A response to coronavirus: Q&A with Nicole Keller, Chief People Officer

As Chief People Officer, how do you see a lack of in-person interaction affecting Yieldstreet’s ability to acquire talent?

The first and probably most obvious thing is that even hiring has taken on a remote nature for the time being.  What’s mainly been affected is that we now conduct interviews over video conferencing. Hiring people based on just a few in-person meetings already has its challenges and has been written about many times over the years. This new layer of complexity reinforces the importance of being very prepared for the video interview. We are being diligent about making sure that we have clarity on the technical and soft skill competencies required for doing well in a role and having highly specific questions that are going to reveal them in the candidate. I am personally a big fan of behavioral interviewing because it focuses on past performance and looks at examples of how the candidate would go about solving problems in an environment like ours. In this sense, past performance predicts future performance. 

Another thing that’s come up recently that we’re solving for right now is the job audition aspect of hiring. This can be something like a whiteboarding exercise for software engineers, where they have to create code. For an HR job, it could be some sort of employee relations situation or designing a compensation structure or philosophy. It’s an aspect of recruiting that looks at how the candidate goes about the real activities or responsibilities of the job. We are now looking at tools that can help us do this in a remote setup. For example, there’s a software called Jamboard that allows us to carry out whiteboarding tasks in real-time. Hackerrank also has this capability and so it comes down to evaluating the right tools to make job auditions happen. 

From an economic point of view, we’re hoping that this slowdown right now is temporary, but we are still a high-growth business that is hiring. That said, we are being measured and pragmatic about which roles make sense to proceed with right now and keeping our focus on the most critical roles that need to be hired immediately.

I personally see a couple of things happening in the job market as a whole. One of the positives of being in a scenario where everyone is working from home is it has been much easier for us to get the initial call arranged with the candidate as they have flexibility and don’t have to step out of work. This is always an important first step and opens the door, giving us a better chance of getting them through the full interview process. 

In general, I think we will probably see a little bit of a reset in the market. Lately, it’s been a very candidate-friendly market and we’re seeing that by the time we make our offer to a candidate they’ve received other offers, which can be a bit challenging for employers looking to build teams. 

How has onboarding of new employees been affected?

We’ve had several people scheduled to start recently and will continue to hire more new employees. We’ve really been trying to put ourselves in the shoes of someone who now has to join a brand new company entirely remotely. We realized that they were not going to have the day-to-day interactions that they would if they were starting in-person. These types of interactions are a big part of the onboarding process. 

It’s going to be incredibly important that companies are putting together robust and supportive onboarding materials for new hires during this time. At Yieldstreet, we have a formal employee program called Camp Impala. Typically, it runs through the first two weeks of an employee being hired and includes sessions with various business leaders across the company as well as the CEO so that employees are able to learn and understand the business. These Camp Impala sessions now occur via video conference and we are holding them every week to get new hires connected and integrated in their first few days. We’re also asking each new hire’s onboarding “buddy” to step up, even more, check-in more regularly, and be a resource throughout the first few weeks. 

In lieu of the direct connection with colleagues, we are really trying to get in front of new hires with a very structured plan for their first 30, 60 and 90 days at Yieldstreet. This plan is conveyed to them by their direct manager so that they are fully aware of what the expectations are. We are also trying to ensure that the social aspect of work isn’t lost by introducing tools that allow team members to create a welcome video for new hires introducing themselves and making them feel like a part of the team. 

Given culture is such a large part of the startup identity, what are some ways you and your team are ensuring that culture not only stays intact but also continues to thrive and grow?

We are doing several things around culture, especially as a newer company, we are still rounding out what culture and greatness mean at Yieldstreet. Culture isn’t just about the ‘what’, we are doing, but also the ‘how’ we get work done. This includes our mission, core values, behavioral norms and expectations, operating cadence, communication, how we achieve results, stay socially connected and have fun at work. 

One of the things we started early on thanks to our CEO, Milind Mehere, is to have a very structured goaling process. This is a quarterly undertaking that solidifies company goals, department goals and individual goals across the board. This is more important now than ever because it will enable us to stay focused during this period of working from home. We are also using Culture Amp to roll out individual goaling which will include both professional and developmental goals for employees. 

Conducting things like employee engagement surveys regularly will also be important. We’re currently doing one now. It’s important to give individuals the chance to step back and reflect on what can be improved in company processes. 

We also refreshed core values recently. We took a hard look at what is changing in our business and where we are now and what behaviors and core values are going to be most important for the future of our business and to connect as a team. Some of the initial ideas and plans we had surrounding the integration of the values were physical and collaborative in nature but now that we are working from home, we really had to rethink how we would do some of these remotely. One of the ways we got past this was to create emojis that represent each of our core values to be used on Slack channels. It might seem like a simple thing but the thinking is that with the increased use of Slack, which we are now relying on heavily to connect our employees, and employees truly rising to the occasion, that we are reinforcing their behavior in a way that is customized for our culture specifically. For example, we held our first fully remote video town hall on our new IT Manager’s 5th day on the job and used new technology. The meeting went incredibly smoothly thanks to him. His colleagues immediately recognized this early accomplishment and ownership by calling him out in the team slack channel and tons of his colleagues piled on using our new core value emoji, “Own & Execute”. It’s a perfect example of remotely reinforcing the values and behaviors we want as part of our culture. 

We are also now doing remote weekly town hall meetings called ‘Word on the Street’ to keep our teams informed on the business and answer any questions from the team. 

Of course, we’re adding some fun ways to encourage a social connection between our team members by using software like Tribute to celebrate work anniversaries with videos of messages from colleagues from across the company. We’ve also added some Slack channels like ‘Dogs of Yieldstreet’, ‘Cats of Yieldstreet’, ‘Boardgames’, ‘Trivia’ and more to encourage our teams to mingle virtually and have some fun together. This week we’ll be experimenting with virtual themed happy hours and we’re trying a few different themes like Yieldstreet crib tours, Garageband and using software like Google Hangouts to test run. 

It’s a different way of doing things but it’s been fun getting to know colleagues in a unique way that, I think, bonds us even more. 

What is important for leaders to take into account or do differently as they navigate COVID-19?

Leaders are really going to have to step up during this time and here are six things I think will be important to consider:

  1. Consistency and communication: Leaders should continue to keep their existing meetings to keep everyone informed and maybe even consider increasing frequency of communication. Weekly 1 to 1s and team meetings have never been more important than they are now. 
  2. Empathy: Everyone processes things differently and so leaders should be understanding that people may be experiencing a range of emotions from day-to-day.
  3. Goals and Planning: It’s easy to get disconnected from home so it’s important to stay focused on the top goals that are most important and plan to execute them. Having a structured goaling process will help with this. 
  4. Stay informed and educated: There is a lot of information out there and the last thing you want to do as a leader is to stoke fear. While it may be unintentional, sharing lots of opinion pieces can increase anxiety. Stay focused on reputable sources like the CDC, WHO, and government officials. 
  5. Be real: Be yourself and be authentic. This is not the time to change your leadership style. People want to connect with you and see your authentic self.
  6. Take care of yourself: Make sure you’re doing all the tips and tricks you’re giving everyone else for yourself. Take care of your physical and mental health and well-being so you can be your best self for everyone else. 

What are some ways you are making everyone at home comfortable with their new working conditions?

This is an evolving thing that will depend on how long we are going to be set up this way but as we went to full work from home, we paid for employees to bring any of their office set up like monitors and ergonomic setups home with them. We have also been sharing tips like encouraging employees to take breaks and walk around every few hours, get away from the computer screen and have a set time to end their day. We have also been understanding of the fact that just because employees are at home, it doesn’t mean that they don’t need a break and that they may still need to take a sick day if they aren’t feeling well.

How has this affected professionals within your industry (layoffs, decreased spends, hiring spree)?  

HR leaders are going to have to step up right now to help companies navigate contingency plans and business continuity as well as support and guide employees through an unprecedented health and economic crisis. 

I’m also seeing the HR professional groups I’m a part of that span multiple industries work together to share ideas and experiences. It’s really been inspiring to be a part of a community of professionals that are all chipping in to help each other out. 

The impact itself has really run the gamut as different industries are impacted differently. Some businesses will suffer more quickly than others and need to consider furloughs and layoffs and in others it’s more a matter of navigating remote communication and productivity or supporting teams as members of their staff contract COVID-19 or experience mental or emotional challenges. To that end, we’ve provided our teams with many resources to help with this such as virtual healthcare and mental health services through Eden Health, One Medical, and Health Advocate, meditation through Meditation.Live, education services for parents, etc. 

There’s no doubt that HR professionals will have challenging days as they support everyone else through these times which makes it all the more important that they also take care of themselves and be a support system for each other by joining or leaning into professional networking groups. 

What are some takeaways from this situation and how can we continue to prepare for future situations such as this? 

I think we are doing that right now. We are going to have strong contingency planning for scenarios such as this for the future and this experience is preparing us for a worst-case scenario many of us never even imagined. I think a lot of things will change as a result of this, like the stigma on working from home will be removed because people will see just how effective working from home can be. I think companies will embrace it more and it will create flexibility around productivity and work-life balance.

Read more from the Yieldstreet leadership:

Chief Technology Officer, Hrishi Dixit’s take on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on Yieldstreet and the tech industry.

Chief Product Officer, Sylvain Grande’s take on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on Yieldstreet and how products will evolve.

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