Tamar Renaud, COO of Vital Strategies, on the Evolving Global Workforce
Liquid CEO Saujin Yi interviews Tamar Renaud about managing a global workforce, partnering with contractors, and the future of work.
At Liquid, we’re always thinking about the future of work and what comes next. Our CEO Saujin Yi talked with Tamar Renaud about the changing and evolving workforce. Tamar is the COO of Vital Strategies, a global health nonprofit. Listen now or read the interview below.
I’d love to start with your personal story – your background, role, and how you got there.
I really started off at the very beginning of my career setting up a small NGO in Thailand on HIV prevention and then moved on to the U.N. I worked at UNAIDS and UNICEF on HIV in situations of armed conflict.
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And then I had two children and really didn’t want to travel as much. And so I went to work for the local health department, which in my city was the New York City Health Department, which is one of the premier health departments across the country and happened to be led at that time by Tom Frieden, who now works at Vital Strategies as well. It was at the time that Mayor Bloomberg was mayor, and so it was a real alignment of people who believed in public health. It was when tobacco was eliminated from any indoor space, and there was some really major progress in public health.
Then from there I went to work for a small community-based hospital in Brooklyn, which gave me a lot of insight into the mess that the health care system is in America, in spite of some really amazing work of doctors and nurses and psychiatrists and psychologists in that platform. And then I joined Vital Strategies almost four years ago, three and a half years ago.
Tell us a little bit more about Vital Strategies and what the company does?
We believe that everybody has the right to be protected by a strong public health system. And so what we do is we work on the biggest killers and disablers in the world. And for a long time, we were working on fighting the tobacco industry. That was our biggest portfolio because smoking causes so many preventable deaths and, over time, evolved to include a lot of other big killers, like road crashes and cardiovascular disease, more broadly, managing hypertension, looking at environmental health and how pollution is such a big killer. And we’re seeing that now with the fires in California.
About three years ago, we started a very tiny program on preventing epidemics that was really meant to prepare countries in Africa after the Ebola crisis to be ready for the next big epidemic. And that little team has now ballooned in response to COVID.
And so, you know, in short, what we do is we really work very closely with government partners to bridge the gap between what we know and what we do to help save lives.
Can you tell us a little bit about your workforce and what comprises it, the different types of people? It sounds like you probably have a lot of different experience and knowledge experts in different fields. I’d love to hear a little bit more about that structure.
So we have a very broad range. Public health is a wide-ranging specialty. So we have, you know, the classic [specialities]. We have people with MPH’s, which is what I have. We have doctors; we have nurses. We have epidemiologists who are the studiers of disease. We also have journalists. We have MBAs. We have pharmacists. So a very broad range of experts. And we have both employees who are based in our country offices. We have six country offices and then we have consultants that we hire on a contract basis to fulfill certain tasks.
What’s the percentage of permanent employees to the non-permanent employees?
I would say we have about 30 to 40 percent who are contractors and the rest are employees.
As projects come up, you’re thinking about pulling in not just your employees but these contractors and thinking about them holistically as the workforce. And you’re putting in putting together the best team possible for things that have to be done. What do you think about when you bring in somebody who is a consultant versus an employee versus a remote person versus an expert? What’s the thought process like?
So the definition between an employee and an independent contractor is very clear and very regulated. And so it really depends on how much control we want to have on how the person does their work. And so that really defines what kind of a person we hire between those two.
You know, the question of remote versus in the office has changed tremendously in the past six months or so. Before we were very much biased towards people being in the office. We felt there was a lot to gain by being together, sort of the classic water cooler conversations which Google talked about recently. But now the world has really changed.
And if COVID has done one good thing, it’s to show that a dispersed and remote workforce can actually function very effectively.
Let’s say COVID is gone and you’re ready to bring everyone back. Do you think you’ll stay more dispersed? Do the positives outweigh the cons of not having the water cooler conversations?
I think I think that ship has sailed on remote work for sure. And it’s funny, we just read in our little operations group a book called Remote: Office Not Required. And it was written in 2013. And I was like, well, a really prescient piece of work here. And that was the French in 2013. And I think now it’s really the norm. I think we’re going to keep our offices and give people the choice. And I think it is a much more convenient way for some people; for a number of reasons, working at home is not possible either because you have small children or because you have ten roommates or what have you. But I certainly think that more and more we’re able to hire talent anywhere where we have a registered presence.
How do you think about attracting talent? Both recruiting and retaining? As you said, some of it might be providing them remote opportunities in the future. But when you think about recruiting and retaining, policy wise, how do you think about that?
I think the core is really in the mission. People join a place like Vital Strategies because they want to do good in the world. And I think it’s just a really exciting place to be. And if people are excited by the work that they’re doing on a day to day basis and they feel like it’s meaningful and that they’re contributing towards a broader goal, they start. And we’re not in the business of making big money or any money, really. We’re in the business of making people’s lives better. And I think there is no greater motivator to both recruitment and retention.
Do you think it will be easier to do recruiting and retention with a more liquid, remote policy?
It’s funny because somebody asked me recently where we’re recruiting for a new position. Somebody asked me, well, I know somebody in D.C., would you let them work in D.C.? And I said, sure, you know, whereas before I would have said, well, you know, we have a relocation package, and we would move them, and we can help them figure it out in New York. But now it’s, you know, much, much more flexible. And it’s a different environment for sure.
And so what kind of leaders and even culture would make that successful? Let’s say you continue down the path of attracting more and more talent that is more liquid, more remote, more flexible. And it makes sense because it supports growth. The cons as you continue down that path, there’s certain types of people who I believe are much better at working with this group and coordinating and motivating because you don’t have that in-person environment. What are the leadership qualities or the culture qualities of the company that make it so you could be successful in this sort of world?
So this is something that we’re figuring out as we go along. And so I certainly don’t have all the answers. A few key things that we’ve sort of bumbled along with. One is that communication is really key and much more frequent check-ins, really making sure that people are OK, that they remain engaged with the work, and that we know when things aren’t going well. So, managers have to be much more proactive because they’re not bumping into their staff in the hallways.
The other thing is being much more clear at the outset when there’s an assignment that’s given so that people can work more autonomously and you can’t wait for someone to guide you on the next step. You really need to have a workforce that’s independent, that knows how to take on projects, and that is willing to figure it out and ask for help when they need it. So a very independent, self-motivated, and a self-engaging group of people.
That’s interesting because if that’s the type of people who succeed, both managers and individual contributors, the culture starts to shift towards attracting that type of group.
So I think it’s sort of a self-fulfilling prophecy for me because I’ve as I said, we were doing these microbe projects at our previous company where we would give this work that a mom could pick up and do 2 a.m. or 2 p.m., and it didn’t matter to us that definition of work. It wasn’t about hiring for a role, but hiring for the project, which made it so there were fewer employees and more of these contractor types of people.
So this idea of you saying you have to be really smart about defining the assignment, that rings really true for me as that’s one of the big things that make it so this evolution can take place for project-based work versus just role-based work. That’s one of the theories that I have about how things are changing.
So it’s absolutely true, and also, I would say it’s just the ability to see opportunity and to seize the opportunities. There are so many things that have come up in the COVID work that we would never have imagined. And they’re coming up because we have a group of people that are creative, that think out of the box, and that are constantly engaging with each other around ideas.
And I think one of the things that happened because of COVID is that it’s much easier to be in touch with somebody because whereas before we would have said, oh, I’m going to wait till I fly out to Addis Ababa to talk to my colleague, who’s the director there. And now, we just schedule a Zoom call for 15 minutes and are able to discuss an idea that we have. So it’s a very different communication operation than what we had before.
That brings up it’s not just remote. It’s also very global, it kind of takes away the borders and the time zones and whatnot. Do you think the global workforce sort of opens up for you in this new environment as well?
We have a very global workforce already. We have, between employees and consultants, people in over 40 countries. And so what’s made our work able to continue through this period is because we have people on the ground. And if we didn’t, we wouldn’t be able to continue.
I think what will change tremendously is that hopefully, we’ll reduce our carbon footprint in the long term and do what Greta Thunberg asks of us.
So this has been amazing in terms of the global workforce you were just mentioning. It’s something that’s been on top of my mind about the payments and compliance and all the things that go with the local countries and currencies. You said people are in 40 different countries. How do you deal with some of that? Or do you have a team that worries about that?
So we have a legal team that helps us with registrations. So we register in different countries. And obviously, each country has different rules and regulations and acceptance of the NGOs. And then we also work through employers of record, so we use a company called Safeguard, which helps us employ people in places where we just have a few people and want to keep them for a longer period of time. And then if we just have consultants that are there for a shorter period of time, then we’ll hire them directly and pay them directly through wires.
How important is technology? How more integrated is it? Are you using it more for, as you say, sort of culture building and keeping everybody together? How do you think about the importance of software technology for all of this going forward and the trends that you’re seeing for your company?
I kind of feel the IT teams were prescient. The IT world was prescient because we literally closed our office on March 15th. We each picked up our laptops and walked home, and we were able to access every single platform that we needed in order to do our work.
Everybody from finance to, you know, any project manager in the organization was able to proceed. So technology has been, other than our talent, the most important piece. And we’ve discovered all sorts of tools and tricks within Zoom, which has been our most used platform. But we’ve also taken use of Slack and Monday boards. And it just feels like there are so many fantastic tools online that have enabled just a very agile work environment and method.
Since you’re such an expert this right now with your experience, if you’re talking to a CEO or CFO of a smaller company that isn’t as spread out and worried about the trends of going from employee to consultant, remote or liquid work, and all the different things that are happening – what’s some advice on how to approach the changing workforce?
The best thing is to hire the best person for the job and to hire a diverse workforce so that you don’t get into groupthink. Really once you hire the right person for the job, they take care of everything else. And so you don’t have to worry about the other pieces.
You know, we’re lucky that we’re able to remain flexible and agile even as we grow. And I think it’s been helpful. I know not every organization or company has that some companies really require bricks and mortar. But if you can’t be as flexible as you can be within the confines of the law and then, you know, I’m the COO, so there are rules that must be kept. And it’s also important to be clear with staff about the borders of acceptability and not anything goes all the time.
I embrace the consultants, a non-permanent workforce a lot, in conjunction with the core team. And a lot of times, people tell me that the consultants don’t care as much or they’re not as engaged. I think people haven’t figured out the magic of thinking about the whole workforce in a holistic way. And I don’t know if you’ve had that sort of thought as well; some of your consultants sound like they’re doing some high-powered stuff, too.
I would say, you know, again, it depends on the person that you hire. But we have very engaged consultants who are very committed to the work. And the issue really then becomes if we want to keep them in the long term working for us full-time, then we need to engage them as employees. But I think the way that you hire them, in the beginning, does not really affect how engaged they are or not. It’s really the work itself.
Updated: October 8, 2020