Interview with Eimear O'Donoghue, HR Director at NearFormPosted in : HR Interview Series on 18 June 2020
Name: Eimear O’Donoghue
Position & Organisation: HR Director, NearForm Ltd
Number of Employees: 150
Time in Post: 5 years
Previous Job: HR Manager, Telecommunications Software & Systems Group (TSSG)
Tell us about your business
With a highly skilled, globally dispersed team, NearForm develops software solutions that enables organisations across various industries and sectors to innovate and grow their business. Some of our clients include major media leaders like Condé Nast and The New York Times, technology giants like IBM and Microsoft, modern service providers like Uber and Telus and consumer retail companies like Net-a-Porter and Walmart.
At NearForm we have embedded the importance of a positive work-life balance into our culture from the beginning. Our founders resisted every recommendation to setup base in the US and committed to building a company that could work anywhere in the world. That decision positioned NearForm to work with any client, regardless of location, while ensuring NearFormers (as we refer to ourselves) can live where they want. A key benefit of being a remote-first company is that we can attract the best talent from around the world.
Give us an idea about your career
I have 25 years’ experience across a number of different industries with 10 years’ experience at executive management level. The last 15 years I’ve been working in the tech industry and I find it one of the most challenging, exciting and inspiring industries to be in.
I am heavily involved with the HR community and an active committee member of Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) Southeast having previously held the position of Chair.
I spent the first 6 years of my career working as a PA/Administrator whilst studying part-time. I then moved into Finance and Accounting and qualified as an Accounting Technician. I really enjoyed accounting but after spending 3 years in the industry I knew it wasn’t for me, I wanted to get more involved with people. It wasn’t until I joined TSSG in 2004 that I commenced my career in HR. I was with TSSG for 11 years and will be forever grateful for the opportunity and experience I gained. In 2015 I was approached by NearForm to work with them to establish a HR Function and help them scale the business. It was an exciting opportunity and over the last 5 years I have helped NearForm grow from 30 people (and not even a staff list!) to where we are today (150 people across 27 different countries). It’s been an amazing roller coaster and I’ve loved every minute of it!!
How does a company get remote-working right?
There’s no perfect way to run a remote company, but there are a few things you can do to build a vibrant and successful team. These top 5 tips come from my personal experience working with distributed teams at NearForm and insights from experts in distributed companies.
(1) TRUST is the key ingredient
I’ve had many conversations in the last few years with HR professionals interested in adapting the remote model but trust is nearly always the biggest issue and it’s usually the CEO or management that are dubious - if there’s no trust from the top down there’s no point.
In order for remote work to succeed, companies must judge people on output and trust that they’re doing their best work until proven otherwise.
By building a High-Trust Culture, people can stop asking “How do we know if they’re working” and focus on “How can we support them to be their best?”
(2) Remote-first mindset
The remote-first mindset assumes that the work team will be, first and foremost, a remote team, even if part of the team works from an office. Structuring a remote-first company rather than a remote-friendly prevents the rift that can form between remote and non-remote workers. This rift often happens in teams that are not fully distributed: where a company has a large head office and some team members work remotely from other cities or countries and are left out of things happening at head office.
NearForm head office is in Ireland and a handful of people use the office on an ad-hoc or more regular basis, but it doesn’t take away from the company’s remote culture. Even when people are in the office, everyone joins zoom meetings in various rooms so it still feels like a remote meeting.
(3) Facilitate communication
Facilitating communication is imperative for any company, but it’s paramount when you’re not working face-to-face. You need to pick the right tools for team communication and having the right infrastructure in place to support remote workers is critical. Some of the best tools and our favourites at NearForm are:
- Slack - team communication (must use real photos for profiles - no avatars)
- Zoom - video conferencing (camera always on)
- Github - software development
- Google Drive - file management
- Trello - project management
Maintaining open lines of communication is an essential way of building trust and critical to establishing and maintaining high levels of engagement e.g. daily stand-ups, regular 1:1s, brown bag sessions, regular company updates.
(4) Wellbeing and fostering meaningful connections
When managing a remote workforce, it's important to take every opportunity to create and foster real connections. Taking care of employees' well-being is important for all companies. For remote-first companies, it is even more important but also very challenging. People are not robots, they have emotional needs. It’s crucial to keep this in mind if you want to build a real team and not just a group of users on a slack channel.
It’s important that employees get to know each other beyond just work. Socialisation means increased morale and it’s essential to set up processes to ensure your employees keep in touch with each other e.g. virtual watercooler, interest groups on slack, virtual coffee morning, quizzes, hackathons and so on.
Actively engaging employees, asking how they are doing and providing the support they need is essential, for example, regular check-ins, Employee Assistance Programme (EAP), guest speakers, wellbeing initiatives and resources.
In order to keep the connection as strong as possible at NearForm we also host an annual company get-together aka NearFest (a “festival” for all NearFormers). Other smaller team meetups happen throughout the year so people get the opportunity to meet in person too.
(5) Don’t ignore the challenges of remote working
Of course, there is no perfect workplace and remote working is not without its challenges. It’s important to be aware of the challenges and tackle them head on to ensure your employees are supported.
According to Buffer (https://buffer.com/about), remote teammates feel that achieving a healthy work-life balance and feeling lonely are the biggest challenges of working remotely and this is pretty standard across all remote workers.
At NearForm we are always trying to improve the way we work. It’s important to understand the challenges people face by listening to your employees and working together to see how you can make things better.
Whether you’re running a company of 5 or 500, the above tips will help you build a strong, bonded remote team.
What benefit do NearFormers value most in your organisation?
Flexible working is the most valued benefit. NearForm is committed to promoting a work-life balance. The ability to balance these two worlds is key to feeling happier and more productive while at work. Saving time that would otherwise be spent on a long commute allows NearFormers to have a better work-life balance and adds hours back into their days.
Nobody is interested in ‘presenteeism’, as long as people get their work done they are trusted to manage their own time which works really well for family life too. NearFormers also love having the freedom to live and work from where they want!!
What’s your top office/business bugbear?
People who are quicker to point the blame at someone rather than help solve the issue in hand.
What keeps you going when things get tough?
Practicing resilience is key and not something you develop overnight. As you grow in your life and career you realise the importance of maintaining balance. Having a positive approach to work and outlook on life is important and I find yoga and mindfulness a great way to support that.
What is the best piece of business advice you have ever been given?
It’s ok to say ‘you don’t know’ - your willingness to admit when you don’t have all the answers is not a weakness, you simply can’t know everything!!
What is the biggest challenge you face in your role?
I think the biggest challenge facing everyone right now is Covid-19. We are lucky we are a remote-first company as it puts us in a much better position than other companies that had to make such a huge transition in a short space of time. However, this is not remote work as we know it and maintaining employee morale and helping them manage mounting levels of stress and anxiety is a challenge. Working from home with a spouse doing the same, while also trying to help kids with online classes, is a recipe for stress and mental exhaustion.
We have never experienced a situation like this, which means that there is no rule book, few lessons we can take from past experience, and no tried and tested plan of action. Through this trying time, all we can do is take steps to protect the employee experience by keeping the health and wellbeing of our employees at the heart of every decision we make through communication, clarity and support.
In your view, what is the impact of Covid-19 on HR and the future of work?
Covid-19 is becoming the accelerator for one of the greatest workplace transformations of our lifetime and the rapid changes taking place will be long-lasting for years to come.
The reality for many companies is that it is getting increasingly hard to find, hire and retain the right people in particular software developers. People are looking for more flexibility in their lives and are willing tochange jobs to improve their work/life balance.
Focusing on the return to work alone is not a viable option, HR need to be brave and challenging in designing the future of work, building on the lessons and practices their companies executed during the crisis. Companies face a choice between returning to a post-Covid world that is simply an enhanced version of yesterday or embracing change and building a future-proof company otherwise they take the risk of falling behind.
The future is exciting and the future of work is NOW!! I’m a firm believer that remote working is the way forward, it’s just a pity it took a pandemic for people to realise that it can work.
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