47 - Return to Office Already: A 2 Year Journey to Get it Right

Join us for this special LIVE episode of People Problems with guest co-host Kate Blain, HRBP at Policygenius. Join us for a LIVE interview as Alexa & Kate trek through the real 2-year experience of Policygenius trying to return to the office. You'll have a front-row seat to the highs, the lows, and the 'OMG, seriously?' moments from PERKSCon NYC.



Release Date: May 25, 2022

[00:00:00] Voiceover: Warning. This podcast is about the realities of working in people operations. This is not a stuck up PC compliance-based or employment law podcast about stuffy outdated HR practices. Shit will get real here and we assume no responsibility.

[00:00:16] Alexa Baggio: Just another day at the office.There's nothing better than a bunch of people who work in HR getting around a table and sharing a few stories. We have this out-of-body experience in HR where you're like, "Fuck it."

[00:00:26] Tyson: HR is not that bad.

[00:00:27] Alexa: It's not that bad.

[00:00:28] Tyson: It's not.

[00:00:29] Alexa: Come hang out with Tyson and I on this podcast, we will make you laugh.

[00:00:31] Tyson: This is the People Problems podcast with Alexa Baggio and Tyson Mackenzie.

[00:00:40] Alexa: All right. Welcome. Welcome. We are joined live today for an episode of People Problems in New York at PERKSCon New York City. Today's episode is brought to you by Ink'd stores. Are you looking to build your company swag store? No minimums, no cost to build, no monthly host fees, all the merch, and none of the fine print. Visit inkdstores, I-N-K-D stores.com, and mention the People Problems pod for a discount. Or if you're live with us today, simply walk over and introduce yourself, Jay and the team are over near the axe throwing.

In addition, our episode today is brought to you by the People Ops Society, a group that Tyson and I regularly evangelize and is to my right near the puppies. Join hundreds of people ops professionals to share war stories, exchange ideas, and best practices, share and download resources and just be yourself. The People Ops Society is a community of new and experienced practitioners built for the people people by the people people. No salespeople or sponsored participation allowed.

People Problems listeners can get 20% off an annual pops membership with the code peopleproblems20@peopleopssociety.com. That's pplproblems20@peopleopsociety.com. I'm your host, Alexa Baggio and today I have the special pleasure of being joined live by my co-host Kate Blain. Kate is an HR business partner at Policygenius, where she oversees HR strategies. The property and casualty, disability, finance, legal people, and strategy and business operations teams at Policygenius.

She has led employee experience functions and office buildouts for various tech startups, including Oscar Insurance and the fitness app Active. Kate holds a bachelor's degree in musical theater from East Carolina University. I need to hear more about that. In her spare time, she's either on her Peloton or playing with her dog Cheeto, the Chiweenie. Kate, welcome to People Problems.

[00:02:14] Kate: Thank you.

[00:02:15] Alexa: How are you?

[00:02:16] Kate: Cheeto was rescued by Social Tees, in fact.

[00:02:18] Alexa: Nice. All right. Cheeto the Chiweenie is also a rescue dog. Talk to me a little bit about being a musical theater major. How did you wind up in people operations?

[00:02:27] Kate: That was fun. How many people work in HR and majored in the arts? Pure curiosity.

[00:02:34] Alexa: We got a couple of hands.

[00:02:35] Kate: We found our way here.

[00:02:36] Alexa: All right. How'd that happen?

[00:02:38] Kate: I majored in musical school theater. Mom was really thrilled about that. Then I had a really cool three years out of college where I worked at random theme parks, dinner theaters, cruise ships, and random things. Then I turned 26 and learned you have to pay for your own health insurance. I started doing random temp jobs and figuring out what skills do I have. Found that there's a lot of actual cross-transitional skills that you learn in theater. Learning how to connect with people, learning how to listen, learning how to take feedback.

That really just brought me into HR employee experience, all the fun stuff. You just figure it out as you go.

[00:03:19] Alexa: Awesome. We have a very famous episode of People Problems called speech theater and debate, which is another theater major talking about how there's crossover. Tell us a little bit about how you wound up at Policygenius before we jump in and talk about the last two years of your life trying to get back to the office.

[00:03:37] Kate: I have been at Policygenius a little over three years, feels like 84 in the best sense possible. I actually ended up at PG, a former chief people officer at Oscar Insurance, her name is Cindy Gordon. She's amazing. She left Oscar when I had been there for about a year and a half to help her two friends start a company. I thought she was crazy because we were just really starting to take off. Then I eventually followed her there and I have just loved working there and getting to build, I know everyone says a rocket ship, but it really is a rocket ship for the past three-plus years, which has been awesome.

[00:04:11] Alexa: You've almost doubled in the last year, right?

[00:04:13] Kate: Yes, we've had crazy growth, which is a blessing. Thank you. It's been a wild ride.

[00:04:19] Alexa: Before we jump into that, let's talk a little bit about what was the moment where you were like, "This is the career for me?" How'd you get into this field? Everyone has their moment, I find.

[00:04:29] Kate: Oh gosh, yes. It was really when I first started at Oscar, I started as a receptionist. I really didn't know what anything was. I didn't even know that there was a job called people. I was like, "Oh, I like those. I can do that." Then honestly two weeks in, our office manager was invited to no longer sit with us. We were moving so fast. My head of people was building out new offices in California and Texas. It was really just like, "We are strapped in. How do you feel about figuring this out? Do you have Google? Do you know how to use it? Okay go, you're now going to take over office management facilities that led into events. That led into just being someone that people just started organically coming to talk to. Then you learn how to capitalize on knowing your people, knowing what they speak to, knowing what their values are. Helping them feel engaged and comfortable at work. Then all of a sudden, you've created an awesome place to work and somewhere that people are happy to be.

I was like, "Uh, how did we figure that one out?" I think yes, Oscar was probably my first aha. Was also my first tech startup. That's where I learned I love startups. I'm a masochist. I think they're amazing.

[00:05:42] Alexa: I think everyone has a different definition of startup these days.

[00:05:46] Kate: Yes. That's true. [chuckles]

[00:05:48] Alexa: You said something that I don't think a whole lot of people have said recently, which is, "We just opened two offices in other locations." Let's circle back on that over the sound of the dogs in the background. We're going to talk about return to office today. If you guys have not played return to office on the HR nightmare video game, it's very funny, and it's very fun. We're going to talk about return to office today. Let's go back to March, you want to go, you just want to start right there?

[00:06:12] Kate: It started March 2020.

[00:06:15] Alexa: Well, let's set the stage, what were you doing before the world pivoted?

[00:06:20] Kate: What a time. March 2020, PolicyGenius is headquartered first and foremost here in New York City. I was based here in New York, we were a little over 300 employees, primarily based in New York. We had just started building out an office to open a second headquarters in Durham, North Carolina, which was a really cool coincidence for me because I grew up in the Raleigh Durham area. We built an office a 20-minute drive from my mother's house. That is where I stayed once a month for a year, getting to project manage that built.

We were in the midst of that buildout, we had roughly 20 employees in North Carolina working out of a WeWork while we finished the build. We were at max capacity in our offices at West 23rd Street. We'd actually just opened up a second no-tell space about two blocks away to have actual desks for humans to sit out. We were averaging probably 20 to 30 new hires every other week with onboarding, it's really fast growth. [chuckles]

[00:07:17] Alexa: Everyone's in the office back when that was normal.

[00:07:20] Kate: Yes.

[00:07:21] Alexa: Five days a week. You're in the New York headquarters. You make the decision to make a second headquarters?

[00:07:26] Kate: Yes.

[00:07:26] Alexa: Why the decision for a second headquarters?

[00:07:28] Kate: We really wanted to be able to open up our footprint. We also wanted to be able to open up to other locations for our town. Little do we know how much we are going to be able to get to do that beyond just North Carolina. Then also a fast-growth startup, you have to continue to pay for that real estate, right? It is not cheap in New York. We did a very thorough analysis between which location we wanted. By the time I joined the company, we had narrowed it down to Raleigh, Durham, Charlotte, or Pittsburgh.

I was like, "Raleigh, Durham. Okay, cool." Then after the analysis, we thought about things like cool factor, cost of living, opportunities for new grads, what kind of the in-house educational, fresh out of college looking for the job. Numbers were looking like, as well as commute time, between the two offices, we wanted two HQ to feel connected. It's a one-hour flight. Really easy for people to get back and forth. Then overall, really just felt like Durham matched our values. It was the right fit for us.

We started to open down there and be able to really-- our plan was to expand very, very quickly an employee base down in North Carolina, which would have-

[00:08:43] Alexa: Nice to have plans.

[00:08:44] Kate: [chuckles] Plans are so fun especially when they never come to fruition.

[00:08:46] Alexa: They're super fun. Exactly.

[00:08:48] Kate: This is the day we did it, y'all.

[00:08:50] Alexa: Let's talk about March 2020.

[00:08:53] Kate: Oh, yes, we're back here.

[00:08:54] Alexa: Yes.

[00:08:55] Kate: March 2020. Pandemic starts, it's happening. I was a naysayer, I will own. I thought everyone was being a little dramatic. I was like, "It's a conspiracy theory." Then I started actually watching the news and reading the data. I was like, "Uh, it's real." I remember probably by March 6, we had kicked off an optional work-from-home policy. We were not equipped yet to actually work from home. We had about 200 employees that were our frontline operations, customer-facing employees.

CS, sales, case management, all on hard-wired desktop computers. Literally, in the span of 48 hours, our Tech-Ops team, who are magicians got 200 employees over on two laptops and ready to go work from home. I've still blacked a lot of it out.

[00:09:46] Alexa: [laughs]

[00:09:46] Kate: They did it and it was amazing. We were able to have a really smooth transition and then we made a call, "Okay. It's no longer optional. It's mandatory. This is really happening. Pack up what you can bring it home, grab your monitors, grab everything. I do remember the employee asking me, "How long do you think this will be for?" I, so confidently said two weeks. Really thought I knew it all.

[00:10:09] Alexa: At least you were confident about it.

[00:10:10] Kate: False confidence, it gets you places. Then we realized it's time to go and we probably won't be stepping back into this office for a very long time, which we did not.

[00:10:21] Alexa: We're going to put a little time out in that. What are you thinking personally? What is your responsibility in this transition? Everyone's like, "How long are we going to be gone? Where are we going? I don't have a laptop. What do I do?" What are you thinking? What's your position in this?

[00:10:40] Kate: Oh my goodness. I think my top-of-mind reactions we, A, were in the mix of this buildout in North Carolina that I'm project managing long distance. We had just started looking at real estate spaces in New York with our brokers to get a bigger spot here. I thought we're literally in the middle of these lease negotiations, do we do it? Do we not do it? Does this even make sense? Then there was also just making sure we have a really special culture. I promise I'm not just saying that it is like nothing I have ever experienced.

[00:11:11] Alexa: Why do you say that?

[00:11:12] Kate: I really, really think it started early days with our leadership. We have a very on-the-ground leadership.

[00:11:20] Alexa: What do you mean by that?

[00:11:21] Kate: My CEO, Jennifer Fitzgerald, one of the most brilliant women I've ever worked for. Also one of the most approachable low ego-- One of our company values is something called no chuckleheads, which is a PC way.

[00:11:37] Alexa: No chucklehead?

[00:11:38] Kate: No chucklehead. It's a nice way to say--

[00:11:38] Alexa: Isn't it a nice way of saying no assholes?

[00:11:39] Kate: Exactly.

[00:11:41] Alexa: [laughs] I'll just say it.

[00:11:43] Kate: We live true to it. We do a really thorough values interview for every single role. All it takes is one person in that debrief to say, "I got a chucklehead vibe, and here's why and it's a red flag."

[00:11:54] Alexa: Chucklehead vibe.

[00:11:55] Kate: Chucklehead vibe. I say it more times in my life than I ever, ever thought I would. I'm just starting to accept it three years in, but it works. It makes it so that you actually do end up having really great people to work with. Not only that you're hiring people that align with your values, but that you align with theirs and what they want. As a result, we definitely, our happy hours pre-pandemic were-

[00:12:18] Alexa: Epic.

[00:12:19] Kate: -epic and just a very close, supportive open culture, which I'm really, really proud of. I'm really proud to work for. There was a fear of, how do we redo onboarding? How do we shift towards onboarding?

[00:12:33] Alexa: How do you get happy hours on zoom in a way that everyone doesn't hate.

[00:12:34] Kate: Oh my goodness. Exactly. How do we still capture the root of that culture, continue to grow remotely? Still keep that and make people just as excited to work for us as they have been before the pandemic [crosstalk].

[00:12:48] Alexa: How did we start? Still building offices and negotiating leases. Did you go forward with the offices?

[00:12:54] Kate: We did go forward.

[00:12:55] Alexa: Why did you make the decision to go forward?

[00:12:57] Kate: North Carolina, we were already there. It was already happening and it's also, we're saying our original space is on West 23rd street. Very humble beginnings. Very humble. Just no acoustics, just not the best environment. Great personality, not great for productivity. Thankfully right before the pandemic, we were lucky enough to close our Series D fundraise and we raised $200 million.

[00:13:21] Alexa: Timing is everything.

[00:13:22] Kate: Thank you. We now had the resources to really build these new offices designed specifically to our team's needs to what they need to where they could be the most productive. We actually had budget to build it from scratch for ours. Before that, we had just been inheriting spaces from other companies. We continued to do the buildout in North Carolina and then a really awesome opportunity to sign for our new space. That's now in [unintelligible 00:13:49] to grow into opened up. We decided we're not slowing down the growth.

We are very lucky that we're continuing to grow. We want to still have these spaces that when it is time and when people feel safe doing so, there's something really exciting to come back to. No matter what that future of work looks like, it's still a space that people feel is ours and that they can collaborate, connect, and enjoy working from.

[00:14:13] Alexa: You made the decision early that you were like, "This is going to come back around. We're still going to need a space."

[00:14:17] Kate: Oh yes. I'm not going to lie, the whole time I was like, "I hope we're right."

[laughter]

They're done and they're beautiful. We've been able to welcome people back and we'll get there, but--

[00:14:28] Alexa: Let's start to get there. You're building offices, world ends. You send everyone home, you come to terms with that this is not going away overnight. What are some of the first things you start to do? The first time you started planning for this.

[00:14:44] Kate: First thing was, we formed our internal COVID task force. That was just a combination of leaders throughout the organization so that we had every perspective and need of every team in the room when making the decision. Then also people from our people teams, our tech-ops teams or InfoSec teams that just made sure that we're also being compliant, being thoughtful, and have the resources really carry out on the execution.

That group met every week, at the beginning twice a week. 9:00 AM Saturday talking about COVID very exciting. Really just assess from across the board, what do we need to do? Then we very quickly started rolling out our COVID full surveys, which we used a survey platform to get a read and feedback from employees on all the things. How they're feeling, wellness and mental health-wise, how they're feeling productivity-wise from their homes, what would make them--

[00:15:35] Alexa: How big was their task force?

[00:15:37] Kate: Seven people.

[00:15:39] Alexa: For 300 employees?

[00:15:40] Kate: Yes. We've fluctuated a few times, there's some guest appearances too, so the room would be like seven.

[00:15:48] Alexa: Some cameos on the COVID taskforce?

[00:15:50] Kate: Yes. Welcome to the party.

[00:15:51] Alexa: What do you start to hear from your team and how does that fit with, "We'll come back to the physical offices"? What do you start to hear what do you start to do?

[00:15:59] Kate: Biggest thing, in the beginning, was on some folks just didn't have the resources at home to really feel productive in their day to day. They didn't have a desk. I had an employee that didn't even have a coffee machine. The first thing we did was we rolled out our workspace budget. $ 500-lifetime budget, for whatever the employee feels is going to help them be the most productive. We really try not to be too prescriptive about it or too stringent, because it could be anything from a desk that you found on Amazon, to that coffee machine that you didn't have before.

You need the caffeine to get your day going now that you can go to the coffee shop down the street. Really just tried to give them those resources. Then we also really tried to focus to make sure that our employees had everything to take care of themselves outside of work so they could be their best selves at work. We launched a partnership with Talkspace and now provide free Talkspace memberships to all of our employees. We get partnered with dedicated online therapists and we don't get any report back from Talkspace on who's utilizing this benefit.

It's our employees' business, it's just a resource we want to be able to offer so they feel that they have some sort of professional support. Those are probably two of the biggest, quickest initiatives I'm most proud of, and then--

[00:17:15] Alexa: Anything you did that just didn't work upfront?

[00:17:17] Kate: Oh I'm sure. Happy hours and events, you're trying to figure it out.

[00:17:22] Alexa: Let's talk about that. Let's talk about the ugly stuff for a hot second. What were some of your early failures here?

[00:17:27] Kate: Oh, my goodness. who wants to sit in a zoom with 40 to 70 other people just to play trivia for no reason.

[00:17:32] Alexa: Not I. Not me.

[00:17:36] Kate: Literally makes--

[00:17:38] Alexa: It was noble for about a week and then--

[00:17:40] Kate: Yes. It was like, "Oh, look at your house, look at your dog." I want to just like, turn off my camera now. Thank you so much. One thing that we eventually figured out is we have some really, really great in-house affinity and employee resource groups. We really found that the engagement opportunities that are rooted in a cause and a purpose were the most highly attended, the most exciting. They don't have to be after hours, they can be during work hours.

[00:18:04] Alexa: Did they exist before this?

[00:18:06] Kate: They did exist before this but they were easier to curate in office and you don't necessarily always have to have a root intention. It's Thursday, we've got booze in the kitchen. We've all been working hard, let's let go. Now we all, unless you don't partake, have some sort of booze in the kitchen or some whatever you need in your own home. You don't need us to provide that for you so why am I going to hop on my zoom and talk to the people who I spend all day with if I can just turn on Bravo, watch The Housewives, and pet my dog?

Or to each their own. Sorry, that was me. When we really worked, I think Black History Month was probably the first time we really got it right. Our PG affinity group, PG Black spent months thinking and planning. We had an external speaker, company fundraise for blacks in tech that we did a competition with. We did a company match. We broke everyone in the company up in different teams. We made a race on who was going to raise the most money by the end of the month. Then the winners got Amazon gift cards and Grubhub credits.

Then we did a company match of the overall funds at the end. People got so into it. We did trivia rooted in history of black culture. Just everyone's so excited to connect and hear from this group. Really let them take the reins on their programming and what they want to provide. Those zooms were over 100 people in the zoom just attending and participating and just cheering on their colleagues as well.

[00:19:44] Alexa: Yes that's cool.

[00:19:44] Kate: It was like, "Oh, this isn't a surface. Oh, let's do Mean Girls trivia in the zoom." It was a cause that they identified was important, but also that their colleagues who they cared about, they wanted to participate.

[00:19:56] Alexa: Something bigger than that while the world is an unsure place. That's awesome.

[00:20:02] Kate: That continued to be throughout the year, where we didn't delegate or dictate what the engagement programming was. We left it to our employees, and especially our affinity groups to really just come up with the ideas on their own. It helped us figure out that missing engagement piece.

[00:20:18] Alexa: You're in the first phase of this, you're serving the crap out of everybody, you're starting to do some cool stuff on Zoom, you're starting to back off on some stuff. Did you ever get any feedback that directed you guys in a different direction?

[00:20:31] Kate: All the time. I think, a big funny obvious one that I can laugh at now is we went survey heavy. There was a big COVID survey once a month on everything across the board on COVID, that we would then also read the results out at all hands, the week following and map out our action items. That we also had pulse surveys in the midst of those monthly surveys. Finally, our employees were like, "Oh, my God enough. We are surveyed out. We have survey fatigue."

[00:21:03] Alexa: Death by 1000 surveys.

[00:21:04] Kate: We actually got told we were over-communicating and we could take it back down a couple of notches, which I get that feedback a lot, so it's fine.

[00:21:12] Alexa: Simmer down?

[00:21:13] Kate: Yes. We actually pulled the reins back. I figured it better to hear you're over-communicating, but they weren't reading the comms or the updates as much because they were coming every five seconds. That was a fast one that we pulled the reins, we shifted to a quarterly survey, and just really tried to balance that out.

[00:21:31] Alexa: At some point, you made the decision to bring in a CDC consultant?

[00:21:34] Kate: Oh, we sure did, yes.

[00:21:35] Alexa: Why did you make that decision? What was the process?

[00:21:39] Kate: We brought on an external CDC consultant through a company called HPP, Health Preparedness Partners. This woman, Lisa Coonan, worked over 30 years for the CDC and helped with different pandemic preparedness for everything from Zika virus and beyond. She was just really, really helpful in helping us run our strategy and decision-making by her. Especially in this office buildout, she helped us keep front of mind how to outfit our offices so that they are the safest environments.

When we were thinking through our return-to-office protocols, what sort of requirements we have in place to qualify to sign up to come into office. She really reviewed and gave us her best advisement, and also was able to preview things to anticipate down the line from her in-house knowledge with the CDC. Which has been so, so helpful. Then she also hosted an internal lunch and learn for our employees on all things COVID. At this point, our employees can work for the CDCs themselves at this point.

It's just been nice, because especially no one knows everything on this, it's brand new. To have someone who is the closest thing you were going to get to an expert advising in-house, it was a really solid investment by our leadership, and to have her [crosstalk].

[00:22:50] Alexa: You make the decision you're going through, you get told you're over surveying. You're still investing in your physical offices waiting for good news to break and that you're going to be able to go back and use these offices. You make the decision to invest in a CDC consultant to help you do that so that when it does open up, you're good to go. What did you learn in that process? What has been so helpful about having someone consult on your physical space to come back to?

[00:23:14] Kate: The biggest thing is to understand every little thing you can put in place and what its impact can be on the employee's safety.

[00:23:23] Alexa: Give me some examples.

[00:23:25] Kate: Investing in the correct HVAC filters, MERV 13, better clears and circulates that air. Also learn about the transition of your [crosstalk] and talking, it's mild. We were able to plan ahead on if we want to have open space seating and socially distance, everyone faces the same way. We were able to figure out what that socially distanced desk booking plan would look like, in a way that everyone felt safe and okay to be talking and still speaking with each other.

Planning our layout so that no matter which direction you're walking, there is always opportunity for six inches at least between you and someone else if you're walking down a hallway or beyond. HEPA filters in each conference room. Buy stock and hand sanitizer, put it in every nook and cranny you possibly can. Just cleaning processes really, really being able to communicate, publish and make it known what that cleaning schedule and process looks like. Just so as much information as you can put up front employees feel, "Okay, I can go here and feel safe and okay."

[00:24:33] Alexa: Are you communicating this to employees as you're doing this? Are employees in on the build, or is this like, "We'll do a big reveal while all you'll have to come back."

[00:24:42] Kate: No. We did just about monthly real estate and build-out updates. We got to share progress photos, we got to share test fits. We got to share what we were working on from the COVID preparedness aspect. Then we also were able to have open office hours and Q&As. Opportunities for people to submit their feedback on surveys on what would make them feel the most supported and safe when considering whether they wanted to come back to the office or not.

[00:25:10] Alexa: If you had to do this all again, what would you change?

[00:25:13] Kate: Oh my gosh.

[00:25:14] Alexa: The last two years, be like, "If I could do it all again, I could wave a magic wand and save myself a headache or two," what would you do?

[00:25:20] Kate: Don't overthink as much.

[00:25:23] Alexa: You want to double-click on that for me?

[00:25:25] Kate: Oh my goodness. It's a blessing and a curse. You've seen some companies just wing it. I have friends who offices just said, "We're going back to the office, see you then." That's pretty much it. We are so thoughtful in our internal communications and we really sit down and try to think through every, what-if scenario. Every possible question you're going to get. We survey our leaders on what they're hearing from their people. We document so many documents, FAQ documents.

We have one long-running internal internet page dedicated to COVID amd all historic communications we've sent out as long as every possible resource. It gets to a point where sometimes you get ready for your game plan and you're ready to go and you hit play and then something happens and you have to scrap it all down. The Delta variant is a great example. We opened our North Carolina office for two weeks. We were just about to open New York. We had put so much in place for these openings.

Delta showed up and our CDC consultant advised us to shut it all back down. We went right back home. The amount of work and thought and worrying that went into that just to hit pause it teaches you focus on the need. Focus on the baseline functions and how people are feeling. You don't need to go over and above. Wait and see how it goes first before you dedicate 24 hours a day to making every single little detail perfect.

[00:26:58] Alexa: Yes. One of my favorite quotes don't let perfection be the enemy of good enough. When things are changing a lot, you need to sometimes just be good enough to keep moving.

[00:27:08] Kate: Yes. I need to tattoo that on my arm.

[00:27:11] Alexa: Okay. Maybe think about that.

[00:27:13] Kate: Yes. I'll let you know.

[00:27:15] Alexa: If you still like it tomorrow, maybe you should consider it. Let's talk about some key learnings for other people who may be if people are thinking about return to the office, or just looking for war stories about other things. What are some of your key takeaways from this process? Where are you at now? Are you guys going back? Where do you stand today? Then let's talk about looking back. What are your big takeaways?

[00:27:37] Kate: Right now we are open at a flexible model so employees can sign up to come into the office if they would like, but they can also choose to work at home if they would like. We really try to offer as much flexibility. Everybody's different, everyone's productivity looks different.

[00:27:55] Alexa: The idea behind the signup is just so you can give them equipment or what? Just so you can give them equipment and badges or?

[00:28:01] Kate: If they the process behind signup.

[00:28:04] Alexa: Yes. Or just why they have to sign up.

[00:28:06] Kate: Oh Yes. We use a facilities management software called Office Space so you can select your desk in your workstation that you want to work from at that office. If you want to secure that window seat, get in there, go get it. Then it also just helps us we do have vaccination requirements. It helps us enable that we've received your proof of vaccination and that you're good [crosstalk]

[00:28:26] Alexa: How has that experience been for you? Sorry, I brought it up at last.

[00:28:30] Kate: I'm actually really proud of it and that's so pathetic. We did a virtual vaccination verification. I tried to coin it, a VVV. It didn't catch on, people weren't into it.

[00:28:41] Alexa: Triple V.

[00:28:42] Kate: Yes. Basically, our employee experience team divided and conquered, we had a sign-up form. You just hop into a zoom for five minutes with someone on the EX team. Show them your card details. We have a master sheet that distracts and shows everyone who's good to go, give them a little start on the back end in the system. That means that you can improve for them to work from the office and sign up whenever they like.

[00:29:04] Alexa: Was that a hard decision to make?

[00:29:06] Kate: Not really because we had the CDC consultant so we were really-

[00:29:10] Alexa: I mean from the employee's perspective.

[00:29:11] Kate: For the employees, we were able to really pulse them. We were also able to get data on the percentage of our employee population that either was or planning to get vaccinated. Around the time that we were making that decision, 81% of our employee population surveyed that they either were already vaccinated or planning to do so. Then we also pulsed comfort level, if you would feel more comfortable coming into the office if vaccination were requirements.

The majority of that data was most of our employees that they would feel most comfortable coming in. We also were able to bake in our personal employee population into that decision-making as well. As well as get the data of pharmacy CDC consultant to help speak to the why behind the decision. Then if for whatever reason, someone's not comfortable getting that vaccination. Or they don't qualify to get that vaccination for personal circumstances, that's okay. It's not held against you.

You are free to work from home as long as you would like. We'll just continue to communicate should anything change as we monitor the outcome and the impact of the vaccinations and hear from our employees?

[00:30:16] Alexa: You're going to coach someone in this room on how to do this, the least painful way. You're going to give them all your knowledge from running this process internally for two years. Meanwhile, what she's not mentioning is that her company has also doubled in size while they're doing this.

[00:30:33] Kate: We did do that.

[00:30:34] Alexa: Building offices, trying to run point on remote work and doubling in size. Trying to keep all those balls in the air, what are your key takeaways for people? These dogs are really just the best audience I could ask for.

[00:30:47] Kate: They really like feeding my soul and I'm just so happy. I always quote the 2000s MTV documentary series Diary, You think you know ... but you have no idea. Really plan for everything, but be okay with quick pivots and shifts. Really just assess all of your protocols with every, what-if scenario. If something completely unexpected were to come up, would you do okay? Then buy-in is key. You really, really, if you want to be able to operate this successfully, you need to get that trust from your people, as well as not operate from a siloed decision-making in leadership.

Make sure you're getting all perspectives from all across the org. All levels of employees hear their biggest concerns, what they want, what would make them feel the most heard, supported, and act on that. When you get that feedback from your employees, if you run those surveys, make sure you action super visibly on that very quickly after receiving that feedback. Share those results so that all of the employees can see how their peers are feeling as well and bake the why behind those decisions.

[00:31:59] Alexa: Easier said than done. It sounds lovely. My question is, did you, at any point have populations that maybe disagreed?

[00:32:06] Kate: Oh, absolutely.

[00:32:07] Alexa: How do you reconcile that?

[00:32:09] Kate: We do have those office hours Q&As. We've had some very, very small amount of employees, thankfully, which I am grateful for. Even employees who don't necessarily agree with our stance on vaccinations or the phasing or waiting, as long as we did to open up the offices, they felt they understood our why. Why it was the best decision when you're assessing for a bulk population. Then we also had--

[00:32:38] Alexa: They understand that they're the outlier.

[00:32:40] Kate: Yes.

[00:32:40] Alexa: Got it. That's probably helpful.

[00:32:42] Kate: They had outlets to come to if they were feeling frustrated or wanted to speak more. We never negated their point of view, or we'll never tell someone they're wrong, their perspective is their perspective. It's important for us to be aware of it as well but just continue to keep that two-way dialogue as much as humanly possible so that they at least feel heard and they can understand.

[00:33:01] Alexa: Any other major takeaways.

[00:33:03] Kate: I think, assess where your biggest opportunities are and just make the investment. A CDC consultant, not a lot of people made that big of a swing, but I think it showed our employees that we really wanted to be thoughtful and really wanted to care. That we weren't assuming that we are experts on what to do. We're hearing from them but then we are also bringing an in-house expert. I think that big of investment was super visible and helped really establish that trust with our employees, that we are operating with their best interest in mind.

[00:33:34] Alexa: Sure, it gave them some continuity too, between the, "We just sent you all home and gave you a laptop and a $500 allowance, but we are getting back to the office. We just are bringing someone in to help with that process and update you along the way." Then I guess my last question would just be, you've mentioned your values a few times. How do you guys use that in this process? One of the things I get asked all the time by people in this space is, "We're at the PERKS convention, choose PERKS based on our values?

How do I know what's enough and if I choose this versus this? How do you guys use your values as a lens?

[00:34:06] Kate: Oh my goodness.

[00:34:06] Alexa: I mean literally how do you do that?

[00:34:09] Kate: Yes, Policygenius is probably one of the first companies I've ever worked where the values aren't just like an ugly poster on the way to the bathroom that no one talks about. They really are ingrained. I mentioned our no chuckleheads role we stayed [crosstalk]

[00:34:22] Alexa: No assholes. Code for no assholes.

[00:34:24] Kate: Yes. That's not to say that everyone was getting along perfectly in those COVID task force meetings and we were all aligned. That's not the case and that's why we had it but we were able to still disagree with each other respectfully. Find that middle ground, even if it took five ad hoc meetings to do so to get to the decision. Then also work the problem is a huge one for us where founded by McKinsey Consultants and they really, really--

[00:34:49] Alexa: I bet you have a framework for everybody.

[00:34:51] Kate: We sure do, missie. We really, really [unintelligible 00:34:54], but it works.

[00:34:58] Alexa: Sorry.

[00:34:58] Kate: So annoying but it works. We really try to be thoughtful and strategic in how we approach our problems. How we think of them from every possible lens and consider multiple approaches before landing on one. Getting that thought and that feedback, it takes grit to be great. It sounds so cheesy but I love it.

[00:35:16] Alexa: Grit to great.

[00:35:17] Kate: I'm such a loser.

[00:35:18] Alexa: That's a good bumper sticker.

[00:35:19] Kate: It is a good bumper sticker. That's the other thing, the people who were leading each of these initiatives to figure it out were just fully dedicated. There were days that I wanted to throw in the towel and say, "Oh my gosh, I just don't want to care anymore," because you can't figure out the answer to the problem. When you're surrounded by a group of individuals who actually do really care and want to get it right, you feed off of that energy. Everyone's just all hands on deck until we figure this out and then live by the golden rule.

Just no matter what, even if someone's perspective or stance is different than your own, just learn to respect it, to hear it, to appreciate it.

[00:35:59] Alexa: No chuckleheads. Don't be a chucklehead.

[00:36:01] Kate: Don't be a chucklehead, guys.

[00:36:02] Alexa: I'm going to have to borrow that one. No chuckleheads. Awesome. Well, any other things that you would say to peers or that you'd want them to know or funny stories you want to share about this process? I realize lots of people in this room and listening to this have been through two years of, "What the fuck are we doing here? When are we going to get back to the office and should we go back to the office what's that process." Anything else you want people to know or fun stories you want to share?

[00:36:26] Kate: Oh, my gosh. I'm trying to think of fun stories. I talked about the Delta variant already, that was a fun moment.

[00:36:32] Alexa: You guys are headed forward at this point. Are you planning to just stay flexible? Are you planning to ramp that up over time? What's the--

[00:36:41] Kate: We're planning to stay flexible just because also if we really take a step back, the day of structured 9:00 to 5:00 in the office every single day, it's over. If you try to dictate to your employees what they're going to do with their time and where they're going to work at this point, they're going to go somewhere else that's going to give them the flexibility that they need. Especially if we've proven, we're able, like I said, we doubled in size. We've had some really great success.

We've proven that our employees have what it takes to be successful wherever they choose to operate. We want to support that, but that's not to say-- we also do want to have some of those one-off moments of getting together, getting to collaborate. We have a bunch of sales folks out on a President's Club trip right now.

[00:37:24] Alexa: A what club trip?

[00:37:25] Kate: President's Club.

[00:37:27] Alexa: What is that?

[00:37:28] Kate: They're in San Juan.

[00:37:31] Alexa: San Juan?

[00:37:31] Kate: Where are they?

[00:37:33] Alexa: They're in Puerto Rico.

[00:37:35] Kate: A bunch of our sales agents are celebrating their wins and being rewarded for their hard work. Getting to also do a lot of team-building work while on vacation.

[00:37:46] Alexa: FOMO leads to engagement.

[00:37:47] Kate: I'm not jealous. I'm fine. Still funding those opportunities for that in-person engagement, because it also just helps us connect with each other, get to know each other better, and learn from each other. Which is tough sometimes in that remote environment.

[00:37:59] Alexa: I love it. Cool. Well, where can people find you if they what you have to say, Kate or they want to ask you about how to navigate this process?

[00:38:05] Kate: Sure, find me on LinkedIn. Kate Blain. I'd say social media, but you don't want to see me there. I just post a bunch of dog photos.

[00:38:13] Alexa: No, I was going to say, not say for work or what?

[00:38:15] Kate: No, just a lot of pictures of Cheeto who was rescued by Social Tees.

[00:38:17] Alexa: Cheeto, the Chiweenie. I love it. Well, thanks so much for being here I appreciate it. Wonderful to talk to you.

[00:38:23] Kate: Thank you.

[00:38:25] Alexa: See you at the next one.

[00:38:25] Kate: See you.

[00:38:26] Tyson: Wait a minute. Before you leave, take some time to leave us a five-star rating. We'd really love your feedback. Also if you'd like to see our lovely faces each week as we're recording these episodes, check us out on our new YouTube channel. Thanks.

[00:38:37] Alexa: This episode was executive produced by me, Alexa Boggio with audio production by Ellie Brigida of Clear Harmonies. Our intro music was also done by the wonderful Ellie Brigida of Clear Harmonies. You can find more information about us and future episodes at peopleproblemspod.com, or follow us at people problems pod on

[00:38:52] [END OF AUDIO]

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