In 2017, Jess Podgajny found herself struggling in a way all too familiar to working mothers.
Her first child had just turned one year old, and she finally felt able to acknowledge how becoming a parent had changed her relationship to her job. She loved working. She’d worked for various consulting firms in Philly, helping pharmaceuticals launch new products, leading transformational restructuring projects.
There was never a doubt in her mind that she wanted to be a working mom. But she also wanted to be fully present when she was home with her child, playing games or reading bedtime stories — without experiencing that nagging feeling she had to sneak away to answer email.
“Everything changed when I became a parent. The way I needed to spend my time was different. The way I wanted to engage at work was different,” Podgajny says.
Five years on, Podgajny has taken that desire — that need — and turned it into her mission. She founded a company that helps both employees transparently present their own optimal working conditions — and employers adapt to accommodate their workers’ needs. In 2022, her app, Lluna, is needed more than ever before.
While rethinking your relationship to work is common when you become a parent, Lluna launched into a world that saw a global pandemic fundamentally changing the way employers and employees alike to consider how and where they work.
Podgany founded a company that helps both employees transparently present their own optimal working conditions — and employers adapt to accommodate their workers’ needs.
Twenty-one percent of people seeking a new job reported that a desire for more flexible working hours and an ability to work remotely was their primary motivation for seeking a new job, per McKinsey’s 2022 American Opportunity Survey. Before the pandemic, only about 5.7 percent of people worked remotely most of the time, per the U.S. Census’ American Community Survey. Last year, 17.9 percent said they primarily work from home.
“Often, people are feeling like they’ve changed or something in their lives has changed, and so they need to look for a new company to work for, instead of resetting expectations within their current organization,” Podgajny says. “Which is what I felt like the real opportunity was.”
So she decided to create a company that would help employees turn their employers’ expectations around instead. In 2020, she launched Lluna, a human resources technology platform that allows companies to offer benefits that an employee can shape around their lifestyle. The platform lets workers share what their needs are — whether it be flexible hours during the 40-hour work week or a preference for telecommuting — and make changes as their lives shift.
The company’s name is meant to evoke how life, like the moon, has many different phases, each with their own unique needs. (The extra “l”stands for life.) This year, Lluna was selected to participate in Comcast’s LIFT Labs accelerator program where they developed new tech tools to help center employees in the engagement process. The result: an upgrade platform that centers employees in team-building and benefits decision-making.
An accidental HR innovator
Podgajny arrived on her path to HR innovation by accident. She’d been working in management consulting in Philly for nearly two decades when the CEO of her firm noticed she had a knack for figuring out what motivated her team and pushing them to succeed. Her boss offered her the newly-created role of Chief People Officer, placing her in charge of hiring new talent and creating a people-first culture for the organization.
These tasks were easier said than done, however. Podgajny remembers sitting down to talk with great employees only to find they were leaving the company for what she believes were avoidable reasons.
“They didn’t want the commute. They didn’t feel like the growth path was there,” she says. “I was sitting in a Chief People Officer seat, and I still felt that sometimes my hands were tied. We had policies and rules and we approached individuals with a very standardized mindset, versus trying to get down to what that individual person really needs to be at their best.”
Employee turnover comes with a big price tag for companies, too. Gallup research has found it costs between 50 to 200 percent of an employee’s salary to replace them.
When she became a parent, the issue felt even more urgent. Podgajny began obsessively searching for a solution that would allow her to create more flexible arrangements with her employees, one that would allow them to make changes to meet the evolving needs of their lives.
“I just couldn’t let it go,” she says. “I was like, there has to be a better way for us to embrace the best of every person.”
After three years of unsuccessful research, she reached out to friend and fellow accidental HR professional Aaron Kamholtz. Kamholtz is married to one of Podgajny’s long-time friends, and at dinners, he and Podgajny bonded by “geeking out” over HR analytics. Kamholtz started his career in IT before moving into HR in the mid-2010s, just as technology and data analytics were taking off in the field. He now serves as Lluna’s co-founder and chief technology officer.
The pair became business partners in the summer of 2020. They spent the rest of the year building Lluna’s tech platform, had a minimum viable product in early 2021, and began getting feedback from early customers.
The company operates under a software as a service (SaaS) business model. Companies can choose between two options in a tiered subscription model. One is targeted toward teams — for, say, if a manager wants to help monitor flexible work arrangements for a small group of people. The other is meant to be used company-wide.
Early versions of the basic plan featured questions and examples of benefits supervisors could use to engage with their employees. The advanced option featured more complex reporting and HR integration systems. An employee could elect to set flexible working schedules, logging hours in the early mornings or late evenings rather than the typical 9-to-5. Or, they might list a preference for remote or in-office work.
“Competition for talent is only going to get more fierce, and teams that embrace that diversity, and manage differently because of it, will be the winners,” says Luke Butler of Comcast NBCUniversal.
Lluna grew quickly. Though she declined to share profitability and revenue figures, Podgajny says that the company expects to have 1,500 employee users across 40-42 companies by the end of October, 2022. The firm is headquartered in our area, but, true to their mission, they’re remote-first. Podgajny is based in Wayne; Kamholtz is in Boston. They have five full-time employees and plan to add more members to their engineering team in late this and early next year.
While testing the product, Podgajny and Kamholtz found they were getting a lot of interest from HR executives, but they really wanted the company to bring the needs of employees to the fore. Working parents, young graduates and older workers approaching retirement all have different desires in terms of benefits, communication styles and work-life balance. Who knows their needs better than they do?
“At the end of the day, that’s what this is all about. Everyone’s different. Everyone’s unique and everyone brings some different strengths to the table,” Podgajny says. “It was this opportunity to help more people faster by sort of flipping that model to be more employee led versus more HR led.”
To help revamp the platform, Podgajny and Kamholtz decided to apply to the 2022 Comcast and Techstars’s LIFT Labs accelerator. They’d been recruited for the 2021 program, but the timing wasn’t right yet. The pair knew when they decided to give it a shot in 2022 that they’d be up against thousands of applicants. So, they were genuinely surprised when they got a Zoom call announcing their acceptance.
Comcast’s 12-week-long program is designed to help startups improve their technology and grow their businesses. Lluna took it as an opportunity to make their product more employee-centered. Later this month, the company will launch TeamOS — an upgraded platform developed during the program.
The new system will feature personal operating profiles or “POPs” — think of them like a stepped-up version of a LinkedIn profile. As with a LinkedIn profile, a POP includes an employee’s job title, a personal description and any relevant skills, but it also details how someone prefers to work, with sections to list communication style and preferences for schedules and in-person or remote work. An employee can even include a link to their POP in their LinkedIn profile as a way to help prospective employers learn more about them.
“What that then does is create a transparent, open dialog with the manager and the employee as well as across the team overall,” Podgajny says.
Lluna’s system takes the data shared in the employee’s POPs and then creates a team board, so that managers can see what their employees are looking for in terms of workplace flexibility and benefits. If someone updates their POP, managers receive a notification and then work together to make adjustments so that their benefits and work arrangements fit with their new needs.
Lindsay Tabas is a consultant and product-market fit strategist with Tabas Consulting. She started using Lluna three years ago as an individual to help connect with clients and other members of her team while working remotely.
She’s found the platform can help her understand her client’s goals over the next 6-12 months and helps cut down on unnecessary email by listing clear communication preferences. Now, she asks every client she works with to create a POP that shares their skills, personality types and communication styles.
“The POPs gave us a framework to refresh ourselves on how to collaborate,” Tabas says. “I appreciate direct communication and prefer when people reach out over text for urgent matters. Some others are more reticent to use text messages, but my POP provided an invitation to connect with me that way.”
It’s free for workers at any company to create POPs, which they can share with their supervisors or with hiring managers as they apply for jobs. As with the previous system, if companies want team boards, they have to pay for one of Lluna’s two subscription options. The individual team option is $60 per employee per year and the company-wide version is $110 per employee per year.
“We are people-to-people at the end of the day,” Podgajny says. “We want people to consistently feel value from what we’re doing.”
Luke Butler is the executive director of startup engagement with Comcast NBCUniversal. He has been piloting the new system with his team. He appreciates that the platform allows him to check in on his team’s needs every day and engage with their interests outside of work.
“With Lluna, you really get to understand the people,” he says. “There is no one-size-fits-all approach to management, and Lluna gives you what you need in order to get the most out of each other, while respecting and celebrating the differences on the team. Competition for talent is only going to get more fierce, and teams that embrace that diversity, and manage differently because of it, will be the winners.”
Since Butler’s team has been working on piloting the updated system, he’s had the advantage of seeing how it works with remote and hybrid teams now that Comcast employees are required to return to the office three days a week. Lluna’s system is designed to help ease these transitions as it helps employees communicate with employers about their preferred working styles.
“The beauty of Lluna is that it [is] designed to help employees and teams in today’s modern work environment — whether that’s in-person, remote, or hybrid,” he says.
Like social media sites, Lluna’s POPs include personal as well as professional details. Favorite foods, hobbies and music and TV preferences are all highlighted to help employees build connections with each other, something Podgajny feels is especially important in the era of remote and hybrid work. Her POP shares a favorite Spotify playlist, her passion for gardening, and her love of French fries.
For Podgajny, this is where the true value of Lluna lies. Employees who feel more engaged and connected to their coworkers are more productive and more likely to remain with their companies for the long-term. Research from the employment coaching firm BetterUp found that employees who feel more engaged at work are 56 percent more productive and company turnover rates decline by 50 percent when employees feel engaged.
“We launched in the middle of a pandemic, so we obviously were working in these hybrid environments, feeling very isolated, very disconnected … We understand the importance of connection at work and why it’s resulting in a lot of turnover right now,” Podgajny says. “Nobody’s connected. Nobody feels loyalty or has trust with the people they are working with. That’s what we’re fighting against.”
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