Technically People
Technically People

Episode · 3 weeks ago

Worried About Retention? Individualize Your Return-to-Work Plan


No matter your thoughts on remote work (“It’s the future!” “It’s the end of us!”), one thing is clear: Work-from-home is here for the foreseeable future — and people teams need to be creative, empathic and flexible in building culture for remote and hybrid employees. 

Today’s guest, Debbie Gunning, Vice President of People at Human Interest, has been managing the complexities of a geographically distributed workforce since Covid began. Two years ago, Human Interest was a 50-person office in San Francisco. When the company entered a period of rapid growth, its hiring needs accelerated. Today, Human Interest boasts nearly 500 employees, two thirds of whom are full-time remote workers. 

“Hiring remote workers allowed us to scale faster,” she says. “When you have really aggressive hiring goals, you can open up a candidate pool that you maybe couldn't tap into before.”

Debbie sees value in both in-office and remote work — and her San Francisco employees will return to the office in a hybrid capacity when the time is right. But she challenges the perception that remote is detrimental to productivity. Moreover, she posits that one of its benefits is retention.

“Office life for some people means an hour commute or more per day, probably an hour on the lower side,” she says. “If you can use that time for work, for wellness, to connect with the people you love, you're going to be more productive and happy. And if you're more productive and happy, you're probably going to stay a lot longer in your current role.” 

That said, Debbie recognizes the need to create opportunities for remote employees to stay connected. She shares the details of a forthcoming Human Interest remote program intended to replicate the sense of interpersonal connectivity that in-person employees develop organically.  

For HR teams that are drawing up plans for remote, hybrid, or in-office arrangements, she offers this advice: Instead of creating a blanket return-to-work plan, take time to understand the unique stressors of individual employees, then create options that accommodate them — to whatever extent you can. 

“I challenge all of us to put on a variety of lenses — to put yourself in the mindset of all sorts of different people that are employed at your company,” says Debbie, who specifically calls out caregivers and people with health conditions. “Listen, learn, and use that in building out a plan.”


  • How remote allowed Human Interest to scale faster
  • High-touch remote onboarding to make the experience more engaging 
  • The benefit of appointing a designated team to manage the remote experience
  • The kind of return-to-work policy that keeps employees happily retained
  • A program for Human Interest’s remote workers designed to replicate the sense of connectivity that in-person employees enjoy
  • Providing leadership opportunities for remote employees

Check out the study we mentioned during the podcast:

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Welcome to technically people, a communityconversation by and for workplace futurists brought to you by the tech recruitment platform builtin. The podcast features insights from leaders, thinkers and doers on the vanguard buildinghuman centered workplaces of the future. Along the way, you'll hear conceptsthat will stop you in your tracks, the concepts that inspire you to askyourself, what's the most futureforward way to approach my people leadership? We allknow the future of work is a waiting around, so let's get on withthe show. Welcome to the show. I'm your host, Tiffany Myers,and I think we should jump right in and introduce our guest, debby gunning. She is the VP of people at human interest, which is a Fintechcompany that offers affordable for a Kay plans for smbs. So here we arein the midst of an ongoing off in angsty conversation about returning to work,and debby and our company are very much on the pro hybrid side of thespectrum. They see value in both in person collaboration in office work and workingfrom home. And I should also note that debby's team has been hiring remotelyand really aggressively as a fast growing company. So debby has been managing the complexitiesof a geographically distributed workforce since all of this is Begune, and I'lltell you to. She also has a very inspired idea to ensure that remoteemployees stay connected. I know it'll be intriguing to any listeners out there whoare building, on boarding and leading a distributed workforce. So welcome Dabby.Thank you so much for being here. Tiffany, thanks for having me todayand for the invitation. We've learned a lot, especially over the past fewyears. So I know that eventually your bay area employees will go back toyour San Francisco office. That's your headquarter office right correct, and they'll bedoing so in a hybrid capacity. One thing that's I thought was an interestingit smart approaches that you're relying on team leads to determine what the best hybridarrangement will be for each team. So I wanted to throw that out theretoo. And, as I mentioned, you have been hiring people from acrossthe US who will work from home. So a large remote workforce and you'veembraced so many aspects of work from home. So tell me why and what isappealing. There's several things that come to mind, tiffany. First off, there's a productivity thing where we are actually seeing that people are able todo their jobs from home very effectively. There's a misperception that people are lessproductive when they're working from home and from what we have seen in the lastalmost year and a half now, where we went from almost being completely inperson in San Francisco to having this large distributed work force that's a hybrid model, you know, we haven't seen a dip in productivity whatsoever. I lookat the people that I work with and I work around what we've accomplished andit appears that we've been more productive and focused. And it comes to thewhole thing of offices are interrupt driven at times, and so when you removethat out of the equation in part you have the ability to have people whoare at home focused and working in a super productive way. The second thingthat I've noticed is, and we learned this very quickly, hiring remote workersallows us to scale faster. Right when you have really aggressive hiring goals,you can open up a candidate pool that you maybe couldn't tap into before andeven consider two years ago we were fifty people in the San Francisco office.Today we have four hundred and fifty employees. Were very quickly approaching five hundred.Two thirds of this employee base has been hired as full time remote workersthat are never going to be based out of an office, leaving about athird of us in San Francisco. We just closed our series D with abillion dollar valuation. We're seeing an average of seventy to ninety percent per participationin the one k plants that we offer. It's super exciting times, all duringthe global pandemic, and we still...

...have our work cut out for us. So hirings, top of mine, which goes back to opening up thiscandidate pool, is a huge thing. Congratulations on this. Major wins.It's a big deal. So yeah, it's awesome. And the last thingreally is when we're talking about this kind of working from home over a hybridmodel, you talk about wellness and happiness and the components around that, andthere's so much talk about that these days that office life for some people meansan hour commute or more per day, probably an hour on the lower side. If you can use that time for work, for wellness to connect withthe people you love, you're going to be more productive and happy, andif you're more productive and happy, you're probably going to stay a lot longerin your current yeah, you mentioned a commute and I was doing some researchabout remote and I came across the statistic I'm not hearing a lot of peopletalk about, but it definitely knocked my socks off, which is that acommute of sixty minutes or more raises your heart attack risk. So it raisesyour risk during the commute, right. So that makes a lot of sense, right. I've had that feeling. But then it also stays raised yourheart attack risk one hour after the commute. So this is not someone's assumption,like my assumption when I'm stuck in on lake shore drive. It's comingfrom UCLA's fielding school of Public Health. So that's pertinent as this conversation aboutwellness continues to percolate. Yeah, and when I look at the things thatwe can remove that cost stress, like that commute is one of them.Right. So I think through even if you can remove that x times perweek out of your life, you're all around wellness is going to be muchbetter. I've been talking to a lot of people and there's sentiments mirror myown, that spending two to three hours a day commuting, which was whatmy commute was prior to the pandemic hitting, really does some damage in your life. Kind of removing that helps your relationships. As I mentioned before,you can have a much more predictable start an end to your work day.Some people have talked about actually at home the lines are blurred on when youstart, when you end and so forth, and I beg to different that it'sactually easier to create those boundaries sometimes at home when you know what yourcommutes like. It's usually the walk from your bedroom to your office or whatever, and that's very different than getting on the freeway and sitting in traffic orpublic transportation or so for so I think if we can remove some of thatfrom people's lives, that's amazing and I think really, all in all,flexibility in your approach is what's going to matter most moving forward. It's hey, some people love going into the office. They're willing to do the commute.It's worth it to them. That's great. The people who need thattime back in their day and are going to be happier with that. Ithink that makes sense because we all have different circumstances. Some people are caregivers, some people have health concerns. Really need more of a hybrid model.So I think we need to keep that in mind, to just be flexible. Yeah, and that idea of the nine second commute. Yeah, frombedroom to den, so to but yeah, I think the main thing I takeaway there is just that if companies are going to give candidates the flexibilitythat they want employees the choice that they are saying they want, we dohave to understand that people are unique and they're going to have unique needs andpreferences. So obviously that's very difficult to navigate, but I think the smartestcompanies understand that. So, Debi thank you for leaving the way in thatregard. Yeah, it's super important right now to think there isn't one sizefits all on how this is all going to go. So if we allkeep that top of mine, I think will do much better. So,given the way that you have been hiring, two thirds remote. Did I getthat right? To thirds remote? Yeah, to yeah, so we'reactually on boarding everybody remotely, but two thirds of our workers are remote.Are Now remote forever. So what that clearly indicates is that you've put alot of thought into on boarding, and that's really critical, because one thingthat there's been a slew of research just this year, just this past year, that's come out that shows that employees who are on boarded fully remotely areless engaged and they have a higher likelihood... leave sooner. So how areyou creating onboarding that is welcoming and that retains your remote hires? Yeah,that's a great question to me and it was interesting times, right, goingfrom on boarding people in person all the time to okay, suddenly we needto turn on a dime and on board everyone fully remote right. So allthe logistical stuff had to be figured out and we had to completely recraft howwe on board people. Fortunately, we have an amazing people in culture teamthat leads our on boarding here at Humanid just, and what we did waswe went and basically restructured it to be a much more high touch experience.We do remote on boarding twice a month. Some months we end up on boardingevery single week just because the volume of hiring that we've done required it, and that's not optimal. We like to do a couple times a monthwith bigger classes of people, because the energy is really awesome in that webasically have gone a high touch approach with our people team. From the daysomeone accepts an offer with the company, we really want to show them,hey, we're super excited, we want you to have the best experience andso from day one of we've accepted an offer, we have different touch pointsto welcome that person to the organization to make sure they know what's coming forwhen they start on boarding. We because a lot of times people just don'tknow what to expect. There's a lot of anxiety around it. It's allNew People. It's a big life change, and so we want to make surepeople are really well prepared for that. We have a very high energy,very enthusiastic team that works with our new hires and it's super infectious.We've gotten feedback that we have put a group of people together that have helpedthe on boarding people process feel much more engaged. People are excited, peoplefeel inspired by the time that they're done with our on boarding at the endof the first week. Super Digestible pieces. I think you have to be reallyaware that when you're doing this over zoom you have to make sure thatthe pieces of on boarding that you are doing are in smaller portions. Thelast thing you want to do is put a new higher on zoom for eighthours a day, five days their first week and have them just get zoomoverload overload with connecting with way too many people, because that really affects retention. And then another piece that we've added to the mix that it helps peoplewith that connectingness outside their own team is buddy breaks. We've put buddy breaksin there that are purely just to connected, have fun, get to know people, and these are connections that actually will stay in place through someone's careerwith the company. You always remember who you connected with your first week.We're fostering those connections by actually planning them ahead for people and we have anawesome team of employees who have volunteered to be part of all of this.Yeah, so a couple of really important takeaways there. I mean, Ithink choosing the right people who do have that infectious sense of enthusiasm, becausewhat that does is it replicates the high that people typically get when they firstjoin a company and they're being kind of incolcated into the culture and their meetingpeople and it's a very welcoming time. You get that honeymoon experience when youfirst join. And I also think the other thing that you mentioned there that'sreally important in the era of the zoom fatigue is making it digestible, providingsmall bits of information at a time so there's not that overload that we actuallyall have been experiencing and this overload era. So shifting gears a little bit,I mean we're still kind of in the same sphere here that here's thedeal. A company has to do what is right for the company and thereare companies and industries that are not offering however, they're not offering remote forvery good reasons. But you have to also see that in other cases there'sa resistance that seems to be related to trust. So what are your thoughtsthere? This is something I've been thinking about a lot and really I believe, and have a very firm belief, that it's up to us as leadersin our organizations to build that foundation of trust. For me and a lotof the people that work in our organization,...'s about hiring really good people.Right. If you hire really good people who are aligned with your mission, and values and want to come do the best work of their lives andfeel inspired to do so. It's much more likely that there is going tobe a trusting relationship right off the bat. Right I have a theory that ifyou hire people who are better at what you are looking to hire themfor than you personally are, you are going to trust them, you're goingto rely on them heavily to run their areas and then set them free togo do that. I think we all really need to roll up our slavesand have discussions with employees to understand the level of support they need. Andthis is different than in the past, when you were working in an environmentin office, you got to know each other's patterns, how they like tocommunicate and so forth, and it was almost biosmosis because you were right therein that environment together. We don't have that now that's been removed. Sohow do you build trust with someone? You figure out their communication style,their likes, their dislike some people want a lot more chickens. Some peopleare like, let's have you know, less frequent chickens, because I justdon't need them. It's up to us to figure out and the best wayto do that is make sure that everyone on one. You're talking about,Hey, what do you need from me as your manager? How can Ipivot my approach to work better with what you need so that we can continueto have a really productive working environment that leads to all the good things happiness, engagement, innovation and ultimately, retention as well. And you're bringing tomind just in these conversations that we've been having on this podcast, these twothemes that keep coming up over and again is that right now is the timeto overcommunicate, do over, overcommunicate. And the other thing that you mentionedthat I think is has been a running theme, is just how important itis to get to know, whether we're talking about wellness or we're talking aboutperformance evaluations, just to get to know people individually and that there is absolutelyno solution that's going to work for everybody. So what you're talking about resonates withso many of the conversations we've had. There is at least well, thereare many hard truths about remote but there's one that I want to talkabout now, which is that remote employees they stay connected to the people ontheir team when they're in a remote work environment. But research shows that theylose connections with colleagues across functions. So, debby, you have created a planto overcome that challenge, as well as other challenges that we face nowwith remote work. So tell us about this idea that you have cooking.Yeah, we're super excited about this. So, as I mentioned before,we have an amazing people and culture team here human interest and really there thebrains behind a lot of these programs. One new one that we are goingto launch is called high hubs, human interest hubs. It became really apparentto us and it hit me, and one of my onboarding sessions that Ido when I put a map up in front of all of our new hireswith geographic regions mapped across the US on where we have employees. It hitme one day like wow, we have a lot of people in some similarlocations, probably within about fifty miles of each other. There's parts of Arizona, around the Phoenix area, around Denver, upstate New York, multiple places acrossthe country where we have a bunch of human interest employees. So wedecided to basically create a plan for human interest employed community gatherings to connect peoplewho are in the same geographic region and who will be remote workers forever.We don't plan to have offices in any of these locations and we need tofind a way to connect those individuals with each other and do some cross pollinationacross teams, and so we are spinning up high ups. The goals arebasically a sustaining and play engagement program that's going to be led by the employees. This will connect people in these geographies with different people from the company andso they have familiarity and feel like they kind of have an inoffice sense ofculture from time to time. And so... will be renting space one daya quarter, in a month. What will that look like? Yeah,we're going to work on the cadence of and really have the employees tell uswhat they want as far as how often, but it could look like a varietyof things. It could be just some sort of event to socialize andhave some fun and get together in person safely when we can. It maybe that it's split between something social and will rent a workspace for the dayfor people to just sit side by sid and kind of replicate that feel ofbeing in an office together. There's going to be a variety of things thatwe roll out and will then measure and understand what's working with people. Dothey want it more often? Do they want it less often? What typeof activities do they want? There's going to be one or two employee leaders. We're going to give them a kid of sorts to start out with.It will be a budget. Here's an idea of some things that you coulddo. Here's some contacts if we do want to get some office space andreally template it out and make it easy for someone to step into that leadrole and then they can layer on their own creative flare in to the mix. I think it's a great idea. I should first say that maybe forlisteners a little bit of a time worp experience here, because the w youmentioned, when we can do so safely. That's because we're recording well in advance. So by the time you hear this, listeners, I hope lifehas returned to a semblance of normalcy. I hope with all my heart.So Do we end? Once we do that, it's going to be muchmore in person. Are Leader of our people in culture team will actually flyout and hold an event and kind of make it easy for everybody to showup, it's preplanned, it's ready to go and then will continue on fromthere. I think it's so great because it's solving a number of issues allin one plans. It's replicating the connections that you would get in an officethat are, you know, known as those weak ties, people that youdon't work with often that are actually really vital when it comes to innovation.You're also countering, this is probably be the most important thing, any senseof lolliness or disconnect that are remote employee. My feel, and you've been justtouched on this a bit, it's not this mandate from on high.It's completely optional, right, yeah, completely optional. You can opt toand you can opten kind of at the level you want. If you wantto be someone who's, for me, the high hub in your community,you can. If you want to just show up and participate, you can, and if you don't want to at all, that's perfectly okay as well. Yeah, I think sometimes a companies will offer a program with really goodintentions, but it ends up being like one more thing that you have todo, and so those good intentions can kind of disintegrate there in that regard. But I was interested in hearing more about how this is employee led andhow it's a leadership opportunity. Yeah, that's a great question. It's somethingthat were replicating that we saw in our employee resource groups. We got thatstarted really around the beginning of the pandemic and what we've learned through that experienceis if you give employees a framework to whatever it is that you're trying toget off the ground right, and for us it was employee resource groups,and you allow people to raise their hand, participate in, say, a foundinggroup for this, and then give them kind of a playbook on howto get this group going. Here's what you need to consider, here's thebudget, and then set them up for success in that way and let themgo and just run it themselves. You see amazing things come out of itwhen so we're hoping to see the same through our high hubs. People raisingtheir hand, taking a leadership role, figuring out it's a great way tofigure out do you like leading people, do you like that type of work, or are you better suited to be an individual contributor? It's a greatway to test out some of these skills and I'm hoping it sparks of thingsin people that they really enjoy doing and want to bring more into either theirprofessional growth or their personal growth. That is something that comes up over andagain and when you're talking to any almost every candidate talks about this desire tobe able to you know, okay, here's my core job and I wantto be able to move into learning other...

...types of skills, especially leadership,comes up that. Imagine how much more important it is when we're talking aboutremote where that kind of moving across departments and functions and roles is going tohave to happen at the comfort of your own desk. So this is makingthat happen where otherwise it couldn't. I think it's pretty amazing when you seethis group of people come together that are all from different teams right and theyhave one thing in common. Whether it's launching a community high hub, whetherit's arg you see them come together and connect as human beings, and Idon't see where there would be a lot of opportunity to do that in avirtual world, other than having these things that you're really passionate about and excitedabout and working on a common goal and moving it forward together. I lovethat piece. And then the last thing I wanted to mention is I'm thinkingout beyond right now. We're all working virtually and so forth, and apoint in time of the future where you can interact again in person and companystart having corporate kickoff events where you're all getting together in one place again.I started thinking through how overwhelming is that is an employee. If you've beenworking remote and virtual the whole time, you've never met people in person,then suddenly it's like, okay, let's all get together in person, fivehundred a thousand people. It's super overwhelming right where if you have these communitiesprebuilt, you already have a group of people that you've connected with, whetherit's virtual or whether it's in person, and then you get together and it'snot so overwhelming. It kind of remove some of that. So I'm thinkingforward about when we start moving back into a lot of that and helping people'scomfort levels and sense of belonging. You know, it's really smart because whenyou're talking with a wellness expert about mental health, it's always in the contextof what's going on during the pandemic. But really, what's going to havewhen the world does shift again and we are again in person. There's goingto be a whole new set of anxieties that's bring up. You think aboutsocial anxiety. People have been had had relief from it and they're going tobe thrust back into it. So it's interesting that you're seating the solution.I think the more that we can start thinking about all of that, themore we're going to be better off in the future. I think with this, like with everything else we're talking about today, we need to measure howit's working along the way, keep those lines of communication open and then adjustedaccordingly because, once again, there's no one size fits also, we reallywant these communities to be about the people at human interests and what they want, and so we'll measure this, will keep adjusting it as we need tomake sure we're getting people what they need and helping support them. So Iwould love to move into our two minute take away. That is debby anopportunity for you to share a few key points that you want our listeners totake away from this conversation. Yeah, this is great and Super Fun tojust take a moment to even reflect on this, because things have been movingso quickly and there's been so much going on but really one thing is weren'tuncharted territory. We continue to have minimal clarity on what's to come. Rightthere's nothing concrete. We can think we're headed in one direction and a wholeother very mental come up and we're headed in another direction, and so wejust don't know where we're headed right now. Most of US never imagine we wouldbe in hr or talent in during a global pandemic. So I thinkit's really okay to admit that we don't have the answers. We're really alljust trying to figure this out and navigate it together. I think. Onthat note, the second thing is it's a perfect time to rely on ourcommunity of h our leaders, to share ideas of what's work. That's whyI'm loving this conversation, because the more that we can share about what's workedand even what hasn't worked, we're going to not be constantly reinventing the wheel. If this high hugs idea ends up being something amazing, I'd love toshare that with everybody to be able to implement in their companies, because itjust feels really good to do work that others could benefit from as well.And then we've hit on this a couple...

...of times already today, but Ijust really want everybody to remember that there is no one size fits all planwhen it comes to how we're going to return to the office, what hybridworks going to look like. So I challenge all of us to put ona variety of lens us. Try to put yourself in the mindset of allsorts of different people that are employed at your company, whether it's caregivers,whether it's people who have other needs and so forth, and talk to peopleabout their lens as well, listen, learn and use that in building outa plan moving forward that's really going to provide flexibility for most people. Ithink those are really great takeaways. One thing that I would like to pickup on is just this idea that a companies keeps so many things close tothe vast so many things that have worked or that have not worked, everythingfrom how are you going to handle compensation if you're hiring remote people? Somethat can be secretive, but in this era that because we've, you know, been forced to change. We all in this community are relying on eachother for tell me the mistakes you've made so I don't make them so I'mglad you're enjoying this conversation. I hope it's creating some connectivity among the communityin general as well. You know, I also will definitely be watching tofind out what you do learn from high hubs, because I think finding outwhat people want, if they do in fact want to connect or if somepeople are okay working remote, it has implications beyond, just as I said, beyond just high hubs. And so thank you so much for keeping whatmay have been close to the vest, for putting it out there debby,if our listeners wanted to be in touch with you, what's the best way? Linkedin works great. It's DEBBI, gunning and human interests. Just searchfor me there. Feel free to send me a message and connect and I'dlove to keep the conversation it's going. So, listeners out there, justa reminder to subscribe to technically people. We are on all of your favoritepodcast players. Just visit technically peoplecom and you'll find us there and you canalso just follow the conversation that we're having on Linkedin. So thank you forjoining us. We will talk to you next week. Built in is atech recruitment platform that's in constant dialog with leaders about the future of tech.Built in's PODCAST, technically people, expands those conversations to help fellow futurists createand lead exceptional workplaces, environments that inspire in Demand Tech professionals to join yourcompany and thrive. To learn how built in can help your company attract bestin class professionals, visit employers dot built incom. You've been listening to technicallypeople, a community conversation about the future of work. If you want tohear more cutting edge ideas about creating humans center workplaces, subscribe on your favoritepodcast player and you'll never miss an episode. And if you're over the moon aboutwhat you've heard, we'd be honored if you took the time to giveus a five star review. So signing up until we meet again in thefuture.

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