Vox Media’s Erin Bakst, Head of People Operations, explains what her job title actually means, questions if office spaces need nap nooks and indoor slides, and reminds job hunters to never underestimate the cover letter.
What does the Head of People Operations do?
Erin Bakst: Basically here at Vox Media that’s the head of talent position — so all of what you’d traditionally call Human Resources and Recruiting rolls into me. Although we’ve never had a Recruiting team at Vox Media so I’m in the process of building a Talent Acquisition function.
My team consists of Business Partners, a Programs & Diversity Manager, Total Rewards (AKA Comp & Benefits) and soon Talent Acquisition.
Since we’re pretty lean, I also serve as the Business Partner for our Corporate team which means I support Accounting & Finance, MarComms, Legal and People & Culture from a strategic talent consulting perspective.
I should note that this is all new to us. I started back in November of 2015 and have been building a lot of the framework of HR. As a company, we grew really quickly and in a few instances without some of the processes and programs that you’d normally have for a company of our size. So we’ve recently scaled People Ops to better support the business.
As you work across all of these different, quickly growing teams, is there a common thread you see across them? Something that would help you tell a stranger on the street what Vox Media’s company culture looks like?
Bakst: There are a couple of things that I’d say about Vox Media culture. One is that we’re always changing. That’s not necessarily unique to us because we’re a media company and because we’re a high-growth company. But the other is that we have an amazing commitment to diversity and inclusion that I really haven’t seen anywhere else that I’ve worked. That sounds cliche and I’m not saying we’re perfect at it because we have a long way to go. But the commitment to it is embedded in our culture at all levels, including (and especially) with Jim Bankoff. It’s one of the things I love about running People Ops.
I’d add, too, that the constant change brings about a ton of innovation, which makes this a really exciting place to work. I was just working with our VP of Growth and Analytics on a workshop for the NABJ/NAHJ convention on Monday and we’re focusing it on storytelling across multiple platforms. It just blows me away how our talent can tell stories in ways that really resonate with our audience on things like Snapchat, Facebook Live, and YouTube.
I agree. It’s fun to sit amid teams creating such different and interesting things. I just walked by Racked as they filmed a piece on beauty products and am now eyeing a bouquet of rose-shaped-bacon that was shipped to Eater.
Bakst: OMG I love going to New York and sitting on the 10th floor with Eater! They get the best food! Also, Racked has an entire case of nail polish that I want to raid. This place has some great perks.
Bakst: Truth! It’s fun to get to participate in the creative process here even if you’re not on a content creation team. A couple of months ago I was in New York and Kat Odell was doing a taste-testing for her Drinks column. I got to participate which was really fun. And it was so informal but awesome.
I’d really like to hear more about that — not bacon roses — but keeping employees happy in their physical space. I’ve seen wildly inventive work spaces — nap nooks and fire pits and slides. What is really needed to keep employees happy and productive in the office?
Bakst: Honestly, now that I’ve worked in three different start-ups, I think it depends on the employees. But what I think is true for Vox Media is that they need space to be creative. It doesn’t have to be a slide (and I seriously hope that’s never suggested because I’ll have agita about workers comp claims), it just has to be the right place. For a few of our employees, that’s the communal dining table where they eat their cereal at 8 AM and chat about the articles they’re working on. For some, it’s the comfy couch nook we just put in upstairs. Others like to be standing up jamming to music and in the zone. And many opt to WFH because it fits their lifestyle and they can do their work well from there.
Sometimes I see the crazy office stuff other start-ups do and I think it’s a waste, but ultimately if that’s what makes their employees happy and productive, that’s what they need to do. I just don’t think ours need that. They need to be comfortable and inspired. And of course they need the right resources. We’ve been investing even more in podcasting and video studios lately which is super cool. And our content reflects that.
Right, the flexibility to work in the way that best suits you is really a luxury. And, for me, that will never be mid-slide.
Now, I can’t let you go without discussing hiring.
Bakst: Yes! Hiring is one of my favorite topics these days!
We’re hiring across so many departments, with some openings for completely new roles (an American Ninja Warrior expert just joined us) and some for people who are new to the work force. How can someone with little real-world experience — maybe they’ve just graduated or are in school — demonstrate that they can take on a new role?
Bakst: That’s a somewhat difficult question to answer because every hiring manager has different preferences. I do, however, have some advice that I think can be generally applied.
First, we’re great at telling stories and creating beautiful content, so candidates should do that in their applications. I don’t want to see a resume that looks like a job description — I want to see what they have accomplished that can translate into the role. If a candidate has only one year of work experience, I want to see that they made the most of that year and grew a ton. Send links to your work. Send examples of stuff you’ve done. That’s going to tell the story of YOU so we get a better idea of how you’d be working here at Vox Media.
Second, I think people really underestimate the power of a cover letter. It is absolutely true that some people don’t read them. But when an application asks for it, do it and make it good. That’s where you get to show how excited you are about Vox Media. Do you read SB Nation religiously? Tell me about it! Do you plan your vacations around Eater’s 38 (like I do)? Tell me. We want to see not just that you want the job, but that you’re excited about this company. We have a ton of passionate people here and it’s made us pretty freaking awesome, so we want MORE passionate people.
That can actually really set someone apart and help them demonstrate that they’re a great fit. We like passion and enthusiasm.
That’s really great advice. It’s always clear when an application isn’t specifically meant for one company or one position.
Let’s wrap with just three quick questions:
What is the tool or product that makes your work life better?
Bakst: Evernote! I take so many notes and that allows me to document and search everything. I LOVE it and try to convert everyone to using it. Notebooks don’t work for me.
What have you recently read or watched or listened to that you immediately shared with a friend or just thought: wow.
Bakst: The Ezra Klein Show — it’s Ezra’s podcast and I’m addicted. I listen to it every day on my walk to work and have turned a few friends on to it.
Lastly, we’re Slacking. Can you let us peek into your world by sharing your frequently used emojis?
Erin Bakst (@EWilsonHR) is Vox Media’s Head of People Operations. She has worked across Talent functions for a decade in the areas of Program Management, International HR, Executive Education, Recruiting, and Talent Engagement. She is based in DC.