Executive Interviews

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Gwen Burbidge - CHRO at WeTransfer

  • January 05, 2023

Gwen Burbidge is the CHRO at WeTransfer in Amsterdam. She started her Human Resources career as an intern at Organon over 20 years ago. Gwen has extensive experience in different industries, including healthcare, scientific publishing, and the IT and tech sector, which took her to WeTransfer in 2019.

What are the recruitment challenges that you face at the moment at WeTransfer?

The main challenge we're facing is the constant flux that we're experiencing - from going fully remote and starting to build out your remote workforce, to a period where people are a little bit more willing or maybe even needing to have social interactions and wanting to come back to the office more.

At WeTransfer, we work with an Employer of Record solution for some of our international hires, through a company called Deel, to help us employ people in other countries - opposed to the countries we have entities in - to really make use of the remote work opportunities. But it's complex to hire in multiple countries, so it’s important to investigate your options well.

Even if you have a partner like Deel, which takes away the burden of having having to research everything yourself and design the right contracts with all the right specifications for that specific country, and making sure we pay all of our social taxes and normal taxes, income taxes, and everything you need to do, it's still challenging.

We have noticed changes in the tech recruitment market; we see so many tech companies struggling to either find funding or running out of funding that they need to downsize their workforce. We often see these companies being open about it and sharing the details of their employees to help them secure new jobs.

Profitable companies, like WeTransfer, are therefore in a better place with regards to being able to attract, still scarce, tech talent, so we are able to focus more on our hubs in the UK, the Netherlands and the USA. We are able to provide visas for the Netherlands and will provide relocation assistance.

WeTransfer has a hybrid approach to work. You do not have to come to the office, but if you do like to come, you are more than welcome.

How do you feel the workplace will have changed as we emerge from the global pandemic?

That's also very much in line with what we just discussed. I think, at WeTransfer, we were struggling before the pandemic with remote work. We were in a constant debate whether we were remote-friendly, or remote-first, or remote at all.

There were different parts of our business that used different definitions for remote work, as well. Our Engineering team was not remote-first, but was definitely remote-friendly. Our Creative team was not remote at all; everybody needed to be in the office to make use of each other's creativity and the tools we have available.

What the fully remote period has taught us is that we really need to be thoughtful, and make sure we don't underestimate and under-utilise our remote talent, because - every time you set up a meeting that is not remote-friendly - you're losing out, because you won't get as much input from your remote team as you could.

The reason why you hired remote people is often because they are very specifically skilled. So, it's a double negative if you hire these rare specialists, but then you don't set up your meetings or your teams in a way that they can excel. That is something that we've learned, and now we need to persevere our learning and not fall back into our old habits.

I go to the office maybe two or three times a week and it is such a nice energy; it is so nice to not have to talk to people on the screen.

There was some research recently which said that 82% of employees feel they are more productive at home, whereas 87% of managers think people are more productive in the office. So, I do wonder: are managers not productive when working from home?

In your opinion, what changes have you seen to the employment market in the Netherlands?

I'm not super familiar with the employment market in the Netherlands, because most of the people that we hire have an international background.

What I've seen overall in the employment market is that there is a real desire to work for companies that make an impact and want to do good in whatever way, shape or form.

For example, we have a position open for an Executive Assistant for our CEO and CFO. I think, because we're B Corp, and because we do wonderful creative work and want to support the creative industry and creators and creatives, we had 250 applications in two days, which is mind-blowing. Luckily, I don't have to review all the CVs, but I was looking at the first 12 that were selected by our recruiter, and they were all amazing CVs. Many of them referenced the B Corp.

The first reason why they want to work with us - the engineers, designers and the creatives - is because of our products. They love the product, they love the creativity, they love the work that we do with artists, so that's number one, and then our people. After that, it's really B Corp and wanting to do the right thing.

Of course, there's so many things we can still improve on, but having that focus and being vocal about it helps people discover our organisation. Being vocal is always scary, because once you’re vocal about it, you will be scrutinised every step of the way. Our employees are also super critical on everything that we do as a business. This keeps all of us on our toes and gives us some unique advantage over other employers.

What is a memorable moment from your career and why?

I think my most memorable moment was in my previous role. I was VP People Services for a US healthcare company called DaVita, and we ran dialysis clinics in different countries. I was responsible for Europe and the Middle East. My region included Poland, Portugal, Germany, and the head office in the Netherlands - all in all, an organisation of around 600 people.

I thought, this is a nice comfortable step back into being part of a team again, which I really missed, having been a freelancer for six-and-a-half years when my kids were small.

I think it was two months after I joined when my boss called me and said, you need to go and buy in Abaya. I didn’t even know what an Abaya was. He said, you need to get a visa and go to Saudi Arabia, as we had just won a massive tender there to build around 26 clinics and treat 5,000 patients from scratch.

There was absolutely nothing there. There were zero people. There was one person, actually, a Country Manager, and that was it. And it was like, okay, you need to go over there, find out what we need from a people perspective, and sort it out.

That journey for me lasted about four years. In that time, we hired 800 people, and we built 23 clinics. But, what was memorable about it, is that Saudi Arabia is a country you've never experienced before and probably never will. It's not very friendly to foreign workers and it's not known for being very friendly to women, so I was very nervous about going.

To find our healthcare workers, we had to travel to India, the Philippines, Jordan and Egypt, and many other countries to recruit nurses and doctors. For me, this was such a learning experience. For example, the healthcare workers from the Philippines are extremely well-educated, knowledgeable and simply amazing at what they do; it is a way of life for them to go to another country, earn enough to repay their student loans and save to be able to buy a house back home. They know this choice will make them only see their children once a year for their holidays.

Mind blowing to me, so I found it really hard, and I was ready to say, we're not doing this, we're not hiring anybody with kids. However, my colleague said, if we hired them, we can take care of them in the way that is best for them, so let's make sure they have the best experience, because - if we don't hire them - somebody else will and they will go, because they have all these financial obligations.

It was super tough, and I learned so much about myself and about my values. I learned how to build a community within the walls of our clinics, where women could manage Saudi men, which was unthinkable outside of the walls of our clinics.

I interviewed all the doctors myself when we started, because I wanted to be absolutely sure they would be open to having a female boss. I interviewed maybe 50 doctors, maybe more, from different countries.

For example, if they would not turn on their screen when interviewing with me, that was a clear signal. I would ask them questions, I would do little case studies, asking them about a nurse that would come up to them and challenge their decision on a prescription for a certain patient, and how they would respond to that. Very simple questions, I think, but very revealing.

This method obviously is not 100% waterproof, but it starts with being very intentional about your recruitment and not taking any chances. If you see an orange flag, just do not hire.

How do you feel a job seeker can stand out in the current market?

That’s a very tough question, to be honest, because - if you think about a job seeker - I immediately go to a CV and those kinds of things. In the olden days, when I started my career, you still needed to write a motivation letter; that is almost never the case anymore.

Sometimes, you do have to fill in a couple of questions, which I think is really helpful, because it gives you insights into the motivation, passion, drive and the energy that somebody brings, and that is really what makes me hire people.

I know my Head of Recruitment does not like me saying that, because we need to look at skills and competencies, and that's also very true. I also feel that, with the right curiosity and willingness, there's so much you can learn. You don't need to have done everything on the list.

I can struggle with CVs that have one year here, and then six months here… I know I shouldn’t look at that too hard - especially if they have worked at start-ups - as that is sometimes start-up life.

Start-ups are not always successful and then you need to move on. But, for me, it’s really important that somebody - at least once in their career - has gone through all the difficulties; making certain decisions and then having to deal with the outcomes of these decisions, by going through a couple of cycles and knowing that things change, and you have to adapt to that change.

Sticking it out for a little while is something that is important to me; it doesn’t necessarily need to be in the workspace, but somewhere. That, for me, shows some commitment and also some perseverance.

Who is the most inspiring person in business for you and why?

That is such a tough question, so I'm going to cop out of it a little bit. My answer is all the emerging social impact entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurs that are really setting up their business, like Toms shoes, where you buy a pair of shoes and then a pair of shoes is given to someone else. Or CTalents, who work hard to make sure we don’t miss out on the talent out there with hearing or visual limitations, but plenty of other skills to compensate.

There’re so many initiatives and there're so many really motivated, clever and dedicated people out there. I find it really hard to name one.

My last question: how will digital transformation change the role of HR?

I think it already has. We were talking about this not too long ago, when we were looking at the strategy of WeTransfer and how that then influences the HR strategy. There's a clear need for us to become more data-driven. Everybody says that, but what does that mean? What are you going to do with the data and how are you going to interpret it? What decision can you make based on data and what decisions do you have to be a little bit careful with? So, what we said was, we want to be data informed and human-driven.

What I've seen in some of the larger organisations is a tendency to really focus on data and then forgetting about the human aspect. A lot of the new systems allow managers to be much more hands-on and do many of the tasks that originally were part of the HR tasks. In a lot of ways, that is really good, because I think you have the closest relationship with your manager. So, the more equipped and the more informed they are, the better they are able to help you, and to assist you, and help you grow and thrive.

The HR team can then take a step back and look at the wider trends affecting the organisation, so I think that's the good part of the digitalisation. We just have to be thoughtful, that being data-driven does not replace the human connection.

I think digital transformation has changed HR for the better; there is more autonomy and support for people managers, and I think employees also enjoy being able to do a lot of the things themselves, and having the tools and access to the tools to organise their work, and organise their benefits, or organise other parts.

Overall, I think it’s been good. We just have to be careful about humans becoming statistics.

Thank you to Gwen for speaking to Melissa Adey, Senior Consultant in our HR recruitment team in the Netherlands. 

Views and opinions contained within our Executive Interviews are those of the interviewee and not views shared by EMEA Recruitment