The “intentional” culture driving Gojek and its Chief People Officer


His “journey of a thousand miles” did not begin with a single step. It all began (and very almost ended) with a walking tour at a heavily unionised bottling factory. 

On the first day of an HR internship, Sunil Setlur was taken aside by a union representative who mistakenly took him for a new HR manager. The representative explained that some workers may not turn up for shifts, but should still be paid, and the HR team should simply look the other way. 

Setlur says the traumatic exchange made him second guess his career choice back in his university days. But after swapping out of that particular internship, he rekindled his love for HR, learning and development, and organisational culture.

As the Chief People Officer for multi-service tech platform Gojek, he brings a reinvented workplace culture that stays true to the company’s tagline: “Solving life’s daily frictions.” 

In this exclusive interview with Chief of Staff Asia, Setlur explains why Gojek is an employer of choice not just in its regional headquarters of Indonesia but also in Singapore and across Southeast Asia. He highlights the purpose-driven culture that he is driving across the company’s workforce.

Reconnecting with the mission

COS Asia: What are your big priorities as an HR team?

Setlur: We’re coming off the tail-end of the pandemic, with the ways of working now fundamentally changed. 

We have a vast swath of people who haven’t yet experienced Gojek in its traditional form — they haven’t come into the office. Their primary interactions have been with immediate team members. So, we’re focusing a lot on helping them “reconnect to purpose”. 

We’re a very mission- and purpose-oriented organisation. Everything that we do immediately has a very visible and tangible social impact. I think that’s an exciting part of why people stay at Gojek. 

The new folks need to get that energy again through the social interactions in the offices, but we also find creative ways of reaching people in their homes. Hybrid working is here to stay, and we are an online business as much as we are an offline business. Not everything can be done remotely or needs to be done in the office. 

Also, we are doubling down on learning. We want people to feel like this is a place where they can experience professional development; partly, in response to not having those tacit organic learning moments with senior peers (over the last two years).

The last piece is, maybe, a Gojek-specific thing. We’re in transition from being a startup to a scale-up, more mature business, with a continuous drive on making work delightful. We want to solve customer or product problems through digitalisation and re-looking at our policies.

COS Asia: When you mentioned those priorities, what would a program there might look like? 

Setlur: We’re doing a couple of things. One is, we have this unique opportunity in the gig space so people can experience our product as a customer, a driver, or a merchant. We are introducing a driver-for-a-day programme. So, if you want to be a Gojek driver for a day and you work in a country where that product is available, you can take part. The programme meaningfully connects people to the ecosystem that these folks operate in. 

I think a lot of our employees use our product very devoutly and take big bets, such as ordering special anniversary dinners on GoFood. So, we encourage people to take those big bets, create stories around them, and share those stories within the organisation. 

The second way is significant and old-fashioned. This is our culture; our values are embedded a little more explicitly in existing processes like recognition, performance management, hiring rubrics, and making it more visible and tactile, effectively. The challenge is doing that for someone at home, whose only connection to the company is via a computer screen. 

We have many different things, such as gamified online modules with a little avatar that goes through experiences. We talked about hybrid working. Most employees at Gojek will (now) work from home most of the time. Our offices are going to look more like coworking spaces. So, you can just book a meeting room or a desk, show up, and use the facility. 

COS Asia: Is that every office throughout the region and, potentially, the world?

Setlur: Yes. That’s for all our offices. Some of this is role-dependent. You can’t work from home if you’re required to meet customers or drivers, or run field operations. But for roles where you can, that option is now available.

Gojek: Purpose-driven culture for the New Normal

The passionate leader explains the values and strategy behind its purpose-driven work culture.

COS Asia: What is the “intentional purpose-driven work culture?” Is that something that existed before the pandemic and is now being adapted to these new ways of working?

Setlur: The company grew very rapidly. As we added more people, locations, product areas, and senior leadership from outside, the foundational culture still exists, but it became organic. You have to be more intentional with asynchronous and remote working, where different people engage in different formats and time zones. It goes back to talking about our values more intentionally and being more explicit in the way we do things. 

If you asked anyone in Gojek in 2018 about the one thing the company does, he’ll say it makes the world a better place. For our product users, Gojek makes life more convenient. For our service providers, merchants, and drivers, Gojek gives them access to economic and social mobility and financial inclusion. 

We’ve done things like the monthly town hall with the CEO. We have “Impact Spotlight” featuring showcases, case studies, and people on board. We got a driver to talk about how Gojek has made his life better or not better. We do a lot of that stuff that’s helping build momentum and a sense of connectedness to something greater.

COS Asia: What makes Gojek an employer of choice?

Setlur: Here, people have authorship over what they do. We give people a voice that’s heard and taken seriously. People have a very real sense of changing the environment they work in and have a say in the decisions that influence how products are shipped and developed.

COS Asia: What would you say has been the crowning achievement or a progression? If it’s a progression, what’s the end goal at the end of your term?

Setlur: It’s a few things. When I joined Gojek, acquisitions drove part of our growth. Over the last two and a half years or so, the big achievements have been the universal standards, moving to common jobs and career architecture, a common performance management system, and a common compensation and benefit system. 

Professionalising management is another. We are bringing in people who operated technology organisations at scale, helping them to succeed and take the company to the next level. 

I think the third piece is around the pandemic being rough on our business, micro-mobility, and on-demand services. Keeping our core workforce engaged and intact, our engagement rate didn’t fall, staying the same for two and a half years in a row. It got better every year in key areas that we’re tracking. Maintaining and sustaining that momentum successfully, switching into pandemic-induced creativity, is how we work. Gojek has a very inclusive culture, and the pandemic has had a very democratising effect in the workplace that has played to our strengths. People felt Gojek in its total glory during the pandemic. 

At the end of this, I would love to have done something attributable and measurable. We have a few of those baking in the oven, with a direct impact on how our product manifested in the real world and how millions of people experienced life. That’s, sort of, the end game. We constantly build towards that in a very real sense of the word.

COS Asia: Can you share about those programs that are in the works?

Setlur: It’s around creating a product empathy-oriented culture, how to build empathy at scale. And the second is, just taking Conway’s law to its logical evolution. Say, if you ship your org structure, what are you shipping? Are you proud of it? (Conway’s Law: “Organizations, who design systems, are constrained to produce designs which are copies of the communication structures of these organizations.” Fred Brooks popularized it in the iconic book, The Mythical Man Month.)

HR lessons from a Bottling Plant internship

Setlur shares more about how he started in HR, including a tense encounter on the first day of a student internship.

COS Asia: How long have you been in the role?

Setlur: Two and a half years in Gojek, and about a year and a half in my current role.

COS Asia: How and why did you get into HR?

Setlur: I always wanted to be in HR. I studied Industrial Relations because I went to a very lefty communist-led college. It was all about the workers’ paradise and labour rights. I joined colleges and interned at an unionised bottling plant. I think the union rep thought I was the new HR manager. He toured me around the facilities that ended at the backside of the factory. No one was there. He put his arm around me and said, “Sometimes my friends will not be here, but the timesheet will show that they’re here. We’re okay, right? This won’t be a problem, right?” 

My uni had a rule: submit a 5,000-word paper or intern. I picked what I thought was the easier option, interned, and quickly ran back after that. Then I wasn’t sure I wanted to do HR because that experience was traumatic.

But Accenture had a management development program for HR trainees. I joined. I didn’t fully fathom how much of a problem-solving, service-oriented job it was. We were designing frameworks and solutions. 

Then I switched roles. I was an HR rep, and I turned to the executive learning and development team. I saw the very tangible impact those programmes had on senior executives and their behaviour in the organisation, how that changed culture, business strategy, people interaction, and the quality of people’s experience. That’s when I fell in love with it. I stayed. It’s only gotten more fun the longer I’ve been in it.


Getting to know: Sunil Setlur

Job title: Chief People Officer

Company: Gojek

Location: Singapore

Years in the role: One-and-a-half

Family status: Married, with a one-year-old child

Academic background: Bachelor’s degree in Industrial Relations and Economics, postgraduate certification in Human Capital Management from the Xavier School of Management

Favourite HR gurus: I get a lot more inspiration from product management leaders, and design thinkers, people who have built companies such as Bruce Mao, and Ray Dalio, and how they think about things.

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Chief of Staff Asia