Senior HR Manager "Makes the Impossible Possible" With Open Enrollment and Reflects on Benefits of Remote Recruiting

HR Super Hero: Michelle Lacy, Senior HR Manager

Organization: MAPS Public Benefit Corporation (MAPS PBC) was founded in 2014 and is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), a 501(c)(3) nonprofit.

Number of Employees: 90

Size of HR Team: 3

Michelle Lacy

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, HR professionals have supported and guided their organizations through great change, demonstrating adaptability, resilience, creativity and compassion.

In recognition of their efforts, XpertHR put out the call to business professionals asking them to nominate their HR Super Hero. We wanted to hear their stories and celebrate and showcase their achievements.

Our latest HR Super Hero is Michelle Lacy, senior HR manager at MAPS PBC. Michelle was nominated for being a trusted advisor, for her efforts to ensure that employees feel supported, and for always finding a way to "make the impossible possible." XpertHR spoke to Michelle about her nomination and the challenges her team and organization faced during the pandemic.

The interview has been edited for length.

What led you to career in HR?

During college I managed the front desk at a fitness club. I dealt with a number of HR issues and quickly gained a relationship with the HR manager. He was the coolest guy ever, the type of person that everybody just loved. He was the one who inspired me to take that leap into HR when he said, "You'd be really good at this. This would be a great career for you." And I've always just had a connection with people, I want to help people.

What is your current role?

I was brought on in September 2020 as the senior HR manager to help build out the department - the processes, procedures, functions. There are three of us on the HR team, but prior to 2020, HR was handled by Finance. There was a lot of work to be done for a quickly growing company. Right now we're doing a big integration with our HRIS.

What does your company do? Where are you located?

MAPS Public Benefit Corporation runs clinical trials on the use of [psychedelic drug] MDMA-assisted therapy for PTSD and related conditions. We also train therapists in the treatment protocol.

Pre-COVID, we had an office based in Santa Cruz, California, where a small group of employees worked, while the rest of the team was scattered around the US and worked remotely. We had just opened an office in Oakland but when COVID hit, we decided it didn't make sense to keep those offices open. Everyone's now 100 percent fully remote, which can be interesting coordinating across time zones.

Working remotely has been a shift for many people, but it has actually worked out well. Everyone's generally expected to be on Pacific Time, because the company is based out of Santa Cruz, and the majority of staff are here in California. It's great in terms of recruiting: we can recruit talent from anywhere and no relocation is needed.

What was it like to build out the company's HR function during a pandemic? What obstacles did you encounter during the process?

I think the biggest takeaway is: you've got to meet people where they're at. It was very easy to come in and say, "Okay, we need to change this. We need to do this. We need to set up this." But we have a lot of employees who've been working here a long time and they're used to doing something a certain way, and if you don't take time to explain why you're changing something, or the value, what's in it for them, they're not going to get on board. We had to take a step back and say, "Of all the things we want to change, what's going to make the biggest impact for our team? Let's focus on one or two things."

We focused on process improvement and standardizing on an integrated system. We had so many different systems that didn't integrate with one another. This made it confusing for everyone. We got together with Accounting and Finance to determine how to best integrate and have one system of record. The result is the HRIS implementation that we're doing right now.

You wanted staff to see HR as an advocate for both the company and the employees. As a new employee yourself in a newly formed HR department, how do you make that happen?

First and foremost, you have to build relationships with people. Remote work made that more challenging because you're not just casually running into someone in the break room and talking about what they did over the weekend. That was one thing that we had to be really intentional about: How can we make connections with people so they see us as colleagues they can trust, who they can go to if they have concerns, or who they can also just share pictures of their kids with?

It's also important to be present. When we have a company meeting, making sure we're engaged. If there's a question that's asked, and nobody's talking, then let's be the one to volunteer, so people see us and they know that we're not HR robots! We're humans, we connect. People may have preconceived notions of HR and so you have to break down those barriers. The only way to do that is by building relationships with people. I think it was a combination of all those little things while being very intentional about it.

You were nominated as an HR Super Hero in part for your support for employees during the pandemic. What were some of ways in which you and the HR team provided support to employees?

One thing that we tried to do collectively - with the senior leadership team as well - was to plan something fun for people given that everyone's remote. So there was "Wellness Wednesday", when we would bring someone in and focus on a different topic, such as ergonomics and how to make sure your home office is set up correctly, or an expert to guide you through meditation or yoga.

We also have started "No Meeting Wednesdays" when you can't schedule meetings with anyone within the team. It's once a month now but we're trying to increase it to weekly. We see how meeting burnout is affecting people. Back-to-back Zoom meetings get really exhausting. So now there's the one day when you know there'll be no meetings.

Luckily, we didn't have a lot of people diagnosed with COVID, but we had a lot of employees who had childcare issues, school and family issues. So we tried to come up with creative solutions to help employees and advocate for them - which feels really good as an HR professional.

Your manager recognized you for "making the impossible possible" when it came time for open enrollment. What did that involve?

I noted we had all of these wonky systems that didn't integrate well, and our benefit system didn't integrate with any other systems. Employees completed paper forms and some people's elections got put into this electronic system and some didn't. Anytime we had a benefit issue to resolve, it was really hard to troubleshoot. So we were really determined to streamline the process and allow everyone to enroll online. And it just felt impossible to get ready for open enrollment because we didn't have an accurate system of records. We did a big push to get the system set up in time and get everyone's correct benefits loaded. 

We were successfully able to transition everything online. Everyone was able to make all of their elections at home, which was great. We had a few small kinks here and there but ultimately it was a big success. The team was so appreciative that they didn't have to print out papers and send them back, so being able to streamline the process for the team - it felt like it was almost life changing for them!

We also listened to our team, and we added on pet insurance. Something so small as pet insurance felt like a really big win for them as well.

Your company has adapted to remote work and made it permanent. What other opportunities do you see in this new approach to work?

The remote workforce for us is very interesting. I think we're still learning. We learn new things every day about different communication tools and how those can be really beneficial, how they can also be harmful. Our company uses Slack and it's great because we have a lot of really fun Slack channels, but it's also something that could be detrimental if it's not used in the right way. So I'm excited to see how remote work changes and the technology advances.

One of the biggest things that a remote workforce has done for us is given us access to an amazing talent pool because we're not tied to, "Okay, we need someone who's based in Santa Cruz." While there are a lot of great people in Santa Cruz, when you open the talent pool to the whole United States, that's an amazing opportunity. You can hire someone from anywhere, and they can do the same job as someone who's on the other side of the country.

What do you see as the next big challenge for HR?

For MAPS PBC and companies that decide to remain a remote workforce, the biggest challenge will be keeping employees engaged. How do we keep this remote workforce collaborative and connected? Talking to employees and really understanding what people want is key. And sometimes people don't know what they want, so you have to throw new ideas out and see if they stick.

I think a lot more employers will be hiring for remote positions and so it's going to be harder to keep really good talent. A lot of companies have seen the light of, "Oh, we can hire great people who live anywhere", so it's going to be a more competitive market.