At one end of the AirAsia office, lies an employee on a bean bag, taking - what is presumed - an afternoon nap. At the other end, saunters in Tony Fernandes, in very casual clothing.
The carrier chief did once say that formal attire ‘builds distance’ between bosses and staff.
“I dont think if you put these in other offices people are going to do that,” Tony says about the sleeping employee. “They have to feel comfortable, relaxed to be able to be themselves.”
Tony Fernandes: I Surround Myself with Great People
During the interview, Tony repeatedly credits his employees - called Allstars – as contributors to AirAsia’s success. And a workplace that allows them to freely express, innovate and be different - in other words, ‘be themselves’ - is imperative to enabling the organisation to thrive, says Tony.
We want individuals, we want people who speak up. We want people who have fun, people who don’t mind falling asleep on a bean bag
“The message to everyone watching is, you don't need to have this,” Tony says of the slide and bean bags in the 18,000 square metres open-plan office, called RedQ.
“I don’t want to be focused on this office. Most important is the culture that we've created and this office is a celebration of that culture.”
The culture, he says, began back in 2001 when AirAsia first started operations from its Subang Airport office, with two planes and a staff of 250. The budget carrier currently employs a 20,000 strong workforce in the region, with RedQ as home to over two thousand.
“If you look at our cabin crew walking by, they all look different. If you look at other airlines, they look the same right? Same bun in the hair, same nail polish. So, we want individuals, we want people who speak up. We want people who have fun, people who don’t mind falling asleep on a bean bag.”
Tony, widely regarded as the man who democratised air travel in Asia, espouses a simple philosophy, “If the staff are happy, they are going to look after your customers anyway, right?”
Nonetheless, in a environment where job-hopping is becoming the norm for the average twenty and thirty something, surely, providing bean bags, sleeping pods and free food will not be enough to keep talents from jumping at opportunities elsewhere.
There’s very little division between an intern - a person starting at the bottom - and me
“It’s getting harder and harder with so much happening. But I will still make it a point to go see my staff to find out if they are happy,” says Tony.
“Whether we had 200 staff or 20,000 staff, whether we have two planes or 200 planes, I am the same person. And I think that’s another thing - ego is a big killer in Asian companies.”
“There’s very little division between an intern - a person starting at the bottom - and me. I was looking at my messenger today and I have three interns send me a Workplace message,” citing the business collaboration application developed by Facebook.
“I don’t think that happens in many organisations,” says Tony. “Maybe not even yours,” he drives the point home.
Tony Fernandes on What Keeps Him Up At Night
“The biggest thing that I see on social media - which comes as second nature to all of us at AirAsia - is whenever I do something, people say ‘wow, you are so down to earth’ or ‘you're so humble’, I don’t think we are doing anything special, ‘says the PR-savvy Tony.
He was commenting on a viral video of him speaking to AirAsia’s staff, advising them to carefully handle passengers’ luggage. The luggage handlers responded by posting photos of them in the act of planting kisses on suitcases emerging from the belly of AirAsia aircraft , which also went viral.
Transparency and meritocracy, I think, is what young people want
“I think young people want approachable bosses - people who are going to listen and help them develop their careers, people who are open and transparent and who can give them mobility to try different things.”
Talent retention, says Tony, is a challenge but AirAsia, he believes, has done a good job providing opportunities to employees to move around and experience different roles.
“You go back to 1974, the Dutch football team - which I think is the greatest football team that never won a World Cup - everyone could play in every position. A left back could be a striker, a striker could be a left back. That’s the kind of concept that I think young people want.”
“A cabin crew could be become marketing person, a marketing person could become a cabin crew. We just had a communications girl who wants to be a cabin crew. So what does that all mean? Movement of career, movement of labour,” he adds.
“Transparency and meritocracy, I think, is what young people want. Hopefully, we are doing a bit of that here.”
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