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Why Your Organization Needs an HR Unicorn: The People Care Manager

04-12-23 Kaisa Butcher

In a time of high burnout rates and turnover wreaking havoc in tech, a position dedicated to people care might be the right solution for your organization. It was for Sparkbox. We created the People Care Manager position (a real HR unicorn) to tend to the wellbeing of our teams.

A study recently released by the UKG Workforce Institute indicates an employee’s direct supervisor has a greater impact on an employee’s mental health than their therapist or doctor and as great an impact as their partner or spouse. Furthermore, nearly 70% of survey respondents believe their company and manager need to do more to support their well-being.

Yikes!

People managers—individuals responsible for managing one or more employees—feel the pressure to support their employees well. The same study surveyed managers and found “52% of managers wish someone had warned them not to take their current job” and 46% said they were likely to “quit their job within the next 12 months because they’re experiencing too much work-related stress.” Moreover, people managers in tech acutely feel the pressure; they face the highest turnover rates of any industry. The 2022 BurnoutIndex study conducted by Yerbo reported 72% of managers in tech experienced moderate to high levels of burnout.

Double yikes!

How can an organization provide people care—personal, empathetic support to its individual contributors—without burning out its people managers in the process? Maybe you or your organization have asked a similar question recently. Sparkbox wrestled with this question and came up with a unique solution: the People Care Manager, aka the HR unicorn. Let’s explore the need for such a role, its evolution at Sparkbox, its function and responsibilities, and some considerations to take into account if you were to implement a similar role at your organization.

A Deeper Dive into the Issue

Burnout and High Attrition in Tech

Employees are stressed and burned out. Responding to the UKG study, Dr. Jarik Conrad writes, “the chronic anxiety that comes from working through one global crisis after another is wearing on employees.” Aflac conducted its own annual study on burnout and found 59% of American employees experienced moderate burnout in 2022 while 46% believed their “personal mental health negatively affected their productivity.”

In tech, the numbers are staggering. A 2022 study conducted by Yerbo on workers in tech revealed 62% of respondents felt emotionally and physically spent, and nearly 72% experienced moderate to high burnout. Woah. The research is clear—stress has barged into the tech workplace and made itself comfy.

In addition to the challenges associated with stressed employees in the workforce, employers in tech struggle to retain employees. In 2022, LinkedIn reported the turnover rate for professional services (including IT consulting) and tech media to be around 13%, the highest of all industries globally. Moreover, software engineers have one of the highest turnover rates of any profession at 11.5%. ICONIQ, a technology investment firm, studied the reasons for turnover in the tech industry and found most workers quit due to job dissatisfaction, a lack of professional development or career advancement opportunities, compensation, and burnout and stress.

This turnover is costly. Survey data from the Harris Poll estimates turnover to cost companies an average of $57,000 annually. However, more than a quarter of survey respondents estimated turnover costs to be $100,000+ annually. Wow. Similar to the research on stress and burnout, this data is a rallying cry for employers to offer better assistance to employees to preemptively address issues before they lead to resignation.

Who will provide the support?

As you can see (we did), there is a need for increased employee support, but who will provide it? The UKG survey respondents and HR professionals all agree managers should take the responsibility for maintaining open, continuous dialogue with their employees to better address their needs. According to conversational intelligence expert Judith Glaser, research demonstrates that intentional conversations built on empathy, appreciation, and curiosity create trust and lead to creativity and innovation. She writes: “Executives, whether entrepreneurs or established leaders who put relationships before tasks can build bridges for connection that lead to real greatness.”

Empathetic listening and vulnerability are vital to fostering a caring, supportive environment for employees. However, should the responsibility remain solely with managers to make meaningful employee connections when they are also experiencing high levels of stress and burnout? Are we asking them to put the proverbial oxygen mask on their employees before they put it on themselves? This question seems especially relevant to consider when talking about managers in tech. With nearly three-quarters of them experiencing burnout, will this call for increased employee connection (and the time and intentionality it requires) magnify those burnout numbers?

Finally, we’re assuming managers know how to engage in these meaningful conversations. However, if you’ve ever read Brene Brown’s work, you know this takes vulnerability and practice. And gosh, both are hard. On the other hand, what if a manager is channeling their inner Brene but their employees still do not want to open up due to past workplace traumas or misguided fear? Who or what can fill the need for employee connection in these instances? Spoiler alert—it’s the HR Unicorn.

The Invention of the People Care Manager Role at Sparkbox

The Issues

Leaders at Sparkbox had similar questions last spring regarding employee care. With a growing development team, they pondered how to support their team members well without overwhelming their technical directors. The director team already offered exceptional team member care, but this high level of support could not be scaled without those directors working more hours or eliminating technical priorities. Moreover, Sparkbox leaders knew some team members were sometimes uncomfortable opening up about personal concerns or work issues to their directors. How could Sparkbox offer their individual contributors exceptional care in a safe space and prevent their directors from assuming too much of this responsibility at the cost of the directors’ well-being or other business priorities?

The Options

Sparkbox leaders brainstormed potential solutions. One option was to hire another technical director to further distribute people management responsibilities. However, this solution created further scale issues and didn’t address the whole problem. Another option was to bring in non-technical managers to take over the people-management duties from the technical directors, but this option had similar flaws as the first. The leaders also discussed the possibility of the Vice President of People Operations resuming 1:1 meetings with the production team, but this wasn’t feasible due to the growing team size.

The Solution

Having exhausted several options, Sparkbox’s leaders started to think creatively. What if they designed a role intended solely for providing people care—personal, empathetic support—to its individual contributors? What if this role took over some of the people support duties from the technical directors but did not manage any individual contributors in a “direct report” relationship? What if this role served as an employee and business advocate, elevating employee concerns while clarifying assumptions related to the business? This HR unicorn position, which came to be known as the People Care Manager, seemed to provide the solution to the question of how to scale care without increasing manager burnout.

The People Care Manager Role Explained

Primary Function and Responsibilities

Practically, what does this role do? The three main functions are to meet with individuals 1:1, serve as an advocate, and provide tangible care.

When it comes to the People Care Manager’s (PCM) essential duty to meet regularly with all individual contributors in 1:1 meetings, a variety of issues are discussed:

  • Job satisfaction

  • Professional development

  • Personal issues affecting work

  • Goals

  • Challenges

  • Engagement

  • Questions related to the business

  • Other non-specialized topics related to work

These meetings often take the form of coaching, problem-solving, and guided reflection. This proactive, preemptive coaching approach attempts to identify employee issues, stressors, and challenges before they become problematic, and this is what distinguishes this role from other traditional HR roles, which provide more remedial support.

To clarify, these 1:1 meetings are not therapy sessions and personal disclosure is optional. The PCM will refer employees to outside resources (like the company-sponsored mental health plan) if necessary.

As an advocate, the PCM will share employee concerns with leadership, identify factors contributing to stress and burnout, suggest ideas to keep employees engaged, champion professional development and training opportunities, and suggest improvements to policies affecting employees. Moreover, they will discuss business updates with employees, clarify assumptions or provide answers to questions related to the business or leadership, and ensure alignment with company values.

By advocating for employees and the business, the PCM serves as a communication bridge to ensure everyone feels heard and understood. And that’s a win for sure.

Finally, the PCM provides tangible care with the help of the operations team. This may include:

  • Writing a note to touch base with a person after a difficult personal or professional event

  • Sending a gift as a kudos for awesome work

  • Ordering soup for a sick or exhausted team member

  • Posting celebration messages in Slack with all the party emojis

  • Creating learning and development opportunities

Tangible recognition will vary depending on the team member or situation, but the goal is the same; to demonstrate Sparkbox’s care and commitment to its people and their wellbeing.

Competencies

In order to be successful in this role, what skills or knowledge should a PCM have? This is a highly interpersonal role, so the person hired must have a strong sense of emotional intelligence. They need to be comfortable meeting regularly with a variety of different personalities. It’s also important they have experience coaching others, engaging in active listening, and facilitating reflection and problem-solving. Similarly, they must have a basic understanding of each role they coach. Moreover, they must be comfortable elevating employee concerns, dialoguing with senior leadership, handling confidential information, and providing honest, constructive feedback. Above all, they must actually care about their peers and the organization; they want the best for all.

Role Implementation

Perhaps you’re thinking, “where can I find my very own HR unicorn?!” Maybe you’ve resonated with the organizational challenges regarding people care outlined in this article and the solution Sparkbox found with this role. (We’re biased, but we hope so!) If so, here are a few points specific to role implementation to consider.

Needs and Goals

Compare your organization’s people needs to your strategic goals. A full-time people care role may be appropriate if your organization has plans for continued growth or is looking to shrink turnover. However, it may not be appropriate if you have a small team or plan to downsize. Instead, you may consider incorporating aspects of this role—like preemptive coaching—into an existing role.

Messaging

Think about the communication needed to market this role to leadership, people managers, and individual contributors. In order for this role to be successful, you will need to ensure people understand its function and purpose. (I mean an HR unicorn sounds cool, but what does that even mean?) At Sparkbox, the PCM partners with managing directors to provide employees individualized support, but the role does not absolve directors of their people care or management responsibilities. They are still expected to meet regularly with their direct reports to check in about work and life in general, but they have someone else doing the same, giving them more freedom to shorten meetings or shift the focus of the meetings to work.

Realistic Expectations

Set realistic expectations regarding goals for this role, especially if they are related to employee turnover or manager workload. At its core, this role is built on relationships and trust, which take time. Individual contributors may not turn to the PCM until they are comfortable. Likewise, managers may not refer employees to the PCM until the person in the role has gained their trust. Your organization’s needs will differ compared to Sparkbox’s needs, and there may be more nuanced factors to consider when implementing a role similar to this one. Take the time needed to strategically plan.

Aim for a Win, Win, Win

Employees and managers globally are struggling with job dissatisfaction, stress, and burnout according to the research. However, the research also suggests employees who are supported are happier and more productive—finally, some good news! Moreover, happier employees are more likely to stay and attract other happy employees—even better. Employers can reverse current workplace statistics by investing in employee care and support. Managers do not have to shoulder the responsibility for this care. As detailed above, a people care manager role can create the caring environment employees crave while removing the pressure on managers to provide the care. A win, win, win.

Want to talk about how we can work together?

Katie can help

A portrait of Vice President of Business Development, Katie Jennings.

Katie Jennings

Vice President of Business Development