Faces of HR

Trust and Transparency Are Key for Empowering Employees to Be Productive

Trust, empathy, and communication were discussed throughout our Corporate Culture Week, as these three elements are vital for creating a great culture within your organization. Today’s guest takes it one step further and explains why you need to throw transparency into the mix.

Meet Nikki Salenetri, VP HR at Gympass. For Salenetri, empowering her employees helps keep them productive, but it also helps foster an inclusive culture.

How did you find yourself working in HR?

Great question. When I was in college, I was a bio psych major, and then towards the end of my senior year, I ended up taking a class in social psychology, which got me interested in organizational and developmental psychology.

I actually went right from undergrad into grad school at NYU in the I/O psych program, industrial and organizational psychology. Coming out of there you have a few different tracks you could take, either going into management consulting and doing change management and organizational effectiveness and that kind of thing or working in-house in an HR department.

I am a total doer and someone who likes to execute things and see the outcome or the value of different projects that I implement. I decided to go the in-house HR route, because I thought I’d be able to have more impact on an organization that way, and be able to put programs and things like that in place, and be able to adapt them over time and see their effectiveness. That was an odd way, I guess, but how I found myself in HR.

That’s cool. If you don’t mind me asking, how long ago was that?

11 years. When I was in grad school, I did different internships and things like that. I started grad school in 2007. I guess technically 13 years.

Something I find to be somewhat common. HR does seem like one of those rare modern careers where people enter it and stay in it. Unlike other industries or other professions where you might be switching between companies, and that means you’re switching industries, in HR it doesn’t matter if you switch industries, you’re still in HR. It’s kind of an interesting feature of the modern workplace.

I really like working in HR. You probably may have guessed this, but outside of work in my personal life one of my things I’m passionate about is health, wellness, and fitness. In the past few companies I’ve worked at, they’ve been focused on that. I’ve had the opportunity to marry my personal passion with my career. The other thing I really like about working in HR is that to be an effective HR leader you really have to understand the businesses that you support.

It gives you the opportunity to learn two jobs because obviously you have to do your HR job, but you also have to understand how the business works. It gives you an ability to always continuously learn in your career, not only in your HR practice but also in understanding the businesses that you support. I really like that aspect of it as well.

Wellness has got to be an interesting challenge now. I think it was always difficult to motivate people to be healthy or healthier. Now everyone’s sitting at home in front of their screen all day. How are you approaching that?

Well, for me personally outside of work, I really love running and endurance sports, so I do marathons and iron man triathlons and stuff like that. For me personally, it’s not a motivational issue because I just really love it. It’s something that I know always makes me feel good and gets me focused.

I think obviously most of the people that work for our company do have at least some sort of passion for health and wellness, or otherwise, they wouldn’t be here. We’re a very mission-driven organization. I think one of the big reasons people want to work here is because they’re aligned with that mission, and they want to be able to make this impact and help other people in the world understand the value of being healthy.

I think we had an advantage in terms of helping our employees remain active, because it was something that’s already pretty ingrained in our culture. We definitely took a lot of steps as an HR team to help all our employees continue to be active. With Gympass, we’ve been able to take advantage of our own product and the fact, like I said, that our culture is already pretty focused on health and wellness, and use those two things to keep people moving.

As the pandemic happened and people weren’t able to go to physical gym spaces, we pivoted our business. We have a whole new digital offering which includes live classes and also personal, one-to-one personal training sessions with trainers virtually.

Then we also have new offerings that are more focused on a holistic look at health, so not only physical health, allowing our employees and our clients to have access to an exclusive selection of wellness, mental health, and nutrition apps such as Calm, Nootric, and Healing clouds.

What we’ve done for our own employees is to put more initiatives around that. On Friday afternoons, we have something that we call the no shower happy hour, where we have a live class with one of our partners. We invite all of our employees to join it. We all join and do a group workout, so people are staying active that way.

We’ve done different contests throughout the quarantine as well. We created a bingo card, and you could check off the different bingo boxes for different workouts. For instance, if you’ve done a HIT workout, or a Pilates workout, or you did a 15-minute meditation. We also had contests with our personal training as well. That took care of the physical health, and then of course I think mental health is something a lot of HR leaders are focusing on.

With our wellness offerings, as I mentioned, we have a lot of apps that are focused on taking care of your mental health. We also organized sessions every Monday as we started to add new partners to the app, where the founders or people who worked at the different apps would come and do live meditations, or yoga classes, or active stretching.

We tried to do a good balance of starting the week with something more focused on your mental health, and ending the week focused on physical health, and trying to provide other opportunities and encourage people throughout the week, in between, to stay healthy as well.

The move to home comes with a lot of benefits. It comes with a lot of challenges too. One of the things that people are experiencing is what they call video fatigue. Unfortunately for organizations, that’s one of their few tools that they have right now to keep engagement up, to show interest in employees’ lives, and to try and keep their cultures alive. I don’t know how you guys have experienced finding that balance or suggesting a balance to some of your clients.

I think we’ve definitely experienced that as well, where in the beginning I think everybody was really craving that connection, and we did a lot of engagement opportunities through it with virtual happy hours, and virtual trivia and stuff like that, where more employees really wanted to be connected, in addition to the regular meetings that they were having. I think you’re right, over time people started to fatigue with Zoom, and it’s just like you can only stare at a screen so long every day.

We’ve done a few things to help with that. One was starting a program over the summer called recharge Fridays. We found that people were working more hours overall. They were in meetings all day, and they were just really getting burned out. We implemented this program, recharge Fridays, to allow people to head out a little bit earlier on Friday afternoons, so that they could unplug and recharge over the weekend.

I think another thing that we’re trying to do is really asking ourselves, “Does this meeting need to be a meeting, or can it be an e-mail?” I think a lot of it comes from leaders wanting to check in and know what their employees are doing, and constantly being in touch with them, and making sure that they’re being productive, and making sure that they’re staying connected.

I think we’re trying to encourage our leaders to lead more from a place of trust, and a place of assuming good intent. If something doesn’t need to be a meeting, or you don’t need to be checking up with someone in a virtual call to maybe avoid that so that people actually have time to get their work done, and they’re not totally burning out in front of their computer screen every day.

I think that approach has some advantages. For one thing, not everybody wants to have the same level of engagement, same level of interaction. While some people might need to be asked how they are every day, other people might find that to be intrusive, or maybe just a little irritating. One of the challenges has been how do you get granular like that. That really comes down to whether people on the business end are paying attention to the feedback they’re getting.

Yeah. Definitely. I think it’s a few different things. I think it’s understanding that everyone, like you’re saying, is different, and people want different levels of connection. Some people on my team want to be asked every single day how they’re doing and want to chat. The first 30 minutes of our catch-up is just about personal time, so that they’re just connecting with someone. Whereas others just want to get down to work, and only want to talk during a one-on-one and not really other times throughout the week.

I think it’s important to help coach managers to understand that people have different styles. I also think that on the topic of employee burnout, you’re always going to have employees that are super talkative, and will say, “This is what I want. This is what I need.” Others are never going to tell you what they need unless you actually ask them.

I think a lot of it with managers is helping them understand the balance and understand that people are really different, and they need to look closely at their teams and talk to their teams, and just find out from them what they want and what they need. Then as an organization, we also have other ways of finding out, as well, how our people are feeling. We have an employee engagement survey that we use. We usually do a poll survey every other month.

The poll actually has the ability to interact with employees as well. If someone makes a comment like, “I’m feeling burned out. My manager isn’t checking in with me.” As an HR team, and actually even the managers have the ability to go in and say, “Hey, what could I be doing better? Is there something that you need?” You can actually start an anonymous conversation with them. That’s been something that’s been super helpful for us.

An anonymous conversation. I was just going to say, that would require quite a bit of trust for people to feel. How does that work? How do you end up not really knowing who that person is?

To your point, people are very skeptical of things being anonymous no matter how many times we say that they’re anonymous. We’ve even gone as far as actually done a mock conversation and screenshotted it, and presented it in a town hall, so our employees could see exactly what it looks like from our perspective and could understand that it really is anonymous.

You can sort it by teams. As long as there’s more than five people on a team or in a certain demographic, you could see this was a person on our sales team. This was a person on our finance team. Then it just has a comment. When you respond, it will say, “Nikki said blah blah blah,” but of course the other person remains anonymous. We’ve definitely done a lot of work around making people feel comfortable with the tool, and being super transparent with what it looks like and how it works.

We find that people actually do trust it. The name of the system has become part of our everyday vernacular. I’m always like, Peakon, this and Peakon that. This was the comment.” It’s something that we use, and it’s pretty ingrained in our culture at this point as well.

I wanted to switch gears briefly. Diversity is a huge topic right now. There’s the expansion and streamlining or mainstreaming of the Black Lives Matter movement. Ahead of the election there’s been a lot of tension. I’m just wondering if that’s something that you guys have had requested by your employees to be addressed, or if that’s something that you guys have gotten on top of, or what your interaction with that has been like.

It’s both. For me, it’s something I’m personally passionate about, as well, outside of work. When everything happened with George Floyd, and all of the things that have happened since then, our employees have been very vocal about wanting to understand better from us what our employee demographics look like, and what our action plan is not only from an employee perspective but as an organization.

Of course, a lot of the gyms that we partner with have black owned, or have diverse backgrounds. Our employees wanted to hear from us not only how we are supporting our own employees in our organization to be better, but also lifting people up within communities. I think we’ve done a lot of work around that.

We started a partnership with a diversity consulting firm. We’re working on doing unconscious bias training across the organization, to help our employees better understand what other people are experiencing. Obviously not all of us share the same experiences, and so it’s important for our employees to understand other people’s perspectives and become aware of their own biases so that we can overcome them.

Then we’ve also done things like launch employee resource groups, as well. Employees who identify as a certain group can come together. In those, they also have a direct line to HR and to leadership, where the goal is to hear from them what they’re experiencing and what they need. I think a lot of the way that we’ve tried to shape it is there are certain baseline things, obviously, that we’re going to be doing such as the unconscious bias training, and having more of a focus on our demographics in talent acquisition and in our employees, and things like that.

We also thought it was really important to hear from people who actually experience these things and are part of these groups on what they need from us, versus assuming that we should be setting the agenda of what we think they need. We’re very transparent with our employees about this is what we’re planning to do now. This is just the beginning, and we don’t know what we don’t know. We need to work with our employees and to learn from them about how we can better support folks across the organization. I think people have responded well to that.

Did you not have employee resource groups beforehand?

We had the program in other locations. Our company started in Brazil, and so we had a much larger population there. In the U.S. we hadn’t yet launched them, because we were still pretty small.

It’s something I’ve given a lot of thought to. It’s very delicate. Because HR in many ways has always been told “you don’t want to identify people by any kind of protected class.” Yet, if you want to create a diversity program, in some regard, some way you do have to identify people, whether that’s letting them identify themselves, or finding a way. It’s just it’s an interesting problem. How did you guys solve that? What was your way of getting these groups off the ground?

I totally understand your perspective in the historical look at it like, “No. I don’t want to know people are part of certain groups, because it opens up liabilities and things like that.” I think just where our society is and how our employees are feeling, there’s just no other way to do things now other than being really open and transparent about these sorts of things

Because the only way we’re actually going to be able to effect change is to allow employees to talk about their experiences, and be who they are, and help support them and lift them up, and create an organization that isn’t just a place where only certain types of people will be able to thrive, but somewhere that everyone will.

When we talked about self-identifying, basically what we said to our employees was, “Listen, we want to make meaningful change. We need to know what our baseline is now to see if we actually are progressing. The reason why we’re implementing these programs is because we do want to make a change, and we want to be able to measure the effectiveness of this change. Of course, it’s up to you if you want to self-identify, but it would be helpful for us to understand our baseline now, and that’s the only way that we’re going to be able to measure our success.” People responded well to that.

For the employee resource groups, we sent out a Google form and asked people what types of groups they want to form, and asked them not only as people who are experiencing or identifying as part of a group, but also as allies. We opened it up for people to say, “I want to be in this group that I identify with. I want to support this group as an ally.”

Then basically what we did from there was once we knew who was interested, we brought them all together in a meeting, and said, “Hey, guys. This is what we think are the main groups that will be forming based on the responses that we had. Of course, if there’s a different group that you want to form, we’re certainly empowering you to do that and helping you with the logistics and the prep to do that.”

I think it’s important, again, as HR leaders, to be honest in the fact that I’m a white female. I don’t know what it’s like to be a person of color. I don’t know what their experiences are. I think it would be very presumptuous of me to say, “This is what I think you need. This is how I think you should form a group.”

We’re trying to form more of the infrastructure that they need to be able to get things off the ground, and to make sure that we have a feedback loop or we can hear from them. Also, allowing them to do what they need and form the group that makes the most sense for them.

You just have to give people a chance to be free, and let them know you’re willing to take a risk if they’re willing to take a risk.

I think that taking that sort of attitude or that viewpoint, not only in diversity but I really think in everything in terms of leading and managing people, to me trusting people and empowering them goes a very long way. It’s funny, coming back to the employee engagement survey and talking about employee burnout and flexibility and things like that, I think a lot of managers’ inclination is to always want to check in with people and like, “I can’t see you sitting next to me, so I don’t know if you’re doing work.” Versus just trusting if it’s getting done or not.

We actually had someone comment on our engagement survey and they said, “I really appreciate how flexible our schedules are, especially while dealing with COVID. It’s one of the best parts about working at Gympass. I feel trusted to get my work done with a flexible schedule. In turn, that trust motivates me to do quality work.”

I think that’s something that a lot of managers miss is if you’re constantly checking up on things and assuming that employees are not doing what they’re supposed to, they’re not going to feel motivated at all. They’re going to feel like, “You don’t trust me, so I don’t feel like I want to do harder work for you.”

For me with my team and also what I encourage managers to do is to lead this way, because I think it makes people want to work harder knowing that you’re assuming that they’re doing the right thing.

Of course, there’s always people here and there that aren’t. Then you just deal with it. You deal with performance management and things like that as you need to. The overwhelming majority of people want to do the right thing, and they want to be trusted, and want to be empowered. That just makes them want to work harder in my view.

It’s so true. I’ve been in jobs where there are micromanagers, and it becomes about surviving each day at work. Why would you ever put an extra amount of effort in for someone that treats you like that? I think an important lesson for employers is to understand that your employees are going to know the moment you’re being disingenuous.

100%. I think people are smarter than a lot of people give them credit for. If you don’t assume that people, again, like we were talking about before, are different people, and they’re observant, and they understand.

Managers should keep in mind how they like to be managed and treat their reports how they would want to be treated. That’s certainly how we try to guide people at Gympass and try to help them be better leaders.