Faces of HR

Human Capital Spillage and Other Lost Virtues of In-Person Workplaces

Remote work may be the solution for now, but what’s being lost while everyone is at home? One HR professional believes at least some in-person work is required to make the most of employees.

Meet Jennie Knowles, Head of HR at Sendoso.

How did you find yourself in HR?

A long time ago, I worked with children in a before- and after-school program, and the program needed some administrative help in the corporate office. It only had one HR person, and she asked if I could come in and just start going through résumés and making sure all the sites had all the posters—very basic admin HR.

I just started thinking, “You know what? I always thought I would work with kids, but this is a nice change” after many years of working with kids to do more of the back-of-the-house, adult work.

And I found my way in. I was going to college when that was happening, and it was almost a perfect match with my degree. I got my bachelor’s in Psychology, and I thought, “You know what? Instead of a psychologist’s office, I bet you HR, from what I understand, tackles similar issues.” I continued seeking out HR opportunities. After I graduated college, I went to a big-box store to do HR for its team and have been working my way and discovering the type of HR I really love to do. I’ve been very fortunate.

Retail is quite the place to cut your teeth.

For lack of a better way of saying this, it will teach you if you love it or you hate it right away.

That’s for sure.

I think I was only there about 6 months, and I decided that I didn’t know if retail HR was the kind of HR I wanted to do, so I moved away from retail quite quickly.

I worked retail for a while, and it was always a chaotic place. And you’re talking high turnover, especially at the larger chains. The nuts-and-bolts HR stuff was probably pretty overwhelming, I imagine.

Yeah, it’s a different beast, that is for sure. A lot of these big-box stores are 24-hour operations. So it is not an “8:00 to 5:00” gig. You are working overnight to make sure the shipping team has access to you and then turning around and still working all day long because you have payroll to process. It’s intense.

What lessons did you take with you from that when you switched to any HR role that you were maybe a little bit more suited for?

The biggest lesson I would say is it really helped me understand that, as an HR professional supporting the entire organization, you better know how your organization runs. It’s not cool for you to say, “I don’t know how this department runs or the priorities of this department or what’s going on there, its peaks, and its pitfalls.” It really solidified that business partner mentality across the entire company for me because each of the stores had its own executive team in four different areas. That was really eye-opening for me to say, “Wait a minute. Listen to the logistics executives; although it’s not my specialty, I may get information out of there that’s going to help me when an issue comes up.” I understand the process better, faster, and quicker because I’m exposed to the entire business.

I think the biggest lesson is it doesn’t work to just sit in your office all day long. You’ve got to be out there learning that business so you can help if issues come along and understand the totality of how it affects the pieces.

After that, did you ever run into an issue at another organization where maybe it wasn’t set up for someone like you to have access to the whole organization? I know some leaders are obsessed with making verticals, columns, pillars, or whatever an organization has decided to call them. I know HR often is in a unique position to understand the whole business, but it wouldn’t shock me to learn that maybe you found someplace where that was something alien to them.

Unfortunately, I still think there’s work to be done to get HR a seat at the table, regardless of whether the company wants to make silos or columns and have business partners for each one. I’ve definitely been in all those companies. But I had a company in particular where HR was an admin function and that was it. It wasn’t interested in HR seeing the other parts of the business. I wasn’t on the executive team, and this was a relatively small company. I think there are still some very traditional companies out there that think of HR not as a partner but more as just an admin function.

It’s surprising to me when they’re stewards of your payroll and money, which is a huge expense to a business. I’m responsible for a lot of money regardless of the finance team. So I think it’s so weird to me when they don’t have a seat at the table, and that could just be the top HR person having a seat at the table. But as long as that person trickles that information down, that’s really important to me to just be there and absorb the information.

I mean, when things are working well, the role of HR is essentially an ambassador between the employees and the leadership, which puts them in a very powerful position to have their finger on the pulse, to understand the impact of certain policies and procedures that maybe are about to be enacted, and to really know how to implement recruiting. It’s every aspect that builds your business. It’s always interesting to me when I learn of companies that either don’t understand or don’t care to have that as part of their company.

Yeah. I think the type of culture people are creating becomes pretty well known pretty quickly. And, I’m not saying culture is Ping-Pong tables and foosball and all that kind of stuff. I’m saying the real culture of this together—success is fun; let’s build this rocket ship together.

I’m giggling a little bit because every single time somebody talks about culture and the physical accoutrements, they always talk about Ping-Pong specifically. Ping-Pong’s become the poster boy of the start-up culture.

It’s very early 2000s. Google said the company had a Ping-Pong table, so other companies felt like they needed a Ping-Pong table. The reality of the situation is that what people didn’t understand was that Google created this physical environment because it didn’t want anyone to leave. It was designed for the engineer who was there at 7:00 p.m. still to get a quick 5-minute break and get back to work. It was not designed for the salesperson to be playing Ping-Pong right in the middle of the workday. I think it’s really interesting when people are like, “We have a great culture; we have a Ping-Pong table.” And I think, “Why do you have that Ping-Pong table?”

You’re right. Most places aren’t really set up to allow somebody to go whenever he or she wants and spend 10 or 20 minutes playing a game.

It’s really fun to do a, let’s call it a tournament. Hey, you get to play against the CEO today. That is fun. But that is part of a onetime company event. At least in the companies that I am trying to associate myself with now, success is fun. We’re not having fun if we’re all losing here and, sorry, playing Ping-Pong, unless it’s on, I guess, your lunch break or something, but it’s not part of building the rocket ship.

I’m glad that got exposed for what it was as quickly as it did because it sort of went hand in hand with this concept that you just have as many perks as you can, and you didn’t have to spend a lot of money on those perks, and then that was just going to magically work for your employees without really understanding the fact that if you’re going to do that kind of stuff, you’re going to have to build a culture around it—one that supports people feeling comfortable and safe taking breaks, for example, or having the time because their workload isn’t as extreme as it is for most people to do something like that. It has to be part of a package. It can’t be the only thing.

Yeah, I totally agree. I think there are tons of benefits out there that don’t actually cost companies a whole lot of money, but the value to employees is extreme. I don’t know why those sometimes are looked at as overly traditional, but in my opinion, I feel like employees actually have a longer retention at these companies because they’re actually worth something to the employees without them costing a whole lot to the company.

What kinds of things are you doing to make sure your remote employees are feeling connected or appreciated?

From a connection standpoint, one of my favorite nonwork things that we still do even though we are working from home is a challenge every week. We have a Slack channel set up called “Work from Home Challenge,” and each week has a theme. This week’s theme is food. Every day, we post a question in that channel, and you get to see people’s responses. Today’s question was “What’s the best thing that you make?” We get to see people’s pictures and responses. Some people are posting recipes, and you get to know a lot about people in their life and their desires and their funniness all through these random questions. We entice people to answer these questions by giving them prizes at the end of the month. Most likes per post wins for that day.

Then we put all those winners in a bucket and pull out and announce it to the whole company in our all-hands and have a really funny time giving away these off-the-wall, cheaper prizes that are just so bizarre but so wonderful at the same time. You get people laughing together and responding to each other. “Oh, I didn’t know you were vegan.” You know what I mean? Just natural interaction. I think that’s been really great, and it motivates us to stay connected. We’re also doing a pretty great job at still doing virtual teambuilders. So we will ship things to people’s homes. So maybe it’s a painting kit. Then as a team, we’re going to get on with this paint-by-number person or whatever and do this all together. Or we’re going to do a cooking class together. I think those kinds of engagement things help us want to protect our company to keep growing so we can do that.

Honestly, you hate to say it, but this COVID time is scary for the employment world. We were working more than we ever were when this first started. I think everyone was working 12-hour days, and you couldn’t get off your computer. Now we’re starting to see everyone being like, “Wait a minute, I’m feeling a little burnt out because I worked so much.” So how are we motivating through this time? I think some of that is encouraging our employees, if they’re able to, to work from anywhere while they have the opportunity. So we’re normally in the office; now we’re not in the office, and we know we’re not going to be in the office for the rest of the year. Where do you want to work from during this time without any penalty?

If you want to go to Colorado and you normally are in Arizona, do it. I worked from Mexico last week, and that’s amazing to me that we can give them that option without them having to take vacation time or anything like that. That’s been really helpful for our employees not to say you have to be in your house. If you’re able to go, go.

You will be sending everybody back at some point; is that the plan?

I think the plan is we are in love with the idea of still learning from each other. There’s this notion called human capital spillage. For example, in our open environment, if the chief revenue officer is talking to one of his sales reps about revenue, a sales rep two seats down from him may hear that and learn from it simultaneously and use that to make a sale himself. You miss that when everyone’s at home. There’s no tribal learning. There’s no accidentally running into each other. There’s no looking back and shouting for James or whomever when you need something right away. I think we value that greatly. We’re a start-up. We’re still bootstrapping it in a lot of ways. We’re doing great, but I still think we need that comradery, that human capital spillage.

But we are listening to our employees simultaneously. Some of that feedback is, “Man, it is nice not to have a commute.” Our main offices are in Scottsdale, Arizona, and San Francisco. Those commutes sometimes can be up to an hour each way. So we’re listening to our employees who are saying, “I don’t want to commute anymore, but I miss everybody.” So I think what we’ll end up doing is some sort of hybrid where we say, hey, we’re all going to have the same dedicated days in the office. Let’s call that Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. We’ll all have the same remote days, Tuesdays and Thursdays, so that we can all come together, but we all get this reprieve to still be at home. We think that may be the best of both worlds here.

Now don’t get me wrong. Does that mean people won’t come in on Tuesdays and Thursdays? They absolutely can come in. If they work better from the office or they got screaming kids they need to get away from or anything like that, we will have the office open on those remote days, but it’s not mandatory to come in on those days. The other days are going to be a little bit more mandatory so that we can have that interaction and bigger meetings and see each other.

You mentioned all the upsides to being in a physical office, and they’re valuable. We are very innovative creatures. We could probably work our way around those things given enough time and effort. Not everyone is going to be up for going back.

Yeah. I think that’s definitely a great reminder to everybody that how companies choose to go back may have great implications and poor implications for them. It may actually solidify the types of employees they want moving forward. There are a thousand companies now that are going fully remote—companies that we wouldn’t have thought of before—but these are large companies. They have the infrastructure to do stuff like that. I think it’s going to be really telling of who’s like “I need to be at home full time,” and it’s really telling of someone who says, “Hey, look, the workplace is for me in the office.”