Setting the example, the leadership team makes it a point to stop working beyond the time they need to, and ensures employees do the same, Fran Chitoriski, Head of People, Sling & Stone, shares.

Fran Chitoriski, Head of People, Sling & Stone (pictured above), is an active advocate of employee wellbeing, mental health, and work-life balance. And as she looks after the PR & communication agency's workforce of 85 – spread across Australia, the US, New Zealand, and recently Singapore, she's walking the talk, as Priya Sunil learns in conversation with her.

Along with her hat of Head of People, Fran leads the charge on the agency's JEDI (Justice, Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion) task force – a team of 20 employees across the agency's markets, what its people stand for, how it can drive an inclusive culture that nurture diverse talents, and more.

From implementing team education around the importance of JEDI, to regular check-ins on employees' wellbeing, and to normalising that it's OK to "switch off" when it's time to, let's take a look at how Fran and her team are aiming to be a catalyst for change not just internally, but within the wider communications industry as well. 

Q Tell us all about the JEDI task force. How was this task force put together, and what are some key initiatives you are leading across the agency’s offices, around JEDI?

At Sling & Stone, as an agency, we are a people-first agency and we have a people-first approach, and that has influenced how we approach our culture. And we've always tried to build a really inclusive culture because, of course, people are our number one asset and without our people, we wouldn’t have an agency. So culture is really important.

That's one of the reasons why JEDI has become a core focus of our people strategy. While we've always taken that inclusive approach to culture, this year is the year that we've put in place some goals, made this a real priority, and formalised our JEDI strategy for three reasons:

  • First, as an agency, we work with a lot of challengers and a lot of disruptors in their respective fields. Like those progressive brands that we're working with, we also want to be a catalyst for change for our agency and also for the communications industry as a whole. Looking at this from a global perspective, in my role, if you look at the communications industry in general, I'd say there's a lot more room for diversity. So, how can we part be part of shaping that?

  • Second, if we look at the last few years and some of the external trends that have come to the forefront — obviously the pandemic is a massive one, which brought to life, conversations around mental health and wellbeing, as well as things like the Black Lives Matters movement. It makes organisations think about these things and we can no longer stand on the sidelines. We have to play an active role and think about diversity & inclusion and what we can do as organisation as well.

  • Third, is around the benefits of fostering a diverse & inclusive workplace. There are studies that say the businesses that can get this right can absolutely reap the benefit benefits. In fact, a McKinsey report found that businesses performed 35% higher than industry averages when you can get this right. And if you can create a diverse workforce, you bring together people from different backgrounds, experiences, and walks of life, you will naturally have more innovative, creative minds coming together in producing the best ideas. It's also great for employee engagement and retention if your workforce feels like they can bring their authentic selves to work and be supported in that inclusive culture.

So, all these are really important and some of the reasons why JEDI has become a big focus for us.

Looking at how this has been brought to life in the agency and how the task force was put together — it started late last year, when we took the first steps by conducting a survey, specifically around JEDI and it was really important for us to understand: Who is in Sling & Stone today? Who is our workforce? What are some of the things that really matter? Where do our employees think that we should be focusing in this space of diversity inclusion? That was the important first step that we took.

From that survey, we pulled out three core areas that have become our priority for 2022 and most likely beyond as well. And those three priorities were around building a diverse team:

  1. How can we create those pathways into our agency, as well as in the communications industry; and how can we access, attract, and nurture diverse talents?

  2. A focus on mental health, ensuring we are playing an active role in supporting mental health and wellbeing in the workplace, which have been brought to the forefront by the pandemic over the last few years.

  3. Team education on JEDI. Some people will be comfortable talking about D&I, but others might be more reluctant and might find it a little bit of a scary topic because there's so much it involves — so how can we open up that conversation, get people on a level playing field understanding what D&I is and why it's important in a business context, and so on.

Once we knew our priorities, we wanted to get a task force together. We wanted the team's help as well, in bringing this to life and coming up with initiatives. That got quite a lot of interest!

So we now have a task force that comprises 20 teammates from across our different markets — Australia, the US, Singapore, and New Zealand, and we meet monthly to discuss these three different pillars and some of the actions and initiatives we can put into place so that we can move closer towards performing well in those areas and delivering great things for the agency.

On a global level, some of the things that we've looked at are around our recruitment processes. This ladders up to building a diverse team, but things like looking at our job ads and making sure that they have an equal opportunity statement included in all of them, and thinking about when we're writing job ads, or bullet points on expectations of the role. There are also studies out there that show if you have a very long list of expectations for a job, it will deter a lot of women. So how can we then cut that down to maybe just five key points?

We invested in recruitment tools, and an ATS system which also helps us to post our job ads as well as gives us suggestions on inclusive language and the likes. In terms of the mental health and wellness pillar, we introduced an employee assistance programme, which is an app-based platform where all our employees have access to the following:

  • a wellness check;
  • tips on the go to manage their wellness in the workplace;
  • short training sessions around resilience, managing stress, managing anxiety, and so on, and
  • three counselling calls a year.

Another big initiative was the introduction of wellness leaves, where we’ve rebranded sickness days as wellness leaves, to encourage people to not only tap into that when they are physically sick, but if they need to take a day off for their mental wellness and health & wellbeing as well. That’s what we have that leave for, and it’s to ensure our team knows they can take those days off for both their mental health and their physical sickness.

Apart from these, we’ve also rolled out JEDI training with DEI experts, to ensure all our team starts out on a level playing field and at least has that foundational knowledge of diversity & inclusion, what it is, what it means, and how to start thinking about it in a business context.

I sit at a local level so I'm looking after our individual markets such as Singapore and Australia, and at things such as how we can create those pathways into public relations through internships and partnerships. That's something that we've started to explore with different organisations. We also look at ways to celebrate the existing diversity in our teams, by bringing them together for events. We've done things like cultural lunch-and-learns to learn more about each other as a team, which has been really successful.

So that's just the beginning. As mentioned above, 2022 is the first year that we've put formality around this strategy and brought the team together. In the future, we want to look at our five- or 10-year goals, because this is not just a one-off moment or strategy.

We want to be aiming for something longer term. What we're looking at, especially in building a diverse team, is the markets in which we operate, and our teams in those markets should be reflective of the demographics of that market and reflective of society.

Q How do you ensure this uniformity across the strategy in the different markets, while catering to individual market needs?

What has helped is having the pillars or the priorities that present the broader areas of building a diverse team, a focus on mental health, and team education. But where the task force has played a really crucial role is having team members in each of those markets to guide and advise on some of the initiatives that would be most relevant to their markets.

For example, in Singapore, from what the team has advised and, in my understanding, mental health and wellbeing is perhaps not a conversation that has been as prominent in the Singaporean market as perhaps it has been in the Australian market, which may be a lot more advanced. Thus, for the Singapore team, they've implemented practices such as vibe checks with managers, so that we're checking in not just on how the work is going, but also asking: how are you feeling today? How things are outside of the day-to-day work, as well as joining seminars alongside the Australian team on managing mental wellness in the workplace.

Q Did you face any hurdles that you had to overcome in the early stages of rolling this out?

I feel fairly lucky as a people lead and as an HR professional that I do work with an organisation that is progressive and forward-thinking. And we're working with disruptors and challengers so we are in a world that is grey. Yet, JEDI has always had buy-in from the CEO and leadership, and as a people person, it is amazing to have that support early on. That support from leadership is really, really important in making this successful.

Probably the biggest hurdle is that JEDI is an expansive topic. It can be quite daunting in terms of understanding or thinking: this is a very broad topic. There are so many different elements to diversity & inclusion so should I focus on race and ethnicity, gender, or age emphasis?

I think the biggest hurdle also falls around taking those first steps, but recognising you need to start, and then learning and evolving. The importance of data and the start of this journey helped set the priorities and the focus which was important for getting this moving.

Q Looking more into your role as Head of People and more on a personal front – outside of this task force, how are you advocating for JEDI?

In my role as Head of People, it's about ensuring that we are putting that JEDI lens on all of our people strategies, and ensuring that this remains at the forefront of our business conversations and part of our business strategy. A really important part of my role is about spearheading this. One initiative that I was very proud to lead last year was an inclusive paid parental leave and compassionate leave policy. It differs market-to-market: some markets do have parental leave policies in place — I think in Singapore, you do have a government-funded parental leave policy. But what the policy that I was able to spearhead at Sling & Stone does, which is different, is it offers paid parental leave for both the primary and the secondary carer.

A lot of parental policies are only available to the primary carer, so having that equality and inclusivity was important, making sure the support we provide covers both primary and secondary carers.

As a female leader in business, just being conscious of that and acting as a role model to others, I do try and make myself available to the team for mentorship, advice, and guidance. And I think that's really important for all of our team, but particularly young female professionals as well. It’s also about showing up and speaking about issues on LinkedIn – for example, talking about our paid parental leave policy and encouraging other businesses to take a similar stance and consider that.

It's not just about creating change in our own industry, it's also about how I can help influence others to think about these things as well.

Q On a broader note - how does your approach to JEDI convey what you stand for as an employer and a brand?

Again, I think this comes back to Sling & Stone being an agency with a mission to work with start-ups and disruptors and brands that are changing industries, and like those progressive brands that we work with, we too want to be that catalyst for change for our own industry. And I really think change starts from within. If we can commit to and support the facilitation of greater diversity in our agency, then hopefully we can influence that in the communication sector as a whole.

That is how it plays a role in our agency. Our commitment to JEDI is also underpinned by our values: Build. Gumption. Tune in, and Play; everyone in our agency plays a role in creating an environment to facilitate JEDI so hopefully, together, we can make a positive change for the better and that's in our agency and beyond.

Q On that note, it's easy for leaders to acknowledge the importance of JEDI, but not many actively practise them. Why would you say this is so, and what advice could you share for any leader who might be considering them, or any leader who might be hesitant to take a more proactive approach to them?

I think this goes back to JEDI been an expansive topic, and sometimes it can be difficult to overcome that hurdle of knowing where exactly to start. There may also be the fear of 'what if I get it wrong?' And what I would say to these leaders is, take that first small step. Accept that you might not get everything right — I know I don't get everything right — but it's about testing, learning, and evolving.

If you're unsure about where to start, then going back to that DEI survey, asking the team questions, and getting their input is a really great starting point so that you can understand the makeup of your team and who you are today. That will help you decide where you need to move towards tomorrow. It also helps when you understand what is really important to people on your team and what they would like to see, where are the areas that they think that you're already doing well, and where are the areas that they feel that they'd like to see more focus.

If you can get this right, it does have great commercial benefits for the business too – increased employee engagement, increased productivity, and increased retention. 

Q Moving to what you shared about earlier − wellbeing and work-life balance, I understand you're very passionate about both and advocating for them in your workforce. What are some steps you are taking?

Absolutely! Like I mentioned earlier, we are a very people-first agency and we do like to look after our team. And that's really, really important in creating a positive and great place to work. Listening to the team is a key aspect. We have a lot of systems in place to collect the team's feedback regularly, listen to them, and then be able to take steps and actions off the back of that.

For example, every two weeks we run a team post check and ask different questions around either the work or how they are feeling, or other things going on in the business. And that gives us a really good sense check of how the team is feeling on a scale of one to five. Based on that feedback, we can take action.

Next, we carry out an engagement survey once a year annually, around the half-year point. That's a longer questionnaire that we put out to our team, and it includes questions on everything from the work to culture, to JEDI, to the agency leadership. Again, it gives a really good opportunity for team members to provide feedback for us to review that and then to take steps and actions off the back of it.

The third way that we collect feedback and data from the team is, being public relations agency that's working with clients, the team uses employee timesheets that are helpful to make sure no one is working lots of overtime and that the team does have a good work-life balance. If we see someone on our team working extensive hours, we can jump in and do something about it.

Again, it comes back to collecting data and being able to use that to help inform your actions.

Q How do you ensure employees “switch off” when it’s time to, while also ensuring clients’ needs are met? For you too, as you oversee different markets, how does this work out for you?

We do take a considerate approach to the team, and one of the ways is to look at the clients, what the team is working on, and how much time each employee has allocated to a client campaign. We look at that data on a month-to-month basis and map the time out accordingly.

In terms of working global, we also look at where the client is based, and which team member in which market is working on that client’s campaign.

The time sheets do help us plan our team’s time out, manage it, and be proactive. If we do see team members working longer hours, we can speak to that team member, and get them the extra support they might need.

Apart from that, it’s also important, on this front, for the leadership team to lead by example. Our CEO has proactively put out communications on this, to say there’s no expectation for anyone to be online after-hours, responding to messages or having to be on their phones then. I think that’s a really important sense, for the CEO to say that work-life balance is important. As a whole, if anyone from the leadership team spots a team member online after work hours, we make it a point to check in on that member on anything they may need help with.

It’s also about being conscious of local and global time zones – we work a lot on Slack, which is our primary communication tool, and it has features that allow you to schedule messages. So when we are working with team members who are in different time zones, or whom we know we might have to send a message to after hours, we schedule the messages so that they receive them in their timezone or when they are online.

Personally, I like work-life balance, and as the head of people, it’s about setting that example.

For instance, as I like health & fitness, you’ll find me at the gym before and after work and most of the team knows that as well; and as a whole, it's important that the senior team takes the time to ensure that balance.

Q In the era of The Great Renegotiation, The Great Reshuffle, The Great Re-engagement, and more – what is your advice to leaders to ensure their employees' wellbeing and growth continue to be at the forefront?

To me, wellbeing is a priority if you want to retain employees, especially today. It has definitely become a priority for employees, and they are quite vocal about what that they want in an organisation that will look after them.

I would advise leaders to put in place channels of communication so that you can listen to your employees and act on feedback. The pulse check that I mentioned is a great one – doing that weekly or every two weeks is a great way to get a sense check of how your team is going and feeling.

Engagement surveys are a good way too, having an annual engagement survey where you can collect more in-depth feedback is really helpful.

It's also about the importance of people managers and the role they play in helping to check in on employees and make sure that they are feeling good. I'd say, make sure that your people managers are equipped with the right tools and the right training to be able to support their teams and their direct reports and to have the right conversations.

To do so, you could consider training around how to hold effective one-on-ones, understand the type of questions to ask, and more - open-ended questions which prompt someone to open up and talk more about, how they are feeling, beyond just the word.

These are some of the things I'd say are important and where other leaders can place focus.


Photo / Provided [featuring Fran Chitoriski, Head of People, Sling & Stone]

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