How to create a fantastic work culture: “Rather than seeing work as a checklist, we have to make it about the people.” with Yong Kim and Chaya Weiner

Chaya Weiner
Jul 11 · 13 min read

As a part of my series about about how leaders can create a “fantastic work culture”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Yong Kim, the CEO and co-founder of Wonolo, an on-demand staffing platform that matches the supply and demand of labor for immediate job needs. At Wonolo, Yong is reinventing the temporary staffing industry, and empowering the underserved front-line workforce.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

When I was 15 years old, I left South Korea and moved to America by myself. It was a struggle — I did not speak English and did not know anyone. Above all, the most difficult thing I faced was finding a job. This was the early 90s and there was no internet, so the only way for me to find jobs was through local newspapers, or knocking on doors at stores that had a “hiring” sign out front. Unfortunately, I could not even get a job as a dishwasher at a restaurant.

Fast forward 25+ years, even in the days of the internet, not much changed for front-line workers. Everyone talks about how unemployment is at all-time low. However, this number is missing the fact that there has been an increasing number of underemployed — those who are working multiple jobs to make up for 40 hours a week. Many of these workers are in the blue-collar jobs, and do not benefit from utilizing white-collar focused services like LinkedIn or sophisticated headhunters. These workers still rely on old ways of finding jobs like standing in line for hours at career fairs or staffing agencies.

The crazy part is that almost 50% of companies are struggling to fill their jobs, costing them $160BN in lost revenue. So we are in a situation where workers are constantly looking for jobs while companies cannot fill jobs.

This problem really resonated with my own experience. When I got together with my co-founders AJ and Jeremy, who also had a similar passion for solving a complex problem and helping underserved workers, we decided to solve it. The solution to the problem became Wonolo, which stands for Work Now Locally, five years ago.

With Wonolo, companies have access to qualified and capable workers when and where they need them. For workers, access to flexible jobs has never been easier.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

During our early days, it took awhile for us to get Wonolo off of the ground. Building the prototype of the app and the web portal was not too difficult. However, finding the very first customer was incredibly difficult especially given that neither of us had any sales background. After several months of cold-calling prospective customers in San Francisco, we finally found our very first customer which had upcoming staffing needs during the holiday season.

We were so excited when the customer posted their first 10 jobs. Unfortunately, even though we had more than 10 Wonoloers on our platform, only 5 of them picked up jobs, leaving the other 5 jobs unfilled. So, AJ and I dropped everything we were doing, and went to the customer’s warehouse to do the 8-hour shift of picking, packing and shipping packages. We learned so much doing the jobs ourselves, and were able to incorporate many of the lessons learned into our product and service. We continued doing jobs for other new customers.

This became an important part of the norms at Wonolo. Every team member at Wonolo is required to pick up at least 1 job per quarter. This helps us better understand what Wonoloers and Requestors go through in the real world, and continue improving our product and service.

Are you working on any exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?

One of the areas we are excited about is building a large partnership network with organizations that care deeply about employment, such as unemployment agencies and veterans groups. By providing flexible job opportunities through our Wonolo platform, we want to become the advocate and the voice of the workforce that is largely underserved. We enjoy engaging with these organizations and informing them about how Wonolo help workers feel more empowered with the flexible work schedule because they immediately get the benefits.

Ok, lets jump to the main part of our interview. According to this study cited in Forbes, more than half of the US workforce is unhappy. Why do you think that number is so high?

What we’ve seen at Wonolo, specifically among the workers actually using our platform, that unhappiness comes from feeling like you’re giving more than you’re getting out of a job. That might mean you’re not getting adequate pay or benefits, the flexibility you desire or the room for growth at a company whose values you personally align with. If you work in a position or a company where you are just a cog in the machine or you don’t see value in the work you do, it’s easy to feel frustrated or uninspired. A lot of startups today — particularly ones that are growing quickly — don’t think beyond the skills people are offering and hire people just to get their heads above water. But even amidst our fast growth, Wonolo’s focused on hiring people who share our same values. Buying into the company culture — and having the company treat you with integrity and value in return — is what makes people happy in their careers.

Based on your experience or research, how do you think an unhappy workforce will impact a) company productivity b) company profitability c) and employee health and wellbeing?

We saw firsthand how an unhappy workforce impacted our productivity, profitability and employee wellbeing dropped. In the early days of Wonolo, we were growing quickly and weren’t putting the same effort in interviewing for the right culture fit employees. As a result, our culture strayed from our company goals, and the work suffered. Accountability and ownership disappeared — successes were treated as personal achievements rather than team wins, and when things went wrong, people pointed fingers at one another. On top of that, we lost that emotional connection to one another as a team. Our conversations became more superficial, and it was harder to feel united as we worked towards building something meaningful.

These deep-seated cultural issues led to our team missing our goals consistently because we couldn’t move quickly or cohesively to solve problems. As a result, we ended up having to lay off more than 50 percent of our staff in 2016. It was the hardest thing we’ve ever faced as a company — but because of those hard times, we saw how important it was to ensure every single employee feels like they are building something meaningful, and doing it with integrity, hard work and empathy.

Can you share 5 things that managers and executives should be doing to improve their company work culture? Can you give a personal story or example for each?

Culture is often regarded as a fluffy word, something amorphous, abstract, and intangible. However, culture is actually visible, definable, and tangible. It’s also quantifiable if companies get it right. The very definition of culture at Wonolo is the way things get done, and we call it the Tao of Wonolo. At Wonolo, when we talk about culture, we talk about why more often than what.

For example, we offer a catered lunch twice a week. Some may call the lunch (i.e what) our culture. However, providing the lunch is not our culture. One of our cultural values (the way things get done) is that we act as owners and work as teams. Because our business model is complex, for us to be successful, we have to ensure that various cross-functional teams collaborating effectively. To improve collaboration, we believe that interpersonal relationships among team members need to improve by breaking down walls. One of the ways to achieve this is to have different team members eat together and get to know each other. This way, when they work together, it’s much easier to go for the ball, not for the person.

With this background, here is what I recommend:

  1. Involve everyone at the company to define the company culture

When people feel that they have a say or a part in defining what the company culture is, it’s much easier to get buy-ins across. We have a company-wide annual offsite where we discuss our culture the entire day. If we believe that certain cultural values do not resonate anymore, we will review them and come up with a new set of values as a team.

2. When making hiring, promotion, or termination decisions, put the company culture at the center

Talent development from hiring to firing is one of the most important jobs of managers. However, this can often introduce subjectivity and scrutiny from other team members. This is where culture can play an important role. At Wonolo, for every recruiting interview, we conduct a Tao interview where each member from different functions would join and assess cultural fit. This is not about whether we like this candidate or not, but rather, we go through a set of questions that can help us understand whether candidates would align with our cultural values.

3. Make the company culture ubiquitous

In a fast-paced working environment with constant changes, it’s difficult to remember each specific detail of the company culture. When things are moving quickly, it’s important to talk about culture constantly at all-hands meetings or make the cultural values visible across the office. In our office, all of our values are visible on the wall. We made an effort to have them around every corner in the office so that people can see them and remember them subconsciously. We also talk about each value every week during one of our daily standups.

4. Be a role model of the company culture

As a manager or an executive of an organization, you will be constantly put on a situation where your judgment and decisions are tested. Your team will look to see whether you abide by the company culture first. This is where the company culture can help make the right decision. Recently, I was in a position to make a hiring decision of a candidate who was regarded as a rock star performer who can help address one of our deficiencies. However, the candidate did not meet one of our cultural values. We were so dire to fill that position that there was a tremendous pressure to make the hire. At the end, I made the decision not to hire the candidate. When I explained the rationale to the team, it was much easier to use our cultural value as a framework rather than for other subjective reasons.

5. Apply 1% improvement daily

When companies face cultural issues, managers or executives believe in making drastic changes. However, changes to the company culture can take a very long time — often months or years. Instead, focus on a small, incremental change daily. At Wonolo, we talk about the notion of 1% improvement every day. It can be as simple as being on time for meetings, adding “thank you and please” to emails, and engaging in conversations that are deeper than just “how are you?” with each other. This way, when something is off with our culture, it’s easier to notice and adjust quickly.

It’s very nice to suggest ideas, but it seems like we have to “change the culture regarding work culture”. What can we do as a society to make a broader change in the US workforce’s work culture?

There is a mindset in America that we have to consistently reach for more — more money, more success, more opportunities. We’ve achieved incredible things because of that mindset, but a lot of the time, that comes with the risk of forgetting about or devaluing others in the process. We can be blinded by opportunity and forget about the people who can benefit most from our talents and abilities. Rather than seeing work as a checklist, we have to make it about the people. By focusing our energy on lifting our colleagues, customers or partners up, we often end up finding success for ourselves along the way. There’s a large amount of the workforce who simply works to pay the bills, take care of their families and overcome financial burdens they never saw coming. Wonolo was designed for that purpose — to use our knowledge, talents and network to help others achieve their own goals.

How would you describe your leadership or management style? Can you give us a few examples?

My leadership style is believing that no one is born with the characteristics of a leader and that anyone can become a great leader if they stay authentic to who they are and continue learning about themselves. Ann Fudge, the CEO of Young & Rubicam, said, “All of us have the spark of leadership in us, whether it is in business, in government, or as a nonprofit volunteer. The challenge is to understand ourselves well enough to discover where we can use our leadership gifts to serve others.” I truly believe in this. If I don’t even know who I am, how can I lead others?

Over the years, I have realized that I am just not a stereotypical leader that people think of. I am introverted and shy. I speak quietly. I have a hard time keeping eye contact. I am uncomfortable with being a center of attention. I am not tall or charismatic. However, I have found that the more authentic I am with others, the more effective I am. Whenever I try to be something other than who I am, it never works. And when I think of many leaders I admire, they are very authentic.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

It’s my wife, Linda, whom I have been with for more than 20 years. I met her when I was 18 years old and did not quite know who I was. She helped me discover who I was and accepted me as I was (and am). As you can imagine, there are a lot of stories. However, one story that is relevant here is when I decided to leave my lucrative, stable job in finance for an entrepreneurial journey in 2013. We had 3 very young daughters and an expensive mortgage. Uncertainties ahead of us were quite scary. Nevertheless, she never questioned about my decision. Instead, she fully supported me following my passion. Even when the company was not doing well, she would be there for me as a rock, never doubting. She had more conviction and confidence in me even at times when my confidence was at the rock bottom.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

We regularly hear stories of Wonoloers who are making incredible changes in their lives because they’ve found jobs they love and schedules that fit their lifestyles. When you don’t have to worry about where your next paycheck is coming from, you are free to focus on other things in your life like your family, your passion projects, your own small business or your education. Not everyone is given the same opportunities in life, but Wonolo is literally designed so that anyone can find a job regardless of skillset or background. By leveling out the playing field, it takes the uncertainty out of work, which can be a major stressor for everyday Americans.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I really love Brené Brown’s definition of courage. She says, “Courage is a heart word. The root of the word courage is cor — the Latin word for heart. In one of its earliest forms, the word courage meant “To speak one’s mind by telling all one’s heart.” Over time, this definition has changed, and today, we typically associate courage with heroic and brave deeds. But in my opinion, this definition fails to recognize the inner strength and level of commitment required for us to actually speak honestly and openly about who we are and about our experiences — good and bad. Speaking from our hearts is what I think of as “ordinary courage.”

It’s relevant to me because I believe that this is one of the hardest things to do in life and in building a company. How often do we not say what’s on our minds because we worry about how we are going to be viewed by others? Imagine a company culture where people are comfortable being vulnerable with each other, speaking their minds clearly and feeling safe doing so. So many organizational problems would go away.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

It would be something like “why not today?” We live in a world of procrastination. I will take care of it tomorrow. I will follow my passion when I have accomplished X, Y, Z. I will give back to the community when I have saved $XYZ and am financially stable. The list goes on. However, this does not make sense. If certain things are that important in your life, why wait?

We can list out all the things that we have pushed out to the future, and start doing one by one today. We can start with smaller ones and move onto scarier ones. The more we can do, the better the world will be. #whynottoday

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you continued success!

Authority Magazine

Leadership Lessons from Authorities in Business, Film, Sports and Tech. Authority Mag is devoted primarily to sharing interesting feature interviews of people who are authorities in their industry. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

Chaya Weiner

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Writer, Mom, Photographer.

Authority Magazine

Leadership Lessons from Authorities in Business, Film, Sports and Tech. Authority Mag is devoted primarily to sharing interesting feature interviews of people who are authorities in their industry. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.