S02 E07: Personalization - The Modern Manager’s Go-to Tool to Boost Employee Engagement

Kailash Ganesh
14 min read

In this episode of CultureClub, we interact with Varun Vijaykumar - Head of HR at Upstox who talks in detail about personalization as the go-to tool that modern managers have in engaging employees.

About Varun

Varun Vijayakumar brings with him 13+ years of experience in human resource management. Over the years, he has managed a variety of functions within HR and Talent Management, including but not limited to HR business partnering, total rewards, talent acquisition, talent engagement, payroll, and HR operations.

Prior to Upstox, Varun also worked with brands like Directi, Microsoft, Zinnov Management Consulting, and Hireworks Consulting. He is an alumnus of XLRI - Jamshedpur and IBMR Bangalore.

In this videocast, Varun highlights how engagement has transformed over the years. In the past, engagement was mainly about celebrating birthdays, organizing ethnic day contests, etc. but today it is much more customized and personal; it is possible to build one-to-one connections with employees using technology.

Here’s a gist of what Varun speaks about in this video:

  • Why the role of a manager is not limited to administration but is also about mentoring and caring for employees
  • How employee engagement is not an HR or manager’s problem alone but a business problem that needs to be solved
  • How compassion shown towards employees can impact their commitment to work
  • Why employee engagement will constantly keep evolving and how personalization will be the future of engagement

Listen to the entire episode right here and don’t forget to leave your views in the comments below.

And if you’re an employee engagement enthusiast, do check-out our community for HR professionals, the CultureClub.


Senthil [00:00:26] Hi all, welcome to the CultureClub. CultureClub is a community curated by CultureMonkey where we interview CHROs of leading organizations in India. The first season was about E-culture. Now we have come to Season Two. And it is about the evolving role of managers. We can get started with the session. But before that, I will quickly introduce CultureMonkey to our audiences. The best way to introduce CultureMonkey is to start with the story.

Senthil [00:01:21] I was an engineer for more than a decade. And I always struggled with this one problem where managers never realized that employees and team members deliver the maximum if they are happy. I have seen that in my teams. When I shared this point of view with managers, with multiple feedback sessions, nothing moved.

There was no anonymity. So I was scared to be open. And even if I managed to communicate my point of view, there was no action. It always felt like my feedback went into a black hole. There's no closure. I lost all hope in this process.

Senthil [00:02:02] But I always knew that happy employees deliver the maximum. With this attitude, in 2017, Joseph and I started Effy. Effy is a software consultancy company. And for the next one and a half years, we observed that we had zero percent attrition, both among customers and employees. We were able to make every stakeholder happy. We were thinking to ourselves, what is going on? What is the secret? And that's when we realized that it was our culture, and that is the reason for our success.

Senthil [00:02:44] So we felt we are naturally good at this, and we built a culture SaaS. That's when in 2018, we launched CultureMonkey. And it is so fulfilling right now because whatever problem I faced, now we can solve the same problem for one hundred thousand unique employees. We have more than 2.5 million individual data points just in a matter of three years.

Senthil [00:03:16] With all of that, we realize that managers play a key role in engagement, and managers are the ones that can personalize engagement for the team. That aspect is what gave birth to the topic - “Sustaining and growing employee engagement, evolving role of managers”. We are primarily in the advanced engineering team.

So we wanted to learn a lot about people science on this journey. That's when we had Ketan from RentoMojo as our customer. Then we started collaborating very closely. I learned a lot from Ketan and that led us to start the CultureClub last year, and it has been going just well.

Senthil [00:04:15] We have with us Varun from Upstox. Varun Vijayakumar is Head of HR there. Varun has worked with brands like Directi, Microsoft, Zinnov Management, and Hireworks.

In his 13 years of work career, Varun has managed a variety of functions within HR and Talent Management, but not limited to HR business partnering, total rewards, talent acquisition, talent engagement, payroll and HR operations. Varun is also an alumnus of XLRI Jamshedpur and IBMR, Bangalore and VIT. Now with this context, we're all buckled up for this episode.

Varun [00:05:14] Thank you for the beautiful introduction. You sometimes feel a little shy to introduce yourself. It's always good to have someone else to introduce you. Nice to be in this session, and it's already feeling very nostalgic. It feels like I'm talking to some known group of people. And I think that reflects in what you do. The quality of people reflects in what you believe and what you deliver. That's why it's fun working with CultureMonkey. I have heard great recommendations about CultureMonkey from a lot of my industry peers.

Ketan [00:05:56] Varun, welcome again to the CultureClub session powered by CultureMonkey. I'm sure it is going to get interesting. As Senthil said, in this session, we are going to talk about sustaining and growing employee engagement, the evolving role of managers. This is a topic that I've been hearing about for ages. I've heard debates and points of view around the role of managers.

We thought, why don't we start getting views from people who manage organizations. Before we get into some specific interesting questions, why don't you tell us more about you and the organization that the audience would want to know?

Varun [00:07:16] To introduce Upstox, I would just say, if you think about investing, trading, and making yourself some more wealth, think about Upstox. And if you are a cricket follower, you keep watching us during the IPL season. Most importantly, Upstox as an organization has skilled up phenomenally in the last two to three years. Today, we have about 3.5 million-plus customers, which is significant in the investment and trading world.

Varun [00:08:10] We have huge plans for the next few years. We want to be one of the largest retail trading and investment platforms across the country. But again, it's all in the making. We are doing the right things. We are a very fast-growing organization.

Of course, hiring is happening a lot. Along with hiring, there is a lot more responsibility for the manager. So that's about Upstox. When I spoke about how Upstox has grown over the last few years, this year that's going to be even faster for us, be it in terms of customer acquisition or hiring, and I’m positive that we are going to grow very fast in the coming times.

Varun [00:08:56] To give you some stats, I said we moved from two lakh customers to 3.5 million-plus customers in the last couple of years. In the last year, we have probably grown by 150 percent in terms of headcount. There were about 260 people. Today there are about 440 people. That's how fast Upstox has grown and will continue to grow this year. As far as my background, Senthil gave a beautiful introduction. I've been there in the right place at the right time.

Varun [00:09:32] What has helped me to get all these opportunities is, I never refrained from solving a problem, be it with finding office space or doing an admin job or HR job or doing recruitment or going and handling anything outside of human nature. I never stopped myself. I think that's the only way you will get opportunities to learn, and that's how you grow. So it has been a wonderful journey so far in my professional career. It is very enriching.

Ketan [00:10:19] That brings me to the first question. Do you think that organizations without a manager could be a reality in the future? What's your point of view?

Varun [00:10:32] I don't want you to think that I'm giving a politically correct answer, it is yes and no. We don't want managers now or in the future. We want either a mentor or a role model. Or we want a friend. So what it means is, either you mentor me, you'll be my inspiration. You show me how to do things, I will follow your steps. If you don't know, at least give me the freedom. You ensure that you give me that autonomy and freedom.

Varun [00:11:01] If you can't do any of this, don't sit and micro-manage. I don't want a manager. That's what I would say. The current generation is changing, and on top of it, situations like Covid are telling people you need to do what you love in your life. And all this extra pressure is not required. The moment you start playing a manager role, you are going to start losing people very fast.

Ketan [00:11:37] So what I gather from Varun is that the definition of a manager the world has seen is not something that the future requires, especially in the context of the younger generation, and I agree with that. The millennials and the Gen Z are looking at a different kind of relationship or connection with their managers. It's just not the administrative manager. They're looking for friends when there's a need and a mentor when there's a requirement.

Ketan [00:12:14] One thing I know and a shift that I've seen is that managers these days are so secure because they have been in that position and they enjoy working with people and enabling them to get their work done. Varun spoke about a powerful word, which I'm a huge fan of, which is autonomy. It's super important to the generation and the workforce. So that's interesting.

Ketan [00:12:52] Varun, why do you think the world has been divided on the role manager has or the impact manager has on employee engagement? Having worked with some of the mammoth organizations and some very young organizations, I've heard both views. Some think engagement is HR's responsibility, and some think that engagement is the manager's responsibility. And different organizations had different points of view. What do you think has created this divide? What's your point of view here?

Varun [00:13:30] Engagement is a business problem, and when I say it's a business problem, business means everybody. Most of the organizations today are not asset-heavy organizations. They are intellectual-heavy organizations. I would always say context is going to become the most important thing. And how are you saving that context? You can do it two ways.

Varun [00:14:10] One is you keep churning out digital savings of all the content and context you have. At the same time, you should also have an equal amount of IQ brains that will come and understand those contexts to build better platforms and so on. So I would always say it's never an HR's problem or a line manager's problem. In the typical HR world, you call a line manager. So it's not a line manager's problem or HR's problem. It's a business problem.

Varun [00:14:40]  I would say losing people is the biggest opportunity cost that everybody has to think about. You lose a good, talented person in your team. The actual cost is to hire a new person at a higher compensation because the guy will have four or five offers. Number two, you're going to take six months to give context to the new person. In the seventh month, that person is going to start doing something.

So it's going to be a year for your new person to start contributing. Then in that context, it's a collective problem. It's both HR and a line manager’s problem. And most importantly, it's a business problem. It's a huge business problem more than anything else.

Ketan [00:15:33] That's a very interesting perspective. What Varun said significantly is that engagement or matters of culture is a business problem and that’s a great take here.

Ketan [00:16:35] Now, do you think recent changes in the workplace going overly digital impacted the expectation organization and employees have from their managers? Do you think there have been additional expectations that organizations and employees have started to have with their managers?

Varun [00:17:11] The organization and manager have to be compassionate with the team members. I know that there is nothing that the person has to do after evening 7 PM or on a Saturday, Sunday. But, make sure that it is worthwhile for the person to do anything for you. If you are telling the person to work on Saturday and Sunday, make it something intellectual for them to see it and help you.

Varun [00:17:53] Don't make people feel that they are doing monotonous work when you are expecting them to work beyond a certain hour. So be compassionate and be judicious about what time investment you are expecting them to make. I would want to use the term time investment because it's very costly, and people are investing it for you, make it worthwhile. That is what I would say from an organization or manager's perspective.

Varun [00:18:24] At the same time, what team members expect from a manager is patience with clarity. I think you should have everyday morning conversations, which will help you to set clarity. They need to clear the ambiguity around everything. If they can't clear ambiguity for people, then there's a problem. The first thing people are expecting is patience. Along with patience, if you can clear the ambiguous statements around the problem statement, it'll be awesome. That's what I need from a manager.  

Ketan [00:20:29] What are the things that you would want the managers to work upon? You said stretch work is not a problem but make it intellectually challenging. And you said, in the ambiguity build clarity. Anything else that you think you would want the managers to focus on keeping in view the future of work and how the world is transitioning? What else would you want them to focus on?

Varun [00:21:21] Another one is the customization or personalization of your working style with people. Today, managers can't say they will only work on defined metrics. They need to customize it. If somebody is highly intellectual in your team, you should customize your mentoring to get the work done. You could use different styles for people with different intellectual capabilities.

Varun [00:22:59] How are you going to work with people of lower intellectual capability but you know they have skills, and they're hardworking. You could show them how the problem is solved. You solve one problem for them, then tell them how to solve it. For people who are fast learners, who are very sharp, you can tell them the problem statement, and then they'll be able to pick up. So I would say, don't operate in a world where you give instructions, and  expect them to solve. It's not going to happen anymore.

Senthil [00:24:06] This is reminding me of the types of listening. In CultureMonkey, we say listen to your employees. I did a lot of research and I wanted to define listening. But I never found any other way that best defines listening than the Buddhist way of doing it. They say there are four types of listening. One is upside down, where you don't take whatever the other person is saying. There is a pot with holes where you pour water into. It will act like it is there but it will leak out.

Senthil [00:24:52] There is dirty pot listening, which already has a set of prejudices, and opinions and they judge you while listening. And then there is an empty pot listening.  Ketan mentioned clear the air, and you said clarity. All these things come from empty pot listening. The manager creates the space for the team and employees, then completely understands what they're saying and customizes it.

Ketan [00:26:13]  Varun, you spoke about the power of personalization or customization. So do you think the engagement of the future would see a shift towards personalization rather than one-size-fits-all?

Ketan [00:26:53] Yes. So, ten years before engagement meant a birthday celebration and cake cutting celebration. Today, engagement is way too customized and it is very personified at each level. During the year of Covid, all my employees were expecting to have a good mental wellness program, they were like - Can I have a good insurance benefits program? Can I have a one-to-one connection with my HR? People are expecting different sets of engagement plans.

Varun [00:27:46] Before Covid in 2019, when I worked in Directi, the engagement was more towards what else I can upscale, what else I can learn, what I can probably pick up as a new skill set. So it depends not only on customization and personifications for people but also on the circumstances. The context in terms of the circumstances and as well as personalizing it for people will be the future for engagement. I don't think any standard engagement can happen anymore. That era is gone.

Ketan [00:30:08]  Before we conclude this session, I have five rapid-fire questions for you. The first question is, if not HR as a profession, what would you have chosen?

Varun [00:30:45]  I would have been a chef. I love cooking a lot.

Ketan [00:30:49] That almost answers the second question. The second question is during the lockdown, which was easier cooking, cleaning or mopping?

Varun [00:31:00] I would say cooking. Washing utensils and cleaning the house is not worth it.

Ketan [00:31:43]  That brings me to the third question. Any personal or professional goal aspiration that you're chasing and that you're comfortable sharing?

Varun [00:31:57] I will be happy to share my personal goal. I love music a lot, which I haven't been able to achieve. I'm still learning. I started learning the violin. I want my daughter to become a great musician. She doesn't have to work in the standard 9-to-6 or have the managers give instructions. She can decide what she wants to do. I'm already teaching her music.

Varun [00:33:07] In professional life, at the end of my work life, if I could have created ten great people managers, great leaders, I am done with my profession. I don't want to put up a ceiling saying I want to become CEO or CHRO or COO. But I would say if I can create 10 leaders before I quit working, that's my dream.

Ketan [00:33:42] The fourth one, a book that had the maximum impact on you?  

Varun [00:33:47] ‘What Got You Here Won't Get You There’.

Ketan [00:34:10] The last one, one thing you thank the lockdown for?

Ketan [00:34:16] Being with loved ones. If not for lockdown I don't think people would have valued family, love, affection and all of it. I have spent time with my mom for nine months now, which before lockdown, I would probably spend once in three months for a couple of days and then fly back to my workplace. I think it has become very different. This gives an emotional feeling and a happy feeling.

Ketan [00:35:07]  This is our twenty-first session. All 21 people shared exactly this point, saying that it helped us take pause and to connect with our family and spend time with  near and dear ones. All right. So that's it from my side. Thank you so much.

Senthil [00:36:00]  A summary of this conversation. You talked about managers being a friend or as a mentor. And the current organizations are intellectual-heavy and not assets-heavy. You used the word time investment, which we take very seriously, a lot of companies don't. And you talked about customization and personalization. All of these points, in my opinion, are very powerful yet simple to understand.

Varun [00:37:17] All of this is going to be possible only through technology. Either engagement or mentoring or anything without technology, it's not going to be possible.

Senthil [00:37:43] What we have done in CultureMonkey very differently from other companies is that we dove into engagement and culture at full scale. We want to go deep and build more modules and features around engagement culture.

This morning I was telling one of the co-founders that employee psychology is what we want to solve, and that is where problems are mushrooming, and we have to solve that. Anyways, thanks a lot for all the points.

Varun [00:38:48] I should thank you. I enjoyed this conversation. It was like talking to friends and that reflects what CultureMonkey is all about. It's awesome.

Senthil [00:40:53]  Thanks a lot, guys. Have a great evening.