People and Strategy

Elizabeth Chrane on the Importance of Treating Your Employees Like Customers

Episode Summary

Elizabeth Chrane led OneDigital’s marketing division for seven years before becoming the organization's Chief People Officer. In this episode of People and Strategy, Chrane speaks with host Tony Lee about the natural progression from Senior Vice President of Marketing to CHRO, measuring cultural effectiveness, and the importance of treating your employees like your customers to shape employee engagement.

Episode Notes

Elizabeth Chrane led OneDigital’s marketing division for seven years before becoming the organization's Chief People Officer. In this episode of People and Strategy, Chrane speaks with host Tony Lee about the natural progression from Senior Vice President of Marketing to CHRO, measuring cultural effectiveness, and the importance of treating your employees like your customers to shape employee engagement.

This episode of People and Strategy is sponsored by ADP.

Episode transcript

Episode Transcription

Speaker 1: Business success requires thinking beyond today. That's why ADP uses data-driven insights to design HR solutions to help your business have more success tomorrow. ADP always designing for HR talent, time, benefits, payroll, and people.

Tony Lee: Welcome to today's People and Strategy podcast. I'm Tony Lee, Vice President of Content for the Society for Human Resource Management, and the SHRM Executive Network, which is the premier network of executives and thought leaders in the field of human resources.

I'm excited to speak today with Elizabeth Crane, Chief People Officer at OneDigital in Atlanta, where she oversees the company's HR, benefits, talent management, internal communications, as well as its diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging functions. Elizabeth, welcome to the People and Strategy podcast.

Elizabeth Chran...: Thank you so much, Tony. I'm so happy to be here.

Tony Lee: Well, we're very pleased to have you here. So let's start with kind of your background. I mean, you've spent more than 20 years in marketing across several industries, and then you pivoted in your career to become a chief people officer four years ago. So what prompted that shift?

Elizabeth Chran...: Oh gosh, it was such a great move for me, and I think that it's actually a really natural one. I did it, I actually joined OneDigital 15 years ago and the first seven years that I was here, I led the marketing function, building their brand, understanding the people here at OneDigital. So part of internal comms was my responsibility. And as we started growing as a company, we grew a lot through acquisition. And our CEO approached me about seven years ago and said, "Elizabeth, I'd love it if you would consider a new role on our executive team. That being one that as we grow and we bring on multiple new teams, that we have someone who's thinking about our people and culture 24/7, someone who is focused on the new groups that are coming in, but also making this an incredible place to work. And as a part of that, would you also manage our HR function?"

And the first part, thinking about people and culture, was very exciting to me. And then managing the HR function was actually really scary. I didn't know, I didn't have any background there, but I took a step back and thought about, "Wow, here I have an opportunity for an internal audience, a group of customers, I guess I thought, that are here that I can get to know really well and serve in a way that can help this make a great place to work while maintaining and building our culture as well." So it was a fantastic switch knowing that I was bringing a business strategy take to all of this, was a really good way to move in and build a new team of HR professionals, and it's just been a wild ride since then.

Tony Lee: Wow, that's fantastic. So you mentioned the culture. I mean, creating a meaningful company culture has really been a priority for you, it sounds like, but measuring the success of those efforts has been tricky traditionally. So how do you measure whether a culture is effective or not?

Elizabeth Chran...: We started a couple of years ago doing pulse surveys three times a year, and previously I had only done them either every other year, and then we started them once a year and we were doing engagement surveys to understand. And that was, when we were doing it once a year, it gave me good insight as to how to build my strategy every year, what was important to the people, but it wasn't quite nimble enough. I wasn't getting immediate information that I could act on and shift on and provide all of the leaders within our company feedback about how they could be better people leaders.

And so about three years ago, we switched to this three times a year format. One of those is focused solely on DEI&B, and the others are focused on just purely on engagement. And all of our people leaders get feedback from their teams directly in that. We set some national strategy and goals around that, but every single individual leader also takes action by what they hear from our people.

So when you think about building your culture, it's not something that we feel can be pushed down to all of those individuals. We really need to hear from them what's important to them, what's stressing them out that day, what's going really well and the questions that they have. And so that feedback helps guide us every single time that we do this, and it gets updated on a regular basis. So I love being able to measure our progress through those and also be able to pivot strategy on an as need basis. It seems to work really well for us and our engagement scores continue to climb.

Tony Lee: That's great. So let's put this in perspective. How many employees are we talking about?

Elizabeth Chran...: We have just about 3,800 employees right now across the US in all different locations. Some are working in offices, some are working remotely, some are doing hybrid. It has been a culture that is very different for a lot of different people. I will also say I mentioned that we acquire a lot of businesses, so we are growing by approximately 700 to a thousand people every year. So we've had a lot of growth in the past three years that it's been really important for us to stay on top of.

Tony Lee: Yeah, well, that sounds like a great environment. Now, even in the best environment, there are stressors that employees are facing. Sometimes at work, sometimes outside of work. And so I guess high on the list of critical challenges that HR is dealing with is employee mental health and their wellbeing. So I guess the question is, do you think HR leaders are doing enough to prioritize mental health awareness among their workforce?

Elizabeth Chran...: I think that there are still a lot of questions about how to manage to this. So I do know that HR leaders that I talk to, this is a high area of concern and there are a lot of options to be able to provide to your employees. What I think is still being questioned though, and what we still need to figure out is what's actually going to work.

There continues to be so many stressors that we can't control inside the workplace. We can put together programs, we can offer resources. There's a lot of things that we can do, but we really can't control all of those things that impact mental health. And I think that the jury's still out on how we can best provide the services that our employees need to help them in this area. So yes, it's a priority and I think that people are putting a lot of time and attention to this, but I don't think that we've solved for it yet.

Tony Lee: And I guess you could say a reaction to employee mental health issues or instead of facing an employee health issue, employee engagement kind of steps up. And a lot of companies have focused on trying to improve their employee engagement, but there's been a widespread decline research shows, especially among younger generations. So I guess I'm wondering, do you think the problem is that employers aren't doing enough to align their culture with the core values of their employees, such as addressing work-life balance, addressing employee mental health?

Elizabeth Chran...: Yeah, I think that a lot of employers and HR professionals are trying to figure out right now, we've got this time in our lives where so many people are looking for something different. We changed the way that we work during the pandemic, and to think that we are going to go back to the way it was, I think is unreasonable. I think that companies that try and force their workforce into an old mold are going to have a lot of trouble with that, and they're going to have a lot of employees that want changes and are looking for something different. So it is so important that we spend time trying to figure out the right thing for our workforce. When you're doing engagement surveys like we are doing, I think it's really important that you slice and dice the data by age, understanding what it is that different people want because the demographics are changing.

We have a lot more younger people in the workforce, but there's also a lot of people who might have retired now that are working longer and they want different things as well. So engagement and mental health, you have to look at it together. Of course, your engagement is going to be impacted by mental health and looking at the needs of different populations within your workforce is going to be so important. We've got a lot of different ways that we're tackling that at OneDigital right now. We have different groups that are coming together to join and meet and celebrate and collaborate within the office, but also spending time actually working at home. So it's a much more hybrid environment. We're trying to figure out the real estate implications of that. There are just so many different pieces of this puzzle that come together that we have to be thinking about and really be strategic about.

Tony Lee: So you talk about perhaps being hybrid. You talk about from an employee engagement standpoint, some employees don't want to go back to the way things were. So what do you say to employees who say, "Well, I'm never going back to a physical office," when in some cases you need them to come back? I mean, where do you find a balance and do you find a balance?

Elizabeth Chran...: I think it's going to be hard for employers. What I would say to employees who, if they are demanding a hybrid or a remote type work environment and that's not what the employer offers, then that's not the right place for them to work. And we will continue to see employees moving in different places to find what's right for them personally. They're putting a lot more emphasis on that, and the job market is still so good right now. There's just a lot of movement that I'll see.

I often counsel leaders to take a step back, look at the things that they really want in having somebody come to work. What are they trying to get out of that? If we were able to manage for two years to have a remote workforce, where is it that they can give? Because I think that you're going to broaden the number of people that you appeal to with a hybrid workforce. So I think for employers, that hybrid is definitely the place where we're going to go to and you're going to get the most people and your most diverse workforce. And if you are working towards having everybody inside, you're going to be limited in what you can do there.

Tony Lee: Yeah. Now some people are saying they need hybrid or they need remote for personal reasons. So it kind of goes back to where we started this conversation. I mean, employees are now caregivers, whether it's their children, their parents, sometimes both. I mean, should employers be more flexible based on a case by case situation, or should everyone be treated the same because that's the fair way to go?

Elizabeth Chran...: Yeah, that's really tough. And from a legal standpoint, you just have to be really careful in the way that you're treating. We actually at OneDigital have done something that has been a lot of fun for our working parents, is we've actually started an employee resource group that we call our Working Parents Village. And it's run by employees who are working parents and they support one another. They share tips on how to get through the work week or even, "Okay, these are things that I'm doing with my kid," or they use it as a space to vent that day and they need to say, "Okay, I'm having a hard time balancing all of this," but they lean on one another and they've formed this amazing community in which they are supporting one another. And we as the employer have gotten a lot of great suggestions from them on different things that we can do.

We partnered with a group that has education and fun online classes for kids, and we've supported that at a corporate level. And this Working Parents Village all comes together and they have a fun time sharing what their kids are doing, what classes that they're taking, which recommendations that they make. So it's a fairly small investment on our part, but it is something that is just that little bit of help. We never would've found that group or thought to provide that type of resource, had this employee resource group, the Working Parents Village, not come up with it.

Tony Lee: Yeah. Oh, it sounds like a nice solution. So part of the challenge here too tend to be the managers, the supervisors, the folks who are responsible for these employees every day and making sure that they're trained to be more responsive to their employees needs and perhaps even better representatives of the company's culture. What do you recommend there? How do you train these people managers to be more responsive?

Elizabeth Chran...: I go back to my marketing days. So when I talk to leaders about how to be better people leaders and the different ways to communicate, because I think that communication is always at the top of this list, that they think about their people as customers. They think about what the needs are, how do they keep people wanting to come back and enjoy their experience and be really active and productive and engaged members of our workforce? And I think about that from the perspective of recruiting and retaining all of our people.

So my main message around our other leaders and the way that we want to approach people here at OneDigital is to treat our people like customers. There's a lot of training that goes into that. We talk a lot about leading self first, understanding yourself and understanding your own motivations and how you relate to other people, and that is a stepping stone to really engaging and understanding your people in the best way. So there's a lot of things involved, but I say at the root of it, treat your people like customers.

Tony Lee: Yeah. Well, it's great advice. So we have time for one last question. If you're looking ahead to the year ahead, the next 12 months, what do you think is the most important issue that as a chief people officer, as our listeners who are CHROs, what should they be thinking about in the year ahead?

Elizabeth Chran...: I think that people leaders need to continue to be more agile in the way that they're thinking. Our workforce is changing so quickly. There's so many different dynamics and what's happening out in the world, within our workforces, the impacts on all of our people, the demographics that we talked about, more young people, but also people working longer, that if we are not agile in the way that we think and continue to build and create workplaces that are filled with purpose for people, then we are not going to get the best talent that we can. We're not going to attract or retain those people. So I think that one of the most important things is managing change and being agile in the way that you're thinking and the way that you're working and the way that you're leading your teams.

Tony Lee: Well, that's great advice. Elizabeth, thank you so much for sharing your expertise with us today. You can follow the People and Strategy podcast wherever you listen to your podcast, and you can learn more about the SHRM Executive Network at Also, listener reviews have a real impact on a podcast's visibility. So if you enjoyed today's episode, please take a moment to leave a review and help others find the show. Finally, you can find all of our episodes on our website at shrm/podcast. Thanks for listening and have a great day.

Speaker 1: Business success requires thinking beyond today. That's why ADP uses data-driven insights to design HR solutions to help your business have more success tomorrow. ADP, always designing for HR talent, time, benefits, payroll, and people.