Why Nitro ditched HR for the employee experience

Nitro COO, Gina O’Reilly, says a focus on the employee experience has been key to the company's success

Commercial software development company Nitro has dispensed with traditional HR and embraced a new model around the employee experience in a bid to drive better business results, according to its COO, Gina O’Reilly.

The company has “ditched the old traditional nomenclature around HR – not because we don’t have a huge amount of respect for that function and discipline, but because we want to put HR on rails, or HR 2.0, in terms of what we call the employee experience,” said O’Reilly.

“This is about the investment we make in each of our employees to ensure that ultimately they’re happy and healthy, and happy and healthy employees will help deliver a happy and healthy bottom line.

“There are tonnes of research and studies on this, and we’ve certainly seen this at Nitro,” said O’Reilly, who noted that the engagement rate in the company’s most recent survey (with response rates of between 90 and 100 per cent, depending on the office) was 84 per cent.

Nitro is one of the fastest-growing private companies in the world and develops commercial software with a focus on Portable Document Format (PDF) files and digital documents, and is the leading replacement for Adobe Acrobat on the desktop.

Venture capital support from Starfish Ventures and Battery Ventures has helped grow the business, and the company has more than doubled in size over the past couple of years.

“We want to put HR on rails, or HR 2.0, in terms of what we call the employee experience”

Today, it employs more than 200 people (or “Nitronauts”) globally, and O’Reilly said that having “extremely smart, very ambitious and very passionate” employees as well as strong teams at every level, from leadership down to the frontline, have been key to the business’s success.

This has been underpinned by a strong product and company vision, and O’Reilly said the company has a three- to five-year strategy road map which outlines the business’s major focuses.

These include strengthening its core product base and consolidating on its position as the leading replacement for Adobe Acrobat on the desktop, a stronger focus on the cloud and applying “smart document technology” to everyday document productivity challenges, as well as international expansion with a focus on Asia.

“People need to know where the company is going in order to understand how they fit into the bigger picture,” said O’Reilly, who has global responsibility for sales, marketing, business development, operations, customer service and success as well as employee experience and talent.

“I think people need a north star, so it’s important to have a clear vision and be able to translate this into a plan, right down to the team and individual level.

“This ultimately starts at the leadership level, and the challenge is how you empower your leadership team to ensure that everyone’s singing from the same hymn book and ultimately driving the right business outcome,” said O’Reilly, who added that Nitro has recently hired a CFO, head of marketing and head of global sales – which all help to add scale and alleviate the load on the CEO and cofounder, Sam Chandler, as the business grows.

Nitro places particular emphasis on hiring the right people into the business, and it has an internal talent team who oversees the acquisition process.

“It’s important to have a clear vision and be able to translate this into a plan, right down to the team and individual level”

The team uses a range of sources including LinkedIn, RolePoint (which helps leverage social and professional networks of employees), and employee referrals (which account for about 40 per cent of roles) to try and add as much diversity as possible in the talent funnel (30 per cent of Nitro’s employees are female, which is higher than the Silicon Valley average of 25 per cent, while 28 per cent of its leadership comprise women).

After an initial phone screen to assess a candidate’s skill set, candidates are brought in to meet with people, including the hiring manager, to add multiple viewpoints.

This is usually followed by some sort of practical exercise in what the candidate would be doing (such as an outline of what their first 90 days might look like). Following this, a final interview is conducted by O’Reilly, the CEO and potentially another executive team member.

Throughout the process, candidates are also assessed a number of times for culture fit against Nitro’s core values.

“Even though we’re moving fast and hiring a lot of people, we rarely – if ever – compromise on this, so we don’t skip stages and we don’t ignore red flags,” said O’Reilly.

“Ultimately, the lesson there is that making a quick hire just to fill a role is ultimately going to bite you in the bum.”

Image source: Hayden Brotchie