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Leading through the COVID Crisis: Frida Polli, CEO of pymetrics

Frida Polli, CEO and co-founder of Pymetrics, a neuro-science/AI based hiring start-up, discusses the affect of the COVID-19 pandemic on the hiring process, specifically skill and mobility requirements of companies and how Pymetrics adapted to it. She identifies three key trends – reduction in physical mobility, digitization and hyper-localization.

Frida Polli, CEO and co-founder of pymetrics, a neuro-science/AI-based hiring, deployment and people mobility support start-up, recently had a discussion with Martin Reeves, Chairman of BCG Henderson Institute, about pymetrics’ response to the COVID-19 crisis and long-term shifts in how we work, hire and deploy talent in the post-COVID era.

Polli discussed the shift in hiring processes, skill needs and mobility requirements of companies as a result of the crisis and how pymetrics has adapted to it. She also talked about three key trends — reduction in physical mobility, digitization and hyper-localization — that may be here to stay.

Frida, I’d like to ask you about leading your company through the COVID crisis. Firstly, what has been the impact on your business?

It’s actually hard to quantify the impact. We are a talent matching platform, so we help clients with hiring, internal mobility, reskilling and re-deployment. What we’ve seen is a shift in priorities of our clients. Many have cut back on hiring. But they are more focused on either internal mobility or redeployment of talent — which is something that we can help them with. Then again we have some clients that have actually increased hiring significantly. So it has really been about meeting client’s needs where the most pain is being felt — and being agile in that capacity.

Have you seen a swing towards digital collaboration helping your business?

Yes, definitely. We have benefited from it in two fundamental ways. My parents live in Northern Italy, so we were aware of how serious COVID could get maybe earlier than others. We actually shut pymetrics’ doors on March 8th, and have been working remotely since then. We were one of the early adopters and feel very fortunate that our job can be done just as efficiently from home as from the office. So, we have benefited from the ability to go digital — we’ve been a Zoom/Slack company from the beginning.

I love the notion of physical distancing rather than social distancing. It doesn’t mean that you’re not including human beings in your hiring processes. It just means that you’re reducing the amount of in-person contact. So, we have seen a doubling down on both the matching platform as well as the digital interviewing platform that we offer, because a lot of our clients are shifting their strategies. For instance, they’re completely rethinking how to do campus hiring, come the fall, because they don’t expect to be visiting campuses anymore. So, they focus on how they can do what they were doing before — but now in a digital format.

I can hear that you’re advantaged as a result of being a digital business. But nevertheless, even for digital business, you probably have challenges. What have been the two or three biggest challenges for you as the CEO?

The challenges have had very little to do with us as a business and more to do with where we are in the life cycle of our business. We were expecting to go out and raise a Series C in March. I’m sure, you’re aware that the funding climate right now is quite different than we would have expected. So we’ve had to really pivot on a dime and change our entire outlook for the year. We’re planning on delaying fund-raising a full year, which obviously means making some pretty significant changes to the business. Not laying people off — but doing other things that can extend our runway. And so the biggest challenge that we faced was making a dramatic change to the plan that we had put in place.

A second challenge is in prioritizing our services. Pymetrics can talent-match either through hiring, mobility or reskilling. Reskilling or redeployment of talent hadn’t been a top priority, a few months ago, which has changed now dramatically. So, we are working together with other partners to build a re-deployment platform that can be used by companies everywhere, to take furloughed workers and helping them match to jobs that are happening and growing. So, another pivot that we made was to focus on re-deployment — something we didn’t initially have in our product roadmap for the year.

A lot of what I’ve seen companies focused on right now, especially in the U.S., is what I call “reaction”. In other words, supply chain adjustments, working from home policies, hygiene policies, travel policies, this sort of thing. We maintain that there are several other things that CEOs should be thinking about — one of them is “recession”. It’s almost inevitable that we’ll have a recession, even if it won’t be officially called until after the event. Then there is “rebound”. Demand will rebound at some point, probably in two waves — first with the release of social restrictions, but, also then when the economy turns around. And then finally “re-imagination” of the business — the pattern of demand will likely be different moving forwards. What are you doing on in terms of the opportunity side of this — rebound and re-imagination?

It comes back to some of the things we were just talking about now. Historically, we’ve been very focused on hiring. And to your point we’re going to go through a period of recession and then come out the other side. We are focused on how we help companies come out the other side in a much healthier way. We’re using technology to increase efficiency and remove biases from workforce decisions. And just as we’re seeing with other fundamental transformational shifts in society — such as focus on the sustainability — the same type of re-imagination can be done around workforce decisions. Which means that we don’t have to go back to the system that we were using before. We can actually create and craft a system that is fundamentally far more efficient, effective, and lacking in bias than what we had. And to us that’s hugely exciting as an opportunity to really help companies through that transformation.

Let’s just take the redeployment platform for a minute. Historically, we are seeing the biggest reallocation of talent since World War II. And if you think about how redeployment of talent is traditionally done — it’s extremely painful, takes months of time, and a huge amount of effort. Imagine if that could be done in a matter of days. Imagine if you could log into a platform, upload your resume, go through a digital interview, and the next day you can be matched with somebody who’s going to interview you! That would be transformational for the way we think about work and how we find work.

I think that the crisis really gives us opportunity to rethink just how everything is happening in society. Previously, to get a doctor to see you over the phone was impossible. That’s just not something they were open to. Now, it’s all about telemedicine. Will we go back to a situation where a doctor will say, “I’m sorry, I can’t do telemedicine.”? Once that threshold has been crossed, it’s really hard to say, “I’m not going to do that anymore.” So I think there’s real opportunity to do things that tradition had prevented us from doing, without any good reason. That’s what I’m excited about.

So building on that, we’re going into some sort of different pattern of demand, different behaviors, different attitudes, after COVID is over. And the challenge with seeing what that new world is about is that, there are also a lot of temporary changes — temporary shifts in demand, hoarding, postponement etc. So as you try to read that new pattern of demand, what do you think are the fundamental changes that are going to occur beyond the obvious ones of more digital commerce and collaboration?

Some of the changes, I think, are fairly obvious. Increase in digital forms of everything will certainly be one. I think, there will be a shift to hyper-locality, especially when we’re now seeing how impacted supply chains are by global commerce. There had already been a shift towards local sourcing. You saw it in the farm-to-table movement and in chains like Sweetgreen that are all locally sourced. I think, you’re going to see more and more of that — which is not necessarily a bad thing.

And another thing that I think people will strongly rethink is this need for travel everywhere. You and I meet mostly at conferences in locations that neither you or I live in. But as a society, we will potentially rethink the notion of hopping on a plane, which is essentially a transportation unit with closed air and human contact points. We will make a mental judgment about the length of time on the plane, the number of people that have used it and cleansing & mitigation — and this may fundamentally change how we operate. I would think nothing, previously, of getting on a plane to fly to London for a half hour presentation, whereas now many of my conferences have been moved online and instead of a two day process, it’s a half hour to an hour all in.

And that is very freeing, for those of us who do these things often, and for people who are not fully physically able. So I think a lot of the changes that we’re seeing — whether it’s decreased mobility or increased digitalization or hyper locality — have some real positives. Of course, we’ll have to think about what the downsides might be, but I think that it could make our society a lot more flexible and inclusive not have such a sort of rigid model of how things have to be done,

If you think about a job — a job historically has come with an office, with a dress code, with a commute, with all these things that we think of as fundamental to a job. And now, for those of us that are fortunate enough to be able to work remotely, our job has been unleashed from its physical trappings. It’s really about the mental activity of a job and the creativity and the passion and the purpose. So, I think it’ll be very interesting to see how that fundamentally changes our view of and our experience of a job.

I see the potential for changing how we think about jobs. On the other hand large companies can have great inertia. Do you see institutional change in companies around embracing this new conception of a job?

There is a post on LinkedIn that says, “Who facilitated your digital transformation? A, your CEO, B, your CTO, C, COVID-19.” It really sums up the times. We are hearing about a number of companies that are essentially rethinking entirely their notion of work from home. Again, it’s back to my example — if during the pandemic, a doctor can do telemedicine, why can’t he do it after the pandemic? If I can perform my job just as well from home during a pandemic, why would that be questioned afterwards? So, unless we see some fundamental productivity decline, which I don’t think is the case, then I think it’s hard to just pull back completely and say, “All those things that were somehow not allowed previously, we’re going to go back to that.”

So coming to internal challenges, one of the characteristics of the virus is its high transmissibility and it’s very short doubling time, and its ability to overwhelm companies with respect to speed and resilience. Have you seen opportunities to improve your company’s agility and resilience?

Yes. It’s things we’ve already discussed. We were already a fairly flexible company when it came to where we allowed people to operate from, and I think that this crisis has the only accelerated that.

As a startup, do you have challenges or advantages that are very different from those of a large established company?

I don’t think that BCG was going to raise a Series C this year, right? So how do you elongate your timeline until the next fund-raise? And how do you focus more on profitability at an earlier stage? I think it’s something that we obviously had to urgently think about.

I think being small and being flexible, absolutely helps. Flexibility and innovation, and you’ve written about this, are not unique to small companies though. It’s more about the mentality that people have and whether they can continue to have that innovative mindset no matter what scale. I think that it’s something that all companies can embrace.

So my last question is, what are your personal learnings from the COVID pandemic?

It’s hard to fully believe that it’s going to occur in such force until you see it. New York quickly became the new epicenter, but I think even as a New Yorker, that was hard to really wrap your head around until you started walking around the city streets of New York. Then it really hits you, “Wow this is truly happening.”You somehow think, “Oh, maybe it won’t be as bad as everyone is saying”. Leaders must anticipate.

And secondly, it’s been extremely moving to see the human response to this. I don’t know if you’re aware, but every night at seven o’clock people go out on their balconies and start clapping and it’s very moving to see. It’s for the first responders and the hospital workers, and the human spirit is just amazing to watch in action. It makes me tear up every time I think about it, every time I hear it. So I think that’s something to keep in mind — that in spite of how grave this pandemic is, the resilience of human beings and the hope, optimism and the altruism are a really powerful to be harnessed for good.

Well, thank you so much Frida for sharing your perspectives with us, I’m sure this will be very interesting and valuable to our readers. Thanks once again.

Thank you for having me, Martin. It’s a pleasure.

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