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Pushing boundaries in the IT Sector

02.03.2012  10:21

By Poul Kjar

Buyers of exclusive New York apartments probably do not know that the real estate agent's glittering sales advertisements might have been made by a Vietnamese wheelchair user or former drug addict. But it very well could be, due to the strategic CSR of the Hanoi-based graphic company Esoftflow.

Right from the start, the Danish-owned company focused on CSR when it set up its business in Vietnam four years ago together with a Vietnamese partner. The company outlined strategic objectives for the employment of disabled people and the retention of staff. The 7 staff at the time produced simple graphic material for Danish real estate agents. Today Esoftflow employs 150 Vietnamese staff who make image and video-editing and 3D visualisations for clients all over the world, including some of the most exclusive real estate agents in New York.

Danish CEO Thomas Frisenberg feels not a little pride at the achievement. The financial and social objectives have largely been met. The company makes a profit, and 10 percent of the staff are disabled. Esoftflow is now also involved in a project where they train and employ former prostitutes and drug addicts, who today are functioning as desktoppers on equal terms with their other colleagues. And that naturally raises a multitude of questions for Thomas Frisenberg:

What is the connection between the bottom line and your CSR activities?
I cannot put a figure on it. But I know it makes sense to the company, also on the bottom line. Our key staff say that it is our CSR activities that retain them, even though they are offered jobs with competitors at a higher salary. They are proud of us for taking social responsibility. Our staff turnover for all staff groups is very low compared to the industry average in Vietnam – less than eight percent annually. Retention of staff is fundamental to our financial success because it takes time and is expensive to train new staff. The same applies to recruitment. When people hear what we do, they want to work for us.

What have you otherwise done to create a good workplace?
First and foremost we have created a really good working environment. We have Vietnam's best offices where there is plenty of space, air and light. That is important when you are working in the outsourcing sector where the work is very uniform. All Esoftflow staff have a career plan and everybody can earn money for further education. We have a lunch programme, and fresh food is served for staff who work during the night to service our clients in other time zones. We offer private health insurance and have an activity committee to which both the management and staff contribute.

What about the salary? Doesn't that matter?
Of course, the salary is very important for retaining staff. And we are certainly at the high end of the salary scale. For desktoppers and people on the production floor, a large proportion of their salary is performance-based, because there are significant seasonal fluctuations in demand. And we naturally pay an extra supplement for night work.

How do you manage and carry out your many initiatives?
I took the initiative myself four years ago together with our Vietnamese partner and since then our HR manager has taken over. She has attended CSR courses, is very engaged and gets the staff involved. There are serious taboos regarding disabled people and sex workers in Vietnam. But by speaking openly about things, we have broken down the taboos. Wheelchair users are helped when they need to visit the toilet, and our deaf-mute staff are also well integrated in our community. It is a great credit to the Vietnamese that they are good at opening up about taboos and getting things to function in a very natural way.

But it can't all be rosy. What barriers do you encounter?
We break down barriers, but clearly there are some practical problems when you employ disabled staff. We have had to build a ramp so they can gain access to our offices. The owner of the building, a Vietnamese lady of mature age, had to think about it, but then she fully supported our project. She could see that it was undignified and awkward if wheelchair users had to be carried into the building. There are also problems with transport to work, Hanoi is not the easiest city for disabled people.

How have your clients and other collaboration partners reacted to your CSR?
We haven't been good enough at providing information about our activities, so we have made a newsletter, which especially features our CSR. We have received a positive response from many of our clients, which means that they become more attached to us.

What are your recommendations to local companies considering a CSR strategy?
The most important thing is that management decides that it wants CSR and leads the way. Then you need a couple of managing Vietnamese staff to be advocates for CSR, who can motivate the staff. It will often be the head of administration or an HR manager, and in many cases a woman. It is important not to launch too many things at once, but start on a small scale and build up from there. It is not difficult, but it requires commitment.

What is needed in order to convince local companies that CSR actually pays?
The economy often takes the blame for why companies don't do anything. But that is a bad excuse. Yes, it does cost time and money to improve the working environment. But you can also say that it is too expensive not to do it, especially regarding recruitment and retention of good staff. In relation to Vietnamese-owned companies, there is clearly work needed to improve the understanding of what CSR can do for a company. There is no other choice than to lead by example. And we are happy to take the lead.


Facts:

  • Esoftflow Ltd. started in Vietnam in 2006 as a joint venture between the Vietnamese company Vietnam Graphics and the Danish company Esoft Systems. The partnership was supported by Danida's Business-to-Business Programme, which has major focus on CSR activities.
  • The Danish parent company Esoft Systems, which employs 80 people at its headquarters in Denmark, services real estate agents all over the world and last year generated revenues of DKK 60 million.
  • Much of the parent company's graphic work in the form of image editing, floor plans, layout, video editing and 3D visualisation is supplied from Esoftflow, which today employs about 150 people.

 
 
 
Edited February 10, 2012