Tracey Knowles, Chief People Officer at Wirex: “Understanding that ‘you don’t know what you don’t know’ has been transformative.”

Sometimes we warn you to keep hold of your credit card before reading an article about shiny new tech. This time we’ll tell you to keep your CV tucked away, as by the end of our interview with Tracey Knowles, Chief People Officer at Wirex, you’ll most likely want to switch careers to work in HR.

There are two reasons why. One is Tracey’s obvious and infectious enthusiasm for the role, describing HR as somewhere you can “effect positive change” on the people you work with and the business you work for. The second is that this is such a fast-moving area; one where technology continues to drive change. We’ll leave you to find out why Tracey has some hesitations around AI’s role, however…

Related reading: The biggest challenges for Fintech in Africa in 2024

Tell us about your role at Wirex

I currently hold the position of Chief People Officer at Wirex, a role I’ve proudly held since March 2022. My leadership extends to a team of highly skilled professionals specialising in HR, Culture, Recruitment and Learning & Development. People often ask about what a typical day as a CPO at Wirex entails, and the truth is, there’s no such thing as “typical” in this role.

Tracey Knowles Chief People Officer at Wirex
Tracey has over 18 years of experience in the dynamic field of talent management and human resources.

Each day unfolds with its own unique challenges and a wealth of variety. In smaller to mid-sized companies like Wirex, CPOs often find themselves as generalists, deeply involved in all aspects of HR. This is precisely why I chose to work in a company of this size. In larger corporations, there’s more room for specialisation. Yet, no matter how meticulously you plan, HR remains an unpredictable adventure most days.

My daily responsibilities usually span a range of activities. They include delving into HR analytics and reporting, guiding employees through OKR [objectives and key results] planning and performance reviews, conducting interviews to evaluate potential candidates for open positions, collaborating with the broader HR and Talent team to address diverse business needs, and managing critical functions like payroll, benefits, culture, social initiatives, wellbeing and culture and other facets of employee relations. So, as I often say, each day brings a fresh set of challenges and surprises, and that’s precisely what makes me passionate about my role!

What made you pursue a career in HR? And what advice do you have for anyone considering a career in HR?

My journey into HR was far from predestined. In fact, the concept of human resources didn’t even cross my mind until my late teens. My role in the professional world led me to a career in sales after college, an experience I absolutely adored. I found immense joy in connecting with new individuals and had a great curiosity about human nature. Surprisingly, I excelled in sales. It was during this time that I ventured into the realm of recruitment, a facet of HR that continues to hold a special place in my heart.

Since 2005, I’ve dedicated myself to the fields of HR generalist, spanning recruitment, talent management, and the broader landscape of human resources, and I’ve never once regretted my choice. The driving force behind my commitment to HR is the opportunity it provides to effect positive change. Over the years, my career advanced rapidly, thanks in no small part to the privilege of working for exceptional organisations and being guided by remarkable mentors and managers.

For those contemplating a career in HR, I’d offer this advice: it’s more than just a job; it’s a calling. To excel in HR, you must possess a genuine passion for driving positive change. It’s a challenging path, and there are moments when recognition might be scarce, but the intrinsic rewards are immeasurable. With this in mind, seek out diverse experiences in various industries and departments. HR professionals should possess a comprehensive understanding of every facet of a business, making the need for strong commercial acumen and broad business knowledge paramount. Never cease to question, and most importantly, find passion in what you do!

We hear about terms like quiet quitting and lazy Jane jobs, indicating a shift in employees’ approach to work post-pandemic. Is this something you’ve seen at your work? And how are you reacting to it?

Terms like “quiet quitting” and “lazy Jane jobs” may sound new to some people, but the underlying behaviours and challenges they represent have been part of the workplace landscape for years, even pre-pandemic. What the pandemic did was shed a brighter light on these issues due to the rapid shift to remote work and the increased focus on employee well-being.

At Wirex, we acknowledge that these behaviours aren’t new but are evolving in response to changing work dynamics. Like many businesses, we have seen instances of employees feeling disengaged, burned out or disconnected from their work. As an HR leader, my approach has been to try to address these issues proactively rather than merely labelling them with trendy terms.

Related reading: What’s lazy-girl jobs? The TikTok work trend tech companies should know about

We’ve turned up our efforts to support our employees’ well-being more, recognising that a healthy and engaged workforce is central to our business’ success. This includes flexible work arrangements (hours and remote working) – we have chosen not to enforce a specific amount of days back in the office. We have increased our mental health support by partnering with phenomenal occupational health services, providing excellent Employee Assistance Programme resources and training in-house Mental Health First Aiders.

Furthermore, we encourage open dialogue with our employees to understand their challenges and concerns. By fostering a culture of trust and empathy, we aim to address underlying issues and create an environment where employees feel trusted to do the job we hired them for.

My personal opinion is that while the terminology may change, an employer’s commitment to their employees’ well-being and proactively addressing workplace challenges should remain constant.

How do you think offices as we know them will change in the next decade?

The transformation of offices over the next decade is a topic that’s both exciting and vital for businesses and employees. I see some significant changes on the horizon around the need to prioritise flexibility, technology, well-being, sustainability and culture.

One of the challenges that HR leaders will face is how do we ensure that our office spaces align with our employees’ evolving needs and preferences, whilst continuing to promote productivity, maintain high levels of engagement, and give our people a sense of purpose in our workforce.

And do we really need fixed office spaces anymore? How we positively influence organisational behaviour and culture in this new world of work is a real conundrum.

Post-pandemic, what are your thoughts on flexible work trends and how do you think they’ll shape the upcoming years? 

Post-pandemic, remote, hybrid and flexible work trends have become integral to the future of work, and I believe that businesses that fail to embrace it will struggle to attract and retain good talent. These things offer numerous advantages for our people, including improved work-life balance, access to a global talent pool, increased retention and cost savings on office space.

That said, it’s not as straightforward as it sounds and their success depends on effective communication, collaboration and maintaining a strong company culture. We operate a very flexible approach to where our employees want to work. We’ve chosen to focus on strengthening existing policies, developing new ones and utilising technologies that support these new ways of working while ensuring employee well-being and productivity.

I envisage these trends continuing to evolve, with organisations finding innovative ways to blend in-person and remote work to meet the needs of their workforce and business objectives. It’s essential for businesses to stay adaptable and responsive to these changes to attract and retain top talent. There are many challenges that surround this for employers, large and small.  

What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received and how has it shaped your career?

Throughout my career, I’ve been fortunate to have exceptional managers and mentors who imparted valuable wisdom. One particularly impactful piece of advice I’ve carried with me, and increasingly value as I’ve grown more seasoned in my HR role, is the importance of recognising my own limitations.

This bit of advice was given to me during a mid-imposter syndrome meltdown when my boss at the time told me it’s okay, stop putting yourself under pressure, no one expects you to have all the answers.

Understanding that “you don’t know what you don’t know” has been transformative. It has taught me that it’s perfectly acceptable to admit when I lack knowledge or answers. Earlier in my career, I used to grapple with intense pressure to possess all-encompassing knowledge, fearing that any gaps would portray me as inadequate and erode confidence in my abilities. However, over time, I’ve come to realise that authenticity and transparency are far more appreciated than attempting to bluff my way through challenges!

This advice has shaped my career by instilling in me the virtues of humility and continuous learning. It has encouraged me to seize opportunities for personal and professional growth, actively seek knowledge, and promote a culture of open communication within my HR teams. Ultimately, it has not only enriched my own development but has also bolstered the trust and confidence that colleagues and superiors have in my capabilities (and of course taken a huge amount of pressure off my shoulders!).

What are the top three challenges HR professionals face today? 

  • Talent acquisition in today’s competitive landscape: The ongoing mission to find and retain top talent remains a paramount challenge for HR professionals. In industries like ours, crypto and fintech, where many of the skills are in high demand and short supply, the competition for qualified candidates is intense. Additionally, candidates often receive multiple job offers simultaneously, making talent acquisition an even more daunting task.
  • Remote work and virtual culture: The rise of remote work has necessitated the creation of a positive virtual workplace culture, which presents a significant challenge. HR and leadership teams are continually exploring innovative strategies to keep remote employees engaged, motivated and aligned with organisational goals. Initiatives such as setting clear Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) and implementing development programs are essential in this endeavour and something that we use to help us in this area.
  • Mitigating employee attrition: Employee attrition poses a dual challenge for HR teams. Not only is it challenging to identify and secure top talent, but the high rate of employee turnover further compounds the issue. High attrition rates can have a detrimental impact on a company’s ability to achieve its objectives, particularly when employees depart within the first six to 12 months of their tenure. Addressing this issue is complex and requires a multifaceted approach to improve employee retention and engagement. There are no quick wins in this challenge!

Can you give us an example of how your team leverages technology and how that has helped Wirex?

We possess an excellent HRIS [human resources information system] that enables us to optimise operations, improve efficiency and maintain control over our data. This has empowered our team and helped the company in many ways, such as effective data administration, streamlined recruitment procedures, improved employee experience with self-service portals, data-backed decision-making and enhanced compliance monitoring and reporting to mention a few positives.

Furthermore, in collaboration with our IT & Infrastructure Team, we have established multiple automated processes within our HRIS, facilitating seamless task execution in areas like payroll and asset management.

What do you perceive are some of the risks of deploying AI in the workplace?

We are not actively using AI in our people processes currently, however, I’m personally a champion of AI in the workplace as I see it offers numerous benefits. In terms of HR-specific processes, however, I think it also comes with certain risks and challenges which need to be considered. Specifically risks around bias and fairness, data security and privacy concerns and ethical dilemmas are just a few areas which spring to mind. Of course, with careful thought and planning these risks can be mitigated.

What is an HR initiative you’ve spearheaded that you are particularly proud of?

Here at Wirex we recently introduced a quarterly employee recognition programme called “The WoW Factor,” where “WoW” stands for the “Way of a Wirexer” (embracing a touch of cheesiness, because who doesn’t appreciate a bit of fun?!). This program revolves around our core values: Result, Team, Innovation, Product and Trust. Employees can nominate their peers in each category, and we celebrate both winners and runners-up in each category.

It’s a fantastic way to reward and acknowledge those individuals who consistently go above and beyond, embodying the values of a true “Wirexer”. I’m super proud of our programme.

More great content for HR professionals

We thank Tracey for finding the time to do this interview. Here’s what we think you should read next:

Avatar photo
Tim Danton

Tim has worked in IT publishing since the days when all PCs were beige, and is editor-in-chief of the UK's PC Pro magazine. He has been writing about hardware for TechFinitive since 2023.