Episode 5: In the Future of Work with Poppulo

Cathal Divilly

In the fifth episode of the Red Cube Podcast, Great Place to Work CEO Cathal Divilly is joined again by the insightful Yvonne Frost. Yvonne is the VP of Employee Experience with Poppulo and the most recent recipient of the Great Place to Work Ambassador Award. Yvonne shared her people-focused approach to navigating the psychological impact of Covid-19, and how her experiences have influenced her approach to wellness moving forward. The duo goes on to discuss all things future-readiness, including the pressing topics of post-vaccine working, remote working versus working from home during a pandemic, adapting to a hybrid model of working and much more.


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> In this podcast

Speakers-4Yvonne Frost

VP of Employee Experience




Cathal Divilly


Great Place to Work Ireland


> Transcript

Cathal Divilly: Welcome Red Cube listeners to the Future Readiness part of our podcast, we are delighted to be joined again by Yvonne Frost, VP of Employee Experience in Poppulo. Yvonne, thanks for joining us again.

Yvonne Frost: Thanks, Cathal. Thanks. Thanks for having me.


Cathal Divilly:  Yvonne, this episode is going to be all around sort of future readiness, but of course, interested in the experience that you've had, right, over the last year or so. So I suppose a good place to start is, you know, things have moved remotely since, you know, well over a year. I suppose, how has that been Yvonne? What were the highs and the lows, I guess, for the business?

Yvonne Frost: Sure, Cathal. I mean, so many times throughout the last 12 months, if you think of, kind of, February 2020, we thought we were busy and we thought there's lots going on and we're focused on our immediate goals. And then literally, I think, not only in our… like, across the globe, the rug was pulled from under us and we all had to adapt to this pandemic as quickly as possible. And just the disruption and the unprecedented change was incredible. It's really when you look back on it, do you have… you start to get a sense of all of the work we had to do to adapt. So it's been challenging, I think it's been challenging for everyone. But what I loved about the past 12 months and definitely from a Poppulo perspective, one of the highs is how people rolled up their sleeves and just got it done and worked together and focused on building a community and supporting each other. And just that can-do attitude. I think, absolutely, that was the biggest takeaway for me. And I was incredibly proud to be to be part of that and to see what what we achieved as a business in that period.

I think on the low, on the low piece is watching and observing and not being able to necessarily solve the human impact that this past year has put people through. And I think what I mean by that is – and I don't think, yet, the true impact of it has been, we've been made aware of it – but, look, I mean, from my own personal experience, but I know people can echo it – working and adapting to to remote working, you know, four small children, working from home, trying to home school, trying to look after them, trying to keep everyone happy. The impact, the personal impact on people, I think the pressure of the past 12 months and observing that as part of a leadership team and trying to focus on wellness, but actually kind of being saddened just by the pressure people were under for this for the 12 months during that period. It's been a tough year for people. And I think that's the low point of everything that's happened. And I think not just the impact of working and adapting to it, just looking out from a psychological perspective, looking at the craziness that's happening in the world at that same time and that level of uncertainty. And we could describe lunacy in some parts of the world that people had to be spectators of while also keeping focused on doing a good job day to day. It's been tough for people. And I think observing that and holding people together has been a challenge.


Cathal Divilly: Yeah. And I guess acknowledging that fact that it's been tough is an important part. And we can't control every part of the pressure and the human experience Yvonne. But you talked about wellbeing there, I suppose, any specific examples of things that you perhaps overindexed over the last year with your people?

Yvonne Frost: Absolutely Cathal. What we did early on, right – and you’re spot on like – as an employer, so much of this was outside of our control, but we tried to do an excellent job of what was in our control. And what I mean by that is we had to adapt to 100 percent remote working. We tried to make sure that our people were communicated to regularly. And I think communication is key when there's uncertainty, when there's change and when there is stress. I mean, the whole situation of lockdown and everything created stress, stress is our enemy. So one thing that we did straight away, you know, we had – I think it was, kind of hard to remember back before it all – but it was a monthly newsletter which we used to send out and we adapted straightaway in lockdown to change that monthly newsletter to a daily newsletter. And what happened is that every morning at nine o'clock in the morning, regardless of what craziness was happening in the world, our employees had the consistency of having an email in their inbox, at nine o'clock in the morning, particularly at the really acute stages. And it's almost if – you know when something is happening, you know, it's even just an empathy piece. Just keep talking to people, keep them focused on what they need to focus on. And that newsletter, and everyone came together to make sure that newsletter provided content that was there to support people. So what I'm talking about is we built this community, there was definitely updates on COVID, on guidelines, on what to expect, how to get resources as quickly as possible for your home office, how to get support, or where to go with questions and problems, and actually we put together that cross-functional COVID team, how to access them. And there was a whole COVID related piece of it. But also every Thursday, we have a video update from our CEO and video updates from other leaders in the business so that teams and individuals were kept aligned. And they knew that even though they couldn't see it because they weren't physically in the office, they felt and could see the tangible progress we were making towards our strategy.

But then on Wednesdays, it was a Wellness Wednesday. Not only did we, we were sharing insight and knowledge and tips and tricks that co-workers had done around wellness. But we were also talking about, you know, sharing our vulnerabilities. Our CEO, Andrew, and I'm able to talk about his experience around being careful, avoiding burnout and looking after yourself during these times of high demands and that kind of piece that you're not alone. None of us are alone around pressure, mental health. And if you're having a challenge, let us know. So that daily newsletter I really feel – and the feedback from our employees was – it kind of kept us all stable and focused and things like on a Friday, just simple things, recipes to try at home, fun competitions, lots – the whole piece on Diversity and Inclusion, I think every second Friday it used to go out – but just constant stream of content that people didn't have to read the whole newsletter every day, but they had something in it for everyone.

But it… we found a lot of engagement and whether it was business or fun, it was important. But the other piece Cathal we did around wellness, now I think we did one or two cycles of this, is we brought together our People Operations team and I think it would have been around this time last year. So people had started to adapt to Remote Working, but they were out of our line of sight. And anyone in HR and People Ops will tell you and actually anyone in leadership or anyone in the business: when you… we have this natural kind of intuition, when we're in an office environment, you can kind of read what's going well. You're looking at people's body language. If you have any concerns about someone, how are they doing? You can kind of spot who's happy, who's not happy, who's stressed, who needs more support. It's just a kind of a natural human piece when you're physically interacting with people. But it was a big fear for us that when everyone was remote, how's everyone doing? And do we need to put more supports in place and what can we do better? So my team embarked on wellness check-ins and what we did was: everyone in that whole cycle, and I think we did two cycles, everyone in their calendar got a 15 minute check-in and someone from the People Ops team rang them and created some time and space to talk about their wellness. How are you doing? What's your routine? Are you making sure you're taking your breaks, are you finishing on time, is there anything you're worried about? Do you feel like you're being supported by the business, by your leaders?

Particularly you know, those wellness check-ins were particularly important for people who were new to the business. There were people who just started and they were, you know, thrown out, you know, we all have to work remotely. So we're making sure at different stages of people's tenure. How are they doing? And what we did was we learnt a lot from those wellness check-ins. We knew from that to the way who needed more support and then rescheduled a number of check-ins to make sure that they had everything they needed. And you know what? It was just, it was a human experience of feeling supported. And actually, in some cases and I know even when I had my wellness check-in, just created a space to talk about wellness, you actually you kind of have an epiphany yourself. Goodness, I'm probably not taking my morning breaks or I'm probably working in an unhealthy way or goodness I'm not getting out to do any exercise or am I eating right am I looking after myself? And I am probably exhausted, but even just creating a space to talk that through was a very powerful piece. And it really does: using that word community, is that we're all in this together. And ultimately in our business there are people who sincerely care about each other. And a problem shared is always lessened and I firmly believe in that. So that was important, I think we did two to three cycles, but we also worked very closely with new employees as well to make sure that they have someone reaching out to them regularly around wellness and an independent voice to listen to.


Cathal Divilly: Well, there's lots, lots of great ideas there. Yvonne, I’m fascinated by the wellness check-ins. And you know the way sometimes you'll have a conversation with somebody and sometimes the default that they go to is that they're fine. And it can be difficult sometimes to encourage people to open up. Any specific advice or thoughts around how to set the scene and set the environment so people open up?

Yvonne Frost: I think there's two pieces for that. I think, look, the quality of relationships – I know in my last podcast Cathal, we talked about trust a bit – but I think the people who… if you don't trust the person who who's asking if you’re all right, then that's probably the end of that conversation. It’ll be “Yes, I'm fine”. So I think, first of all, making sure that there's trust and that there's openness there. And actually that the person you're asking knows that you sincerely care about them, you know, and it's not just a tick the box exercise. What we've done with a lot of my team is that they're trained coaches. So they have that coaching competency skill set, which means that they know how to ask questions and they know how to facilitate those kind of meetings in a way that it works around the individual. And I think as well, there's a sincerity with the people doing the wellness check-ins where it's not just kind of interviewing the person to see how they're doing on their wellness, it's actually sharing their own personal experience as well, you know, in regards to what works for them. And it's not that it's not that the person who's ringing up with a wellness check-in is an expert and has it all worked out themselves. We're all human. We're all, as I say, perfectly imperfect, and no one has everything worked out. So that's the starting point. OK, and actually what we find sometimes with those wellness check-ins, it works both ways, you know? It's a conversation between two people who trust each other and sometimes the person coming out for the wellness check-in is coming away with more knowledge than the person who was actually the recipient of the wellness check-in. So it's just a… it's a natural conversation and that has worked. But I think to be fair to the team Involved, they are respected and trusted by the business and they have got those depth of relationships that people will be quite open with them. And they know because they've seen it, that there's a sincere, a sincere want to help. It's not… it's only driven by sincerity. And I think that that's fundamental.


Cathal Divilly: Yeah and you build that trust over time. And in times of real change, it becomes even more useful to have that trust in the bank. Certainly when you're looking to dip into those relationships and check-in with people and see how they're doing. Did you say, Yvonne, that Andrew shared his some of his own experiences around mental health with the business?

Yvonne Frost: Sure. And it's something that Andrew, you know, Andrew O’Shaughnessy, our CEO has always actually, well before COVID – and I'm not just saying it because I've worked with him for so many years and if he's probably listening to this, he’ll get a bit of a smile but he's an exceptional leader. And with that, we would have talked around mental health. We run these Outside Insights where we bring an expert in on different topics. And we would have ran Outside Insights in the past around mental health and had some really open conversations around mental health. And with that, Andrew would be very open talking about his own personal experiences of… and no surprise, is there, for someone like a CEO, is this natural tendency to work so hard that you don't get that balance right between wellness and performance. So it's something that he's had to realise over the years through a few experiences. And he’s shared those experiences with the rest of our employees showing that vulnerability. And also, Andrew would be a strong advocate of talking openly about mental health, mental health and physical health. We have a long way to go when we're talking about mental health. Everyone has had challenges and we've seen that through the sessions. People are quite open around the, you know, the impact of pressure of life. If any of us are going to escape at any stage without a mental health, we're very lucky. But I think we’re the rarity, particularly over the last 12 months. But Andrew's always creates that culture of openness, sharing that vulnerability, talking openly about it. And that builds trust as well, because you know that people are working with leaders who are really invested in wellness and are not afraid to talk openly about their own personal experience as well, which is very powerful.


Cathal Divilly: Of course, yeah. and then when it comes to the monthly check-ins, what people have seen role modelling from the leaders within the business around this very topic, and it has to encourage people as well to open up. And, Yvonne, the hot topic at the moment in workplaces, in many workplaces, is how will we work post-vaccine? I guess post-COVID, if you like, post-vaccine. How are you approaching this topic in Poppulo?

Yvonne Frost: I think that's the question, isn't it? How are we all going to work? Where are we going to be in 12 to 24 months? And what's the future of the workplace like? It's a very exciting time. And I think our approach to that Cathal is… it's interesting. And I think we're probably the same as many businesses. Before COVID, we had kind of a small, we’ve an office in Cork, an office in Boston. Most of our employees were based on site, we had a handful of kind of fully remote workers, but that was the kind of minority. But most of us and myself included, had never experienced a full-time remote. So obviously with COVID we were all thrown into that experience of working full-time remote and now looking, “OK, what does the future look like?”

But, you know, we've experienced 100 percent office-based. We've now all experienced 100 percent remote. What no one has experienced, well very few of us anyway, have experienced some kind of a hybrid, where some people are in the office and some people are at home. That kind of split, which is different because there’s different needs and wants around that. So what we did comes back to kind of a similar approach to everything we did Cathal. We're trying to understand what's been our employees’ experience of the past 12 months. Based on their experience, and I know that working from home during COVID is not the same as what it's going to be post-COVID working from home because, as I said, we've got, dealing with background Noise, home schooling, lack of social interaction outside of work. It hasn't been a proper test of the experience. But we… based on that and based on we did ask our employees, what do they want? What are they looking for? What do they think for them to deliver great work? What would be their personal ideal working setup? We sent out a very detailed survey, sat with number of groups to understand what was working well. But ultimately, what came back and what the insight was, is that people wanted and want greater flexibility. We have a minority of people who want to work full-time remote. But that is there… they want to shift to not coming back to the office. And we can accommodate that. We're kind of looking to accommodate that people who are kind of outside of a commutable zone. But for everyone else, what made sense looking on the results of the survey and kind of looking to the future of work is giving that flexibility that people can spend their time week by week, kind of per week, spending some of their time in the office, some of their time at home, but that they would have a focus on not just what their needs are, I suppose… Is naturally in how we work, there's… we collaborate quite effectively and making sure that they are spending their time in a way that delivers the best quality of work. So, for example, one big piece, which I think is going to be one of the greatest challenges of this, say hybrid working, which we’ll be adopting when this COVID pandemic is over. But with hybrid working, we’ve the collaboration piece but what our own people were able to verbalise when we ask them, is that fear of losing your connection to the business or being able to build that depth of relationships with your co-workers? And they are the things… because you see, I find when you when you, when everyone is reasonable and everyone wants to do great work and everyone wants be happy in their work. So really what our employees are seeing as something they have missed because they've been fully remote, are those things: the ability to, even something as simple as properly welcome a new member of your team. You're going to need to be in the office to do that. But you can work it around the flexibility of being at home at times when you need to do project work or you need to put your head down with no interruptions and make progress on your goals. But then also spending time in the office where you're collaborating, where there’s team meetings, where you're welcoming people, when there's specific events that are running in the office, so that you ultimately have that depth of relationships, you're building cohesive teams and you're able to work in a way that does great work. And look, that's all our people want. They want to do great work. They want to have a good experience and they want to be part of high performing teams. That's the nature of the people we have in our business. So it's this hybrid working is working out to do that.


Cathal Divilly: Absolutely and in a way Yvonne, how we reach the solution is almost as important as the solution itself. So whether we land on hybrid, or return to the office, fully remote: the key element is how we reach that solution. And it's brilliant to see that you've taken – I wouldn't expect anything different from Poppulo – a sort of a data driven approach and then understanding what that data is telling us.

Yvonne Frost: Yes. And Cathal, you know if you think about it, right – and I think you you've asked me in our last podcast: my career, where I came from, and I originally was a designer, but it's taking that design thinking approach to the future. Right. And I think what it is, is, you know, the design thinking approach is looking at your user and your user is your fundamentally your employee and the leaders in the business and looking at what their needs and wants are and then designing a solution that's going to match and meet those needs and wants. But we can fully expect, and this is the part that Cathal I think we all understand, is that we're going to have to adapt. We're sending out our vision that we're going to have hybrid working. There's going to be challenges, obstacles, ways we have to work better around everything. You know, how it actually works fundamentally at a tactical level. And we're going to have to adapt and learn over the next 12 to 18 months to get to the optimum setup. But I think if you're taking the approach that you’re employee centric, you're focusing on your business strategy, you're working closely with your leaders and you’re understanding, and you're gathering the insight from your employees and all three, you know, to make sure that that your solution is meeting those objectives, you're going to have to adapt. I don't think, and I think that's the problem, if you think you can at this stage design a solution that's not going to have to adapt and that it's kind of going to be you can tick the box now and you've got that sorted, you know, it’ll be fine when we return to work. None of us know what's the best solution. We have to learn from each other. We have to be nimble on our toes and adapt as need be.


Cathal Divilly: Brilliant Yvonne. Great, great advice. We have to be flexible in our flexible solution, if you like. The next decision will not be the final decision, right? So let's see what works, let's learn from it, let's pool our learnings, if you like, and adapt and change if we need be. Em… Yvonne mentioned it there, there is another great episode that we have with Yvonne Frost from Poppulo that you can check out if you haven't seen it already. Yvonne: really appreciate your partnership and appreciate you joining us today.

Yvonne Frost: Thanks, Cathal. It's been a pleasure as always.