WHEN Michelle Yeo started working at Itel BPO as head of the Human Resource Department in 2014, the founder and CEO of the company, Yoni Epstein, said to her, “Michelle, make the people want to come to work.”
But while the business process outsourcing (BPO) industry has been booming in Jamaica, it also has one of the highest job turnover rates. Support and sales agents provide one-on-one assistance to the clients' customers, which can be a very stress-inducing, emotionally taxing experience for them. Many agents hate their jobs. Yeo had a mammoth of a task ahead of her to not only find the right employees for the ever-expanding venture, but to keep them motivated and interested enough to stay on the job.
“I was tasked with the job of creating a department that matched the vision of the company and where he was going,” Yeo reflected. “So I revamped the entire department — everything we did, how we did things. And we're not HR. We are the people success department.”
When she started at Itel, the burgeoning company had just over 300 employees, and within just five years, Yeo has led the expansion of the team to now over 2,300 on-site staff members in Montego Bay, Kingston, the Bahamas, and Mexico, and remote agents across the United States.
“We have one of the lowest attrition rates in the industry, which I would like to take all credit for, but I can't,” the proud HR manager smiled.
“It goes back to our company culture and how we really perform as a management team — the open door policy, people being heard — it's really just how we treat our people.”
Treating people well had always been an innate passion for Yeo, whose surname was Meany before she got married 18 years ago. From as early as she could remember, while growing up in Clarendon, she had a passion for helping people. After graduating from Immaculate Conception High, she decided to go into hospitality.
She spent a year as an entertainment coordinator at Sandals in Montego Bay, after which she decided that she wanted to become a hotel manager, and went to pursue that goal by studying hospitality and tourism at CAST (now the University of Technology), after which she sought a job in a hotel.
“But the hotel industry at the time had a lull. They weren't hiring anyone. Air Jamaica at the time was growing, so I did an interview with them and I joined Air Jamaica as a flight attendant,” she recollected.
Yeo stayed on at Air Jamaica for 15 years, eventually being promoted to a purser, until Caribbean Airlines took it over in 2011. While there, she acquired her bachelor's degree in hospitality and tourism management with Nova Southeastern University.
“Then I got a job with a call centre as an acting manager,” she shared with All Woman.
“I didn't have any call centre experience, so I started working in the different departments. The first department I went to was HR. At the time they didn't really have a HR department — there was somebody there, but she didn't have a background in HR either.”
After two weeks the other person left the job, leaving Yeo in the deep end all by herself. She had to either learn how to be a HR manager or the business would sink with her.
“Google and the Ministry of Labour were my best friends when I was learning everything,” she chuckled. “I developed all the policies, procedures, rules and regulations for the company, and developed the department from the ground up.”
Four years later, Yeo left that company and was hired by Epstein to make his people want to come to work. Yeo not only did that, but she made more people want to come, too. Each year Itel has increased its staff by 117 per cent.
“Keeping up with the rapid growth has been a challenge,” she admitted. “Because I have to make sure that while we're having that high growth rate, we also keep our values in place. I also have to make sure that I'm putting the right people in the right jobs, and not just filling seats, because if you only fill seats, then attrition starts.”
Another challenge for the 47-year-old woman has been bridging the generation gap between senior management in the company and her youthful staff, whose average age is 24 years old.
“I'm not a millennial, so I have to learn about them. What do they want? What are their drivers? What are their motivations? What keeps them going? We have to make sure we're fulfilling all of those, because that again drives retention, which is what is most important for us,” she explained.
Up to 80 per cent of the staff complement at Itel, and in many similar businesses, is female. This, the mother of two shared, is not a challenge, because she can relate to them.
“Some of our young women are mothers, some are single mothers, and they are breadwinners for their families,” Yeo pointed out.
“As a mother speaking to another mother, it is very easy to relate to things that might come up, such as, 'My daughter is sick, can I change my shift?' Or something might be happening in a home environment. I don't treat them differently because they are women, because everyone is treated individually, but it makes it a bit easier for me to relate to them.”
Her own family comprises of her husband, her 19-year-old son and 16-year-old daughter, and her 'extra son', a family friend who she has helped to raise for the last decade. Between them and her mother, who also lives with her, Yeo has a strong support system around her, which helps her to achieve her career goals confidently.
“I had to have a really great support system in place because I wasn't always going to be there,” she stated. “My husband, especially, has always been a pillar of strength for me.”
Yeo thanks her parents, who raised her and her two older brothers in a loving home, for providing her with a template for how to run her home. Her father, who worked at the Monymusk sugar factory while her mom stayed at home, passed away some years ago.
As one who is always considering how she can help more people, Yeo uses her capacity as chief people officer at Itel to steer her team to participate in a number of outreach activities. Breast cancer and autism awareness are particularly dear causes to her because of the people in her life.
“My aunt had breast cancer, and at the time she was fighting it we were very close, and I went through that with her,” she shared. “And then in the last couple of years my sister-in-law got diagnosed. And a close friend of mine got diagnosed. And I guess we're at that age now as women that more and more of our friends might develop it.”
It was an autistic classmate of her daughter's that first brought autism to her attention.
“She became his great friend and wanted to be there and support him,” the proud mother beamed. “And it brought awareness to me, and then I needed to share it with everybody, because while you can't change it, you can still bring awareness to it.”
Yeo, who has grown acclimatised to working in a fast paced environment, uses her rare moments of inactivity to recharge her body and mind. She visits the beach occasionally, and reads to feed her mind. She is convinced that her purpose in life is to use her experiences and expertise to help people become better individuals.
“With what I've learned at 47, I can talk to a 20 year old and share the mistakes that I made and learned from. It's important to help others. We all can help someone else in at least one aspect, whether supporting them, encouraging them, sharing experiences with them, or teaching them things that they don't necessarily know. And if you get this, it helps with your purpose in life. I think the more people you can touch, it's the better the world will be.”