Michelle Brooks, Chief People & Culture Officer at Security Compass: “Organisations need to transition from evaluating performance based on time spent in-office to more focus on results”

If you head to Michelle Brooks’ LinkedIn page, you will notice a banner filled with Great Place To Work logos. Including for Professional Development, for Mental Wellness and for Today’s Youth. You don’t win those accolades without a huge amount of work by the HR team, but having interviewed Michelle, who is the Chief People & Culture Officer at Security Compass, those wins come as no surprise.

Why? Because it’s so obvious that Michelle puts a huge amount of thought, care and empathy into every initiative she performs. Over the next few minutes — and we suggest you sit down with a cup of tea or coffee to read this interview to fully appreciate it — you will see that level of attention.

Take the fact that the function of offices are changing. Michelle has already led a change to the layout of Security Compass’ head office in Toronto, to better meet the needs of employees coming in. The company also embraces change, albeit cautiously when it comes to AI; to quote Michelle, “there was a day when we all washed our clothes by hand and used telegrams to communicate”. We all need to change eventually…

Oh, and if you happen to know Michelle’s mother, please tell her to read this article. You’ll find out why.

Related reading: Is bare minimum Monday a bad thing?

Tell us about your role – where do you work, what do you do, etc?

I am the Chief People & Culture Officer at Security Compass, a software security firm headquartered in Toronto. Security Compass has been a people-minded organisation, prioritising cultural values. We’ve had the honour of being named a Great Place to Work for five years running and Canada’s Most Admired Corporate Culture. In my role, I oversee all things people including employer branding, recruitment, people experience, corporate culture and internal communications. 

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

I had no intention of pursuing a career in HR. I started my career in sales and while looking for a new role I met an executive recruiter. I had an aha moment when I realised that a recruiter role could use some of the skills I’d acquired in sales while truly helping people. From there I got into agency recruitment and absolutely fell in love with the field. 

In 2008 when the market turned, I made the transition to corporate recruiting at a tech consulting company. As the firm grew, they needed some HR work and I just kept putting my hand up to help until one day I woke up and realised I was running both recruitment and HR functions. 

With time I moved to progressively more senior HR leadership roles in tech, always leaning on my recruitment background. This is not your traditional career journey to the CPCO role; however, I think it shows what can happen when you are open to career detours.

Career goals are important; however, I think that it can sometimes be limiting. 

My advice is to set more of a career direction instead, then focus on what the business needs and volunteer for work that you find interesting. Those detours will still get you where you want to go, or maybe even somewhere better than you could have imagined.  

We hear about terms like quiet quitting, 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?

Quiet quitting is a new term, but certainly not a new phenomenon. This is just a new take on employee engagement. 

When employees who don’t feel safe, heard or valued become disengaged and stop volunteering their best efforts it can look like quiet quitting. While some of this can be attributed to a shift in work expectations post-pandemic, I think much can also be attributed to the competitive talent landscape and generational trends. 

Things have a bit shifted now, especially in tech, but for the last 15 years it’s been primarily a candidate market. This puts pressure on employers to increase perks and focus intensely on creating engaging work environments for employers or face losing talent.

I’ve also observed that many younger employees are still extraordinarily driven and talented, however, they don’t place work as the centrepiece of their lives like some other generations have been known to do. It’s an interesting adjustment that organisations need to consider when approaching how they hire, engage and retain talent. 

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

In my career, I’ve seen several shifts in how employees use offices. We’ve recently moved offices and used that as an opportunity to realign our office space to the way we work in this post-pandemic world. We just don’t see employees coming in to do solo quiet work now, so we now have 10% of the bookable workstations we had in our old office. 

We’ve used the rest of the space to focus on more collaborative touchdown spaces like soft seating and harvest tables. We also see the greatest volume of people in-office when we have social events or large meetings, so we’ve designed our space to function as an events space. This was a big change for us, but it has shown our employees that we’re embracing a new way of working. 

I think many organisations will adopt similar approaches in the coming decade, however, what I think is most important is that each firm considers what works for them. Too often we see organisations chasing trends instead of really connecting the physical workspace to the working culture they are trying to create. 

My advice is to start by listening to what your employees are saying and observing how they are using the workspace. It’s for them after all!

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

Workplace trends typically evolve slowly over many years; however, the pandemic fast-tracked the trend to embrace more remote or hybrid work.

As organisations try to figure out a more permanent future state, some are realising that they lack the foundational culture and systems to support the shift. High degrees of trust and accountability need to be present for these systems to truly thrive. Also, organisations need to transition from evaluating performance based on time spent in-office to more focus on results. 

Rather than focusing on transforming cultures, many organisations are going back to mandated days in-office. This is being viewed as a middle ground between what employees want and what they perceive as important for the business. If enough organisations embrace this approach, it will become the norm, but I believe it’s a missed opportunity to shift our paradigms to create a more empowered and engaged work culture.

At Security Compass we were already a hybrid work environment pre-pandemic, so we’ve not shifted to a more remote-first approach. We work most of the time from home; however, we encourage employees to come in for key meetings, events, etc so that we can still have some in-person connection. 

I truly believe you can build a strong culture and have deep connections with those you only interact with remotely, but we’ve observed that doses of in-person can fast-track that connection. This approach empowers our team to customise their schedule for their personal needs while also encouraging team members to prioritise connection. I hope that organisations don’t jump on trends, but instead figure out how they can rethink work and customise their strategy for their specific needs. 

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

Very early in my career, my mom gave me the advice to put my hand up and show that I was interested in growing. This advice came when there was a job opportunity at my company, and I was toying with the idea of applying. I knew there were a few people who had been at the company longer than me and were more qualified, so I didn’t figure there was much point. 

Taking her advice, I applied just to show leadership I was interested and in an interesting turn of events, I got the job! The interviewer wasn’t focused on who was next in line, but instead on who he could work well with and who he felt would grow in the role. 

It was a pivotal career moment for me; not because I got the job, but because I realised that by putting my hand up that I could get chosen. I’ve embraced this throughout my career, always jumping into projects and roles that I wasn’t 100% sure I was ready for, and it has served me well. I truly don’t believe I would be where I am now without this advice. 

The funny thing is that my mom just said it in the car randomly and probably has no idea that it has been foundational to my career trajectory. I guess I should tell her!

What are the top three challenges HR professionals face today? 

It’s never been a better time to be an HR professional. The pandemic cast a huge spotlight on the role as organisations turned to us for guidance. HR led the business as they needed to adapt quickly to new ways of work, protect employees and mitigate business risk in the most uncertain times of our working lives. A big challenge now is for us not to squander the opportunity that the pandemic presented, both for us professionally and for our organisations to be people-minded.

Pay transparency is an interesting challenge right now. While some jurisdictions are mandating pay transparency, most of the need is coming from employees expecting more visibility into how compensation decisions are made and pay equity. HR professionals are faced with the challenge of increasing transparency while also still respecting privacy.  

The current economic climate is creating challenges for everyone, particularly those in HR. Employees are upended by the negative economic news and dealing with the highest inflation they’ve seen in their lifetime, while employers are struggling financially. HR professionals are stuck in the middle trying to balance the economic realities. 

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

AI in the workplace is certainly going to introduce new risks and challenges in the workplace. The lack of regulation is my biggest concern, particularly as organisations embed this into technology that will support decision-making. Organisations are now just starting to acknowledge that processes and systems have inequities and barriers. I’d hate to see organisations lose traction on improving this by jumping too quickly into using AI in people-related processes. 

Nonetheless, we cannot be afraid or fight the trend of AI. It is here to stay and can add tremendous value. I try to remind myself when I get nervous that there was a day when we all washed our clothes by hand and used telegrams to communicate. We couldn’t be where we are today if we weren’t open to change. We have to embrace technology, but like everything, we need to find a well-thought-out and balanced approach to adopting it. 

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

I’m proud of the work we’ve done in Diversity, Inclusion, Belonging & Equity (DIBE). Our organisation’s culture already embedded many of these beliefs, however over the last few years we’ve brought far more intentionality and focused on how to improve systemic barriers. 

The first big hurdle was understanding our population more and getting folks on board with collecting demographic data. This was especially challenging since we are in cybersecurity, so our population is acutely aware of the risks of sharing personal information, however, we were able to roll this out with a lot of communication. While this allowed us to focus on intentional hiring for our under-represented groups, it was the ability for us to better analyse data by demographic group that contributed to positive changes.

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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.