Episode 4

Chris French | EVP of Customer Strategy

How Workplaces are Evolving for the Better: Interview with Chris French

Today’s episode of the Catalyst Podcast centers on the modern workplace and how quickly it has shifted in the wake of 2020 and COVID-19.

In this episode, host Justin Gray welcomes Chris French. As EVP of Customer Strategy at Workhuman – the fastest growing social recognition and performance management platform –  Chris shares how corporate cultures of some of the world’s most complex global companies are faring after a year of upheaval. He describes which aspects of the workplace were already primed for change and why 2020 became the catalyst for positive growth, especially in areas like mental health and social justice.

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3 Key Points:

1. 2020 changed the workplace for the better. COVID-19 and social upheaval caused copious amounts of stress, fear and uncertainty, but top companies have taken the opportunity to learn an important lesson: their employees are human and need to be treated as much. That means more boundaries around person time, awareness of isolation and mental health concerns and celebrating wins to build community.

2. Remote working doesn’t mean disconnected teams. As COVID-19 spread, the majority of workers switched to remote. And while this was the safest option, it magnified the importance of workplace community. Fortunately, Workhuman released a social-media style product that enables workers to celebrate life events, so those human moments between colleagues don’t get lost in a virtual setting.

3. Diversity & Inclusion (D&I) and social justice initiatives must be backed by action. The question is not whether to implement D&I initiatives – it’s table stakes. Instead, it’s moving from here’s what do we aspire to be to here’s what we are doing to make change. Organization should have a plan and perhaps hire a leader in the area to lead the charge. 

Time Stamped Show Notes:

1:03 – What do you do at WorkHuman?

2:50 – In what ways did COVID-19 shift the way your customers viewed their company culture??

8:36 – How did mental health fit into the balance of company culture during COVID-19??

13:17 – What are companies doing to successfully build inclusive organizations?

17:20 – What are some stepping stones for building a diverse, equal and inclusive culture organization?

21:04 – What are you hopeful for in 2021 and beyond?

23:46 – Lightning round

51:45 – Wrap-Up: Find Chris on LinkedIn.

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Full Transcript

Justin:

Hey, hello. Welcome again. You’re back on Catalyst season three in keeping with our focus of the season everything about catalytic change during the time of COVID. We’ve got a great guest on that explicit topic here running what is a super important platform with the move to virtual teams, which we’re all dealing with right now. Obviously, it’s still in the heart of the COVID pandemic. So I’m excited to welcome to the show today, Chris French. Chris is with Workhuman. He’s their EVP of customer strategy, and he’s here to tell us a little bit about what’s been going on in that space and that business certainly here in the time of COVID. So Chris, welcome to the show.

Chris:

Thanks Justin. Happy to be here.

Justin:

Yeah. So tell us a little bit about Workhuman, what you guys do, what the platform focuses on and maybe a little bit about what your typical day to day looks like.

Chris:

Sure, sure. As you said, I’m the EVP of customer strategy at Workhuman. At Workhuman, we like to say that our job is to make work more human. That seems obvious, but we do that by providing software and that’s the world’s fastest growing social recognition and continuous performance management software platform. These generate millions and millions of these authentic real moments between people, and we take a lot of time to analyze those moments and see what we can learn. We have a huge data science function to understand what we can learn so that we can help organizations, many of which are the world’s leading organizations to basically get rid of old human resources processes and create new ones that work for humans in today’s world.

Chris:

As the head of customer strategy, my responsibility is essentially take the great culture that we’ve created here at Workhuman and translate that into the corporate cultures of some of the world’s most complex global companies. Then I’m also responsible for a couple of our special initiatives like our data science area and Workhuman certify, which I’m really excited about, which is a modern take on what a great workplace should look like today.

Chris:

So day-to-day, I spend time leading people like everybody else who is responsible for people. That’s an interesting dynamic in today’s COVID world and helping again, advise some of the world’s biggest companies on what do we do? How do we change? How do we create an environment where their workers can do the best work of their lives? It’s different every day.

Justin:

Yeah, certainly. So this was your focus obviously before COVID hit and before we had to deal with a 100% virtual workforce for most organizations out there, but I have to imagine this pandemic that we’re all facing has doubled down the efforts in this area. Is it been that we’ll call it the zoom effect essentially? Have you seen that not only renewed focus, but just a hyper-focus on the areas that you guys influence?

Chris:

Well, there’s no question, as you said, we were focused on this before all of this happened, but I would say that this whole work from home culture, and COVID and social justice, which would be another thing that has happened in the last year have really accelerated the awareness and the need for taking care of the humans at work that what humans need is different.

Chris:

The way I would articulate that would be, and it’s fascinating because I have a very unique perspective. We get to look at all of these tens of millions of moments and the language, we do natural language processing. So the language that people are using, you could actually see how the world was changing. So in those early March, you could see all of a sudden words that nobody was ever using before like fear, uncertainty, obviously COVID and pandemic, but sanitizer start to show up and then you could map. So people then figured out how to work from home. So working from home and remote and those kinds of words came out, but then you started to really see some of the other more insidious impacts like mental health issues, isolation issues, how do we drive productivity and well, all our goals are out the window now.

Chris:

So the way that we manage our people has to be completely different. I think for us at Workhuman, we think about those things that we were thinking about before are still true. It’s just that now other people can see it as well, and like every other business it’s forced us to interact with our customers completely differently. For us, we would never wish this to happen, but it’s great because now that people have seen their employees as actual human beings, they can’t unsee that. I don’t think we’re ever going to go back to the ways where people were just … If you think of human resources, those departments, a lot of them operate as if the humans are resources and it’s a cost to be managed, et cetera. This has forced everybody to focus on them as humans, and I don’t think we’re ever going to go back.

Justin:

I’m curious to get your sentiment on how people view employee engagement and the essential function of Workhuman when they approach you, because it sounds like there’s other layers that maybe aren’t as intuitive, right, like the ability to understand and process what you said from a language standpoint, what’s actually happening, what are the sentiments of employees? I would imagine that’s probably not on the forefront of people’s minds when they think about employee engagement. They’re trying to create a more connected workplace, and there’s a lot of buzz and hype around that area, but when you really get into the nuts and bolts and the visibility that you guys have, it sounds like that’s more of an optics and analytics tool than I would’ve probably naturally imagined.

Chris:

Well look, I think that even the beginning when people were thinking about employee engagement, they were still thinking of employees as resources like, “Oh, I have to do these things in order to get the most out of them.” Right? There’s lots of companies that are already doing this. The companies that are thriving during this time are the ones that were able to quickly pivot. We have customers that within six weeks went from making flight simulators to making respirators. You know what I mean?

Chris:

The companies that have four of the five operation work drives pharmaceutical companies we work with. Those companies are thriving because they understand that in today’s world, you’re not paying people for their hands, you’re paying them for their heads and their hearts. So the things that companies need to thrive are the passion, the creativity, the ability to solve problems you’ve never seen before. That’s what we’re focused on is creating that environment.

Chris:

People tend to think of us, again in employee engagement like, “Well, you need to thank your employees because then it will make them feel good and then they’ll be more engaged.” When in reality, systematically saying, “I see you, I see you as a human being. I see what you’re doing and that’s the right things,” makes the person feel more belonging to the organization, makes them feel more included in the organization when this happens over time, especially if it’s coming from peers rather than the company. It reinforces the right behaviors.

Chris:

So the cumulative effect of doing that with enough reach, and frequency and volume is that you can actually push and shape the culture that you want in the organization and people willingly go because they want to be part of it. I always think of I never liked the term “employee engagement,” because again, I think it came from a place of trick people into doing what you want them to do, or have a nice pool table and things like that because you don’t let them go home and be with their families. Really, it’s much deeper than that. It’s about understanding that human beings need to be seen, and they need to be part of something that’s bigger than themselves. There are companies that really get that and they’re doing those things, and those are the companies that are thriving today.

Justin:

So yeah, two things come out of that. First, you mentioned mental health, I’m curious from a product perspective, have there been changes that you guys have been implemented as a result of COVID? Is there a mental health score? How has the recent trend shaped what you guys are doing from a product standpoint?

Chris:

Yeah, from a product perspective, we were very lucky and by the way, we were actually at an executive offsite in late February when this all started. We were actually able to say, “Well, what does this mean for the world? What’s it going to mean? How do we need to change what we’re going to do?” I would say in two different categories. The first category is that we knew that beyond just thanking people that when you’re in a work from home environment, companies are going to focus and they have done a decent job of focusing on the part, which is allowing the mechanics of work to get done. In other words, you have a laptop and you’re at home and you have access to the internet and you can actually get your work done.

Chris:

The things that are missing in that environment are all the things that you would have in a physical space like you’re seeing your friends at work. When one of them gets a new pet or gets married, or buys a new car, or gets their black belt in karate, you’re completely missing those things. The only things that companies focused on were getting the work done. The second is that the work itself, when you’re remote, people are like, “Well, am I doing the right things? How have the goals changed? What should I be focused on in the short-term because there’s so much uncertainty in the world.”

Chris:

So those two things forced us to accelerate on the product side, the release of what we called, “life events and conversations.” One is to sell social media style, to celebrate these life events that happen and be able to share those real moments between colleagues and the other is to facilitate real-time ongoing discussions, feedback, setting, short-term priorities, et cetera. We decided not only to accelerate bringing that to market, but to make it free for a year, not a couple months, but for a year. So that’s one thing which is accelerating the ability to create actual, real human moments and recreate some of those things that happened in the office in a virtual setting.

Chris:

The second is that we brought to market what we call “mood tracker,” which is the ability … A lot of companies will do what they call “pulse surveys,” the ability to check to see how you’re doing, right? You have to pay for those tools, and we always like to think you shouldn’t have to pay to find out what the problem is. You should be paying to solve the problem. So we move things around to allow us to release this mood tracker tool earlier and it came out a nay, and it’s free and it’s free forever.

Chris:

These are some of the things that we would have done on the product side to acknowledge that these are still human beings, even though they’re working from home and they’re balancing having kids at home, maybe their parents are sick. They’re trying to figure out, in those early days you remember just trying to figure out how to get food and things like that. I know this is a long answer, but I would say the last thing is that companies were realizing that … We had a customer, it’s a CPG company, one of the biggest in the world, very recognizable brand, and you might remember there were times where you would go into the grocery store and some items that people would think of as I need those items right now were not available on the shelves, and they had to triple production of these items.

Chris:

Those are human beings that have to do that production, but you can’t afford to give all those people a $20,000 raise. So you have to find innovative and new ways to thank them for their effort. We ended up calling that team awards. It was based on tremendous demand from the customers to create a communication vehicle to broad teams of people in a rich way to say thank you. So we ended up actually creating a whole shared service center to help customers proactively build out templates for them so that they could execute these team awards. It’s funny when I was preparing for this, I didn’t realize how many adjustments we made because of COVID, but it really did fundamentally change what we put an accent on. We just think of it as our time is now, because this is the scenario we were coming to call Workhuman. This is our time.

Justin:

Yeah, incredible synergy there. So you also mentioned successful organizations and what they’re focused on. I’m curious if you can provide some insights into what you’re seeing from that success factor. What are the best companies out there doing around, I’ll call it this space rather than employee engagement, but really just to tap into, and form an inclusive community.

Chris:

Yeah. First of all, I would say that that’s not an option anymore. There are companies that have been doing those things, and it’s no longer an option. You’ve seen the SEC has come out and said, “You have to disclose human capital practices,” that every single board of a public company is talking about diversity, equity and inclusion and social justice and what are we doing about that. What you were seeing from the leading organizations is that they’re proactively not just saying they have an aspiration on things like pay equity or creating an inclusive environment or commitment to diversity equity, protecting employee’s privacy, people don’t want to work at companies that are destroying the environment. All of these factors that companies are basically saying not only do we have an aspiration in those areas, but we are specifically doing these things.

Chris:

You’ll see we like to think of the things that we do that’s contributing to that. Obviously these global systematic recognition programs, but I think that you would also see the creation of specific strategies around each of those areas like diversity equity inclusion to me is a great example of something that you don’t have a choice, you got to do now. What is your plan? Hiring a leader in that area? Having very specific initiatives, looking at pay equity, are we off? What are we doing to correct it? How are we changing our onboarding processes so that they aren’t … We fix it once and then all of a sudden a year later we still have the same problem. How do we create safety for our employees? Time’s Up or MeToo Movements, there’s all kinds of safeguards around these things because that behavior is no longer tolerated, and it was tolerated for way too long and it shouldn’t have been.

Chris:

I’d say that the companies are really focused on the systemic, all of the things that are systemic issues, because you can’t expect that an employee is going to come into your office or come into your virtual workplace and drop all the baggies that they have from the rest of the world and operate, right? I would argue maybe these companies might be the last best place to drive some of that social change because people are not … they’ve lost their trust in governments and other institutions that have typically provided that guidance in the past and now the workplace is taking on the role.

Chris:

You’ve seen recently employees revolted at Google and Twitter and Amazon. I think you’re going to see a lot more of this. So companies that are succeeding are getting ahead of that, thinking about these proactively and focusing on their employees, but not their employees as children to be distracted, but employees as human beings who are bringing everything that’s happening in the world into your workplace. You have to create an environment where those people feel safe.

Justin:

Right. Yeah. You mentioned IDE, which is a major focus for like you said, it’s become table stakes for most organizations these days, same thing with employee engagement. I think there are some historical bad practices as you mentioned in terms of the outlook of HR and what we’re really trying to accomplish here. I think there’s also just frankly, there’s an ignorance gap out there, right? There’s goals that organizations want to achieve, but probably don’t know explicitly how to go about achieving that.

Justin:

You mentioned a lot of free tools that you guys have implemented in your go to market as part of an enablement function here, giving organizations what they need to measure and get insights on how they need to change. I assume that’s also just a huge vacuum for best practices out there. What do you guys see in terms of organizations asking like, “Hey, how do we do this?” What do you guys recommend? Do you guys provide some stepping stones there for improvement?

Chris:

Yeah. Well, first, I would encourage people to be looking at what we call, “Workhuman certified,” which is a crowdsource. We spent over a year gathering input from the leading thinkers and employees for around the world on what does the ideal workplace need to look like? What are the factors that are included in it, and to connect with and create a pioneer group of companies that include for instance, Cisco number one, best place to work with in the world multiple times over to help us think about what are the best practices in each of those areas around making somebody feel like they belong, making somebody feel like they can grow in an organization that they’re a safe and protected environment, that they’re included in practices.

Chris:

There’s no one silver bullet that works for every company, but we believe if we can act as the gathering place for those ideas, then we can help people move forward. The other thing that we’ve always long believed is that if you are investing 1%, take 1% of payroll and give it to the people to give to the people which we call, “social recognition.” It is in terms of return on investment, we throw away two to 3% in merit increases every year. We give them to people and we don’t expect any return from that. We just think that that’s part of the price.

Chris:

What I would say is that if you invest 1% of payroll in social recognition, then you’re going to see drastic reduction in turnover, drastic increase in the resilience of the organization, the stress management of the people in the organization, the probability that they will improve in their jobs. We have a 160 slides of studies that we’ve done on the impact of simply allowing people to thank each other for things that they do well.

Chris:

You’re able to continue to propagate good behaviors and people take it as it’s their responsibility to look for what’s good. To look for what’s good, you need to know what good looks like. You start to see a fundamental shift. I remember working with one of the world’s leading pharmaceutical companies and they said, “Oh, we have this passive-aggressive culture where everybody is nice to your face and then secretly behind your back they’re trying to get their own agenda move forward. We fast forward a year later after implementing social recognition while the cooperation within the organization is greatly different, it’s very hard.

Chris:

Now you give people the benefit of the doubt because when they call you out for little things that you do well, then when they want to give you feedback, it’s not because they hate you or they’re trying to submarine your career. Maybe it could be true because they’ve built up this goodwill from social recognitions. I would say first thing first, and I believe this for a long time. It’s part of the reason why I came to Workhuman is putting that foundation in place gives you a cultural base that allows you to enable and all of these other things.

Justin:

Yeah, really, really strong concept. I’m curious, just because you guys are so much on the forefront of this, and we also have this massive media narrative, but things are worse than ever before and yet you guys are at the ground level, getting visibility into how organizations are behaving and the chains they’re trying to drive, based on that perspective, are you more hopeful now than prior to COVID, let’s say?

Chris:

I’m definitely hopeful. Some people might say that that’s a personality trait. Some people might say flaw, but trait that I’m generally an optimist, but here’s one thing as I think about that, because people ask me that like, “Why are you hopeful now? There’s lots going on.” First of all, I’m hopeful from what I said before, which is that I don’t think you can unsee the fact that the person who you pay, pay for your groceries with, or the person who delivers packages to your house are actual human beings. It’s not just some robot that’s doing that, those are real people. So just that awareness.

Chris:

I had talked before about the natural language processing and there is a word that came in to prominence, it really started to be used a lot more in March of last year. It’s one of the words that has stayed prominent all the way through the year to this moment, and that word is “despite.” It makes me incredibly hopeful because human beings don’t just run blindly off the cliff into Armageddon, right? The fact that we’re having these conversations and the fact that almost the entire world who is certainly white collar workers were able to find a way to actually do work and do it when their kids are at home and things like that, show that the human spirit is incredible.

Chris:

This is the thing that makes us human is that we’re incredibly adaptable and resilient. For me, that word despite has been used so many times like you were able to do this despite all of the things that are going on. For me, that keeps me really, really hopeful because humans have done a … As they say, there’s that ongoing joke that says, “When I think I’m having a bad day, I realized that my track record for getting through really bad days is 100% and that’s pretty good.” That’s the way that I feel about people are rising to the occasion. Think about how fast we created those vaccines as an example. So despite all of that, I’m very hopeful.

Justin:

Yeah. Great perspective on resiliency there. As you know, the theme of the show is catalyst, and I always love to ask folks like yourselves, stepping out of probably your existing professional career or your existing role in your past, have there been or was there one big catalytic moment that you look upon and say, “Wow, that really influenced maybe that optimism or the perspective that you have today.”

Chris:

Yeah. Look, first of all, I’m a big believer in this. I love that you have this podcast because I’m a huge believer in the impact of a moment in time or a person on other people to change the way that someone looks at the world or change their world order to help them be successful. I’m a huge believer in that. I would say your question, there’s a who and a scenario. So the who to me, when I was 14 years old, we have a family business. It’s a flooring business. I was working with my dad and my uncles. I would say that that really formed their focus on really hard … When I was 14 years old, I was working 50 plus hours a week, right? So, hard work, focus on the person and don’t try to sell them, just try to understand what they’re trying to do and try to be helpful and everything else will take care of itself.

Chris:

Also, get your hands out of your pockets and don’t drag your feet when you walk, but so some foundational pieces, but for moments that led me to this moment, I was 26 years old. I was managing … I was very lucky because early in my career, I’d had lots of leadership opportunities. I was probably in a leadership role for which I was not particularly qualified, but I was managing director of an office for a staffing company. We were bought by a huge multinational organization. As often happens in these cases, that they want to cut costs and become more efficient, and I had to lay off 40 people.

Chris:

I’m 26 years old, and I felt like because of those things I had learned from my father around taking ownership as a leader, I didn’t want HR to be the ones to talk to people. I personally had the conversation with every one of those 40 people. Many of whom were twice my age and all of whom who had families. It’s easy to pretend to be that I can make the tough decisions, et cetera. It’s quite another to be the person to do it yourself. I would say that it fundamentally changed the way that I think about people at work, that these are real human beings with families that they’re trying to feed and pride in what they do.

Chris:

My responsibilities as a leader include protecting those people, protecting their ability to make a living. So if I don’t succeed and we’re not successful as a business, people lose the ability to feed their families. It made a huge impact on the way that I think about the world and probably is the thing that led me down a path to be what I think is I’m in my mission now at Workhuman to bring that mindset to the world.

Justin:

Yeah. Although I don’t envy that job, I’m sure that the level of insight it provides into the human stories behind each every person that walks in the door every day or works for one of our organizations is so incredibly valuable. Again, I don’t envy the task however. As we pivot into the last part of the podcast, we do this rapid fire thing everyone does, and hopefully these questions however, are not your common questions. If you’re up for that, we’ll go ahead and do a little bit of rapid fire here.

Chris:

Sure. Shoot.

Justin:

First and foremost, I always like to understand where folks go to get reliable, trustworthy news and information. Where do you go to get your news these days?

Chris:

Well, look, I grew up as a scientist in my mindset. So I’m naturally a skeptic. So from a very long time ago, I’ve basically created a world of many different news sources. If I look at my phone, I’ve got all of the, what I would say, normal US media regardless of where on the political spectrum people might think they fall, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, BBC, Reuters, Associated Press, Google News so that I can look at every scenario from different vantage points and make my own opinion. You would not believe how different, the exact same story can be conveyed in different. I think it’s critical. It’s a critical skill that we don’t teach enough in school, to be honest with you, critical thinking. I have this discussion with my kids. They’re probably tired of hearing it every night on making sure you get multiple sources so you can make your own opinion.

Justin:

Yeah, critical to get out of the echo chamber there. What’s your guilty pleasure?

Chris:

Out of these three daughters, they’re 13, 15, and 18, and we have this tradition where we have like Friday night dance parties, well, it’s dance parties when they were little. Now it’s just listening and I get out the Spotify app and they can choose. So during the summer we’re around the campfire and there was a band on Harry Styles because all three girls kept picking Harry Styles songs. I said, “No Harry Styles song.” Then they’d beg and there’d be one. My guilty pleasure and they’re upstairs right now, so I have to say these quietly is that sometimes when nobody’s around, I actually listened to those Harry Styles songs, myself. 

Justin:

Keep down with downloads, going to say. What’s one thing that you would change about yourself if you could?

Chris:

I’ve always been super impressed by people who can speak eight or nine languages. If there was one thing that I would change, it would be that I could speak eight or nine languages. I think it gives you a completely different perspective of the world. There’s not a lot of people can do that, and it’s so impressive to me.

Justin:

Yeah. One of our ATRs is like that. I think he speaks six languages, and I don’t have the focus. Then finally, what’s the worst job you’ve ever had?

Chris:

I worked in a hospital when I was in university and I worked in the kitchen. So we prepare all the meals, send them up on trays. When the trays come down, you have to take all the food off of them and you would take the food and it would go into this running trough, trough of running water and it would go down to this pulper so that it could reduce the mask size. At the end of the night, everything needed to be cleaned, and sometimes it was my job to clean that pulper. That was the worst. That’s the kind of job that makes you stay in school.

Justin:

Yeah. I was going to say, that’s when you have a bad day in an office, you look back and say, “Hey, I could do better.”

Chris:

At least I’m not the cleaning the pulper in the kitchen at the hospital.

Justin:

Exactly. Well Chris, again, I really appreciate you joining us here today, sharing some insights into a space that every organization on the planet like you said is focused on or at least should be focused on right now. If folks want to learn more about Workhuman or connect with yourself, where can they go?

Chris:

You can connect with me on LinkedIn. I’m Chris French from Workhuman or www.workhuman.com is a great place. Justin, I would say the same thing I say to everybody, which is, think of someone that you’re grateful for before the end of the day, and just send them a note to tell them. I think that you’ll spend all day thinking about what a great person you are, so.

Justin:

Great. Great advice. Again, Chris, thanks for coming on, sharing some info around Workhuman, Workhuman Certify is it that you mentioned?

Chris:

Yeah.

Justin:

Yeah, it sounds like a super interesting program. So I’d encourage our listeners to go check that out, get a perspective into some best practices. As always, you can find past episodes of Catalyst at leadmd.com/best practices. Give us a like and subscribe. It’s obviously what keeps us going here. Until next time, never miss a chance to be inspired.

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