Creating work culture at home: Sometimes it’s the small things. Clearcover was partially remote, to begin with, but the pandemic made it so that was a requirement — not an option. Work culture offered a cool office downtown, where there were snacks and LaCroix all the time. Early on in the pandemic, to make our remote employees feel included in things, Clearcover delivered snack boxes to employees’ homes every month. We could have saved the money from being in the office and not buying snacks and things like that, but we wanted to bring the simple joys of work to our employees’ home offices. We also gave employees money to get their home office set up, which, again, sounds minor, but when you were going to an office and you didn’t have to have a workspace set up at home, it can become stressful.
As a part of my series about the “5 Ways That Businesses Can Help Promote The Mental Wellness Of Their Employees” I had the pleasure of interviewing Vikki Caruso.
Executive Vice President of People at Clearcover, Vikki Caruso, has more than 20 years of Human Resources knowledge and experience focused on enhancing the employee lifecycle for implementing benefits and recruiting and retaining top talent. Vikki worked with both startups and mid-sized technology companies focused on digital fitness, labor relations and employee placement, healthcare and benefits. Prior to joining Clearcover, Vikki worked at Shiftgig as their VP of People where she built out the HR department building an HR team, implementing best hiring practices and developing their organization’s hiring goals and metrics, compensation and benefits.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive into our discussion, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?
I started my career in retail at Sam’s Club. When I was right out of college, I went into a management program there. They sent me to a store in Merrillville, Indiana that had a lot of turnovers and was struggling to retain and attract great people. So my challenge was to go there and make improvements. It went really well. We were able to turn the store around by improving retention and attracting great people. From there, I was asked to go into the people division at Sam’s Clubs. I traveled around the country and hired managers and leaders in all the locations where competition was coming into the market. Ironically, I went to school for marketing and ended up in HR by accident. After that experience, I fell in love with HR. From there, I worked in the staffing industry for a company called Randstad for many, many years and then I got a taste of the start-up life. That was my next love. I worked with a start-up that had gone through a lot of organizational changes and was selling off pieces of the business. So, someone introduced me to Clearcover’s CEO Kyle Nakatsuji and after I met him, I knew this was going to be the right place for me. Kyle and the rest of his leadership team had similar values to mine. We believed in a lot of the same ideas around building a good culture and taking care of people and putting people first. I joined almost three years ago when we only had 45 employees and we have 350 today.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
This is a good and bad story at the same time, but at one of my previous companies we, unfortunately, had to lay off almost 100 people a couple of weeks before the holidays. I had only worked there for about six months and it was really tough to be a newer employee and be the one to let people go. It was a very difficult time. At the time, the company was also running a holiday initiative where employees were buying gifts for kids in need. With the layoffs in mind, I put a plan in place so that if people we were parting ways with couldn’t buy the gift then we would be able to ensure that the child was taken care of. It turns out we didn’t even need this plan. More than 60 people had drawn names off the tree. Every single person came back and brought a gift in for the kid they picked. These were not people making six figures or a tremendous amount of money. They had just been laid off and they still managed to bring those gifts. This reminded me why I do what I do. Even though I had to go through something difficult, I had the ability to be a part of something really great to see how good humans can be.
What advice would you suggest to your colleagues in your industry to thrive and avoid burnout?
I think the best advice I can give is to make sure you as an HR leader are taking care of yourself. If you don’t practice what you preach it’s hard for people to take you as genuine. So, I make it a point to take those vacations, take time to myself, spend time with my family — but then come to work and work really, really hard. I think if you don’t take care of yourself, it’s really hard to help other people take care of themselves and put themselves first.
What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?
Put your people first. I think that’s one of the things that Kyle laid the groundwork for from the day he started. If you treat people with respect, empathy and humility throughout their entire journey of employment, it helps build a really strong culture. That means everything from being honest and trusting to being as transparent as possible. When leaders are always having closed-door meetings, and people don’t know what’s happening, it leaves a feeling of uncertainty. Kyle has done a really good job of making sure all of us as leaders are as forthcoming with people as possible and can admit when we make a mistake.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
It’s “be a goldfish” from the Ted Lasso show. The coach goes to London to coach soccer, and he always tells people to be goldfish. His reason: the goldfish is the happiest animal in the world because it’s got a 10-second memory. To me, these means don’t let things bring you down. There’s always something positive. Let the past be in the past and move forward. This is more important than ever considering this past year with the pandemic. You have to find the positive things or you could spiral and really just focus on the negative. My positive thing was getting to eat dinner and watch Ted Lasso as a family with my three daughters. We would talk about, “What Ted Lasso things did you do today?”
Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. As you know, the collective mental health of our country is facing extreme pressure. In recent years many companies have begun offering mental health programs for their employees. For the sake of inspiring others, we would love to hear about five steps or initiatives that companies have taken to help improve or optimize their employees’ mental wellness. Can you please share a story or example for each?
- Meditation and yoga: Meditation and yoga are available to our employees virtually, three times a week at a variety of times — so employees can choose what works best for their schedule. This came about because a lot of employees were really stressed and felt a lot of pressure during the pandemic. We started looking for different ways to offer them opportunities to relax and clear their mind. At first, I wasn’t really sure what we’d really get people attending, but not only did we have people participating, but we had to offer more classes because they were filling up so quickly.
- Counseling sessions: During the pandemic, we started offering counseling sessions for every employee because not only are they employees, but they’re moms and dads — figuring out how to be the teacher as well. We’ve held sessions like how to build a support network and one-on-one sessions for those who needed additional support. One employee said, “Wow, I’m just glad to know that I’m not the only employee trying to balance it.” This company offered sessions that helped them feel comfortable to talk to their managers — knowing that we recognized that they were going through all that.
- Creating work culture at home: Sometimes it’s the small things. Clearcover was partially remote, to begin with, but the pandemic made it so that was a requirement — not an option. Work culture offered a cool office downtown, where there were snacks and LaCroix all the time. Early on in the pandemic, to make our remote employees feel included in things, Clearcover delivered snack boxes to employees’ homes every month. We could have saved the money from being in the office and not buying snacks and things like that, but we wanted to bring the simple joys of work to our employees’ home offices. We also gave employees money to get their home office set up, which, again, sounds minor, but when you were going to an office and you didn’t have to have a workspace set up at home, it can become stressful.
- Work flexibility: Clearcover offers flexible schedules, extra holidays, unlimited vacation, and encourages our people to take PTO. I think the most exciting thing that we’ve done is start working a four-day workweek. I’ve had a lot of colleagues and peers in the HR world in Chicago, how are we doing it and what’s been the outcome of it? What’s really interesting is just after a couple of months, we’ve had people come to us and say, “I will never leave, this is the best perk. I’m so excited.” There are many people who still are working on that fifth day, but it’s on their time. Offering this flexibility has actually made people more productive.
- Fun: I think the other thing that we’ve done is really making sure we brought fun into working with us. For example, we’ve hired some virtual comedians and played Jeopardy for the holidays. We also do “live” awards and celebrate Friday wins. It’s a time to give shout-outs to your peers and I think it really helps people feel appreciated. Finding different ways to have fun virtually is so important to include in your company’s mental health program.
These ideas are wonderful, but sadly they are not yet commonplace. What strategies would you suggest to raise awareness about the importance of supporting the mental wellness of employees?
Being able to talk about it is a big part of it. The more you talk about it, the more people feel comfortable sharing, or even saying that they need time for mental health. If as a company, you never bring it up and you never talk about it, people will not feel like they can there — whether it’s hiring counselors or setting up workshops, all of that stuff is showing people that there’s a support system. If you don’t build that into your HR strategy, people aren’t going to feel like it’s part of what your company is like.
From your experience or research, what are different steps that each of us as individuals, as a community and as a society, can take to effectively offer support to those around us who are feeling stressed, depressed, anxious and having other mental health issues? Can you explain?
It’s being able to recognize the signs of stress and depression and people feeling anxiety. It’s talking about it, asking and offering resources to people who need them — whether that’s yourself or your employees. This doesn’t mean you need to be an expert either, but you need to be able to identify and understand the symptoms of these mental health issues in order to create a safe space where your employees and peers can ask for help. That’s my responsibility as a leader.
Habits can play a huge role in mental wellness. What are the best strategies you would suggest to develop good healthy habits for optimal mental wellness that can replace any poor habits?
Habits start by making small changes. I think so many times we set out to do a new year’s resolution and we try to tackle all of this really hard stuff head-on. However, in order to succeed we need to set realistic goals. My personal goal was to lift weights every day, except for one day a week. Now, I didn’t set a goal to work out six to seven days a week. I set it for three and the more I did it, the more it became a habit — and these small, realistic, achievable goals should be celebrated.
Do you use any meditation, breathing or mind-calming practices that promote your mental wellbeing? We’d love to hear about all of them. How have they impacted your own life?
I don’t use meditation, but I do practice yoga and my newest thing is lifting weights. I have found that that has really helped me be a better person. I feel stronger. I feel like my head’s clear. I’m also really lucky because I get to do it with one of my daughters. So it has this double impact on my life.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story?
One of my favorite books that has had an impact on me is “Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don’t” by Jim Collins. Being a working mom, the reason “Good to Great” stands out to me is not just from a work perspective, but a personal perspective. As women and moms and parents, we try to be everything because that’s what we’ve heard — the best mom, the best cook and the cleaner, best wife — and the list goes on and on. I’ve learned that you don’t have to be good at everything. You just have to be great at something. I am not the best cook, but my husband is a great cook. So there’s balance in our house. I think it’s the same thing with business. If you try to do too much, you never really become great at anything. You’re just good. My advice: find those few things and get to be really great at them. It makes up for any of the small things that you can’t get to.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
My movement would be to start connecting high school and early-year college students with opportunities and people in different fields. I think we are a nation that wants to just get everybody to college or get them in the trades. No one ever sits them and says, “this is what your career opportunities could be.” I was a marketing major and I do HR. Some of our engineers were music or theatre majors. I think we should expose our youth earlier to more possibilities. We mention more traditional roles like being a doctor, lawyer, teacher and accountant but we don’t say a marketing manager, recruiter, HR leader — and I think we should.
What is the best way our readers can further follow your work online?
Thank you for the time you spent sharing these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!