Episode 6 – Experience is Everything

On Episode 6 of Up Right & Better, Emily Griffith, the Ambassador of Awesome at FINE, a brand agency for the digital age. Based in the Portland office, she works fast and goes creatively big, empowering people to create their best version of great, while maintaining grace under fire. Curating a bonafide Awesome office culture is a juggling act of operations, studio management, hospitality, event planning, and communications, and no day is ever the same. Emily knows first impressions are lasting, so she makes them meaningful for both staff and clients, taking FINE’s “bring friends” credo and running barefoot with it.

Kristen G: Hi, Welcome back to Up Right and Better, the podcast where we talk about growing businesses up and to the right, and up and better. On this show, it’s not just about scaling for scaling’s sake. It’s about making organizations that deliver value to everyone involved. I’m your host, Kristen Gallagher.

My guest today is Emily Griffith, an absolutely awesome person, whom you’ll see why very soon. Emily is the Ambassador of Awesome at FINE, a brand agency for the digital age. Based in the Portland office, she works fast and goes creatively big, empowering people to create their best version of great, while maintaining grace under fire. Curating a bonafide Awesome office culture is a juggling act of operations, studio management, hospitality, event planning, and communications, and no day is ever the same. Emily knows first impressions are lasting, so she makes them meaningful for both staff and clients, taking FINE’s “bring friends” credo and running barefoot with it. Thanks for joining us, Emily.

So I’d love to dive in, and first off I want to say thank you for being on the podcast, but I’m really excited to talk to you about this. Mainly because, so far, you are pretty much the first person I’ve met who geeks out about onboarding as much as I do. So, for those of us who may not know, would you share a little bit about your background and how you came to be at FINE, now six years ago?

Emily Griffith: Of course, and thanks for having me, of course, Kristen. So, my background leading up to FINE, I had been going to art school and graduated, and was working at a cookie shop called Two Tarts Bakery, as well as a restaurant that’s blown up over the last few years called Olympia Provisions. I was working at the bakery and the restaurant, and the FINE’s, were Two Tarts cookie enthusiasts, and visited the bakery frequently with their kiddos, and we just got to know them from the hospitality side of things. Just like, “Hey! How’s it going? What’s up? What can I get for you today?” kind of situation.

Then we just got to talking about what I was doing at the bakery, which was a mix of marketing, managing, as well as actual farmer’s market managing. So a lot of face time with all kinds of people from all walks of life and you know, pimpin’  little amazing cookies and helping with the design and display of those cookies, and all things bakery. All things cookies. And Kim said, “I don’t know what you’re going to do, but I feel like I want you to come and work for FINE.” “Okay.” Luckily, the owner of Two Tarts is good friends with FINE so that all went okay.

Kristen G: Yeah, it wasn’t like they were stealing you.

Emily Griffith: No, it was a natural evolution. From graduating from college to just going into the industry that I had been going to school for, which is advertising and marketing and a little bit of fashion here and there. And they had a studio management role part-time available at FINE so I just popped into that role and was doing a little bit of hospitality in three different spaces every day. So going to Two Tarts, going to FINE, and then going to OP and juggling that. But we weren’t really sure what path I would take once I was in FINE so started doing reception and hospitality from the agency side of things, and then we started to grow.

The company started having more people move up from San Francisco to Portland and planning to have families and we started to outgrow the house that we were in on NW 23rd. So at that time, I went ahead and went full-time and bid farewell to OP and Two Tarts and began my life as the Ambassador of Awesome of FINE.

Kristen G: I love the job title. I love it.

Emily Griffith: Thank you. It was a casual job title for a long time bestowed upon me by our digital creative director Tsilli Pines. She just went, “Hey, Emily’s our Ambassador of Awesome. She’s doing the awesome things. Rock ‘n roll.” And then it started to really stick and become fertilized. The Ambassador of Awesome roll  is fun, it’s an open title but it allows me to explore all kind of avenues when it comes to our cultural management within the office. I facilitate our in-office concierge duties, and admin duties and onboarding, especially … Just making sure our team has all the stuff they need to be their best selves and make their best work. I act as the facilitator of the heart of our culture and the people side of operations.

Kristen G: That’s wonderful. I’m sure that you know what’s going on at FINE all the time and that you just have this pulse that is probably difficult to find in any other role, which makes you, in my view, like the overseer in a way. Just making sure that people are able to do their best work; I like that you said that earlier, that this is not just about okay, you’ve got a computer and you know how to do what we hired you to do, but realizing that people are multidimensional, multifaceted individuals and they need… That there’s a difference in working in a place that’s got beautiful light and lush green plants and spaces to collaborate and spaces to be alone, and a nice kitchen and things like that versus a cubicle farm, but there’s actually a difference in the kind of work and the kind of people that we become in those spaces.

Emily Griffith: Yeah, for sure. Acting as the connective tissue I think between all of the departments and the leadership and management and bringing in new people, just making sure everybody has a really nice use of communication and facilitating support in really any arena, people need. It’s kind of where I find my special little spot.

Kristen G: Yes. I’m going to talk a little bit about that spot because I have worked for a web design agency. I know that FINE does more than just web but I happen to meet a lot of people; some friends, some acquaintances, through that agency work, and I don’t know that I know of any other agencies who have invested in onboarding quite the way or to the extent that FINE has. So why do you think FINE has invested so much thought and so much heart into onboarding?

Emily Griffith: I think the main thing is that onboarding is going to be key to people’s experience and if you don’t understand the aspects of working out of place or working at the agency, if you just kind of rush into it or are trapped in the cubicle farm as you said, anxiety is going to increase and you’re not going to have your best work or be your best work or be your best self. You might even not even be yourself when you’re at work and I think the big thing for us is we have these credos; “bring friends” and “be human,” “be awesome” and we really do believe those.

I feel like you should be yourself when you’re here and yourself when you’re at home and as we ease you into your workload making sure that you know that we’re supporting you and you have that, I guess acceptance, as you start in the new space, I think that really allows people to just come in with a little more confidence and realize that they can ask questions and be curious or feel clueless for the first couple weeks.

And they know that we know, it’s all going to be okay and it’s all going to work out, so I think that’s why we invest a lot into the onboarding as well as … Onboarding, it’s not just selfless as our HR director says. It’s really important to make people productive as soon as possible and it can take years to get people fully ramped up to where they’re experts in their field and so taking the steps early on to make sure that we’re here to help them grow and learn and succeed is just incredibly important.

Kristen G: I think that that is so important, is realizing that there’s two motivations around onboarding and that, yes, it is about employee experience and allowing them to be comfortable and to work out of that comfort, but it’s also about the business’s bottom line. And I think not everybody realizes that but there is actually a cost associated with not onboarding people and that there’s sort of a down-the-line effect of that. I don’t know if that’s something that you’ve seen or thought about.

Emily Griffith: Oh, definitely thought about and we see it off and on but it’s like the great, awesome, wonderful employees. That’s really, really hard so the onboarding … It’s really hard because the industry’s competitive and there’s a lot of wonderful people out there, it’s like you have to stand out among the rest and I think we really pride ourselves in being authentic and kind and generous. So when we find someone great, the onboarding helps us make sure that we don’t have to do it as often in that role.

If an employee has a bad experience right off the bat or they feel clueless or they don’t understand how they fit into the mix, then they’re not going to last very long and they have to start all over again. We may have lost out on someone amazing just because there was no support to make sure that their role had the best of the best tools available for success, I guess. Yes. I just want to make sure they’re successful personally and professionally. I feel like they can be at FINE and just … The onboarding is the first step.

Kristen G: So you’ve talked a little bit about FINE’s culture and this credo idea that I think is wonderful. I like the concept of a credo rather than maybe specific values. Credo kind of calls to mind like a manifesto or, “This is how we live life.” Whereas I think values have this connotation of being … You can put them up on the posters, around the office and they’re not necessarily integrated into the way that you think about things. But how do you manage to introduce new employees to that culture, into that way of thinking?

Emily Griffith: I think it begins with the interview right off the bat. When we interview people, we have just our normal attitudes and we treat them with respect and hospitality and engage them in conversation right off the bat. Some of our interviews don’t even feel like a formal interview. It’s more like a coffee chat or a couple people getting together over lunch. We try to keep it casual so people don’t stress out or bug out, because sometimes that allows people not to be themselves. Then from there, we do a few rounds with them, they get to meet a lot of people, a few of the key folks you’ll be working with and see how they deal with group dynamics and all of that kind of stuff.

And then once they come in, we kick off our onboarding with a bunch of different people and they are all represent different facets of FINE and different departments, and then there’s different checklists of things to go over. So the onboarding takes about… All of the tools and orientations and all that stuff, it’s about two weeks and then they get people fully ramped up in maybe two to three months. We move a little bit slower maybe than other people but I think that is what helps people immerse into the culture so they’re not forced into  “Here, huge project!” or crazy, intense meetings right off the bat. Instead, they shadow, they get to ask questions, they get to participate as equals and all kinds of things and get to know people’s names. I think that’s important.

They get to just start to see, “Oh, that person really knows a lot about this,” or that person is really, really nice, and talks a lot about this. I’m going to ask them some more questions.” So they get to … I call it the sponge period. During that sponge period, they get to soak up all the knowledge around them, and all the personalities, and all the dynamics and all the stuff going in. I think that makes for a really genuine integration into our culture. They can identify where they fit in and not in a click-ey way. They can fit in, like “Oh, yeah. Okay, cool. I’m comfortable here.” Like, “Yes. I know what’s going on.” And that way, when they get kicked off on their first project, they know who to go to.

Kristen G: Or they’ve figured out some of the norms and probably this person likes to communicate versus that person.

Emily Griffith: Exactly. At the sponge time it’s really valuable, while low-risk learning and yes, it provides an opportunity for all the things and then accompanied with the tool onboarding and the process onboarding, the people side of the onboarding is when they just get to have lunch with some of the employees. So we try to facilitate organic pairings with employees.

Kristen G: You know, wine, cheese an employee.

Emily Griffith: Yes, that’s funny, yes. Like, “Oh, this person is a designer so let’s pair them up with a couple developers and a project director to go to lunch with, and talking about their experiences and what not.” Something we do that we’ve talked about before is the coffee talks where FINE supports those organic friendships and get-to-know-you communities by giving everybody a little bit of a budget to take the new employee out for coffee, or tea, or ice cream, whatever you want. And to take about a half an hour and go on a walk, and just talk about anything but work with your coworkers.

So we try to do a few of those over the first couple weeks and then over the first couple months. You might get to have coffee and ice cream with anything  from 5 to 10 people depending on how that all goes down, and then you have a little bit more of a connection. So I think that’s a cool part of our onboarding, is that it’s not like high-stress and go, go, go. It’s nice and easy, and then here we go. Then you’re ready to hit the start line, you know?

Kristen G: Right, right. I love that. Yes. I think if I’ve been onboarded that way, maybe I would’ve … Well, I don’t know if I would’ve stayed employed but that’s a whole different story. But I appreciate getting to know people before having to really work with them when the stakes are a lot higher.

Emily Griffith: And I’ve been here like six years now, so I can’t even really imagine what it would be like to hop into a meeting with a bunch of strangers and be expected to just contribute. Like, “Go, here.” I feel like that would be intimidating and …

Kristen G: Oh, for sure.

Emily Griffith: I will not perform the best. So having people be like, “Oh, I know everybody in this room and a little bit about them.” Like, “Yeah, I’m going to share my opinion and maybe be a little bit more assertive,” than they would, if you didn’t actually know anybody in the room. So I think that’s the goal. It just doesn’t stop there. Onboarding can go for a long time and once you’re in, it’s not like we drop that attention after the first couple months. So if you continue to have your mentors and your managers and peers around to support your growth and vice versa.

Kristen G: I want to talk a little bit too about your personal experience of being the person at FINE who coordinates this onboarding experience and who coordinates really helping to deliver such a good program. I haven’t gone through it but I can tell that there’s so much thought put into it. What is your experience? What do you like about it? What have you learned over time? And how do you know when it’s time to evolve the program?

Emily Griffith: Well, that’s a good question. Well, it helps that I have a super supportive leadership team, so the managers are involved, our director of Ops has been involved, our tech guru. Mike doesn’t like tech guru, I shouldn’t use that word, but our tech wizard. They are all part of it too so that’s what really fun. The interviews happen, and then we kick off all these processes and you have this rad little team to make sure that all of the steps and all of the boxes get checked. So my experience has been like, I started and it was like, “Okay, here we go.” I had a little welcome letter that had all of my accounts and my tools and my logins.

That was the first step; sitting down and getting your computer set up, getting your desk area set up, just finding the kitchen, how do you make coffee, all that kind of stuff was done. I had a really fun time. It was a busy time when I started so I just jumped right in and started rocking on it. And then as we had more and more people joining the team, I started refining the process based on each experience, I guess. So one employee would come in and it would be like, “Okay, we’re going to make that a little better.” Next time-

Kristen G: Make that a little differently, yes.

Emily Griffith: Yes. There was one employee who moved up that really cemented the experiential side of it for me and that was, our now art director Mayron. He moved up from Los Angeles to Portland, so we actually were introduced by Ken before he even moved, over email. So we were like digital pen pals for a little while.

Kristen G: That’s great.

Emily Griffith: He was like, “What neighborhood should I move to?” and what kind of view. I was even like, “Hey, if you need me to go check out apartment let me know.” It was very much a friendship right away before I even met him so that was the investment in that relationship. I was like, “Oh, okay. This guy is going to be super cool. I’m excited to get him in here and make sure Portland is a good experience. Not just FINE, but our whole, entire city.” Little pressure  there.

So I set up his desk a little bit differently than I had before and thought about different things like all the … Now, we have quite a few branded items but at the time we didn’t have very many but we still had really cute postcards and stickers and pins and all that kind of stuff, and little … I’m really big on having a plant at your desk so making sure we had cute plants and cute pots ready to go, and make people feel homey and comfortable and welcome. And the right chairs, office supplies, all the stuff. I was just like, “What is the ultimate desk set-up?” Like here you go [for your desk]. You know?

And luckily, he documented it the whole time, and then when he showed up, he was just like, “Whoa. Right on,” and was able to just like get into it, sit down and get cracking. He was really positive in the feedback he gave me so that became that type of desk set-up, and I was like 22 years old. I was like, “Yeah, here we go.” Cemented the whole hospitality side and that became standard procedure for just desk set-up. And of course, I built on that every year and every employee too. I just refined based on the merch we had and the supplies that people liked the most and the general tech set-up.

So from there, I got pretty excited about it and our director of ops, Lori, was like, “Right on. Run with it.” Like, “Make you our new plant person, and on that side of onboarding.” So from there, we started making lists and we started using a tool called BambooHR to create those lists and have an easy “click the button and go” type of process, so you get all of your tasks in your email box. And it’s really flexible, so we can add and take away anything that’s working really great or anything that’s not working great and refine it from there. I sit with the employees when they first start and then about a week and a half later, we sit down again and we run through feedback and questions, and that informs every single onboarding experience.

So they’re each a little more … They each have a little bit more sparkle, I guess, but they come from the same core goal, of people coming in and feeling like, “Hey, this place is kick-ass.” Like, “Here we go. Right on. I love it here.” And then from there they get into their work. And that’s my main thing. It’s like people will spend so much time in the office, it’s their second home essentially. So making sure that it’s as comfortable and fun and just feels good when you come to work, that’s the name of the game. I won’t want to work someplace that it was a drag to come in every day.

Kristen G: I definitely agree. That was actually one of the founding … I don’t want to say principle, but something that I thought about a lot when I founded my company several years ago, was work is definitely people’s second home, and it can be for the better, it can be for the worse, and we want to be intentional about trying to make it for the better.

Because if people are spending 8 to 9, 10 hours a day doing this kind of stuff, it can take away a lot from their life so why don’t we try to be intentional about how we add back to their life. The other thing I’m struck by is that you seem like you’re really using your creativity and your art background and you’re getting a chance to think through these kind of … what some companies see as mechanical problems, with an artistic and a creative lens to them.

Emily Griffith: Yes. I definitely do. I get to do a lot of expression around here, and I love having that freedom. There’s nothing better I think than knowing that your employer trusts you with the experience. So I read about feng shui and I read about just office aesthetics and I love articles on … sorry, on decluttering space and making room for space, like those types of things, like for your head space. So we do all kinds of things for people. Like I print out things that I learned about and we have people come in and do ergonomic assessments, and all of that comes from a creative problem-solving space.

So if someone has an issue, I come at it with like, “How can we not only make your experience awesome but impact everybody who may be having that same issue and hasn’t spoken up?” with the creative, problem-solving side of things. And the main thing I love about that is that … then after that people come to me for all kinds of stuff. They’re like, “Hey, I’m throwing a party. What should I do for this table?” That kind of stuff.

Kristen G: The added benefits.

Emily Griffith: … tons of resources who help me with that kind of stuff but I get to do our employee experiences as well so our retreats, and our spirit weeks, and playoffs and all that kind of fun stuff. Happy hours especially, like when you’re talking about you spend so much time at the office and there’s that work/life balance that we want to make sure to support. So we try to do a lot of events where family and spouses and partners and friends are totally welcome, and that allows people to, again, just be themselves with their fams and show the people who they love in their life what they every day, and the community they’re a part of when they’re not at home.

I think that transparency is really important. So work isn’t this scary, weird place that your mom or dad goes every day. It’s like they come in and they’re playing with toys and pop-up books and the gumball machine and taking a swing on the swing. We make sure that that is all from a place of creativity and fun.

Kristen G: Exactly. It’s also a wonderful way to be really inclusive. So, the last thing, the kind of thing I want to close on, is if you have any resources or any advice to people who are thinking about, “How do I start this kind of work at my small company or my agency?” I think you’ve made a pretty solid case about why you should do this and how you’ve done it, but what are some ways people can get started?

Emily Griffith: Ooh, ways to get started. I’d say try to define your essence. We have “bring friends” as our essence. We want clients to feel like our friends, we want employees to feel like our friends, and genuinely, not just like you alluded to earlier. It’s not just written on the wall. It’s something that we actually do. So I recommend anybody who’s struggling with having an onboarding experience that is authentic, I’d say figure out who you are as a company first and then set your dominoes up based around that. Have a very honest onboarding experience and let people know what they’re in for as soon as possible.

Make sure those types of questions are maybe answered in interviews. I think that’s an important thing when people see, “Hey, just jump right in and start.” Instead, we say, “Hey, it’s going to be about two weeks.” You get ramped up and … so be honest about your onboarding process. Figure out who you are and then set up some systems and lists and flexible framework for … Maybe if it’s just an individual who’s starting a company or a whole team, you can keep track of all of it and refine it as you go.

And then getting feedback from the employees is so important.That feedback is essential to making it better for the next person and also I think it allows the employees to feel like they are a part of the culture and a part of the growth. Then pair them up with the new person who comes in too. Having the new hires support each other … ‘Cause we do two hiring seasons, that also might be something I’d recommend to someone starting out so you’re not doing it throughout the year. So we do spring and fall. In the interim, we’re able to identify that maybe there are roles we need to add or the changes we need to make, we need to promote someone inside, it’s already here. Who’s going to come in and fill their role?

There’s a lot to think about between those seasons so if you’re onboarding someone every other month that can be stressful and take apart the actual direct attention you would give to the new hires. So if you have those two hiring seasons, then that cohort, if you will, are going through those trainings and orientations together even if they start … They don’t have to start on the same day. Sometimes they start a couple weeks apart but they still don’t feel isolated and alone. So I think those are all things that I’ve learned from this journey and really help me moving forward. It’s just keeping track of all the things I’m doing, refining it every step of the way, getting honest feedback and making sure those employees don’t feel isolated.

Kristen G: I love that. That’s so important; making sure people don’t feel isolated. If people want to find out more about FINE and more about you, how should they do that?

Emily Griffith: Oh my goodness. Well. You can go to our website. Wearefine.com. You can follow us on Instagram and with the other socials, and then me, I’m around. Come on in any time and say, “Hi.” Have a cup of coffee.

Kristen G: I definitely think everybody should, especially if you’re local to Portland. It’s a lovely office and, Emily, thank you so much for your time. Thank you for sharing so honestly about your experiences and how you’ve grown this program at FINE and why it’s so important. I really appreciate that.

Emily Griffith: Thank you so much Kristen. It was a lot of fun to geek out with you.

Kristen G: That’s it for today. Thank you so much for joining us for another episode. If you’d like to ask a question or suggest a guest, email me at hello@uprightandbetter.com. Until next time, grow better.