Our Office Snacks series is where we have an informal conversation with expert members of our community to delve into their varied buffets of experience and come away with juicy insights and ideas. This time we chat to Karen Weeks—writer, speaker, and VP of people at fast-growing tech startup Ordergroove.
It’s always enjoyable and enlightening to catch up with Karen and hear her stories and words of wisdom. Listen, watch or read to get her take on flexible working, employee engagement, growing leaders, avoiding burnout, gathering and using employee feedback, and, of course, favorite office snacks!
Thank you for being here, Karen. You've lived all over the country and had a wonderfully diverse career. How would you describe what you currently do at Ordergroove?
Yeah that’s a great question because in startup land, or high growth stage or scaling company post series seed, really it's a little bit of everything.
It's everything from recruiting and building our team, to then making sure that they have a great onboarding experience. They feel like their career development is front and center, that they've got recognition and that the culture, and our values, are demonstrated and lived every day.
And quite honestly, that evolves. I mean in the last year and a half those have been put to the task and we've had to rethink things. Working with senior leaders on their org design and the people that are in the org and everything else in between. It used to include office management when that was a thing. So it's really everything in between.
And I love this stage of a company, where you're really building and growing something from scratch and seeing it quickly evolve over a short period of time.
That's really great. And you said that you started your career in theater and you moved into HR. I'd love to know more about that in how you transitioned to where you are today.
Yeah, so I actually was a stage manager for several years. Stage management is a lot like being an actor. You don't know where your next gig is going to be, even if you get lucky and get a contract with a theater it's maybe nine months. I did that for a little while, but I was trying to start my life I had met my husband already and We were sort of like, “How do we build a life when I don't even know if I'll have a job, where I'll have a job, how long that job is going to last?”
So we said “Well, maybe let's try the business side of the arts. Maybe that's the stable way to be in the arts” and we moved out to Hollywood. But it just wasn’t for us. I'm so glad we did it, no regrets, but it was the slimy side of the arts that we did not like.
Our whole family is back on the east coast and I think, especially being as young as we were, it just wasn't the right time for us. So I really had to figure out what the heck I was going to do. I mean, I was that theater kid. I listened to soundtracks in the car, I had posters on my college room door, dorm walls of theater shows. So it was really everything I identified with.
I talked to some smart people like my dad and what I realized was I really enjoyed creating a shared experience. As a stage manager, bringing the show together every night for the audience to enjoy. And then, as a talent agent, I really liked helping actors figure out their careers and get there next year.
So everybody kind of said, well, I think that might be HR. And this was long before you called it employee experience or any of that kind of stuff. But, you know, building a place where people can be successful, can come together to enjoy something.
So I got my first job as a Temp Office Manager and also kind of handling some HR stuff and I basically said “I don't know what I'm doing, but you obviously don't either, so let's kind of learn together” and it turned into my first HR job.
And so, from there I thought about, you know, size of company, different industries. I definitely found my love in the text startups space. I would be a specialist in training and ops and compensation, and then do more generalist work too. As I kept making those shifts, it gave me more and more experiences to get to the point where I can lead an HR organization, whatever size that is, because I've been in all the different shoes within HR.
I really admire that journey that you went on and just taking kind of that leap of faith, figuring out what you love most about the theater world and how you could apply it to a new career. I think that's so inspiring. Now switching gears a little bit, let's talk about remote work. Do you think that the remote, working environment is something that will stick in going into the future?
It can't just be me or the couple people on my team. The leadership team, and the managers, have to be involved in building our culture and keeping it strong during remote work.
It's a great question especially because right now financial institutions are getting in trouble for changing their minds on remote working and people are not shy about their opinion on that.
So I think what we've learned is that, maybe, full-time remote is not right for every company. I know a lot of companies that have moved to that and kudos to them. But I think maybe what companies are concerned about is: how do we build that sense of community? How do we make sure that we're working together in the best way possible?
And I hear that at Ordergroove too. I mean, we are going to stay flexible. If you don't want to go back into the office, that's totally fine. If you don't live in New York city, that's totally fine. People have moved outside of the city. We've hired outside of the city and we think that's all going to work out in our favor because it's been working through the worst of times.
So why wouldn't it work now? Unless you're making team members come back for a legitimate reason like, why do employees have to be back in the office all the time? Let's make it more purposeful and say once a quarter, once a month, whatever the case may be, we're going to bring people together.
Now there's obviously costs associated with that but, if you’re able to change your real estate, you can use those savings to bring people into whatever city or maybe there's hubs. Maybe everybody in the southwest gathers in Phoenix or whatever.
But I think there's a way to keep it going because I think you have to, from a competitive advantage, from a talent standpoint, while still fitting the needs of the business and trying to hit the business results too.
I’d like employees and team members to say, “I trust my manager enough to have this conversation. I want them to know that I'm concerned about my career development at this organization.” I think that's the biggest thing that I want managers to know and team members to know too.
As a people and culture manager in this remote workspace, how do you gauge how culture is going in your work?
Yeah, it's a great question. We do culture surveys. The cadence has changed over the last year and a half. For a while we were doing them much more often because everything was so top of mind and so on fire that we wanted to stay on top of it.
Then we actually backed off a little bit ‘cause I think people were sick of our surveys, which is understandable. And I think we're back into our quarterly cadence now. We don’t have super high response rates, it's definitely just a fraction of the organization and you have to ask yourself, do the people not respond because they're unhappy and they don't think it's gonna make a difference?
So they're so disengaged, they're not responding, or they're just busy. Or they're like, “no things are good. I don't really have much to say.” So, you know, it's so hard to know why someone didn't respond. But the other thing I do is one-on-ones with folks and I randomly pick people.
It's not perfect because they know I'm coming because I have to, you know, schedule the Zoom link.
So they may or may not be sharing everything with me, but I have a pretty good spidey sense. Like I can tell when someone is either not sharing something or they're distracted or they're like trying to talk around something. So hopefully I get a pretty good sense there. And then I also ask our leadership team to do skip-level interviews.
It can't just be me or the couple people on my team. The leadership team, and the managers, have to be involved in building our culture and keeping it strong during remote work. Make sure you're having really powerful one-on-ones, make sure leaders are having skip-levels on a recurring basis and creating the space to have these conversations of “I'm burned out. I'm stressed. I'm frustrated. I'm really excited about this thing. I really want to talk to you about my development.” Whatever's top of mind for them.
Related Read: 5 Subtle Signs Your Workplace Culture Is Turning Toxic (And How To Fix It)
That’s excellent. And so, over the last year, how do you think this employer/employee relationship has changed?
Yeah, I think part of it is, while I hope people were always putting humans first before, I think we had to last year. Companies or managers who didn't were told they were not doing well through people leaving. Even in a tough market during COVID people were still making job changes and it was because they didn't feel like their company or their manager handled what was going on well.
Even less than 10 years ago, I was training managers to say “You want to be nice and you want to have a nice relationship with your team, but don't go there or don't go there or call me if the conversation goes there ‘cause that's code red, don't talk about that stuff as a manager.”
Now, I think most of that is pretty much out the door. You know, I want to hear if your mental health is struggling and want to hear if you're burned out. I want to hear if you don't feel like you belong to this organization because of your race or ethnicity or gender or any reason. I want you to tell me that you don't think we care about those things, or we could be doing better.
I want to hear that your kids are running around screaming behind the camera right now, and that's really stressing you out. So I really just think that the total blur of work and life has encouraged us, forced us, empowered us, made it safe to—I don't know the best word—but to have more human conversations. And I think that's one of the biggest things that's changed.
I love that—have more human conversations.
That's the basics.
How do you see the role of managers in an organization now?
Yeah, I mean, I really hope that they're the conduit for conversations on how the organization can be doing better things we're doing well.
They're kind of like my new culture survey.
I’d like employees and team members to say, “I trust my manager enough to have this conversation. I want them to know that I'm concerned about my career development at this organization.” I think that's the biggest thing that I want managers to know and team members to know too.
Feedback is a two-way street, and I want folks to have open conversations with their managers.
On career development, stress and burnout, a sense of belonging. You know, what's important to them, how they like to be recognized, what's motivating them, how that's changed over the last year and a half, two years. And again, maybe the answer is “I'm really sorry I would love to give you this new position, but I just don't have it quite yet, but let's talk about how we can still develop you to be ready for it.”
Related Read: The Untapped Power Of The Stay Interview
Amazing. And so going off what you said about feedback, what would be your main advice for managers when giving feedback to their team members? So kind of the reverse.
Yeah, I think there it's a couple of different things. One, again, especially in a world where you may not still be in the room with them is checking in and saying “I have some feedback I want to share, is now still a good time?”
If they say no, take their word because maybe stuff is happening off camera, or they just had a fight with their roommate or whatever. It doesn't get them out of it, you still have to give the feedback, but don't plow through with the conversation without asking, “is this still a good time?” If you don’t they’re never going to be truly open to hearing it.
Also, don't just say “you did this thing wrong. Don't do it again.” Have the coaching ready to say, “how can I help you improve in this? Or what do you need from me in order to be better next time?” Come up with an action plan that you both are agreeing to, and then stick to that action plan and follow up on it.
And then, my final piece of advice is just like you ask them in the beginning if it was okay to have the feedback. If the conversation is going poorly, for whatever reason, like no fault of anyone, sometimes they're emotional, they get frustrated for whatever reason pause and say “I feel like maybe this is kind of hitting you harder than I expected or something's upsetting you. Maybe we should pause and pick this back up in an hour or tomorrow morning.”
Again, it doesn't get anyone off the hook, but if they have shut down or they are too emotional to continue the conversation again, it's never going to go better if you just keep powering through.
So use I statements such as “it feels like this is hard for you. It feels like maybe this is hitting you a little more raw than I anticipated.” Don't assume how they're feeling, but it's okay to pause and pick it back up at a different time.
Being very vulnerable and open and honest about your feedback journey will then set the stage for others to share the feedback to you.
That's really good. And do you think that having these difficult conversations, the approach to that has changed in the remote workplace environment?
I do because you can't always see all the social cues. And by the way, this advice is the same for positive feedback too. If someone's super distracted and you're trying to give them a promotion or something, and they're not really listening, you're going to miss the huge impact you're trying to have with a positive conversation.
So it's actually the same no matter what the feedback is. But yeah, I do think the remote piece is harder because I can easily hide my stamping my foot, cause I'm getting really frustrated, but I'm still smiling, but I'm sitting here and I'm stamping my foot. You can't see all that, you can't see some of those social cues.
And I do also think that as much as I am looking straight in your face right now, and I see your eyes in all that, you're still not here. Like it's still not the intimate conversation that some feedback conversations have to have and I know a lot of folks that had to do layoffs and have some really tough conversations remotely, and they felt that disconnect from the human in front of them, even though I can see you on the screen.
So I do think that really doing those different check-ins at different points throughout the conversation is even more important when you're virtual.
Yeah, that totally makes sense. Going back to what you said about the role of managers and being like getting feedback from their employees and when not. How can these managers build trust with their team members so that they feel more comfortable to give that honest feedback, as opposed to just kind of saying what they think their managers wanna hear?
I think some of it depends on where you are in your relationship with your team, but it should be something you create from day one. Literally as you're hiring someone, as part of their onboarding plans, setting the tone of feedback and creating a feedback culture in your team and saying “You know, this is how I think your first week went" and taking it from there.
Ask for feedback from an early stage and, if you haven't been doing that, then quite honestly starting from scratch and saying, “Hey team, I realized I haven't been doing this in the past but feedback, super important to me, I want it to be important to you. I'm going to start asking for more feedback and I want you to be honest, and I realize we may have to build that. When you do give me feedback I’ll try to adjust or engage based on the feedback that you've given me and hopefully you'll see some changes from that feedback."
The other thing that you can do too is try a 360 and have your HR partner do a 360 for you because that immediately gets feedback. So, “Hey team, I'm doing a 360 would love to have your feedback. HR partner here to my left is going to help me with this so they’ll be reaching out to you. Please share your honest feedback.”
You get the 360 you then say “Hey team. Thank you so much for the feedback. Some themes that I saw were A, B and C. I'm going to be really working on these and would love to hear how it's going. Keep letting me know. Did I make a change? Did I not?”
So just being very vulnerable and open and honest about your feedback journey will then set the stage for others to share the feedback to you.
Related Read: This article tells you about how some HR software make gathering feedback a breeze.
I love that. And I love what you said about how you should say back what you heard ‘cause it just shows that you’re actually listening to what is being said and analyzing it. So I think that's really great. Moving on from feedback, what for you has been the most effective initiative or change that you've introduced as an HR practice?
That's a great question. I think at Ordergroove it's really been continuing to build out flexibility.
So one of our values is what you see is what you get, which is all about the individual and authenticity and being the person that you are and bringing that person to our community. Over the year, we've really tried to do different things that were flexible and some of them are things that other companies do like flexible PTO and flexible work schedules.
But I think that was the piece that we really leaned into over this last year or so is we truly mean it. If you tell us that you've got remote learning in the afternoons and you can not be online from two to six, tell your manager, block it on your calendar, turn off Slack. Obviously figure out a coverage plan for those hours if that's the kind of role you're in.
And then, yes, that night or the next morning you can log back in and catch up, but we've really tried to encourage people and I've seen the leadership team do that. So there's been role modeling that behavior.
We've even changed some of our perks. We went from a discounted gym membership to a wellness allowance and then this year we actually just turned it into a personal development allowance.
So it could be wellness or it could be training and development stuff. It could be at home tech setups. I mean we do the basics but if you want NASA style screens, or like some wicked fancy chair or something, any of that stuff, we really continue to expand that allowance to be more flexible for what people need.
So I think those are some of the places where we realized that this exact thing that we're doing is either too limiting and not enough people enjoy it. Or, if we're saying we're flexible about things, we should actually build that into more areas of our sort of perks, quote unquote.
Related Read: 10 Best Employee Wellness Platforms For Employee Health & Well-Being
That's really great. What has been the result of that, what have you seen in terms of how employees are feeling or how their engagement has changed?
Yeah, so I think the flexible work schedule and location has really helped a lot of folk.
A lot of parents, but I know non-parents, are taking advantage of it. You know, I don't have human children, I've got furry children but I do always take an hour for lunch because I need that break from my screen, I gotta take a break.
And I know I've got the space to do that as long as I can, to turn off all my notifications or whatever. So I think that has helped with burnout in some of those—not even burnout, just exhaustion and just like I got to take a break.
And then with a flexible personal development budget we’ve already seen a lot more usage, which finance may or may not love, but we definitely have seen more people use that than when it was just a wellness allowance, which means there were people out there that needed and wanted support in other areas that we were missing. So it seems to be more valuable.
That's awesome. Speaking of burn out, what should managers should look out for that team members might be struggling or starting to burn out?
Yeah, I think it's actually twofold. It's some of the typical disengagement of not having video on as much. You know, Slacking more than calling. Some of those ways where they’re technically still talking to you, but maybe not as engaged as I was before.
Or, on the flip side, they actually are leaning in more because that's the tipping point of burnout. So I think it's actually, we want to help prevent burnout. Once you've gotten to burnout you have a critical case, you've got acute stress. Now it’s crisis mode and we have to solve and heal the crisis. What we really should be doing is avoiding that stage.
And so looking for the cues of disengagement, but also looking for other cues. They’re frantic, you know, just trying to work all the time. Not taking care of themselves. Maybe it's because they’re avoiding other stresses, like the stress of home is now constant and work used to be an outlet.
You don't have to dive deep. You don't have to try to analyze what's going on, but any change in behavior is a sign that something might be going on and there's either about to be some burnout, about to be some dissatisfaction, about to be some disengagement. And as much as we can look for that ahead of time versus reacting to it.
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And how, as a manager, when you see that kind of frantic behavior, or maybe overworking, how do you address it to try and kind of keep it from going over the edge?
I actually saw this on someone on my own team and I told her to take a couple of days off. I was like, “You need a break. We'll take care of it. I'll cover for you. Just send me some notes. You know, go offline for a couple of days cause I could see it in her face.”
Her voice cracked a couple of times. I was like, “Nope, I can't have you break. I don't want you to break and I can't have you break”.
I gave her a couple of days off and I've encouraged other managers to do the same thing. Late last spring we actually put together a one-pager for managers that kind of identified “where is your person?”
Did they just work a couple of extra hours cause they were trying to get through this big project? Awesome, are some things you could do for them?
Are they working around the clock because they're covering for other people because they got sick or they've got sick family members or kids? Then maybe you should recognize these signals and you should do this.
If you've got someone in crisis mode then do this, and we have a couple of mental health options that people can choose from. So
Besides taking a couple of days off or the typical EAP or medical leave or anything like that extreme, we actually just have a couple of platforms that people can use to try to reach out to a coach or take a stress class to give them some tools to navigate their own stress as well.
That's great. I love that idea of having tools to overcome stress as opposed to just either working through it or just relaxing and not necessarily solving the problem.
Yeah, absolutely. I think it's hard too, because, and I know we're guilty of this, but just saying “Thank you so much for working over the weekend on that really big thing. Here's a gift card.” It's like, thank you for recognizing it, but how do we actually make sure it doesn't happen again? Let's solve it, not recognize the fact that I just busted my butt for the weekend.
Totally. So let's talk a little bit about leadership skills. It’s something we covered at the Remote Workplace Success Summit and I'd love to hear your take on it. What skills are going to be the most prevalent for leaders in 2021 and the future?
Yeah, I think one is everything we've been talking about around empathy and human first approach and recognizing. How that actually does impact the business.
I'm very fortunate, I work for a company, and I have worked for companies, where leaders get this, right? Like I don't have to convince them that they have to treat their people like humans, but there's a lot of people that don't feel that way or haven't seen that yet. So I think really, you know, I hate phrasing it like this because it sounds like a punishment. If you're not doing this right, your team is going to tell you and they are going to quit and they are going to go to a company that's going to treat them right.
One of the biggest takeaways from the last year and a half is that people now understand what culture is. It's not ping pong tables. It's not free beer. It's “did you take care of me during a pandemic? Did I think that you cared about racial injustice that was happening around the world and across the States? Did I think that you supported us for speaking out, in whatever opinion you had, but speaking out during a very tough election here in the States?”
You know, these are moments where companies and leaders had to show up for their teams. We can send the message as HR, but if leaders did not role model that behavior, I'm going to call them out on it.
I don't mean to make it sound threatening. It's true. This is their moment to step up as a leader with empathy, recognizing what humans are going through and tying all of that to actual business results that are gonna help our businesses be successful moving forward, cause we'll have the right teams and the right engaged teams on board.
Related Read: The Return To Work—What Should Your Organization Do?
That's so good. I did an interview earlier with our other expert Anthony Clay, and he also mentioned empathy as something so important for leaders now and going forward.
Yeah. We've been talking about it for a while and I think maybe it's finally here and being heard. I hope.
Just have a couple more questions for you and then we'll wrap things up. Would you argue that as we switched to not fully remote working, but kind of a hybrid model, training and coaching and self development are more important now than ever?
Absolutely. And I think that there's also so many new ways that you can do it.
So, you know, you don't have to fly to San Diego or wherever for a conference because that conference might be virtual. So I think that there's just much more accessibility to training and development coaches too. All coaches are doing Zoom calls.
I think there's so many more opportunities I've even seen, like group coaching classes becoming more and more popular because there's a sense of community in that. So I think that people are re-evaluating their careers, what's important to them, and where they want to take their careers. And, with that, what skills do I need to develop in order to take those steps?
So whether my company is going to pay for it or not, I'm going to invest in my development. And I think more and more people are seeing that. Especially now.
That's great! So for the last question, it's a very important one. What is your favorite office snack?
Oh, so it was barkThins that had pretzels in them. I literally ate those every day. And I have not had them since the end of February 2020, and I didn't buy them at home because I knew that would go very badly. The bag wouldn't last the day. So I purposely have not bought them, but that means I have not had them since February of 2020. I miss them so much!
My goodness. Maybe when you go back into the office, there'll be some, therefore you have that.
I'm sure that will be added to the grocery list of the office very quickly. Considering my team runs that list.
Right. You'll get your fill of them soon! Well, Karen, it has been such a joy to chat with you today. Thank you so much for being here and sharing such rich insights and knowledge with me and with our community. I'm so looking forward to having you on our experts team and hearing more from you.
Thank you so much.
If you want to learn and hear more from her and connect with her in our forum, you can sign up for free to the People Managing People membership community.
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