As Chief of Staff at Talis Capital, I work across and manage a wide range of strategic initiatives at the company — from developing inclusive hiring practices to building resources for our founders (like the Talis Knowledge Hub, launched earlier this month). One of my most recent projects — and to my mind, one of the most crucial — was setting up a parental leave policy that is fit for the modern day.
It was this that inspired me to write this piece. In my time at Talis (almost two years now), a few of the projects I’ve worked across have looked at employee wellbeing. With many of our founding team coming from trading and private equity backgrounds (where working life is notoriously intense and all-encompassing), the health and wellness of the Talis team has always been of critical importance to the Talis partners.
‘Employee wellbeing’ sounds like a generic buzzword, and is impossible to measure tangibly, but should be mission critical to all businesses operating in 2020. Good employee wellbeing contributes to building (and sustaining) high employee morale; driving effective recruitment and retention; team bonding, and productivity. While teams are still distributed in the wake of the pandemic, it’s more important than ever that businesses are thinking about how they can support their teams. Equally, in today’s era where demand for talent — particularly in the tech world — is high, there’s a real need to incentivise workforces.
As a qualified nutritionist, I can tell you that there’s plenty of rationale for employers to care about employee wellbeing. Helping employees adopt healthier behaviours in and outside of work can help to improve every biological function within the body, from blood glucose levels to neurological function. My background has been really helpful in establishing which areas of working life can be most damaging to wellbeing, as well as creating policies to remedy these.
Nonetheless — it hasn’t necessarily been easy to get our employee offering into the place that it is today. Ultimately, the fast pace of the world we work in — as well the fact that I have a role that spans so many different parts of the business — can result in these projects falling to the back burner. It took me a while to give myself the time to fully focus on this. That being said, we’ve made huge progress in the past couple of years, and I’m proud to say that Talis Capital is a proactive company when it comes to supporting the wellbeing of our team.
Creating an employee offering for the modern day
Policies that we’ve implemented at Talis are driven by everyone in the team at every level. The beauty of working in the fast-growth tech space is that as a company, we emulate the entrepreneurial spirt that we see in our portfolio companies. Being entrepreneurial is part of our DNA. The culture of open dialogue that we’ve established between team and management enables anyone at any level to suggest ideas. Ultimately, any policies we implement are discussed as a team and are decided on through debate and conversation. A lot of this is down to the flat structure that we’ve established at Talis where everyone genuinely has a voice that will be heard and appreciated.
Here’s a few of the areas that I want to highlight that can affect employee wellbeing — as well as some of the policies that we’ve implemented to remedy them. Hopefully this can be a useful resource for anyone looking to improve their employee offering.
Stress and mental health. We’re all aware (now more than ever) that we’re living in an almost entirely digital world. In recent years, there’s been a shift in working practices moving beyond the 9–5: workforces are generally contactable at all hours of the day, which — whether we like it or not — increases the likelihood of mental stress and burnout. The pressure that modern workforces put on themselves to be highly productive all the time can be hugely detrimental to health and wellbeing: in response to stress, the body’s sympathetic nervous system is activated and there’s sudden release of hormones such as cortisol. This chain reaction results in an increase in heart rate, blood pressure and reduced digestive function. Prolonged periods of stress can cause increased anxiety, reduced memory function and headaches. Thankfully, now there’s a much better understanding — and critically, an awareness — of these issues in the workplace, recognising that down time is essential component of productivity. Ultimately, as employers, we have a role to play in alleviating these pressures.
Work/life balance has been integral to Talis since day one. Given the previous career paths of our founding team, Talis was founded to enable a more balanced life for its employees. There will undoubtedly always be busy periods, but balance is always promoted by our management. Talis is investing in its team through allowances for employees to use in their down time, compromising of an allowance for books, as well as a mental health subsidy which can be used for anything that contributes to a healthier mind. Some employees have subscribed to apps like Calm and Headspace; as mental health and physical health are so closely interlinked, others have invested it in fitness programmes and online yoga subscriptions. We’re passionate about supporting our founders’ mental health, and we support our own team in the same way.
Fitness, diet and health. Often, the first thing to fall by the wayside during busy working periods is physical fitness, diet and health. When faced with the decision between the gym and spending quality time with family and friends, the latter (understandably) usually comes first. There’s absolutely a role for employers to play here in ensuring that that teams are physically fit and well: employees spend a huge portion of their life in the office, at work events and attending meetings across the city (and sometimes internationally). Physical activity contributes to better brain function and productivity, as well as reducing the risk of developing chronic diseases.
Since its early days, Talis has invested in a fitness programme for its employees. We hold group personal training sessions on Wimbledon Common (and in the COVID era — via Zoom!) three lunchtimes a week, available to all employees. This way, our team isn’t forced into a decision between exercise and spending time with their families and friends in the evening. This year we implemented the Cycle to Work scheme which enables employees to purchase a bike and pay it back to their employer (tax-free) over the course of a year. Bikes, and their accessories, can be hugely expensive — and commutes can be draining and time-consuming — so enabling employees to incorporate exercise into their commutes to Wimbledon has been a great success. We’ve kept our office open throughout lockdown (while ensuring it’s a COVID-compliant workplace) for employees to use for mental health purposes, and cycling enables employees to avoid public transport. As an additional benefit, we offer private medical insurance to our team, above all else to ensure that healthcare is easily accessible for the team, and that it doesn’t cause unnecessary emotional or financial stress.
Physical fitness is supplemented by good nutrition. Diet is an area I’m really passionate about: the knock-on effects of poor nutrition can be devastating to brain function, digestive health and hormone imbalance. A regular and high intake of sugar can elevate cortisol levels further, keeping the body in a stress response which shuts down digestion. We provide our staff with healthy breakfasts every day, free lunches on a Friday, and an extensive selection of healthy snacks to ensure our team is adequately nourished. The beauty of sharing regular meals together like this is that it really enables us to connect as a team on a personal level.
Parental leave policies that suit the modern world. If you’re a company that cares about gender parity — which we all should be — there needs to be serious consideration around what kind of parental leave you offer. The statutory leave in the UK is not even remotely fit for purpose for the modern family (more on this here!). Countries like Sweden are really setting the standard on this front, but businesses based in the UK can’t rest of their laurels waiting for the regulation around statutory parental leave to change. How will women ever reach higher positions if the responsibility for a newborn can only be allocated to a new mother? With gender parity being a particularly critical issue in the tech and VC world, companies in this space should give real consideration to how statutory regulations are fuelling the gender divide.
Developing a new parental leave policy was a significant project we implemented this year. I spent a lot of time reviewing the policies published by Kindred and Frontline (well worth a read for anyone rethinking their policies) which provided a fantastic framework for Talis’ policy. One policy we implemented after reading Kindred’s article was the option for 4 days a week for 18 months. As Kindred puts it:
“This “burn-in” period allows parents to re-engage with their career in a significant way and pick up the majority, if not all, of their key responsibilities, while spending an extra day at home each week”.
We implemented this for both men and women at Talis. I’m proud to say that our policy goes well beyond the statutory allowance and provides flexibility for both mothers and fathers, as well as adoption:
In terms of maternity leave we offer 16 weeks at 100% of your normal salary; 8 weeks at 50% of your normal salary, and 5 weeks at the basic rate of SMP, as well as the option to return to work on a reduced 4 day schedule up to 18 months from the start of maternity leave for full pay
Paternity leave comprises of 6 weeks paid leave at 100% of your basic salary, to be taken any time within 12 months of birth; as well as the option to return to work on a reduced 4 day schedule for up to 18 months for full pay
Our adoption leave policy mirrors our maternity leave policy, but it’s available to both men and women. Adoption leave is made up of 24 weeks of ordinary adoption leave and a further 28 weeks of additional adoption leave.
Building an inclusive and forward-thinking culture. Modern workforces are increasingly conscious of the moral and ethical position that their employer takes on issues that affect their industry.
The venture capital industry (and finance and tech more broadly) is notorious for fuelling the ‘pale, male and stale’ archetype: you only need to glance at the stats to see that women and all non-white ethnic groups are massively underrepresented in this space. Secondly, the startup world to this day still fuels the mentality that founders should run themselves into the ground until burnout to be successful. These dangerous archetypes can be fuelled or remedied by a VC, depending on the stance and the action that you take as a firm.
Over the past few years, we’ve made some real progress in establishing ourselves as a forward-thinking business when it comes to these issues. Every single member of the Talis team wants to proactively address these issues, so we established a diversity and inclusion working group that looks at every facet of how we can become a more inclusive business. We’ve joined movements like Moving Forward; we’re looking into the Diversity VC Diversity Standard (which we’re in the process of completing at the time of writing); we’re holding Office Hours for underrepresented groups; we’re implementing the Act One Ventures Diversity Rider taking part in mentorship schemes like LaunchIt; we’re holding unconscious bias training for the team, and we’re developing an inclusive hiring process at Talis. While the reality is that it will take years of progress to see real change in the industry, ultimately we’re proud that we’re proactively finding tangible ways to tackle the issues that our industry faces. Taking a proactive stance on these issues is, to me, a huge element of employee wellbeing.
We’ve also embarked on a mental health support programme for our founders (more on this here), a topic that the whole team feels hugely passionate about. The programme was developed because the pandemic naturally brought to light some of the issues that our founders and their teams were facing. Founders are statistically more likely to suffer from mental health issues than any other profession, and we all agree that VCs have an inherent responsibility to look out for their founders.
To conclude — employee wellbeing is one of the most important components in the happiness and function of any business. Employee packages that focus on employee wellbeing result in higher morale, better retention and boosted productivity: and businesses need to be proactive in their approach and listen to their teams in how they can best support them. The pressures of the modern day working life are intense, and there’s a huge responsibility for employers to care for their employees holistically. It’s the right thing to do, and ultimately: it’s good for business.