Humu’s Jessie Wisdom on Building More Equity, Flexibility and Experimentation into Work

Editor’s note: This interview is part of Building Brand Resilience, a new series examining the reputational issues facing high-growth tech companies and the strategies they’re using to navigate the new era of corporate accountability.

Every industry is grappling with what has become known as The Great Resignation. In July 2021 alone, four million Americans quit their jobs. Against this backdrop, leaders find themselves making tough decisions about when (or if) they should ask employees to return to the office. They also have to figure out what can make work meaningful when many employees have never met each other in person and how to foster an equitable hybrid workplace.

Humu Co-founder and Head of People Science Jessie Wisdom spends a lot of her time considering and researching all these issues. In 2017, Jessie created Humu along with fellow former Googlers Laszlo Bock and Wayne Crosby. The company sends nudges—short, personalized recommendations based on behavioral science— to help employees develop better habits at work. Jessie recently shared her thoughts with me on how leaders can create equitable flexible work policies and why in-person meetings still matter. What follows is an edited version of our conversation:

How are you thinking about hybrid work and the future role of the physical office at Humu?

Just like everyone else, we’re figuring it out as we go. First and foremost, we’re thinking about our employees’ safety. Another thing that’s important to us is optimizing for how people actually want to work. What’s best for one person’s productivity and well-being might be the opposite for someone else, so we’re considering how to be flexible for everyone. 

We’re also committed to an experimental mindset. Everything we try is an experiment; we’ll learn and ask for feedback and suggestions. We’re all in this together—it’s not just the leadership team making top-down decisions. We want to understand everyone’s experiences and adjust accordingly.

How can leaders develop an equitable return-to-office / flexible work policy that prioritizes employee performance and happiness?

First, leadership teams need to get clear about which outcomes matter to them.

Historical data is a great place to start understanding how to optimize for those outcomes. For example, if you have data on folks who worked remotely versus in the office before the pandemic, look at how those employees performed. Was one group promoted more than another?

If you see those kinds of patterns, ask why. Don’t assume that remote workers’ low performance ratings mean that they were all performing worse than their office peers. It might be that the raters favored people they saw in person more often. That’s the hard part—a lot of this comes down to human bias that we have to actively fight against.

One benefit of hybrid work is that it forces leaders to ask hard questions and be more intentional about their policies. Any company can start asking employees questions to inform those policies: What do they want, and why? What’s important to them? However, what executives perceive as important might be very different from what employees actually care about. If you’re a leader, don’t just ask questions—really listen to, acknowledge and act on the feedback you receive.

“If you’re a leader, don’t just ask questions—really listen to, acknowledge and act on the feedback you receive.”

What are the biggest traps leaders might fall into when developing these policies?

People don’t like uncertainty, but leaders don’t have crystal balls. It’s important that they acknowledge the uncertain state of the world and that this process will involve a lot of iteration. No one will come up with the perfect answer immediately. 

One big trap leaders could fall into is focusing on proxies for performance instead of outcomes. Policies should focus on specific outcomes like productivity, which includes not just pure output but also things like how well employees collaborate with their colleagues. Leaders shouldn’t put too much weight on things that may not matter—like employees’ locations—if they can do a good job of tracking and managing performance. 

Many executives have less direct connection with employees than before the pandemic. Is this an opportunity to rethink the old ways of doing things and form even stronger relationships?

There are many aspects of how we work that have been the same way for decades but don’t have much science or research behind them. The ‘water cooler effect’ is one example. There’s a belief that innovation comes from conversations at the water cooler, but there’s not much data to back it up. What does matter is forging relationships with people, and working in-person can help. 

When it’s safe, we should encourage people to get together a few times a year to forge relationships. That said, there are many ways to foster those relationships. Everyone doesn’t need to go into an office every day, but leaders do need to prioritize helping people to create and develop those connections.

“What does matter is forging relationships with people, and working in-person can help.”

Employees who started remote jobs during the pandemic report feeling isolated and disengaged. What will it take for companies to help staff overcome these emotions?

In addition to helping employees meet in person from time to time, a big opportunity to create connections is onboarding. The first impression really matters. If you come into a company where you’ve never met anyone and no one makes an effort to welcome you, that impression sticks. You’ve immediately gotten the feeling that a sense of belonging isn’t prioritized. 

At Humu, we’re very intentional about onboarding because we understand its importance. A lot of what we do is focused on enabling small moments of connection. We ensure that someone from every team across the company meets new people and that new hires have plenty of one-on-one meetings.

Do you believe a more distributed workforce will be a more equitable and inclusive one?

It depends on how leaders handle this shift. Some aspects of a more distributed workforce can make it more diverse. If companies can hire people from different locations with different backgrounds and experiences, that’s great for creativity, innovation and building products that appeal to more people. 

But there are also challenges. For example, how do people feel about speaking up on video calls versus in-person meetings? We don’t have a clear answer on that yet. There’s so much more to understand. Ultimately, it comes down to how intentional leaders are and how much they care about tracking trends and then iterating on their policies.

“The leaders who have handled this best are the empathetic ones—those who have tried to understand their employees and their concerns, and to work with them.”

What have you found most encouraging about corporate leaders’ responses to all the change and challenges of the last eighteen months? 

The leaders who have handled this best are the empathetic ones—those who have tried to understand their employees and their concerns, and to work with them.

Going forward, I want to make sure leaders don’t jump to the wrong conclusions from the data they’re gathering now. For example, if you observe that women at your company are more likely to say they want to work from home, ask why. Get curious about it. Try to find new ways to understand things, accommodate the needs of different people, and think hard about the potential unintended consequences of your policies.