Colleen McCreary knew she’d have to use equal parts carrot and stick when calling Credit Karma’s nearly 1,500 employees back to its offices in February.
To do that, McCreary, the consumer financial planning company’s chief people, places, and publicity officer, was clear about expectations. Credit Karma requires all employees to be fully vaccinated and teams must create a plan for which days they’ll be in the office. They also have to attest to their health each day they come into one of the company’s offices.
To build excitement, McCreary and her team planned hair and makeup sessions before complimentary professional headshots at both headquarters in Oakland, Ca., and Charlotte, N.C.
A generous budget was allocated for team meals out. And there were regular “Wine Down Wednesdays” in Charlotte and “Thursdays On the Terrace” in Oakland.
The ultimate carrot: Last summer’s all-expense paid, two-day trip to Las Vegas for employees who met the vaccine deadline. Anyone who didn’t feel comfortable traveling and weren’t within driving distance of Vegas were treated to a visit to the U.S. National Whitewater Center in Charlotte.
“We really tried to lure people in,” McCreary told WorkLife. “It was a very intentional strategy of knowing we needed to be safe first and then once we got people over the hurdle of realizing, this is safe, teams chose which days they come in.”
In the end, 12 employees refused to get vaccinated and were fired.
We spoke to McCreary, about the importance of being in the actual office as part of WorkLife’s Diary of a Chief People Officer series, where we ask the professionals tasked with managing workforces and the return to the office, to speak candidly about all their challenges and priorities.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Before Covid shut the world down, what was Credit Karma’s approach to remote work?
We were a five-day-a-week in-the-office company. We actually were not that flexible. I don’t think this has been well-reported in the media, but since we’re a profitable company it is costly from a tax perspective to have employees work remotely in every state. We don’t have any sales people so there was really no reason to have people in multiple states and give ourselves that tax burden.
Can you explain that a bit deeper?
If you’re a tiny startup and don’t make any money, you can have employees work from anywhere since you don’t have a big tax burden on profits. Or, if you’re a super large company with a lot of sales people across regions or the world, you’re paying those taxes anyway. We don’t fit into either category.
So when I sent the first email about working remotely I heard stories about people going to work from other countries and I had to say, ‘No, you can’t take our members’ financial data out of the country.’ We’ve had to keep having conversations with people explaining you can’t go work somewhere for more than six weeks. We’re not set up to pay tax on our revenue in every state. So we had to be really strict.
The other reason we had to be super strict is we announced that on February 24, 2020, we were being acquired by Intuit and subjected to a very long antitrust review.
When did you start bringing teams back to the office?
We had a soft opening in May of 2021 that was voluntary. Then we required everybody to start returning to what we call a flexible workforce in February 2022, which was our official return.
What does that look like?
We want each team to decide what makes the most sense for them. We had brand new offices that opened in Oakland and Charlotte, where we have the most employees. We made the announcement that we’re moving from San Francisco to Oakland a year before the pandemic started. In Charlotte, we had a really small team, but in May of 2021, we made a deal with the state where we guaranteed a certain number of high paying jobs and in return we got tax incentives to be in Charlotte. We were 50 people in Charlotte in January of 2021 and as of yesterday, we are 600 people.
We didn’t want to dictate how many days a week and which days everyone should come in. That’s why we didn’t want to use the word hybrid. It implied it’s this many days and these specific days. We want to be flexible. What makes sense in Oakland might look different than what makes sense in Charlotte versus what makes sense in London.
Why is it important for your organization to be in the office?
Our three co-founders who founded Credit Karma 15 years ago have said from the beginning that relationships matter. Spending time together matters. It was really important to them that we have that culture. People have a choice. You can choose not to work at Credit Karma, it’s OK. You have a lot of options. We definitely have had people say, ‘I want to work from wherever and I don’t want to have to come in.’ And we’ve said that’s not an option for us.
Are the new offices laid out differently than offices pre-pandemic?
Even before the pandemic, it was clear that people needed gathering spaces. We still give everybody their own desk. If you’re going to ask people to come into the office, coming into a hotelling situation where you don’t have your own isn’t right. You have your own space, your own privacy. But we built out a lot of small nooks with soft seating, and portable whiteboards.
The offices have a coffee bar, a roof deck, and a patio with comfortable seating. In Oakland, there’s a full bar up there.
When are employees allowed to drink cocktails? Are there certain hours?
We hire adults, and we expect them to make adult decisions. And everyone is over 21.