bWise – Ep 23: Shaping Culture and Service: A People-First Approach to HR with bswift’s Natalie Atwood

Description of this episode

How can HR professionals be true people partners that empower and shape company culture? bswift’s Chief People Officer Natalie Atwood talks with bWise hosts Don and Sharon about her passion for putting people first. Learn how she’s guiding bswift’s cultural evolution—focusing on talent, transparency, engagement, and wellbeing. Natalie also discusses key elements of bswift’s benefits admin success like speed, simplicity, and creating a culture of connection in a remote-first world. Tune in for an uplifting discussion on leading with care, trust, and fun.


View recording transcript >

    Sharon, we’re fortunate today to have a wonderful guest with us. Natalie Atwood is a singular talent in the people space. I know her. She’s not fond of the term human resources or HR, although she is our chief HR officer here at bswift. But she loves the terminology people, and I think that just speaks to the fact that she does love people. She’s a great talent. She’s a very experienced individual in this space. We’re delighted to have her on our show today to talk a little bit about her experience in managing people and helping organizations succeed. So, to my co-host, Sharon, thanks for being with me today and welcome aboard Natalie to our show.

    Thank you so much. I’m very excited to be here and looking forward to our conversation.

    Awesome. Well, just to give our listeners a little bit of history, Natalie’s been in the chief people officer or human resources roles for decades, and she’s really created success in companies like Breeze, airways, health Equity, and even did some work back in the day with American Express, and we’re lucky to have her here at bswift. Now, Natalie, because of your experience with prior companies, I wanted to start with a question around benefits administration. You’ve seen other systems and you’ve worked in other systems, and I just wondered if you could weigh in for us on what you think it takes to deliver a successful benefits administration experience for a human resource team, and what are some of the capabilities of a system that you think really make a big difference for HR professionals?

    Great question, Don. Thank you so much. I’d like to start the answer with a story. I joined bswift, the bswift team in February, late February of this year, and the first week in March, I remember it very clearly. I was informed that BIFs annual enrollment was quickly approaching and that our benefit plan year was June to June. You might say I had a mini freak out, maybe a major freak out. I know from my past experience working with the various companies that I’ve worked at, we typically used our HRAS system as our benefit administrator. This required six to eight months runway, a lot of work on the benefits team, leaders in the company, implementation specialists. It’s a long arduous process. I hadn’t used a benefit administration service such as bswift. So, when we started going through the process, I was amazed. Before I was halfway to the point, the bswift implementation team, in partnership with our broker and with the benefits team, we had spun up annual enrollment ready to go in the shortest, easiest, fastest amount of time I have ever experienced.

    I would say that it was pretty near flawless. What I loved about it, the experts at bswift, they did the heavy lifting. I could focus on what types of communication did our team members need. So the speed to execution was vital. The second thing that I think is important is communication. I think you would all agree that many employees across the nation in many companies aren’t even clear on how their benefit programs work. They don’t understand them, and there’s a lot of opportunity for us to provide education. What I quickly learned with our system is that we have this incredible tool called Ask Emma. Ask Emma provided great education and supported users to make decisions based on their situation, where they were at in their life, and it provided education along the way. So communication, education, ease of use. My team wasn’t knee deep in files for months prior to this.

    The site was absolutely beautiful. The communication, the communication process, the leading up to that was near flawless, and we ended up doing a passive enrollment and we had over 80% participation. I’ve never seen anything like that with a passive enrollment that meant our team members were engaged. It was easy for them to use. It didn’t take a lot of their time. And what I would say is I cannot imagine ever implementing a suite of benefits ever again without a Ben admin such as bswift. So if there’s any CPOs out there, HR benefit managers that are listening to this, you do not know what you’re missing. If you’re not using the bswift platform today, do it. You will not regret it.

    Gosh. Well, we might need to just stop the POD recording right there because that is all I think our listeners need to hear. I mean, Natalie, it’s such an awesome perspective that you’re providing to our listeners. So that’s super exciting to hear. I think you’ve kind of covered this in terms of your favorite thing about bswift, and it’s really the education from, and I’m sure that’s your perspective as a people officer, but also as an employee that you feel like you’ve maybe got some more clarity around the offerings as an employee experiencing bswift as an employee.

    Exactly. Yeah. I experienced it myself first as a new hire joining the team, I was very excited to elect my benefits and walk through the process to understand, and mind you, when I joined, we were still probably just embarking on divestiture activities, so things were still being implemented and rolled out in the process. What I loved the most was Ask Emma. It made it so simple. It took me just a few minutes and it was a seamless experience as a new team member. That was my lens first, and then it’s grown so much since then. So to recap, it’s the communication that my team can focus on because we have a been admin. Second, it’s the ease of use for employees of all of our clients and for all the team members of bswift, the ease of going in, electing their benefits, it’s easy and they’re getting education that from my prior experience, they didn’t normally get where Emma’s basically talking them through the process and it takes just minutes. So the communication, the education, the ease of use, and the time that came back to my team. Also during that time, I was building the People organization.

    That’s awesome. Natalie, you got such a great attitude about everything I’ve observed. I guess a question, I want to take a step back from sort of the focus on been admin and look more broadly at the work that you do on the People team and the work that your team does. And I guess one of the things that’s interesting always to think about is when you think about the people, teams of various organizations that have such an incredible, or they can have such an incredible effect on the culture of an organization, what are some of the things that you think your team is working on now that will create success at bswift in the future?

    Oh, great question, Dom. Thanks for asking that. And I will say I understand the critical role that people teams play in shaping and nurturing the culture of the organizations in which we work. For me and my team, just so happens we get the great opportunity to be the people team for bswift. Creating a culture that leads to success requires a multifaceted approach, and it involves several things. Number one, strategic alignment. It’s important for my team and myself to be in alignment with our senior leaders regarding our vision and our values. Every b swifter is my customer. That’s how I look at my role. All bswifters are my customers, my people, business partners are very much aligned with our senior leadership team to ensure that we’re structuring policies and initiatives with the strategic objectives that also align with our vision and our values. That’s very important and probably the first thing that I would say.

    The second thing I would say would be hiring right talent. Hiring right talent in the right role at the right time is key in building a culture that leads to success. This is my first line of defense to protect our culture. It is hiring the right people. That’s where our culture begins. So it’s important that our talent acquisition team and myself are aware of what is a culture fit, and those are the people that are getting through the doors. I will say just a little note here that in third quarter as we’ve done a review of all of our applicants, we’ve hired less than 1% of our total applications, and really it is key. I can tell you I’ve talked to some very, very qualified individuals that may not be a culture fit, and we have to have the courage to pass and go to the next right person that fits our culture.

    So talent is my second, is what I would say next. Then I would say providing transparent and clear communication. We’re creating a culture of transparency and accountability, and this one is easy, especially our company’s led by CEO Ted Bloomberg. He is excellent at transparency and encouraging others to speak up and share their opinions. It’s important that we all take a page out of that book and continue to communicate clearly up, down, across with our clients, with our partners, with their employees. Communication is a skill that I think we all continue to evolve and grow, and it is important. It’s an important aspect of having a great culture. It’s also important that we are providing opportunities for all of our team members to develop. If people are not growing, they’re dying. And so we have an opportunity to develop programs that allow our teammates to continue to grow and excel in the skills and in the jobs that they’re in.

    This also includes leadership development leaders. Our leaders are key to ensure that we are leading this team and the company to great success. So leadership development is a key aspect in ensuring that all of our beasts with leaders are aligned and leading with the same guiding principles. Next, it’s important that we have opportunities for all bswifters to feel engaged, and engagement includes everything from having a ton of fun, which we do a lot of at bswift having some fun. This includes things like we have a culture club, we have a culture captain program. We have some great parties that we’ve had. Some of the best parties I can say I have ever experienced in all my decades of working in corporate America. It includes things like promoting ERGs, building ERGs, and all of the enhancing and continuing to build programs that provide engagement. I would also say that development in all forms is another way that we can provide engagement for individuals.

    And of course, last but not least, ensuring that overall our team we’re being mindful of the wellbeing of all of our bswifters, promoting a work-life balance, having wellness initiatives, continuing to provide education to all of our team members. While I may work with a company of experts in this space, it’s important for us to still continue to provide education and wellness opportunities so everyone can bring their best self to work each and every day. So those are the things that I would say there’s probably a much longer list, but that’s what I would have to say today.

    Wow. And Natalie, it’s a comprehensive list even in just a high bird’s eye view, and what I love about the list is that you’re really empowering. Your team does a lot, but you’re empowering the rest of the employees at bswift in order to help drive the culture. Like you mentioned, I didn’t know the stat of less than 1% of our applications being accepted, but I love that you and your team and leadership are creating this vision around who is a bswifter, and then we take that out into market as we interview to fill our recs and our roles, and so it really breeds the culture. One interesting part of our culture that we have decided upon is being a remote first and office friendly working environment. And so a lot of companies are making that decision at this point in terms of are they going back? Are they staying remote? What’s the strategy? How did we land on that strategy, and what does our strategy mean to you? Remote first office friendly.

    Yeah. Yeah. Great. Thank you, Sharon. This has been an initiative that has been very close to my heart since I’ve arrived, and happy to report that we have officially stated that we are a remote first and office friendly organization. And what that means is that while we have close to 1200 team members sitting across the nation in various time zones in various locations, as we, as myself and my team create policies and procedures, we’re doing that with a remote team member in mind knowing that not everyone is performing the work they do in an office. So it’s really around creating processes and procedures for the remote team member. We also have two office locations, one in Chicago, Illinois. That’s where our headquarters is located, and we have a second office in High Point, North Carolina. That office is primarily filled with our awesome service center individuals that are answering calls from employees for our clients.

    And so we do have two office locations, and if we have individuals who are sitting in, they’re working from an area where it makes sense for them to go into an office once a month, whatever they would like. We do have close to 400 people that sit in the Chicago area. We encourage them. It’s not required. It’s not mandatory, although we do have a few roles that are required to be in the office, and we are clear about that as we’re going through the hiring process and defining what work they will be doing in the office. Aside from that, we are remote first and office friendly. We encourage folks to come into the office and work together and collaborate and get stuff done and connect heart to heart in person every now and again. But it’s not mandatory.

    Yeah, it’s definitely a pragmatic approach. I mean, as people have experienced in the world we live in today, work at home and environments, there’s just so many that really enjoy it. They think about things like childcare. It’s just the practical way for people to approach their work in the modern day, and I just think it’s awesome that we have the flexibility for people. We have a space for them. They want to come to the office. You, we’ve got a spot for you if you don’t really want to work at home and some people don’t, then come on in. Right?

    You’re welcome. But it’s all about flexibility and choice, and I think it’s awesome.

    I do think it’s awesome.

    One thing I did want to just, oh, yeah, go ahead, Natalie.

    I was just going to say, I would also add, as we were working through the requirements of this, the guidelines of being remote first, we did a lot of market research and there’s a lot of companies that are going back to the office, whether it’s full-time, whether it’s part-time, and it’s mandatory for them, and we are not requiring that. So I think that is unique about us. It does create a different level of holding each other accountable and ensuring that we are taking care of each other, acting with care for each other, and so there’s some additional work there that’s involved. But I think overall in the long run, it is the best avenue for us.

    And I did want to just plug, we were on a people leaders call earlier today, and Natalie, you were plugging programs like the culture clubs that you mentioned, and then just also still a huge proponent of some of those fun things that came out in the beginning of covid, like maybe a virtual coffee hour or gathering your team to do fun bonding activities even in a virtual environment. And I think companies, and we’re really strong on that as we entered the pandemic, because we were in a huge culture shift and moving to virtual, but as we make a decision to be remote first, it’s steadfast. We’ve stayed consistent in promoting that. Those things are still important because though we’re remote first, we still work with our coworkers every day, and it’s important that we create those bonds. And so I’ve seen some companies that have peeled off from that, the importance of that, and we’re foot to the pedal to the metal, as they say, in terms of making sure that that stays a priority.

    Yeah. Sharon, I agree 100%. Creating a culture of connection is what I call it, and that is ensuring that people are still getting together, having virtual coffee hours, trivia games, cameras on, whatever the case may be. Creating a culture of connection in this remote environment is a unique, but it’s unique, but it’s not impossible, and I think we’re doing it very well.

    Indeed. Natalie, so what’s the toughest part of your job?

    Great question, Dawn. Well, there’s a couple aspects that are hard. What I would say for this year, as you know, I joined BSWIFT in February, and I joined right shortly after the carveout. Had started. As everyone knows, Francisco Partners purchased Bswift as a carve out from C V s.

    So having a startup mentality, but also supporting bswift that’s 20 years old, supporting all of our team members and all of our leaders and working through the divestiture, it has been a challenge. I wouldn’t say it’s not the worst part of my job. It’s a challenging part of my job, and it’s a new challenge that I have never faced before in my life. I’m always about challenge growth and learning new things, so I can now look back and say, wow, look at the work that this team has done, and we’ve built, we’ve got a really great start on building programs and policies and putting some things in place, and we have been able to support the entire business as everyone is walking through the divestiture. As you can imagine, there’s a lot of work that’s involved in those types of initiatives, and happy to report that this BSWIFT team, the entire bswift team in partnership with CVS, we completed that divestiture in nine months. Roadmap was called for 18 months. This team did it in nine months. That’s pretty remarkable. And just shows what a great, incredible team that we have. So the next thing, yeah. I don’t think anyone expected that. I mean, I do think an 18 month runway and cutting it in half and kind of unwinding within nine months is remarkable.

    It is really amazing. It it’s, and the unique thing I would say about the people org that we have here at bswift today, they’re passionate about building something that’s unique, that reflects the dedication to providing a fun and supportive environment. We want all our bswift to thrive, and my team focuses primarily on people. I love people, so our focus is all about the people fostering a culture of collaboration and inclusivity that encourages everyone to bring their best ideas together as we create a great place to work.

    Well, with that wonderful explanation, Natalie, I can only guess the answer to this question, but I’m going to ask it anyway. What do you find the most rewarding about your work?

    Easy. It is the people. It is the people. I am so passionate about people. It is, people are my passion. When I am not at quotes work, I love people. What I love about this is I love watching careers grow. I love watching people win in overcoming challenges. This is the reason that I am part of the people organization. When I arrived, my title was CHRO, and we were the HR team about a month in, I recall saying, okay, we’re going to change. I’m going to change my title, and I’m changing the name of our team.

    HR is fantastic, but I feel as though it gets a bad rap. Sometimes people will use HR as a threat. I’m going to go to HR, talking to each other, and I want our people organization to be seen as a partner to the people in the organization. Everyone is my customer. I am their partner. We are here. We are in this together. We’re part of one team. And so making that change was, I think it was adopted very well. All of the B switchers were very supportive, and I’ve seen them correcting each other. When somebody uses the term HR, they’re like, no, it’s the people team. So my title and the name of our team really reflects what I love the most about the job that I get to do. I get just as excited as our team members and our leaders when recognition is given and when promotion. Well, these are promotions happen, so I am here for the people, and that’s why I do this every day.

    I love that. Natalie, you’re kind of rewriting what HR, you’re not rewriting, but you’re emphasizing the importance of what HR historically should really be focused on, and it is the people, right? All of the functions of what you’ve just described over the course of this podcast is creating a culture and an infrastructure that supports the people of bswift. And if we’re nothing without, we can’t deliver to our customers, we can’t deliver to each other if we’re not our best selves. And it’s critical that where we spend 40 plus hours a week, that entity is turning around and supporting us as people, so I love that. I think one last question to round us out today is bw, as a benefits administration system and bswift as a company, how do you envision making bswift the best in the business as an employer, as a provider, how do you envision making us the best?

    I would say two things. The short answer is partnership and service. What we will do, what myself and my team are here to do, is to partner with leaders in the organization to ensure that we have right organization alignment, we’re structured correctly, and that we are set up and optimized to really grow the business. This means making sure that we have the right tools in place. We have the right processes in place that make the jobs, make everyone’s jobs easier. I think in any organization, in anywhere, there’s always opportunity to improve, and if we continue to encourage leaders, and if myself and my team continue to look at the tools we’re using, the processes we’re using, we will continue to and set this business up so that it can succeed. Service is key. Service is, I’ve mentioned this a couple times, all of B sifters are my customers, our bswifters.

    Many of them are supporting our clients and our partners and the employees of our partners and our clients, and it is our goal that every team member is treated with respect. We care about each other, and we provide a great employment experience to everyone that works here. That includes development opportunities, clear communication, some of the things that I already mentioned a little earlier. It also means that we’re supporting everyone that’s talking to our clients and our partners and their employees providing great service, leveling up the service where we can, acting with urgency, acting with respect and trust. Those are the types of things that we get. I can encourage individuals. Sharon, you talked a little bit about the meeting I was on earlier today, and we talked about some of the guidelines and principles that will support this organization to take us to the next level, and that is really acting with care and urgency, respecting and trusting each other, making informed decisions, and participating fully every time each and every day, we show up to work. And of course, it also includes having some fun along the way. It’s important that we have some fun. It’s important that we create some great memories, build long lasting relationships, and so I would say supporting the organization with partnership and service are the two key things that are going to support bswift to being one of the greatest company Ben admins that is on the planet.

    Awesome, Natalie. Well, thank you. Today, this discussion’s been really energizing. You’ve told us a little bit about the importance of several priorities that are helping your team to shape and nurture people at bswift. You’ve told us about the value of the speed and the communications capability and the beauty of the site of this bswift system. You’ve talked to us about partnership and service. We’ve heard about the great accomplishments your team has put together in a short amount of time in delivering amazing things. So all I can say, Natalie, is thank you. Thank you for everything you’re doing to make bswift the preeminent benefits administrator in the market today.

    Awesome. Thank you so much, Don. Thank you, Sharon.

    Yes. No, I was going to say with that, I would say if anyone wants to learn more about Natalie or career opportunities with bswift, check us out on our website. But this has been an amazing episode. I think not only fruitful for our customers who are employers and are looking for different ways to engage their employees, but then also a great tool to listen to for our people in the ecosystem that we work with. So thanks Natalie so much.

    Thank you. I appreciate the time. Have a great day.

    About Natalie Atwood

    Natalie has over 15 years of experience in the HR industry and leads the People function at bswift. She brings diverse capabilities to people and culture. Most recently, Natalie was the Chief People Officer of Breeze Airways, and prior to that spent 16 years at HealthEquity as the Executive Vice President of People and leading various operations teams. Natalie is passionate about team member engagement, development, diversity, inclusion and belonging. She was named one of Utah’s Top “HR” Professionals by Utah Business Magazine in 2020. Natalie studied business at Salt Lake Community College, and Adult Education and Program College at Westminster College.

    The views expressed by guests of the bWise podcast series are theirs alone and not endorsed by nor necessarily reflect the views of bswift, its affiliates or their employees. The podcast recordings and all rights are owned and retained by bswift. Reproduction, duplication or reposting of podcasts or any portion thereof without the express written consent of bswift is prohibited.
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