How Top Leaders In People Ops Plan To Scale In 2021

Lo Kidd

December 24, 2020

Scaling from 10 to 100 is hard enough before you add a pandemic into the mix. But now, it feels downright impossible for some businesses. So we wanted to ask leading companies how they’re rallying their teams and plan to scale in 2021. 

And at Playbook 2020, the ultimate SMB virtual event, Trainual CEO Chris Ronzio sat down with 3 of today’s top people leaders (from Slack, Athletic Greens, and ClassPass) and asked exactly that. In the wide-spread conversation that followed, they hit on everything from scaling hiring to sourcing diverse talent to planning to grow.

Here’s the 2020 advice, by company, that really stuck with us:

👉 Catch all the Playbook 2020 convos! Register for the free replays now – we’ll send them right to your inbox.

Slack balances rapid growth with company culture

Dawn Sharifan has been leading people operations at Slack for more than 5 years. Unlike many other companies right now, she’s faced with rapid growth thanks to a global shift from office to remote. Since March, they’ve hired roughly 650 people – all hired sight unseen

So, here’s how Dawn is rapidly growing her team (without disrupting company culture)

1. Business plan before people plan

Dawn believes that business owners and leaders should use their business plan to inform their people plan – and never the other way around. 

“If the business plan is unclear, then the people plan can never quite gel around that,” Dawn explained. “And those 2 things really have to be in lockstep with not much sunlight between the 2 of them.” 

Once the business plan is locked and loaded, she suggests looking at the org chart every 6 months amid stable growth and every week amid hyper-growth.

2. Clear performance expectations make room for flexibility

Empathy and employee flexibility are top of mind right now. And while you want your people to take care of themselves, you want to make sure everyone is hitting their goals as well. 

Early in the pandemic, Slack was super flexible. But the longer it went on, the more permanent the changes felt. So, Slack has since set boundaries on flexibility. 

“We have a business to run. So we need to get really clear on performance expectations and how that looks different in a distributed world,” Dawn explained. “Then, employees can have flexibility as long as they’re meeting those pieces.” 

Meaning, set clear expectations and time commitments so your team can autonomously meet their goals. Then, give them the space to do that in whatever way they need – even if it means working weird hours. If work starts slipping, set harder boundaries.

3. Build a resilient organization to build a resilient culture

I think I speak for everyone when I say no one wants to feel uncomfortable. But we can’t avoid uncertainty amid uncertain times. We can, however, mentally prepare our teams for what’s to come. And according to Dawn, the best way to do this is with transparent communication. 

“When people know how long something is going to last – even if it’s unhappy – they can deal with it. If you tell someone we’re going to change the org chart every week between now and June of next year, then it’s like: okay – this is what we do on Thursdays.” 

And as a result, whatever comes – even worst-case scenarios – gets a little easier. And the company culture becomes resilient simply because you made whatever comes next a little more bearable.

4. Providing resources for balance

At the same time, owners and leaders need to recognize mental health and reward people with some time to hit pause. Dawn reminds us that Zoom fatigue is real. So Slack makes sure taking breaks is the norm.

“We do things in chunks and no longer than 90 minutes,” she told us.  “Then, we allow people to go do what they need to do and come back.” 

Slack also participates in “Friyays” once a month, where the entire company shuts off for the weekend. It’s a way to deter massive workloads when employees return on Monday. And it’s a way to say thank you for their teams’ commitment.

Athletic Greens focuses on their people

Nicole Caracci joined Athletic Greens 11 months ago as their Head of People & Talent but has worked in talent for 7 years. And while Athletic Greens has always been 100% remote, they’ve had to adapt to working alongside new co-workers (like family, kids, and pets). 

So, here are the 3 plays that her company is relying on this year to make it feel more “normal”:

1. Put Your People First

Your employees are the DNA of your business. That’s why Nicole is a huge advocate that people always come before processes. And,  according to her, this goes double during turbulent times.

“Your people are your most valuable resource. They’re going to get you from point A to point Z,” she told us. “And when there are hiccups and bumps along the way, you need to make sure you have the right number of people in the right seats and then take care of them.” 

So, rather than focusing on your next hire – whenever that might be – ask yourself how you can retain the whole company. AKA what can you do today that will make sure everyone you already hired sticks with you through this?

2. Source candidates who’ve been recently laid off

If you’re lucky enough to be ramping up your team right now, there’s a lot of great talent newly available. Nicole highly recommends sourcing your next hire from the recent lay-offs first. Because those are great candidates who need your help as much as you need theirs. 

“There are so many resources for people who have been recently laid off,” Nicole explained. “They have years of experience, but their company just couldn’t keep them on. Or maybe, they had to shut down entirely.” 

Here at Trainual, we hired a handful of product folks who were laid off in March. And we sourced almost all of them using internal recommendations and LinkedIn. 

3. Remote onboarding starts with training wheels

 Most companies are bringing on their newest hires remotely. But their onboarding process is built for in-person onboarding – which is a very different experience. 

So, make the necessary pivots to optimize your onboarding for remote. This doesn’t mean that you need to do a complete overhaul. 

Nicole suggests focusing on how the company works, at least for the first 3 days of training. “We need to teach them how we got here first. It’s like giving them the training wheels before we teach them to run.” 

For Athletic Greens, this means giving new hires Slack transcripts and call recordings. That way, they can understand how your business does what it does – in context. 

🔥 Trusted by thousands of growing small businesses, Trainual is the #1 tool for remote onboarding and training. Try for free.

For Trainual, this looks like a 4,300-square-foot facility in a centralized location. It’s spacious enough that 50% of our company can work there at a time without compromising social distancing. And it offers a retreat for team members struggling to work from home.

ClassPass focuses on moving forward

Hollen Spatz has been with ClassPass for nearly 5 years. And according to her, the pandemic has changed several aspects of their business. They’ve moved in-office teams to working remotely, and 95% of their gym partners had to shut down. 

So, here’s her insights for taking the punches and strategically moving forward:

1. Transparent communication is key

When things are ambiguous, leaders need to be transparent with their teams. Especially when it comes to how the future will look. It’s better to say you don’t know than to pretend like everything will be fine and give a false sense of confidence. 

“I always encourage our people to embrace ambiguity,” Hollen said. “There’s so much we don’t know. So being really honest and transparent while providing resources to our team as we shift and pivot has been a big focus.” 

When you communicate openly about what’s going on in your company, you open a pathway for employees to share their own concerns. That way, you can address them head-on – rather than retroactively.

2. Leading with empathy and encouragement

Career plans have changed for a lot of people this year, including Hollen. And leaders are the ones who should be empathizing with those shifts while helping people find the silver lining. 

“I think as leaders and managers, we can help [employees] understand how much they’re still learning and doing,” she told us. “Because as long as you’re learning, growing, and developing a new skill, that is progress – and that’s awesome.” 

Meaning, we can always help our teams feel good about the work they do. And help them look forward to the future.

3. Plan for things to break

The pandemic has changed how companies do business in so many ways. And it’ll probably continue to affect at least the next few years to come. Hollen suggests that leaders plan on the worse now. That way, they’re better prepared if and when it happens. 

“Plan for the things that are going to break and are going to cause big problems,” she explained. “If you’re going to move really quick in one department, and [something might accidentally] break and create a really terrible customer experience, figure it out now.”

As we enter 2021, constant change is the only constant we can bet on. And that’s why every one of these people leaders agrees: there will never be a better time to adapt quickly and prepare for whatever comes next. 

And Trainual, to no one’s surprise, uses our own app to keep our team aligned and accountable from anywhere. 

Become a better business leader in 5 minutes a week

Get all the news small business leaders need to know - straight to your inbox.

Related Stories

Make scaling your team easier

See why thousands of growing small businesses in 120+ countries trust Trainual to keep their teams aligned and accountable from anywhere.

Try for free Already a user? Sign in