How to Build a Company Around Employee Experience

Rick Hammell of Atlas shares his experience on learning the value of an employee-centered culture through company growth.

Some­times it takes a trau­mat­ic work expe­ri­ence to inspire the cre­ation of a com­pa­ny — to make sure that expe­ri­ence doesn’t hap­pen again. That’s the sto­ry of CEO Rick Ham­mell and his team at Atlas.

Rick recent­ly stopped by The Brag­Wor­thy Cul­ture Pod­cast to talk about the ori­gins of Atlas and how its inter­nal cul­ture reflects the way in which Atlas wish­es to be of ser­vice to its customers.

Atlas helps com­pa­nies to com­pete in the glob­al econ­o­my, with the idea that busi­ness­es should employ who­ev­er they want, wher­ev­er the tal­ent exists. Atlas is the largest direct employ­er of record (EOR). It uses an exper­tise-enabled tech­nol­o­gy plat­form that deliv­ers flex­i­bil­i­ty for com­pa­nies to expand across bor­ders, onboard tal­ent, man­age com­pli­ance and pay their glob­al work­force, with­out the need for a local enti­ty or mul­ti­ple third-par­ty providers. The plat­form is designed to deliv­er improved user expe­ri­ences and pro­vide self-ser­vice capa­bil­i­ties and real-time insights that lead to improved busi­ness outcomes.

The Origin Story

Rick’s sto­ry with Atlas begins with a gov­ern­ment con­tract as head of HR for a con­trac­tor who was start­ing in Sau­di Ara­bia, Sin­ga­pore and Japan simul­ta­ne­ous­ly. The pay­roll provider he usu­al­ly used didn’t do busi­ness in Sau­di Ara­bia, so Rick had to do some research to try to fig­ure out how to pay his peo­ple in these countries.

He found a com­pa­ny that said they could han­dle what he want­ed and Rick decid­ed to go with them. He didn’t real­ize that this com­pa­ny was going to out­source the pay­roll func­tion­al­i­ty to anoth­er orga­ni­za­tion. At the time, how­ev­er, Rick didn’t know this and con­tin­ued to onboard employ­ees for this project.

When the first pay­roll was due, noth­ing came through. He was get­ting calls in the mid­dle of the night ask­ing about the pay. There were spous­es won­der­ing how they were going to pay their bills. This made a deep impres­sion on Rick. The one thing you nev­er want an employ­ee to wor­ry about is pay or ben­e­fits,” he says.

Because the com­pa­ny Rick had hired was the mid­dle­man, it couldn’t pro­vide help and the pay prob­lem was pro­longed. Even­tu­al­ly, employ­ee morale was at a break­ing point and the solu­tion was to cre­ate their own enti­ties with­in these coun­tries to pow­er pay­roll. When oth­er com­pa­nies heard about this solu­tion, they called Rick and said that they were hav­ing the same prob­lems and asked, Can we use your enti­ties, too?”

This was Rick’s light­bulb moment that led him, 18 – 24 months lat­er, to set up a busi­ness mod­el that could fix the prob­lem. He sold his house and used all the pro­ceeds to cre­ate the plat­form, so that no one who want­ed to employ peo­ple in oth­er coun­tries would have to go through what he went through on that orig­i­nal project.

You Can’t Do That

Of course, cre­at­ing this kind of plat­form does car­ry a fair amount of risk across legal juris­dic­tions that Rick at first wasn’t famil­iar with. But he was com­mit­ted to doing it cor­rect­ly, in full com­pli­ance with reg­u­la­tions and laws.

The com­pe­ti­tion was say­ing that there was no way this could be done — in part because no one was doing it. Eight years lat­er, all the com­peti­tors are try­ing to fig­ure out how to go direct, have more con­trol and ditch the third-par­ty out­source model.

Focus on the Employee Experience

Rick remem­bered those pained phone calls from that orig­i­nal missed pay­roll and want­ed Atlas to be entire­ly focused on the employ­ee expe­ri­ence. First, it need­ed to work, which includ­ed find­ing out how to do busi­ness in these dif­fer­ent coun­tries, how their social secu­ri­ty and pen­sions worked and how to move mon­ey with­out penal­ties. Then they need­ed to track what was cus­tom­ary (expect­ed in a giv­en coun­try or cul­ture) and what was statu­to­ry (required by law). These stan­dards had to be incor­po­rat­ed as well. Once these process­es were dis­cov­ered, they need­ed to be stream­lined. That’s been Atlas’ for­mu­la from the start until the present day.

When a com­pa­ny part­ners with us,” Rick says, we’re help­ing them cre­ate and be part of the over­all cul­ture they’re look­ing to estab­lish by being a com­pet­i­tive employ­er in that mar­ket. One of the pieces of the puz­zle is how to make things sim­pler for every­one.” Rick fig­ures that Atlas is doing its job if its clients are free to focus on grow­ing their busi­ness instead of wor­ry­ing about pay­roll, ben­e­fits and compliance.

Practicing What You Preach

Atlas is an Amer­i­can com­pa­ny but it oper­ates in over 160 coun­tries and sup­ports 98 lan­guages. That means that the ser­vice it pro­vides to oth­er coun­tries is a ser­vice it needs itself: mak­ing sure that it can sup­port its 500 world­wide employ­ees in their respec­tive cul­tures and time zones. That includes hav­ing an employ­ee rela­tion­ship coor­di­na­tor” in the time zone and coun­try of a giv­en employ­ee that can speak the lan­guage and nav­i­gate the spe­cial vocab­u­lary of pay and benefits.

This also means that Atlas is putting com­pa­ny lead­er­ship in these regions. These lead­ers are sit­ting at exec­u­tive-lev­el meet­ings to sup­port glob­al expansion.

Give Feedback

Rick views the build­ing of Atlas as an ongo­ing process. His staff are used to him quot­ing his grand­moth­er: A closed mouth nev­er gets fed.” He wants his team mem­bers to feel that their voic­es are impor­tant and that if they don’t speak up, noth­ing that’s bro­ken can be fixed.

Anoth­er aspect of hear­ing those voic­es is hear­ing con­vic­tion and diver­si­ty. If we have 100 dif­fer­ent ideas, we want to hear some real pas­sion behind those 100 ideas, even if we only end up going with 10.”

Anoth­er quote Rick ref­er­ences often is, If you think you’re doing your best, do the best to some­one bet­ter.” Beware of being stuck with­in lim­it­ing beliefs. When you believe in your­self, you believe that there’s an oppor­tu­ni­ty to be suc­cess­ful and you’re going to push your­self to the limit.

Rick shared a sto­ry about a famous exper­i­ment with mice in which they were put in water to test how long they would swim before get­ting out. Some mice died after a giv­en peri­od but those that were pulled out after 15 min­utes, dried off and then put back in the water, those mice kept swim­ming for 17 hours! They had remem­bered that if they swam they would get rescued.

Rick believes it’s the job of lead­er­ship to let teams know that even though they may feel that they are at their lim­its, they were hired because of their poten­tial. They have the capa­bil­i­ty to keep swim­ming.” By bring­ing this out in their staff, by push­ing them, Atlas lead­er­ship wants to show them what it takes to be the best to some­one better.

Check Out the Full Episode

Learn more about build­ing a bet­ter employ­ee expe­ri­ence with Rick by lis­ten­ing to our full inter­view on Apple or Spo­ti­fy.

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