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From Gardening to Qubit: A Conversation with Alistair Fraser

Author Guy Reading

“I’ve learnt that as you grow, it’s important to create company-wide initiatives which have localised nuances.”

From the gardens of Berkshire to Qubit’s offices in London, New York and San Francisco, Alistair Fraser has built a career around getting the most out of people. The former VP of People Operations at Qubit, Alistair has a natural feel for motivating people to do their best work while at the same time making sure they’re happy, fit and healthy. Recently, he’s become the Head of People at Nested.com.

We sat down with Alistair to talk about how you maintain company culture while scaling, avoiding burnout in the modern workplace, and incorporating data into people operations.

Alistair’s key takeaways:

  • People operations is akin to experience management. Pay attention to the needs of each individual employee to enhance their experience of working for your company.

  • Scaling doesn’t have to dilute your culture. Take practical steps, such as moving employees from their home office to your new office, when expanding.

  • Stay vigilant when it comes to burnout. Do your managers know the different signs and symptoms? Address the root cause of the problem.

  • Use data to win arguments. Analytics allows you to make intelligent decisions and manage your team effectively. Always lead with numbers.

  • There’s no right or wrong career path. Alistair started out as a gardener before working for Qubit, so bear in mind that it’s about seizing opportunities when they present themself.

Can you tell us about your time as VP of People Operations at Qubit?

People operations is intrinsically linked to what Qubit does. They’re an experience management platform, which involves building software that clients use to deliver personalised experiences for their online customers.

“I think that people ops is just like experience management. All of our employees – every single one – was exactly like a client with differing needs.”

Any touchpoint an employee had with the company fell under my umbrella. It was my job to understand the team and identify people who wanted lots of career development advice, and those who wanted less attention. This ranged from making sure our office was set up correctly to ensuring our HR policies and guiding principles were aligned with the business.

An important component of this was talent management. We defined a person’s short-term goals and how that integrated with their work at Qubit in order to make them feel valued and rewarded.

“This was all reliant on people coming through the door in the first place, so getting our recruitment spot-on was a priority.”

How did you arrive at Qubit?

It’s a strange story! I ran a landscaping business after finishing my business degree. Gardening has always been a passion of mine, so I took a part-time landscape design course at college. I started at the bottom of the industry, before working my way up and establishing my own company in Berkshire. Around 2010, I moved to Kent with my wife for personal reasons so I began to explore jobs in London.

“Ian McCaig, Qubit’s CMO, announced that he was starting a company with three of his friends from Google. I said that I’d work for free, which I did for two months, receiving only Nando’s and my train fare as payment.”

They offered me a full-time role in the client team, where I stayed for about four years. At that point, I and Dan Shallard, our former COO, were tasked with finding someone to take on a more specialist role in HR. We carried out interview after interview, but had no luck until eventually Dan asked whether I wanted to take on the role.

I knew the company inside and out, and had a close relationship with the people there, so Dan suggested that I see if it suited me. An advantage of the role was that it was new: there were no operations or processes already in place. I was able to build stuff from the ground up, which immediately appealed to me as I’ve always been a very process driven person.

What are the values and culture at Qubit?

“The CTO Emre Baran came up with a mantra that distilled the company’s values — “Voice it, own it, do it.””

This related to our belief about encouraging people to go out and get stuck in. If you’d had an idea, we encouraged you to voice it, rather than letting it fester in the background. If that idea was good, we’d give you the time to own it, and consequently the resources to implement your change and see it through to completion — do it. If it didn’t work, then at least you gave it a shot.

We encouraged everyone to stand up and voice their opinions — I’d say that it was one of the biggest benefits of working for Qubit. We offered free food, subsidised healthcare and wellness rooms, but the real clincher laid in providing the autonomy and freedom to do what you want.

How did you maintain the culture while scaling?

It’s always a challenge when you try to transplant a company culture into a new office location. Our CMO, Ian McCaig, moved to America to make sure we got the fundamentals right. We weren’t trying to avoid putting an American twist on Qubit, but we wanted to ensure we remained true to our core values.

“I’ve learnt that as you grow, it’s important to create company-wide initiatives which have localised nuances.”

We did a lot of practical things to strengthen our identity — from ‘Thank Qubit it’s Friday’ every two weeks, to having a Chief Lifestyle Officer at each office who was elected each quarter to organise social activities.

What are your views on burnout?

It’s a big issue for every company. We used an employee engagement platform called Officevibe, which collects anonymous feedback on ten business metrics. Immediately, we noticed that the wellness metric was routinely one of the lowest scorers, even though we offered perks such as Bupa Healthcare, a cycle to work scheme, and discounted gym memberships. In order to change this, and following the values of the company, I sought out the people who cared passionately about wellness, and provided them with the budget to introduce new wellness initiatives such as yoga.

“We also signed up to Pledge 1% — the CEO pledged 1% of employees’ time annually (2 days) to volunteer on projects in our community. This let employees get out of the office, as well as giving back to the community.”

We proactively educated our managers to look for signs of stress and burnout. Stress manifests itself differently, so it isn’t always expressed as someone holding their head in their hands. The causes of burnout differ, but what is critical is enabling an employee to speak about it openly. Therein lies the problem. People didn’t feel comfortable speaking to HR or their manager about these issues, so we introduced the Bupa Employee Assistance Programme.

Qubit is renowned for being a data-driven business. How important was data during your day-to-day work?

It was drummed into me from my first day. One of the benefits of working at Qubit was the emphasis on using data to prove and disprove hypotheses. A lot of HR departments don’t necessarily take a data-driven approach to employee engagement and management.

“Data helped me understand where I should focus my efforts — whether that was on improving the team’s well-being or concentrating on the next wave of recruitment.”

In recruitment, we used a platform called Greenhouse. One of the metrics that we looked at was the phone screen to physical interview ratio. At one point it was out of kilter, and we pushed through too many applicants for face-to-face interviews. That put massive pressure on our hiring managers. Tracking that data allowed us to identify the problem, quantify it and suggest the best fix. We literally saved hiring managers days each month.

What has been your best learning experience?

Taking on the People Operations role at Qubit! I was hesitant when I received the offer, as I knew exactly where I stood with the client team. Learning through failure happened more than I would have liked it to. A high target rate for hiring new employees in a short space of time meant that disaster was never far around the corner. In retrospect, it was a challenging yet rewarding period.

What would you include on your learning playlist?

My strongest recommendation would be to check out some of the SaaS platforms, such as Namely. The content is often great, with interesting conclusions and opinions backed up by a lot of research. Office Vibe have a fantastic blog about the employee engagement and retention aspect of HR. Their real value lies in the elegant way they guide you through their site. BetterWorks is an excellent source of informations on OKRs and feedback. I find that that the richest resource of some sites is the comments section. Quite frequently, there’s a really good back and forth argument, from which you can get some superb recommendations.

Author Guy Reading