2020 has been a challenging year, to say the least. Companies and organisations have been faced with unprecedented challenges as a result of wide-scale lockdowns. Businesses have been forced to adapt to a suddenly dispersed workforce, wide-scale economic slow-down and other pandemic-related obstacles.
I recently had the opportunity to interview Jodette Cleary, Chief People & Culture Officer at hipages, all about their pandemic response. You can listen to the full interview on my podcast here, or on our YouTube here.
In this article, I’m exploring how hipages responded to the challenges 2020 has thrown at them, while maintaining their corporate values.
Who is hipages?
In a nutshell, hipages is the online platform that connects Australia with trusted tradies to simplify home improvement. They are proud to have been ranked in a number of prestigious awards for innovation, growth, and as a great employer.
Hipages started in 2004 in the back of a garage and over the last 16 years, they have grown to a team of approximately 200 members, distributed between their Sydney Head Office, China and the Philippines.
You can learn more about hipages here.
What are hipages corporate values?
hipages defines their corporate values in a distinct and unusual way.
It starts at the highest level, with what they call their “DNA”. The DNA of hipages is a simple statement – Make It Happen”.
In the words of Jodette Cleary:
“That just underpins everything we do. If you see something broken, don’t wait because it’s someone else’s issue, just go and make that happen. That’s just a real call to action that goes across everything. It speaks to our empowered culture. We’re empowering people in that statement, Make it Happen.”
hipages then has a defined set of core values. Jodette described these as:
“Our values are more about the ways that we do things and what we emphasise. For example Collaboration is a core value. Innovation, Creating Value in what we do, Being of Service is another. And then Being Genuine – we’re a very down-to-earth organisation. So those values describe more our behaviours.”
Finally, to ensure that the entire management team understands and functions in the “hipages way”, hipages has a leadership charter, that the entire management team has made a commitment to. Jodette describes this as:
“Our leadership charter is certain behaviours and power structures that come with leadership and we wanted to challenge that and make sure that our leaders were consistent in the way we lead. It’s very collaborative, we don’t want to be a top-down organisation, we want very much to have input from everyone in the team. So we just defined 12 different behaviours that were important. The leadership team went out and spoke to the next couple of layers down in terms of what they see and what they would value in terms of the way they’re being managed, and how they like to manage, and how they would describe the hipages way. There is a hipages way, even before you document that, so it was really just capturing that.”
What challenges did hipages face as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, and how did they respond?
Challenge #1: The financial impact to the business as a result of COVID-19 lockdowns and restrictions.
Here’s what Jodette had to say about the initial impact to the business:
“Unfortunately when COVID first hit and the nation went into lockdown, our business was quite drastically impacted. I think everybody went into shock and obviously people weren’t in the mindset of getting jobs done around their home. We saw a dramatic drop in people posting jobs through our platform. Subsequently we had some tradies think that maybe it’s not a good time to be spending money on a subscription with us. So we did get a financial hit initially.”
How did hipages respond:
hipages consider themselves true business partners with their tradies, so in the initial lockdown period, they were involved in lobbying the government to have tradies classed as an essential service. This allowed them to recover much of this lost business reasonably quickly.
Before the business recovered, hipages unfortunately had to do some downsizing. While this is never a pleasant or easy decision, they were able to offer Career365 outplacement services to their departing team members.
hipages asked their remaining team to take a temporary 20% reduction in salary, but to work harder than they had ever worked before, in an effort to see the business through this downturn. As a result of their strong team culture, hipages had enough loyalty and social equity with their team that they had 100% team agreement. This temporary pay reduction ended up being required for only a very short period of time, as a result of the dynamic, agile response of hipages as an organisation to the shut-down.
Challenge #2: Immediate, overnight lock-down in the Philippines.
hipages has a diverse, distributed workforce. Prior to COVID, they had approximately 100 team members located in the Philippines. As part of the Philippines government response to their growing case numbers, the Philippines was locked-down overnight, without warning, and these 100 team members were unexpectedly unable to leave their homes. This left a massive operational gap for hipages.
How did hipages respond?:
In Jodette’s words:
“We were forced to really fast-track some of our automation plans, and take a lot of things that were previously on the phone, and put them into messaging and other means that the Sydney team could manage. As a result we did have to unfortunately downsize our Manila team, as well as some of our Sydney team. That’s always very distressing for everybody.”
“We did, over time, enable about 50% of the Manila operations to work from home.”
Challenge #3: Rapidly adapting an office-based workforce to a distributed workforce.
Within the hipages technology and support team, about 90% of that workforce had laptops and already enjoyed flexible work arrangements before the government mandated lockdowns here in Australia.
The Sydney-based Sales & Service team did NOT have laptops, and due to the nature of their work, they really needed a 2 screen setup.
The Manila-based team also had no existing work-from home arrangements, and had no advance notice of their lockdown.
How did hipages respond?:
While it was a challenge, the IT and Operations team was able to equip the Sydney-based team members with the required equipment within days.
It took more time and logistical organisation, but over time, they were also able to equip about 50% of the Manila-based team with the equipment required to work from home.
Challenge #4: Maintaining the company culture in a distributed environment.
One of the big challenges faced by the hipages People & Culture team, once the immediate operational logistics of a distributed workforce had been resolved, was maintaining the award-winning company culture in a distributed environment.
How did hipages respond?:
“We’re the type of team that are innovative and creative. Very agile, staying in touch with what needs to happen for the business, so it wasn’t too much of a different way of working for us. It’s just that there was a lot more that we needed to do in a short period of time.
“The key really has been communication. We’ve always been pretty good, but we… I was going to say we doubled-down, but I think we tripled-down on communication. We pretty much immediately started with a weekly town hall, where we would give an update on what’s happening in terms of government mandates and rules and regulations. Quite frankly, it was pretty confusing. Plus, there were different rules depending on where you were. So we let our teams know here and in Manila particularly, what was actually happening. There wasn’t a lot of (external) information coming, particularly in the Philippines, to our team. We’d talk about our business performance – what’s going well, what’s not going well, what we needed to focus on. At the end of every business side of the town hall, we created a safe social space. For those who were feeling isolated, missing their work colleagues, we’d stay on and have a joke and have a talk – nothing to do with work, just to connect as humans. That was really great.
We had already had some really great practices and processes in the business, such as daily team stand-ups, collaboration technology such as Zoom, Confluence and Slack. But we weren’t using it consistently across all teams. Some of the teams needed to start learning this technology and start using that, which was a focus of us as well. Then we found that the personal touch and genuine care was so important. My team literally rang everyone in the business to check in and we asked leaders to check in via phone and have a conversation with their team members every week. I think that really high-touch genuine caring really made a difference as well.
Social and Mental Health Initiatives
“We knew that what was going on in the community and the fear that was there and people being isolated or having issues with working from home, there was going to be an impact on mental health. We didn’t have a lot of budget, we were looking at cutting costs, therefore we went out to look at the skills in the business. We found someone who was expert at doing guided meditations, so we started doing Zoom guided meditations for those who wished to do it. We found a person who did personal training, so we were doing Zoom personal training sessions a couple of times per week. Then we did fun things like daily challenges for the whole company, where we would share something personal about us and we could learn more about each other.
We did team charity challenges. It’s always good when you’re thinking that life’s tough to reflect that others are actually doing it more tough. It’s very humbling. So we actively encouraged our team to contribute to various charities. We also ran across the 6-week period, a positivity at work program through the positivity institute, who I can’t recommend highly enough. It was amazing and we got a lot out of that program.
Acknowledgements and shout-outs
“We made sure that we celebrated the wins, so that it wasn’t all doom and gloom. On a weekly basis, which we used to do monthly, we did shout-outs and thank yous, peer recognition.
6 weeks in, we wanted to see how everyone was going, and we ran an engagement pulse survey. We actually got our highest ever engagement levels. It was such a wonderful thing, particularly for the people and culture team who had been working so hard, to get that acknowledgement that what were doing was making a really positive impact for our team members, which was fantastic.”
Challenge #5: Returning to the office.
The reality is, while working from home sounds like a dream, it is not for everyone. In fact many people prefer working from an office environment, for a multitude of reasons. Whether it’s the fact that family/children/flatmates are at home and disruptive, home doesn’t have a stable internet connection, or the social isolation of working from home is a challenge for many people, an office can sometimes be the best place to get work done.
How did hipages respond?
Jodette admitted herself that she struggled somewhat with the social aspect of working from home. Here’s what her team did:
“Instead of saying “no, no one can come back to the office”, we worked extremely hard to set our office up, and you can see if you’re watching this on Youtube, the extent we had to go to to set up out office as a COVID-safe certified office, in terms of marking the floors for people to walk and limiting numbers in the kitchen, and things like that, putting the temperature stations at the entrance, etc.
So we had a return to office plan and we went from an employee first perspective. So those who wanted to come back, we enabled them to come back. Some people came back full-time and others just chose to come in a couple of days per week. Whatever worked.
Then, with the situation that happened in Victoria recently (the second wave), there was more fear from some of our team members. We said that if they wanted to go back to working from home full-time, that’s no issue.
We’ve just really tried to accommodate the diversity of needs and the diversity of experience for people.”
How did hipages thank their team for their loyalty and hard work?
“Finally, we also wanted to reward all of the hard work and the loyalty. Loyalty is a strong word, but it was absolutely what the team did. We had an employee share program that was due to come to an end on the 30th of June, that had financial metrics linked to the allocation of those shares. Obviously, with what had happened in the business, we weren’t going to meet those financial metrics. The Board agreed to award everybody their full allocation of shares. It was such an important and right thing to do. I think that was very well accepted by the team.
The other thing we love at hipages is having a party. We have 2 parties normally a year – an end of financial year party and an end of year party. We weren’t able to do that, so my team again thought about how can we still let people know they’re appreciated? We had these amazing hampers made up full of hipages swag and treats and personal messages. They were personally delivered to everyone with a helium balloon when they opened it up. That was pretty special and really delighted the team.”
When you take the time to look at the lengths hipages has gone to, to prioritise and support their team members throughout the COVID-19 crisis so far, it’s easy to see why they have been finalists in the BRW Best Places to Work award on multiple occasions. They truly live by the values of their organisation, and put that at the forefront of their business decisions.
I’d like to thank Jodette Cleary and hipages for allowing us to feature them on our first “Start Strong Finish Strong with Greg Weiss podcast” episode, and in this case study.
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