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Digital employee experience strategies - Steve Browne [Interview]
Sneha Moorthy
October 5, 2021
Digital Essentials for an effective Employee Experience - Steve Browne [Interview]

About Steve Browne

Steve Browne, SHRM-SCP is the Vice President of HR for LaRosa's, Inc. - a regional Pizzeria restaurant chain in Southwest Ohio and Southwest Indiana. Steve has been an HR professional for 30+ years and has worked in the Manufacturing, Consumer Products, and Professional Services industries in various Human Resources roles. Steve is the author of the book, HR on purpose!, and an active blogger with his own blog, Everyday People. We are extremely happy and honored to have him on our interview series today. 

Aishwarya Jain

Digital Essentials for an effective Employee Experience - Steve Browne [Interview]

We have the pleasure of welcoming Steve Browne today to our interview series. I’m Aishwarya Jain from the peopleHum team. Before we begin, just a quick intro of peopleHum -  peopleHum is an end-to-end, one-view, integrated human capital management automation platform, the winner of the 2019 global Codie Award for HCM that is specifically built for crafted employee experiences and the future of work.

We run the peopleHum blog and video channel which receives upwards of 200,000 visitors a year and publish around 2 interviews with well-known names globally, every month.


Welcome Steve, we are thrilled to have you. 


Hey Ash, it is great to be here. This is exciting. I love the work that peopleHum does, and I'm glad to be a part of it. 


Thank you so much, Steve.

So, Steve, if we can begin by understanding a little bit about your journey so far, you're learnings along the way most importantly.


I think the biggest learning we've had so far is that companies in HR especially have had to become agile. People talk about it all the time, however, we are reluctant to be agile. We talk about change management and moving things forward and being comfortable with change. But very few people are.

So now when you're forced with a complete shift within moments, we've really had to move and I give you a great example. In our pizzerias, we have a combination of dine-in: so people can come and eat inside the restaurant, carry out: so people can come in and just take out orders or delivery: we will take it to your house.

So when the orders came down to no longer allow people in the restaurant itself to dine in, we had to become a curbside pickup store within one day. We have been talking about it for a long time and we wanted to move that way. But in order for us to come together, be collaborative, be innovative, and make a solution happen so we could take care of the safety of our team members and serve our guests.

It was fascinating to see our people are very talented, always have been, and this allowed them to come together for a purpose and make a huge shift. And it allowed us to stay in business and also be very mindful of the situation so that no one feels uneasy about working with us.


I think it was really because of the adversity that this happened, you were just forced into one situation and then you just have to immediately change, right? 


Yeah, and it's interesting to see how people respond. One of the things I've been talking about with our group is, we tell people to bring their whole selves to work. But we really don't mean it because we don't want people to bring all of their emotions to work, because unfortunately, we assume it's going to be negative starting out and it never really is.

But our heads tell us it is, like, 'Oh, I'm gonna talk to Ash, she's gonna tell me something awful.' Now, why we ever think that I don't know. So now when you see raw emotion, I mean, it's out there, anything from doubt to “Is this really happening” to anxiety to “What's the future gonna hold?” It's a great time to step in and embrace that and say, "Those things are allowed, it's who you are, and how can we work with you in order for you to feel that you're at ease, that you're safe and able to do your job?"

It's something to learn from going forward. I don't think we wanted to try to compress that in people or make them not bring their whole selves to work going forward. We want to learn only positive things.


Absolutely and since this pandemic happened, there would be a lot of changes that the HR specifically would have to have kind of changed in their approach, right?

So for example, in your business, right in the restaurant business in the U.S. How do you focus on people's priority, especially during this Pandemic? What have you changed? 


Well, one of the things that's interesting I've learned not only in our organization but in peers I've talked to during this time, I've always felt that companies are people-centric, they won't say that, but you really are. This is a people issue. When you talk about this, this is affecting people's lives. How do I work? When do I come to work?

We had to change our hours of operation just so people felt safe. So we shrunk our hours at our pizzeria so that people didn't feel they were out too late or potentially exposed to things. The other thing that it did from people-centric side things really open up lines of communication.

In the past it was layered, as I would talk to you and you would talk to someone else, and then you talked to someone else, and that could be both physically or electronically, and you run the chance of things just being lost or the message being changed too dramatically. Now you have to be very concise and quick with your communication, and people are much more willing to talk because they want to be acknowledged, respected, heard, and valued. And those are people things.

Now you have to be very concise and quick with your communication and people are much more willing to talk because they want to be acknowledged, respected, heard, and valued. And those are people things.

Those things shouldn't go away when this pandemic comes over, because if you can come in every day and acknowledge people for being there and say thank you for coming, it is such a huge simple thing that companies avoid doing.

They expect you to be there instead of being thankful that you're there and to thank them for the work that they're doing. So it's interesting. We are essential, they call us, and I like that. It's nice to be felt as essential, but I think people should always be essential. We have people who answer phones who are call center people and there are front line people who are taking people's orders. And what we're learning is that we're feeding people.

That's what we do. We happen to be a pizzeria, so it really is nice to see how we can reframe things from a people-centric standpoint. I think this not only an HR issue, but it's also a business issue, so we should try to embrace this going forward because most issues when you boil them down, come down to people.

Most issues when you boil them down, come down to people.

So I am excited about that. But it's a big learning for organizations and almost an awakening.


Yeah, absolutely it is, you know, there are so many elements that were kind of changing now just to understand, just to emphasize with our employees, right? And that's something I want to ask you.

What are the key elements of culture not just during the pandemic, but also outside of it, what is it that you focus on for your employee experience and just a create a great customer experience at LaRosa's?


I think there's a couple of things. One, I'm trying to teach people to listen to hear, not listen to solve. Sometimes people just want to share and say, this is my experience and just want to get it out. They're not asking for you to solve their problem. And this is a hard habit to break because typically as people when we hear the first 3,4,5 words were already saying, 'Okay, I'm gonna tell Ash this.' and you may not want an answer at all.

Listen to hear, not listen to solve.

You just want to be heard. So the second part we're learning from a culture standpoint is the power of assessment, and by that I mean is assessing each situation as it comes. I've always been an HR person who believes that HR should be practiced individually versus collectively. There are very few things that have to go across all people at all levels for all reasons. Very, very few.

Most of those fall under regulations or laws that you have to follow within your country. Those things are overarching, but the individual experience is more pressing. So from a cultural standpoint, I believe if I can take care of each individual, the whole will work. If I try to take care of the whole, individuals are lost. So I would rather take care of the people who are there individually.

So from a cultural standpoint, I believe if I can take care of each individual, the whole will work. If I try to take care of the whole, individuals are lost. So I would rather take care of the people who are there individually.

It takes a lot more time. It takes a lot more effort, but what I have is better relationships across the board. There are fewer silos within the organization because now I'm heard because I'm a part of LaRosa's but it is a constant, constant, constant effort. It never stops. So this has not been so much about the pandemic, but now it's able to be practiced more easily because I have more people's attention.


Absolutely, I think when it comes to just listening to somebody, it should not really be, as you said, just to solve an issue, but actually to hear them out, to understand what they're going through and that I think it's also empathy in a way and there are a lot of hardships, I think that HR is facing, particularly at this point in time.

So do you have some advice or you know something that HR should be aware of at this point and time?


Yes, I think the one thing that HR people are very, very bad at is we take care of everybody else but don't take care of ourselves. This is a very emotionally trying time for everybody and a very uncertain time for everybody. Well, that anxiety and that emotional well being is as true for HR people as anybody else.

We have 1200 team members at LaRosa's on that I'm not responsible for, but I work with either directly or indirectly, and it's a lot of energy. I mean, you just get worn out. At the end of the day, you're just like spent. So what we do is if we don't have good connections, either through our families, through our friends, through our social networks, we're kind of isolated and we're an island. And that's very detrimental because if you're not healthy, you can't take care of others. So I think for an HR person, self-help is essential first.

Secondly, HR people need to be more intentional. We tend to say, 'I'll just work with you and everything's okay' and 'Yayy' and 'What a great day today! I know the world's falling apart, but we're all in it together.' People don't want to hear that. I believe you should meet people where they are not where you think they should be.

So I have people from every kind of background there is. I have 16-year-olds that I work with. I have 80-year-olds that I work with. I have people who have a high level of education. I have people who have no education. It is much more important for HR people to meet people where they are, not come in saying I'm from the office or I'm from HR and here I come.

It is much more important for HR people to meet people where they are, not where you think they should be.

We’re people. We just forget that we're people. HR people tend to be more about the position in a posture than they are as a human. More real we are, genuine, authentic all the words that people throw around, unfortunately, way too freely.

When people are upset, I get upset. When people laugh, I laugh, When people cry, I cry. Not from a fake standpoint, but we're just not intentional enough. The third thing Ash is this, we have to get out of the feeling that we can't speak to anybody at any level. I have daily conversations with my CEO on purpose. He talks to me, I talk to him and we talk about life and business and all kinds of things. I also have daily conversations with our receptionist and our front line cook and our janitor. HR should be there for every single person.

So my rule is this - if there are people in a department, that's where HR is. So the more intentional we are, the less regimented we are, the less focused on regulations and structure and policies. It's more about relationships and situations, and then you can apply all the good tools you know.


Yeah, absolutely and I totally agree with you, Steve. You know, it's really about meeting them where they are and that's such a good point, an important point. And I think the HR people will be definitely benefitted from this because not a lot of them are aware of this. You know, as you said that it's more about that position about their title, you know, entitlements. When they come into the picture, it just becomes, its not the right way to go. It's not being as genuine as such.

And when you talk about the tools or let's say technology, it has to be used by the HR. How do you think it ensures all good employee relations? And what's the right use of technology?


That's a great question. I think technology and HR tech, in general, need to be both applicable and tangible. So for me, the user experience is the most important. If it's confusing, it just makes people frustrated. So if you look at a self-service portal where I need to change my address. I will give you a great example.

We do open enrollment for our health insurance every year. And so my team goes out and meets everybody in the pizzeria. We sit down with you and say, 'Ash, okay, here's your health insurance information. What do you want to do?' Now we have the tech that they can do this on their own, but they kind of like meeting us on top of the tech.

So I see it as more intertwined instead of go to something. I really hate the idea of everything. Go to my website. Go to this portal. Go to this platform. It should be “Hi, how are you?” Meet me on the platform. Let's work on this together. And what's funny is even though we have a self-service portal every time I go out, about 20 people change their address. And I say, 'You know, you can change this on your own. When did you move?' And I meet with him in December, they say, 'Oh, I moved in March. Oh, I moved in, January' You know the technology is there. So I think there's a gap from us relying on technology just as a standalone platform. We have to continually educate, lead, and shepherd people to use the tools that are in front of them.

I think there's a gap from us relying on technology just as a standalone platform. We have to continually educate, lead, and shepherd people to use the tools that are in front of them.

Then you know any platform could be great. So if it's a learning management system, if it's a performance management system, as long as you're actually keeping the human element within the tech, I think it works really well. 


Right. That’s quite insightful, Steve

And I also wanted to ask you, since you said you worked with 16-year-olds and also with 80-year-olds, how is it that you kind of work with millennials?
And what kind of insights do you have when you work with somebody who is a baby boomer, somebody who is a Gen Y or Gen Z, and then someone who is a millennial. How do you cope with that?


Well, I have a much different perspective than most, it's funny. Generations have been in the workplace forever. This is not new. What's funny is I don't want to separate you because of your age. I want to know you because of who you are. I know old people who have a younger spirit than most young people. I know young people who act like they are 70 years older than they are. So when we compartmentalize based on age groups or generations or stereotypes, a lot of biases, unfortunately, come out.

I would rather see what strength you bring as a person. And if you do that, then I can learn. So I will give you a good example. We just went to zoom calls, just like we're on right now. And I am not technically, by the whole generation standard I'm a boomer but more of a Gen Xer as I've never really kind of followed the boomer thing.

But I also do a lot of the Gen Z and Gen Y. See, I'm a blend. I think most people are, very few people are very segmented just in their generation. When I introduced zoom at our company, people were like, 'What do you mean, video calls? What are you talking about?' And there was all this huge anxiety of people of all ages.

And I said you know, all of it is talking, now we just do a picture, that's all it is. So I had to teach people who are older and people who are younger, that this was safe, viable and a great communication platform, as others are and it's not just Zoom. All of their biases because of age started coming out. And so I used to say, 'I respect that. Let me teach you and I'm comfortable with it, I'll show you my behavior, I'm not going to force it on you.'

And we've learned and laughed and had a lot of things. But what's funny is the 16-year-olds we have can learn from the 18-year-olds. It's not 16 to 80 cause it's funny. Once a person's within an organization under 2 years or 2 to 3 years. They think the people that are new are just rookies and don't understand anything regardless of their age.

"Look at me, I have such seniority, I'm so experienced", "You've been here two years, what's going on?" So age becomes a reel detriment. It's reframing things so that age doesn't get in the way.


That is so interesting and that’s actually true because it's really in the mindset. So even a young person can be an eight-year-old but an old man or a woman can really be young at heart and that's how it is, and that's how you see it.  That is very interesting.

And I also wanted to understand, How do you see the role of HR specifically as it concerns the retail business change for human resources as a function post the epidemic? What would you believe would be the new normal and what would people, business, and HR need to adjust to, in the new reality?


Yeah, I just wrote about this, and it sounds odd to say that, but I think HR has fallen into the leadership role it always should have had. This is different from the whole movement 15-18 years ago, a seat at the table, that's so old fashioned and so awful. And what it means is, when you have that mentality, it's a destination. 'Oh, I finally got here. I can relax and look at me and now I have value.' That is so backward. We need to be people who lead every day.

We need to be people who lead every day.

So now when this happened, organizations turned to HR first for the first time in my career. 'What do we do? How do we take care of our people?' And so now we jumped in, and already it's starting to turn to finance because it's becoming an economic issue. Legitimate economic issue. So HR’s like, 'whoa we're done!' Absolutely not.

This is where we should step in even more. The door's been opened, and we need to keep people as our focus going forward. When you look at this, this is going to give us a better chance to work on development, not reporting. It's going to give us a better chance to elevate talent and assign people based on their strengths, and that's it. Those two are HR things, period. You can call it OD or learning.

But we have the chance to drive that forward so that organizations are built for the future. So when the next challenge comes because it's coming someday, we're ahead of it and we don't go back to just doing administrative tasks where we're sitting there and saying, 'Well, I'm just waiting for my next chance.' Our chance is now and we need to stay there. I have always felt that HR should be in leadership capability. It doesn't mean title. It just means I lead from where I'm at.

I have always felt that HR should be in leadership capability. It doesn't mean the title. It just means I lead from where I'm at.

Too many people say, 'Well when I become the CHRO now I'll be a leader.' I know CHRO's who are not leaders. I know frontline HR people were not leaders. You can do this in any industry, not just HR, so I don't want to be picking just on us. But my thing is, you should lead from where you're at and I really think we can do it and we should going forward.


Right, and what does it take to think about HR as leaders, just a mindset change and behavioral change?


I think it's a little of both. I think it's a mindset change, saying I'm willing to do it, but it's a behavioral change. By that I mean, I model the behavior I expect in others. So if I want people to be consistent, I need to be consistent. If I want people to be engaged, I need to be engaged. It is much more behavioral than anybody thinks.

If you fix the behavior first and you know that going in, all the tasks will fall underneath it. If you lead by a task first, your behaviors could be all over the world. It's funny, I came up with a theory here recently. Most companies are results-oriented first, so if we pull out the P and L and we pull out, how are we doing year over year? We look at numbers and data and we are data crazy, data is good, but data lags. The data is behind. It already happened, but we go based on the results we were going to come up with the following processes, we’re cool, but the majority of the day is spent on people, not on processes.

So most companies are: Processes = Results. If I have the right processes, I'll get the right results. That's not true. If I focus on people and give them the right processes, I'll see better results. So my thing is People + Processes = Results.

If I focus on people and give them the right processes, I'll see better results. So my theory is People + Processes = Results.

So if we do that, who works with people the most: HR. So it automatically by following this formula, it puts us in a leadership ability in order for you to succeed.

Not me, because I'm focused on you as the people who are making our company better. So it's more working and having others focused to drive processes and do results. Honestly, you'll come up with better processes than you ever had before.


Absolutely. That's a very interesting theory, Steve. And it actually makes a lot of sense. And if HR’s understand how processes need to be worked with, you know, in tandem with people, I think all HR departments would be better. 


Well, thanks. I hope it works. 


I think it will. Really and Steve, you know, there are a lot of gigs workers also right there, an integral part of the workforce right now.

So how do you think we can improve the employee experience for this particular category? 


I think what this pandemic has shown us is, I'm old enough Ash that we used to fight Telework. Just fight it and I'll get to the gig part in a second. So we've fought Telework. We thought everybody's gonna be lazy and no one's gonna work and what we found out was it was just giving people a different perspective to do their work.

So now the gig economy does the same thing. So now you have a field-based entrepreneurial workforce. The things that they want are the same things other people want in a more traditional workforce. They want to know their stability, connection, and the ability to be connected in their organization. So let's say I'm an uber driver. I want to know how am I connected to uber? Is my pay consistent? What happens if there's a problem? If I have an employee relations issue, who do I talk to? All the same internal things you would have in a traditional organization, gig workers are focusing on the entrepreneurial side is the big differentiator. Because now you're working with 100% field-based staff in some sort of different industry.

So my thing is, understand the workforce that you have. So if I'm somebody who did HR and my workforce was more field-based only, how do I become the connector? How do I make those dots work for them? But understand that the dots that Mike has are different than the dots that Ash needs, and that's okay. Instead of saying, 'Here's all the dots, that's what we tend to do here's the one thing that works for everybody.'

It won't. It comes back to the individual side, gig economy excites me because you really can practice HR on a much more individualized basis.


Yeah, absolutely. And it's a different art that HR needs to understand, to learn because increasingly it’s really about so many gig workers because there are contractors and there is freelancer, and we need to be inclusive about them to understand their mindset to when everybody wants to be felt like they're part of the organization. So HR's would be critical to that function.


No, I don't think we look at connection as leadership. It is. Connecting people is probably one of the strongest leadership skills you could have in any organization because if I take someone from marketing and connect him to finance and they can work better, I've done my job and they go, 'Well, That's not HR.' Well, heck it isn't but if I make these two people work together, same thing.

Connecting people is probably one of the strongest leadership skills you could have in any organization because if I take someone from marketing and connect him to finance and they can work better, I've done my job.

So for the gig person, it's how do I make sure their needs are being met? Because if I know that they're acknowledged, they'll be connected. And I've always thought that engagement is much more simply defined as if I'm connected to the organization, I'm engaged.

So if I'm connected to a gig economy type job, I'm really connected to that, I buy into the philosophy, the brand, I understand my job, I understand the parameters from which I can work with it, I'm engaged. I'll take that kind of person every single day. If they're not connected, I have to work on having them be connected inside the organization or have them find a job somewhere else.


Yeah, absolutely. It's about feeling belonged to the organization, and that really, really makes a difference. 


It absolutely does. 


I completely agree with you again, Steve.

And finally, to wrap this interview up I want to ask you the last question. If you have any other important soundbites that you'd like to leave our viewers with? 


I would like to encourage the people who watch this to enjoy what you do. We're the one industry that touches people's lives across the organization, the one group. So that should have value to you. To know that I can talk to somebody and have a chance to positively encourage them and lift them up and value them for who they are, that will lead to more inclusion, genuine inclusion, not a program. That will allow them to be the diverse people and wonderful people they already are.

We're the one industry that touches people's lives across the organization. I can talk to somebody and have a chance to positively encourage them and lift them up and value them for who they are.

We have to quit trying to form things in these boxes and just allow things to kind of flow in a continuum. But you gotta love what you do.

I love that people are messy. I call people messy and wonderful. I'm messy and wonderful. I think it should be that way. It's not controlled and confined. It allows me to be creative, innovative, positive, and uplifting. I think that makes organizations better when we allow HR to do that. 


Oh, I love that method, Steve, because all you're asking everyone to do is really be themselves. And there's nothing better than being yourself. So thank you so much for that message. I had a great time with you, Steve. Thank you so much for that interesting conversation.


Thanks for the opportunity. I really appreciate it. 


Thank you, Steve. Take care and have a healthy time ahead of you.

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A very inspiring list. Thanks for putting this together


October 25, 2021

This is such a great list of women leaders! More power to you all


October 25, 2021