Speakfully Insider: Keri Higgins-Bigelow

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Welcome to Speakfully Insider, a weekly series featuring thought leaders on important topics surrounding workplace mistreatment, company culture, workplace safety, social justice, and more.

Please introduce yourself.

Hi, I’m Keri Higgins-Bigelow. I founded livingHR roughly 11 years ago. We coach organizations on how to transform their “way” to create diverse and inclusive cultures, fulfilled talent and better human experiences at work. I’m very proud of our Work Now + In The Future monthly virtual panel series (and now as a podcast) where we host discussions with thought leaders from all over the world. We cover topics such as wellbeing at work, leadership development, and diversity, equity and inclusion. It is free to attend, and I welcome all to join us.

I also co-founded a women in leadership group in 2018 called Fe league. Its mission is to connect, support, and advance women in corporate, firm, and agency roles. Our members are from all industries, backgrounds, and leadership levels. Much like livingHR, it was born from not finding anything quite like it. I’m not a hard-selling or competitive person and I found other groups were fluent with competition, internal politics, and lead generation. That’s just not me, and it turns out that’s just not other women either. So, Fe league was born. We collaborate, encourage, and lift members so they can reach their pure potential and purpose, organically.

Tldr; I guess you could say I am a human who cares a lot about other humans! 

What was the driving force for you to pursue your work in the human capital space?

I think a lot of people get into this space because they love people, and that includes me. Another driver was that it wasn't just about fixing work, it was that work had never really been set up to be done in a way that was human. 

So, for me, it wasn't like something that was broken and needed a fix. It was that work is a huge part of our lives: as humans. We spend a lot of time working and when everyone was going home and just complaining about what they did, not connecting meaning to their efforts, or truly finding fulfillment in what they were doing, that really perplexed me. I ended up inadvertently studying WHY this was happening, why is work so fundamentally flawed? Why can’t it serve as not only a means for income but also for creating purpose beyond a paycheck? I wanted to create a new way of working and reimagine what work could be and what purpose it would serve.

What are three of the biggest changes you’ve seen over your career span working within the field?

HR has had a bad reputation. I would say that, in some cases, it is for just cause, but progress has been made. Do we have a long way to go, yes?

When I first started, we were still talking about personnel and files and it was very much the HR policing mindset and all about policies. I became aware, quickly, that's not the part of the human capital space that excites me and it’s not the part that delivers to the business. HR really wasn't responsible for anything related to true culture or employee experience or any of those things.

Since then, the industry has split into two very different segments. There is Risk Management, historically known as HR, the operational transaction side, and now there's People & Culture. 

People & Culture is the real value add of being able to optimize your talents, it allows you to execute on your strategy and deliver to the business while also making sure that you're having a greater purpose on or with humanity. It’s humanizing work. 

Another major shift I have seen through my years in this industry has been the ability and advancement of technology to automate. Old school HR is super paper-heavy - how many times must one fill in their name?! 

So much has really evolved in our field that requires us to understand how to leverage tech, be good at the development, care and overall understanding of human behavior, and understand how that yields performance. It’s a simple truth that business wins are always powered by people wins.

Describe changes you are seeing as it relates to workplace culture since COVID hit back in 2020. Tell us some of the positives.

I think one of the really big positives is that a lot of the workforce has obviously gone remote, and it created an opportunity for a lot of people to connect that otherwise wouldn't have. It brought together people that we're bound by no other work-reason and it helped break down some silos that had been in place for far too long.

Another big positive is that there's this renewed focus (or maybe it's a completely new focus) on wellbeing and mental health. We’ve changed how we look at capacity and preventing burnout to have a healthy culture. That was simply not a loud conversation even two years ago. As we come out of this pandemic, I think we will see a big shift to caring for the whole person.

Pre-covid, it was a show-your-face-in-the-office kind of world, and those who showed their faces the most and worked the longest hours typically rose to the top the fastest. That in and of itself made it impossible for a lot of women in the workplace to advance as much as their male counterparts. I see now, as much as the shesession has negatively impacted women, covid enabled a spotlight on some things that we all knew existed, but we tolerated and accept as the “norm”. Because of this uncovered truth, I think workplace culture is going to increasingly evolve into a much more thoughtful and intentional design. We're going to be much clearer about the behaviors that we will and won't tolerate. We have already begun to stop excusing the toxicity of some as “harmless” or “the norm”, such as those who create harassment, bias, and discrimination in our workplace. It was never harmless, and it was never normal.

Beyond the devasting loss of the pandemic, I’d be remiss if I did not mention the racial and social injustices and the harrowing rise-up of millions of people that were happening during 2020 and now again in 2021. Employees have paid close attention to how their organizations responded internally and externally. The violent acts we’ve witnessed and experienced made it really clear that the culture you create will determine how your people AND your customers will engage with your organization; either with their feet by leaving, or with their heart and soul, leaning into a willingness to want to be a part of who you are. That is a HUGE positive.

In your opinion, are we really becoming a people-first professional culture?

Well, livingHR is and our clients are. If I were to be honest, I would have to say that not everyone is on board. There are some organizations that are still digging in their heels and not realizing that their organization doesn't have to choose between people and profit. At the same time, you're getting all that profit, you can actually be putting people first. Free advice: People are, in fact, the path to profit.

We, the humans behind the workforce, have discounted our own value and work for a long time. When you put people first you ultimately yield better business outcomes and at the same time you yield a lot more impact to our broader humanity. Those organizations that don't get that it's just not going to be sustainable for them. The generations that are here, in the workplace and earning right now, they are quite different from previous generations. They are not going to support brands or organizations that do not embrace compassion, emotional intelligence, and empathy towards their people and that is not going to change. 

What steps do you believe will help in making expansion and evolution the new normal for organizations?

Certainly, where talent physically resides matters a whole lot less now in many industries. Being able to get the best person for the job who lives nowhere near the HQ office allows organizations to quickly expand and evolve with top talent. It's allowed livingHR to do that. We have expanded into a lot more cities across the US and in Canada.

The future of work or its evolution, will also depend on the type of work that is being done. If we are talking remote work, I don't think there's a one-size-fits-all answer to whether we should be hybrid or remote or back in the office. It really depends on your culture and making sure that you really, thoughtfully think about the work that your people do, how they need to interact, and how they need to collaborate.

Organizations that follow this humanizing path will evolve into that new normal by NOT doing what everyone else is doing but doing what's right for your work, your organization, and your people.

If you could sit down with a historical figure for advice in creating a healthy and loving workplace culture, who would it be with, what would you discuss, and why?

It's funny you ask this question. We just had a Fe league virtual meet up and this question was asked, and I immediately thought: Jane Goodall. She is such a badass, performing harrowing, life-threatening, and meaningful work every minute of her life, even now well into her 80s! The humanity she sparked, the lives (both human and otherwise) she changed, and, of course, saved. As an anthropologist, she studied the association of human behavior; past and present, and then moved onto her work as a primatologist and her famous studies with the Gombe Forest chimpanzees.

As we now know, chimpanzees are a lot like us and that's the whole point of what her work was getting at in those early years. I feel like she probably knows humans better than anyone because she saw it in such a raw way. Uncovering the connection between humans and primate. Understanding what she learned and that study of those beautiful living beings in the wilds of the Gombe Forest and how that research changed so much of what we know about ourselves. It’s just beautiful. All of it. Everything she does, everything she stands for and everything she has accomplished. She studied culture before it was cool!

Where to find Keri:

Website: https://www.livinghr.com/
Twitter: @livingHRInc
Instagram: @livinghrinc
LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/keri-higgins-bigelow-73721515/