How Does It Work is our version of a Proust Questionnaire, created to reveal the inner workings of interesting companies and their people programs. We first turned the survey onto a team we know very well, Bright + Early. Bright + Early is a hypermodern people operations and workplace design consultancy. They work with fast-growing companies, mostly in tech and creative fields, to build inclusive, employee-friendly policies and processes. (Full disclosure: B+E is Early Magazine's publishing partner.)

1. Where are you based?
Toronto, with some people being remote. We work all over the US and Canada, though.

2. How big is the team?
10-15 people.

3. What do you, as an organization, value? If you have defined values, tell us about them.
Our values are Inclusivity, Transparency, Data, and Heart. To us, this applies to both how we work together and the work we build for others. We aim to build work experiences that are built for everyone. We believe in clear communication and expectations, so we try to build programs and policies that are easy to access and understand. We try to use data where we can to justify program design decisions, and put real research and an iterative approach into our work. Finally, everything we do needs to have some heart. If it doesn’t put humans first, we won’t build it.

4. If Bright + Early were a person, who would they be?
Probably a cool aunt. One who wears leather pants, knows how to drive stick, change a tire and gives really great heartfelt advice.

5. Do you have a special nickname for your employees?
Early Birds.

The Bright + Early team smiles in a group shot in front of a tree.
Some of the Bright + Early team. Clockwise: Shavonne Hasfal-McIntosh, Steph Little, Steph Bergman, Maye Kunu, Taavi Weinberger, Trisha Neogi, Lauren Mercurio-Smith, Nora Jenkins Townson

6. What’s your tool stack?
Notion for our internal wiki and working handbook. We store all of our working practices (which we call the Bright + Early Way), templates, standards and more in Notion. Slack for daily communication, Monday for project and sales management, and Humi, CultureAmp and Wagepoint for our internal HR stack.

7. How are you structured (flat, traditional hierarchy, holocracy, etc)? What’s your management culture like?
We’re arranged in a fairly standard structure, with some consultants reporting into a team lead, and other seniors or operational leads reporting to the founder. One-on-ones are done weekly or biweekly depending on how much support someone currently needs. Twice annually we do 360 performance reviews and engagement surveys via CultureAmp.

We also keep an internal manual outlining the expectations we have of our team leads/managers. Having a sort of manager handbook is an underrated superpower in making sure people have a consistent experience working at an organization. Someone might have management experience, but a whole different idea of what that means. To ensure we’re on track with the management culture we want to create, we evaluate managers partly based on the growth of and feedback from their team, and have regular skip-levels (meetings between an employee and their boss’s boss) to collect feedback.

8. What do you not care about as an organization?
Perfection in early work. We have a channel where we drop very early versions of projects, and everyone descends with feedback. It sounds intimidating, especially to new hires that may have received a lot of poorly delivered criticism in the past, but everyone is so genuinely wanting to help (and bringing such different and unique perspectives) that it’s actually a huge hack in how we collaborate and get things done quickly and creatively.

9. What do you look for in a new hire?
We look for people who are highly aligned with our mission to make better, more human workplaces. Generally, they should take a collaborative approach, be willing to dive into new (and sometimes odd) situations and be okay with making mistakes and learning. We also love working with creative people, which doesn’t sound like the first thing you think of when you think of HR. We think of ourselves as work experience designers in a way, and we take on a lot of pretty unique projects, so an ability to think outside the box is key. We’re a good home for people who are passionate about their practice, but who also question a lot of the norms of it.

10. How do you handle team members taking time off?
We offer 4 weeks minimum vacation. This means everyone must take at least that much, but you can ask for more as well. We also offer 75% top-up for parental leave for 4 months, on top of the standard Ontario government benefits. One unique thing we offer is spiritual days, 3 extra days to spend on religious or spiritual practice beyond the standard Christian bank holidays.

10. Do you have any interesting benefits or perks?
HR work can involve a lot of stressful situations, tough conversations and emotional labour. To counter this, we offer free therapy through Inkblot. We also have donation matching through Give- team members can choose their own charitable contributions or donate our own Better Workplaces Fund.

11. What’s your hiring process like?
We try to write job descriptions that are very reflective of our culture and give candidates a strong idea of what working here would be like. We include videos, share pay transparently, and try to source from a variety of diverse job boards and hiring pools. As for the process itself, it involves speaking to team members but also completing a fun, choose-your-own-adventure style day in the life quiz.

12. How do you ensure you’re building an inclusive environment?
Since we also consult, speak and train in the DEI (Diversity, Equity and Inclusion) space, it’s important to practice what we preach. We evaluate all of our own policies and processes against a checklist developed by our DEI team. We also try to bring in a variety of speakers and perspectives that influence our work and ensure we’re building from a diverse lens.

13. It’s someone’s first week at Bright + Early. What are they up to?
We have new joiners work with a fun (and fake!) client, MerryGoRound. MerryGoRound is a startup disrupting Big Ice Cream, and they’ve become kind of an inside joke for us; most of our faux policies or work examples are created for them. Working with MerryGoRound’s data, they begin by analyzing an engagement survey, some out-of-date policies, and general issues the “client” is having. They use this to make a presentation of recommendations and a plan. We also have them shadow team members with real clients so starting their own first project isn’t quite so intimidating.

Slide deck containing photos of team members with text saying "we've been so lucky to share this time with you"
A slide deck from Bright + Early's annual "wrapped" party.

14. How do you grow your team members?
Our manager 1:1s tend to be focused on the personal, rather than status updates, and our template to record and keep notes from those meetings has the goals right at the top. Those are set in our biannual review and goal sessions. We try to foster a culture where managers are actively looking for and advocating for opportunities for their team. For example, if someone really wants to learn data analysis or improve their coaching skills, they’ll try to find a mentor to connect them with or a project they can shadow on. There are many opportunities to teach each other, and we regularly host design jams to talk about how we could take a brand new, radical approach to something like performance reviews.

We also have a professional development budget for each team member, which has been used for tuition, online training programs, books, and more. We also regularly bring in some pretty unique speakers. These could be academics doing interesting research on the workplace, experts in deep-dive areas of people operations that we get to practice a bit less, or just people building interesting things. The team also has access to training modules through LifeLabs and career coaching through Inkblot.

Our career paths are quite transparent, so it’s easy to see what it takes to get to the next level up if that’s what you want. We have regular career discussions, but formal reviews every 6 months. Our view on reviews is to look forwards and focus on goals and strengths, rather than a backwards-facing, punitive approach.

15. What’s a people decision Bright + Early made that you regretted, or had to give up or walk back?
We backed out of having mainly contractors and made the switch to only permanent employees in 2018. Keeping people on contract is tempting when you’re a service-based business with fluctuating client loads, but if you’re going to be advising others on inclusive work environments, you have to walk the walk and provide stability, full benefits, and predictable pay.

16. What are your working hours and norms (asynch, remote, core hours, etc)?
We’re on a 4-day workweek 50% of the time, so every other week. Otherwise, we work a standard workday but are pretty strict about logging off on evenings and weekends. We try to have a culture where we praise each other for taking the rest we need, not for overworking ourselves.

17. What are you bad at, as a company?
As a team of people with big ideas, sometimes we can’t really follow through on executing all of them. Kind of a bummer, but that’s reality.

7 people on zoom making homemade pasta.
Screenshot of Bright + Early's team pasta party.

18. What’s an unexpected thing you splurge on?
Not necessarily unexpected, but more of a lovely splurge - we send a lot of flowers and gifts to each other, and not just for special occasions.

19. What’s the most fun party or celebration you’ve had?
We close out every year with a Spotify Wrapped inspired party. We celebrate the year’s top tracks (projects), moments, and artists (each Early Bird). It’s a fun tradition and extra fun to revisit old ones over the years! We’ve also done pasta-making classes, escape rooms, and drag shows, to name a few.

20. What’s your most overused phrase?
Is an emoji a phrase? Maybe a custom emoji that flashes "hot fire".

21. Does Bright + Early have any unique rituals?

  • Workshop Fridays: We don’t book clients on Fridays. Every other Friday we take a day off, and on the other ones, we have our team meeting and either a guest speaker or a design workshop, where we dive into how we can improve the different workplace processes that we craft.
  • Out of Tens: A process where we rate our personal state/ability to show up out of ten, with 10 being you’re doing amazing, and anything below 6 being not-so-great. You don’t need to explain why. We use this to a) recognize that people’s mental health and working capacity ebbs and flows b) to resource projects not just based on people’s availability, but how they’re doing.
  • Spiritual Days: 3 extra days off for spiritual growth or religious practice outside the standard bank holidays.
  • W of the Week: A time in our team meeting where we share ways we positively impacted each other, a client or the world.
  • L of the Week: A time in our team meeting where we share ways in which we fucked up (and how we learned from it). L’s are applauded and celebrated.
  • Golden Potato Award: Given weekly to the team member who solved the biggest problem with the simplest, most potato-like solution.
  • Poems: Everyone gets a personalized poem on their work anniversary.