Courtesy Christy Johnson

Remote and hybrid setups amplify the challenges of bringing new people into an organization. Already, prior to the pandemic, just 12% of workers strongly agreed that their company did a great job of onboarding new employees. And now the shift to ways of working that are less place and time specific can make it even more difficult for new hires to absorb the culture and norms of a business, build trust with colleagues, and improve their skills by observing others.

When people criticize hybrid workplaces, these are among the challenges they have in mind. So to get a better sense of how to get virtual onboarding right, I reached out to Christy Johnson, CEO of a roughly 40-person strategy consulting practice called Artemis Connection. Artemis has operated on a fully remote basis since its founding by Johnson six years ago, and its approach to onboarding has drawn praise from Lynda Gratton, the London Business School professor of management practice who I interviewed last week.

“It seems to me that we are only just beginning on our journey of creating practices and processes that help new joiners understand their organization’s culture and build tacit knowledge,” Gratton wrote recently, saying that Johnson’s approach “shows what could be possible.”

Here is a transcript 0f my recent conversation with Johnson, edited for clarity:

Can you tell me about Artemis Connection?

I always do a little backstory of how I never thought I'd be an entrepreneur. In fact, I swore I wouldn't be, but it ended up happening. I founded Artemis six years ago in March and it really was around how necessity is the mother of invention. I was working these really great corporate jobs, doing corporate strategy, growth and innovation, etc. I was pregnant with twins and then they ended up coming early—seven weeks early. We spent a month in the NICU, and then they wanted us to keep them out of childcare for two years.

There aren't very many career options for that, so old bosses started giving me project work. Then primarily women that I had gone to graduate school with, or who I'd worked with at McKinsey, started asking—how are you getting this project work? We want to do things too. Honestly, it really became a bit of an obsession that led me to create the company, and it was always from a talent standpoint. There was this piece that McKinsey Global Institute did in 2015 around connecting talent with opportunity in a digital age, and they have this chart that shows that $1.27 trillion in GDP is missing because of people who are underemployed or out of the labor market. And I was like, 'Oh, I know these people.' It became an obsession—who else is in there, caregivers can't be all of it.

Within caregivers, we tend to focus on people with young children, but aging parents are actually a big deal as well because the doctor's appointments end up needing some flexibility. And the other group that I found were folks living in non-urban areas. That's why we decided to be 100% remote, because I felt if we had an office we'd naturally concentrate power in that geography. But if we were remote, we could let everyone participate. There were some things around folks wanting flexibility—they might want to be part time, but there's not a lot of high-quality part-time work. So that's what I honed in on.

I was hoping companies would want to pay for this since the unemployment rate was quite low. And actually, there is talent that's not participating and isn't counted in the unemployment rate. But I got a lot of, 'That's cute, but here's a thousand dollars for training,' or 'Maybe you could talk about this'—which you and I both know won't change any sort of systems, which is why I just decided to do it myself. It took us awhile to figure out what we'd do. It was maybe two-and-a-half or three years ago that we really locked in on that. We were doing quite a few different things, but what we landed on was in the lower- to mid-market space. There's not a McKinsey, Bain, BCG, at an affordable price point that has geographic reach. That's what we go after. And because our costs are really low, it's almost all labor and taxes, so we can serve those groups at a more affordable price point. There's one giant exception, which is actually for the big companies in non-core areas. They often don't have the consulting budget like cloud work at Microsoft, but for example the education group at Microsoft might need some strategy help. So we support them.

It's a lot of fun. This whole last year has been just incredible. I actually said it at the January 2020 town hall—'Remember, there's a huge bias against remote work. The onus is on us to get stuff done, be no-drama, bring energy to our clients, and communicate really well. We're probably five to 10 years away from remote work being widely accepted.' And then Covid hit, so I was like, 'Shoot, everybody's onto us!'

How big is your company now?

We're about 40 folks right now. We're so busy. We're trying to keep up with hiring, so we'll probably be hiring quite a few more in the next couple of weeks.

The work you do is generally strategy consulting?

Primarily strategy consulting. The things that classically trained strategy consultants love, like 'We have a hunch that there's all these adjacent markets we should go into—which one should we go into?' That kind of stuff, like market sizing. Also some private equity around getting target lists built out if they decide to pursue an area for a roll-up, and some post acquisition work, like 'What did we really buy?' Which we like a lot. The last part is more embedded. Sometimes we'll do the strategy work and then the team doesn't have capacity to execute. So we'll embed somebody to roll out the strategy—year, two-year, three-year long contracts.

You're still totally remote and have some flexible scheduling?

I tend to think in terms of 15 to 20 hour blocks of time. So you can work one of those where you might work two of those. And we try not to have anybody work more than 55 hours a week. At McKinsey, they have this barometer that would have how many hours you've worked. It went up to a hundred plus, and the lowest was 60 hours a week. I have this great principal who came from Bain, and she was like 'No more than 55 hours a week?' I said, 'Nope, try to focus on what's going to derive the most value, everything else, go have a life.'

I find that anyone who's different and doesn't fit in often gets rejected from organizations. It's too bad, because these people are brilliant. They can participate. Why don't you let them have a chance? So it's always been more mission-based.

You've been operating on a remote basis for over six years. What are the best practices that you've developed in terms of performance management, culture, and communication?

The key was learning really hard lessons around intentionality. We're data driven, so we do take a look at the numbers. We're still small, but we do look at what's going on. And also getting more granular—for example, culture is one of those things that people toss around all the time, but what does culture really mean? We just adopt a bunch of the things that come from researchers. Stanford has some pretty good things on what culture is. We break that down as certainly your values, but not so much the words you might have on the back of a badge or the posters, rather how those values translate into action and behaviors.

We talk about and really look for that. It's part of how we promote, and it's part of what we're looking for when we're hiring—what gets celebrated and what gets mourned. We celebrate things that people do outside of work that they're particularly proud of that probably couldn't happen if they were working all the time, like they might have been at the consulting groups they could have worked at. Again, this is part of the talent pool I'm trying to pull in. What gets mourned, what are we sad about? We're very open to people sharing things in their personal life that might be taking time. And along with that culture, all the stories that we tell—I actually did this a week and half ago. I was doing a pitch and was asking the client what he expected of a team.

He said, 'I want them on call.' As in they need to be able to hop on a plane at the drop of a hat. He had this long list. I was like, 'Oh, that's great. We're probably not the right firm for you. I can introduce you to some who are.' Then I came back and shared that with the team. So it's making sure that those kinds of stories are getting told and celebrated as well

What are examples of things that are celebrated and mourned that might not in a traditional workplace be part of the conversation?

On the celebration front, anything with family gets celebrated. Weddings, engagements, babies, launching a kid, if your kiddos are older. We definitely celebrate some things around family. Other things would be volunteer work that people are doing. That was something a lot of the McKinsey, Bain, and BCG folks in particular missed; it's hard to be on a board or volunteer, because you don't know what city you'll be in or how late you're working. So we have paid time off to volunteer. We code it in the system and talk about it at our monthly or quarterly town hall. We have people share what they've been doing with their volunteer time. We do this like star of the quarter thing at town hall too, where we have people share things outside of work that they're excited about.

For example, one person is an entrepreneur-in-residence at a public school near her. She loves that. Somebody else is really civically involved and she's like, 'I couldn't have done this if I'd had a more traditional job.' Those are the kinds of things that we really highlight. And we mourn if we make a bad choice on a client. If we're like, 'This client is giving us PTSD of always being on call.' We've gotten much, much better at screening and vetting clients, but every once in a while, we still have that happen, which is just hard. It doesn't always feel like a good fit and it can be hard to unwind that. We mourn when we make a talent mistake, like if we hire somebody—pre-Covid, we'd get people who thought they wanted the remote environment and then hated it. That's always sad, right? We want it to be a good fit for talent and we certainly celebrate and open up our Rolodex to help them find a more traditional workplace to work in. But we don't like it when those misses happen.

One of the challenges that people have found with remote work is norms around communication. Can you talk about your practices?

Communication's been big. This is something that we're looking for when we're vetting candidates. How do they communicate with us in email? How responsive are they? You have to be a good video communicator, which is a different kind of energy you have to bring. And you have to be a good written communicator, because there's still often quite a bit that's happening there.

When we kick off a project, we do a team kickoff and people talk about communication preferences. Is it text, is it Slack? Is it email? The work that we're doing is more longer-term strategy. We have a norm of within 24 hours responding to somebody on the team. We know that it might take awhile for people to get back to us, and that's fine. We do use Slack with the notifications, but it's totally acceptable for people to turn those off. It's the same thing of within 24 hours, you can respond to them. Don't feel like you have to be on call. We are always experimenting, too—we're trying this office-hour model, where there are blocks of time you can pop in and do some of the ad hoc problem-solving, or you can hop in as a team and have that happen. But it's really the setting of communication preferences at the beginning of each project that this smaller team sets that's pretty important. Then we just honor those norms.

How specifically do the office hours work?

It's just a block of time in Zoom. I might be there, or somebody else might host some for a project, and anybody from the team can hop in with things that they have. It's working really well. What that does is we can remove a lot of our standing meetings because in some ways there's a standing meeting. And if people don't come into office hours, I just blitz through the team's emails or requests that they might have. I'll also get things like, 'Hey, I know office hours are coming up. I don't need to hop in, but can you review this if you have time?'

How often do you do that?

Three times a week.

For how long?

For 90 minutes. It's working well.

Performance management is an area that a lot of organizations and managers have struggled with when they're not in physical proximity. What have you found works?

It's the intentionality part. We do more formal performance management twice a year, like you'd see in a company, although there are three areas that we assess on. One is values—it's just a yes or no, but it's a nice way to reinforce whether you're being a team player or entrepreneurial. The second part is on role-specific duties. Again, we're pretty simple. We have three-ish roles that people are operating out of, but are you doing what we'd expect for those different roles? It's just a rubric, check the box one to three (because people don't like to be a zero). If you're not a two, you give specific examples—both the boss and then the employee—on why you're a one or why you're a three.

The last part is we have individual dashboards that people are working on, linked to the overarching strategy. It's binary, but how did you progress against those goals that you had set? What's nice about that is then the team can sign up for things on the overarching strategy that they're interested in. There might be something around staffing. It's a very simple business, but it's lumpy. So I was like, I'd love help figuring out staffing. Who wants to work with me? And then our head of people and other people sign up to make progress.

So it's pretty simple, twice a year. We look for specific examples and we have these rubrics. It's easy to score and you know where you should be standing. Then I do a two-by-two check-in that'll happen in June, usually happens during summertime, that's really focused on them. It's not a formal assessment or performance management. It's along the lines of, what have you learned the last year? Consulting is a great way to experiment with different things. How are you thinking about your career? It's an open forum for that to happen. At year end, we also check in with all of our clients to get feedback. That's a chance where I'll often get specifics on team members and I'll share that as well. Then we do an end of project close-out, where the team will give feedback to everybody as well. They've worked really closely together and that project might end—it doesn't match a performance cycle, but I don't want to miss those opportunities to celebrate strengths, but also things people might want to work on.

What do you mean by two-by-two?

I just wanted a regular way to let people share what they're wanting to do with their career. I love that people are really honest with me about their goals, and that it might not always be career. I have some people who I know want to run a business someday. I was like, 'Oh, well you should take on P&L responsibility. You'll have to do that if you're running your own business someday.'

The traditional structure for a two-by-two meeting is that the manager and staff member each fill out two things a staff member is doing well and two things they could do better, as well as two things the manager is doing well and two things that they could do better.

There you go. That's our more structured approach.

Could you walk me through how you approach onboarding?

Our goal is to get them active on projects as fast as possible, because what we found is that if people weren't, they would get a little bit nervous. Operationally, it's a little bit challenging. We warm up the bench as projects are getting ready to start, so we can quickly staff someone and then get them plugged in with the team. What that means from an onboarding standpoint is that we have a checklist that we run through. We try to remove as much friction as possible. The boring stuff we have more self-serve, so that they can get through what they need to get through. And we have two people on-call when an onboarding day happens, so if people hit roadblocks or are having trouble with something, they can get through that quickly.

Then we get them plugged in with the project and with the team. They feel like they're part of a team and are doing something that's meaningful, which seems to help quite a bit. Kickoff is important, where they get to talk about experiences they have that might be relevant, because it helps us get to know them better and the strengths that they have. Or just something that they might be curious about with a particular project. Having them share that, and everyone else's too, helps people learn about each other more.

If we have a bunch of employees starting at the same time, that's when we'll launch the academy. It's a lot more structured, but it's a nice mix. It has a little bit of theory, especially if people don't come from the McKinsey, Bain, BCG background. We have jargon that we picked up for problem solving. So when we say this, here's what it means. Here's an approach and then let's all practice together and then go apply it to whatever it is that we're working on and get some feedback. Bring it back tomorrow to the group and we'll do feedback. It's four days a week for usually eight to 10 weeks.

What's been really fun is we've had our strong analysts, people who have been with us one to two years, teach it. They'll pull in more senior people as needed, and we'll do a day in the life—a principal comes in and says, here's what a day in my life looks like. They have more perspective on what's happening with the projects. We'll have clients come in, which is really fun. The clients actually love it too, which surprised me. They get to talk about a project, how they think about strategy, why they use consultants, and where's one that hasn't worked well for them. The clients usually share a bit of their career journey, which probably won't surprise you. We tend to get a lot of clients who used to be consultants. They're able to talk through how that's helped their career. They do some fun things too, which depends on what they're into. They had a bunch of funny things during Covid. They would do all these polls and would bring them into our larger group meetings. If you were stuck in a reality TV show, which one would you be in? They had a problem-solving Olympics where there were all these puzzles that were coming out every day. We give them quite a bit of freedom to connect, however they want to connect.

How long and how often do they do it?

It's usually 60 to 90 minutes, four days a week, and then they'll share their work in the Slack channel and people will comment on other people's work. We use Google Docs because then you can comment really easily. Everybody can be working in the same document at the same time and commenting, but you don't have to be on a video call for that to happen.

How are you navigating DEI considerations? Are there specific dimensions of that?

We have a goal, and this is in our strategy, that we want to resemble US composition—gender, race, sexual orientation. That's something that we look at. It's hard when you're small. We're very intentional about these next couple of hires. We'd love to have more racial diversity. We'd love to have more men, because we are heavily females. Those are things that we end up looking at. And we also look at age, veteran status—if we want to be good problem solvers, it's important that we have different points of view and experiences on the team. The other area where I actually see this happen the most is on rates. I will get quoted lower rates by women or people of color. It's significantly lower, for the most part.

That's where we put some things in place on being able to share, given experience and what type of project you're on, what the rates are and then giving that feedback to them. They know, 'Hey, your rate's like half of what I normally get quoted,' so they can learn to know that for another point in time. That's been a part of what we're doing. Sometimes we'll support or put people into any professional developmental communities that they want to do. Stanford's been been doing these different cohorts—I think they started with women. It was about the time that I was there, but then they moved into Black people and entrepreneurship and Hispanics and LGBTQ. They have really good data on it. They find that being in a group of the same is important, because you can share in a group where you won't be judged. We're always supportive of people if they find an affinity group or something that they'd want to do outside of work for professional development.

Of your 40 people, are most of them employees or are they working with you as independent contractors?

We've experimented with this, because as a small company payroll burden is—we also have found especially people that have been burned in more traditional work environments want to be contractors. So we ask. We're about a third employees, although we're adding a couple of new employees, and then two-thirds contractors right now. Again, the vast majority want to be contractors. For example, we did something today at noon around retirement and investing. If you're a contractor, here are some options that are actually open to you. Some of these are really great from a tax standpoint, so you should know what they are. We do really celebrate contractors and make sure that they have enough support.

Is there anything else that we should talk about?

I'm just super passionate about this—have you read Dying for a Paycheck by Jeffrey Pfeffer of Stanford? It's a good read. He's looking at some health claims data around bias and discrimination. I know I have this very educated workforce, and I'm constantly thinking about what if you don't have that and you don't have as many options. He has a big push on how people need to move more. I always feel bad saying this, because we work with the companies and I see these really unhealthy work environment sometimes. I just see people get stuck, which I think is really, really sad. And his research shows how unhealthy that is for people

Move in terms of their jobs?

Yes. His take is that 10% will go and 90% will stay, even if it's really unhealthy.

You come from traditional management consulting, which is known for long hours, personal sacrifice, and enormous compensation. Do you think that it would be possible for those types of organizations to reform themselves to be healthier and more family friendly?

I really wish. These foundations get set by about size 40 and it's pretty hard to change them. Actually, McKinsey doesn't have enough talent right now. They had a thing sent out to alumni, saying 'Would you come back?' I was like, 'Oh, I'll talk to them and see how they pitch it.' It was basically like, you can't run Artemis. And it looks like you're teaching at the University of Washington—you can't do that. The expectation is you're on call. I was like, 'Wow, you haven't changed.' Oh my goodness, they're so ingrained in how they work. That's part of what we do. We pay people well per hour, but their comp won't be as high—well, some people can, but per hour we pay people really well, which they appreciate.

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