Nicole Roberts, vice president of people and culture at MVAH Partners, joined 3Sixty Insights for this episode of #HRTechChat. A member of the 3Sixty Insights Global Executive Advisory Council, Nicole started in her leadership role at MVAH a year ago, in March 2020 — just as the flurry of pandemic-related restrictions unfolded in the United States. The disruption profoundly affected the nature of her first several months on the job. On day one, for example, she took over internal employee communications. MVAH, a developer of affordable housing, has 7,000 units under its management across 15 states. The logistics around managing an already dispersed workforce suddenly under unprecedented, unique circumstances were significant and necessitated the expansion of her focus.
Amidst all this, Nicole and her team also put in the hard work to implement the following:
- Paycom for suite-wide human capital management
- Paycor as a point solution particularly well-suited for applicant tracking at a company the size of MVAH
- Paycor partner Spark Hire for video interviewing, which was essential to scale to hiring needs under impeded candidate mobility
Nicole sat down with us for a wide-ranging discussion — employer culture, the intrinsic drive most employees have to produce good work, her philosophy behind employee recognition, and more. Our conversation yielded several gems:
- The HR department should not be the high school principal’s office.
- For them to realize their potential on the job, staff need approachable leaders — mentors and coaches, not scolds and nags.
- Leaders in the organization set and influence employer culture.
- Technology isn’t just about efficiency. It’s also about communication.
- Regular communication between HR and all its organizational stakeholders is paramount to success.
- Effective technology can be the deciding factor in facilitating or impeding this communication.
- In other words, most organizations need strong leadership and strong technology for HCM (and communication) to be successful in perpetuating a strong, healthy employer culture
- Every customer interaction presents a microcosm of some expression of that employer culture.
- Organizations with positive, healthy employer cultures have positive, healthy interactions with customers.
By the way…
At the Spring HR Technology Conference, a virtual event, Nicole is on the hunt this week for information on the latest thinking in employee recognition and innovative vendors providing related technology.
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Brent Skinner 00:00
super excited to have with us today, Nicole Roberts, who is the vice president of people, people, I Mangle that the Vice President of people and culture and MVAH Partners, which is a they’re involved in, in affordable housing real estate across several states. And we’ve had a few really interesting conversations. Welcome, Nicole.
Nicole Roberts 00:28
Hi, thanks for inviting me to join you.
Brent Skinner 00:31
Yeah, yeah, absolutely. And, you know, we were talking recently around employer culture, I know that you’ve had a lot of success in just bolstering and really amplifying the platinum player culture MDH what are some of the ones some of the lessons of you that you’ve learned at your own company, and observing other companies around employment culture.
Nicole Roberts 00:58
So the biggest thing for me with regards to employer culture is just creating that safety, that safe space for people. So it there needs to be a psychological and otherwise safety for people that if you make a mistake, that you know who to reach out for, for help, and that you’re not, you know, looking to solve problems all on your own and in a vacuum and, and that there’s any kind of ramifications for reaching out for help. One of my biggest things is that HR is not the principal’s office. And that I always want to make sure that if somebody, you know, gets in a situation in over their head, that they look to me and my team, as being that place to reach out for help, like, Hey, I don’t I, I made this big mistake, and I don’t know what to do. And it’s not, I hope they don’t find out, it’s, I hope that, um, you know, I’m able to get ahold of them and to reach out to them. And I really need their help and their support. And that is just my overall point of view that we should be there for support and for guidance, that it’s, you know, not punitive. And you really have to have a culture that encourages that, you know, cross functional communication and support. And that if a mistake is made, that you are completely wrapped in support, and that you all work together, because that is the reputation of your brand, like it or not, not just a certain area of your business. And so overall, if your business is being represented in a certain way, you want to make sure that you work together and collaboratively to turn it around.
Brent Skinner 02:47
Yeah, every place that that a company interacts with its customers is a sort of a microcosm played out of that company’s employer culture. And it’s going to leave, you know, sort of a neutral taste or a positive taste or negative taste in the customers, you know, with the customer and, and you want it to be as positive as possible, right. And part of that is just like you said, employees feeling empowered by each other, not as if they’re going to get in trouble with leadership or something like that, when some Everybody makes mistakes, right. And it’s very important to know that when you make a mistake at work that that, that your employer trusts you, and has a confidence in you to learn from your mistakes and get better because nobody’s perfect or as great as they can potentially be. In their role when they start or ever even after they retire. There’s always room for improvement. That’s super interesting. And you know what the other thing that you said there that was super interesting to me, and I think is a great segue is around. You know, I love that saying the HR department is not the principal’s office, and we all know of it felt like to get called to the while some of us anyway, but it meant to be called to the principal’s office. I think it was called once I mostly not a Principal Office kind of kid in high school. But anyway, it’s a sinking feeling. in HR people go into HR, because they’re people not because they want to, you know, I don’t punish people. So maybe we could just talk about the evolution of your role as Vice President of people and culture. How did that come to be? And I know that you started there just at the outset of the of the whole pandemic thing, which is a year ago now.
Nicole Roberts 04:34
Yeah, so I’ve been here. It was actually a year, last Tuesday. So now it’s been a year in seven days. And I mean, brought into the role in recognition that with the growth that has been planned and that we’re thankfully on track for that we needed to have a dedicated senior resource that was experienced in building and developed developing teams. in assessing current infrastructure and systems and making recommendations, to make sure that we have systems and processes in place to support the growth, and to really focus on people and on communication and on really clarifying expectations, and making sure that targets were clear, and there wasn’t any kind of situation where somebody didn’t really know what it what it meant to be successful in their role that, you know, you would get to the end of the year, and maybe having a conversation with your manager, your supervisor, and they say, Oh, well, you know, that really wasn’t what I expected out of you. And for the person to be like, Well, I didn’t, I didn’t know what the expectation was, you know, I mean, that. That is that would be failure on the part of leadership and certainly on the part of HR. So it’s, it is definitely a focus to make sure that people have really clear expectations, because nobody wakes up every day, looking to not meet their expectations they want to perform, they want to do a good job, people are intrinsically motivated to want to do a good job. And at the point in time, that that breaks down and kind of like that spirit is broken on that person is when either they, they don’t honestly believe that they can succeed. And that’s either because they don’t quite understand the expectations or how to get there to to realize success. And so just making sure that those systems are in place, whether it’s a system of people, whether it’s a system that is technology, just making sure that people are set up for success.
Brent Skinner 06:50
How much how challenging is it? How tough Do you think it is? In general, right, on average, to get somebody back once they’ve, once they’ve crossed that Rubicon, from feeling intrinsically motivated to want to do their best, and then maybe getting a bit cynical or, or jaded because of whatever’s in place is not placing any blame on it. Sometimes it’s just the technology that’s it’s getting in, or the lack thereof is getting in the way, how tough is it to get somebody back from there.
Nicole Roberts 07:21
I mean, you have to start with what started it. I mean, because though those that disengagement doesn’t happen overnight, right, that disengagement will happen from a failed expectation and another failed expectation and another failed expectation, and it becomes a pattern, it’s similar to when you’re building trust with somebody, I mean, you start with saying you’re going to do something and doing it, that’s the very first building block of trust, and you just keep doing it. So when you get to a point where somebody is basically actively disengaged, because they don’t believe in either their ability to succeed, they don’t see their part in the organization and how they can help the organization to reach their goals. I mean, you have to understand if your job is to do this one little thing, and you can’t see how that impacts, basically, the greater good of the organization, then the organization needs to make sure that that’s more clear. And that you can see that direct line up. So for me, if I know that I need to failed to fail, you know, five open positions or whatever, I know that if I don’t fill those open positions, we have locations that don’t have community manager, or maybe a service technician that aren’t able to support our residents that then aren’t able to get us to our goal. If somebody else has another, you know, piece in the plan for the organization, they need to understand how that impacts so that that renewed sense of hope and determination, it is there and that they can continue to want to come in and do their best every day. And the biggest thing that I can say is when you feel like you’re in a situation where you’re kind of losing that that hope and that you’re not real sure, I mean, have a conversation with your manager, have a conversation with HR and just say, hey, I’ve kind of like lost my North Star. And I just I need to be more clear on how I can impact the organization. And maybe it’s even how I can impact this small piece that is part of a much larger one. But people need to understand their purpose. And they need to know that they’re making a difference because if you don’t make a difference, who cares if you’re there?
Brent Skinner 09:45
Right? That’s, that’s, that’s, that’s a great point. You mentioned having a conversation. I think this this this gets to this gets to some of the nuts and bolts of employee engagement. You know, we talked about Play engagement as this as this big sort of holistic thing. And it is right. And it really does plug directly sort of main lines into employer culture. But what are the sort of the, the, you know, the nuts and bolts of them of employee engagement, you know, is, is it? Is it one, you know, real heartfelt conversation or or, or profound or very important conversation? Or is it many, or is it? Or is it both like, and how does technology help with that.
Nicole Roberts 10:31
So, I think it’s a combination, right? I mean, it helps. For me, I am a diehard advocate of weekly one on ones with the manager and anybody on their team. And the reason why I am a die hard advocate of that is one, it allows you to really work in small in small amounts of time on that relationship building over time. And when times get tough, you need to double down on your one on ones, not abandon them. Because having that relationship is what’s going to get you through whatever you’re going through as an organization. Being able to also track that is very important. So I mean, if you’re using like, I use OneNote, actually, to track my time, and I just, you know, copy and paste one, one page to the next. And then I can look at what we covered previously. And if I have to have any follow up from that. I actually demo software yesterday, it was 15. Five, and they have a really cool aspect of their one on ones where there is a kind of a pulse check, first of all, and you can actually see that trend over time. So as somebody who was always saying there are four or five, and now they’re saying they’re a one or a two, you know, you can look at that from a very high level and say, Hey, you know, Did anything happen at any point in time with that person that would cause that kind of drop in engagement or cause that drop in this person’s passion towards their job. And it could be something outside the office as well, which we all need to embrace the mindset of check your problems at the door. Nobody does that. So that expectation is very silly. People bring in every aspect of what’s going on with them. And especially with people that are you know, living at work, if they’re still in that working from home, living at work capacity, we need to be really aware of the changes and the subtle nuances that happen with our people over time. And having those one on ones is a great way to stay on top of that. And to be able to see those subtle changes
Brent Skinner 12:53
that whole that pulse, maybe think of the stock market or an EKG or or, you know, what do they call it that the machine that measures earthquake activity? What’s it called, again, the Richter scale, but there’s a machine? Yeah, this machine that you know, does it? That’s, that’s really cool. It because you can look at that. And like you said, you can pinpoint those times and see whether it’s something that you did or not. If it’s nothing apparent there, then then maybe, you know, sort of infer that maybe it’s something in the employees life, but at the same time, it also kind of alerts you to the fact Hey, maybe I should just kind of lean in a little bit with this employee. And I imagine that helps also with just the being geographically dispersed. Like you’re not in rural Working, not all rural, but you know, you have a broad, geographic footprint. So imagine that communications is even more important.
Nicole Roberts 13:55
Brent Skinner 13:56
Yeah. And, and you also, I know that, that you did a lot of real sort of heavy lifting you put in the elbow grease, at the beginning, the outset of your joining MVAH around implementing some solutions that have helped you with this, too.
Nicole Roberts 14:14
Yeah. So when I first started, I mean, my very first thing was, what do we have now? And how much can we just maximize that functionality? Before we look at anything external because nobody wants 15 different sign ons for things or a bunch of different systems. I mean, my kind of school of thought and point of view is the systems need to be in place to help people be better at their jobs and to do things in a more efficient and effective manner. And so if you have a bunch of systems that are kind of checking boxes of what HR wants, that’s not helpful, I mean, nobody cares if HR loves your software people care if if on the employee side service side, it’s very user friendly. And it is there, the very first place that people go right, if the very first place they go is email, your software is failing you because you need to be able to have some aspect of Employee Self Service Management self service. You know, if you’re getting a million emails a day or a million teams messages a day, that means you haven’t put systems and processes in place where people can first go and try to figure it out themselves before they go and sit and are, you know, waiting in an endless queue for you to get to their message. So we have PE comm for HCM and we utilize their asked here, which is a way for in the app or on the desktop that people can put in, I mean, one, we use it for our COVID-19 tracking as well. If somebody is impacted by COVID-19, they immediately get a whole list of resources, and you know what to do next, because it is confusing, we are 12 months later, but if it’s the first time you’re experiencing it, it is confusing, it’s a little scary, and you’re not sure what to do. So we try to answer those questions that you might have. And then we also use the survey aspect. And so I have a onboarding survey that is within three days of start. So it asks for feedback from the talent acquisition aspect from the communication up until the start, and then actually those first couple of days. And then what was your expectation of the role and of the company? And how does that compare to the reality? Then we have another survey 30 days, because we want to know, okay, not just in the very beginning, when everything’s all new and different and, and fun 30 days in, how’s it going, and there is a automatic review that pushes out for the employee to complete and for their manager. And then there is also a survey because we want to know, again, how’s it going? Have you made meaningful connections? Excuse me with your team? Do you have the tools that you need to do your job. And then after having that survey data, and that 30 day new hire review, I schedule time to do a one on one video interview. And I dive deeper into that. So I have that data from the survey from the review. And then I can just say, you know, hey, I noticed that you had, you know, gave us this rating on, you know, maybe tools. Can you tell me more about that? What can I do? I mean, we had somebody that said they didn’t have the tools to do their draft because they didn’t have their job description? Yeah, that’s definitely something that would be helpful.
Brent Skinner 18:00
Nicole Roberts 18:05
so along the lines of what we were saying with, you know, making mistakes. For me, I’m glad to hear that a mistake was made or that we might have fallen short of expectations, because it gives us the opportunity to improve it, the worst thing that I could imagine is that somebody comes in, things are not what they expect. And they leave without giving us any feedback. I anytime somebody reaches out to me, my first thing that I say is thank you for giving us the opportunity to address this, I mean that that’s a lot of trust in us, right. I mean, that speaks volumes about our culture, that one people will even reach out because they, they even believe and have faith that something’s going to be done about it, if they reach out.
Brent Skinner 18:54
It goes right back to what we were discussing at first here around not being afraid to reach out and ask questions. You know, even with HR, which is a different type of relationship, you obviously HR is seen as sort of the, the font of information about various things, that’s where I can find out what I need to know. But even so, you’ve mentioned something that, that that made me think of something so yeah, nobody cares if HR loves your software. I think that’s what you said right? And, and, you know, it’s a little bit cute but at the same time it’s true as to right you know, I have yet to see you know, someone take a business case to you know, to decision making leadership to decide elect whether to Okay, we’re gonna buy ABC software for eight cm. And it would you know, it one on the fact that HR was like, yeah, this is great. You know, we’ve we speak with users all the time, where Were actually they wanted something else as a department or HR department, whatever. And, and the other stakeholders involved in the decision making of the deal said, No, we want this instead and, and, you know, and there’s a whole ball of wax have problems with that too from an organizational standpoint. But speaking directly to this, yeah, you’re going to get that eight cm software that you want by showing how it’s going to improve matters for the organization. Right. And then we get into this whole idea of, okay, there’s the there are these concrete financially quantified unquantifiable, general ledger, easily shown on the general ledger, it’s types of benefits that everyone understands. And, and those are reasons and then there’s some of these, you know, employee feelings, employee experience, aspects to it, they’re kind of tough to quantify from a financial standpoint, but we see them starting to have more of a of a, of an impact on decision making around technology, especially as with point solutions, like you said, with 15, five, looking at, you know, in place, any individual employee sentiment or, or, you know, their, their, their, excuse me, they’re the extent of their degree of their engagement in this sort of stuff. So that’s all super interesting. And I was going somewhere with this, and I lost it. But there’s, hold on, I’m going to get it back, I’m going to get it back. Okay. We talked about communication and how it becomes the technology for the communication becomes even more important, with being geographically dispersed. And all this, this is not where I was going to go. But this is a good place to go. Anyway. I know that was just going back to the beginning of the pandemic, again, because I know that you had a very, there was a really interesting dynamic, when you first joined the organization where you took on a different sort of adjacent role, but it was almost a different title at first. Can you talk a little bit about that? I think it was around communication, employee communications or something like that.
Nicole Roberts 22:08
Yeah. So when I first started with the organization, I mean, my first day was March 9, that I think that we’re all seeing in our, you know, memories from a year ago, March 11, was really kind of the kicking off point for most people have when they’re, um, what is this COVID-19 thing? What do I need to know about it? What do I need to tell my people and I mean, just meeting twice a day on this. And so, yeah, my, my title was vice president of people and culture, but I really became the chief communications officer for the company. I mean, I handled all of the internal communication, I actually also handled the communication with our residents, because we were saying, Hey, this is something new and different that’s happening. And also, we wanted that language to be pretty similar. And so that’s why we made the decision collectively that one, we definitely have to be intentional in our communication with our people. And I was brand new, nobody knew anything, you know, of me, I didn’t have a proven track record of anything with the company. And but there was going to be it was going to be very blatantly obvious that there was a miss, if it wasn’t the one that was spearheading the communication with our people, I mean, care of your people, right care of your culture, making sure that our people who, you know, we’re a essential industry. And so our operations never stopped. I mean, the corporate office here in Ohio, we were told to work from home by our governor, he said, if you have the capability to work from home, do it but our locations, I mean, they never left there, the essential function of their job was to manage the location and support our residents. And so they were on site. But they needed to do it safely. They needed to have the tools to be able to continue to safely do their jobs. And we also had to set the expectations on the residents side as well, like, Hey, your community centers, we’re going to be closing those because, you know, we’re being told that it’s not safe to have them open, you’re going to see maybe those routine work orders aren’t going to be prioritized because we’re trying to limit the amount of time or the amount of touchpoints that people have, you know, in your homes. And so, rather than just not getting work orders done, or rather than just going to a community center and it being closed, we wanted to have that proactive communication with our residents the same as we did with our patients. ball?
Brent Skinner 25:01
How much is a? Can we really go back? I mean, this is super interesting to me because employee can internal communications, right? in HR. They’ve been, I’m sure they fraternized in the past, right? separate silos, right? I mean, why?
Nicole Roberts 25:22
It’s so funny, because you would think, obviously, you’re gonna want your people who are the experts and people to do the communication. But you’re right. I mean, for a while, what it was like marketing and PR that would do employee communication, or maybe your, you know, CEO is doing your communication. I think that for maybe in the last few years, we’ve also really paid attention and had a real appreciation for the way that people receive messaging, and that it’s not just what you say, but how you say it, and how you deliver it, and the words that you use and making sure that you’re even approaching people the right way. And so I think that having that coming from, you know, HR people Ops, whatever your, your, you know, naming is for that function in your organization just makes the most sense to do.
Brent Skinner 26:25
And maybe, maybe you didn’t, but I’m just curious, what did you notice? Were there any sort of combinations? Or did it intersect at all? The employee comms right, with, say, some of the workforce management like scheduling and, and, you know, Time and Attendance? Did you see any, any intersections at that level?
Nicole Roberts 26:50
Yeah, I mean, scheduling and time and attendance, all that stuff is is already under my purview. So those things were already together. I also think that all of those are pieces of what makes up the employment lifecycle for last lack of better words. And so paying attention to that and making sure that you’ve got same verbiage, same point of view, same sameness, there helps people as well.
Brent Skinner 27:24
Yeah. Interesting. Well, let’s shift gears for a second here. Because I want to make sure we get to, to this topic, and I think we have about five minutes. Employee Recognition, what, what is your basic philosophy around employee recognition? What do you think makes for, you know, best practices in play recognition? If you had the ideal scenario, or, you know, support or ecosystem or platform for employee recognition? What would it do?
Nicole Roberts 27:58
So I’m actually attending the HR tech conference this week. And my hope is to find ideas and vendors and solutions for that, because obviously, we have our, our systems and our infrastructure in place that now our sole focus for 2021 is welcoming, developing, rewarding, and recognizing our people, which is a wonderful position to be in because not every organization has that luxury, so to speak, of being able to really focus on that. And so I’m very thankful for that. For me, understanding, it’s not one size fits all, not being emotionally attached to any certain process that’s already in place, or the way that you’ve always done it or I mean, something that might have worked at a previous company may not be right for your culture. So you need to be really open to trying a bunch of different things. Right. So one thing I’m looking for, from a tech perspective is how can we utilize the systems that we already have? What do we have, like 15, five, for example, integrates with teams, that’s amazing. We’re really pushing teams utilization and adoption. So that would be amazing to have another thing that integrates systems that we already use the ability to track effectiveness over time. So if you have a campaign where you’re doing spot recognition, do you have more utilization in certain pockets of people or even certain areas of the country? I mean, if you implement a bunch of things at one time, and you don’t know ahead of time, what you’re hoping to get out of it, and how you’re going to measure effect, like what does effective look like? Right? Are you looking to reduce turnover because all of the things that I do just mentioned, those are the things that are going to reduce your turnover. And so if that is a focus for you, which for us it is then putting those efforts into one. I mean, do you have exit interviews or an exit interview survey. So you can find out first and foremost, why people are leaving. But if you’re getting feedback that you need to improve your training and development, you need to focus your efforts there, if you’re getting feedback that your people feel like they’re on an island, you need to double down on your communication and your recognition. I mean, if you have people who feel like they’re just a number, that’s an opportunity to recognize people and make people feel rewarded, and it’s not one size fits all. So you might do peer to peer recognition, you might do cross functional recognition, where maybe somebody from a whole different department reaches out to somebody says, Hey, I was in a meeting today, and I heard your name, and I heard you’re doing great things. Like that’s so amazing. Thanks so much. Yeah, you know, maybe you’re doing handwritten thank you notes. I mean, it’s so there’s so many different things, that means so much to people, because, you know, there are as much as there are introverts versus extroverts. And there’s, you know, love languages, there’s languages of appreciation at work, and what works for some people may not work for others. So you need to make sure that you can touch on what works for different people.
Brent Skinner 31:37
You could have a, this goes back to conversation, we had actually an HR tech chat with a CEO of one of the employee recognitions, we’ll play recognition company. It and yeah, there’s this idea that you could have, you could have a culture of recognition, which is great. Some employers don’t have that, right. And that’s a different problem. You could have in a culture of recognition, you could have leaders who are predisposed, naturally, to want to show recognition. And, you know, and gratitude to their employees, right, they still may be mate might not understand how any one given employee feels most valued, in terms of communication they met communicate in a way that anyone so so you need those, those, you know, there’s AI in this kind of stuff that started to user, it’s a big umbrella term AI, but you know, natural language processing, for instance, it helps organizations understand how any given employee, you know, feels appreciated, and this sort of stuff. One of the Go ahead, go ahead.
Nicole Roberts 32:58
So we actually sent a survey two, so we had a town hall meeting on the fourth, and we said, this is a big focus for us this year. So keep an eye out for some things that we’re looking to plan or to implement. But then we actually sent a survey last week, and we said, we want to make sure that what we do is impactful to you. So here are some ideas rank these in order of least two most impactful that you feel would be of interest to you and what I mean, because not everybody is motivated by a bonus, for example, not everybody is motivated by a day off, not everybody is motivated by, um, some people don’t want you to give them a shout out and to record like some people are like, don’t do not call me out, I don’t want that I’m not comfortable with it. Like it’s the opposite effect, right? And then at the very bottom on the survey, we said, okay, we don’t have all the answer is what are we missing? What would you like to see? or what have you seen? Or, you know, what do you have experience with and so we’re getting some really amazing feedback. And actually the direction that we kind of thought we were gonna go, we probably won’t, as a result of the feedback because it wasn’t going to even be the impact that we wanted to have on our people and how unfortunate would that have been to have run full steam ahead into a program that wasn’t even going to make people feel rewarded, appreciated?
Brent Skinner 34:29
And now we’re getting into the importance of understanding your, your audience or or your stakeholders, right in this in this is an idea that transcends just only recognition, you know, it can apply to customer success as well. You know, maybe you have a vendor that had hats what seemed like a great idea in terms of maybe changing its Customer Success structure and ends up being, you know, kind of a hassle maybe for the customers and that was unforeseen and No, no vendor wants to go out there and specifically make it more difficult to work with them. But that can happen if you don’t understand your, your, your market first, your market being your employees. It’s really interesting. Well, well, thanks, Nicole. This has been just fantastic HR tech tip. We’ve covered so many topics I want. I want to thank you again for joining us.