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Conversation with Asekun Kuforiji, International HR Veteran and Employee Engagement Entrepreneur

Baron Leacock

Asekun Kuforiji has had quite a career in recruiting and HR so far, and on a global scale. While working for industry leaders such as Adecco, the international recruiting giant, and Diageo, the largest spirits business in the world, Asekun amassed a wealth of knowledge and insight into the business of attracting the best people and keeping them engaged in their work. From those experiences and others, Asekun developed a vision of the talent function that would successfully compete by placing employee fulfillment at the center of its calculation. To pursue that vision, he founded Workbrook, a software startup devoted to using technology to help companies fill in some of the gaps in the traditional employee value proposition. Some of the most popular enhancements of Workbrook's solution deal specifically with employee engagement, which has become all the more critical with the rise of remote-only work.

What follows is an abridged version of our inspired conversation with Asekun about current trends in recruiting and retaining talent, the nature of work, and what it takes to keep employees engaged in a remote-first environment.

Did you always want to be in recruiting?

I've been in HR since I was in uni. I was part of a global students’ organization back then called AIESEC. That was the way I got introduced to the world of people relations and human resources. I think that was as far back as 2003 or thereabouts. I've done a bit of international work in HR trying to get entrance into the country. That was my foundation in HR and was what gave me motivation to want to practice HR. I studied environmental management and toxicology in uni, very different from HR.  From experience, interacting with people from across the world, from Europe, from Asia, I realized it was more interesting to deal with people than to deal with plants. So that was why I ventured into HR. And I've been in HR since then. 

I did work with Adecco.  Adecco is a global recruitment and sourcing firm.  Then I moved to work at Diageo. Diageo is the largest spirits business in the world.  Head offices in the UK, presence in the US as well. I left Diageo in 2018 when I moved to the US to join my family.  My last role with Diageo was on a global team. 

I was the Head of Talent Engagement for Diageo back then. The transition to Diageo coming from resourcing, we used to call it resourcing back then, to talent acquisition, to talent engagement was a very interesting journey, which gave me insight into what really matters when you're dealing with people, especially when you're dealing with people for recruitment, or you're dealing with people for retention and engagement. We moved from just resourcing, looking for talent for the organization to redefining the way we interact with talent outside of the organization, trying to bring them in. We moved to talent engagement, which encompassed employer branding, how to position your organization so that you are not looking for talent, talents are looking for you. That journey really was an eye-opener for me in the aspect of engagement and retention. 

How did that open your eyes?

It doesn't just stop where you pull people into your organization. How do you ensure that the people you pull into the organization in a few months, don't come back to your desk and say, why did you make me this offer? Why am I in this organization? And it's not a revolving door. They come in and just go out when they see things are not working well.  We focus on, what do we do to create an EVP [Employee Value Proposition] for the organization and to create an employer brand that people can talk about and people can appreciate. So that was an eye-opener for me, for retention and engagement, which led me to start up Workbrook. 

“People underestimate the effect of helping people.  HR is actually founded on helping people get things done.”

What gave you the idea to start your own company?

Basically my idea, when I thought about Workbrook was, I've been in HR for a long time. I've been in recruitment for a long time. I've seen gaps in recruitment. I've seen gaps in engaging employees and talent, and even non-employees, people outside the organization. I felt if I had the opportunity, I would like to close some of those gaps. Maybe we can’t close all the gaps right now, we'll try to attempt to close some of them. And that was why I started Workbrook. Workbrook basically is a people solutions firm.  It goes beyond employees of an organization. Everyone is a talent wherever you are. If you've got a job, if you don't have a job, if you're looking, if you're passive, everyone wants to find fulfillment in what they do. For us in Workbrook, what we are trying to do is to bridge the gap or to enhance the relationship between work and people. 

Because I think that's how life gets fulfilled. If you find yourself in the right place, doing the things you love, you get fulfillment and the money will come in because you get paid for doing the things you love. The first idea is to use technology, because some of those gaps are easy things you can fix, once you have the right technology, once you have the right processes in place. So for Workbrook, what we're trying to do is to create innovation and to use technology and to digitalize the relationship between humans and work. That has led us to creating software that gives an opportunity for people to interact with work. Even if you're not the one doing the work, you can still interact with that piece of work. That's what the philosophy of Workbrook is, trying to find ways of bringing technology and innovation into the human resource space. 

Every aspect of human resource, be it learning and development, capability building, business partnering, recruitment, every part of HR, can benefit from the injection of technology into it.  Finance, for example, has a lot of software, a lot of technology focused on it.  HR should do the same for every aspect of HR, because that's where people interact with work. The essence for Workbrook is to create that atmosphere, to create that platform for people to find fulfillment in what they do and help others as well.  People underestimate the effect of helping people.  HR is actually founded on helping people get things done. 

That's what Workbrook has set out to do with the software we've got with the clients and the relationships we've built over the few years that we've been in existence. That's how we define our contributions to human resources. 

How has what’s been going on in this market, with Covid and the shifts associated with the pandemic, affected recruiting and retention generally from your perspective?

All right. So recruitment has changed. Everything has changed actually, not just recruitment or HR. But, I think the biggest piece for companies from my experience and from my interaction with professionals in HR and even professionals in different fields, is that before COVID, people focused a lot on interpersonal relationships.  You see people everyday, you say hello to them. You go out for lunch, you go out for team building events and things like that. That builds a lot of engagement on human-to-human interaction, physical interaction. Right now, because of COVID and people working remotely, staying away from the workplace, or hybrid styles, engagement has really gone down. 

Gallup did a fantastic review on employee engagement and in all regions of the world, it's not looking good. And that goes without saying, because we’ve all been away from one another for a long time. People have been secluded working alone, working in their homes. And it's good, to some extent, there's a positive to it because people now realize what's important to them in life. But when we talk about work, I think the biggest challenge for companies right now is to engage their employees, engage their people, provide an atmosphere for them to feel like how they felt pre-COVID at work, despite the fact that they're not coming to work physically, that's what I mean.

Companies right now must ensure that their engagement level is going up. Because if engagement is down, productivity is down, a lot of things will go down. Businesses will not be as buoyant as they used to be. We've been seeing a lot of that. A lot of conversations start coming up about, do you still want to be in this job or do you want to be in this company?  I think the biggest challenge right now that I have seen is engagement. How do you engage employees while they are out of the office, not on the physical premises.  And it's a tough one. I don't think anyone's got the answer. We're all trying to navigate the waters right now and see how you virtually engage people at work. 

“Five years back, or ten years back, we were talking about the future of work. We are right in the future of work right now.”

The folks who are doing a good job of handling this challenge, what are they doing? And the folks that aren't doing a very good job, what are they doing, or not doing for that matter? 

I've seen companies start micromanaging their staff, which to some extent is a shift from the way it used to be pre-COVID. Not everybody likes to be micromanaged, and you can get in trouble for that. You want to every day send a report of what you've done?  This is a new thing for some employees.  I'm not going to say that's not right, but there are better ways of getting people engaged. There are better ways of showing trust, because that's what I see in micromanaging when you shift to micromanaging all of a sudden, because you can’t see the person you're working with, it spells lack of trust in that relationship. 

I’m not sure I’m an authority to call that a bad move, but I just think it's probably not the best. There are other ways of ensuring you get people engaged and you get people's commitment to work. 

I've also seen companies go virtual using technology.  I've seen people order pizza for meetings, you sit behind the computer, get a pizza, just to have a meeting feel like you're here in the office and interacted with people.  I've seen people use technology to their advantage right now.  Five years back, or ten years back, we were talking about the future of work. We are right in the future of work right now. 

I think the best examples I've seen are people using a lot of technology to engage their staff, to ensure that they don't feel alone, to build trust despite the fact that I can’t look through my cubicle to see you working, I know you're doing some good stuff, and I appreciate that.  I've seen people use reward and recognition to ensure that they're keeping their staff in the game, ensuring that there's still a form of community despite the fact that we don't see everyone everyday at work. I think technology is probably the best response that I've seen companies use to ensure that their staff or the employees are engaged. 

The engagement goes beyond just your employees.  People like your customers, for example, how do you engage them? How do you make them feel part of your organization?  I think the best practice is people are now going beyond the staff base or the employees. Reach out to people that are not employees.  You want people that interact with your products or your services to feel engaged, just like your employees would feel engaged.

What are some good examples of how they're using technology to keep folks engaged? 

A good example is referrals, digitalization of the referral program that companies used to have.  When you use your employees to attract people into the organization, they feel that they are part of the decision-making, they feel involved.  A lot of software out there can help you ensure that you carry out the referral program the right way and get people engaged, and get the door open for people to come into the organization. 

So it's not new. These are things that you do typically in a physical environment where you see each other one-to-one that you just take it and make it virtual.  For example, ordering pizza at home, you order pizza when you're in the meeting in the office. It's just, you are using a different way to accomplish what you used to do back then.  

I'll give another good example.  At Workbrook, the simplest feature we developed in our employee engagement software is a thank you card. It's a virtual card on the software that allows you to say thank you to anyone. The person receives our virtual card and can share it on LinkedIn. You can share it on social media. I got a virtual card for this great thing that I did. My employer gave me this, or my line manager gave me this virtual card.  

With a card, you can walk into someone's office and say, thank you for what you did yesterday. Well, because you can’t walk into an office and see someone right now, why don't you do that virtually?  So we have a feature on the Workbrook software that has a virtual card, it's designed, you'll send it to someone for doing something great at work and bring smiles to people's faces.  That can make someone’s day and make someone happy, that they are well appreciated for the things they do. I've seen some employee engagement software out there as well, that is doing great things like that.

“You see positions go longer out there on job boards without them being filled, because people are rethinking so many things.” 

So the future of work is already here.  What do you think it looks like going forward?

What I think, and companies have started doing it, is getting data to make decisions. If I've got a company, employ 500 people, before COVID, and I see the data of the performance pre-COVID and during COVID, and I see that a subset of my staff work from home right now, but we're doing the same thing, or are we even doing better than the pre COVID period?  I'm going to see how much am I investing into the physical office versus how much am I investing in my employees, in my staff. I think that's where companies are right now, they are pulling data to make decisions. 

Do we really need this big high-rise office for everybody to come every morning and go back home in the evening, if we can achieve the same thing with people working remotely or in a hybrid style?  Or can we cut costs on facilities management and invest and reinvest in our people and create a better work life balance for them?  I think those questions are coming up in boardrooms. Those questions are coming up in interactions with employees, between employees. Are we still going back? Does it make sense for us to go back?  Are we not doing better? Are we doing worse? I think data is going to play a large role in answering these questions.

Eventually, when we're out of the woods on COVID, people will think about it and say, did anything really change for us as an organization with regards to performance?  Companies have been doing this before COVID, people working from home. When I was at Diageo, you could work from home, work from anywhere, and you could still get your deliverables met. You still perform perfectly at work. I think it may be a turning point for a lot of companies to think about what really matters to them, what their investments should be in. 

I think from my experience, investment should be in people right now because, you see positions go longer out there on job boards without them being filled, because people are rethinking so many things.  They’re rethinking the culture of the organization they’re working with, they’re seeing what matters to them shifting, because of COVID. So there's a lot of re-engineering that a lot of people are going to do to HR and how they manage people right now, because of what the realities are and because of what data they’re getting. 

“They’re not just trying to get a job because they need to pay bills. They're trying to do things that, when they assess their contribution to work, they know they've done their best and they’ve found fulfillment.”

Do you think the Great Resignation is real?

I think it's real, because if I take a survey of my friends, and I did that, I think in December, and these are professional people in finance and HR and project management, I'd say 60-70% of them are looking to start things up on their own. To start their own stuff, start a company, start a small business, start a startup company. I think people are really looking at their worth and how organizations look at them as well and their contributions to the bottom line of their organization. So I think it's real. To what extent will it last? I'm not sure. 

I don't know if it's a phase that would just pass or if it's, this is really the future of work where people resign and think, or believe they can do better and do greater things, things they have passion for. They’re not just trying to get a job because they need to pay bills. They're trying to do things that, when they assess their contribution to work, they know they've done their best and they’ve found fulfillment. So I think it's real. I think companies are also experiencing that and they know it. You can take a sample of a commercial building in Texas, for example, in Houston, you see a lot of shops closing up because people are not applying.  People are resigning. So it's real. The data is there. 

It's visible and people can see that the “great resignation” is really here, but I'm not sure how long it's going to last. If it's just going to be a phase or it's going to be something that's going to be the way it is, maybe this is going to be the new norm. But, I think for companies out there, it's new to everyone. We probably didn't anticipate this four or five years ago. I think people are dealing with it as they see it. A lot of thinking on the spot, doing things to ensure you retain your employees, doing things to ensure you create a good employee value proposition and on your employer branding as well. I think the best any company can do right now is to ensure that their employees are super engaged, to ensure that their brand image is premium out there, because that's what will attract the people that really want to work. 

Also to ensure that you embrace this hybrid or remote working style.  I still see it on some job boards, a lot of companies need to be flexible and change with the times. Because if your people are really the engine that drives the organization, then you should listen to what's going on and how people are feeling and what decisions people are making and what things are important to people right now. 

I think if you put the people at the center of your decision making, if you are people centric, then you will find innovative ways of ensuring you keep your staff, ensuring you get more people, good people, into the organization and ensure that your employees are engaged, your customers are engaged and your business is running. I think the shift to people-centric organizations should be right now.  People that have not done that, they should really think of it. There are different ways you can get the feedback from employees and staff and ensure that your processes, your policies, are addressing those issues and ensuring that you are making people feel comfortable and finding fulfillment in what they do with you. They'll stick for the long haul.

“Who are you after 5:00 PM?”

What isn’t being talked enough about but should be?

How to ensure your staff or your employees can do what they love outside of work, and show that people can invest in their own happiness. For example, what do people do after five?  When I was at Diageo, there was a campaign we did: “Who are you after 5:00 PM?”  Because at 5:00 PM, you go home.  What do you do after five?  What's important to you after you are done with the work of the day?  Some people have passion for small businesses or for volunteering or for doing briefings. Things that they're passionate about that may not necessarily be their day job. 

I think companies should now think of providing an environment for the employees to do the work they have to do at work, but also live out their passion, whatever they are into. If it's music, if it's cooking, whatever brings you happiness. I think companies should now be flexible and ensure that they help their employees manage their time at work versus time you give to what your passion is or what you want to do.  I think we’re getting to that point where we need to have that flexibility, because people are really reconsidering the important things to them, trying to think of things on their bucket list. 

Thank you to Asekun for lending us your perspective!

About Rocket

Rocket pairs talented recruiters with advanced AI to help companies hit their hiring goals. Rocket is headquartered in the heart of Silicon Valley but has recruiters all over the US & Canada serving the needs of our growing client base across engineering, product management, data science and more.

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