Headstart’s transition to an outcome-focused culture put the team in a robust position for weathering the Covid-19 storm. While the business encountered bleak moments early on, Gareth worked hard to uphold the company’s principles of trust and transparency, and went to great lengths to protect employee wellbeing.
When former HR professional Gareth Jones took over as CEO of recruitment technology ‘scale-up’ Headstart two years ago, his priority was ensuring the organisation’s culture was the best it could be to face future challenges as a strong, united team.
Headstart’s transition to becoming a more people-centric organisation took place in the 18 months running up to the pandemic. Of course, Gareth didn’t know at the time that Covid-19 was looming on the horizon, but in many ways he helped the organisation prepare for the crisis by entirely reshaping its cultural DNA.
Prompting him to make this change was the desire to give his people the freedom to choose the ‘how, when and where’ of working – a liberty lacking in the majority of organisations today.
“We have talented adults in our business and as an ex-HR professional it always bothered me how most organisations hire talented people then treat them like children. This approach is the default in most organisations today but it is not only demotivational, but also chronically bad for business,” said Gareth.
Looking to move away from this outdated model of working, Gareth made the decision to stop the business from measuring inputs and start focusing on what matters most – outcomes.
Headstart’s core cultural themes
When examining the new culture that Gareth helped shape, four key themes emerge...
1. Outcomes focused
All employees at Headstart are required to deliver on their outcomes and meet their commitments to themselves first, their team next, and then the company. Unless employees are the best version of themselves, they can’t deliver to the team and the company.
Every employee at Headstart has the freedom to choose how and where they work. Employees create their own individual schedule that allows them to be their best self, to fit work around their own personal commitments and to ensure their wellbeing.
3. Remote working
Headstart became a fully remote business a year ahead of Covid-19 in April 2019. Employees can choose to work from anywhere, including another country if they wish. Hot desking space is also available in certain cities so that workers also have the ability to work together.
Gareth describes the business as an ‘open book’. All information about the company is shared with the workforce – from financing and investment decisions, to cashflow, and product and customer progress.
When Covid-19 arrived, remote working was not the biggest concern for the business...
While most organisations were grappling with the transition to remote working when Covid-19 hit, Headstart already had a robust remote structure in place.
A far bigger challenge was the economic impact of Covid-19 and the commercial challenges for the recruitment software sector. In such an uncertain climate, the organisation made the difficult decision to reduce its workforce by 30%. Gareth described this decision to make redundancies as the ‘toughest call’ he’s had to make in his life as a leader.
“I think it is fair to say that this was a low point in our business and culture. It took the wind out of our sails and for a period of around six weeks in the middle of lockdown people were feeling very low,” said Gareth.
Due to the sudden shift in market outlook, Gareth felt he had to make a very quick decision, meaning the announcement of redundancies came ‘out of the blue’ to many in the business. In an organisation that prides itself on transparency, this was a moment where trust in the company and its leader was undermined.
How did the company come back from this low moment?
Committed to creating opportunities for open feedback and conversation, Gareth decided to run an employee NPS feedback survey two weeks after announcing the redundancies, which all employees (including those being made redundant) could take part in anonymously. This was followed up by a meeting in June to discuss the results and any issues.
When reflecting on that period, one of Headstart’s employees acknowledges that it was a difficult time, but that the team was able to pull through:
It was challenging, particularly during Q2, that we had to say goodbye to some of our colleagues due to that shortage of opportunities and uncertainty for us. While I think no one can say there was a willingness to do such things, we had our opportunity to speak about what we felt and that was tremendously important. Q3 was a test of our resilience as a team. Can we still move forward, re-align, re-adjust despite everything that has been thrown at us? I believe we’ve past that, and the worst is gone.
Five months after the original survey in May, Gareth ran a second NPS feedback survey to check in with how his team were feeling and ensure any concerns had been adequately addressed. The results strongly suggest that things are on the up for Headstart and its people. Its NPS score has gone from six to 50 (above 50 is classed as excellent) and 85% of employees responded with ‘things are definitely better’ when asked to compare Q2 with Q3.
“We have consolidated around the remaining team and, again, due to maintaining the levels of transparency and trust in the business we are now in a much better place. I would go as far as to say our culture is the strongest it has ever been,” said Gareth.
The impact of Covid-19 on employee wellbeing at Headstart
Despite being a remote business, fatigue was felt by employees from being confined to their homes during lockdown and not having the opportunity to come together in person, to meet, chat and collaborate.
On top of this, some employees felt the impact of losing their colleagues, working at home with a partner and the pressures of homeschooling. Needless to say, this presented a significant risk to people’s wellbeing.
As part of Headstart’s ‘be your best self’ approach, the company introduced a new wellbeing initiative at the end of 2019. This involved employees having access to an app that prompts users to take part in a wellbeing questionnaire periodically. Based on the results of the survey, employees are provided with personalised content to support them with their wellbeing.
Additionally, individuals also have access to coaches and therapists as a confidential service that the company pays for. When Covid-19 arrived, there was a huge surge in uptake of the service by those who struggled with the lockdown and feelings of isolation. The programme gives each employee access to six free sessions, but several people have required more sessions and the company has also funded those. One employee who makes use of this service commented:
I have weekly appointments with my coach and it has been quite important for my mental health during the pandemic. Knowing that the company I’m working for supports my mental wellbeing, to me, is way more relevant when compared with other ‘vanity benefits’ that, so many times, we’re offered.
Great cultures are not defined by ‘happy clappy’ people
Covid-19 has brought with it many challenges for Headstart. Due to its robust culture, however, the team has been capable of pulling together to get through the tough times.
The evidence for this is shown in the financial performance of the business. The company has had its best year yet, and Gareth believes this is all down to his employees being committed to delivering results.
“Ultimately, people are less stressed, more focused and feel like they have better lives simply because they are in control. They make their work life choices. They are fully informed. They can challenge anything openly and without fear,” said Gareth.
“We are not perfect by any means, but great cultures are not purely defined by a collection of happy clappy people. Great cultures are open and allow conversation, feedback, challenge and review,” Gareth concludes.
What did our Culture Pioneers ambassadors think?
What struck our ambassadors when reviewing Gareth’s story was the fact that culture change had been spearheaded by the CEO and placed at the top of the agenda: “Culture change needs to be business focused and the fact that the CEO is championing it as a business priority is worth celebrating,” believes Laura Overton, Partner of Industry Insights at Tulser (formerly 70:20:10: Institute).
For Blaire Palmer, CEO of That People Thing, a defining moment was Gareth upholding his cultural beliefs for the business even during the bleakest of periods. “The willingness to get feedback from staff, including those being made redundant, during lockdown was brave and a good example of commitment to those core principles even when the results of that commitment are going to be uncomfortable”.
Gareth admits Headstart’s culture is not perfect and is something to continuously work on – and that’s what Gethin Nadin, one of the world’s Top 100 Employee Engagement Influencers, really resonated with. “Culture is like turning a juggernaut around sometimes and takes time, so it's refreshing to see the honesty a company is displaying in admitting this is a journey and they aren't quite there yet”.