At TransferWise new ways of working are here to stay

In this interview we talk with TransferWise's Chief People Officer, Ross Seychell.

Wolff Olins: Tell us a bit about your role and how Covid-19 is impacting TransferWise as an organisation? 

Ross: I lead the people team at TransferWise which includes everything you’d find in a full service HR team, so everything from recruitment and employer branding to people operations and partnering. I also look after all of our offices and expansion work as well. We’re currently 2,200 people globally in 14 countries. We’re a mission driven business where our mission is to move money without borders – instant, convenient, transparent and eventually free. In terms of what’s happening right now: similar to everyone else in the world in some way, we’re just trying to work ourselves through the immediate challenges that we’ve been presented with. At the very front end is our continued focus on our customers and making sure that TransferWise continues to be fully operational for them. That's our first priority. Because we know that now more than ever, like a lot of other companies, our customers need us. Especially because of the nature of business that we're in. A lot of their requirements and needs are not changing. Overall, things are healthy, but it’s still too early for us to know the longer term impact. 

Wolff Olins: That’s good to hear. So from a people perspective, have you had to make any tough decisions or is it also business as usual, just with everyone working from home? 

Ross: Thankfully, we've not needed to make tough people decisions. We're in a very fortunate position that we've been profitable for over three years. One of the big focuses for our business in the early days was getting to profitability so that we could be really stable and sustainable. We also work quite globally, so the switch to remote working wasn't a massive step compared to some other companies. I've got friends that work in companies that were like, “Oh my God, people don't even have laptops”. So we were better off, it was more about just getting people settled. We were in the middle of quarterly planning when it happened, which is normally done all in the same room together, so we were trying to figure out how to do that remotely, we’re normally in the place or we travel to different countries to be together. But very quickly, people realised that they could adapt and still get a good outcome. We are like any other company though and we’re thinking carefully about where we're investing money in the business right now and communicating a lot with people. It’s been important for us to demonstrate empathy, but also not to be afraid of being honest and upfront about where we are right now. Not scaring people, but also not hiding how things are evolving. And we're continuing to hire, although we’ve slowed down in some areas. We're interviewing remotely and on-boarding remotely, so that has its challenges. But you know it's unprecedented times, so you just have to feel your way, to essentially keep moving.

“Very quickly, people realised that they could adapt and still get a good outcome.” 

Wolff Olins: How would you describe your culture at TransferWise before the pandemic?

Ross: Over the years our culture and the ways we’ve worked has essentially remained the same. The situation right now is just amplifying things. A big thing about how we work here is transparency, open dialogue and a candid feedback culture. This is just as important now we’re working remotely but we’ve had to adapt the way we give feedback. Feedback is sometimes better in person. You can do it virtually, or in writing but when you take away the face to face element, it can be harder to read the audience or read the individual. So that’s something we are working through. Autonomy is also another core pillar of our culture. My boss and I will of course make decisions on certain things but we’ll always work with our teams to empower them to make their own right decisions. We guide them, support them and give them feedback. But it’s not like we’re sitting in a room telling them what to do. That’s not really changed from a business perspective, people are still empowered to take ownership, figure stuff out, solve problems, and ask for help. There’s obviously been more direction than usual when it comes to big decisions around the pandemic, but we've tried to balance that with asking people for more feedback and encouraging discussions in different forums. 

Wolff Olins: What are you observing that’s changing? 

Ross: We’ve also always been really big on face to face meetings and travelling to be in the same room together, it’s something that was really ingrained in the early days. Now, I think we’re able to question, do we actually need to travel? We’ve realised we have the tools to do all of these things remotely. The other thing is empathy for people in different situations. I've been really inspired by the empathy that people have and the support that people have given each other. We’ve been coming up with creative ways to stay connected and keep smiling such as our daily Yoga and meditation Zoom classes and workshops such as ArtWise, photography, cooking classes, virtual pub and Salsa for beginners. Like a lot of tech companies, we’re quite a youthful organisation but we’ve got a lot of people that are parents or carers. Previously when people worked at home, for a day a week or whatever, their families were kind of hidden, but now with nurseries closed and young families thrust together, we are seeing a new kind of working life that we never saw. We’ve talked in the past about a work-life balance, but I think that’s quite a trite term, it’s more about being appreciative and understanding of people with different set ups. We have a dedicated Slack channel for #parents_and_carers to share tips and experiences. I've got dogs, which is nowhere near as hard as having kids, but we’ve had a laugh about that. Some people bring their children on screen in team meetings and say “This is the only way I can get her to sleep” and of course that’s been accepted by all. It’s been inspiring to see. We’ve also seen makeshift offices, like in the first week of working remotely when we were still organising people's equipment, one person was working on an ironing board as they usually had a standing desk at work. So people were really creative. In my team, we previously held monthly meetings called “All Hands Together” where we’d do planning for almost 100 people. But during the pandemic we’ve done a once-a-week catch up called “People Team Unite” where we come together, we have a small section on the pandemic updates in relation to the business, but the majority of the call is about what teams are working on. Little changes like this are really helping us keep connected. 

Wolff Olins: Lots of businesses and leaders are finding that their values are really coming into their own right now in terms of guiding their decisions and adapting to the situation. Have you found that? 

Ross: Yeah, we have. What has been fed back to me is that people are seeing our culture really come to life, and they are recognising how we’ve treated our people in the same way we always have, despite the global pandemic. Getting that feedback has been really encouraging to me and my team, knowing that our values and culture is not just stuff that we say but stuff that is real and more present now than ever. I feel like there’s going to be, and already is in my network, a big shift of people recognising how important it is for organisations to be purpose or mission driven. We've been in a lucky position that we've been able to build our company over the last nearly 10 years and have been really careful about what we've created in terms of focus. We have always been really relentless in our mission. I know that some companies have been amalgamated over time or they've been around for a long, long time with a lot of history but I think if one good thing can come out of this situation, it is that leaders will think more about the purpose and mission of their organisation, other than just supporting their customers and thinking about profitability.

“If one good thing can come out of this situation, it is that leaders will think more about the purpose and mission of their organisation” 

Wolff Olins: The conversation around the world of work is already starting to shift from response and recovery, to re-imagining what the new norm will look like long term. Are you thinking about which of your new ways of working are here to stay? 

Ross: We are, yes. The hard thing about the future is that there are so many unknowns but there is one thing for certain; things are not going back to normal any time soon. I think that the quicker that companies think about that, the more curious they can start to be about the ways of working which have been successful during these times, and how they can continue those and foster them in the long term. I think for the organisations that haven’t fully trusted people to work remotely and had never invested in people working remotely, they’ll find it difficult to retain engaged teams and the best talent if they just say “right back to the office now”. At TransferWise, we're already thinking longer term about things like annual leave and wellbeing. Annual leave has been one thing in the past that has been quite stringent, but we’re now thinking about what it could look like in the future with more roll over and autonomy in how and when you take it. On wellbeing, we've been doing a lot of virtual events with a focus on mental health, mindfulness, exercise, and lots of the things that are good for you and good for the soul and good for your health. I think we'll definitely focus on that more post-Covid 19. We had some events that we did before through our office teams but the new initiatives are something that a lot of people have really connected around. There’s been a lot of sharing and updating and people have come together across borders. 

Wolff Olins: So what are the big challenges looking ahead to the coming weeks and months? Have you had to press pause on anything you had in your people plan before the crisis? 

Ross: The main challenge that me and my teams have talked about is prioritisation. When you set out a plan for a year or a few years, and then something as big as a pandemic happens, it does force you to have a hard think about what’s most important. What's going to add the most value? What's going to have the most impact on our people and our customers? We were planning on looking at our end to end employee journey or employee lifecycle for example. This is something we’ve paused at the moment and will come back to later on in the year as we felt that, whilst there is some really important stuff in there, the other priorities we have and the pandemic related work that is going on is more important. It was a hard choice as it is something we have wanted to do for a while, and it was a cross team project which is something I like to do every year. But we reviewed it and realised a lot of stuff works fine and is not on fire. Let’s not beat ourselves up about not having the most innovative creative thing in every single space right now.

“Let’s not beat ourselves up about not having the most innovative creative thing in every single space right now” 

Wolff Olins: What advice would you give to People leaders in other organisations right now? 

Ross: The things I’m learning are all about transparency. At TransferWise we have found that it’s ok as leaders to say “Here’s what’s happening right now, we don't know any more at the moment, but when anything changes we’ll come back and tell you”. This openness - and in many ways vulnerability - is a simple thing, but it’s worked well for us and we’ve seen people show appreciation and act the same in return. My advice to other leaders is be transparent but keep this level of transparency going even when we go back to the new normal.