Nicole leads Xero’s people experience function globally. As an established human resources leader, she has more than 20 years’ experience in human resources strategy development and execution, delivering value-adding organisational people solutions and transformational change programs. Nicole has worked across the financial services, technology and telecommunications industries for companies including AMP and Microsoft.

What does a better world of work look like to you?

To me, a better world of work hinges on organisations adopting a culture of “psychological safety.” 

COVID has blurred the lines between the professional and personal, and there is a collective push from professionals all over the world toward being acknowledged by their employers as humans with diverse interests and experiences outside of work. 

For over two years, weʼve been dealing with the impact that living through a pandemic, social justice turning points and other factors have on how employees approach work each day. Companies that are proactive - inviting discussion, initiating events and programs, and providing other support - will enable their teams to not only feel safe to talk about things that in the past were not common practice in the workplace but to feel encouraged and welcomed to speak up. 

At Xero, we try to create an environment where people can bring their whole selves to work through a strong culture of respect, trust, and openness where it's not risky to raise ideas and concerns - this is psychological safety. 

We encourage our employees to speak up. Thatʼs why, even as weʼve grown to approx. 5,000 team members around the world, we encourage our people to set up Slack channels to share their thoughts and feelings. When everyone went into lockdown, there was a group that were trying to balance working from home full time with young kids, so they created a group to support each other. Thereʼs a whole bunch of other examples, whether itʼs about the environment, or diversity, or Black Lives Matter. This is psychological safety in action. 

Encouraging healthy dialogue is so important to maintaining the #human culture Xero has had from its early days in New Zealand. It allows me and my fellow executives to keep a finger on the pulse of how our people are feeling, what theyʼre concerned about and what theyʼre excited about. 

What is your business doing to build a better world of work?

Xero is a values driven organisation and for as long as there have been hashtags, weʼve used “hashtag-human” as shorthand for Xeroʼs corporate ethos. 

Core to living our #human value is placing utmost importance on mental health and wellbeing by really focusing on kindness and empathy. 

When organisations talk about wellbeing in the workplace, it can sometimes centre on tokenistic gestures - think fruit bowls and yoga classes. At Xero, wellbeing is an operational function, a key part of how we do business. 

Even before 2020, Xero was known as a company that cared about employee wellbeing. 

COVID has taught us just how important it is to look after ourselves and our people - the past two years have led to even greater investment in our teams - ensuring they have the space, the environment and the PX [HR] initiatives in place to help them thrive in their roles. This is many different things to many different people - so we ensure we have leave entitlements, career opportunities, travel and innovative remote working policies that give people choice on how they like to work. 

We named our first Global Head of Wellbeing and relaunched our global wellbeing strategy with new programs and features. A few highlights include: 

  • Sick leave was replaced with “wellbeing leave” to recognise the importance of both physical and mental health and ensure that rest was not limited to sickness or injury. At Xero, if an employee feels that reporting to work isnʼt the right choice that day, they are empowered to make that choice and answer no questions about it.
  • We launched our redesigned flexible work program, giving our teams the opportunity to work where they perform best, at home, in the office or a mix of both.
  • Early in 2021 we awarded each employee $750 to spend on some aspect of their personal wellbeing.
  • We introduced a range of employee assistance programs tailored by geography with many available to
    family members.
  • Weʼre taking a fresh look at workflows and giving our people the freedom to improve their experience through something we call “Build Your Best Day.”
  • We also introduced “lifestyle leave” in 2019, allowing our people to purchase additional annual leave.
    We believe that when youʼre well, youʼre a better version of yourself. You have more energy, you feel good, you function well, and you interpret the world around you in a more positive light. If we can create more of this at scale, it benefits everyone.
    We want to create the conditions for our people to not only thrive as individuals, but enable Xero to sustainably perform into the future. This ripples out to our families, partners, communities, small businesses and society more broadly.

What are your predictions for how work will shift over the next few years?

The way we think about culture is shifting, the way we use our physical office space is one of the ways culture is changing but culture is not determined by office space. Weʼre moving away from a culture that is defined by the in-person, office culture, and research is showing that far from being negatively affected, productivity is actually increasing.

Itʼs time to move away from the perspective that culture and a physical office are the same thing.

Employees who were never motivated by Friday after-work drinks, pool tables and casual dress policies (and many that were) are embracing a global shift in company culture brought about by increased flexibility and choice in where and how they work. As we move towards a new way of working, work will be more remote, involve more geographical distance, and more technology for connection and communication. This move to remote working increasingly ignores prior limitations on where talent resides, opening up a wider talent pool - weʼre embracing this already at Xero, with our product and technology remote roles launch in August 2021. In this new work environment, communication is key in order to work effectively and keep employee engagement high.

What is the biggest challenge you see for companies who want to improve the experience of work?

The biggest challenge for companies is acknowledging that the world of work is changing and tackling that head on. More people want to work remotely and truly global collaboration has been made even more possible thanks to huge leaps in technology over the last two years. 

But as companies grow and hire more remote staff, there is a risk for over-reliance on technology and a detachment from the human aspect of work. At Xero, we use a lot of fantastic tools, but weʼre always striving to ensure we never lose the human touch that makes us so special. 

We are always conscious of not over-playing the role of tech. For example, we introduced Lever to help us analyze the thousands of CVs we get every month. It uses AI to help us screen as best we can, and move through the process quickly, but then weʼre also careful about getting in there from a human perspective as quickly as we can. 

We hire based on alignment with our values, which canʼt be determined by AI. 

What is one piece of advice you would share with businesses that are wanting to build a better world of work?

Employees are really in the driverʼs seat and are much more discerning about how, where and why they work. Their definition of a “good job” has been fundamentally altered. 

The key to embracing this new way of working is to invest in creating a culture of trust and open dialogue. 

At Xero, we place a huge emphasis on training our people leaders to be the best they can be to lead healthy, open teams. We work hard to ensure our leaders have the training and the tools to support our people. We place much focus on keeping the lines of communication open, on sharing key information and being transparent about decisions. Having a culture of regular check ins and a healthy approach to questions ensures workplace decisions are not made in a vacuum without explaining ʻwhyʼ for our decisions. 

Given the pace of growth we are experiencing at Xero the focus on people has never been questioned - it just makes very good business sense for us to keep our most valued assets, our people, at the centre of our efforts. Itʼs part of the DNA of the company and our #human value - and I canʼt see it ever changing. 

Is there an individual you admire who you believe is building a better world of work?

I follow Patrick Lencioniʼs work closely and draw great inspiration from his thoughts on building healthy teams. One of his core teachings is: the base of a strong team is trust and mutual respect. Being part of a healthy team is a big part of what makes work rewarding for people, so understanding what contributes to a positive team environment is essential to building a better work environment. 

Trust is hugely important to the culture weʼve fostered here at Xero and something we try to ingrain into the way we do things. Central to this, as Iʼve learnt from Patrick Lencioni, is learning to be comfortable and vulnerable with your colleagues around failures, weaknesses and even fears. 

A big part of this is being ok with saying “I donʼt know the answer” or “I made a mistake” - and hearing these kinds of statements filtering out from leadership level and beyond. 

Know of someone who's building a better world of work?

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