We share tactical learnings of regional execs from Deel, Michael Page, and Aspire on expansion into and across Southeast Asia markets, from hiring to finance.

Growth Beyond Borders Panel

3 Key Takeaways on Hiring, Compliance, and Financial Management in Southeast Asia from Deel, Michael Page, and Aspire regional execs

We share tactical learnings of regional execs from Deel, Michael Page, and Aspire on expansion into and across Southeast Asia markets, from hiring to finance.

Earlier this year, we partnered with Deel, Michael Page, and Intellect to produce a comprehensive playbook on the hiring and talent aspects of growing a global business.

To take this even further, we organized a panel discussion with regional execs from Deel, Michael Page, and Aspire to share tactical learnings on navigating expansion into and across Southeast Asia markets (Singapore, Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, etc.).

In particular we had on the panel Karen Ng, Deel’s ASEAN, India, NASIA Expansion Leader, Thomas Jeng, Aspire’s Singapore GM, and Olly Riches, Michael Page’s Senior Managing Director.

In this article, we put together 3 key takeaways from the discussion with related quotes from the panelists:

1: Creativity as a tactical approach to navigate hiring amidst talent competition and shortages and retention in a cost constrained market.

Perceived talent shortages do not have to be a perennial constraint. Current trends (returnees, remote work, etc.) present opportunities to widen previously untapped talent pools. Creativity also extends into retention with companies investing more in non-cash benefits and career progression structures.

Olly points out that talent shortage is a myth when one expands their hiring strategy.

We always hear about talent shortage. I think that’s actually a bit of a myth. There is talent, but again, it’s thinking creatively. It’s not going after exactly the same people everyone else is going after and having a very clear sort of strategy on what your point of differentiation is.” – Olly Riches

He then goes on to list three drivers for talent pools to expand in Southeast Asia. 

Returnees: “If you’re coming with investment from overseas, how can you tap into that? For example, for Indonesians based in the U. S. or based in Europe, it’s never been a better time to come back career wise because there are probably better opportunities back at home than there are overseas at the moment. It’s just knowing what those opportunities are. And that’s where the downfall comes. It’s the lack of knowledge, about what if I do go home, what does that mean?

And often people have a perception of what home was like. And that has shifted, and the dynamics in all of these economies have shifted. So the opportunities are there, and most companies we talk to, their preference is somebody from the country who has some international experience. And I’m talking more about your leadership, mid management and above level roles.”

Inclusivity: “The other thing which we’re seeing more and more now is companies looking at inclusivity as part of their employee value proposition…[For example] there’s 100,000 professionals with disabilities in Singapore alone, all looking for roles, all looking for opportunities across various different skill sets but are never really on the radar, for example, and it’s not a blame thing. 

It’s just that there’s an opportunity because that can also then lead to culture and other things…there’s an opportunity there to really put your brand ahead of this. But then you need to back it up with your hiring strategy. They’re not just hiring the same demographic. You have to look broader. So that inclusivity piece is easy to say in a boardroom and then be pushed down the agenda.”

Hybrid Working: “I think COVID and everything else which went with it has enabled hybrid working much more easily across the region as a whole, which has opened up different talent pools, which maybe didn’t necessarily weren’t on the radar before should have been but weren’t and now are becoming more so.” 

This creativity extends to retention and specifically benefits as there is greater incentive for organizations to invest in retention.

Karen emphasizes the differences in benefits post-COVID:“I think benefits today compared to yesterday’s are actually different. And there’s no one size fits all, like I always said, it’s like a couple of years ago, the typical benefit that an employee, employer would give is health insurance. That’s nice to have for some companies, for some it’s a must. But the benefits changed, especially after COVID, I think, a lot of people are looking for more flexibility and other types of benefits.”

Olly shares examples from the Philippines (preference for healthcare benefits) and Indonesia (impact of homegrown unicorns emerging) on how markets need to be assessed individually when it comes to figuring out incentive structures. 

“On the other side of it, companies are now doing what we’re seeing, quite rightly, is with the market uncertainties and conditions going on, that drive for profit and cost management is clearly essential. So putting more emphasis on the incentive side of the package rather than the guaranteed basic soon enables you to see who has the mindset that is based around growth and origination rather than just another job.”

Philippines: “But it also depends on the markets…You do need to judge each market on its merits…In the Philippines, for example, healthcare is a huge part of the benefits package of people will not move jobs unless the health care at least matches or Improves but in some other markets people are very happy to take a cash allowance and make their own decision on where they want to spend it whether it’s on health care whether it’s on transport, whatever it might be and this goes back again.”

Indonesia: “In Indonesia it is quite interesting that the unicorns dominated the talent landscape for a few years. And it was very much partly, part of the national pride of building a unicorn. And we rode that wave as well. We hired significantly into those companies across tech. commercial across the back office that is really changed now. So if you’re a tech firm right now looking to hire in Indonesia, it’s actually a candidate market.

So there’s a lot of candidates where that dream hasn’t quite materialized who are clearly on the market again, as some of these unicorns are still downsizing. So if you were hiring in Indonesia two years ago, it was very scarce and people were able to ask for 40-50 percent increases on salary and often they were paid that, which is partly why these companies are having to re-engineer or reverse their whole policy.

So it’s an interesting world at the moment, because in Indonesia, if I’m a tech startup right now, the perfect time to go and hire Indonesia, because you’ve got the talent pool. – Olly Riches

Yes, there’s elections and there’s other things coming on, but we know with Indonesia, invariably, there’s a stability which carries through you’ve got to be a little bit brave with your shareholders to explain to them that, we’re going to get going now. Don’t wait. If you wait for after the election, everybody will then be aligning again. And then the talent comes scarce again.” 

Olly wraps up his thoughts on benefits pointing out the shift in mindset among employees and how that plays into the employer’s benefit.

“Incentivized packages are becoming the norm and that’s across not just sales and marketing. That’s across all industrial disciplines linked to the growth and success of the company. People are wanting loyalty these days because people for the first time in some of these markets have seen colleagues being made redundant, which they’d never seen before. And as a result, that sort of risk appetite is a little bit less. So they are looking for longer term stability and an opportunity to build a career. That plays all to the employer’s benefit.”

Another example of creativity in action is an emerging trend of companies hiring for “Commercial HR” leaders. In other words, companies are prioritizing industry and operational experience rather than HR background when filling in HR leadership roles.

Olly explains further: “But the challenge now is how do you find HR who are commercial? And that I will agree is there’s a shortage of candidates in that…So HR is a big conundrum…we are seeing companies starting to take some risks and taking people from outside HR and bringing them in because the people strategy is absolutely fundamental. So it’s not a sideways move for somebody coming from supply chain or finance or wherever it might be.

I’ve often seen that once it’s explained, it’s quite a good career move for somebody. And we meet and there are HR directors out there who’ve only had one or two years experience in HR and 15 years experience elsewhere. That. consultancy firms as well. There are obviously HR consultancy firms. They tend to be a good source for this as well for the smaller sized businesses where the HR side of things isn’t actually that complex.”

2: Compliance across Southeast Asia markets demands flexibility in hiring strategy and clarity in expansion strategy.

This is the biggest challenge our panelists see in expanding into and across Southeast Asia, but it can be mitigated with (1) the right local partners on the ground, (2) clarity on the kind of work needed from a particular market (functional or operational), and (3) flexibility in approaches to acquiring talent (consultants, EOR, etc.).

Karen emphasizes there is no one-size-fits-all with varying labor laws across markets: “So doing business in Singapore is not the same as doing business in Indonesia or Malaysia or Vietnam or Philippines, right? And so are the labor laws. So when you hire someone in Singapore, we talk about CPF and we talk very quite straightforward. But when you talk about hiring someone in Vietnam, there are a series of different statutory funds that come into place.”

Thomas agrees with Karen and extends this discussion to setting up entities and bank accounts across countries: “[Compliance] is a significant issue that most of our clients and partners deal with on a regular basis. To the word compliance, I would add fragmentation.

Southeast Asia is a very diverse region…laws in one place are not the same as any other, and that affects financial services as well. – Thomas Jeng

Perhaps in some ways, even before you add people, or actually maybe after you add people, given what Deel can do, you do want to set up entities in the region. You do want to set up bank accounts in the region, so you can receive funding, you can receive revenue, you can pay your people.

“And so that you can have your people spend money as well in order to grow the business in the region, which presumably you’re trying to do. Even if you’re using it as an operational hub or engineering hub, as is often the case, you still need to pay your people. That actually adds a whole layer of difficulty given how different, and in some cases, how stringent banking regulations can be.

Even in a place like Singapore, which is one of the most business friendly environments in the world, it can take up to two to three months, sometimes even four to six months for companies with foreign directors to create a bank account. And so that leads to a lot of challenges for people that are trying to get operational. 

I actually faced this personally when I was trying to set up a business in the region creating a corporate entity in Singapore, no problem, but creating a bank account took us like two to three months, which actually led to the delay of a key project that we were trying to drive. And so this is a challenge I know firsthand.”

Navigating the complexity of compliance in Southeast Asia for Aspire has meant (1) tighter hiring strategy, (2) balancing cost-effectiveness with availability o talent, and (3) active (flying) management. 

“Our strategy so far has been a little bit multi dimensional. On the one hand. We try to ensure that client facing teams and market facing teams are in the market with the clients as much as possible. On the other hand, for operational or engineering teams, we do try to balance cost effectiveness as well as availability of talent. And so in order to do that, we’ve created clusters throughout the region. Ops in Malaysia and Indonesia and engineering in Vietnam as well as India.

And so in all of these cases, we do try to have senior leaders visit. We try to fly some of the managerial talent around the region as well to make sure that they’re staying in touch with the rest of the organization. For client facing teams, whenever we do have remote teams, we do try to get them together and do whatever we can through swag, through events, through activities, through visits by senior leadership. Help them make them feel like they are part of the organization as a whole.” 

Karen also shares how flexibility is important when it comes to mix-and-matching hiring approaches (using consultant vs EOR, etc.): “Ultimately today, when you look at the talent landscape, you sometimes can’t find the talent on shore, be it for costs or even skill set. So as a business owner you have to diversify. And that’s what we’ve seen. So now there’s a lot of hires that actually are being hired outside of Singapore, outside of their home country because they can’t find them [locally]. So that’s one. 

I would say then once they find the talent, it would be maybe to define their work status. So today, as we know, we always talk about full time employment. I’m a full time employee with the company. I get paid my CPF and that’s it. I have 20 days of annual leave and that’s it. I think today the workforce has changed especially when it comes to tech, where a lot of workers are willing to work on a consultant basis. So that for you as a founder if you are operating a business that could be actually a good middle ground.

So the fact that you need to go and open an entity just to get a few people on board. And as Thomas was saying, opening the entity could be easy, but then getting a bank account is a different story. And getting someone to manage that office.

So all of those today you need to consider. And that’s why one of our core services, the employment of record actually came about, and it’s very popular today amongst companies. So I think in terms of admin, absolutely. And when it comes to people as well, you need to make sure again to go back to compliance, making sure they have the right employment contract, be the consultancy agreement, that they have the right infrastructure to work from. Even if you’re working from home, how do you disperse equipment?”

3: Consolidation is key to managing cross-border operations.

Leverage platforms to streamline financial management across markets. It also applies to HR management, where the function is most effective in a lean organization when HR is able to cross-pollinate learnings from various teams to build up incentive structures and policies.

Thomas speaks to the importance of figuring out how to align operations, budgeting, and accounting of different entities: “Even moving beyond [setting up a bank account], once you have to make, set up and you have teams all throughout the region, which is very common you then have to figure out how to get all of them on the same page, make sure they’re working with similar budgets and there’s transparency across everything and certainly accountability control. And because you have likely have people scattered throughout so many different places that becomes an extra and even greater level of difficulty as well. 

It gets honestly very complicated very quickly once you’re in multiple entities across multiple countries. As in addition to the local operations you’re dealing with you have all sorts of financial controls that you’re trying to make standard across your different teams. You have to deal with tax issues, and so there are implications for the different intra company transfers that you’re doing as well. And our advice on this is that, first of all, there’s really no magic bullet in the region to some extent. You do have to bear the cost of that fragmentation to the extent that you need to though there are a few ways to simplify it. 

As Karen would probably tell you, for EOR providers, you can get like one single bill. That’s what you’re looking for as well. And so that can ease a lot of financial processing fees. If you’re using something like the Aspire platform, where you have a unified ERP system like NetSuite, you can do reconciliation across the group of companies or throughout the region or throughout the world more easily as well.

On the Aspire side, as you try to scale across different units or across different countries, you can take the same platform and issue corporate cards, issue budgets to different people ensuring visibility as well as control throughout your scaling process. It tends to be easier than trying to replicate things through spreadsheets or through Google Docs throughout each different country.

We’ve had several successful case studies like Glint, which recently used this in their operations throughout the region, saving a lot of time on manual work and making sure that their teams are well trained on budgets, leading to greater fiscal responsibility, even while empowering the spend more quickly…the overall gist of things is wherever it makes sense, do try to use a unified platform as possible.”

HR is a must. It’s not an accessory anymore. Especially when you’re looking at hybrid teams, remote teams. You need someone to actually contain all of this. – Karen Ng

Thomas shares his experience at Aspire leveraging is own role in commercial to empower their HR function, tying back to Olly’s point on developing more “commercial HR” functions.

“I’ve been around Aspire for about 18 months now…Over the past 18 months, I have seen a significant increase in the consistency of our organization and the way that we operate as we’ve added more HR resources and have empowered HR in some ways to be more of a strategic leader.

When I first joined Aspire, one of the first things I did was actually create a career progression approach or career progression ladder for the commercial teams that led and that was quite important for ensuring that people felt like they had a stake in progression and in the in the success of the organization because as they proved themselves, they would be able to advance their careers as well. 

And that’s what even relatively small teams HR has now taken the lead to expand that sort of initiative throughout the rest of the organization. I have been a key thought partner for the commercial leadership in making sure that we do have something in place for people which has helped to improve retention, improve overall performance, and just generally keep people happy in ways that are more than just financial.”

Stay tuned for the full conversation coming out on our podcast in the next few weeks! You can sign up for our newsletter or follow us on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or YouTube.

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Paulo Joquiño is a writer and content producer for tech companies, and co-author of the book Navigating ASEANnovation. He is currently Editor of Insignia Business Review, the official publication of Insignia Ventures Partners, and senior content strategist for the venture capital firm, where he started right after graduation. As a university student, he took up multiple work opportunities in content and marketing for startups in Asia. These included interning as an associate at G3 Partners, a Seoul-based marketing agency for tech startups, running tech community engagements at coworking space and business community, ASPACE Philippines, and interning at workspace marketplace FlySpaces. He graduated with a BS Management Engineering at Ateneo de Manila University in 2019.