Working Through Employee Life Changes - by Nicole Fealey

Engagement and Employee Lifetime Value (ELTV): Defined here by the helpful team at Greenhouse, it's what people leaders across NYC's fastest-growing companies wake up in the middle of the night thinking about. After we find the talent (which is hard enough), how do we retain and keep them engaged? Why do they want to leave? What more can we give them?!?! Imagine the scenes: Walls littered with ideas on Post-its! A million engagement tool demos! Multiple hand-wringing and teeth-gnashing sessions! Hopefully, your HR teams are less fraught (but probably not).

Certainly, maximizing engagement requires effective HR practices, such as sound onboarding, retention strategies, engagement analysis, training and development, etc. Yet a closer look at the retention stats and trends from my time at Birchbox reflected something else. Our high engagement numbers also depended on how we as an organization (and as humans!) chose to react to employees going through life transitions. As Birchbox was scaling from 30 to 90 to 150 and then beyond the 300+ mark, the people team faced a slew of requests from employees whose lives were changing in various ways. I’ve outlined a few below1:

  • Family Medical Crisis & Bereavement everal of our employees faced long and drawn-out health crises with their families and loved ones. Often this involved geographical distance, and we created work arrangements that allowed them to travel back and forth, or to remain offsite with their families until the crisis had abated and healing had begun. Sometimes eldercare or extended care ended in bereavement, and we had to create conditions that gave our team members proper time and space. This took constant communication with both the employee’s manager and the employee. It also took the willingness to honor the mental-health needs and healing time that occurred once they returned to the office physically.
  • Raising Families n a 70 percent female environment, many colleagues during my tenure chose to start families or came to our organization with young families. The challenges of working parenthood are well documented elsewhere; however, given our unusual demographics, Birchbox frequently and proactively had to decide how best to respond to parents at different stages. We had mothers with difficult pregnancies, new mothers and fathers transitioning back to work, dual-career households with taxing school and scheduling obligations, children and families with special needs, etc. And we had young, eager, career-minded women deciding that they wanted to scale back to part-time or reduced hours as their feelings on work and motherhood evolved. The people team often had to insure that reality and “policy” didn’t conflict, and navigate business continuity concerns to facilitate these changes.
  • Education and Career Goals his transition came in two flavors: continuing education and the pursuit of entrepreneurialism. Our young team sometimes discovered, or knew from the start, that continuing their formal education was the right path for them. This meant applying to specific MBA programs after two years of tenure, or setting up their projects and experiences to support grad-school applications. For others, it meant learning on the job and being mentored in such a way so that they could launch their own business, brand, or consultancy. Leadership and the people team worked hard to provide exposure and opportunities across various parts of the business while understanding that retention would mean something very different for these workers.
  • Relocation hether for family, a partner/spouse, or because of an inner desire, some of our employees found geographical relocation necessary—and often to states or countries where we did not have nexus or infrastructure. This required due diligence to understand whether these individuals could keep their connection to the business through well-defined contractual and project-based engagements, or if we could partner to wind down the work without details falling through the cracks.

Regardless of the circumstance, I feel certain that when we partnered with an employee to honor and work through a life change, we maximized that individual’s retention AND bolstered a macro culture of flexibility and trust.

Cue the sighs. Flexibility! Trust! Soft, fuzzy words that are the kiss of death for an HR blog post. I know what you're all thinking: You can’t measure, scale, or codify either of those consistently. Dear friends, I submit that you can, but it means engaging in hard questions and potentially altering your traditional metrics.

Start-ups have a well-established reputation for flexibility and agility with respect to their teams, and have led the way in transforming corporate America and how it responds to helping the whole person through policy: work from home, flexible and open vacation (whether you believe that people take it or not), and evolving parental leave policies to name a few. They are also altering notions of what it means to retain and rethinking the proper metrics. By supporting individuals to go to grad school or to start their own businesses, we were often working counter to traditional retention metrics. We often reaped other benefits, though, that had nothing to do with retaining, and everything to do with our employment brand, longer-term potential, and partnerships. So perhaps you will forgive my use of the “F” word and cede my point. ELTV an be bolstered by flexibility and how organizations commit to that idea, particularly during times of stress or crises.

Trust is a much scarier third rail, and often HR teams find themselves choosing between opening a can of worms or keeping that lid on tight. “Well, we trust her, but what if the woman four pods down asks for the same 'accommodation?' Can we trust her level of productivity as much? What if they abuse our goodwill?” And that’s where modern HR teams may miss out on a crucial component of ELTV. I believe that retention and engagement moments are created when we prevent fear from dictating policy and instead partner in high-touch ways during crucial and stressful times for our teams.

Yes, this requires philosophical thought and asking tough questions about the responsibility of organizations and about what businesses and individuals owe each other (not to mention really committed and tireless, HR practitioners with the capacity to work 1:1). And yes, it means getting it wrong sometimes. During the lifetime of a start-up, someone, or many someones, will abuse the trust and flexibility you offer, be unable to make good on their work commitments, and disappoint you. And when that happens, HR teams need to take action and work to course-correct. But statistically speaking, many more someones will rise to the occasion and become part of the positive engagement story you want to write.

To the start-up and HR leaders of NYC, I say: Be fearless. Use any power and means your organization has to honor the needs of your employees at different life stages. Even when you get it wrong, you are ultimately getting it right, and your healthy engagement numbers will be a nice by-product.

Written by Nicole Fealey, is the Director of HR for Grace Farms Foundation and the former Director of People and Culture for Birchbox, a discovery commerce company changing the way women and men shop for beauty, grooming, and lifestyle products.

1 Also consider housing instability and mental health concerns. Both are certainly trending upwards as cost of living in our urban centers rise and mental health professionals report an increase in depression, anxiety, and mental health issues in the workplace.


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