How AppDirect doubled its headcount during COVID-19
CPO Deb Tenenbaum shares all exclusively with UNLEASH.
Why You Should Care
Tech company AppDirect hired 350 workers, around half of its total workforce, during the pandemic.
Here's how tech, including a Slack bot called Donut, was essential to its hiring success.
Further find out how the tech company has managed to avoid a hiring freeze despite a looming recession.
AppDirect is a subscription commerce platform, which means it provides a marketplace for companies to buy and sell their technology to other businesses.
Deb Tenenbaum, AppDirect’s senior vice-president and chief people officer, tells UNLEASH that she sees it as “a values company with technology, rather than a technology company with strong values”.
This means that for AppDirect as an employer, “it’s not just what you do, it’s how you do it”.
Linked to this, the employer’s brand is “be seen, be yourself and do your best work”, according to Tenenbaum. “We really want to encourage individuals to bring their authentic self to AppDirect”.
In fact, the company really seeks out “uniqueness”, as well as talent with “humility” and “integrity” – “we want to foster that so that you don’t have to change you who are when you’re here; you can just be you”.
Beyond listening: How to drive inclusivity
To help build this diverse, inclusive workplace, Tenenbaum and her HR team “ask a lot of questions, then we listen, then we take action around it”. For AppDirect, it is not just about listening, “but also taking action” on the feedback.
One of the ways AppDirect does this listening is through annual surveys with the help of Culture Amp.
Tenenbaum shares: “What’s key about our engagement and pulse surveys is that each department creates an action plan based on the feedback”.
These plans are available for all employees to see on Confluence, a workspace platform developed by Australian tech giant Atlassian. Then, during the next pulse surveys, AppDirect can figure out “how we are doing against those action plans”.
AppDirect also organizes weekly globally CEO-founder roundtables. This means inclusion “starts at the top, and that behavior…emulates throughout”, and it is something that started during COVID-19.
It became “a really great forum for employees just to say what’s on their mind, to give feedback to the CEO, or to ask questions”. Tenenbaum took notes on the questions and the feedback, and then shared them with other leaders so they could take actions and actually respond to employee concerns.
Embracing virtual ways of working during COVID-19
In general, the pandemic was a busy time for AppDirect and its employees; Tenenbaum explains: “Because we’re a technology company that offers businesses a platform to purchase technologies… actually the pandemic and the need for technology in organizations was an opportunity for our business”.
However, it was also a challenging time “psychologically” for AppDirect’s employees (including for Tenenbaum herself as she was only three weeks into her employment at the company).
To navigate through these difficult times where employees no longer had any division between work and home, “we started with our values”, and immediately put a COVID-19 mission statement together “saying that the health and welfare of our employees is paramount to everything”.
In line with this commitment, AppDirect created an email address where employees could ask questions about the pandemic, as well as share if they tested positive. For those suffering with COVID-19, AppDirect “would send them an oximeter, assign a buddy to check in on them daily”, as well as provide them food if necessary.
The employer also launched a communication forum that shared facts about the pandemic on a weekly basis with employees.
“There was so much data out there” and it was a struggle to make sense of what was reliable and what wasn’t – AppDirect also invited external experts and doctors to “come in and talk to our employees globally about what was going on”.
In addition, the organization went fully remote much earlier than other companies in the US. “We stopped [business] travelling before other companies”, even before the pandemic was declared on 11 March 2020.
It is clear that employees appreciated these efforts – Tenenbaum shares that employee engagement with the surveys increased 14-fold during the pandemic. She thinks this is because of the strength of the communication, as well as leaders modelling behaviors related to the company values.
Building connection in the future of work
Although AppDirect was used to distributed working and collaborating globally even before COVID-19 hit, tech tools really helped with this pivot to fully remote working. Tenenbaum shares that the company was already relying on the Google Platform and Slack, but AppDirect did make more use of Slack integrations like Donut during COVID-19.
Donut is a Slack bot that automatically match up employees across the world for a 15-20 minute virtual conversation (or so-called “donut conversation”) – the idea is like having “a coffee and a donut to get to know each other”.
This was particularly important to AppDirect’s new hires, of which there were 350 in the first 18 months of the pandemic.
Tenenbaum shares that “post-pandemic, we’re at that stage where over half of our [700-strong] employee base is new and entered during the pandemic, so we needed ways that we could leverage technology to make connections”.
Donut also helped to improve AppDirect’s onboarding process. It prompts managers to check in with new hires over their first 30 days in the job. Tenenbaum notes that candidates have been very pleased with the onboarding process, “we get lots of feedback on that”.
Tech was a savior in creating connections at work, which can be tricky when everyone was working fully remotely during COVID-19. This led the conversation swiftly on to whether fully remote is the current and future of work model at AppDirect.
Tenenbaum notes that AppDirect’s mantra is “digital first with human connections”. This means the company has a hybrid model that really leans into having top-notch digital processes but puts employee choice at the center.
Based on employee listening, 50% of workers said they want to stay completely remote, while 50% were keen to come back to the office on the days that suited them. As a result, AppDirect is not mandating when people are in the office, and allowing them to choose when to go in.
This means that the tech company has adopted pull strategies to encourage people to come back to the office, and, therefore, build social connections.
Tenenbaum explains: “When we do town hall events, we encourage people to be on-site as a big group. When leaders go and visit, we encourage employees to come in. We do our employee focus groups, we do fun social events, in person”.
The next step for the HR team at AppDirect is to rethink what the offices look like to facilitate this new collaborative approach to office work.
Given that some AppDirect employees will continue to be fully remote in the long-term, UNLEASH was keen to find out how the tech company would prevent proximity bias from creeping in, and creating unfair, inequitable workplaces.
Tenenbaum has an interesting take on this challenge. She notes that pre-pandemic, there were always a small group of people who were working remotely, and they “probably felt like they weren’t included”, and it wasn’t “top of mind how to integrate them”.
Now, COVID-19 has levelled the playing field, and now there’s a larger group who are remote. Their needs are now “top of mind”, and “our default is digital-first”; “we assume we’re all going to be on video” even if “some people may be in the office collectively”.
Teams are mindful about not continuing a meeting or a discussion beyond a video call, and thereby making decisions without including those at home. “We have a greater emphasis on communication, in looping back in, making sure we’re all aligned, and having really effective meeting,” notes Tenenbaum.
Hiring in the ‘Great Resignation’ and an impending recession
The discussion turned away from the future of work and proximity bias, and towards the economic challenges tech companies are currently facing. Not only is a global recession looming, but tech stocks are particularly struggling, and many companies have had to take drastic like hiring freezes and even layoffs.
Tech job cut aggregator Layoffs.fyi’s data shows that more than 67,000 tech employees have lost their jobs in 2022; this includes 16,000 every month since May.
Thankfully, AppDirect has managed to avoid hiring freezes and layoffs despite a recession being on the horizon. In fact, the tech company is continuing to hire. “We are still hiring, and [doing] focused hiring. We want to make sure it’s not boom hiring, if you will,” explains Tenenbaum.
She continues: “AppDirect is a very well managed organization. Even when we are going through growth, we always look at managing costs and balancing out that too. So that’s how we’re able to navigate through this bottom line”.
In the context of the ‘Great Resignation’, Tenenbaum believes AppDirect has got an attractive employee value proposition, including its inclusive culture, hybrid future of work policy, as well as its focus on career development.
“There’s lots of opportunities for growth internally here at AppDirect.” Tenenbaum adds: “We use technology inside [the company] to offer a lot of different technical courses, and soft skill courses too, so you can develop on your own”.
To help with career development and promotions, AppDirect’s HR team is “working on our internal processes and notifications”, so employees are notified about job openings “before a position opens up externally”. Beyond this, the HR team has been trying to encourage leaders to talk to each other about open positions to see if anyone has someone they would like to put forward for the job.
Leadership development is also important to AppDirect. The company does this through 360 feedback, including an annual survey on 15Five where employees give direct feedback on their managers, a section of the annual engagement survey that looks at the link between relationship with managers and employee engagement.
AppDirect’s focus on career development links closely with its desire to be an inclusive workplace where employees can be their full selves.
“We want you to stay here for a really long time. We also want you to feel like through your journey at AppDirect, not only can you do your best work and grow professionally, but you could be yourself and grow personally”, notes Tenenbaum.
Its success at creating a good company culture is proved by a growth in boomerang employees (including Tenenbaum’s head of talent) – and making more return hires is a new initiative at AppDirect within the last quarter.
Tenenbaum is clear that even though employees have left, they “still have an emotional and psychological connection” to AppDirect.
So the company now has a program where managers reach out 30 days, 60 days and 90 days after an employee has left, and just check in.
They might simply say ‘how’s it going? Are you enjoying it?’, and then if the new job or company didn’t quite live up to the expectations, then the manager can have a conversation about “an opportunity back here if you’re interested”.
Ultimately, if you want to succeed in the ongoing talent challenges, then the lesson is to get creative and think outside the box with your candidate pools. Is the global recession going to kickstart the ‘Great Return’ of boomerang employees? Wait and see.
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Allie is an experienced business journalist and can be reached at email@example.com.