Some employees find a hard time choosing the right employer for them because of a variety of factors. Some choose to leave their current employment and pursue another career path. Why do they do this and how do business owners adjust to this ongoing dilemma? Join Andrea Hoffer and her guest as they delve into the different carriers that you can provide for your employees and what job seekers look for in a workplace. The CEO of Our Benefits Coach, Jennifer Perera provides us with options on how to meet the needs of employees that would also be very beneficial for employers. Listen to them talk about work compensation, benefits packages and how you could create a culture that would make a positive impact in your organization.
Video has become very popular in recent years as it has become the most effective way to grab someone’s attention to your product or message. It has the same effect in recruitment marketing, as video has become an incomparable means of attracting quality candidates online. Joining Andrea Hoffer in this conversation, Jaime GeffnerandSteve Geffner talk about the advantages that jobseekers and employers alike can get when they leverage video in the recruitment process. AtGeffner Productions, Jaime and Steve are experts in teaching people video strategy, the technical side of creating videos, being comfortable on camera, and scripting. Through their signature program called Video Attraction Lab, they inspire business owners to step into their greatness with video, increase their impact, and grow their revenue. Listen in as they share some valuable tips that you can apply as you start to level up your recruitment with video.
Many people may not have heard the term “employee advocacy” before. In simple terms, it means when your current team members promote your company to others. This is typically done nowadays through social media. While employee advocacy may sound a simple concept, it is not always so simple to encourage your employees to promote you or to administer an employee advocacy program. On today’s show, Andrea Hoffer invites Mark Fisher and Julie Fisherto talk about how to build your credibility as an employer and improve the quality of candidates that you attract through employee advocacy. Both Mark and Julie are experts in establishing and administering employee advocacy programs.
One great employee is worth a handful of other mediocre candidates. Yet, admittedly, top-quality candidates are pretty rare and hard to find. Traci Wilk has the strategies to make them come to you instead of you to them. In this episode, she joins host Andrea Hoffer to share those with us. Primarily responsible for the organizational development and growth initiatives at The Learning Experience, Traci extends her expertise to help us how to successfully recruit top team members as franchise owners and, most importantly, keep them. She shares her insights about company culture, which aspects you should value, and the three things you need to look for in potential candidates beyond the typical experience. What is more, Traci then reveals some of the challenges when it comes to hiring in the corporate world and how to overcome them.
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How Franchise Owners Can Recruit Top-Quality Employees With Traci Wilk
We’re going to talk about how to successfully recruit top team members as a franchise owner. For those of you that know my background, you know that I owned a franchise location of The Spa Concept for many years. As a franchisee with a team of 35 employees, I struggled with attracting top-quality candidates and keeping them. I eventually discovered new ways to approach recruiting that helped me to be successful, but I wish I had known what to do back then. A few years ago, I had the opportunity to meet a true rockstar in HR and Talent professional. At the time that we met, she was stepping into the role of Senior VP for People at the franchise company in The Learning Experience. In the few years she’s been in this role, I’ve watched from afar the changes that she’s made to build a culture and team at The Learning Experience.
I want to start off by telling you a little bit about this impressive woman, Traci Wilk, Senior VP for People. Traci is primarily responsible for the organizational development and growth initiatives at The Learning Experience. She and the People team are focused on ensuring our brand vision and values, blend to create the ideal employee experience. For over many years, Traci’s career has spanned across multiple industries, leading teams at Fortune 500 and major progressive brands in varying stages of growth. Her passion for talent planning, change leadership, organization design, and people development is what led her to The Learning Experience.
Prior to joining The Learning Experience, her work experience included leadership roles at Starbucks Coffee, Coach, Rag & Bone, Bolt.com, and Delia’s. She attended SUNY Albany as an undergraduate in Psychology and received her Master’s Degree in Counseling Psychology from Fordham University. Her husband and two teenage children, Ryan and Alexa, relocated to South Florida from New Jersey, and she does not miss the Northeast winters. Welcome, Traci Wilk, Senior VP for People at The Learning Experience.
It’s nice to be with you.
Thank you for being here with us. We’re excited to learn from you. Could you start off by telling us a little bit about your background and how that led you to The Learning Experience?
I had my degree in Psychology, had every intention of becoming a psychologist. I find that many that eventually move into a role in Human Resources tend to get there accidentally, which is what happened to me. While I was in graduate school, I took on a part-time job at a company as their first HR Administrator, doing a lot of the paperwork, benefits, payroll and some of the more foundational tasks. What happened was this was a startup company. I found that as the company grew, the need for employee relations, support and organizational development support became very apparent. I found that what I was learning in graduate school, which I was attending at the same time, I was applying to the workplace.
I quickly decided I was going to make that pivot from becoming a therapist to being an in-house resource that is focused on the employee experience and helping people to become more self-actualized in the workplace. That’s what led me into HR. My first two roles were at startup organizations, then I left and went to two larger scale organizations: Starbucks and Coach. I went back into the startup world. I feel as though I’ve truly come full circle at The Learning Experience, which is an established company. The company has been around for many years. However, when I joined, the company was going through some significant organizational change and bringing in new leadership. It was ripe for somebody to come in and help shepherd us into this next phase of the organization. We’ll talk about that more as we progress, but essentially that is what led me here. All of my roles previously had been in New York City. This is my first time working in a state outside of New York City, in Florida. I’m happy to be here. This has been a terrific move for me.
I know when we first met and you first came to The Learning Experience, one of the things that you were working on were the core values. Could you share about that and the values that The Learning Experience embraces?
I’ve worked in companies that have had core values and others that did not. I often find that sometimes even though you have a set of values that what the culture of an organization is like, unless the leaders are role modeling and practicing these values every day, it doesn’t take hold. When I came to The Learning Experience, one of the things that I recognized was we had a number of long-time employees that had been here from the very beginning. They had a legacy with the organization. They helped build the organization, mixed with a set of newer people to the organization. In some cases, I noticed that there was an opportunity for more collaboration between the different teams and even in terms of the different styles and what people bring into an organization.
I have always held a belief that those that have been here for a long time or been with the company for a long time are essential because they represent a lot of the tradition, a lot of the values, and what built the company to begin with, versus newer people that come into an organization. I felt that if we work together as a complete leadership team and put together a set of core values that celebrated the contributions that everybody makes into an organization, whether you’ve been here for 10 years or 10 days, your ideas are of equal value.
We purposely created a set of three core values. One is an innovative mindset. Our second is a collaborative spirit. The third is community impact. The innovative mindset is all about bringing new ideas to the table. It’s very on the knows, but the name of the company is The Learning Experience. That is something that is inherent in our brand. We want people to come in with new ideas, iterate on ideas that have worked for us for a long time, and constantly be thinking about how to improve and make things better. The collaborative spirit was with the intention of bringing different groups together and knowing that if we work together, we’re going to get there faster. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
The community impact is inherent to our brand, The Learning Experience, and the impact that we make within our communities, our focus on philanthropic efforts. As we continue to build centers throughout the country and globally, we want to be thinking big and globally, but focused on the individual communities and how having a center in the middle of a community can enhance the community spirit. These are the values that we put into place. They have taken hold. We do find that we use them as a filter to make important decisions, whether that’s hiring or thinking about who will promote. I’m pleased with those. It took a lot of work to get to those three, but they do illustrate what we’re trying to achieve.
This next question may feed into everything you shared with us or maybe there’s something that you can build on with it. You said that the core values provide this filter in all your decisions, including hiring. When you are hiring for The Learning Experience, what are the top three things that you look for in potential candidates beyond the typical experience needed? Do these three values the top three things that you’re looking for?
They are. If I had to think about three key elements or attributes that I’m looking for in a candidate, that would be a good fit for us. The first is self-awareness and a high degree of emotional intelligence. It’s a close cousin to some of those core values, but it’s somebody that isn’t afraid to be vulnerable, to understand where in the past they may have taken a risk, failed and how they course-corrected. In an interview, people are trying to put forth the best version of themselves. For me, a big part of that is being able to interpret a humility that they may bring into the role, mixed with a confidence that comes from having been there before, having come into different roles, and met some similar challenges to what they would experience here. Those are some of the main attributes that I’m looking for.
The second is very similar also to an innovative mindset, which is a growth mindset. It’s understanding that there is always a different way to look at a situation. The thing that we never want to hear from somebody is, “This is the way I’ve always done it. This is the way it’s always been done.” Thus, we should continue along that vein. There needs to be elements. You don’t want to lose who you are as a brand and what makes you great, but having the ability to consistently think through, “Here is something I did,” and being able to have the elements of hindsight to think, “Here’s how I could have done it differently to even have had a better outcome or a faster outcome.”
The last thing that I look for when we’re hiring in the corporate office, one of the things we talk about a lot here is this notion of a T-shaped employee. T-shaped employees are those that have a broad view of a function and all of the different elements in that role, and can be strategic and think through all of the factors that may help us to get the initiative accomplished. Coupled with that is the ability to go narrow, deep, to roll up your sleeves and to understand a situation from the ground up, and to get that context. If we have leaders, when I say leaders, it doesn’t necessarily mean a people manager, but anybody coming into the company, we want you to have that leadership mindset to be energized by getting into the weeds, digging deep and drilling down into an issue in order to affect change. Those are the three things that I’m most interested in talking to candidates about.
Would you say that this has changed over the years for you of what you look for in candidates, or even has it changed as you moved from one organization to another?
It’s not that these things weren’t always important, but as I have grown in my career, I have seen what has made people successful and what has hindered them, it has become much more glaring. Perhaps in the past, we may have been much more focused on a specific experience or technical skillset that somebody brings into a role. That is often critical. To me now, I see that’s what gets you entry into a role, but in order to then be successful, you have to have those other attributes. I have changed my line of questioning in my interviews to be less focused on the technical parts of the role. As I’m interviewing a candidate versus maybe the hiring manager who I know can assess whether they have that technical skillset. Earlier in my career, I spent a little more time in those conversations, focused on those technical skills and not as much time on these other elements. That pendulum has swung in the other direction.
Different things become important as we learn more and grow more. What would you say are some of the challenges that you’ve run into when hiring specifically for the corporate-owned The Learning Experience locations?
We have about 350 centers, many more in development, and the majority of our centers are franchised. However, we do have about 10% of our centers that are corporate-owned. What has worked about that model for us, at least from a people perspective, is that we can pilot and we can try things and establish best practices in our corporate locations, which then we can offer up to franchisees as examples of best practice, “Here is what has worked for us. You may want to try the same.” When we focus on our corporate locations, I think that number one on a more technical level is oftentimes when we use job posting boards to find teachers, let’s say, in our centers, the filter is quite wide.
What will happen is you go into the job posting and you see who’s applied. You may have 200 applicants for one role and there are people that maybe don’t have the requisite skills or they’re not looking for a teacher job, but they’re flooding an inbox with the resume. Sometimes when you’re dealing with hourly positions and an applicant tracking system, there’s often spam in there, so there are those elements that from a technical perspective, we try to help them out with and setting up filters that will naturally only put resumes into those jobs if they have the requisite experience and qualifications for the job.
As I think about it, that’s on the technical side. As I think about it from a leadership level, our center leaders that are running the centers and are responsible for making sure that their centers are fully staffed, what they often run into is only focusing on recruiting and sourcing talent when they have an opening. What I try to talk to those teams about is that you need to be thinking about talent every single day. Setting up best practices and setting up disciplines so that you are always consistently thinking about elevating the talent within your center is something that for those that do it, it works. They constantly have a pipeline of great talent that is ready to step into any role, and then they can become exporters of talent.
They may have teachers that can then become center leaders, and they are focused on development because they know that they have a pipeline of A-list talent that’s ready to come into those roles. Getting ahead of it and it also keeps you fresh. One of the best practices that we try to teach people is to pick a day each week and focus that week on not only meeting and looking at talent, maybe that’s applied to your role but also proactively looking at those that may not be applying for jobs and looking for that passive talent. Talking to your best employees and saying, “How can I find more great people like you?” Making that part of their everyday leadership tasks is critical. Oftentimes, setting aside that time every week to do it is what seems to work.
We say the same thing for our clients, “You always want to be recruiting.” When I was a franchisee, once I learned that, that’s when things started to change for me as far as being more successful. Would you say that culture is embedded in the hiring practices? Not just for the corporate, but also for the franchise locations?
I do. The core values and culture stem from the top. When we bring new franchisees into The Learning Experience, a big part of their immersion is immersing them in the values, and talking to them about what makes a great franchisee and what makes a great center leader and great teacher, and using those as filters for making hiring decisions. We embedded within the franchisees themselves as they come into the company. It’s been interesting for me. Most of my background as we discussed has been in retail HR.
The Learning Experience and supporting franchisees from a People and Talent perspective have been new for me, but it’s such a great challenge and interesting. Because of joint employer legislation, we can’t get overly involved in their hiring practices. However, as mentioned, we can share with them our best practices and what has worked for us. I see, as the Head of People, my role to provide the tools and resources for our franchisees to be successful. A big part of that, if we take the approach of our culture, our values, and what makes The Learning Experience a fun place to work, and encouraging the franchisees to utilize that as a means to attract talent to their centers, it’s a win-win.
What are some of the biggest challenges that you see these franchisees running into when it comes to hiring?
As a franchisee, they’re trying to get their business off the ground and there’s a consistent conundrum that I think that they come into and have to learn the lesson for themselves. It’s this notion of you get what you paid for. They are trying to start the business. They’re trying to keep their expenses as low as possible so that they can see profitability faster. Oftentimes, that equates to not wanting to invest in top-tier talents. What we try to explain to them is that if you hire at the bottom of the pay scale, you’re not going to be able to attract the type of teacher you want in your centers. The one that is going to essentially increase their enrollments.
They have to take the long view upfront, which is difficult when every dollar counts and they’re trying to manage labor. Particularly in childcare, there are certain ratios that have to be met within the classrooms. It’s getting them to understand that investing in more experienced teachers and in employees, and often paying more than you may have wanted to pay when you are putting your projections together is going to help you in the long run. You’ll reduce turnover. You’re going to create stability in the center. When you think about what drives parent enrollment, which is the primary metric that we’re looking at in our centers, it is all based on the quality of teacher that you have there. The biggest challenge is getting their buy-in to understand that notion.
That’s an important advice for any franchisee of any brand. Do you have some advice for the people leader of a franchise brand? What advice would you give to them to help their franchisees to be successful?
Using that as a thread, when we do our initial immersion and training with franchisees, that case study is something that we talk to them about upfront. We’ll talk to them about franchisees and that maybe had made that mistake upfront, and they could have got to profitability a lot faster if they focused on finding top-tier talent and weren’t afraid to pay them as such. As a People leader, as you think about the immersion and the training of your new franchisees, that needs to be a primary element. The other is there may be, in terms of training, a lot of focus on sourcing and the do’s and don’ts of interviewing from a legal perspective, but something that needs a lot more attention is teaching them the value of assessing candidates accurately. If there are red flags in the interview process, you need to trust your gut because the interview is the person putting forth their best self. If there are things in the interview that are causing you to think, “I’m not quite sure,” you need to dig in and delve a little bit deeper because there is no more important decision that you make than who to hire. Those are some of the important elements.
I appreciate everything you’ve shared. If anybody is interested in learning more about The Learning Experience franchise, or even learning about working for one of The Learning Experience locations, what’s the best way for them to get information?
I would direct them to our website, TheLearningExperience.com. We are developing centers at a velocity that we have never seen before as an organization. A ton of opportunities for franchising and for roles within our centers. If you go to TheLearningExperience.com/Franchising, it’ll take you directly to a place where you can learn more about what that looks like, and also to submit your contact information. If you go to TheLearningExperience.com/Careers, it will also take you to a list of roles within our corporate locations. It will give links to franchise locations as well as here in our corporate office in Deerfield Beach.
Thank you so much, Traci, for joining us. I feel like we’ve got a lot of great information from you.
I’m happy to do it. Thank you for having me.
Thank you, readers, for joining us. Stay safe and happy. Have a great day.
Traci is primarily responsible for the organizational development and growth initiatives at The Learning Experience. She and the People team are focused on ensuring our brand vision and values blend to create the ideal employee experience.
For over 20 years Traci’s career has spanned across multiple industries, leading teams at Fortune 500 and major progressive brands in varying stages of growth. Her passion for talent planning, change leadership, organizational design, and people development is what led her to The Learning Experience. Prior to joining TLE, Traci’s work experience includes leadership roles at Starbucks Coffee, Coach, rag & bone, Bolt.com and Delia’s.
She attended SUNY Albany as an undergraduate in Psychology and received her master’s degree in Counseling Psychology from Fordham University.
Traci, her husband and two teenage children Ryan and Alexa relocated to South Florida from New Jersey and she does not miss the Northeast winters!
The pandemic has brought upon the acceleration in becoming a remote workforce. Overnight, we’ve seen businesses adjust to work from home teams, with some businesses choosing this setup as a temporary situation while others are embracing it for the long-term. But what do remote teams look like after the pandemic? On today’s podcast, Andrea Hoffer brings on Sofi Hersher to talk about this topic. Sofi is the Managing Director at ignite: action, a boutique digital marketing and strategic communications firm.
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The Remote Team Outside Of The Pandemic With Sofi Hersher
One of the things we’ve seen with this pandemic is an acceleration in becoming a remote workforce. We’re seeing businesses that maybe weren’t remote before and then overnight had to adjust to work from home teams. Some businesses chose to set this up as a temporary situation and others we’re seeing are embracing it for the long-term. We’re going to talk about what this looks like after the pandemic. What do these new remote teams show up at? This topic came out of a conversation I had with several different business leaders when I was writing a blog in December 2020 about how the pandemic has changed hiring challenges. If you’re interested in reading the blog, please visit our website at www.AHARecruitingExperts.com. The theme that came up over and over again in these conversations was the shift towards hiring remote teams.
One of the business leaders that I spoke with shared insights around this subject that were unique and interesting and I think that our audience can benefit from them. I asked her to be a guest on this show. I’m honored and excited that she agreed to be a guest with us. Please welcome,Sofi Hersher. Before I introduce her, I want to read the bio of this impressive woman. Sofi Hersher is the Managing Director at ignite: action. It is a boutique digital marketing and strategic communications firm, formerly based in Washington, DC and now based on the internet.
With many years of experience across both the nonprofit and for-profit sectors, Sofi is passionate about building brands and telling stories that demonstrate all the ways we can come together to improve our world. Prior to joining ignite, she oversaw all social justice communications for the Reform Jewish Movement, the largest denomination of Judaism in North America. In this role at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, she managed public relations, mass mobilization, marketing design, and technology infrastructure projects. Before that, she spent four years as a Global Brand Manager at Twitter in San Francisco. Sofi regularly writes and presents on issues related to religion, social justice, technology, and is a regular contributor to POPSUGAR News. Sofi, thank you for being with us.
Thanks for having me. It’s great to be here.
Would you mind starting off by telling us a little bit about what ignite: action does and your role there?
It is a digital marketing and strategic communications agency. We work with clients across the for and nonprofit sectors, building brands, building out digital marketing strategies, helping them figure out how to tell their story and the story of their users or donors or constituents in ways that help mobilize people and move them to action. That’s where the name comes from. We’re there to ignite action on behalf of our clients and the people that they serve. My role changes a little bit every day, but I’m the managing director. I report to the CEO and everybody else reports to me. I oversee all of the internal operations and client execution for the company. I oversee a team of designers, creative strategists of account managers and then all of those who work on the internal operations of the business as well. My job is to make sure that while our sales pipeline is full, we are staffed and ready to help anyone who engages us.
Before the pandemic, how many team members did you have? How many of those team members were remote or in the office and has that changed?
Before the pandemic, we had five full-time staff members and they were all based in the DC area. We had an office in Bethesda and we now have 12 full-time staff members and 5 of them are still in and around the DC, Maryland, Virginia area and the rest are distributed throughout the country.
Did you have any concerns about this shift of adding all these remote employees?
I had a tremendous amount of concerns. Like many people, I started a job towards the end of 2019 and the rules changed overnight at the beginning of 2020. I felt confident in my ability to manage an onsite team of 5, and a remote team of 12 is a different conversation altogether. We are also largely a creative services outfit. Part of our work is about talking to other creative people, generating ideas, synthesizing information and figuring out the best way to solve complex problems. It’s a lot harder when you can’t be in the same room. It’s not impossible but it’s harder. I had a lot of questions about how to be a creative agency in distributed space. In 2021, this year has been quite a crash course in how to facilitate that type of collaborative culture amongst people who have never met in 3D.
What are some of the ways that you start to address that?
Like many, overnight, everything changed. On Friday, everybody went home and we were regular in-person office culture. On Monday, we had a Slack workspace and the center of our world was entirely online. What we’ve tried to do is strategically build out our software ecosystem so that we’re not using a million different tools for a million different tasks. Part of that means, if you think of a software ecosystem as a hub and spoke model, then our hub is Slack. Everything has to come into and out of Slack. We’ve been very thoughtful about which systems we use to solve which problems to make sure that everything can integrate back into our home base. It’s not perfect. It hasn’t been perfect.
If had known at the beginning that we were going to be permanently remote, I would have done it differently, but that’s one of the things that we’ve done. We’ve also implemented a bunch of different small workplace policies to try and make sure that people can stay productive. That they can stay on the top of their game because we’re not just fighting a productivity battle, we’re fighting an emotional battle on all fronts as the pandemic continues to disrupt people’s lives. We’ve implemented policies. For example, every 30-minute meeting is now 25 minutes to make sure that everybody has time between each meeting to prepare in some way for the next one because we had people in wall to wall meetings all day, feeling increasingly compounding stress over the course of the day.
Similarly, 60-minute meetings are now 50-minute meetings. We don’t take client meetings on Fridays. Everyone is encouraged to have big blocks of work where they don’t allow meetings, 3 or 4-hour blocks where they’re working. There are a lot of these different policies. We also went on unlimited vacation, unlimited paid time off, which I know you can argue for or against it. We’ve mandated that everybody take a minimum of two weeks of vacation each year to make sure that people are taking advantage of that policy and that we’re avoiding burnout where we can.
That’s one of the things a lot of us don’t think about. When we moved to work from home, we almost think, “It’s going to be easier on people,” but it brings in a whole set of new emotional challenges. What about bonding? The last time we spoke, you said that in the initial time during the pandemic, you saw your team bonding through the chaos. I loved how you put that. Is that still the case or have you found other ways to keep that bond strong?
There are two types of bonding or attachments that are important here. There are attachments to one another, the relationships between colleagues and then there’s the relationship between the employee and the company or the organization itself. In terms of the relationships between people, what I’ve begun to notice is that you don’t have the common denominator of a break room or a place where everyone eats their lunch, or two people who happen to be having a bad day on the same day and they’re in the same space. You see a little bit of fracturing in terms of people who form the most natural to them groups. Those people are talking throughout the day on Slack and they’re getting to know each other, but you’re not cross-pollinating with people who might have different perspectives or different backgrounds who would likely benefit the most from getting to know their colleagues, who may be different from them.
That’s been a challenge because I’m a leader, but I can’t force people to form relationships or to behave in a way that feels completely unnatural to them, especially in a remote environment. What we have done is we’ve tried to use our staff meetings as efficiently as possible to make sure that people understand why they’re there, that everyone gets a chance to hear their own voice and understand how they’re related to what’s being discussed. We try and make sure that the people who organize and speak to what’s going on in staff meetings change. Every other week we have an hour-long staff meeting and it’s not just me talking and giving updates, but it’s different people presenting on what is a design process look like or how do account managers structure their time to be the most efficient or what does it mean to build a brand story?
These are all different tasks that different colleagues take on and hearing their processes and what’s challenging to them builds empathy across our staff. That’s been important. The other thing that we’ve taken great pains to do is to try and help people understand how they relate to and bond with the company itself as something larger. I employ mostly Millennials and I will proudly say that I have built a culture that makes sense for who I employ. It’s not entirely Millennial. We have some people who are technically qualified as Gen Z and Gen X but what we know about Millennials is that they feel a strong need for a sense of belonging and purpose in their work. There’s some interesting research that’s going on across a lot of these work management companies about this, about a sense of belonging.
I was reading a study that came out. It was a collaboration between Asana, which is a project management software and some researchers at UC Berkeley. It showed that 39% of employees that they surveyed wanted to know that their work will add value to the business and 34% wanted to know that their work contributed to the overall vision. We’re a marketing agency. We’re not a nonprofit, we’re not an advocacy organization. When I thought about what the implications were for that, I realized that we needed a better reason for people to work for us than we generate revenue and pay your salary. For some that might work, but that wasn’t going to work for the Millennials that I employ. That wasn’t the type of culture that I wanted to build because I’m also a Millennial.
What we did is we created what’s called a BHAG. It’s a Big Hairy Audacious Goal. We came up with a BHAG that worked for us. Our company has as its goal that we are going to mobilize ten million people and raise one million people towards impact-driven causes and clients over the next many years. Now each employee can understand how they contribute to and relate to the larger purpose that our company exists to fulfill. We can count. Each person can say, “My client project raised $600,000 for this nonprofit. I get to see that thermometer go up. I understand that I’m working towards something larger and that my colleagues and I are doing this together.” It’s a shared sense of purpose and it bonds horizontally and vertically.
We’ll make these big goals, whether we call them BHAGs or not, but we don’t always show how each person in the organization contributes to that. That’s the most important thing to say, even before you start recruiting to hire for a position. It’s not just Millennials, everybody wants to know how they contribute to the overall goal, to the overall purpose. We want to be needed. What about onboarding? How have you approached onboarding in this remote world?
We haven’t done it perfectly. As you can tell, we’ve grown almost 400%. That’s been a lot of onboarding and there were a couple of months where I felt like that was all I was doing. The first thing that we did as it relates specifically to remote work is rather than what we used to do, which was you would show up on your first day and I would hand you a laptop and it would say, “This is your company-issued laptop. Let me help you set it up and get everything working.” The reality is now that we are remote, if someone’s computer breaks, what are they going to do? Are they going to mail it to me and I’m going to go to the Apple store? It doesn’t make any sense anymore.
Instead, what we’ve done is we’ve created a hiring IT stipend. We call it a remote work stipend. What we’ve said is everyone who comes on board as a full-time staff member gets up to $1,500 of reimbursable stipend to go out and figure out what they need for their remote work environment. We chose $1,500 because that could cover the cost of a high-end laptop or if you have a laptop that works and you’re able to keep it secure, then that can cover a new standing desk, a ring light, a new printer, whatever it is that you think is going to improve your quality of work. We’ve had people use it to redo the Wi-Fi in their homes.
We’ve had people use it to buy high-end headphones. We’ve had people do it to get standing desks, new laptops, new complete setup. We’ve done this for two reasons. One, because technologically, it makes more sense. We’re a small agency. We don’t have an IT department and no one should be mailing me their technology. Second, it shows even before the first day that we are valuing and putting trust in our employees. We’re saying to them, “We trust you to know best what you need. Let us know what that is.” A week before their first day, I set up all of their accounts. I go through, they get an email address and I invite them to everything.
It’s all sitting there so that they are aware before their first day. If they want to, there’s certainly no expectation that they can set these things up, or on the first day we’ll go through and help them understand, “These are all the systems that you’ll need. This is what you’ll need to download. This is what you can access from your browser.” The whole first week is based around a slow introduction to how the technology ecosystem works both hardware and software and who are the owners internally of each system and who to go to for help.
All of that happens alongside meeting each member of the team and deep dives into the clients that they may be onboarding onto, getting a sense for the culture, and also spending some time getting to know their manager. Making sure that their manager understands how they communicate, how they see the world, how to motivate them, how to resolve disputes with them. Ultimately, what their goals are for the year ahead so that they can understand how to position their goals alongside the goals the company has set for their role as well.
They get a full 360 of not only how to work in your company, but also how they fit in and how they fit into the culture.
That’s the goal. It’s not perfect in execution, but there’s a strong intentionality behind helping people understand that they are a puzzle piece and a larger puzzle and this specific shape of their puzzle piece is important. It’s not just anyone can fit into this hole, “This hole is U shaped and let me tell you why and let me show you how you fit into this,” and figuring out how to have real conversations from the very beginning and set up the potential for an honest dialogue moving forward.
Have there been any other challenges that you either anticipated or didn’t anticipate by bringing on a remote workforce? What are some of the steps that you’ve taken to overcome those challenges?
For us specifically, we had two dovetailing challenges, which is we were a small company scaling rapidly and we were fighting the pandemic and a transition to a remote workplace. I think that it happens for a lot of people. You hit plateaus as you build a business. Sometimes, you climb that first summit and suddenly, it’s a direct climb and then you’re up against something else as well. For us, my biggest concern over the course of the last year in terms of how to build a scalable model in terms of HR, compensation, the culture, had to do with the cost of living versus the cost of labor and how to set up fair and transparent compensation. I’ll be the first to say that while there’s been a tremendous amount of thought put into this, the way we’re doing this is not transparent yet across the company because there are many implications for building salary bands and job ladders.
You have to make sure that it’s pressure tested before you put it out into the world because you can’t control information once you’ve released it into the world and you can do your best to control perception, but it’s not entirely under your control. When I talk about the cost of living versus the cost of labor is how you build your compensation framework. Is it based on the cost of the basic living requirements in the place that you live? The cost of living is tied to geography. If I live in Washington, DC, my cost of living is going to be significantly higher than in Jacksonville, Florida. There’s a great tool from NerdWallet. It’s a Cost of Living Calculator, and you can see, for example, if your cost of living in Jacksonville, Florida, if you make a $50,000 salary would require a $90,000 salary in Washington, DC to maintain the same cost of living, the same quality of living.
That’s a huge challenge for remote employers, especially if unlike in tech, you don’t have a baseline set by one geographic area that is the center or the hub of everything. A lot of tech companies are at the front of this cost of living versus the cost of labor conversation. Most of the time, the cost of labor, which is not tied to geography, but is tied to the generally accepted baseline cost of employing that role or that skillset. If you have something like the technology industry, your baseline is still going to be San Francisco or Silicon Valley, not necessarily because it’s a geographic area, but because there’s a standard set by the companies that have conglomerated there rather than the people who live there or the cost that it costs them to rent an apartment or buy groceries.
We don’t have a baseline. We’re a marketing company. We’re an agency, but we’re not the big flashy, New York City agencies. We’re not competing with agencies in Berlin and Paris. We’re a smaller shop by design. We have niche clients. Our compensation structure is built to be fair, but what is fair? It’s built to give people a meaningful living, but a meaningful living means something different in Louisville, Kentucky than it does in Sacramento, California, or it does in Washington, DC. I have staff in all three of those places. When I looked at that and I said, “I’m going to tear all my hair out and stay up all night screaming because I have no idea what to do.” We were a small company. I am HR.
I’m the managing director. I manage almost everyone and my job is to make sure that people feel like this is a company they want to work for. The first thing that I started digging into was building out job ladders and salary bands. In order to be transparent, there has to be a system. You can’t transparently be arbitrary because that’s not going to build any trust between you and your employees. What I did is I went out into the world and I found examples of strong job ladders and salary bands. I left a previous job because they didn’t have these things. I knew other people in my roughly same level were making wildly different amounts of money.
Whether it was because I was a woman or because I had less years of experience, I don’t know, I filled in the gaps myself because there was no transparency. The more I filled it, the more frustrated I got. What we have is a job ladder which says, completely separate from who we have on staff. This is completely agnostic to the people we have on staff. These are the roles we have within the company. According to our baseline we have set for ourselves, which we have loosely tied to a Washington, DC cost of living because that’s where the founder and myself, so our entire executive team lives. We have created salary bands per each of those rungs on the ladder so that anyone, regardless of their experience or their background is put into a band.
Once they’re in a band, based on the role that we have created, then their experience, background, a specific set of skills, all of that is what determines where they fall within the band. It’s allowed us to be so much more intentional when someone asks us for a raise or we have a promising new hire or someone even comes to us and says, “Why is this my salary?” I can answer that question now. It’s not just, “Because we started out in DC, this is how much people were making, but you live somewhere else. You make less because that’s the competitive rate for your city.” All of that feels challenging when what you’re trying to do with new employees and remote employees, in general, is build a sense of trust and expectation so that they can expect as much from you as you are asking them to live up to the company’s expectations.
The cost of living versus the cost of labor has been a real challenge for us. We’ve taken a mid-range approach. We’ve tried to make sure that everyone is paid appropriately for their geographic area, but that it also fits into what is an acceptable cost of labor for their role because, at the end of the day, we’re a company. Our job is to continue to exist and continue to employ people, but you have to employ people at a living wage. You have to respect them for their talents. In order for them to flourish and grow, you have to help them understand how appreciated they are for their individual choices and the background. That’s the first one.
The second one is about the productivity gap. I mentioned a little bit about technology and software. One of the first roadblocks I’ve hit over and over again as I think about how to make the company more efficient is this question of, “Do I use blunt tools that are part of a singular system to solve problems or do I find the sharpest possible tools that are all completely discreet to tackle individual problems?” It’s not clear which one you use. For example, if you wanted a CRM that also sent an email, did your audience segmentation, created flowcharts, that you can design in it, this, that, and the other. What you’re going to get is a simple system that people can go to for almost everything, but it’s not going to be able to do all the various things that you might want it to do if you could find the one specific tool or the one specific key to those particular problems locked.
What we have, which we’re starting to sort through intentionally is passwords to like 25 or 30 different softwares. Each one of them does something super specific and it’s great at what it does, but at some point, the usefulness and the effectiveness starts to plateau because people are shifting mentally 25 or 30 times a day between different tools. There’s a loss of productivity and a loss of focus every single time you ask someone to shift between the logic of one system to the logic of another. That’s a big challenge in terms of remote work because when I ask my team, “What do you wish we had?” I asked them this a lot. If there was one document or one process that existed, that doesn’t now, what would it be?
I hear things as simple as, “Could we create a Dropbox map? We have many different things stored in Dropbox. That’s where all of our files are, but our work management system is in Asana, but we communicate in Slack and we track our hours in Harvest. There is no one tool that does all of those things. I have to spend many minutes a day trying to think where something is and how to communicate on that platform. Someone sent me a document to review. Do I send my feedback in Slack or do I put it in a Google Doc which lives in Dropbox and then I email it?”
It’s maddening. There are real implications for this that are not just employee frustration. If you think about it from the business side, it’s like 27% of workers that say that they’re missing messages, they’re missing conversations because they’re switching between apps and that app overload. It makes everyone less efficient and it’s hard to prioritize because you don’t know where to be at any given time. That’s the second thing that I didn’t quite expect because my first thought was, “Let me give everyone the best tools I can find to solve their problems.” That created a secondary problem, which is a disorganized toolbox, essentially.
I’m laughing inside as you’re sharing this because this is our biggest problem at AHA because we intentionally researched and looked for the best technology out there. There’s always something new coming out that’s related to recruiting and onboarding. We make sure we always have the best tools in our toolbox, but sometimes I don’t even know how many programs we’re using at any given moment. It’s easy to let something fall through the cracks and even budget-wise. My CFO is always like, “We need to get the spending down and the place we have to start is the software.” If you have an answer, I’m like waiting with bated breath, but I don’t know if you do or not.
I have a couple of methods for how to tackle it. The answer is going to be different for each person. We’ve moved into space where we have an operations team. We have people who can think about these things. They’re not just focused on client work. That’s been a big shift for our company, is having the time and space to look internally. One of the things that we’ve done is we’ve implemented an annual review where we gather all of our expenses and we isolate those that are software and we figured out, “Interestingly enough, we had two different softwares that were both specifically about creating visual charts of different kinds. We don’t need to spend $8.99 and $15.99 a month for that.”
We often use Canva to create social media graphics. We had been using a package where we had each employee listed separately, even though most of those employees weren’t using Canva. When we added it to our system, we said, “Everyone should have access to it,” not realizing that not everybody’s work touches Canva. Once we looked at that, we said, “We can decrease this by a couple of hundred dollars a month because not everybody’s using it, even though we have everybody registered.” The process of review is important. We also have something called a systems map which is a visual representation of all of our softwares and how they fit together.
Anything that is a single-use software, you start to ask, “Is there a better way to tackle this?” If you have something like Slack and you know that’s the center of your communication strategy, then you can start to say, “I see all these other single-use tools, are there any of these that don’t integrate with Slack? Let’s see if there’s a better way to do that so that we can decrease the amount of switching that we need to do. Can we do this all through Slack? It may be a single-use tool, but if we can use it through Slack, it won’t feel quite distinct out in space. If it can’t be integrated with Slack, maybe there’s a different program that does the same thing that’s going to help us be more efficient in the way that we work.” That’s one way to do it.
The other is it has a lot to do with internal resources. Having some internal Wiki or document where you write out, “This is how we expect you to use these systems.” If management can’t articulate how the systems fit together, then they are not serving the needs of their employees the best that they can. They’re leaving them to do the intellectual labor of putting all these pieces together without holding themselves accountable to the intellectual labor of why those pieces are there in the first place. Writing all of that down and making that accessible is something that we’ve found helpful.
I’m learning so much from you. This is very good information. Some of these things you don’t think about on a day to day and you need to spend time focusing on them so that your day to day is more productive. This is a little bit off-topic, but I’m curious, when the pandemic first hit, a lot of businesses, in general, ended up closing down or shrinking or having a lot of problems as far as keeping their doors open, and yet your company grew tremendously. What do you attribute that to?
Equal parts luck, being well-positioned in a market and being a digital-first organization. We were lucky enough that our business was helping nonprofits figure out how to utilize digital space in the best possible way. Some of the people that we’ve been talking to for years, in some cases about how to help or the improvements that we thought they could make to their systems, they’d always say, “It’s not a priority.” In 2021, it became a big priority. We’d been out there all along saying, “Here are some things you need to learn how to do.” That was helpful.
The second thing is that while the entire world exploded, some of our largest costs went down, which allowed us to make some big bets. We no longer pay rent, which other than payroll, was our largest expense monthly. We were able to ask ourselves, “What would we do with this money if it was a fun windfall?” We were able to reinvest that into increasing our number of staff and increased our capacity to take on new projects, bigger projects and it spiraled from there. In our industry, we worked primarily, though not solely, with nonprofits. We see ourselves as working with impact-driven organizations. For example, while most of our clients are nonprofits, we do work with sustainable meat distributors where we can understand the impact that they’re trying to make, which is systemic and long-term to society and the world.
Because we have worked with many nonprofits that exist in the legacy space, they are already up against a number of challenges. One of which is that their system is not built for digital transformation. They’ve spent years avoiding a digital transformation and they need thought partners and not just boots on the ground to figure out what questions they should be asking over the next couple of years and we’ve been positioned to do that. In addition to that, these are organizations often that rely on donor funding and we’re up against the largest wealth transfer in human history in the next many years.
Younger generations require being communicated with online and in digital spaces. Because we were there all along, we were able to take advantage of this opportunity to say to people, “We’re here. We’re ready to help you. We can talk to you on Zoom.” Zoom wasn’t new for us. We were already using it. We were well-positioned to take advantage of what could have been catastrophic for our business. I know it was for many others and there’s some guilt that I carry with that. I’ve tried to channel that guilt into employing as many people as I can from all over the country so that their talents are being utilized in there and they landed in a place that they’re respected for the full range of contributions that they can make.
What is the most important piece of advice that you would give an employer who found themselves and now is having a remote team when before they had an in-office team?
The most important piece of advice I would give is to find a network of people in similar situations. I’ve been quite diligent in building a network of people who also run early-stage or small companies and agencies that I can turn to for help and say, “Have you encountered this issue? How have you handled it?” That sharing of ideas has saved me hundreds of hours of research and agonizing over the right way to go because I have trusted sources that have already learned some of this and I’ve been able to share my own learnings with. The first thing is don’t think you have to do it alone. The other piece and this is going to sound Millennial, but it’s also to be transparent with your staff about the challenge of building a remote company quickly, listening, asking questions and being able to acknowledge when something isn’t perfect rather than defensively saying, “This is better than it is somewhere else.”
Being able to say, “We’re building and I appreciate your input. I’m going to take that into consideration. I probably can’t fix it tomorrow, but I’m doing my best to build a sustainable solution for a year from now.” That also builds trust, which is overall the entire exercise here. Our key takeaway from our conversation from my perspective is everything you do as a business leader should be in service of building trust with your employees and whoever it is you’re serving out in the world. You can’t do that without a little bit of humility. That’s something I’ve learned. I worked at Twitter in the early days. I said, “I know consumer technology. This is going to be fine for me.”
I used to work from home sometimes and it’s not a breeze for anyone. The last thing would be to focus heavily on helping your team prioritize and figure out what problem are you solving right then, what is the problem you’re going to solve next? Try not to solve them all at one time, but to look at your team, ask them what they need and then create an order of operation so that you can systematically improve the efficiency and productivity in your company. Otherwise, you’re going to drive yourself crazy, looking for the one perfect solution. It doesn’t exist. It’s not out there.
You’ve brought so much value in many different areas that our readers are going to gain a lot. If somebody wanted to reach out to you or use your services, what’s the best way to contact you?
You can email me. You can go to our website and use the contact function. Our website is IgniteAction.co. My email address is Sofi@IgniteAction.co. I would love to talk to anyone else struggling with these same issues and trying to build a sustainable, ethical and empathetic company that can thrive far beyond the pandemic. We’re all experiencing a state of emergency now, but God willing, the vaccine rollout continues to go smoothly and that we can return to some form of new normal. At that point, some of the grace will go away and we’re going to need to tackle these problems in earnest.
Thank you so much for joining us and thank you to all of you for reading. Choose to stay safe and happy. Have a great day.
Blog – What Challenges Has the Pandemic Caused And What Is the Impact On Hiring in 2021?
Sofi Hersher is the managing director of igniting: action, a boutique digital marketing and strategic communications firm formerly based in Washington, DC and now based on the internet. With 10+ years of experience across both the non-profit and for-profit sector, Sofi is passionate about building brands and telling stories that demonstrate all the ways we can come together to improve our world.
Prior to joining ignite, Sofi oversaw all social justice communications for the Reform Jewish Movement, the largest denomination of Judaism in North America. In this role at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, she managed public relations, mass mobilization, marketing, design, and technology infrastructure projects. Before that, she spent four years as Global Brand Manager at Twitter in San Francisco.
Sofi regularly writes and presents on issues related to religion, social justice, and technology, most recently at SXSW in Austin, Texas and the BYU Religious Freedom Annual Review in Provo, Utah, and is a regular contributor to PopSugar News. In addition to these pursuits, she sits on the board of trustees of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty.
Sofi holds a master’s degree in Religion in Contemporary Society from King’s College London and a bachelor’s degree in Comparative Religion from the University of Washington.
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