Bringing an Open-Talent Mindset to HR
As featured on Staffing.com
When you think about a talent company, what roles come to mind? More than likely it’s a project manager, software developer, or copywriter. Have you ever thought about remote HR freelancers?
Today, Paul is joined by Emma El-Karout, founder and managing director of One Circle, an online platform connecting businesses with on-demand, freelance HR experts from around the world. One Circle provides businesses with access to quality HR consultants that can support the full employee lifecycle, providing organizations with transparent reviews, track records, and a secure payment ecosystem.
Paul and Emma discuss the events of her childhood that inspired her work and world outlook, the disruption of the traditional HR role, and how One Circle is empowering HR leaders to take their rightful place in the talent economy while providing in-house HR teams with an infusion of innovation, creativity, and knowledge sharing.
Transcript of this episode
When you’re driving digital transformation, you need to ensure that the roles and responsibilities as is today are crafted, but as well, what are the new roles of responsibilities that you require as part of your digital transformation? And this is where you need an HR person with depth of expertise and organization design and organization effectiveness because they will help you to craft the organization of your future.
There’s a revolution taking place right now. Talent and intelligence are equally distributed throughout the world, but opportunity is not. The talent economy, the idea that at the center of work is the talent, is the individual.
Companies today face a global war for talent. And high-skilled talent is demanding flexibility around the way they work and the way they live.
This podcast brings together thought leaders, staffing experts, and top freelancers to talk about the evolving nature of work and how companies can navigate these changes to remain competitive, drive innovation, and ensure success.
Welcome to the Talent Economy Podcast. I’m your host, Paul Estes. When it comes to HR, the conversation about the talent economy is usually focused on how human resource managers are responding to freelance talent and their efforts around creating a strong remote culture.
Today, I’m speaking with Emma El-Karout, founder and managing director of One Circle, an online platform connecting businesses with on-demand, freelance HR experts from around the world.
One Circle provides businesses with access to quality HR consultants that can support the full employee lifecycle, providing organizations with transparent reviews, track records, and a secure payment ecosystem.
Hi everyone. Thanks a lot, Paul, for having me. I’m the founder of One Circle HR. I’m speaking to you today from Johannesburg, South Africa.
Well, thank you so much for taking the time. When I saw the work that you were doing with One Circle, trying to empower HR to lean into the talent economy, to reach out to on-demand HR freelancers, I was fascinated.
It’s one thing for companies to engage software developers and designers and others, but the idea that HR would reach out and engage freelancers is one thing I look forward to talking about. But before we get there, I want to talk about your journey a little bit.
I understand that you grew up in Lebanon, especially during the Lebanese War. Tell me about that experience and how it led you to where you are today.
Wow. Yeah, so I am originally Lebanese, I grew up in Lebanon as you said, during the Lebanese War. When I look back, it was a tough experience, definitely when you grew up and all of your childhood, all what you remember is actually bombshells and shelters.
But then again, now I feel more grateful and thankful for that experience because I feel like it made me who I am. It’s made me more resilient. I can say that. Most of my childhood, I spent it in the shelter, bomb shelters, and we had shortage of food, shortage of clean water. We didn’t know when we will see clear skies, et cetera.
So, being surrounded with all of this adversity, it makes you stronger. You become more of a
problem solver. You find a solution for anything. What’s your other alternative, right? You need to find a solution. You learn how to work with what you have.
Right now, as we are having this discussion, a lot of countries are still in lockdown, we are transitioning in and out of lockdown where I am. And a lot of people are actually complaining. For me, this was like five-star luxury, because at least I can see clear skies.
I have amazing food, clean water, I’m in my own house. I don’t have to worry about bombs and then all of that.
So yeah, I look back at this time and I think that in a way, it’s made me who I am, and a lot of the Lebanese as well who grew up during this period also share the same feeling.
That’s amazing. I think one of the things that I see a lot of people struggling with from a professional perspective is an uncertain future. They look at the job market, they look at technology, they thought they’d have one career but they might have three or four. And I think something you said [that] was really powerful is the power of resiliency.
How did you get involved in human resources? Help me understand what you were looking to solve, or the problem that you were looking to solve.
So even during the war, I actually managed to finish my studies in Lebanon. I did my Bachelor’s degree. I did a master’s degree in the American University.
During that period, this is when I started as part of my studies to actually intern in one of the startup consulting companies that were back then in Lebanon. And this is how I started my career in HR. And I loved it.
I think one of my points of strength actually is that I’m able at any point in time to maybe put myself in other people’s shoes, understand them. I’m very grateful to have a good emotional intelligence.
And I think that’s helped me out as well. So I enjoyed it. I enjoyed the learning process as well. Because I was learning at the same time as being part of an organization that was helping other people learn.
And yeah, this is how I got into the HR space. After consulting, I started working in hospitality, and I had the privilege of actually being part of hotels and theme parks that were starting up.
So I had to basically be involved with setting up the full HR department, hiring everybody from the GM all the way to kitchen staff, et cetera. So it was an amazing, great experience. And then that whole spirit and culture that you feel you are part of.
So you are at the same time building that culture and you’re building relationships. And you are part of this team that is actually going to open this property. It’s such an amazing feeling to be part of an opening team of a business, whether it’s a restaurant, whether it’s a hotel, et cetera.
There’s such a rush and being at the heart of it, finding the right people, making sure that they are ready, them feeling empowered, having all of the knowledge that they need, it’s so powerful.
And yeah, I fell in love with it. And more than 20 years afterwards, I’m still in the same field.
Now it’s more technology-driven HR, but yeah, still there.
The power of being able to give people opportunity and watching them find their place or find something that wakes them up and allows them to provide value has got to be a rush of an amazing experience.
Yeah. And this is actually one of the values of One Circle – which is creating opportunities for other people, but as well, bringing those opportunities closer to where the people are. So leveraging on technology to provide access to those opportunities.
And in countries, for example, like South Africa or the African continent where there’s lack of job opportunities but there are amazing skills out there, great depth of expertise. And that’s one of the things that actually drive me is opening those doors of opportunities to people.
That’s an amazing, powerful feeling when you are able to achieve that and help other people as well to see it.
One of the things that I talk a lot about on this show, we don’t have a lack of technology that allows us to reach beyond location boundaries. It’s a lack of will in some cases, and a lack of insight, a lack of that inspiration, I think the work that you are doing is extremely powerful because it’s in a place in human resources that can make a real difference in the way organizations look at diversity and their responsibility to provide opportunity outside of their location.
One of the things that you talk about with One Circle is designed to combat those societal issues. And when you decided to start One Circle and decided to really lean into the talent economy and democratize opportunity, what issues were at the core or the forefront of the problem you are solving?
One of the main issues is that actually: the lack of opportunities in developing countries. There’s very high unemployment, but at the same time, there are greater schools that are here and depth of expertise.
So what is happening is because of the high unemployment and very high youth rate from a demographics perspective, more than 50% of the actual populations are actually young below the age of 27.
So, you will see that there’s a lot of people that are actually moving into earlier retirement or pushed into retirement because there are blockers in their positions.
And because they need to move out in order to create opportunities for others. So what’s happening is that those people are what we call the sandwich generation.
I’m a member of the sandwich generation.
So we are still taking care of our own parents, but at the same time, we are taking care of our own kids. So it’s like, you need to earn, you don’t have that option.
And being pushed into retirement when you are not ready – neither financially, nor psychologically, nor emotionally – is destructive. So it pushes those people into depression. And it creates a lot of pressure on both layers: the parents’ layer and the kids.
Because as well, you can’t support them anymore. And this is one of the main problems that I think very few people are looking at it. That’s one. And this is where I feel technology can actually connect those people to opportunities, then get them to work on projects completely virtually and use their skills and the years of experience that they have. So this is one.
The other bit is females and women who are sometimes, they have to leave their career or make that choice between building a family or having a career. And at some point, I was one of them. I was always trying to strike this balance being a mom of three kids, and I never was able to strike that balance. And it was at the expense of my own kids because I am very driven.
I, sometimes when I look like, I think, how did my kids actually grow? This is where I think that we should be able to have to do this choice – to choose family or at the same time, be able to do meaningful work virtually and digitally. And that’s the other bit that I feel was a good drive for me because it came as well from a personal space.
If you look back six months ago, the idea that flexible work was possible, many organizations said, “No, look, you have to be able to drive to this office.” Which means you have to live within 75 miles. No matter where in the world. And now, many people are forced to work from home and experience flexible work.
Now, it’s not the same because it’s working from home during a pandemic, which is very different than traditional remote work. But there’s a lot of lessons that I think people are learning, and I want to get your perspective. One of the things that I’m hearing from people is they’re starting to rethink their relationship with work and how they want to live.
They’re at home with their kids. They’re having more flexibility to do maybe things that they hadn’t done before. What are you hearing from people during this very unique and unprecedented time?
You hear that word, it’s a catalyst for what is happening, but actually, one of the great benefits is that it created a level of trust between the employers and their people.
So even businesses who were not ready to give more flexibility or to adopt remote work approach, et cetera – whether hybrid or full-on remote regardless – there was that lack of trust on whether the people will be able to deliver, whether they will have the same level of productivity, whether it’s a control issue, et cetera. So there was that fear and lack of trust. So when the pandemic pushed everybody overnight to adopt a work-from-home approach, they realized that actually, things are still working, how people are still delivering.
They’re finding a way to work even while being at home, the whole family remote, there’s remote studying, et cetera. So it’s both that level of trust but as well from the other side, I feel that a lot of people who didn’t know how they’re going to be able to work from home started trusting their own selves. I’m capable actually to take control and charge of my own time.
I’m able to plan my day to deliver virtually, to collaborate with everybody else. I can manage my own time. And that trust that strikes that feeling of autonomy. And it’s so powerful because you feel like suddenly you are in control of your day and you are in control of your deliverables.
And it’s an amazing feeling, right? I can hear a lot of people, but not only online, a lot of our connections, but as well, a lot of the consultants that we hear from One Circle is that this is the new normal, right? It came out of adversity.
We were pushed into it, but nobody wants to go back to commuting on the roads, being stuck in traffic, having to waste a couple of hours just going back and forth. To add to all of this, there’s that level of maybe, I usually call it the bio trust. How much can I trust that the place that I’m going to is actually sanitized there, everybody is respecting social distancing, et cetera? – so when I come back home, I wouldn’t bring an infection to my own family.
So there’s a lot of factors that are there that are helping out, that people are accepting this new normal, I was actually enjoying it.
One of the things that I was thinking as you were talking about how through this adversity is bringing this trust. It’s also building resiliency. When you were talking about how you tried to balance family and work, and you had to go to a place to work and it was taxing, the resiliency that this new world is building out of adversity is one of the lessons I think people are starting to understand.
They’re starting to rethink what does the future looks like when I … used to be uncertain technology and stuff, but now we have a pandemic. Now we have all sorts of things that are causing uncertainty on an unprecedented level and leaning into resiliency, leaning into what we can learn in this moment is critical.
I want to take a second to talk about One Circle, the company that you started. But the first thing I want to ask is – in my experience, when I go to an HR department or I speak to a large HR group, the idea of freelancing in large companies or midsize companies seems risky, right? It seems like, “Oh, there’s all these challenges, and there’s regulations and things that haven’t been settled.
And there’s a lot of risk in hiring remote freelancers.” And so, when you focus on an HR group and go into HR and say, “Hey, dear HR, I’m not asking you to hire a freelancer developer or designer. I think you should hire a freelance HR person.”
How do they respond on two aspects? One is from risk. I’m going to hire this HR person that’s not a full-time employer part of our organization is one part. And the second thing I’ve experienced is fear, right? Is this person going to come in? And the company is going to replace me with this freelancer, what do you hear from your clients around both the risk and the fear?
Yeah, that’s a good point. There’s also one more thing. And then I’m going to talk about that. From a risk perspective, that’s very true. Given the confidentiality of all information that we deal with, with an HR. Now, having said that, when as an organization, I go to one of the big four companies or one of the independent consulting companies, and I hand them over a project to work on, I’m actually trusting the brand. And by extension, I’m trusting the people who are working with the brand.
And that this is the difference when you are dealing with a platform that has vetted as consultants with a platform that has verified the identity of its consultants, whereby you have agreements, there are confidentiality, nondisclosure agreements, et cetera, you need to build that trust with the platform itself.
And then by extension, with the consultants that are an independent consultants that are on that platform. And this is where we are trying to bring more awareness as to this particular subject with the businesses. So yeah, trust is an issue, but we need to build that level of trust.
One of the things that we already have done through One Circle, we actually offer escrow payment services, which means we hold the funds or the fees, the project fees in trust until the project is fully delivered to the client that are happy and satisfied and only then we release the funds.
This is helping a lot because it reduces the risk from a financial perspective. In addition to all the other nondisclosure agreements, et cetera, we allow clients as well to request the consultants to sign whatever agreements that they want and they need as for their internal compliance. So that’s from one aspect. You asked me about trust, and what was the other one, Paul?
The fear. So if I’m an HR professional, one of the things that I’ve seen is that when a freelancer comes in and they’re seasoned and experienced, they may have skills that the group doesn’t have. And so, I’ve seen people feel threatened. Like, “Oh, this person has skills I don’t have, the company may look at them and say, there’s no need for me.”
The thing is, our positioning of our consultants is more to complement the internal teams, the core HR teams within the organization. It’s more of a partnership approach. It’s more of building a long-term relationship approach. So when we talk about a big organization, big organizations, they already have their structured HR departments.
They have their CEOs et cetera, but still, every once in a while, they have to go to the… the Accenture, to the McKinsey, to the Deloitte, et cetera. And this is because they lack, depending on the projects that are coming up, they lack that depth of expertise within the team.
And this is where they look externally. So, One Circle fills in this … I want to call it gap, but it infuses the internal team with a depth of expertise. And I’ve actually had that same discussion a couple of days ago with one of the clients. And the next question to me was, “So what do you mean by infuse my team?” You have your core HR team, who’ve been working with each other for a while, but infusing the team with new skills in your approach and your way of thinking, experience, et cetera, it sparks a certain level of creativity within the team.
And there’s as well the transfer of knowledge that happens along with it. So I wouldn’t think about it more like a replacement, but it’s actually strengthening the core HR team by infusing all of those sit-ups. So I think of One Circle consultants bringing in more cutting-edge creativity, a different way of thinking that adds on to the core team skills.
HR is a very broad umbrella as it relates to the type of work that’s done within organizations. Help me understand some of the areas that your consultants are helping companies accelerate their work.
One of the live cases that you have currently is an organization who’s going through a full ERP and digital transformation. That’s a live example. And when you’re driving digital transformation, there are many important touchpoints where you need to ensure that you have the right depth of HR expertise to help you. One of them is communication. You need to ensure that you’ve got the right internal communication in order to get the buy-in, explain exactly what is happening: what is my role as part of the transformation, am I keeping my job, how my role is going to be different, et cetera. So this is one.
This is where an HR person can help, who… an HR person who has depths of expertise when it comes to engagement and culture and transformation as well. The other touchpoint is when you are driving digital transformation, you need to ensure that the roles and responsibilities as is today are crafted, but as well, what are the new roles of responsibilities that you require as part of your digital transformation? And this is where you need an HR person with depth of expertise in organization design and organization effectiveness because they will help you to craft the organization of your future, to craft the roles and responsibilities.
But at the same time, you require a learning and development specialist to make sure that you help your people who are part of your current organization to go through a full development in order to support this transformation. One of the other things you might require: a performance specialist. Somebody who will look at what are my goals of an organization moving forward into this transformation and how am I going to assess performance, or how am I going to drive performance to achieve those goals. So yeah, these are different touchpoints for example on a live digital transformation.
There’s a lot of other examples, and one of them could be for the current existing pandemic or crisis. There’s a lot of businesses that are currently busy looking at how are we going to drive efficiency, how are we going to do things differently, can I actually do more with less, and if I decided to do more with less, who are the people who can double that or triple that, and how I’m going to combine roles and responsibilities. And this is where you need an HR person to help you out to combine roles, responsibilities, assess the people’s capabilities, but as well, help your organization through the whole transformation, ensure that you still have your core culture and DNA that you’re driving throughout this whole journey reorganizing.
One of the other things which we get a lot of requests on today is learning. So businesses today, they have most of their people working remote, but this is when you need the people mostly to be engaged, to drive digital learning and online learning. But at the same time, psychological safety and psychological wellness. A lot of people don’t realize that when we talk about psychological wellness, there’s the people element in it. So, you need the right coach in order to help out your employees through this journey and to ensure that there’s this psychological safety net that is there.
One of the things that you brought up that I think is really important, especially right now, is that there are consultants out there that have a diversity of experience in this moment, right? They’re working with a number of organizations that are trying to grapple with the pandemic, trying to grapple with psychological safety of their remote teams, trying to figure out how to restructure, and that diversity and those best practices and everything really can help organizations in a pretty profound way versus people that are trying to go through the change themselves, right – trying to experience it themselves and then grapple with the digital transformation that they need.
This is my favorite part of the show. It’s called the rapid-fire section. I’m going to ask you five questions, and I’d like you to say the first thing that comes to your mind. You ready?
Yes. Let’s do that.
What’s one thing about you that’s not on your LinkedIn profile?
I’m very pedantic.
If you could trade lives with anyone for one day, who would it be and why?
One of my kids. And why? It’s to see myself in their eyes. How do they see me? Because I always aspire to be a good parent, but it will be interesting to see how they see me as.
If you were stranded on a tropical island, what two things would you want with you?
Two things, not people.
Two things. That could be people, two things. Got to be things.
I would want my laptop and a wifi connection.
There you go. What book or movie has inspired you the most over the past year.
Actually, it’s not a movie, it’s a series. And you might think it’s funny, but it’s actually the series called Dark. It’s a very powerful series because it gets you to think about alternative worlds that you are living. And yeah, I found that very powerful because I watched it at the right time while as we are going through this whole pandemic. And one of the things that did strike me, and actually, after several nights, I couldn’t actually sleep because I was thinking about it. And I was thinking how we go through life trying to change things and do things differently and push and struggle, and we try to spark things, but there are certain things that you can change and are within your control. But at some point, you need to accept the fact there’s a lot of variables that are around you and that will also shape your journey. So yeah, I found that very powerful. It’s a very smart series as well.
We’ll put a link in the show notes for sure now, and I’m going to check it out this week. What is one word to describe the next decade of work?
Plug and play, I would say. It’s going to be very interesting, and we’re really lucky because we’re living in those interesting times. Businesses today, they can do things so quickly and at a very fast pace, and they have access to amazing resources with great depth of expertise that they can just plug and play as in whenever they want, or they need. I remember days when, as an HR director, I had to hire somebody and just take me six to eight months and sometimes a full year to find that right person with a specific level of skill that is required, what was the right culture fit, et cetera, and it delayed the projects and it cost our organization money.
And I was under a lot of pressure to find those people. Today, we have access to a global talent pool at our fingertips. It’s amazing. It’s so powerful when you know that at any point in time, you can find that specialized person and transformation or an innovation or in whatever is that type of scope that has worked in powerful businesses and you have access to them directly at a very fair market price, and they can defend just … It’s just plug and play within your organization.
Emma, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me today. If somebody wants to get in touch with you or learn more about One Circle, what’s the best way to do that?
They can get in touch with us through our website, which is onecirclehr.com, but we are as well on LinkedIn. I’m on LinkedIn. They can as well find us on Twitter @OneCirclehr. So we’re basically everywhere. They just have to punch in One Circle HR, and they will find us.
There we go. Thank you for sharing your story and your journey to One Circle, and I look forward to following your progress.
Thanks a lot, Paul. Thanks a lot for the opportunity today.
I’m your host, Paul Estes. Thank you for listening to the Talent Economy Podcast. Learn more about the future of work and the transformation of the staffing industry from those leading the conversation at Staffing.com, where you can hear from experts, sign up for our weekly newsletter, and get access to the best industry research on the future of staffing. If you’ve enjoyed the conversation, we’d appreciate you rating us on iTunes, or wherever you get your podcasts, or just tell a friend about the show. Be sure to tune in next week for another episode of the Talent Economy.