes over the last two months.

Ketan [00:06:47]  Meena is somebody who is driving a lot of similar conversations. On Saturdays, Meena has these coffee conversations with HR folks. And I've not been able to attend but I'm certain I would be there in one of the sessions. Meena, welcome again to the CultureClub session, powered by CultureMonkey and thank you again for your time. This season, as Senthil said, we're talking about sustaining and growing employee engagement: the evolving role of managers. So before we get into interesting questions, Meena, if you could tell more about yourself and your organization, that would be awesome.

Meena [00:07:39] Thank you so much, Senthil and Ketan. I'm overwhelmed with the introduction. So quickly about me. I head the Global HR at Airmeet. For folks to understand about Airmeet, it is a remote-first organization and the product of Airmeet is a SaaS-based digital platform, which is an all-in-one platform to host interactive virtual meet-ups and events. The entire platform mimics a physical volume where you can socialize, do virtual events, and a lot more than just meetups.

Meena [00:08:26]  I am the Founder of the HR Folks Community where we have conversations with the HR leaders to understand how we can solve the prevailing issues that HR faces. It's not the pandemic that moved us to become virtual and remote. We are a remote-first organization. The biggest challenge that I'm facing here is, how do we collaborate with everyone while being virtual? This is one of the biggest challenges that I'm trying to crack with Airmeet.

Meena [00:09:15] I'm happy to be here with Senthil and Ketan. While we have moved into the digital space and are looking at a virtual organization, I would love to add value and bring my opinion and thought process into how we can look at the future with digital savvy tools that can help us become efficient in the organization, especially involving a lot of insights and data-driven decision making for managers to bring engagement into the center of talent management.

Meena [00:10:08] We hire a lot of people, but are we hiring managers? Not necessarily. We're hiring people for their expertise and pushing them to become managers, but how do we enable them to become good managers? How do we enable people to make good decisions? That's the reason I'm looking forward to having this conversation with you guys.

Ketan [00:10:31] Thank you, Meena. A fundamental question to begin with, do you think that organizations without a manager could be a reality of the future?

Meena [00:11:20]  In the past, organizations had a pyramid structure and there was a huge hierarchy. But then folks moved into a flat structure. In a flat structure, one person owns the domain and a few people work for him. We are now hiring millennials who are highly tech-savvy folks. When you're dealing with people, who always feel that they are capable of making decisions, and are capable of this mindset that "it’s OK to fail and bounce back" if the decisions don't result in the desired outcome. This is the kind of people you're dealing with today and we are hiring them into the workforce.

Meena [00:12:35]  Gone are the days when we were hiring people to grow up the ladder. We are bringing in people who can perhaps bring in a lot of value and expertise to the organization. The one thing that we value in people is ownership. So when we are looking at all these aspects,  maybe we do not require managers in the organization. We require people who are mature, who have ownership and accountability. Traditionally, in a lot of organizations across the globe, the manager will list out a charter and set goals. Today, people are loving to have a lot more freedom and a bottom-up approach. They want freedom, flexibility and agility.

Meena [00:13:46]  The concept of managers is dying out, technical savvy folks who are strong with technology are growing up the ladder into the organization, not necessarily owning the manager title. It's important to have a set of people who own the domain and the rest will look up to them. Now, the definition of the manager today is changing. Let's take an example from Airmeet, we have a few product lines and a few people owning that product line. But within those product lines, it's not like all are full-time employees. Airmeet itself is a very hybrid workspace, about 70% of the people are full-time employees,10% of people are freelancers, another 20% of people are on-demand talent, that's how the teams come together. So when you ask the freelancer, gig worker, or on-demand talent, who's your manager? They don't have an answer. There's no manager here.

Meena [00:14:58] People want flexibility in managing their own time, their areas of expertise, and their domains. Managers definitions are changing. It's not whom you're reporting to, it's just the person who you look up to.  And does that person have the capability to add value to your job? Is that person enabling you to do your job? Is that person having enough insights to give constructive feedback and develop you in the job? So while I say, do you require managers, I would say the definition of managers is changing, (but) managers may not be out of the system. Co-founders and CEOs cannot be managing everyone.

Senthil [00:15:58] The coach dimension of managers, where he/she's giving you that motivation and inspiration. They are the ones who are delivering it for the company. This point will increase the need for a manager.

Meena [00:16:28] That's the only dimension that's going to help managers sustain. Otherwise, you won't be a manager, you're just going to look at your own work as an IC. We don't want mentors and we don't want too many people to coach us. People want to look up to a person leading by example.

Ketan [00:16:56] So to sum it up, the administrative control part of the manager will diminish. The enabling part and the catalyst part of the manager's role is going to create value in the chain. So that's pretty interesting.

Ketan [00:17:37]  Why do you think the world has been divided on the impact the manager has on employee engagement? For a lot of organizations, engagement is HR's problem and managers are the ones who should be driving it. What's your point of view? Why do you think the world is still divided on the impact that managers have on engagement for such a long time?

Meena [00:18:17] It's not the world, it's the business. For example, the business wants to ensure the managers are held accountable for the speed of execution. Where understanding people's needs and development is compromised. When you're held responsible for the impact on business, you always want to own the authority, that you want to get things done, and you forget to understand whether the needs of the people are met. Businesses want to throw the responsibility of engagement on HR - HRs can engage while the managers are busy doing business. Business leaders should understand that most employees are looking up to the person that they're working closely with to find motivation. So it directly becomes the manager's responsibility to engage with them. I think over time people have realized that engagement is not doing festivals in the organization.

Meena [00:19:41]  Inclusive engagement where you are letting people know what they bring to the table adds value to the organization because that's how you're making people feel inclusive, making people feel that they're valued in the organization. So it becomes managers’ primary responsibility to keep giving that attention to people. Otherwise, people don't feel their purpose in the organization. They feel maybe my contributions don't matter because I'm not receiving much feedback from my manager. And they start to look out for other organizations where they will be valued. So I think whatever the world stays divided, it's important that the manager owns the engagement piece of employees, pulls the team together, motivates them. That's how I think we'll be able to move this ahead. Otherwise, businesses are going to fall apart.

Ketan [00:21:12]  This was learning that I had when I took my first kid for school admission. The school had a very clear philosophy saying that you're not outsourcing your kid's development to me. You are the parent, you own it up, I will integrate with you so that we are delivering the same experience to the kid. And something similar that I'm sensing is that the ownership lies with the business but, at times, we outsource this to HR and the managers are (only) responsible for the business productivity and the results.

Senthil [00:22:13] This reminds me of the point that leadership is not given. It's taken. The managers need to take it, to become a leader. When it comes to engagement, that's the most softer aspect of any job and that's very delicate. If you can be good at that, then it would call for a huge win within the team.

Meena [00:22:42] That is the point where the integration comes. The HR only partners with you to let you know how you can handle the situation. But the managers are the ones who handle situations in the first place.

Ketan [00:23:03] Do you think recent changes in the workplaces going overly digital impacted the expectations organizations and employees have from their managers? What are the big changes or the shift that you're seeing with this world going digital?

Meena [00:23:50] When we talk about digital, the maximum we're able to digitize things is to put a lot of operational inputs, operational information out there for people to self serve. Once that is done, I think what employees look forward to is a high touch with HR and high touch with the managers to provide value-added feedback. That is one expectation organization and employees have from managers. They have to play the role of someone who can give them structured and constructive feedback for them to improve on.

Meena [00:24:35]   I don't know if going digital means that everything is out there on some platform. Of course, HRs now are using multiple tools. There are tools for HRMS, performance, surveys, and engagement. But what is the kind of utilization you are seeing? You see only about 30% of people utilizing this and trying to see whether they can give enough information to get value out of it. When that is happening, the expectation of the organization to have people being extremely approachable, that still remains. Particularly in the virtual environment, it's very easy for people to start feeling that they don't understand what's happening in your organization. So creating a lot of touchpoints, creating a lot of check-ins would remain. Most of the organizations have been pushed to become more remote due to pandemic.

Ketan [00:25:54] The number of touchpoints and the expectation in those has seen a huge surge. With the millennials and younger citizens coming into the workplace, do see a shift in the expectation these generations have from the managers? You spoke about how they look at enablers and managers more as a friend or a support system, rather than a directional manager. But are there more things that you want to talk about how the population is creating a shift in the expectation from the managers? What new things should managers learn if they're listening to you?

Meena [00:26:56]  Managers should learn to be more flexible, empathize more and perhaps look at data-driven solutions. The tech-savvy millennials, Gen Z does not mean that they are so open about what they feel. They want to tell what they need, but they never open up about what they feel. Managers need to be equipped with a lot of data-driven insights for them to go and talk to the people and give case-to-case solutions to the people. That's what people look forward to. The new age folks would love to have that kind of experience in their workplace.

Ketan [00:28:19] One interesting perspective that I picked up is, they will express their wants, but not the feelings. And that brings me to the fifth question. Do you think the concept of engagement is moving more towards personalization rather than one-size-fits-all? Do you think that will continue or are you seeing the digitization of the data will help move engagement more toward personalization and creating those individual touchpoints? If yes, then what organizations can do to help managers?

Meena [00:29:37]  I did touch upon that point because it's important that we solve problems case-to-case. Last month in Airmeet, one person was affected with COVID, another person was suffering from anxiety issues and someone couldn't perform well and later found out that their parents have been infected with COVID, so we had to give each of them a different solution. It's important that we dig deeper into their problems and solve real problems. Another crucial point is how do you understand the pulse of the teams? Run surveys, do some retrospect, get some data, and use that data to make bold decisions. It doesn't have to be always using historical decision-making in the organization. Now, people have more compassion, make more bold decisions in the organization, where it's helping both employees and the brand itself sustain for the long run. That's exactly how we should be enabling our managers.

Ketan [00:31:25]  There's a lot of expectation that we have for managers. The big question is how do we enable them to do their job better. Thank you so much, Meena.

Ketan [00:31:45] I have a few rapid-fire questions for you. I promise these are more interesting than the first five that I asked. The first question, if not HR as a profession, what do you think you would have chosen to become?

Meena [00:32:04]  I would've become an interior designer.

Ketan [00:32:26]  So during Covid between cooking, cleaning, and mopping, which was easier?

Meena [00:32:35] I didn't want to do either of them. It was during Covid that I hired more maids for cooking and cleaning. I think the cleaning part is something that I hated.

Ketan [00:32:58] OK, which was the easiest for you then.

Meena [00:33:03] Cooking is easier and then cleaning after that, is the hardest

Ketan [00:33:12]  What is that professional goal that you are chasing for yourself?

Meena [00:33:27]  My professional goal is aligned with creating a very global community that a lot of HR leaders can come together and talk openly about their problems. For example, we are seeing a lot of HR leaders talking theoretically about concepts that can work well. But I want to build a community based on real-life issues and how they're tackling those issues so that everybody else can learn from them.

Meena [00:33:53] For example, at Capillary and Airmeet there are several things that I am initiating. It's my own research that I am initiating. I don't know what other companies are doing. So for me, it's about creating a community that shares openly.

Ketan [00:34:20] The world needs a lot of meaningful conversation. Thank you so much for that. If you're into reading, a book that had the maximum impact on you and you would want the audience to definitely look at that.

Meena [00:34:33]  I love a lot of fiction. Growing up, I loved Robin Cook and Sidney Sheldon. Afraid of the dark and Outbreak are all like classics novels that I always love. And today I don't have time to read fiction, but I'm reading a lot of books that make an impact on my professional life. The books I would recommend are Who (It's about hiring the right people) and Atomic Habits by James Clear.

Ketan [00:35:23]  I was fortunate, I read Atomic Habits, and just before that I finished The One Thing, combined together with its powerhouse. I don't know if you read that book but do pick up this book called The One Thing. Thank you. And that brings me to the last question. One thing that you personally thank COVID for.

Meena [00:35:55]  I would personally thank COVID is for the opportunity with Airmeet. The time that I could spend with my family, with my kids. My daughter brainwashed me over the years to buy a dog. I wouldn't have ever done it in my life.  These are two things that I cherish. A lot of lost opportunities, but that's OK. Just looking at the positive side of life

Ketan [00:36:34] That's super interesting. Thank you so much, Meena. We definitely should catch up in person. Thank you so much for your time. It was amazing interacting with you. Thank you, Senthil for this opportunity. Over to you.

Senthil [00:36:55]  Thank you, Ketan and Meena. You spoke about great stuff. I was keen about the synergy that you and I share. We need to explore that. I am not into fiction, I moved away from fiction recently.  And I remember reading what will happen to Diane and Kelly while waiting for my sister in Katpadi junction(Vellore, TamilNadu). You said the HR leaders are more philosophical than actionable. The professional goal is that you have to bring out that and talk about them. So these are some of the cognitive frames that you have and I appreciate that. And it's rare to stumble upon these kinds of people.

Senthil [00:37:59] You talked about the utilization of tools, HR has a lot of tools but not utilizing them to their full potential. Just like a thermometer can't cure your fever, but you can only measure the temperature.

Senthil [00:38:25] I talked about my struggle earlier in my career and all the words that you used, I was tempted because you talked about the new-age flexibility, moving away from legacy, and empathizing with the team, building trust. These are the things that give employees a great reason to deliver their maximum. So it's amazing we covered all of this today and very excited. Thanks a lot for your presence and Ketan thanks for another amazing session. We have come to the end of the session. Please stay tuned. We have more episodes coming in. This season we are targeting the evolving role of managers and engagement. Thanks a lot. Have a great time.