Jul 30, 2020

Founder stories: an Unleashed Q+A with Ally Fekaiki, Founder at Juno: the life company

Ally Fekaiki, Founder at Juno

This month, People + Culture partner Ginni Lisk spoke with Ally Fekaiki, Founder at Juno: the life company.

Juno is on a mission to prove that it is possible to make everyone happy, in and out of work.

While Juno operates in a part of the People Experience traditionally referred to as ‘employee benefits’, they are paving the way for companies to identify, understand and enable wellbeing in a refreshingly novel way; one that instead gives people the agency to access everything they need to thrive.

In this Founder Story, Ally explains why employee wellbeing isn’t currently being supported in the best way (or really, any meaningful way for a lot of individuals), why companies need to stop being ‘pushy parents’ and the emerging trend towards the ‘wellbeing as marketing’, that actually risks people not asking for help if and when they need it.

I’d love to kick this off by hearing more about why you founded Juno?

To answer that honestly, I have to reflect on my personality. There was a definite pattern in my behaviour when I was growing up… people who know me know that I was a troublemaker as a child and I spent my formative years being an agitator.

I’ve not been working full time for that long, but it was definitely long enough to realise how broken the world of work is.

I think enough of my earlier, agitator mentality endured for me to develop a really low tolerance for the daily shock I felt at seeing the prevalence of people feeling bad at work, whether that be due to mental ill health, stress and burnout or not being in a fulfilling job.

I think that prevalence (of feeling bad at work) constitutes a huge societal issue in the West, and a lot of companies are doing their best to provide something. The issue is the programmes are sooo inefficient! I get so annoyed to see something done in a stupid way.

And employee wellbeing is an area where you think things are being done in a stupid way?

The way that benefits, support and wellbeing have always been done is absolutely not good enough. I get angry at the prospect of a business that employs 700 people putting a weekly yoga class in place that like, 10 people want to go to, that is thought of as a legitimate step in the right direction.

And it’s bigger than benefits. I’ve been in roles that made me really unhappy; I’ve experienced the feeling that the only way my commitment could be renewed would be for that company to offer me much more than a salary.

For far too long we’ve patronised people by treating employees like children; companies take the role of a parent, and not a great one at that (!) but rather a type that is entirely disinterested in their child’s individual needs.

I created Juno to help people take back their agency.

“Taking back agency” feels like a particularly timely discussion given the current context. Previously established power dynamics in companies with a track record of forcing ways of working onto their people, have been humbled by the pandemic… is there an increased opportunity to drive more individualised experiences of wellbeing as a result?

There’s a lot of ‘new normal’ discussion that seems to have taken a stance that everyone’s going to be looking for work, and that hiring businesses will have all the leverage. There’s a real risk that the tone is being set by the machinery of our economy…

Some businesses aren’t going to embrace change at all. For some, saving tonnes of cash on office space may be preferential — regardless of what their team wants or needs. If we look at society as a whole, it’s clear that some kind of a hybrid model is needed to help work actually work for everyone, but all it takes is senior leadership to have a difference of opinion and that’s the route a business follows, collectively. It’s a shame, because these aren’t decisions about painting walls a new colour or delivering some off-the-shelf training. This is a time for being in the weeds of complex issues; it’s about people, emotions, politics, backgrounds, perspectives.

If companies want to get this right, they need to understand that individualised employee experience is the only one that matters.

I often talk about Employee Value Proposition (EVP) meaning so much more than it used to, ie: the extrinsic value of a compensation + benefits package. Progressive businesses recognise that their EVP is now much more intrinsic… I’d love to hear your thoughts on how individualised experiences at work contributes to a stronger EVP.

It starts with a company understanding and identifying that this kind of ‘value’ is something profound… We’re talking about what’s valued by complex individuals who are all uniquely different.

It is only on the basis of that understanding that a company is able to behave in ways that reflect a commitment not to creating the value, but to actually getting out of the way to let people choose what’s valuable, to them. And it needs to be a safe space; one where the company isn’t going to pry and it’s not going to get involved because the company understands that it’s not their role to ‘make people happy’.

In terms of an overall EVP, this individualised approach can mean that in joining a company, people fundamentally upgrade their lifestyle. They’re going to get whatever combination they want of massages, advice from a nutritionist, help from a vet the moment their cat gets sick, or the option to turn their commute into one that happens on an electric bike… it all starts with companies saying “I respect you, I see you as a whole person, it’s not my job to make you happy and I don’t want to get involved in trying to”.

People want to work for businesses that nurture cultures where people are in touch with themselves, each other and their communities, and where they can proudly work for a company who warmly says “this is the kind of company we are, your salary will be pretty good but more than that, we treat our suppliers, customers, employees fairly and we’re committed to making sure that no matter where you are and what you need, you’re enabled to help us achieve our mission”.

By not doing this, I believe we run the risk of being in a situation where people won’t ask for help.

So is there something performative about companies putting more emphasis on wellbeing, but still doing so in a blanketed way?

Absolutely! There’s some real tokenisation of wellbeing such as loudly sharing the fact that you have unlimited holiday or that a therapist comes in to provide mental health support.

If it’s a buyer’s market, but the employer is still in the driving seat, it’s still flawed. People don’t want to be seen as high maintenance and request things that actually would make a difference to them and there’s often also a judgement associated with uptake of these benefits.

People have heard of unlimited holiday and free lunches and mental health drop-in sessions, none of which are helpful if they’re still going to have to rush off to pick their kids up from school each day and be really stressed and a not-fun parent at the school gates, because of it. Companies need to stop trying to control the ‘value’.

I wanted to create a solution that gives everybody equal access to all sorts of experiences. I want people to be in charge of their own wellbeing and for companies to stop trying to be the parent in the situation.

Can you imagine your employer arranging your birthday party for you? That sounds awful.

Well, actually I have huge faith that the Unleashed team would do an awesome job of arranging my birthday party — as much as it would pain them to listen to music they don’t like all evening! But that’s the point, right, it starts with empathy?

It absolutely starts with empathy.

I want to change the perception that prioritising wellbeing is anything other than the right thing to do, and I can’t stand the argument that it is ‘a cost’.

Leaders don’t ask the People team to demonstrate the ROI of their office space, or their desks or ask for data on how many times on average each month people sit on the expensive chairs the business bought for them! As soon as someone asks what the ROI of wellbeing is I’m disappointed. I want the opposite, I want people to tell me why we’re important and I want to support companies with big ambitions, who don’t look at the happiness and health of their people as a cost. “I spend £60 a month for each person in my sales team to have a LinkedIn Premium account, but I won’t enable them to eat healthy food or get childcare when they need it”??

The reason why Revolut has a shitty work culture is because the people at the top are workaholics, with a different approach to their people. That’s fine in that it’s a fact, but it’s not in keeping with where the workplace is meant to be headed towards.

So what’s your perspective on if it’s worthwhile trying to change the minds of the ‘Revoluts’ of the world, and businesses who are still struggling to ‘get it’ when it comes to meeting their people where they’re at?

I honestly don’t think we should have to push for this. This is a matter of fundamental beliefs and values and if I’m pushing the empathy-first approach onto a business, I might as well be trying to convince someone to change their religion.

Irrational beliefs are deep-set; there’s an attachment that makes it impossible to change perspective, regardless of facts.

To use a political analogy, a liberal camp believes that we should have an inclusive benefits programme. A conservative/libertarian view is that it’s not the responsibility of an employer to worry about that; ‘we provide a place for people to be safe, do their work, we provide end-of-the-budget and afterthought stuff like a weekly lunch, but the bottom line is that people need to be self-sufficient and if they’re stressed or overwhelmed, they should reconsider their line of work’.’ We appeal to the liberals in this analogy

We can’t convince the conservatives. What we can do however, is convince the ones who haven’t decided.

The people who get what Juno is trying to do are going to be a springboard for us, but the successful change-making happens by educating those who are searching, who are trying to figure it out; they will see the vision for how things could be and a vision based in empathy will appeal to them.

You’re so passionate about this that it must be hard not to waste time and energy in the wrong places, though…

For sure. Probably 30% of my time as a founder is spent doing market research because I want to hear from people who know more about this than I do. I want honest insight into the state of play, and while that state of play is useful context, it’s definitely the case that you end up being influenced by people who wouldn’t have been convinced to think the way you do on their own. You can be filled with cynicism and doubt by speaking to the wrong people.

I’m aware of my limits, but I’m determined and bloody minded. It’s not aggrandising, it’s just that ultimately it’s all that I have in my armory! I’m prepared to listen so much that sometimes I hear voices that aren’t for us. I need to not allow them to influence my strategy, because lots of companies out there do want to do more, and to do better for their people — that’s who Juno is here for.

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