On this episode of the Design Mind frogcast, we’re joined by Asja Simunovic, Senior HR Business Partner, frog Europe. She’s here to share how human-centered methods improve employee experience, especially in uncertain times.
Human Resources has an important role to play in designing a quality employee experience for an organization. It takes empathy, active listening and deeper conversations, especially during uncertain times. For the Design Mind frogcast, Asja shares how she keeps being human at the center of everything that she does. Listen to the podcast episode and find transcripts below. You can also find the episode on Apple Podcasts, Spotify and most other podcast players.
I was watching something, I can’t even remember which TV show it was. I was watching some TV show where someone had to go to HR, and just the way that it was represented…I was like, “No, that’s not me!” Where it’s represented as this sort of uptight part of the organization that follows these rigid rules and processes. This idea of something going in your file, like, I find that so 1984, you know? I don’t have a file on people and mark their moods or their struggles or whatever. It really is about the human being in that process.
I think people, probably from TV tropes or whatever, have this impression that you take something to HR and all of a sudden blows up. In reality, I think most of my role where somebody does bring a problem to me is finding the solution with the people. So, nudging people to go talk to their manager, nudging people to go talk to somebody else in the organization who can help them. And at the same time, saying, if you like, I can support that conversation. I can come along with you, or I can give you some tips on what to say.
I’ve had to remind people that you don’t have to go to HR only when you have a big topic, like a real ‘make or break’ moment in your career. You can come and just have a chat. You can come to me and shoot the breeze or say, “Hey, I’m not feeling great. I would love to just sit down and chat for a little bit.” There is this perception of sort of standoffishness of the ivory tower that I think is not helpful for organizations or their people.
When you have larger organizations, you need to have processes that you can follow, because otherwise, you’re just going to be overwhelmed reinventing the wheel for everyone. But there are small touches along the way, there are personal conversations that you can have that make those processes feel more human.
On the History of HR
HR really started as a controlling function. The roots of the discipline of HR are in the Industrial Revolution where there was a need suddenly to control these masses of workers who were almost part of the machines that they were serving. It evolved over time, so it became more about welfare or negotiations with trade unions, making sure that the factories and these places of work were being fed with the resources—hence the name—that they needed to keep going.
The HR business partner should really be held accountable for how well a business can achieve its strategy through being really great at the people practices that get it there. So you have one eye on what’s happening right now and assessing “Where can we do better?” But also an eye on the future. So if this is the future that we want for tomorrow, what do we need to do to get ourselves there?
With HR in Europe, we work across a span of different countries. So we work with France and Spain, and Sweden, and Germany, and Great Britain and Italy. And everyone brings their own cultural context to the table. So you also have to understand the background of the person that I’m talking to to get that context. And then you’re kind of Google Translate-ing that back into your own context. So for me as an Australian, I’m straight to the point I want to get things done and I’m hands-on, tinker-y, maker-y and very practical. And what I’ve learned through my time in this role is that you have to remove yourself from that conversation a little bit and remove your interpretation of what’s happening. And just listen, like really actively listen. And in that moment, accept everything. So be really open to what that other person is saying, kind of like we do in design research. When we go out into the field, we don’t judge the conversation when we’re having it. We’re just having that conversation.
There’s an old Croatian saying, which was drummed into me when I was younger, but I didn’t really understand it for a long time. I’m going to try it, “Zlatna riječ i željezna vrata otvara.” And the saying is, “A golden word can open an iron gate.” It’s to be really careful about how you formulate what you say to people, not in a way to self-censor, but to think about “How can I message this the right way for this person to understand what I need from them right now and why it’s important?” And I think understanding that has been so helpful for me as a human being in my personal life, but also at work.
HR + EX (Employee Experience)
I think all of my role is entrenched in employee experience—understanding how people function within this organization and how they perceive the things that the organization is doing. Employee experience should be at the heart of HR all the time. But it’s something that we should also not just be talking about, but look at how we can influence it. So being able to do the small things that can change employees’ experience of their work, being able to remove hurdles along the way for them.
I think a lot of the time organizations say that employees are the differentiating factor, you know? Like, employees are the greatest asset that an organization has. And that’s a really nice thing to say. And it’s the right sentiment. But I think in the day-to-day, it sometimes gets lost among the bunch of other stuff that people have to do. And it’s the job of HR to keep that in focus.
When I first joined frog, I had lots of conversations with lots of different people. And one of the main things that I heard was a difference in experience depending on where somebody was maybe in their career, where they were geographically, who was their manager at that time, what kind of work they were on. There was a different experience in building their career. And different managers had different tools that they used, had different recommended reading for their folks.
So the Career Workbook is basically a guide, which should help lay out the foundations of your career at frog. The Career Workbook is something that sets out “What are the expectations of me working here?” That includes what we expect of all frogs—we call those core expectations—as well as what’s expected of you at your level, in your discipline and in our community. Then there’s also the more exploratory elements where there are questions to do with “What do you actually want to be doing?” These expectations are the guidelines, but there’s plenty of room to play within them. So, there’s also questions in there that seek to trigger some of these thoughts in people so that they can frame up their career at frog.
So understanding how to get to the next level at frog was sort of the starting point. But it very quickly expanded into understanding even my level in my options here, right now, not just in terms of how I get promoted to the next step. And so bringing together all of these different frameworks, all of these different tools that managers were using, into one cohesive workbook that shared a voice across these different topics, and also simplified some of the more complex stuff. And then it was really a matter of going through quite an iterative process. At one point, the Career Workbook was a poster. It was also a Miro Board. It was a Keynote presentation. It was something that was digital. And at the end of the day, we ended up with something that’s a physical workbook format that people can really put in front of themselves and their managers as they’re having these conversations.
There’s this overlap between what an organization does, what you want to do, and where the organization can enable you to do what you want to do. The overlap in those areas is also something that’s defined by the employee experience: the way the company really treats you, the way that you experience every day showing up to work. Understanding that journey, the key moments along it and how those can be influenced for the better, is really one of the key topics in terms of retention, in terms of engagement of people in the workplace. I think employee experience is at the core of everything really.
The Future of HR
I think to me, making your mark is having an impact and moving the needle for the people who I serve. And so HR serves, obviously, the employees on a day-to-day basis. But it also serves the leadership of the organization, of our region, also globally, in figuring out how to rise to the challenge of an unknown future really. I think all companies struggle with that. But it’s something where I think as HR we can have a real impact on the direction in which a company goes.
In terms of the future of HR, I mean, there’s the really obvious stuff. Technology is getting better. More and more of the administrative work goes to smart solutions. I mean, Employee Self-Service has been around for ages. But even things of medium complexity will start getting taken over by smarter systems. And some of the more specialized topics like mobility and transfers, legal, payroll, that is shifting towards the experts.
Organizations are capturing more and more data about their people, about their work, and how they work. And I think all of that will help HR to make better decisions. But at the end of the day, we are also going to be asked to interpret that data. I think what it will do is it will hopefully free all of HR up and give a little bit more time to the more strategic topics within our discipline.
HR in the New Normal
I mean, in one sense, working from home has really democratized people’s access to my time. The pandemic and working from home has meant that people feel like I’m more accessible, which is great. So I have a lot more interaction with a lot more people in our region, not just the leadership level. I think it has been difficult in this pandemic to find the right thing, to show appreciation for people working from home and all the different situations and permutations of that for different people.
So obviously, there’s people with children. So frog parents have a very different experience to our younger frogs. We have people who are caring not only for children, but maybe for other family members in their home. We have different living situations. I mean, just the fact in Europe that apartments are so much smaller and that we have been under so many strict lockdowns—it’s quite difficult to show solidarity in a meaningful way beyond words. And I think that’s been a real challenge that we’ve had to wrangle with in this last year.
In terms of helping people struggling with the situations that they’re currently in, I think it’s such an individual topic. We only see a small sliver of the lives of others. Whether we’re working in the studio, or even if we’re on calls working from home, you don’t really know what’s going on in the background for somebody else. I think the saying is, “Comparison is the thief of joy, right?” Where people compare like, Oh, well, So-and-So has two kids, and I only have one kid, so I shouldn’t be struggling that much. Or So-and-So lives by themselves And I live with two other people. So I don’t have a right to feel anxious. Comparing your situation right now to other people isn’t going to help make it any better.
It’s okay for things to feel horrible right now. And it’s okay for you to be fed up of everything and to feel whatever you’re feeling in this moment. There’s no right or wrong approach to the situation that we’re all in right now.
I think it’s important to find the connections with people and the right way to frame things up to understand “This is what I’m facing right now. These are the hours or the kind of work or the availability that I have,” or whatever those parameters are and talk about it. Of course, you don’t need to tell everybody your entire business. But even reminding people like, “Hey, I have to homeschool the kids on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday mornings, and I won’t be available until lunchtime”—setting out some parameters about how you can work in the situation that you’re in, offering that as a solution to your team, is really what’s going to drive the situation forward. It’s going to reduce that stress and that anxiety that you have right now. We all want to have an impact on the projects that we’re working on. But we also need to know how to communicate when we cross a certain line or when we reach a certain limit.
The Calming Power of Air Traffic Control
My favorite job, aside from this one here at frog, was when I actually worked at Sydney Airport. And one day, one day, I might go back to operations at an airport again. Anything to do with airplanes is my jam. I mean, I have airplane tracking apps, I listen into air traffic control when I want to relax. It’s just something that I’m really passionate about.
I like to listen to Shannon Control [Shanwick Oceanic Control] most because that manages the planes that are going across the Atlantic. So it’s kind of like the last sign-off that the planes do. They’re like, “Hey, we’re here, we’re going to this-and-this place, our next checkpoint is here-and-here.” And the air traffic controller goes, “Cool, that’s fine.” And they’re off on their way. It’s kind of like a feeling of being in a train station and hearing the announcements of different trains going different places. You can also imagine like, Oh, it’s going to this place. And oh, that’s really nice. Like, it’s just, I don’t know, somehow it triggers your imagination a little bit.
So I have this app as well, where if you see an airplane flying by, you can point your phone at it. And you can see like, where’s it come from? Where’s it going to? When I’m sitting on my balcony, I still see what aircraft are flying over. Like, for example, the Singapore Airlines from Charles de Gaulle to Singapore will be arriving there in 11 hours and 13 minutes. And he left 15 minutes ago. He’s a three-year old aircraft and he is currently flying at 37,000 feet just on the other side of Munich.
I mean, here we go for sort of tenuous connections. But really, that’s kind of what the Workbook is also trying to do. It’s trying to allow people to have a sense of control over their career, at least to have the tools with which they can navigate that sort of big unknown.
We want to sincerely thank Asja Simunovic, Senior HR Business Partner for frog Europe, for sharing her insights on designing employee experience. Subscribe to the Design Mind frogcast wherever you listen to podcasts, including Apple Podcasts and Spotify. And if you have any thoughts about the show, we’d love to hear from you. Reach out at email@example.com.