In this episode, Vibe Check’s host Brett Martin sits down with Anthony Onesto to discuss the rapidly changing HR field, the influence of positive culture in the workplace, and the four pillars that support Suzy’s Forbes ranking as a great place to work. Anthony leads efforts revolutionizing the employee experience in his role as the Chief People Officer at Suzy, an on-demand consumer research software platform used to deliver insights for concept testing, creative research, and UX testing.
Anthony discusses the importance of listening to employees, exemplified by Suzy’s biweekly employee surveys designed to continuously gather real-time feedback. As a result of the surveys, Anthony describes the program he implemented to address employee burnout, which had tangible outcomes. Anthony also talks about the 9-to-5 construct, intentional onboarding, hiring Gen Zers, employee personas in forming a customizable HR experience, and the impact that being fully dispersed had on scaling from 30-300 employees backed by their talent from anywhere approach.
Anthony Onesto serves as the Chief People Officer at Suzy, an on-demand consumer research software platform used to deliver insights for concept testing, creative research, and UX testing. As an expert on culture, human resources, and talent management, Anthony recently wrote The New Employee Contract: How to Find, Keep, and Elevate Gen Z Talent. Anthony also advises startup technology companies, which have collectively raised over $100 million in venture capital.
Brett: Howdy and welcome to VibeCheck. An inside look at the culture and quirks powering the world's most successful and interesting companies. I'm Brett Martin, cofounder of Kumospace and I'll be your host. Today, we'll be speaking with Anthony Onesto. Anthony is the chief people officer at Suzy, an on-demand consumer research software platform used to deliver insights for concept testing, creative research, and UX testing. He's a leading expert on culture, human resources, and talent, and also the author, of the new employee contract, how to find, keep, and elevate Gen z talent. It's something we're all trying to figure out how to do right now. So welcome, Anthony, and welcome to VibeCheck. Great to have you.
Mr. Onesto: Oh, thank you very much, Brett. Good to be here.
Brett: Suzy, as, you know, a big growing company ranked one of the best places to work by Forbes and what are the elements of the people experience that you think makes Suzy such a great place to work?
Mr. Onesto: It's pretty remarkable that we're able to win these awards, and it's very much a focus on a couple of different factors. So one is the central point of our employee experience has always been our leaders and really focusing on the leaders in terms of that experience and in giving them the tools and things that they need to succeed. We listen a lot to our employees. We survey our employees every 2 weeks. I know it sounds daunting for some folks who do it maybe yearly or every 6 months, but we survey our employees every 2 weeks to get a real time feel of how we're doing, and we do it across 4 different pillars. And I think those 2 things and then focusing lastly on the career growth of our employees, making sure that our leaders are checking in with them on a weekly basis, on a quarterly basis to discuss their careers. I think, you know, those elements plus of getting all this stuff right, as I call, the plumbing and electricity of HR. So payroll and all sort of stuff. You have to do those things really, really well because the other stuff doesn't matter if your paycheck is wrong or you're not paid correctly, or you don't have the right benefit. So all of that is underlining some of the major strategies that we have at Suzy and now….
Brett: Solid fundamentals. I'm really you know, I teach data analytics at Columbia Business School, and so I'm very interested in just how metrics are applied to different fields. And so consumer insights as a business sounds like you're applying that craft to your employee happiness and well-being. So I would love to understand a bit more about that survey that you're running, what are those pillars? And what are the metrics that you use to measure them?
Mr. Onesto: Sure. So hopefully, one day you can teach me a bit about data since you're doing that at Columbia because I think I fell asleep in stats class, by the way, in high school. So maybe you'll send me a refresher.
Brett: Trying to get refresh.
Mr. Onesto: Yeah. Exactly. With that said, yeah, we partnered with the company right before COVID hit, which we were lucky because the world constantly changed every week. We originally started out pulsing our employees or surveying them weekly, and then we moved it to 2 weeks, but we did that for quite a while, and we did it across 4 different pillars. One was engagement. Your normal kind of NPS 0 to 10. How are we doing? Would you recommend Suzy as a place to work? And then within that pillar of engagement, there are a bunch of different drivers. I mean, you can, you know, you talk about being a data person you could totally, and I mean this with sincerity, geek out on all the data that we're able to get on the quant side, the quantitative side of our employee survey. So engagement is one. Diversity and inclusion is the second one. Health and well-being is the third pillar and the fourth pillar is what we call transformation and change, that's one of the newer ones. The top 3 engagement, well-being or health and well-being and diversity and inclusion, those are always in the platform. They just added transformation and change, which I think is really, really pivotal one being a young growing startup that we're not always thinking about how transformation and change is impacting our employees and how important that is to the employee experience. And each one of those has main drivers within those pillars. And then in some cases, depending, like engagement has the most. They have sub drivers and we're getting quantitative feedback on a regular basis of how our employees are thinking? How are they doing in our company? And then we also get what we say in the research space, the qualitative. So they're putting in comments. Typically, you find the comments are in the negative or the bad scores, but we get an array of really great and constructive comments that gives us a really interesting story about how we're doing as a company. But more importantly, we've democratized all of this to our leaders. So traditionally in HR, particularly with metrics, they were always behind some sort of firewall. So HR only had the metrics, and maybe we'll let you see those metrics, maybe we won't, maybe there's some secret meetings about the metrics. I never wanted to run an HR team like that. I wanted to empower our leaders and give them the tools, and so this is you know, our tool, they log in, and they can see their scores, they can see their comments from their teams, and it's almost like Salesforce for a sales person. You're in there every day, and you're looking at your people scores. So it could get daunting because as you can imagine being a data person, you can really dive deep and get lost in this. But it's been really helpful for us.
Brett: And how long have you been doing this test? And I would be curious, you know, did you have data pre-COVID and then during COVID, I would be very interested to see how that changed?
Mr. Onesto: It's you know, from your perspective, from a data expert perspective, it's probably a month because we put the system in literally in February of 2020, and then March, you know, COVID.
Brett: Okay got it.
Mr. Onesto: Not substantial data to look at both. But, yeah, we do it every 2 weeks, and obviously, we're monitoring the score, right? But we're also watching trends. And one of the things that on the health and well-being side that we started seeing in both the quantitative piece to scoring, but also, you know, more importantly, in that case, the qualitative was burnout, right? We started seeing early on in 2020 that we started to then implement some programs around burnout. We actually had a mental health therapist come in, woman by the name of Minna B, who I found actually from First Round, their blog that I just loved her sort of premise. We had 4 sessions where she came in and really provided folks tools on how to manage their time, how to manage their burnout. So, you know, we took the information from the survey tool, and it actually manifested into a program, which we then looked at the data and saw the scores go up and the comments go down. So we said, All right, that was actually a really good program. And you can finally find the ROI to a degree, that these programs are having an impact in your company.
Brett: What were some of the tactics that she suggested and that you implemented that improved the health and well-being score?
Mr. Onesto: Especially around burnout, a lot of folks looked to the company, right? And that was a component of it, but really where she focused on and what I loved about the article I read in first round was her approach was, let me give you the tools. And so one whole session, there were 4 sessions, was around boundaries, right? You know, a lot of companies will say, okay, no emails after 7 or no emails on the weekend. So we looked at some of the tools that we had, and I think Slack at the time and Gmail had this send-later functionality. So we tried to train folks that, okay, we're not gonna stop you from working at 7PM. In fact, I think some of my best work is 7 or 08:00 at night, but I also know that doesn't mean my team needs to work. So now send later has become a huge functionality for a company. So it was taking the framework from a mental health therapist perspective of around boundaries, and then implementing that into our core systems and our culture to say, okay, we're not gonna stop you from working if you wanna work at 08:00, if you find that that job for you, and it's within your energy and how you work. But note that other folks aren't working, so use this send later functionality. Send it tomorrow at 09:00. You know, sometimes my team, they were like, oh, you're working last night because we all got emails at 09:00 in the morning, but it's sort of that kind of stuff, like, we love being a market research company. We love the science. We love the data and the frameworks. And then we also love the practical applications of these things, and that was one example of that.
Brett: I sometimes wonder, what if the future is actually more fluid? And, you know, work is with us wherever we go, and we kinda dip in and out of work as is convenient for us. What do you think of that stance in terms of, you know, what remote work ultimately looks like relative to a 9 to 5 office culture?
Mr. Onesto: Sure. Yeah. It's very interesting. I mean, especially some of the insights from my book. That's how Gen Z would like to operate as an employee. This is what seeing it in the research and the information I put out in the book. So I think it's already an element. There's challenges to that if you're in sort of a traditional space or industry. So our clients are 9 to 5. Right? Some of them obviously work in different hours. But for the majority, this construct that we've built as companies, this 9 to 5 construct, is still there. So from a customer perspective, our customer success folks need to be on during those times when our clients aren't on and off when they're when they're off. Right? So we kind of align it in that way. So in that role where you're maintaining a relationship that already exists, yes. I don't know how much change there might be some where you're working on heads downward but you're available 9 to 5. So I think there's definitely some absolute fluidity in there. But I think from an HR perspective or an engineer, absolutely and I think we already see elements of that in our jobs, right? Some of the best engineers that I've worked with figured out the code at 2 AM, and we would never say, hey, go work at 2 AM, but that's how they like to operate. That was where, you know, they were in if you get the reference, the Michael Jordan [indiscernible] [00:10:16], right? They were in their flow at 2AM, where if I said, no, you have to work 9 to 5, maybe they wouldn't have figured that out. So I think you're absolutely right. It depends on how we work and what our jobs are, and, you know, maybe it's better, you know, sort of having some sort of timing mechanism to when you're all working because that's the way that works, right? And we've seen some challenges. I've worked in some overseas companies that, you know, have elements seas in India, and it was a challenge because of the time zones and handing things off and getting those back. I think it's an element of things that we're already doing.
Brett: What you're talking about is, like, for some jobs, synchronization is more important than others. And maybe certain functions require different amounts of synchronization. You know, if you're a product manager, you're the nexus of a lot of decisions, whereas if you're an IC engineer, you know, you can probably take tasks off and do them yourselves, and you can do most of that asynchronously. And if the solution is okay actually the future of work is not one size fits all in terms of working style and civilization. How as an employer do you now personalize instead of having, okay, we have a 9 to 5 office culture and everyone shows up at the same time and leaves at the same time. If we're moving from that toward, everyone works in a way that best suits them, how do you provide that level of personalization as an employer?
Mr. Onesto: You know, we're pondering these questions more around the subtasks of Office or Hybrid or something like that. If we take it at a higher level, I think that's the question, that's the future of work in HR, is that personalization. How do you do that? Like, how do you create an element of personalization? How do you build in intentionality where, you know, at a company level, yes, our normal hours can be random based on what job you're doing, but every Thursday at 04:00, we're gonna have an all hands meeting and hopefully, you know, a global organization that time works and let's say if you're global, you're gonna change that around a little bit, but there's going to be rituals if you will, that the company is going to have to continue to build that culture, right, to communicate to the employees, build that transparency. So you're gonna some of that. Now that sounds a bit, you know, self-serving for where I am today, but that could be in a Kumospace, right? Like, you could bring your entire employee population once a week or every week to into your Kumospace for a gathering, especially if you're remote. So there's gonna be rituals at a higher company level that will exist. And then I think it's gonna get very customized, and this is some of the things we're exploring. Here at Suzy using our own platform is understanding what are the important triggers for employees based on their personas, based on elements and marketing has been doing this for, you know, a decade or so, where they can figure out, okay, Anthony Onesto is, you know, he's in this demographic and he likes all these sort of things, and so we're gonna serve him up ads based on this this or that. Imagine that's now your human resources or your employee experience, where the minute you come in, I can almost guess to a certain degree your persona, and your persona is, okay, you're a dad, you have 3 kids, so benefits are super important to you. So I'm gonna deliver communications to you on a regular basis around our benefits. How can you take advantage of them? Where maybe if you're a younger employee or a different persona, you're interested more in learning and development. So I'm gonna deliver more learning and development content to you whether it's email or Slack or wherever it is. So really, I you know, we've been talking about this forever in HR, which is customized HR. How do I create a different experience, so people can feel that personalization? We're actually working with a communication tool out of Australia, which is a startup, to help us really. We're not at that persona level just yet. We're still studying that, but we're figuring out, okay, how do we deliver personalized communications to folks on different tentpole events and things of that nature.
Brett: You talked a lot about ritual, which is something I'm very interested in. What's an example of one at Suzy, you know, a ritual that you use to bring everyone together and in particular, you know, how have you brought that into a remote world?
Mr. Onesto: There's nothing innovative in an Elon Musk kind of way here. We took the all hands virtually. And instead of where we would do it maybe once a quarter or twice a year, we went to I think originally, again, like the survey, we went weekly. And that was on the pandemic, because we were originally in an office, and we went completely dispersed, like everyone else did in COVID, and we stayed that way up until today. We have it on Wednesday, every other Wednesday. What we do is we have business ritual, and then we have like a fun experience. You know, we had Harry Mack, if you know Harry Mack, look him up on YouTube. He's a freestyle rapper. He came in and actually entertained our company for an hour, and he actually created a Suzy song. So we do that kind of stuff. And the great thing that we do, I think, personally is that we change it up, and that's what we've done, particularly in our all hands, and that has become a ritual for us. Now there are what I'll call tentacles to that, and we tried a lot of things. We tried Zoom exercises. That didn't work. Like, it was started out with 20 people, then it was 10, then it was 5, then I literally I think it was me and the trainer. That didn't work. So we pulled that back. But that's as Amazon calls it a 2 door decision, we can go in the door, come back out, right? If we removed it, it didn't make much of an impact and it wasn't working. So it's that kind of stuff. But once you land on something, continue to do it. People liked the ritual. They liked the consistency, and that was important to us.
Brett: So, I mean, you touched on a couple interesting things there. One is, like, this idea of engaging people remotely.
Mr. Onesto: Right.
Brett: You're doing, like, programming and trying to provide that virtually. And it sounds like you had to experiment with a number of different types of content to figure out, you know, what worked? Why do you think one worked and the other didn't? And, you know, what are sort of some of your guidelines for, like, the right type of content for remote and virtual teams?
Mr. Onesto: You know, at this point, it's I don't know, like you'd never know what's gonna work some things hit and you're surprised. I think education is always good because we've locked these times in people's calendars for the year, that it's an opportunity for them to up away, you know, we can have a whole session on learning and development and why people aren't jumping into, you know, people are on a computer all day. They don't wanna be on a computer again taking a training session. So the education elements, I think it's introducing new ideas. And we brought in a company called The Energy Project, which talked about literally energy like how do you manage your own energy. So I think we're introducing new concepts to folks. I think like I said, the framework of science, data, and then practicality is a key thing, especially when we're doing education. When you're bringing in a new idea, people wanna know what's the science behind it? Is it proven? What's the data? And then, you know, how do I then apply this immediately into my day-to-day? And then there's just fun stuff, like the rapper. Who knew? Like, I didn't and people loved Harry Mack and the entertainment. So you give people an opportunity an hour of their day to be entertained, that's another. We had someone do a Valentine's Day. She sang over Zoom, and that was wildly popular. So I had no idea that those things were gonna be great, and people would love to have some of those elements in what we were doing. I think what has worked is this idea of empathy. Like, they're storytellers. So one, you know, last year, we also had an artist that did our Zoom backgrounds. It's I think the rich content, I think it's its new content, but then thinking about it not only as a Zoom session or wherever it is, but how does that then trickle out into the organization in a unique way. That seems to work really well for us.
Brett: You know, how do you think about individual team members bringing their self-expression in a world that feels like sometimes we're just, like, increasingly trying to commoditize people. You get work done, right? You just got Slack beeping at you all day and, you know, 20 Zoom calls, like, what opportunities do you provide for employees to kind of show themselves off in your remote workforce?
Mr. Onesto: What we started to do at the very beginning of our All Hands is have our executive team report out what was happening and then what we decided to do is instead of them being the front of their departments, we started having more junior employees present projects and present the work that they were doing in these All Hands. Because again, what I found challenging was creating another thing for people to go to, but if there was something already built into their calendars like this All Hands, that was the opportunity, right? Instead of adding a new thing onto their calendars, so we actually started having people present and show the work that they were doing, right, how it was impacting Suzy always tying it to our purpose and our mission. And that was really successful because a lot of folks would then, you know, they presented themselves. These are folks that, especially as we grew, we became detached to because there were degrees of connection, where we were 30 employees, we knew everyone. Now, it's, you know, 280, almost 300 employees, it's hard to know everyone. So you get to meet these folks. So our leaders are then also training them like, hey, you have to present to the team, or the company, this is a perfect opportunity for your own brand, for your own creative, for the company to introduce you to. So that's one way we did it. We also have ERG's employee resource groups, where folks can join, those folks, those employee resource groups are managing the temple events for that celebration. So our Latinx ERG is doing all the programming for the All Hands that we're having on the 21st, and other things. So they can bring their true selves. Right? Like they're professing and educating our company about their experience as a Latinx employee, they're now teaching and bringing their full selves, and we're giving them that permission. We're saying, no, like, we want you to tell us what it's like to be a Latinx employee in a tech company. Right? What are the struggles that you're having? And, you know, some of them don't, obviously, some of them are more reserved. But it gives people the opportunity. So it's trying to figure out how to build these things into our workflows already, and then of course we have the virtual kitchen. It's essentially a Zoom. It's an open Zoom that anyone can join on Tuesday at lunch and in some cases, the virtual kitchen is literally just that. You have your lunch and you're just sort of hanging out, and then we saw that and said, okay, people are coming there just to connect. What if we make that an education opportunity? What if we start you know, our CEO will pop in for an Ask Me Anything session. We'll announce it. It's not a surprise pop in because we want people to go there. But he'll jump in and just sort of have casual conversations. We'll have lunch and learn. So yoga instructor, we're gonna do a cooking class on Latinx food, you know, in the next couple of weeks. So it allows employees, and then we have our, you know, our Slack channels. We have, you know, Suzy parents, Suzy pets all these sort of things that allow people to connect that work with home. And so we have our announced channel, which is strictly just out, you know, that messaging going out from the company, but we have Suzy at home in Slack where we ask like, hey, what'd you do? But during the weekend on a Monday, we send out an automated message that goes out. We know parents are sending kids, and everyone loves the kids going back to work pictures. So we you know, like, hey, share your kids going back to school pictures, so we try to do that kind of stuff. So really trying to build that personalization like, oh, that person is not just a Slack you know, or an email that's an actual person behind them.
Brett: I wanna double click on something you mentioned, you said, you know, you went from 30 to 300 employees. Sounds like a lot of that growth happened during the pandemic. What was it like scaling remotely? What were some of the challenges that you faced and how did you overcome them?
Mr. Onesto: Yeah. I mean, that a majority of if not all of it was during COVID in terms of our growth and prior to it, I had no gray hair, so that just gives you an indication of how difficult it was now, I'm kidding.
Brett: It is like salt and pepper. It's salt and pepper. So you're okay.
Mr. Onesto: It was it was all brown before we scaled. No, a kid. But, yeah, I mean, we had challenges like everyone else. We decided very quickly to go fully dispersed, which for me, I've been professing for quite a while as a talent advantage. Now, when everyone does it, you're no longer advantaged to a certain degree, but my philosophy from an HR perspective has always been talent from anywhere, that talent can be anywhere you're we're really missing out if we just hire people in New York or on the West Coast there's a bunch of talent in middle of the country in certain areas. So it allowed us to really scale a lot quicker because we can hire from anywhere and we were aggressive, like, were very aggressive in terms of our approach, in terms of compensation, we looked at market data. We're always paying better than market, so we really took you know, we knew talent was extremely important for us over the next 2 years from 2020, but we also took advantage of like, hey, we're gonna work from anywhere. And if we found great talent, we'd open up, you know, a Suzy employment operation in that state so we can employ that individual. So it was very aggressive, but then onboarding folks, again, you had to be very intentional, so we actually had to script out every onboarding experience virtually now. So everything that we had to do was scripted and intentional. Where before, maybe there were some accidental serendipity, you know, you bring folks together, it had to be intentional, and so we control the entire calendar of our new employees for the first 2 weeks. You know, every step is calibrated, so diving deep into that, they're having live sessions with everyone in their first week. So they're meeting with me, where we talk about our admission, vision, and values. They're meeting with department heads, they're live sessions, and they're all in cohorts. So we hire every 2 weeks, and we hire cohorts of folks. So we never wanna onboard just one individual. It has to be a minimum of 2. So they have a buddy, but we also have a culture. We have a group called the Culture Crew, which is ambassadors from every department that help us with cultural events, give us ideas. They're kind of our own small little focus group, but part of their remit is also being culture buddies to new hires. So every new hire has a culture buddy that they get assigned to, and that culture buddy checks in with them, you know, live. We have a phone call on their calendar with their culture buddy. Again, everything is very intentional and programmed into their first 2 weeks. Then we introduce them to the company on Slack, we share a picture, we ask them, we don't want a headshot. Give us a fun picture, obviously appropriate picture, but fun one that gives us your personality, infusing laughter, always super in humor is important for us. We asked them questions about, you know, what do they wanna be when they were a kid, gives us a sort of understanding of who this individual is, and then during the All Hands, which line up to our onboarding sessions, we introduce them to the company, and they just say, hello. You know, nothing scripted, but everything is intentional. Like, everything is built into their onboarding experience and I think we've been fairly successful. You know, the other pieces we have as part of our even though we're completely dispersed, we have WeWork all access passes, so we bring people together in different regions via that, where they can go into some of the WeWork community spaces, and connect with each other, and we started seeing opportunities to do what we call Suzy Days in WeWorks, where we say, okay, next Thursday, in this WeWork, you know, we're gonna provide lunch, and it creates for those people that want that connection, it creates an opportunity for them to get together, and those have been really, really successful for us.
Brett: You know, I'm asking a tough question, which is like, you know, what's a problem created by remote work that you're still working on?
Mr. Onesto: All of it. All of it. You know, it's the greatest social experiment ever created. Right? Like, for us, the one challenge was not understanding the various personas we had within our organization, so we always knew because we had Suzy parents that we had employees with kids, but what we never realized was the caretaker status, like, if you were taking care of an older parent or a sibling, whatever it was, and then the loaners, like the employees that lived in a Manhattan apartment by themselves 24/7, like we realized that the office was an opportunity for them to get out of that space to socialize, like that was their only option, and it was something we didn't realize until we did. And then we started within our survey tool asking folks, so we created an attribute called caregiver or, you know, status at home, and we started looking at the data of these folks, and we saw that the engagement scores of the folks that actually caregivers scored higher on both sides, whether it was a parent or a kid, but the folks that didn't have that that lived alone scored lower, right? So for us, it's like it's the challenge of balancing those 2 worlds of saying, okay, we're completely dispersed, and we have to make sure that we're thinking of the company in that way, but also how do we bring people together? So I think hybrid, which is what everyone's challenge with right now is gonna be a continuing challenge for us. Like, how do we build an environment where people we're calling them launch pads. So come into our, you know, WeWork space and hang out with folks, but there's gonna be no mandates on what days and, you know, like use the office as a tool if you wanna come in. I think that's gonna be a challenge. It's a challenge today. Thinking through all the different aspects of that, and I think it's gonna be a challenge moving forward for us. And one of the challenges that's always in existence in HR is you try to create customized experiences. You don't wanna be exclusionary in some cases, right? You don't wanna assume that parents don't necessarily wanna come in, right? So you try to create these environments where it's like, okay, I'm gonna give you the option. It's gonna be up to you to make that decision, but we're gonna give you the tool, like we do. Like, if we didn't have Slack or we didn't have Gmail, we couldn't operate. Same thing for an office. We're gonna think of that as a tool. Here's another tool. If you wanna use it, great. If you don't need it, great, but we're gonna give you an option to use it. And that's how we're thinking about it versus where we're seeing a trend now, which is like, no, come back to work. Come back 5 days a week. It's an old world construct that we're not interested in. We're trying to really figure out, okay, what is, like, the office is a tool now? How are people gonna use it? And then just watch, you know, how people behave and make decisions after that. But like I think in HR, one of the things that I loved is this concept of think like a scientist, right? So let's put a thesis together. I think people are gonna do x when we do y, and then experiment. If your thesis is right, great. If your thesis is wrong, maybe that's good too, but then you double down on that. I think most HR folks are afraid to experiment on these things, and I think you have to experiment.
Brett: Yeah. Sounds like your space as a chief people officer got a lot more dynamic recently, a lot more options. Well, Anthony, thank you so much for taking the time and jamming with us today, and looking forward to checking out your book.
Mr. Onesto: Sure. Thank you, Brett.