Today, Booking Holdings, a leading travel solutions platform, inaugurated its first Center of Excellence (CoE) in Bangalore, India, with plans to invest $250 million in innovation, workforce development, and emerging technologies over the next five years. The organization already employs over 800 workers in India across offices in Bengaluru, Gurgaon, Mumbai, and New Delhi. It aims to triple the headcount at the Bengaluru CoE, currently housing 320 employees.
In an exclusive interaction with People Matters, Paulo Pisano, Chief Human Resources Officer at Booking Holdings Inc., shared insights into employee-centric policies, continuous learning opportunities for future readiness, talent needs, and long-term plans for cultivating a thriving workplace in India.
Here are the edited excerpts:
Could you discuss the specific policies at Booking Holdings designed to enhance employee experience and foster growth? Please elaborate on how these policies contribute to cultivating a positive and inclusive work culture.
At Booking Holdings, our mission is to make it easier for everyone to experience the world. We understand the friction in travel and aim to create a seamless experience, starting from the moment you explore opportunities. Our diverse range of brands caters to customers worldwide, fostering a belief that travel is a force for good. As a two-sided marketplace, we connect travellers with partners such as hotels, experiences, car rentals, and more. Our commitment to customer-centricity begins with our employees' experience at Booking.
In recognizing the competitive nature of the job market, we acknowledge that employees have choices. Thus, we aim to create an inclusive environment where individuals from diverse backgrounds can bring their whole selves to work. This inclusivity, we believe, leads to increased discretionary effort and focus.
To achieve this, we employ various strategies, from the recruitment process and global market presence to investing in management development. Our benefits align with market standards, offering competitive compensation tied to performance. Moreover, we provide growth opportunities through formal and on-the-job learning experiences.
Behind our policies lies a crucial mindset that prioritizes engaging with our workforce in a meaningful way. We understand that fostering the right environment is as vital as the policies themselves.
Could you share insights into Booking Holdings' upskilling opportunities for talent preparedness? Can you provide examples, and what strategies prove most effective in this pursuit?
Booking Holdings has seamlessly incorporated Artificial Intelligence (AI) into various aspects of our operations for several years. This integration aims to enhance product quality and experiences for both travellers and partners. As a born-digital company, unlike non-digital native counterparts, we are inherently integrated into the digital landscape.
Previously, I worked in the energy sector, where technologies like AI and large language models were transforming job roles, requiring significant upskilling and development. However, in a digital-native company like Booking, the need for upskilling is not as radical. Our employees, especially those in the technology space, benefit from continuous learning opportunities.
We actively collaborate with various providers and foster peer-to-peer learning. The focus is not merely on adapting to new technologies but on embracing continuous learning. Over our 25-plus years, technology has consistently evolved, making the need for urgent or radical upskilling less pronounced compared to non-digital organizations experiencing workforce composition changes due to rapid technological shifts.
Please provide a comprehensive overview of the necessity for effective talent assessment in the Indian market. Additionally, share the long-term vision for talent acquisition, development, and retention in the India region.
Booking Holdings is making a substantial long-term investment in India with the establishment of our CoE in Bengaluru. This initiative involves a projected investment of $250 million USD over the next five years.
Our plan includes significant growth in headcount, aiming to expand from the current 300 employees to a total of 1,000 jobs by 2026. What sets us apart is our commitment to creating high-value, career-oriented positions rather than opting for lower-value-added roles.
Unlike some companies that historically established operations in Bengaluru for cost advantages, our perspective is different. We aim to build a robust structure that fosters collaboration across our diverse brands globally, including Booking.com, Priceline, Agoda, Kayak, and OpenTable.
Recognizing the competitive talent market in India, we are drawn not only to the skills of outstanding universities but also to the development opportunities provided by reputable companies in the region. Our focus is on creating interesting, impactful roles spanning fintech, data, software engineering, security, infrastructure, product development, mobile technology, and professional services.
This diverse range of positions aligns with the varied talent pool in India, and we are enthusiastic about tapping into this rich resource. Our ambition is long-term, emphasizing career growth for individuals. As we expand the headcount and scale our operations, we foresee ample opportunities for professional development within our organization.
In your experience, what strategies effectively build an engaged and thriving work culture with equal opportunities for career progression? Additionally, could you provide insights into gender inclusivity initiatives in the workplace?
For us, it all begins with talent acquisition, and we take pride in being recognized as a high-talent-density organization. Our commitment to diversity extends beyond geographic boundaries, fostering a truly diverse workforce. While skills and experience are crucial, we place equal emphasis on attitude. We seek individuals with ambition, a collaborative mindset, and a commitment to achieving results collectively—a reflection of our "one team" philosophy.
Even before delving into specific HR programs, we believe that surrounding oneself with like-minded, collaborative individuals is key to creating an engaging and retentive work environment. Nonetheless, we actively develop programs to support this ethos. Our dedicated diversity, equity, and inclusion teams operate not only at the holding level but also within each brand and region, including India.
Initiatives within these programs span from training managers, recruiters, and HR personnel in understanding unconscious bias to using AI to enhance the inclusivity of our job descriptions. By adopting neutral language, we aim to engage a diverse talent pool effectively. Internally, we continue to learn and adapt.
Our equity-focused initiatives, particularly those geared towards women in leadership, are integral to our commitment. Structured programs, both in-person and virtual, connect women leaders from across the organization, providing a platform for shared learning and exposure to leadership levels. We recognize the importance of fostering women in technology and have tailored programs combining formal learning, mentoring, and coaching to address the specific challenges in this space.
Moreover, our Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) cover a variety of themes, including women, Black employees, Asian employees, Latinx employees, LGBTQ+ individuals, and those facing accessibility challenges. These ERGs contribute to a dynamic ecosystem of learning and support. What sets our approach apart is its inclusivity, with employees actively contributing their knowledge, resources, and networks to uplift each other.
As we expand our operations in India, we're excited about replicating and building upon this vibrant ecosystem, ensuring a supportive and collaborative work environment for our growing team.
Amid the pandemic and its aftermath, could you share insights into the employee well-being initiatives, especially for the sandwich generation or caregivers? How does your organization address and support the unique needs of employees during this time?
The pandemic presented unprecedented challenges for all of us. In 2020, when I joined Booking, right as the gravity of the situation became apparent, one of my initial decisions was to close 200 offices globally, transitioning everyone to remote work. Despite the digital nature of our work, challenges arose, especially for functions like customer support with specific office setups. Our response was deliberate. Unlike some tech firms making quick decisions, we took our time and established strong communication channels. Interestingly, our engagement scores surged at the pandemic's onset, indicating that our enhanced communication and leadership visibility resonated well. We prioritized transparency, acknowledging uncertainties and fostering trust.
Adapting to remote work brought challenges in balancing family responsibilities, even though employees were at home. We focused on guiding managers to support their teams, favouring good judgment over rigid policies. As we emerge from the pandemic, we are discussing new ways of working and have introduced a hybrid model, recognizing diverse job needs.
Flexibility is paramount in accommodating personal responsibilities, whether caring for family or pursuing other interests. This flexibility aligns with our emphasis on accountability and ownership, treating employees as adults capable of managing their responsibilities. Regular feedback and data help us fine-tune our approach over time.
On the benefits front, we introduced the Global Life Events Benefits initiative, recognizing different life phases necessitate different forms of support. This includes 22 weeks of parental leave for both parents, a grandparent leave, care leave, and bereavement leave. These benefits extend globally, contributing not only to our employees' well-being but also advocating for positive changes in the broader marketplace.
Moreover, we take pride in our Volunteer Time Off program, allowing employees to contribute time to initiatives aligned with our mission and values. This initiative has generated over 10,000 hours of voluntary work this year alone, reflecting our commitment to flexibility that goes beyond personal care to include supporting meaningful causes.
What is your primary focus for cultivating a thriving work culture at Booking Holdings India's Center of Excellence (CoE)?
Our primary focus for India is establishing a strong foundation. We are delighted with the talented team we have, mainly comprised of engineers and architects shaping this new office. It's crucial to note that this culture isn't a replication of Booking.com, Priceline, Kayak, or even Booking Holdings' Connecticut culture. Instead, it's a unique blend, incorporating the best aspects from across the organization and adding something new from our Indian employees.
The main priority is to intentionally shape a culture that resonates deeply with the team, fostering pride and strong connections. This culture is organic, evolving through daily actions, collaborations, and individual contributions. While policies and benefits play a role, the emphasis is on creating an engaging culture aligned with the COE's mission to make a significant impact globally.
We're thrilled with the remarkable talent we've connected with in India, appreciating the diversity of backgrounds and industries. As the team grows from the current 300 to potentially over a thousand, each member contributes to building this culture from the ground up, making it an exciting and collaborative endeavour.