Hootsuite's chief people and diversity officer: 'The link between mental agility and culture'

All-inclusive trips to Bali? It's all in a day's work at Hootsuite

Hootsuite's chief people and diversity officer: 'The link between mental agility and culture'

With over 18 million users across the globe, Hootsuite is a leader in social media management. Supporting the likes of Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn and YouTube, the tech giant has gone from strength to strength throughout the pandemic – capitalizing on overnight digitization. Sitting at the organizational HR helm is Tara Ataya, Hootsuite’s chief people and diversity officer. HRD caught up with Ataya to discuss the importance of employee wellness, Owly Time, mental health budgets, and all-inclusive employee trips to Bali.

HR career beginnings

“My career has spanned several different industries – but in an HR function primarily,” Ataya told HRD. “Originally, I went into the tech industry over a decade ago and never looked back. I love the change. I love the innovation that happens in this sector. As such, Hootsuite was a really natural fit for me. I actually joined at the beginning of 2020 – I was only in the office for about one week before everything locked down. You could say I was onboarded during the pandemic. I started at Hootsuite as the VP of people – and then was promoted to the chief people and diversity officer. You know, diversity had previously been added to the portfolio to really mark the commitment that the company has to diversity, equity, and inclusion. DEI is something I'm really passionate about — it's an incredibly important lens through which we do business.”

Read more: Stressed employees are costing employers billions

At Hootsuite, they’ve undergone something of an evolution. As is the nature of the tech industry, nothing stays the same for very long. This too applies to their culture mindset, which is centered around creating an environment where employees feel they belong. As Ataya revealed, she’s led the journey to redefine what it means to be a ‘healthy’ company in 2021. And, as it turns out, that began with focusing on the mental health of its people.

Incentives built into culture

"During the pandemic, we started providing Owly Quality Time where we log off for half-day Fridays in the summer months—Q1 in the Southern Hemisphere and Q3 in the Northern. This allows our people—our owls—to re-set and refresh. This summer we had 490 employees (45% of our employee base) book an additional half-day off to enjoy a full Friday off. One of the things we noticed during the pandemic was fewer people taking their vacation time. In order to really encourage employees to take time off while they're working from home, we started a contest. Basically, if employees use their vacation days and get their balance to five days or less by the end of the year, they're entered into a contest to win prizes. The top prize is an all-inclusive trip for two to Bali. The next one is a trip for two to Lisbon, and third is a trip for two to Las Vegas. There’s a number of different things they can win in there just to really encourage them to unplug and disconnect and look after themselves.”

Read more: How can HR help employees through stressful times

This novel way of encouraging employees to take their time off is just the ticket. Throughout the pandemic, people were working longer hours without taking their annual leave. In part, people felt that it wasn’t worth taking if they’d had to spend it in lockdowns – yet paradoxically it’s more important than ever. A recent global survey found that 42% of employees had experienced a decline in their mental health since the beginning of the pandemic – with more and more staff exhibiting signs of depression and anxiety. While employees might not feel like they need the time off, it’s overwhelmingly evident that they do. To combat the ongoing mental health crisis, Hootsuite is currently undergoing a global benefits review.

Budget breakdowns

“We've expanded our mental health benefits coverage by six times. We now provide 100% coverage on mental health-related treatments in North America - such as psychological treatment and psychiatric care. We really wanted our people to be able to visit the practitioners that align with their needs, without incurring adverse financial impacts. Financial health also ties into mental health - and it can be a huge stressor for people. We also revamped benefits plans to include speech and behavioural therapy, both for our employees and their dependents so that they can also take care of their kids. I want to encourage people to be consumers of their benefits – to not be afraid of taking advantage of what we’re offering.”

Hootsuite’s benefits budget is pretty impressive for a company with approximately 1,100 employees. The company increased their annual employee benefits spend by $1,655,842 from January to July of 2021 compared to the previous year.

"We believe financial health and mental health go hand in hand, so we’ve set audacious goals around retirement saving, and in 2021, Hootsuite rolled out 401K matching, RRSP matching, and various other regional programs in the countries where we operate."

“We also expanded our sick time during the pandemic,” added Ataya. “We wanted to ensure that employees took time to look after themselves. And this isn't just about being physically ill, this is also for their emotional needs. We had a number of employees who had family in places where they wanted to get on calls [with them] and try to work through some of the challenges they were presented with. They took this time to be able to reach out to their family members and talk through some of the things that they were going through.”

Throw out the rule book

Measuring the impact of these initiatives was tough going at first. How do you put a number on perfecting mental health?

“We’re a social first company,” Ataya told HRD. “We have a live out loud culture. Part of that is conducting regular pulse surveys to understand where our employees are and to meet them there. One of our guiding principles is around being flexible but also embracing the disruption. We know that what works today may not work tomorrow. As such, we need to make sure that we have an open dialogue with employees so that we can adapt, and test, and flex as needed.”

For HR leaders, it’s about understanding that no policy is written in stone. You have to be adaptable; you have to listen and react to your employees’ suggestions. If the pandemic taught us anything, it’s that innovation and flexibility is the key to survival. If you think your employee policies aren’t up to scratch, if your people are telling you there’s room for improvement, then don’t be afraid to make change. Throw out the entire HR policy book and start all over again if you have to.

“As we hear from people about what's working and what's not working, we also look at utilization numbers through our benefits providers,” added Ataya. “We assess our employee assistance program report that tells us the anonymous utilization numbers – essentially how many people are using our programs. At Hootsuite, our engagement scores are measured through a mini pulse survey we run internally every quarter. Right now, it's sitting at 81% engagement, which is remarkable! Culture Amp, the platform we use to monitor our employee experience says that 70% or above is a positive score. I think the important part of fostering a healthy culture is making it an ongoing conversation. It's not a one and done. Supporting mental health is a muscle—you have to constantly work at it in order to keep, maintain and build strength as a business.”

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