What’s behind one CHRO’s drive to connect company purpose to EX

Topia’s Jacky Cohen says the organization’s employees have developed a stronger appreciation for the role of HR tech throughout the pandemic.
By: | July 21, 2021

Topia, a global talent mobility platform, aims to help HR teams deploy, manage and engage employees across geographic barriers—ultimately, to “break down barriers between people and places” so employees can work anywhere, says Jacky Cohen, the company’s vice president of people and culture.

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So, when the pandemic took hold last year, Topia’s purpose became crystal clear to employees.

“The pandemic highlighted the need for almost every person and company around the world to work everywhere—reinforcing the value of our offering to our team,” Cohen says.

While connecting to the organizational purpose has proven successful for employee experience, the leadership team at Topia has also rolled out other initiatives to enhance EX through the challenges of the last year, such as meeting-free Fridays and “Global Recharge Days,” meant to encourage employees to disconnect, particularly from video meetings.

Cohen, who joined Topia in 2017 after HR business partner roles at Lyft and Pandora, shared with HRE the organization’s ongoing approach to supporting employees through recent challenges.

HRE: What has been the biggest shift in your HR strategy since the pandemic started?

Jacky Cohen

Cohen: Providing increased flexibility has been the largest shift but putting a more intentional focus on empathy and wellbeing is not far behind. In the past, I always put an emphasis on building for scale, operational excellence and fairness when developing HR programs and policies. Over the past several months, we’ve shifted that approach to meet people where they are and to try to develop practices going forward that can stretch to fit a variety of needs.

For example, we’ve communicated the importance of individual calendar management because lockdown has created unique challenges for every person. Remote work has removed the boundaries between home and work, leading many people to feel that they have to log long hours in front of the computer. We’ve encouraged the team to block the time that they need throughout the day to take care of themselves, whether that’s having lunch with their kids or taking a walk. We’ve empowered each person to get their job done in the way that works best for them and committed to being flexible and providing the space and time for them to do so.

HRE: Where has Topia’s focus been in terms of diversifying its talent, especially given the longstanding problems with diversity throughout the tech industry? 

Cohen: As a globally distributed company, we have always had a team made up of diverse backgrounds and experiences and have prioritized creating opportunities where we can learn from each other. A recent Topia Adapt survey highlighted that 83% of employees agree with that sentiment and that teams should be based on experience and skill sets, rather than location. While there will always be some roles that need to be in specific locations, when possible, we’ve instilled the mentality of being location-agnostic in order to remove unnecessary geographic barriers to hiring. This naturally broadens our talent pool and unlocks access to diverse candidates.

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Over the past year, we’ve also put a large focus on inclusion, education and awareness. We established an employee group called BRIDGE, where employees partner with me to set priorities, engage in discussions and launch initiatives to further our DE&I efforts. In the past few months, we’ve had several accomplishments, including relaunching our values to incorporate specific DE&I language, a mutual mentoring program and a survey to help us prioritize what to focus on going forward.

HRE: You’ve worked at several high-growth companies; what are the particular challenges of leading HR strategy in such a setting? 

Cohen: Building programs, processes and structures that are adaptable for scale. The key is to start with strong core values that can be the anchors of everything you do. It’s equally critical to ensure that you have leadership buy-in for those values and that employees are clear on what they actually mean. Values can often end up just being a poster on an office wall when, in fact, what we really want is for them to create a shared understanding of how we work together internally and externally. At Topia, we have something called “The Topia Way,” which articulates how our values translate to specific behaviors. This creates a common understanding of what each value means and allows us to weave these behaviors into every aspect of our employee lifecycle, including recruiting, performance management, internal mobility and even compensation frameworks.

Another critical challenge is implementing the right technology at an early enough stage to scale. I’ve been part of high-growth periods both with and without the right technology to support those periods and it’s highlighted how important the right tools are to ensure a positive employee experience as well as operational efficiency and compliance.

Read more Insights from a CHRO here.

HRE: What is the best HR advice you’ve ever gotten? Conversely, is there any advice you’ve received that didn’t pan out? 

Cohen: During my early days at Topia, we talked about realizing the difference between our zones of control and our zones of concern. It’s the idea of focusing on controlling what you can control and being clear about the things you can’t. I’ve found this to be an extremely valuable framework within HR because there is so much of our function that is about enablement. We can’t be in every conversation, interview or meeting. If something goes wrong and someone has a poor employee experience, it’s about focusing on controlling what we can to fix and prevent it from happening again. But it’s also about not losing sight of the fact that, if it does happen again, it’s not necessarily a failure of HR.

Similar to this, I was once told never to forget to celebrate wins. As someone who personally sets a high bar for myself, my team and my colleagues, it can be easy to always jump to what could have gone better or what’s next. Stopping and recognizing accomplishments is just as important as moving forward.

I’ve also been told many times in my career to put my head down and work hard and that recognition will follow. I absolutely agree with working hard, but I don’t necessarily agree with waiting for recognition. I’ve been fortunate enough to have great managers and mentors who have supported me throughout my career, but I can’t say that everyone has that same experience. I’m a strong believer in people advocating for themselves—and for leaders to advocate for those who may not have the voice or platform to advocate for themselves.

See also: Here’s how eMoney is helping its workers manage their finances

HRE: Where do you see your career headed in the next 10 years?

Cohen: I wish I had a crystal ball! HR is a fascinating industry to be in right now because of all of the changes happening within the workforce. Employees have new expectations from their employers, we’re seeing a hiring wave unlike ever before, and we’re all working through how to maintain company culture and engagement with a distributed team. It’s exciting, and there’s no shortage of challenging work to tackle.

Personally, I don’t ever want to lose sight of the need for my career to adapt as the world does. I’m sure this will mean new skills I need to master and new ways of thinking that I can’t even imagine at this point.

HRE: Outside of work, what are you passionate about?

Cohen: I’m a travel junkie and can’t wait to get back on airplanes now that lockdowns are starting to lift. I’ve also taken up baking during the pandemic, and I love hiking, especially with my 8-month-old Labradoodle.

Jen Colletta is managing editor at HRE. She earned bachelor's and master's degrees in writing from La Salle University in Philadelphia and spent 10 years as a newspaper reporter and editor before joining HRE. She can be reached at hreletters@lrp.com.