As the pandemic winds down and vaccinations go up, growth is on everyone’s mind. Companies everywhere are hiring.
In such a competitive market, competing for top talent with pay and stellar benefits is not enough. Creating an inclusive workplace that welcomes everyone broadens the pool of talent you can reach. But how does a company actually build a vibrant culture with deep employee engagement? And how does that culture and engagement translate into a work from home reality?
Q&A with Alexandra Erman, StreamSets VP of People
I put these questions and more to Alexandra Erman, Vice President of People at StreamSets. Alexandra joined StreamSets in August 2019, and has 25 years of experience in small business and startups. Plus she’s a terrific person who has been there for everyone during this tricky time!
What is your role at StreamSets as VP of People?
My role at StreamSets is in charge of all people operations, including all areas of human resources and the full cycle of the employee– from attraction to retention to engagement to life at StreamSets. It includes compliance, compensation, work life balance, and recognition programs, as well as the People Strategy.
That’s an interesting idea, what is a “people strategy”?
The people strategy is how you organize the people in the company for success. It outlines the company’s relationship with its employees. An effective people strategy will support business aims and objectives, and more importantly it puts people at the center of the business.
What are the biggest challenges to creating a strong people strategy?
The biggest challenge is finding the right balance between the shareholder perspective and the people perspective. The shareholder’s perspective is to have a strong bottom line and preserve cash. The people perspective is to make people happy at any cost. The key is to find the right balance between how much to give and how to value that toward retention and happiness. Turnover is costly. Attrition is costly. It hurts the bottom line and the reputation of the company. You have to have a balance between them to be successful.
This is LGBTQ+ Pride month and so much has changed around inclusion in the workplace. What are some of the highlights that you see as an HR professional?
It’s at the forefront of every conversation! We have finally come to realize that it is an essential mindset and that companies that prioritize diversity, equity, and inclusion have better retention, more satisfied employees, better internal decision making, more innovation, and better financial returns.
One of the things we did last year at StreamSets was to revive the equity, inclusion and diversity (EID) committee, which examines every aspect of the company and its decision making processes. It includes our co-founders and representatives from different parts of the organization.
Equity means that whoever you are, you’ll be treated fairly compared to others
Inclusion means that you belong, we’ll listen
Diversity means you can bring your true self to work, and voice your innovative, creative, risky and controversial opinions and ideas
Our role is to make sure that we are living up to our commitment to create an equitable, inclusive, and diverse culture.
How has the strategy changed for StreamSets with everyone working from home?
We had a strong culture for distributed teams before the pandemic started. We had offices in Sunnyvale, Austin, Barcelona, London, Bengaluru, and headquarters in San Francisco, we also have a big remote team in the US already used to working from home. Most of our engineering teams are composed of people living in 3 different parts of the world! Intrinsically, we were already a remote company. We have this aptitude to work together, even when physically separated.
The challenge was to support those who had never worked from home. We put big get-togethers on the calendar, and little ones sprouted on their own. I knew one of our people was alone at home with no real support system, and I suggested they reach out to people they get along with. They spend time on zoom idling, just having a presence next door. Others are organizing zoom lunches and social hours. What I find really magical is when you give one simple idea and people create their own version of it.
We also started online activities, yoga, cooking classes, posturology, and salsa making!
A recent Deloitte survey found a correlation between employees who say they are “happy at work” and feel “valued by my company” and have a distinct culture that they can explain and the leadership acts on. What is the culture at StreamSets?
There are 2 sides to culture: the mentality of the founders and what they are trying to do, and the people who are hired and what they bring to the company. You set a baseline for functioning in a job and then people bring who they are to the job. When the baseline is strong and the management guarantees a climate of psychological safety at work, then the mix becomes a perfect chocolate mousse. There is a moral agreement, a social agreement, and people bring the best of who they are.
Our baseline values from the founders, Girish Pancha and Arvind Prabhakar, are very strong. They have a priority for the people. They say there is no StreamSets without StreamSets people.
I remember a recent all hands where Girish shared that the meetings were getting too long and people suggested not including recognition (a big part of our monthly all hands). He asked, why would we not highlight our people, our most important asset? That meant a lot to me as a recent new hire. How is StreamSets keeping the culture intact remotely, particularly for managers?
It has always been part of our people strategy. In January 2020, we offered certification in managing distributed teams. We also began using 15Five for a continuous feedback loop on what’s working and what’s not working. Here is my review of why we chose 15Five for continuous performance management and why we were right!
The 15Five pulse is a weekly check-in. Every Friday, employees get to say how they felt at work that week on a scale from 1-5, they track objectives, highlight priorities, and answer 3 questions that let managers know what’s going on. It only takes a few minutes and provides invaluable feedback. I keep my finger on the company’s average pulse and act when the morale is going down.
Employees also have the option to give high fives to people who made a difference. You see company-wide who’s getting appreciated and the top high fivers. Everyone can stay informed about what’s going on in the company. See how people are thinking. It feels good, creates unity, and recognition, especially those that say, “thank you for this, it had this impact.”
We also have implemented a wellness day, one Friday a month take the day off to take care of yourself and do something you love. No explanations. People take it, it’s working really well. Some teams even take it together.
How does working from home enable more people to bring their “true self” to work?
We always had a remote culture and always thought we were inclusive, but looking back could have felt like headquarters and remote. With everyone remote, we have become all inclusive. All hands example.
What sets StreamSets apart today?
People join StreamSets because they believe in our mission and have a feeling they’ll like the culture. They stay because they know they can bring their whole self at work, they are safe, well taken care of, they are heard, have an impact, they belong. That is what motivates people and that is what sets StreamSets apart.
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