S03 E13: How to attract and retain talent in a hybrid work model with a great company culture

In the thirteenth episode of this season of CultureClub X, we have Allison Sproul, Director of people at ConnectRN, who discusses how a great company culture can be a differentiator in attracting and retaining top talent.

About Allison –

Allison is a seasoned HR professional and people leader with more than a decade of experience in people management.

Currently leading the People & Talent function at ConnectRN, she has led the organization through COVID-19 and spearheaded the transition to remote-supportive work.

She is a people centric leader who believes in a human-first approach, advocating for employee wellbeing, and amplifying voices from underrepresented groups.

Prior to her current role at ConnectRN, she served as the Head of People at CozyKin and worked on the global talent acquisition teams at EF Education First and Cengage.

Allison is an alumni of Florida state university and she is also a SHRM-CP certified HR professional.

Here’s a gist of what Allison speaks about in this video:

  • The importance of optimizing a better work experience for the remote employees and the benefits of ensuring a proper work-life balance for the remote workforce, and how that will help them to be in sync with their in-person peers
  • Why it is necessary to establish a real-time communication medium for remote and in-person employees and how it can solve for the misalignment between your remote and in person employees
  • The benefits of having flexible work policies and being DEI compliant and how it can act as a differentiator for you to  attract and retain talent
  • The significance of empowering your managers with technology to conduct employee engagement surveys to know the needs of their remote teams and to fulfill them to improve employee engagement
  • The need for formulating policies towards truly inclusive teams in a remote-hybrid setting by ensuring neuro-diverse employees also feel a sense of belonging.

Catch all this and more with Allison Sproul in Episode 13 of Season 3 of CultureClub X.

Transcript –

Nicole – Hello everyone, and welcome to the latest episode of CultureClub X, powered by CultureMonkey.

I’m your host. Nicole Patrick. CultureMonkey is a complete employee engagement platform that helps people leaders to measure and improve their workplace culture.

In the 13th episode of this season of CultureClub X. We have with us Allison Sproul, Director of People at ConnectRN.

Nicole – Allison is a seasoned HR professional and people leader with more than a decade of experience in people management. Currently leading talent and people function at ConnectRN, she has led the organization through Covid-19 and spearheaded the transition to remote supportive work.

Allison is a people centric leader who believes in a human first approach, advocating for employee wellbeing and amplifying voices from under-represented groups.

Prior to her current role at ConnectRN, she served as the Head of People at CozyKin and worked on the Global Talent Acquisition Team at EF Education First and Cengage. Allison is an alumni of Florida State University and she is also an SHRM-CP certified HR Professional.

Allison, it’s a pleasure to have you here with us and welcome again to CultureClub’s video cast on the impact of remote hybrid work culture on the modern workforce.

Allison – Thanks for the invite, Nicole. I appreciate you asking me to be here.

Nicole – So before we begin, please tell us a little bit more about yourself and your organization.

Allison –  Yeah, so I think you just covered most things about me. My name is Allison Sproul.

Although I am from Florida in the United States, a very small town that most people haven’t heard of.

I’ve been living in the Greater Boston area now for the past eight years. I began my HR career actually over in Shanghai, China, before moving here.

So that’s where some of the international elements come in.

Allison –  And currently I am leading the people and talent function here at ConnectRN, and we have an app that connects nurses and aides across the United States to each other, as well as flexible working opportunities that make the most of their life schedules and create work life balance for themselves.

Nicole – That’s amazing. And that’s very important work in a really great app that’s out there and a resource. So we’re very excited to have you and hear more from you. So let’s begin.

Nicole – In view of the pandemic, what do you think are the challenges faced by people leaders when it comes to company cultures with organizations switching to a hybrid work culture?

Allison – I think that we see so many of the questions across many webcasts like this saying, How can we solve for hybrids? How can we solve this hybrid? Right?

We were so used to these in person interactions, and I think that instead of trying to solve for hybrids, if you instead think about how I can optimize for my remote employees, you’ll be able to really solve that point pretty effectively.

Because obviously, when you have those folks who are in person, it’s a lot easier to be able to interject in a meeting and say, oh, hey, Lexi or Alison isn’t here yet, let’s wait on them.

Allison – Whereas if someone is fully remote, it can be a little bit easier to be out of sight, out of mind. And so if you are keeping up with the needs of your remote, especially if you have any fully remote employees, you are by default going to solve for all parties involved things about getting a little more granular. Right?

And if you’re in a meeting. Making sure that you’re pausing before starting to make sure that everybody in the room who should be in the room is there.

If you’re making a big group decision but you haven’t heard from those parties online because maybe there has been a really quick revolving conversation in the office in person.

Allison – Hey. I know we’ve got a few folks on Zoom or teams or whatever video platform your company uses here and want to get some of their feedback too.

And so by taking that quick pause and getting that buy-in from those who aren’t physically in the room, I think helps to really solve a lot of those challenges.

Nicole – Totally. I was speaking with another guest like five episodes earlier and they mentioned that they had all of their meetings start on the fifth. So 1:05, 2:05. So that they’re remote employees who might be in a really quick turnaround. Which have that time.

Take a second. Maybe say hello to everyone if they do have it if they’re there.

But make sure that everything starts a few minutes later so that really everybody can be present and not be flustered like. Oh my gosh.

I just got out of this Zoom. Now I’m going on to the next Zoom. Everyone else is in the office right now. I’m the odd one out. I’m just going to be quiet and sit in the corner right now.

Allison – That’s interesting. I do the exact opposite in my calendar where I have the default in Google set to sending invites for only 25 minutes or 50 minutes meetings.

So that way it builds out that buffer. I’m working with an executive coach who has a lot of degrees, but one thing that she’s really preached to help reinforce with me, to help reinforce with our team is by building in that buffer time, it really helps you be able to mentally reset and also prepare for that next meeting and an additional not consequence.

But the positive form of consequence is that by creating in that buffer time, you’re also actually addressing a gap for your neurodiverse employees who may need that extra recoup time to be ready for their next meeting too, and laying things out.

Nicole – Absolutely. Totally. Nice extra layer. Yeah, exactly. And that should be something that nowadays is just regardless of if you’re working remotely or not, you should have that little bit of time to sort of reset for everybody. It’s important.

How do you think HR leaders can solve the misalignment between in-office and remote employees in a hybrid work setup?

Allison – Yeah, so easier said than done, the short answer. Right? But I think really in two ways. So when you start to see misalignment oftentimes, it’s because there’s been a disconnect somewhere within your internal communication strategy.

Allison – And so if you haven’t sat down with the rest of the leadership within your organization and are determined okay, and of course it will vary if you are an earlier stage startup versus a massive global workforce, Right?

Some may choose to do asynchronous announcements in Slack. Some may choose to make major announcements via email as opposed to just in person. Right?

Allison – So you’re not having anybody miss that information. You can also make sure that some of Those big ticket items are recorded on a Zoom meeting, a Webex, Teams, whatever. And so really thinking about, not only am I able to deliver this message to all parties, but also thinking about the timing of it as well.

So one thing that has been really helpful to us to help solve for some misalignment is setting some Slack norms. We’re very much big fans and users of the Slack app at connectRN.

And so by putting some of those guardrails into say like, hey, let’s not make any major announcements outside of the windows of 09:00 a.m. To 05:00 p.m.

Allison – It makes sure that those who are working those core hours are able to see it. And if somebody from, for example, our community support team is working a midnight to 08:00 a.m. shift, they’ll still be able to reference that back the next day, but also not be worried about getting pings when people are sleeping or trying to sleep right.

When the vast majority are going to be within that working hour window. And then another piece of addressing that misalignment too, is really tying everything back to the business goals.

Allison – So if you don’t have a consistent capture method or a place where your goals live, it makes it really difficult for employees to reference back to, okay, well, Sarah was told this in the office, but I was told this online. And so if Sarah and Mary don’t have the same place to reference back to and be able to draw from, this is our North Star.

It is very difficult. So having that centralized place. Whether that be an intranet or a lot of folks will utilize HR technology to put our goals in there. Not only for performance goals of business needs.

But also individual developmental goals. Is another piece there too. To make sure that if you have a manager and direct report who are maybe remote versus in person.

Allison – They’re still able to connect and still see in that one centralized place where to go for their answers and just help create that alignment a little bit better.

It’s so great that nowadays there are those technologies that you’re able to really have everything centralized and streamlined into one place, especially when everything when the rest of the world is so dis-aligned right now, it’s good to have one place that even if you’re at work in the office or if you’re at home, you can have, like you said, have that North Star for sure.

Nicole – And even backing up a little bit further from that too, kind of step. One of that is obviously setting goals. Right?

Allison – Yeah, it sounds kind of obvious, but if you’re just running, running and not taking the time to reverse engineer it and break it into those smaller, more digestible chunks for folks, that will also aid in creating that greater alignment between the two employee groups as well.

Nicole – Absolutely. And especially now that there are people that are onboarding, fully remote, and they haven’t gotten to be in that office and kind of see, okay, well, everyone is sort of following this path. This is the path that I should be on. These are the things that seem like the major goals of the company or goals of our office.

It’s now more important than ever. So to break it down and say, okay, so you can see everything, this is what’s going on.

Nicole – In this hybrid work setup, Where do most organizations offer flexible work policies to lure top talent? How can company cultures be a differentiator?

Allison – Yeah, with regards to the first portion of the question, I think that, of course, being able to offer flexibility of where you’re working is kind of like the whole point of this call.

So I won’t stress on that too terribly much. But also, you’ve seen a pretty dramatic uptick in flexible PTO policies over the past few years, as opposed to being titled unlimited. Right?

And so I can only assume that’s being done with the intention of creating that greater work life balance for the employee, but also requesting some flexibility on behalf of the company’s business needs too, because it is needing to be symbiotic. Right?

Allison – And I think that outside of providing that paid time off flexibly, also thinking about working hours and schedules. So, I mean, the whole reason why connectRN was founded back in 2014 was that a nurse had relocated from his home country, our co-founder.

And at the time, he was working with staffing agencies to pick up shifts at local skilled nursing facilities.

Allison – And in doing so, he had relocated his whole family. So he was juggling some child care needs, the need to financially support his family.

And then also, too, because his credentials from his home country hadn’t carried over to that of the American healthcare system, and he actually had to go back to school for a second time. So his schedule is nothing short of chaotic. I’m sure a lot of folks can relate to some of that plight.

And so he said to his brother in law over dinner one night. Wouldn’t it be cool if there was an app that would just show me what were all of the shifts available in my geographic area based on the time that I set and want to work. Instead of relying on recruiters who are just trying to pitch any shift because they really need to get it filled.

Allison – So by looking specifically at the employee’s needs, and in this case the nurse’s needs, it’s really helped our business to flourish a lot by prioritizing the actual human’s needs and their schedule, and outside of some of the schedule too, just supporting them holistically as humans.

And so we talk about these flexible work policies rather than attracting top talent.

Allison – Also, we need to be flexible in terms of our parental leave offerings. Thinking back to at least a decade ago, I don’t think it was nearly as open, at least in the American view, to see a big push now towards having twelve weeks of paid leave for all parents.

Not just primary caregivers versus secondary caregivers or first parents versus non birth parents, adoptive parents versus standard birthing parents, Right?

Allison – It’s now getting to the point where the diversity equity inclusion teams have been able to influence some of these more flexible working policies across the company, which is really exciting to see. And then for the second portion, with regards to the question of how company culture can be a differentiator, I really think that culture is everything, Right?

So whenever you are looking at joining a new company, if you’re not going to be excited about the product or the service that they’re offering, it’s much less likely that you’re going to want to move forward with that job.

I mean, of course it does happen, right? If you can see enough dollar signs, you’re like, well, let me try this out.

Allison – But a lot of statistics show that in the long term, particularly for millennial workers and Gen Z, they are really seeking that bigger purpose. And even me myself, Right?

So the majority of my career has been in edutech, childcare tech and now health tech. And I’ve done that very intentionally because I found that when I did take a brief pivot away from that mission driven, purposeful work with these really strong motivating cultures, it was just not as exciting to me to get up in the morning and say like, all right, let me do the same old same old, Right?

Allison – But when I think and pause, even today, if I’m dealing with a tricky employee relations issue or some kind of baffling question on compliance policy, I think back and say, okay, I’m going through this because I’m really committed to creating better lives for nurses in the US.

And so that really keeps me going with my little drum beat, right? And so we have a very nurse centric and high advocacy culture for them, which really makes that difference. I think that if, for example, we attempted to approach the business from more of a B2B mindset in solving needs just for facilities without keeping the nurse in mind.

Allison – I don’t know that I would be as personally fulfilled because I see messages from nurses, caregivers all the time saying, wow, because of this flexible work, I was able to buy my first home at the age of 50.

Or wow, because of these flexible working opportunities, I was finally able to get my son everything on his Christmas wish list this year.

And that’s freaking powerful, Right? So in the absence of not having the culture that is really driving to solve a big problem, I think that you can just get into the habit of becoming a little bit more comfortable.

Allison – And yes, that is one way to live. But if you really want to be a differentiator, you need to clearly articulate what is your culture, what problem are you aiming to solve?

Because that’ll really help to articulate what your employee value proposition is.

Nicole – Absolutely. And you put that so eloquently, you’ve hit the nail on the head.

Nicole – Nowadays, people really are not working for a paycheck the same way that they used to and that the generations before us did. And so it’s so important nowadays that you really do have that North Star and something that means something to you. And I know at least myself and most of my peers are willing to take a job.

Maybe that’s not the higher paying job, but it actually means something, the work they’re doing then being at a higher paying job and getting probably burnt out within a year or two and having to step back.

Nicole – So very well said. The hybrid work culture has forced organizations to take a hard look at their employee relationships and cultural practices.

What can organizations do to truly improve the employee experience and retain top talent?

Allison – Yeah, I mean, we’ve all heard the phrase that employees don’t leave bad companies, they leave bad bosses, Right?

And so I think the number one lever to retaining your high performers is by making sure that your management team is incredibly well supported if you are a rapidly growing startup and you’re just trying to catch your bearings.

I have 100% been there. I was an one woman team for the first year and a half here at connectRN in my time. And it was a doozy to be running talent acquisition as well as benefits and compensation and everything under the sun.

Allison – But one piece that really stood out to us was that particularly in earlier stage companies, folks get promoted a little bit faster and oftentimes earlier in their careers into leadership roles than larger, more established organizations and therefore need perhaps even more support than those of those bigger organizations.

So really taking the time to prioritize that early on I think is absolutely mission critical.

And if you personally do not have the bandwidth as the HR people operations leader of that company, to facilitate it, or perhaps you are earlier in your own management journey.

Allison – You can always look into outsourcing because there are just so many phenomenal facilitators that you can network with on LinkedIn and elsewhere to help build out content or workshops for your team that can be done as one off topics that you highlight.

But you can also come up with a curriculum yourself and think about how each topic can build upon each other, particularly if you’re using the same facilitator to be able to scaffold that learning.

Allison – With regards to the employee experience part of the question, I think there are many ways you can address trying to improve the employee experience.

And I think that before asking what can I do to truly improve the employee experience? You need to pause and instead ask your employees, Right?

So they have to be able to tell you what’s going on in their minds for you to become that diagnostician and determine, okay, what are our areas of opportunity here to address?

Allison – And so I would really strongly recommend kicking things off with an engagement survey and then not just sitting on that data, but actually reading the comments, utilizing the answers that your employees arm you with to highlight.

And even going back to my earlier example of goal setting, that was something that we connectRN, we’re like, we could probably be better at this. And that was highlighted in our most recent engagement survey. And so that’s a part of our action plan now to address that, to create further alignment, Right?

Allison – So you don’t have to have all of the answers offhand because you have to first ask the question before you can try to solve something, because otherwise you’re just going to try and solve blindly and that might not even be your problem.

So I think it’s really important for HR practitioners to take a pause and put on their listening ears.

And so even if you don’t have the funding to be able to get a piece of technology to facilitate an engagement survey and you’re working in Google, you can use a Google form and go that route.

Allison – You can also really go, depending upon the size of your company, right, and how much time you want to allocate to this, setting up 25 or 50 minutes, one on one with individuals throughout the company and really diving in deep and asking the same set of questions.

So you can then build out some reporting yourself for that listening tour. But basically the overarching thing is not to just assume what the issues are and take the pause to ask your people first what’s going on in their world.

Nicole – Totally. Sometimes the writing is on the wall and we just forget to actually read it, take action based upon it.

With that said, How do you think the hybrid workplace culture has impacted the role of people leaders? And what are the additional things leaders should be open to embracing to cater to the needs of their employees and hybrid work setup.

Allison – Yeah. I think that the hybrid workplace culture has not. Maybe this is a little controversial. Really impacted the role of people leaders so much as the Covid-19 pandemic because so many people leaders have had to put on brand new hats like Kentucky Derby level hats with feathers and all sorts of craziness.

Figuring out different health care and compliance laws and what’s going on with the CDC and determining what is and isn’t legal within the bounds of the I-9 process of ICE and what changes are happening.

Allison – Because in the earlier days of the pandemic, things were changing on almost a daily basis.

And so just keeping up with everything was incredibly overwhelming. I just remember every day seeing like a new email from SHRM in my inbox, the Society of Human Resources Management SHRM saying like, alert, there’s this new thing.

And I’m like, oh my gosh, I just adjusted this thing yesterday. So the really big piece, honestly, I think, has just been realizing that you don’t have to do all the things all the time and that it’s okay to be burnt out because it was a lot for everyone.

Allison – And I think that people, leaders in particular, tend to think about the people by nature. We tend to be more on the selfless side, at least most of us, than thinking about the individual because we have to think about the collective group of our employees.

The way it’s really impacted the role is by acknowledging that we need to take care of ourselves as leaders, so that way we can then assist others to put on their oxygen masks is some of the reference that I’ve heard it a handful of times.

Allison – And then by being able to do that, you can look at a variety of mental health offerings as opposed to just leaning simply into your employee assistance program, your EAP, which I think probably was more of the norm pre-pandemic.

But now we’ve seen just such a huge uptick across the board with various mental health providers, behavioral health providers, stepping up and finding new ways to innovate in this space, and also not just from a B2B lens, but also a B2C lens, and finding ways to make that caregiving affordable and accessible to everyone has been really huge.

Allison – And then for the latter half of your question about additional things that leaders should be open to, embracing to cater to the needs of their employees in a hybrid work setup, I think that in addition to the piece of normalizing conversations about mental health, I think has also really segued nicely into greater openness and discussion of employees who identify as neurodiverse.

I think historically, those who are neurodiverse have often not felt as seen and heard. And I think that people leaders have really, especially over the past two years, found ways to open up for the entire employee population.

But also in furthering the diversity and inclusion efforts have found that maybe we over indexed or didn’t index enough in this particular area of diversity and finding ways to address that hybrid work set up.

Allison – So, like I mentioned earlier, building in gaps between meetings for those who do have ADHD to be able to mentally reset before their next meeting has been a really big one for us.

And also highlighting some behaviors in what we do. We have a Slack group to celebrate neurodiversity at connectRN. And so there’s like this thread about how oh, like I do this as a neurotypical person, but I feel like this is sometimes attributed in other ways and just helping those who are neurodiverse see that they are just as normal as the rest of us. Right?

Allison – But also celebrating that they do have that way of thinking differently and really pausing to acknowledge and celebrate that I think is something that we have been able to address a little bit more as we’ve shifted from strictly in person office environment.

I love this Slack group. That’s so cool.

Nicole – That’s a very good idea.

How do you think leaders can address burnout and attrition issues in the hybrid work environment and how can technology solve that problem from your perspective?

Allison – Yeah, so kind of timely with what we were just talking about. So being able to model the behavior that you want to see from the top down is absolutely critical.

If your CEO, COO, anybody in your C suite really is like burning the candle at both ends, never taking any time off, sending emails really late, the employee population will feel that it will trickle down and there will be pressure to respond that quickly. Right?

Allison – And when you have that trickle down and people are starting to feel that pressure, they start to feel burnt out. People who are burnt out become disengaged and therefore oftentimes end up resigning the Great Resignation.

So I think that by modeling that behavior at the top, utilizing that PTO, using the schedule feature in emails and for Slack game changer, I think especially for parents who end up working odd hours, Right?

Allison – If you have younger children who are keeping you up at random hours and maybe the only productive time that you have is like 05:00 a.m. Before they wake up.

But perhaps some other employees aren’t in that stage of life and are looking to clock in around nine.

Allison – They’re probably still asleep at that point. Maybe they’re working out, who knows? But being able to schedule those messages can really be super helpful, especially if you’re in a managerial role and using technology to solve those problems.

I mean, you can automate so many things now, whether that be a Slack message to go out, you can have reminders for different tasks.

Allison – And so by taking the time to block out your calendar efficiently, even if you do have something come through, you won’t be able to necessarily mentally reset in time for your next meeting at all times.

So by taking that time to pause and utilize task reminders, put it in your calendar for a later time, include blocks for breaks within there too, I think it will really be incredibly helpful.

Some companies have issued no meeting days or no meeting hours to help address some pieces of burnout. So those are just a couple of things that I’ve seen across at least the tech industry that have been pretty successful.

Nicole – Absolutely. And that’s where tools like CultureMonkey come in, where, just like you were saying earlier, you can use pieces of tech to constantly check the pulse of your employees and actually take that feedback and most importantly, act upon it once you receive it.

So it’s an exciting time to be in this place right now and have all these tools to help and actually put them into action in real time.

Nicole – Well, those were indeed some very great insights that you covered about managing employees in a hybrid work setup.

And it was so interesting to hear your take on a topic that’s so relevant today. Balancing a remote hybrid workforce and catering to the diverse needs is one of the major topics on the minds of people leaders across the globe today.

With changing times and workforces, people leaders need to adopt frequent listening techniques to understand the sentiment and pulse of their organization, and this is where a platform like CultureMonkey steps in and saves the day.

Nicole – CultureMonkey’s employee engagement platform seamlessly enables HR leaders and managers to listen to their employees’ needs, analyze their feedback, and act on them in real time.

So if you want a super swift tool and to improve your company culture, visit www.culturemonkey.io today.

With that being said, thank you so much for your time, Allison. This has been such an engaging and interesting discussion. I’m sure viewers will agree, too.

Allison – Most definitely. Thank you so much, Nicole.

Nicole – Yeah, so before we finish, please let our viewers know how they can reach out to you or contact you in case they want to share their thoughts.

Allison – Yeah, so LinkedIn is always the best way to reach me since I kind of grew up on the talent acquisition side of HR. I basically live on LinkedIn.

I had somebody ping me at 09:00 p.m. on a Friday night a couple of weeks ago saying, hey, saw you were online too. What’s up?

I’m like, oh, no, why am I doing this to myself? But LinkedIn. You can search.

Allison – My first name is Allison. A-L-L-I-S-O-N. Last name Sproul. S-P-R-O-U-L. And the username is just peoplexenthusiast. So, yeah, look forward to connecting.

Nicole – Great. Well, thank you so much again. This is a really interesting episode.

And that’s all we have for you in this episode of CultureClub X, powered by CultureMonkey.

Nicole – Until Next time, this is your host, Nicole. Signing off.