Chief Chat: Allison Velez

Everside Health’s chief people officer talks about the evolution of candor
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Courtesy Allison Velez

· 7 min read

As part of HR Brew’s interview series with HR chief executives, we chatted with Allison Velez, the chief people officer at Everside Health, about what it’s been like to helm the ship at one of the largest primary-care providers in the US during Covid-19. Our conversation, which has been condensed and edited for clarity, covered the importance of listening to your employees, her commitment to working in health care settings, and how to maintain a semblance of balance during these turbulent times.

Something that immediately jumps out about your background is your decision to work in health care settings. I’m curious, what are some things that might be different about working in health care HR that our readers might not expect?

Not to date myself, but I’ve had over 20 years of experience in the HR field, and about half of that time has been in health care. I quickly realized with my first health care role that the work you’re doing day in and day out is actually affecting the welfare and experience of patients. And those patients are real people who have families, jobs, and hobbies.

You have this direct line of sight to the patient in all things you do: whether you’re thinking about how to hire the best physicians, or you’re thinking about how to create the right organizational culture so that those same people you hired are committed to the organization. This makes you feel a really compelling sense of purpose around the work.

I imagine the direct line of sight to the patient is something you’ve been particularly aware of during the last year. Can you tell me what it was like having to come up with the workplace safety standards during the pandemic?

This time period in the pandemic, now coming up on two years, has absolutely been one of the most challenging times of my career. The underlying theme is that we, as HR leaders, have had to balance so many needs, stakeholders, and priorities, and have had to do that in a time where there are more unknowns. I can recall several days at work where what I thought was happening in the morning was different by the afternoon based on new information.

Let’s talk about listening more generally. I hear a lot from HR practitioners that people are their “best asset.” How do you establish those lines of communication? How do you begin the dialogue?

The first aspect of this is setting up a company culture that is open. And that starts with the CEO down. You want a culture that’s open to ideas, curious about things, and asks good questions. The leadership needs to create the right tone and environment for that. The other thing is to have multiple ways that we’re communicating in a two-way, bidirectional manner. And so we have regular town halls, where we open up conversations to all of our teammates, and we answer teammates’ questions: the hard questions, the easy questions, the fun questions, all of them, because we want our teammates to know that they can bring up hard topics and give us feedback or share their ideas.

Between town halls, we have other monthly meetings. We are constantly asking for input on things, whether through surveys or otherwise. From an HR point of view, we have lots of ways that we listen, so we’re almost in a constant dialogue. I take listening really seriously, from a personal point of view in my job, and I will often invite our teammates to write to me directly. And they do. In fact, just before this call, I was just responding to a physician who wrote to me with some questions and some ideas that he wanted to share. For me, as an HR leader, there’s no substitute for hearing from your team, your teammates, directly. I liked unfiltered feedback.

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A phrase that I’ve heard again and again in recent weeks is “candid conversation.” People want candid conversation at every level of the organization, whether it’s the dialogue that you’re describing or in performance reviews. Is this a change in the industry? When do you think this embrace of candor came up in HR?

I love this question. I think it’s been an evolution, and I think it’s increasingly important. People have an expectation now of transparency and direct feedback. They seek out conversations like, ‘Well, what really does it take for me to grow my career or to advance?’

I was training on this topic a couple years ago, and we talked about how candid feedback is a way you can show your teams you actually care about them, that you’re watching and paying attention to their performance. It takes courage as a leader to take the time to communicate in an authentic way. I think it’s infinitely important to do so, and I do think there’s an increasing expectation of it. I think we’re getting better at providing candid feedback as we get more sophisticated about what leadership means and understand better how to help people grow.

Your last response touched on growth, saying that one of the reasons people want transparency is to understand how they might grow and develop at the organization. I’m sure you’ve heard about the so-called Great Resignation, where some people might be leaving due to perceived lack of opportunity. What is something that your team does to identify people who might leave, and how do you show them that you are invested in their development?

The Great Resignation, and the pandemic as well, has changed the employer-employee relationship in a lot of ways, and I think many of those ways are very positive. When we assess flight risk, we think about the teammate from a holistic point of view. We ask: Who are these people as individuals, what are their needs, what is their ideal work location? Those conversations are increasingly personal. They’re specific, and they’re unique.

You know, and I think, historically in HR, we like programs that are consistent, we like to do things the same way for everybody. And I think over the past many years, and now more than ever, it’s much more about seeing the human and the person in front of you that is contributing to the organization.

That’s kind of the perfect segue to my last question: How do you manage all of this as an individual? It’s been a crazy year. How do you find work-life balance?

I try to employ multiple strategies for my own wellness. I’m busy, busy at work. But I’ve also three daughters that are also really active and busy. And so I’m constantly assessing how to make all the pieces of the puzzle fit together.

One strategy is being in continuous learning. I’m listening to a book called Think Again, which is perfect timing for the time, because it relates to how you can reimagine solutions to everyday problems.

I also allow myself to have the opportunity to revisit my priorities—sometimes that is daily, sometimes it’s weekly. This lets me make sure that the most important things are happening first. In this work, that usually means identifying people that need to be first, because they need time or they need attention or they need support or coaching.

The last thing I’ll say is I’m really focused on my own mental health and physical wellness. I think going back to all those basics—eating well, drinking water, and exercising—is really important while you’re trying to juggle so many different competing priorities.

Do you work in HR or have information about your HR department we should know? Contact Susanna Vogel via the encrypted messaging app Telegram (@SusannaVogel) or simply email [email protected].

HR is challenging. HR news doesn’t have to be.

HR Brew keeps you effective in the fast-changing business environment.