Journey into Tech
Hi Steve, welcome to HRTech Interview Series. Please tell us about your journey in the HR technology and data science industry.
My journey into HR tech began 15 years ago, when I was a management consultant relocating from Chicago to London. It was such a headache. Our HR team tried their best with the relocation, but between all the Excel spreadsheets and PDFs, no one had the information they needed, including me. I discovered the hard way that my stuff wouldn’t fit in the storage unit the day before I left home!
Ultimately, my time in London was an amazing experience, and I live in the UK to this day. But there had to be a way to make the experience better for expats and the process smoother and more cost-effective for HR. Because my consulting work involved heavy analytics, I thought the combination of HR tech and data science could address both issues.
What is Topia? What inspired you to start Topia? How has the company evolved through the pandemic era?
That experience relocating from Chicago to London inspired me to co-found Topia in 2012. We provide a global talent mobility platform that helps HR teams strategically deploy and manage employees around the world. Originally, we focused on long-term assignments and relocations. If you want to send a younger Steve Black from Chicago to London, for example, Topia addresses all the unknowns for HR. What will this cost? How do we secure visas and comply with local tax and labor regulations? How do you corral the messy landscape of offline service providers? Topia also provides technology to guide employees through the experience, sparing them from unpleasant surprises.
At first, the pandemic ground mobility to halt. Soon, everyone realized that mobility was going to become more common, not less. COVID-19 created a new world of remote and distributed work. Rather than serve the few employees who might relocate long term, Topia expanded to support the many knowledge employees who could work from anywhere.
Which markets are you currently targeting? What does your ideal customer profile look like?
Primarily, we serve global companies headquartered in North America and Europe. We may sell into a US investment bank, for instance, but solve mobility challenges for thousands of employees on six continents.
Our ideal client has a high proportion of knowledge workers who are eligible for remote work, business travel and relocation. Although we still relocate employees in traditional industries, like energy and manufacturing, we increasingly focus on talent that can work from anywhere on a laptop. Some of our customers include Dell and AXA.
How does Topia align with the modern workplace and employee management demands from global enterprises?
Since launching in 2012, Topia’s mission has been to break down barriers between people and places so companies and individuals can work everywhere. The pandemic led global enterprises to align with that vision in part or in full. Frankly, they had to. In late 2020 and 2021, when Topia polled office workers in our annual Adapt survey, they voiced overwhelming support for remote work. In fact, 94% of employees agreed that they should be able to work from anywhere, so long as they get their work done.
HR teams supported remote work, too, but underestimated how complex that would be from a compliance perspective. Almost a third of employees in our Adapt surveys said they worked outside their home state or country, but only a third reported all those days to HR. This posed massive tax, legal and immigration risks. Topia is the only platform that can enable remote work for employees while mitigating those risks for employers.
What kind of IT infrastructure does a company need to benefit from Topia solutions?
Companies can get the full value of Topia as a standalone solution. That said, HR teams usually integrate their Human Resource Information System (HRIS) with Topia. HRISs are built on the assumption that one person works in one location. When you bolt on Topia, we capture the dynamics of movement, so HR understands where an employee really works and when. Our integrations for SAP SuccessFactors and Workday are very popular (and Workday Ventures is an investor in Topia).
The other major integration for Topia is payroll. Like HRISs, payroll systems don’t cope well with one person that works in multiple locations. The integration ensures that people can be paid in multiple locations. We also help ensure the proper tax withholdings based on location—a must for employees who hop between US states.
Please tell us how you prepared for Monaeo and Pearl Global’s recent acquisition. What are the key factors that influenced your decision while adding these companies to your portfolio?
Monaeo and Pearl Global Tech were our third and fourth acquisitions, so we had experience with this process. We looked for alignment and shared purpose. Does the tech fit our existing platform? Will our customers use it? Do their leadership teams see global talent mobility and its challenges similarly?
We also looked at Monaeo and Pearl Global Tech through the lens of remote work. Monaeo enables us to automate tax compliance for business travel and remote work. Pearl Global Tech allows us to automate immigration risk assessments before employees leave home.
Talent War and Talent Shortage have slowed down the pace of many industries. Which industries, according to you, suffer the most due to the outcomes of talent management or mismanagement?
I’m not familiar with any industry that suffers from “talent mismanagement.” Rather, some industries, like investment banking and management consulting, have long used an apprenticeship model that values face-to-face time and learning through observation. It can’t be replicated over Zoom, so employers felt stuck. If they embraced remote work to become more competitive in the talent market, would they become less competitive in their respective industries?
JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon appears to have wrestled with this question. In May 2021, he insisted that employees would have to come back to the office. By April 2022, he had relented. I suspect that talent retention was becoming a problem. In our latest Adapt survey, 64% of respondents said if they were forced to return to the office full time, they’d be more likely to search for a new job. I think Dimon found a healthy balance with half of employees in the office full time and half not.
What tips would you offer to succeed in addressing talent shortages with long-lasting results?
More flexible work policies can help address talent shortages by improving hiring and retention. A 2022 study from CareerBuilder found that remote and flexible jobs received seven times more applications than in-office only jobs. However, in our Adapt survey, 48% of employees believed that their company’s remote work policy was written to say “no” to requests.
My advice is to enable as much flexibility as possible. Start by writing or rewriting your remote work policy. Some employees want to work from home. Others want the freedom to work from a coffee shop or coworking space in their neighborhood. Others want to be in the office occasionally or at least meet face-to-face with their team once a quarter. Some employees might request to work from abroad or from a beach town for a few months. Why not? The more you say “yes,” the better your odds of retaining employees. But you’ll need technology to help you say yes more often, without running into compliance trouble.
Your predictions on the future of employee mobility solutions and how most industries could benefit from adopting your technology to meet global demands:
Over the next few years, I predict that global talent mobility will move from a niche solution to a mainstream technology that all companies must have as part of their IT stack. 66% of employees in our latest Adapt survey agreed that international experiences are critical to career growth and mobility. And as we already discussed, employees believe they should be able to work from wherever they choose.
Our technology can meet both of those demands. It can handle permanent or long-term mobility across borders, ensuring that talented people gain valuable experience. We can also support remote work and work-from-anywhere policies that improve hiring and retention. These policies are wildly expensive and risky without tech that address tax and immigration compliance. Topia does both.
Your advice to business leaders looking to adopt to ever-expanding data analytics and AI technology innovations for workplace transformation
Start simple, start soon, and start with an end in mind.
Big, broad AI and data analytics plans can often stall before the first step.
Just pick three metrics to follow.
Figure out how to measure them and how you’ll use them. That can lead to real transformation.
A technology event/ conference/ webinar/ podcast that you would like to attend in 2022-2023:
I’d like to attend the 2022 HR Technology Conference in September – it’s been far too long since so many of us have gotten together. Hope to see you there!
Thank you, Steve! That was fun and hope to see you back on HR Tech Series soon.
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Since co-founding Topia in 2011, Steve has been there to see the company grow from a small London-based startup to an award-winning Global Talent Mobility platform supporting organizations around the world. At Topia, Steve leads strategic initiatives leveraging deep industry and customer insight. An expatriate himself, Steve understands the challenges of moving abroad, and is dedicated to ensuring that everything we do at Topia is in the best interest of our customers.
Originally from the great state of Illinois, Steve has worked and lived across the US, Switzerland and New Zealand before planting his feet in London. Steve was previously an Associate Partner at Oliver Wyman, where he led consulting engagements across North America and EMEA. His work spanned aviation, retail, insurance and energy, focusing on helping clients turn data into actionable insights and operational improvements. Representing his Midwestern roots, Steve holds a BsC in Industrial Engineering and Economics from Northwestern University, where he graduated Summa Cum Laude.
Topia is the leader in Global Talent Mobility. We empower companies to deploy, manage and engage employees anywhere in the world. The Topia platform enables organizations to deliver mobility as part of a broader talent strategy encompassing all types of employee movement – remote and distributed workforces, business travel, and more traditional relocations and assignments. This drives enhanced employee experiences and competitive advantage by ensuring the right people are in the right place at the right time, while staying compliant no matter where they are. The Topia platform automates the entire global talent mobility process, including scenario-based planning, expat payroll, tax and immigration compliance, reporting and more. Topia powers global talent mobility programs for world-renowned brands such as Schneider Electric, Dell, Veolia, Equinor and AXA. Topia has raised over $115M from NewView Capital (formerly New Enterprise Associates), Notion Capital and others, and is a global company with offices throughout the Americas and EMEA.