Are you a people and culture enthusiast? Do you like to learn about how your peers became interested in the HR space and how they’re navigating the current market? We’ve got a new Q&A series for you! 🎉
We’re connecting with partners, influencers, and customers who share our passion for creating amazing employee experiences and driving human connection at work. Today I’m thrilled to put the spotlight on our partner Bee Heller, co-founder of The Pioneers, a U.K.-based team of people scientists, practitioners, developers, and designers united by a passion for making work flow.
I learned a ton about Bee (she once drove to Mongolia!) and she shared her advice for how growing companies can sustainably build up their HR teams and programs.
Check out the full interview below.
1) What did you study in school? Why did you choose a career in HR?
I studied natural sciences at university essentially because I was good at science and maths in high school. At that stage I had no sense of what I wanted to do for a career and I still had no idea what I wanted to do with my life when I graduated. So instead of getting a job, I got in a 13-year-old Ford Fiesta and drove 10,500 miles from Hyde Park in London to Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia. It was an experience that would come to influence my move into HR. 🚗
Every single one of the 51 days I spent on the road I faced situations that stretched and challenged me. I honed new skills (I’m a dab hand at changing a car wheel now!), developed my communication capabilities, and learned about myself and the world, all while laughing and experiencing huge amounts of joy. 😂
When I returned from Mongolia, I still didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. So I did what I’d always done and made a decision based on what I thought people like me should do. I applied for graduate jobs at big corporates. And I got one. I became a graduate project manager and found myself learning all about corporate life.
Unlike that drive to Mongolia, I quickly realized that, rather than stretching and challenging me, corporate life seemed to tap into a tiny fraction of my potential. I wasn’t unhappy. In fact, I enjoyed coming to work – I made good friends and most days I had a nice time.
But when I reflected on my experience after a couple of years, it seemed to me that our corporate systems are set up in such a way that leaves a huge amount of human potential on the table. This struck me as a waste and I wanted to do something about it. And so began my career in HR. 🏁
2) Tell us about The Pioneers and why you started the company.
I left ‘Big Corp' to join a niche consultancy that was all about helping leaders use storytelling to engage employees in both the rational and, crucially, emotional journey their business is on. I learned a lot very quickly, but I found myself still spending most of my time in big corporates and only speaking to the most senior leaders of these companies.
I was really interested in the experience of work for people on the front line of businesses. A colleague of mine, Matt Grimshaw, had the same restlessness and desire to make work better for the majority of people, and we were both excited about testing our ideas about how to do this. We were inspired by the research coming out of fields such as social psychology, positive psychology, behavioral economics, social neuroscience – the science around how people really work, what motivates us, and how we make decisions.
There was a moment in time when it made sense for us to strike out on our own and try to put our ideas into practice.
From day one The Pioneers has always been about making people happier at work and doing this in a way that also improves the customer experience and business performance. 🤗 It’s critical to be able to demonstrate this connection, or it becomes all too easy for businesses to disinvest in people initiatives when times get financially tough.
3) The economic landscape is tough right now. If you could give HR leaders one piece of advice for navigating this market, what would it be?
Great business leaders recognize the connection between having happy, engaged, and motivated employees and a well-performing business. However, when times are tough, all businesses face difficult decisions.
As an HR leader, the more you can educate yourself about how all aspects of your business work, the better you’ll be able to position yourself as a genuine advisor to your CEO/the rest of the leadership team. 📊 You need to be a people and culture expert, but to do this well, you also need to understand the commercial workings of the business. So my advice would be to take the time to understand both the pressures your people are under right now as well as the commercial pressures the business is under.
4) Is there a common mistake you see growing companies make when it comes to their people experience?
One common mistake I see growing companies make is trying to cling on to their start-up ways. Some companies claim they have a ’start-up culture’ as a kind of badge of honor. But as you scale, your culture has to change. You can’t run a company of 100 people in the same way you run a company of 10. Focusing on the things that made you great when you were actually in start-up mode can mean you miss opportunities to improve your people experience when you have a bit more scale.
Things like enhanced parental leave, healthcare, and other slightly more expensive ‘perks' can be cost prohibitive for a start-up to support, but more attainable when the business has a bit more scale. And these can make a huge difference for employees at moments that matter in their life. 💜
Being open to what you can improve in your people experience as you grow – rather than focusing on what you’re losing – is definitely something I’d encourage all growing businesses to do.
On the flip side, another common mistake I see growing businesses make is to ‘professionalize’ too quickly. In a bid to prepare for scaling, businesses bring in standardized OKRs, performance reviews, employee engagement surveys … every tool in the people management playbook. While none of these are bad ideas, if they’re not underpinned by experienced people managers who know how to manage teams and engage with people as human beings, then they can drive bad, robotic management behaviors that erase the burgeoning human connections and healthy culture in a business.
5) Why is human connection so critical at work? In what ways do you see helping drive that connection?
I love the research of social neuroscientist Matthew Lieberman that shows that we process physical and social pain (and pleasure) in the same brain regions. So when we feel excluded from a group, our brain processes this social pain in the same way as it processes the pain of breaking a leg. 💔 Similarly, when we feel connected, close to others, and like we belong, our brains process this pleasurable experience in the same way as it would if we were eating a tasty piece of chocolate. 🍫 Our brains are literally wired to make us social animals, and this is one reason why human connection is so critical.
I don’t believe technology can or should replace real life human interactions. However, what it can do really well is act as a prompt for more human connection to take place. Obvious things like modern communication technology – Teams, Slack, Zoom, WhatsApp etc – make feeling connected to each other possible in a world where many of us are working remotely a lot of the time.
I think technology is especially effective at driving human connection when it augments and enhances an existing ‘in-person’ process or intended point of connection. For example, software that makes it easy for people to ask for and give feedback to each other. In my opinion, this kind of software won’t get feedback conversations happening if they aren’t happening at all (or certainly won’t get good feedback happening), but they can be extremely effective at growing an existing practice and spreading these kinds of connections across a business.
Once you know which points of human connection you have that you want to enhance, then there’s usually a role for technology in helping to do this. 💻
7) Just for fun: What's one thing most people don't know about you? 🙂
I’m an avid, year-round, open water swimmer (yes I have been known to break through ice to enter a body of water). With a toddler in my life and a new baby on the way, I struggle to find time to do as much of it as I’d like, but plan to swim the length of Lake Zurich in a team of two sometime in the next 3 years. By stating this aim publicly for the first time, I already feel a much higher degree of commitment to making sure it actually happens! (Covid in 2020 and then having a baby in 2021 scuppered the first Lake Zurich swimming plan).