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Embracing the Human in Human Resources; Interview with Sarah Menke Vanasek, VP of HR Thomson Reuters

Updated: Nov 16, 2022

Tia: Sarah, thanks so much for agreeing to be featured on HU-X’s first blog.

Sarah: Thanks, Tia, I’m glad to be here and very excited by the mission you and your team have set forth with HU-X. I believe human-centered design is critical to developing effective and sustainable systems, structures and operating mechanisms – and it’s more important now than ever.

Tia: I couldn’t agree more. Can you talk more to why this is so important now?

Sarah: As economies are recovering, we are in the midst of an incredibly intense war for talent sparked by what some have referred to as the Great Resignation, though I prefer Jaime Velez’s framing as the Great Realignment.

The rise of remote work has led, in many cases, to a reduction of geographical barriers. This has increased employment options and individuals are considering new priorities when aligning with an employer. These range from minimum/maximum commute times to finding a strong sense of purpose in one’s work, from available flexibility to culture fit.

With an abundance of options, the employee (or human) experience is an even more critical differentiator for organizations.

When consumers have few choices, a product’s user experience (UX) is less critical. However, in a highly competitive market, UX can be a critical product differentiator and a key determining factor in buying decisions.

Similarly, in our highly competitive talent market – the human experience (HU-X) an organization offers can serve as a key differentiator in a crowded market – both to attract new employees and retain existing.

Tia: Absolutely. There needs to be a human-centered design and architecture. It really is being demanded. The Great Resignation, The Great Realignment, and I’d add: The Great Reassessment... What I am seeing with my coaching clients (and I imagine you are as well), is a re-centering around what really matters in life and a redefinition of short and long-term "human goals" vs. only “career goals.” And now that people are making progress towards this redefinition of what they want, they are also getting clearer on what they don’t want. So organizations need to take both into consideration. In a way a “return to normal” would be experienced by many as a “loss” (loss of time commuting to work, loss of time with family, loss of comfort now that I actually need to wear work pants and shoes, etc.). And this also, of course, goes beyond return to the office: is this work environment the right one for me? What are these long work hours costing me and my family? etc. The research by behavioral economists Danny Kahneman and Amos Tversky comes to mind: (1) we are more sensitive to losses than gains and (2) reducing misery is more important than adding happiness. Putting those together: in order to be more attuned to the human experience, adding perks or “good stuff” will not be enough to offset the Great Resignation. There is a lot to consider when looking at how to attract, retain, engage people in what, in HU-X, we like to call “the human era.” What are some simple ways you have taken a more human-centered approach in your work?

Sarah: In my experience, truly effective, human-centered design means involving the human perspective at all steps throughout the problem-solving process. From observing the problem to ideation, development, testing and iteration of solutions, all the way through to implementation.

As an example - when I undertook reimagining career development at Thomson Reuters, a typical approach in our organization would have been to gather a number of HR professionals in a room to solve the problem and then spin up workstreams to execute and implement. And, in fact, this was part of our approach. However, before anyone gathered in a room – each team member was asked to connect with 10 employees and ask them questions about their own experiences with career development, what it meant to them, the pain points they experienced and so on. The problem statements were created by our employees. And we continued to keep our employees at the center throughout – including them in ideation sessions, testing of prototypes, etc.

At Thomson Reuters, we have since launched an internal HR consulting pool responsible for driving many of the strategic people initiatives globally for our organization. One of the foundational practices of this organization is embedding empathy research in every project, ensuring our employees (the humans) remain at the center of our decision-making.

Tia: So powerful when the employee is at the center… how has this shaped your organization?

Sarah: What I’ve shared relates to only a small portion of what shapes our organization or any organization. The human experience at work is only partially driven by the People or HR function. Many play a role in the human experience – and among the most important are people leaders.

The CEO Review recently published the top 10 qualities of great leaders – including compassion, inclusion and authenticity.

To me, these can be summarized as care. In the last 18 months, we’ve seen the human side of our co-workers in a way many of us haven’t seen before. We’ve been inside each other’s homes. We’ve seen each other’s families and pets, and we’ve congregated at one another’s virtual kitchen tables.

It is important to honor this space that has been created by demonstrating care. Care can be viewed as a soft term, but you care for someone when you give them feedback to enable them to be stronger. You care about someone when you ask about their personal aspirations, what they want to do for themselves, and not only what they can do for you and the organization.

When you care and enable individuals to be at their best, you get the best out of them. This is so critical in how we think about leaders’ roles and when we think about every one of our colleagues’ roles.

When you care and enable individuals to be at their best, you get the best out of them.

Conversations regarding mental health and wellness have skyrocketed over the past year and a half, and one of the things that has been proven to improve mental health is to show care for others. When you care and show kindness to another, it improves your own well-being.

And so care that we show our colleagues benefits both them and us. The aspiration is to create an environment that fosters caring from leader to team, between team member and team member, to honor the space that someone is at when they are coming to work. So that is a bit of another thread.

Tia: Yes. I’ve seen first-hand the impact care can have. I had a manager who was just fantastic as it relates to interpersonal relationships, and I often saw her sitting down next to people from her team. She was definitely “human-first,” AND she got a lot done. People used to say she was “a force to be reckoned with.” So she got stuff done, but she cared. She cared first.

Sarah: Right. There can be a perception that these are mutually exclusive. That caring and getting stuff done are different and not able to co-exist. I would argue that care enables getting things done.

Tia: Why do you think there is this perception that these two go against each other?

Sarah: If productivity is viewed as binary – time spent either is or isn’t productive – one might perceive any time spent on activity related to ‘caring’ therefore takes away from time available to be ‘productive. However, when caring allows someone to be at their best, it positively impacts productivity – a win-win.

Tia: Yup. Absolutely: win-win indeed. We’ve touched on some of the ways organizations lean into human experience. I’m also curious what you think might be in the way of organizations being more human-centered.

Sarah: Any number of things can get in the way, but one that comes top of mind is policies. We put policies in place for reasons, but sometimes in implementation the process becomes about “do I have the right documentation?” or “have I checked the appropriate box” versus considering the human experience of those impacted. It’s important to ensure the human experience is considered both within the policy itself and in how it’s implemented.

Tia: I agree. We don’t spend enough time trying to understand policies. They are complex, hard to move, yet have this great impact. What do you see as the future of policies that would bring a more human approach?

Sarah: Whether creating a new policy or updating an existing, I believe it’s critical to consider both: what is the intended business consequence AND what is the human consequence? Considering these two lenses – how does a policy serve the business, and how does it serve the humans involved – can mitigate unintended consequences, in much the same way as ensuring that a diverse audience is part of the creation and review of the policies.

Considering these two lenses – how does a policy serve the business, and how does it serve the humans?

Tia: Those are great lenses to keep in mind and I appreciate that you mentioned diversity of perspectives. In a way, the human lens may be harder to “get right” because it’s impossible to account for all human experiences.

Sarah: Agreed. Policies are often designed by general counsel and HR professionals. It’s important these groups tap into a representative, diverse set of employees as part of the design process.

For example, bereavement policies. Have we designed these around the traditional family and is this still appropriate in today's day and age? Does it reflect the diverse family structures and relationships of our employees. A human-centered design approach to bereavement policy might lead us in a different direction than traditional policy design.

Tia: So… we talked about a lot of things today, from career development to people leadership, demonstrating care and policies. Covering both foundational elements of human-centered design and barriers that can get in the way of fostering a human-centered experience at work. As we wrap, any final comments?

Sarah: Earlier I referenced how I believe human-centered design is more critical now than ever, and I can’t underscore this enough. Many of us have spent the last 18 months in an environment where our personal and professional lives have been blended. Our expectations have evolved. And we’re looking for meaningful connection in all aspects of our lives.

Human-centered design is more critical now than ever.

As organizations, how we meet our employees – current and future – and design an aligned work experience, is and will continue to evolve. There is no ‘best practice’ in this space; however, I believe by keeping the human at the center of our design we’ll be more on the mark than not.

Tia: Well, I think we have what we need for a great first blog. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts with me today.

Sarah: Always a pleasure speaking with you about these things.


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