Interview with Y Vijay Rao, Global Head HR, Facebook

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Emma Beaumont

Facebook's HR PEEPS Strategy Promotes Self-Solve, Content in Context and Concierge Services in a modern approach to 'people'

SSON last caught up with Vijay Rao in 2015 at a time when the major challenges for his global PEEPS (People Operations) team centered around maintaining data integrity, delivering employee satisfaction (ideally delight) and leveraging technology to gain greater flexibility, all in parallel with the business’s relentless growth.

The social media giant is perhaps best known for its incredible market share of consumers, reported to have now reached 2.23 billion monthly users. The other big number, often less-quoted, is of course the army of people it takes to support a business of that size. By June 2018, the number of Facebook global employees had tipped the 30,000 mark. These are the people who make Facebook the success that it so clearly is. These are the customers of Vijay and his team. It’s no surprise that engaging them and creating first-class customer service would be a strategic priority.

Fast forward almost four years on, and we caught up with Vijay at Facebook’s HQ in Menlo Park, California, to find out where PEEPS envisages itself moving to in 2019, and to better understand the place were all the magic happens.

Emma Beaumont: To bring us up to speed, can you draw a brief picture of the size and scope of the current global PEEPS team supporting these now 30K+ customers (i.e., the who, where & why of your team)?

Y Vijay Rao: We’re roughly 160 people now on the team and provide both HR operations support as well as some global business services. We have our core Shared Services team, “People Services”, in ATX (Austin, Texas) and have operations teams in Dublin, in Singapore, and at HQ (Menlo Park). We’re providing some company-wide services such as our contingent workforce program, vendor management, and learning operations, as well as some technologies supporting multiple organizations such as our People Portal and CRM.

Facebook HR PEEPs team outing

Facebook's HR Services "PEEPS" team at a San Francisco Giants game.


We have a highly diverse team across a very broad spectrum of experience levels. We continue to have a lot of millennials on the team, particularly in our Shared Services team in Austin, and we don’t hire people straight out of college typically (with a few exceptions where they were interns with us). But mostly, they have several years of experience. Outside that, we’ve hired some very senior professionals too, who are driving strategy across our business in areas such as vendor management function, contingent workforce, etc..

EB: Once your brand is as famous and as sought after as yours has become, what does that mean for your recruitment strategy? Does it create a problem where you are inundated with applications? And if so, how do you separate the wheat from the chaff?

YVR: We continue to hire and recruit for talent. We have looked at hiring in multiple locations with the build out of our People Services team in Austin, TX, which has given us more flexibility to provide options to people concerned with the cost of living in the bay area as well as attracting more local talent in the Austin area. We’ve also been able to provide flexibility for more internal movement across our locations by having several locations vs. our main HQ location, which is a change from where we were a few years ago.

From a recruitment standpoint, having a brand like FB does help attract a lot of candidates. But the key is whether they are qualified candidates. Often where we find and hire the best talent for our own sourcing efforts is from our own personal networks. Most of the people that we hire, especially for the more senior roles, are typically identified through our own networks on Linkedin and other sources. We leverage our recruiting team as well. They’ve been very strong in hiring for Shared Services roles. There is no issue there in building pipeline and filling those roles. But for the more specialized roles it can be more challenging to find the right people.

"Often where we find and hire the best talent for our own sourcing efforts is from our own personal networks"

One area we’re really focusing on is finding people with great process improvement and project management skills, often from management consulting backgrounds. We’ve found that those backgrounds really do well in terms of navigating cross-functional complexities and stakeholders and ambiguities. And there does tend to be a lot of ambiguity when you’re growing so fast and organically. I refer to these types of people as “the swiss army knife”, which basically means you can put them onto anything. These are the hard people to find. I would also say influence and collaboration skills are areas we focus on recruiting for. These are people that can drive projects forward and effectively work with multiple business stakeholders.

EB: You once told us Personalization was of critical importance to your strategy. Can you share any recent examples of that strategy and where it’s led to measured success in retention and onboarding etc.?

YVR: We’ve focused on deployment of our People Portal and with that a new version of our onboarding portal. One of the key goals has been to drive more self service, but not in a traditional way. We call it “self solve” vs. “self service” and we’re looking to provide new hires with a quick and easy experience to provide the information necessary for onboarding, but also to get a lot of great information on benefits, transportation, payroll, and other areas that new hires tend to have a lot of questions on. We aren’t pushing self service to existing employees, but we are looking to new employees onboarding to the company to recognize the ease of use and value that they get from the People Portal, so that they become more frequent users of it. Given our hiring projections, we believe that driving the behavior upfront with new hires will drive self service adoption faster overall vs. focusing on employees who have been here for some time that may have a longer change curve to adopt. We are actively driving more value into using the Portal via role based content, offering content in context, transactional self-service, and better integration with how we use Workplace.

Our portal manages all content across Finance, Legal, Facilities, and External Comms, all of which leverage it. Prior to the portal, FB used a wiki, but the problem with a wiki is that it’s a wiki. Anybody can update it and change things. So we undertook this huge project so the business could access it alongside our company-wide CRM. We use ServiceCloud, which we leverage across multiple teams. Once again, our Finance teams are using it, as well as Travel, Payroll, Legal … plus we support all enquiry management from a tier one standpoint.

From a personalization perspective, we’ve rolled a project into the People Portal to drive more “content in context”. For example, we have a project right now that enables people on the PEEPS team to go to the portal and see the content on policies, and on questions that they get asked, i.e. content that really applies to their own role as oppose to the more general content that employees can see.

We’ve done this with managers as well, so there is specific content for managers, such as navigating conversations around reviews etc., which only managers can see. What this evolves to is a more roles-based functionality and things such as integrating more LMS (Learning Management System). There is a plan for all learning content to be integrated into this process so that employees don’t just see content that’s relevant for them, but are also guided to learning materials that are relevant to their role. It’s about tying together content and transactions, and targeting content based on someone’s role, what is relevant to them, and what they need to know. All of this is designed to make the transaction feel less clunky. When I think about what personalization means at scale, to me that means “remove the clunkiness”.

EB: Which other Shared Services brand or organizations do you have high admiration for, and why?

YVR: As we grow, we’re going to become a much bigger company so I’m always trying to look to organizations larger than FB to see how they’ve scaled and grown. One that I’ve been looking at closely is Coca Cola Europe. At some point in the future our processes are going to get slower, and what I’ve always sought to do is get ahead of what’s coming. The area that I’m most focused on now is efficiency. I want to build in efficiency now so that when we get to an environment where we are NOT growing as fast, and we become more focused on cost as a priority, we will already have the infrastructure set up around efficiency to actually do it really well.

What I admired about Coca Cola Europe is that they had an efficiency goal to save 1 million hours and they put that big goal in place and put processes around it to measure it. So I have put a goal out there with my team of saving 1 million hours, or $100m, in the next five years. And that’s from the work we are doing in terms of how are we saving employees’ time, or how are we saving cost through some of the improvements that we are doing. This can be around things like vendor management, process improvement etc.

Getting the team into that mindset and aligned to a goal that far out is very important in my view so that we are already actively building the skills and capability to be ready when the time comes. And the way I see it, a million hours or $100m means we’re looking to save the business $100 an hour! The way that I think about it is: Are the things that we are doing from a compliance perspective (because we also have compliance as a function here) mitigating the risk of lawsuits or other things that could get us in trouble? Take GDPR for example. If we were fined for GDPR that would cost us 4% of global revenue!

So, how we measure this is going to be an interesting one because we need to come up with a clear way to measure it so that its not a bunch of fluff but real tangible things that we actually do. For context, we have a concierge service for employees (we call it ‘convenience services’) but basically it helps employees with their personal life. For example, if they need a gardener or to book a vacation or book a trip, our service does that for them so that they don’t have to spend time at work doing it. And with that, we have saved thousands of hours. Overall, we’ve saved about US$800 or 900K for employees, so it’s paying for itself. And this is one of these things where, if we didn’t have it (and most companies don’t), people would be using time at work to do that kind of stuff.

EB: Controversial question: How do you police a service like that so it will be used, and not abused?

YVR: Our environment is not a policing environment; It’s one that’s built on trust. So if we provide all these services we trust that people are going to use them. We do things to make life convenient for employees and that save them time, e.g., we provide food onsite. The real mission of my team is to give people time back so they can deliver on FB’s mission.

EB: Improving processes and flexibility at scale (your previously cited focus) whilst still delivering core services, presumably doesn’t happen without adopting some pretty innovative technologies to deliver improved HR service performance. Where, across PEEPS services, are you testing these and seeing the most success?

YVR: We implemented our People Portal and new CRM last year in less than six months for both projects, so we work to very aggressive timelines. At first we didn’t see a lot of return because we needed to get measurements in place to get to baseline with these new technologies. We now have the data and insights to help our partners better understand how things are working as far as ticket volumes, customer satisfaction, response time, resolution time and just some of the basics. But, this has allowed us to implement monthly business reviews which are driving the discussion further along, and we are seeing more opportunities to link the portal data to our CRM to determine opportunities with improved content on the portal, process or technology improvements, as well as areas were we can drive better policy and/or program clarity for employees.

EB: Data quality was your number one priority in 2015. Technology will have played a critical role in addressing this, but if you had to look back on that data strategy now, would you have approached it differently? And if so, how?

YVR: We’ve focused on data quality in a number of areas within People Operations, and more broadly our People Engineering and People Analytics teams have scaled to take more ownership in this area. It’s still very important for People Operations from a process and data input perspective, so we have audits and peer reviews of these transactions that can potentially create data quality issues.

EB: And the big tech question everyone’s talking about: To what extent have you applied robotics technology within HR operations? And is it making a difference to how you support Facebook’s business?

YVR: We did a pilot a few years back and it was successful, but what we realize is that there are more technologies emerging, such as Artificial Intelligence (AI), Augmented Reality (AR), and Virtual Reality (VR) that may be better to look at vs. RPA, which is similar to testing automation technologies that automate manual steps. The challenge with RPA is that you have to have really good business processes without any deviation or exceptions. And we do have processes where there are exceptions and that makes it much harder.

One of the things we’re focused on is looking at more automation for the work our vendors do. A lot of that transactional/repeatable work is outsourced so we’ve been pushing on our vendors to do more RPA as most of the RPA applications benefit work we’ve outsourced. RPA can make our vendors more efficient vs. our teams. We are continuing to see the value of this approach vs. evaluating implementing through workflow capabilities in our current tools such as Workday and Salesforce which will automate manual process steps that we were considering RPA for initially.

RPA creates an additional layer. Our approach is not necessarily about automating a process, it’s about enabling automation. So we’ve been putting more investment on resources (e.g., Workday and Salesforce) and are basically building more automation into these areas.

From an AI perspective, we’ve not done a lot of work yet but we have done a little bit on the recruiting side. We have some bots (the “interview bot”) which mean that 30 minutes before an interview starts you get a messenger that pops up saying, “Hey, here are the details on your interview, the time, the caller data, resumé, etc.”. It’s quite useful and it’s also linked to feedback. Those are more ‘push’ bots.

What I envisage is leveraging AI with our People Portal and rolling out an application that allows people to query the content of our People Portal to find answers more easily. We are going down that path to give people more integration there. That’s probably a year away.

EB: Given the amount of coders you have in your business, are these in-house built bots or do you intend to use suppliers for these?

YVR: Yeah, we can build bots on our platform within messenger – our technology team have the skills to do it. It’s a matter of making sure that when you build it it’s going to work, and it’s going to be really effective. People have to be able to get what they need when they try to use it, otherwise it loses credibility. The critical thing for us with any new initiative is that it needs to be really well received when it’s launched. Similar to when our People Portal launched and it got a lot of rave reviews, anything we launch has to be perceived as adding value and giving people time back. It should really help them get information faster, get answers faster.

Another area we are focused on is enabling more transactions. It’s all about removing steps for people in the process – so even if it’s not automation, it takes less time. It’s about how you design things from a process perspective. In short, it’s a combination of automation, process improvement and design from emerging technologies that we are most interested in, rather than looking at things like RPA.

Even with VR, we could get to a situation where we are leveraging it as opposed to email. The other thing we’re trying to do is get to a point where we use chat as our primary communication channel, and get away from email and traditional case management because most people just want a quick answer. So they post in groups on Workplace because they don’t want to wait for an answer. The culture has definitely changed where people want immediate information.

EB: So that plays well into my next question around how you’ve been leveraging mobile applications to help employees get what they need on the go. What are you doing there?

YVR: We have a few tools such as Workday available via mobile as well as our People Portal and several other HR tools that can be accessed via mobile. We need to do more of this and that’s to my point about making chat the main channel. If we can enable that as the first entry point, where people are using chat to communicate with us, that will make mobile much more valuable. We’re not there yet, but it’s in the plan.

EB: What do you think is the most impactful technology tool you’ve implemented? And what technology do you think will create the biggest opportunity for the business?

YVR: There’s more work we can do with our People Portal and CRM. There are more integration points where we can tie our ticket data back to the People Portal. Basically aligning the taxonomies so that we have really good insight as to where our content is working and where it isn’t.

The other thing we’ve done to really move things forward is, because we’ve hired so many people, we’ve really undergone a culture change. What I mean by that is people in the past were used to emailing PEEPS and never using the wiki, because they didn’t trust that the wiki had the right content. It wasn’t seen as official. So we never had a culture of self-service and we always provided a good level of customer service, meaning, if you emailed PEEPS you’d get an answer. But with all of the new people we’ve hired, we rolled out a new onboarding portal so that all candidates can see their offer document, their onboarding information and all of the new hire information before they start. We’ve really done an awesome job of automating onboarding. It’s now a really seamless experience, and when people show up they have everything that they need – laptop, etc. … everything is ready to go.

Previously, the piece that was always missing was, “OK, so how do we get people to always go to the Portal and find the information they need for themselves”. Now, the People Portal and its content is all out there. Our new hires are conditioned to do that from the start. As a result, we’re seeing a lot more new hires accessing the People Portal and self-serving vs. people that have been here a long time. And that’s a good thing because that’s the direction we need to go in. So that’s the most significant investment area that has had the biggest single impact in helping us achieve a “self-solve” strategy.

The other piece of automation, or at least technology opportunity, is Workplace. We are partnering very closely with the Workplace team to identify how do we actually surface up more of the content/correct answers from the People Portal into Workplace. Because, ultimately, people will use Workplace to ask questions. They are not going to the portal first. It’s very 1995 to send people to the company intranet. Instead, today, people use Workplace to post in groups, post questions, engage in dialogue.

Our opportunity is to understand how to surface up content in context for information when those dialogues happen. That’s the really cool stuff. Because you’re pointing people to a resource without actually telling them “go search the portal” or giving them a link. You’re getting more intelligent about it. That’s the direction we want to head in, at least on the self-service piece.

And then on the automation front, I envision that if you get really intelligent with these bots then your tier one really becomes a bot, and not a person, in answering a lot of the basic questions.

EB: We understand that outsourcing featured as part of your delivery model back in 2015. Given the shift away from outsourcing that the industry as a whole has seen in recent years, has your sourcing model changed?

YVR: We continue to outsource, but our ultimate goal is to automate this work and outsource less. Given our growth rate, outsourcing was needed to scale, but ultimately we’d like to have less handoffs and more self service and automation to replace the work we’ve outsourced.

If you think about it, we have 2bn customers using our platforms. There is a lot of content that needs to be reviewed so there is a large outsourced workforce that reviews this content. That doesn’t sit within HR; it’s really focused on all of those operations. In terms of HR, we now have onshore vendors, so we’ve not completely outsourced. We’ve started doing more onshore for hire-experience services – so things like exit interviews, we’ve outsourced those. We also have the processing of our internal transfers outsourced (in terms of managing the whole process end-to-end), which is basically transactional stuff that could be more automated but right now we have vendors managing that whole process, tracking exceptions etc.. In an ideal world we’d have all of our employees doing all of the work, but because of our growth the only way to scale is through a combination of vendors and full time staff.

EB: And what about FB’s wider Shared Services Delivery Model. What does that look like now?

YVR: In terms of where we sit with overall Shared Services, we don’t have an overall Shared Services Organization. Finance has a Shared Services team, and a Global outsourcing team. Legal also has some outsourcing, and HR partners with all of these teams because we’re all facing similar challenges. We’re all using some of the same vendors but we are also, in a number of ways, providing more company-wide services, more GBS.

For example, I would say in our situation that we are providing GBS for Finance, as we’re providing them with systems for travel and expense reports and for Payroll as well as providing the tier one for payroll (it doesn’t sit in Finance it sits with us and we partner with that team). Same with Legal operations. They drive all of the Legal training for the company, and right now they are providing the content pieces but we (HR) are providing Learning and Ops company-wide. So they are relying on us to deliver those services and handle tier one and the tracking of compliance and that we are meeting legal obligations of various governing bodies. We’re managing all of that for them. And that’s pretty much how we are evolving, very organically, very much not by design. But I think that’s typical of what FB does generally: Things grow organically and then you figure out over time what makes sense. Right now it’s very much a partnership between these different services teams.

EB: And Nirvana? Ten years from now what could or should this look like? Have you projected this forward to see where it could go?

YVR: I’m sure there will be more consolidation.

EB: Do you mean more cross-tower consolidation? So that you end up with a structure more akin to a GBS?

YVR: Yes. More like GBS. I can see that in certain areas where it makes sense. For example, Payroll could be an area where we could say, “We have our team in TX, Payroll has another team in TX, so it makes sense for more synergy there.” So there could be different opportunities like that, and it’s really looking at those opportunities and the evolution is that some things are naturally coming closer together just because of the partnership and collaboration. It’s all about eliminating redundancy of process.

Looking forward, I see Tier 0 and Tier 1 really starting to come together with AI with less need for people to answer basic employee questions as the technology does a really good job of surfacing answers to complex questions. I see less need for larger HR operations teams to handle transactions and basic services such as employment verifications as most of this is self-service with low barrier to entry for people to do the transactions themselves, very much like online banking. I see HR operations evolving to more of a strategic partner to move the HR function forward with key capabilities of project management, program delivery, vendor management, compliance management, and systems implementation.

EB: How would you define your role in a sentence?

YVR: I am constantly connecting people and connecting dots to help drive solutions faster, better, and more integrated. I have many internal partners that are critical to success, but the key thing is being the connector or the glue. That’s what this function does – we are the glue because we see across as opposed to down a vertical.

EB: Can you share with us your own golden rules of leadership and engagement?

YVR: My focus is to make fewer decisions myself and, instead, empower the team to make those decisions themselves. I believe if the leader has to make a decision, then it’s essential to ensure there is context provided otherwise decisions will be questioned.

But ultimately, I want the leadership team to drive and own those decisions more, and be empowered to do that. If they are able to do that then I am truly working myself out of a job – and that’s the ultimate goal here, so that they can work without me to move the work forward.

Part of the situation is that we’ve hired so many people, it truly takes time for all those people to gel together. It’s that forming, storming, norming, performing thing. A year or two from now, this same group of people will be in a much higher performing state because they’ve gotten to know each other better, and trust each other better. And that, for me, is the number one goal: Making sure there is a lot of trust.

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Vijay Rao
Global Head of HR Services