Evernote's Head of 'People' Explains How the Company Employs Tech Tools to Reinforce Its Values Technology and data can help make work productive, fulfilling, supportive and inclusive when proclaiming company values only goes so far.

By Lydia Belanger

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.


In this series, The Way We Work, Entrepreneur Associate Editor Lydia Belanger examines how people foster productivity, focus, collaboration, creativity and culture in the workplace.

Priorities have shifted throughout Michelle Wagner's 20-year career. She used to refer to her industry as human resources, though now, as Evernote's Senior Vice President of People, she says she considers HR a "bad word." And don't even think about calling it "personnel."

"Sometimes, people use the word "personnel,' and I just try really hard not to throw up in my own mouth," Wagner says. "It makes you think of Dolly Parton in 9 to 5."

So, what make the idea of a People department more than a euphemism? In the '90s, Wagner says HR was all about efficiency, rather than meaningful productivity. The mantra "work hard, play hard" was everywhere, but people were not so concerned with having a higher purpose, feeling a deep connection to the work they were doing or reaping the fruits of their own efforts beyond taking home a paycheck. People didn't expect to have a great experience at work like they do today, either.

"HR was this department that was all about protecting the company from that one jackass who did something wrong and ended up causing the company all kinds of trouble," Wagner says. "We're trying to change the perception of the function. "People' is here to connect the company to its employees in a meaningful way, and to build programs and processes that benefit the majority."

Related: Why This Company Thinks Employees Decorating Other People's Cubicles Is Anything But a Waste of Time

Evernote is a software platform that helps people organize information and work more productively. As a reflection of the product, one of the company's values is, "Embody productivity."

"You would probably think that we at Evernote work way more productively than everybody else," Wagner says, "but in actuality, we spend a ton of time in meetings, we struggle to write agendas and all of the same challenges that other companies face."

It's one thing to preach and aspire to values, it's another to put them into practice, and People serves to help with that process. Wagner and her team experiment with a variety of third-party tech platforms that help them fulfill their role and align with the company's culture.

One tool they're testing, which is still in stealth mode, examines an individual's digital calendar to see how they spend their time, whether on "deep work" or meetings. It's designed to help users maximize productivity by calling into question the breakdown of their days.

But boosting productivity is only one of Wagner's objectives -- she is also responsible for recruiting. Going back to the idea of shifting priorities, she says Evernote strives to make sure its candidates have a positive application and interview process.

"We want them to feel our culture and to know what it's like to be here from the moment they start interacting with us," Wagner says.

After a candidate speaks with a recruiter, Evernote directs the candidate to a platform called BetterCompany which allows candidates and employees to interact anonymously. They can ask questions they'd otherwise be intimidated to ask in an interview and receive answers from employees. They can also read all of the questions that other candidates have asked in the past. This is especially helpful for people who are new to the workforce who might not feel confident asking certain types of questions, Wagner notes.

"It also shows them that we're open, and that no question is a bad question," Wagner says. "Anything we can do to relieve some of that anxiety allows that person to be their best self and show us their skills in that interview."

In addition to helping Evernote predict what the typical candidate might want to know and to serve up that information preemptively, the tool lets Evernote see what employees are anonymously saying about the company -- not as a gotcha, though. Wagner says Evernote trusts its employees to fill this type of spokesperson role. The People team just likes to see how its people think.

Another key value at Evernote is diversity and inclusion. The difference between proclaiming this value and actually doing something about it, Wagner says, is employing tools such as Textio. It's a data-driven platform that the company uses to write all of its job descriptions, and it gender-neutralizes language. Some words, Wagner explains, are huge turn-offs to women, and because of Textio, Evernote has received 25 percent more women applicants and has begun hiring men and women at an equal rate.

Wagner mentioned a variety of other tools. One called Bright Funds allows employees to give back to their favorite charities through payroll deductions. Glint which helps administer employee surveys. Lucy gives personalized pre- and post-natal care support to parents navigating raising a new baby, taking leave or returning to work.

It's important that Wagner is able to measure the ROI of these tools, like with Textio. For anyone considering an investment in a tech tool, partnership or other initiative toward company values, she advises being clear about the desired outcome, then setting up a clear set of metrics and a plan for when and how to measure them. But notice -- that's for "most of these tools." She also has the budget to invest in tools for which the ROI is harder to quantify.

"Sometimes, you just need to invest because you need to send a strong message," Wagner says. "My personal tolerance level is 25 percent of the tools have karmic influence, where, it's the right thing to do, and I shouldn't have to chase it around to make sure that I've earned my dollar back."

She cites a platform called Bravely, which she is gearing up to implement, as an example. It's a platform that allows employees to talk about and receive coaching about their problems anonymously at work without going through HR or a hiring manager.

"Am I going to have a really clear ROI on this? No, I'm not. It's going to be very hard for me to tie back that we retained anyone as a result, but I do think that having it is the right thing to do," Wagner says. "If one person stays because of a conversation they had with Bravely, that paid for it, right there. But I'm not going to know that."

Lydia Belanger is a former associate editor at Entrepreneur. Follow her on Twitter: @LydiaBelanger.

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