This week we are talking about how companies can deal with uncertainty and thrive under any circumstances with Anouk and Hannah at Unleashed.
Anouk and Hannah are helping startups shape fulfilling workplaces, and are on a mission to gear up businesses for speedy, sustainable and successful scaling by creating healthy H̶R̶ People practices.
I asked them a few questions trying to extract insights around the following:
- how companies are navigating the remote environment;
- how to best onboard new starters;
- how to deal with difficult conversations with no face to face interactions;
- and more aspects revolving around building a sustainable company culture.
I’d like to send Anouk and Hannah a massive thanks for taking the time to chat and the thoughtfulness with which they addressed my questions. I hope you'll enjoy learning from their experience as much as I did.
Could you tell us a bit about you and your background?
Anouk: Before founding Unleashed in 2017, I was busy working in scaling tech businesses as a People Leader. I left full time employment predominantly to spend more time with my son, Joshua, who had just been diagnosed with dyslexia. Unleashed was born both to give me that flexibility (ironic given it’s kept me busier than ever over the last three and a half years!) and also to speak to a real need that I’d identified in early stage businesses. Founders who want to scale successfully and sustainably often have to maintain laser focus on building product and finding market fit. But there is - or was - a huge lack of support and expertise to help them take care of the main thing that is going to guarantee their short and long term success, namely their people and culture - hiring the right talent, when they don’t have an employer brand, building a team that is happy and high performing and supporting managers to make the transition from being pure do-ers, to leaders. The impact of paying attention to this from the get go is huge. To be fair, the three most important things for any tech business to thrive are Product, Revenue and People so it absolutely needs to be thought about early.
Hannah: My first ever job title was People person - I think that says it all really! I also have a background in tech startups and scaleups as a real generalist - getting stuck into all things people experience, engagement, comms and culture. I have a real passion for creating cultures of openness around mental health and I consider my mission in life to be enabling and supporting people to do their best work. I joined Anouk as her business partner at Unleashed just over two years ago, and I was attracted by what I think I called at the time the potential to have ‘impact squared’ and be part of so many businesses journeys. I haven’t looked back for a second - and it’s been awesome to experience the growth that we’ve had too - we’re now a team of 11 and we’ve had the privilege of working with over 70 startups and scaling businesses.
This year we have observed a shift in the way companies operate. Overnight many businesses had to implement a remote model, which challenged aspects like hiring, employee onboarding, as well as multiple team dynamics. What are the learnings so far, and is there already a playbook that companies can follow to thrive in this new environment?
Hannah: I guess as far as a playbook goes - this situation is new to all of us. I think it’s been challenging but also hugely exciting. A lot of the fundamental assumptions about how we work are being tested and found wanting. There are obviously resources you can seek out from companies like Buffer, Github and our very own Impala who have employed a remote-first way of working for a while. But those of us who are working remotely are not just remote working, we’re remote working in the middle of a global pandemic and also, I think it’s fair to say, at a time of great political and social unrest.
This isn’t impacting everyone equally and in the same way, so everyone’s reaction to this situation is going to be different. So the way that we’re advising our clients to figure it out is actually the same way we work in general - through design thinking.
Anouk: Absolutely. One of the very first things I worked out when I first dived into people and culture work, was that if you wanted to have impact, you need to work with people. So a lot of what we do at Unleashed is bringing design thinking, product development and agile methodologies into the world of People + Culture. It’s so important to discover the nuances of what people want and need, what they’re motivated by and what they’re scared by. One of the first things we advised our clients to do in at the start of the pandemic was to investigate how people were coping with the shift to fully remote work through a simple survey, which we open-sourced here. From that, founders were able to respond to their teams immediate needs, then start to figure out what this means for hiring, onboarding and for their culture. In times of crisis, work with your People. I know that this is perhaps counter-intuitive - we are taught that leaders have to have the answers and make all the decisions, but it isn’t true. We get far further as leaders when we use the power of the people we have in our business. Don’t go alone!
Employee onboarding is always a challenging process. In a remote environment this might be even more challenging. What should companies consider to make sure new starters are not overwhelmed by this experience and receive all the support they need?
Anouk: I think one of the things that is most difficult about remote onboarding is the lack of those organic learning moments that take place in an office environment - i.e. when you overhear something and get curious about it and start asking questions. Same goes for social interactions. So a structured onboarding process is more important than ever to compensate for that, with components introducing you to culture, communication norms, your teammates. But even just that is a lot - I think overwhelm and zoom fatigue is a very real threat here, so spacing out those onboarding sessions and delivering them in different formats (bite size videos you can record using tools like Loom for free, shadowing, reading material) is key. Meeting as many people as they can early (and ideally before they start) is really important. Connectedness is KEY! You want new starters to feel comfortable asking questions. Not sitting alone and worried.
Hannah: I’m in the process of implementing a buddy system with one of my clients at the moment. I’ve seen these fail a lot because they don’t really have a purpose beyond ‘be a friendly face’ - so I’m asking for volunteers and together we’re going to co-create some purposeful interactions over a new starters first few weeks - maybe a post company standup ‘what the hell was that’ meeting to decode any jargon together and answer questions the new starter might not feel comfortable raising in front of the whole team - as well as stuff like being able to expense lunch together over Zoom. The other thing I’m wondering about is whether journaling could be helpful as an aide to onboarding - moving jobs is a HUGE transition. My hunch is that building in time and space to reflect on it could help empower new joiners to bring up concerns and questions that they otherwise wouldn’t.
Beyond onboarding, one aspect I find challenging today is dealing with difficult conversations. Being in a room with a person helps you pick up visual queues and adjust your tone of voice and words to be more empathetic. When having to hold difficult conversations via Zoom or Meet, what’s the best approach?
Hannah: Anouk actually wrote a brilliant article about this recently so I’m going to shamelessly plug that and hand right over to her.
Anouk: Thanks! The TL:DR is that research has shown that managers find it easier to have these conversations, whilst team members find them much, much worse. To compensate for this, it’s even more important than it usually is to approach the conversation with curiosity and ask questions/discuss the feedback rather than just ‘dropping it and running’. It needs to be a conversation and as a leader, you’re just as responsible for helping your team member make any changes they need to make, so figuring out, through the course of that conversation, what you can do to support them is key. One thing that will also help you to have a productive conversation is setting an agenda. People are less likely to feel anxious and ambushed if you’ve asked them to reflect on what you want to discuss beforehand, which makes for better collaborative problem solving. If you want any more than that, you’re going to have to read the article ;)
Talking about culture, with less spontaneous interactions, how do you preserve it in a company where the culture was well formed and strong, and how do you form it if you’re a startup just getting started?
Anouk: Big question! I’ll take the startup just getting started. I think when you’re just starting out, you’re figuring who you want to be as a business and how you want to work together. There’s no doubt that can be tough virtually, but there’s two things that spring to mind immediately that will make it easier. Firstly, even before you start hiring, you can discuss as co-founders (or, if you’re a solo founder maybe a coach or a mentor) explicit questions about what kind of company you want to be - are you likely to remain remote first? Asynchronous? What are the values and behaviours you want to stand for? What communication norms do you want to set up (this one is particularly important right now as virtual communication can lead to a myriad of miscommunications). Secondly, you need to take the time to really get to know each other and understand how your team works best. We advise a lot of clients to do this anyway through tools like manager readmes (we also use these internally at Unleashed - here’s mine!) but when you’re distributed you really can’t learn any of this stuff by osmosis, so it’s non-negotiable..
Hannah: So I think this is super difficult for companies that have previously had a strong ‘in office’ culture which is highly social. I think early in the pandemic we saw a lot of just trying to translate that social culture online - everything from quiz’ to virtual beers - and quickly people’s engagement just tailed off and it all became pretty tiring. I actually think now founders are seeing every interaction, every communication, every decision as a way to communicate and reinforce culture (which in my opinion is the right call, remote or not. The social stuff is great and a lot of fun, but it’s also not the be all and end all). What I mean by that is that consistently celebrating people’s work in line with your values (which can be done via slack), checking in on people’s wellbeing in 1:1’s, and pivoting your benefits offering to be more inline with what individuals need, comms about what the plan is for returning to the office or not, reducing meeting length and improving how they’re structured to minimise zoom time - that’s all building and evolving your culture. There is obviously a human connection element here too, and what I’ve seen work best in that regard is 1) encouraging meaningful 1:1 conversations by using tools like donut or icebreaker, and 2) novel stuff. One of my clients is currently doing a weekly quarantine challenge - recently it was reenacting a scene from your favourite film, which was a lot of fun. Or, you could throw out a question to your team on a social slack channel. It’s a good way of helping people discover unexpected things about each other and feel seen and heard.
We have seen companies like Airbnb providing a quality offboarding experience for employees they had to let go of. A number of companies in Europe tried to do the same, and with the current uncertainty and a new lockdown we don’t know what to expect. How can companies in a similar situation (but without that budget) provide their people with such an experience?
Hannah: I think the core of the Airbnb offboarding experience is actually free: empathy. The communications that were shared publicly were very human and gave clarity in a situation where uncertainty can be crippling. No-one wants to find themselves in this situation, but where you do, I think just recognising the impact, explaining the reasons why you’re making this decision and planning the logistics with a lot of care is really important.
Anouk: Agreed. The other thing that Airbnb and other companies did well is provide practical support. You may not be able to offer this in the same way, but you can provide references proactively, you can tap into your network and share who’s hiring and offer to make introductions. These things make a difference. If you can go beyond that and offer support like career coaching or continued access to equipment for jobseeking and benefits, then do. If you have people staying in the business, they will be watching how you treat their colleagues and friends closely, so don’t forget that. Keeping trust with your remaining team is crucial!
Are there any resources on the subject that you would recommend our readers to check out?
Anouk: Not articles come to mind on this topic - but I do advise businesses to get some help from people who are focussed on being human-first. What kind of leader do you want to be known as and align your behaviour with your intentions. Restructuring and redundancies isn’t easy. As founders you take it very personally. Don’t act alone and don’t act ‘swiftly’ because you think it will be easier for you. Think about your team - those going AND those staying.
Hannah: This article actually isn’t about redundancies but about disbanding teams, but I think there’s some great transferable ideas here. One of the most painful things about redundancies in startups (particularly ones that are due to market conditions like the ones at the moment which have caused revenues/demand for some businesses to just nosedive) is that they often feel out of the blue. There’s no closure, therefore it can’t help but feel personal. This piece has some great principles for providing that closure that can be adapted for redundancy situations. They do require a bit more thought, but I think that’s no bad thing - there often is time pressure in these situations, but knee jerk decisions that will have such an impact on people’s life really require thinking outside of ‘threat’ mode. Otherwise both the reputational impact and the impact on the team left behind can be huge.
Where can people connect or find out more about you?
Hannah: you can shimmy on over to our website or follow our LinkedIn page to see what we’re up to. We also have a newsletter, which you can sign up for here - we pack it full of original content, useful stuff and honest, no bullsh*t reflections from founders.
If you have experience revolving around startups, people and culture, ping us on Twitter @HumaansHQ or drop me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. We'd love to learn from your journey and share your learnings.
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