Joanna Kmiec Flexes the Elastic Path to Employee Experience

Jason McRobbie

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Since the pandemic, there has been a growing recognition of what HR has been espousing for some time—if you take care of your people, your people will take care of the business. We sit down with Joanna Kmiec, VP of People and Culture with Elastic Path, a composable, digital commerce solutions company, to discuss why any further evolution of the employee experience needs to be preceded by a shift in leadership mindset—grounded in trust, flexibility and a reciprocal commitment to communication.

Key Takeaways:

  • While flexible work options define the competitive talent marketplace, the true advantage is going to those leaders approaching the employee experience with a people-first mindset
  • Leaders need to evolve the skills to foster and build a culture of trust in order to empower and enable the full efficiencies and engagement in a remote/hybrid era;
  • People leaders need to be more intentional about fostering input and feedback in distributed settings and consistent in following up on the things that matter most to the employee experience.

As Joanna Kmiec, CHRL, VP of People and Culture with Elastic Path, summed it up for her own leadership team: “The skills that got us here today are not the skills that will get us there tomorrow.”

When the pandemic hit, the employee experience changed overnight and while flexibility in all things, ranging from benefits to work arrangements, continue to top the list of employee expectations, it is the shift to a people-first mindset that needs the most immediate attention.

“I don’t think everyone gets how important this last bit is yet,” said Joanna. “Organizations need to see the hard value of soft skills more widely and soon. That’s how they are going to attract top talent, grow high-performing teams and, ultimately, succeed. Without those skills and/or training, all those other things will suffer. For those who do this, it will be a game changer.”

These days, true people skills, emotional intelligence by any other name, is an area of expertise that no leader can afford to ignore—either in terms of opportunity or competition.

“How you motivate, drive for high performance, foster inclusion and ensure psychological safety—these are skills that not a lot of leaders had readily available to tap into when the pandemic hit, but they are even more critical now,” said Joanna. “It’s crazy that HR has been saying how important this is for so long, but this need is now coming front and centre with the rise of remote work and distributed teams, so businesses can’t hide from it anymore. That EQ needs to lead the way because as a people leader you are not just in front of people now—you’re trying to read and reach them on video.”

That virtual terroir of the new workplace—wherein, as with Elastic Path, employees may be remote, hybrid or on site at one of their hub offices in Vancouver, Toronto, Boston or London—has worked for many, Joanna noted, but it is the matter of choice that is key to the employee experience.

“Being remote is here to stay. At Elastic Path, we consider ourselves remote-first, but not remote-only and there is a key distinction there. We know we need to provide that flexibility, but people also want that connection and interaction for collaboration. That’s why we have our hub offices to let them strike the balance that is most productive,” said Joanna. “We’re not dictating what that looks like because it’s different for everyone.”

With over 20 years of HR experience, helping develop and evolve global teams across a variety of industries, Joanna has one question put to her more often than any other these days—‘How did you make it work?’

For starters, she adheres to a wisdom that was once cutting edge, but now mandatory across industries and businesses large and small.

“You can’t say your customers are your number one focus and your employees are your number one asset if you don’t treat your people like your customers,” said Joanna. “You’re not going to have a business.”

“At Elastic Path my role has been to elevate the purview of HR, people and culture—to show that progressive spin, but to also get people understanding the why. We’ve tried to be very transparent and true to the strategy of it around both our name and our values,” said Joanna. “We understand that everyone has a different journey or path, so we’re trying to offer people flexibility through what we call our ‘Elastic Approach’ in as many areas as possible.”

For Elastic Path that means living up to its name for its customers and employees alike.

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That ranges from aligning perks with purpose (an annual professional development stipend for each employee to spend as they feel best supports their development) to building upon beyond basic benefits (a similar annual health care allotment to be applied as best fits each employee’s lifestyle) to fostering responsive feedback in a workplace that could be anywhere.

For Joanna and progressive peers in the people-first economy, that flexibility keeps the heart of business healthy.

“In my opinion, things have vastly changed in the value of the employee experience.  There has been a material shift to an employee-centric focus from a company-centric focus. The impact of the employee experience is on all things now—on your brand, your ability to attract, retain and engage your employees— and is proving to be the differentiating factor in an organization’s success,” said Joanna. “It’s coming from all sides now. It’s no longer just HR that’s trying to get that people mindset in motion and having to prove the value. It is coming from everywhere and is no longer a nice-to-have—it is a must-have if you are going to be competitive.

That said, maintaining and growing the calibre of the employee experience in a “work as you wish” world, comes with caveats and tips for mitigating very real burnout and disengagement in a virtual world.”

“Making sure that people have the right tools to do their work as they wish is important, but more importantly, guidance on how and when to use those tools to be efficient and minimize burnout. We have a ‘Ways of Working’ team that created a communications charter that outlines best practices with Slack, Zoom, email, etcetera and training on how to work asynchronously to make it work for you and your teams.”

“We also make sure employees have opportunities to connect in person for collaboration and relationship building because while remote work is attractive to many, you can’t substitute the trust that is built and the energy that is present when you are in person and being part of something.”

“The other key thing is to ensure you are offering programs and benefits that are inclusive and create a fair opportunity for everyone regardless of whether they are remote, onsite or hybrid because if you are not allowing fair access to development and opportunities, people aren’t able to leverage the same experience.”

On the topic of benefits, Joanna reiterated the importance of keeping flexibility foremost in order to make the employee experience as individualized as possible.

Underlying those three points is perhaps the most fundamental reason for Elastic Path’s ‘flex’ appeal and at the core of any enduring employee experience—trust won by progressive leadership and active listening.

In that corner, having a CEO who not only shares Joanna’s commitment to the employee experience, but who actively leads from the front on an Annual Listening Tour, makes a world of difference.

“That sense of belonging, psychological safety, feelings of trust and empowerment: these are all required not just to survive, but to thrive. Leaders and direct managers have a massive role to play when it comes to the employee experience and it all loops back to those underlying factors,” said Joanna. “You can pay a great salary, but if the person doesn’t feel valued, safe or able to speak up and contribute, then over time that great salary won’t be enough to keep them engaged or retain them over the long term.”

That listening tour, however, is really the hallmark of an internal culture communications hinged on multiple doors of open opportunity for input—and rock solid follow up, which is key to the trust they have fostered and changes made.

“We also do shorter, quarterly pulse surveys focused on engagement to get certain metrics and then an annual, more extensive employee survey that touches on all areas of the experience from the perspective of the employee’s journey,” said Joanna. “We also have open Q&A at every all hands company meeting and anonymous ways to submit feedback and questions.”

Bearing in mind the need to overcome some employees’ cynicism around surveys, she drove home the importance of not only following up but following through. “You can collect all the data in the world, but if you don’t do anything with it, you not only lose the opportunity to improve the employee experience, you lose the trust of the employees who were open and honest with you,” said Joanna.

As a side note for those seeking to follow suit, Elastic Path compares its internal metrics with a similarly progressive tech organizations, making use of CultureAmp’s new tech metrics, and leverages the TAP survey too.

However, as Joanna has long realized, there is no substitute for asking a few good questions and building that foundation of trust.

Case in point, while matching progressive companies offering unlimited vacation time, Elastic Path took note that people weren’t taking advantage of that perk. So they asked why—and discovered it was for fear of being perceived as slacking off. Not only were assurances made to the contrary, a new unlimited vacation policy was put forward, with a new mandatory minimum.

Similarly, another key area flagged in surveys was compensation, but follow-up questions revealed it was not for want of money, but clarity. “When we dug a bit deeper it came down to pay transparency. So what we did was create a total rewards philosophy and shared how we create our ranges, what market and bands we use for comparison, and laid out how we do it for everyone,” said Joanna.

“We made a few simple shifts and changes to our sharing philosophy and our metrics sky rocketed because people simply wanted to be heard. We weren’t hiding anything and we showed them. We answered their why.”

As for the key questions themselves, here are a few tried and true:

What are we doing right and should never change and in what areas can we do better? What does that look like?

Do you feel supported in your role? Do you have the tools and resources to be effective and make an impact? If not, what would be helpful?

Do you feel you access to benefits and resources that support your overall wellbeing?

Do you feel you can be your authentic self at work?
This is absolutely key because if the answer is ‘no’ that psychological safety won’t be there and people will be spending so much energy trying to be something they are not and that will lead to burnout.”

If you were the CEO for a day, what decisions would you make to improve the business and what decisions would you make to improve the employee experience?
We’ve only recently started to ask this, but it is invaluable because it speaks to two different things that should fuel each other. The first gives very different insights about products, about support, about systems that could be improved. With that second part though, you remove that budgetary barrier and really let them dream without limits around the employee experience.”

What is the best part of working here?
We ask this last because this isn’t just a conversation about what is wrong.  It's a chance to let employees catch you doing something right. You really want to make sure you keep doing whatever that might be.”

“When you remove the perceived roadblocks, build that trust and really listen, the ideas that come out of that are amazing. You start to not only see patterns emerge, but you realize that you have missed something that a lot of employees put a good deal of importance on—and have the ability to change that for the better,” said Joanna.

“The key is to understand that we can’t assume we know what matters to people. We think we know what people want, but in reality, everyone is different.”