Marisa Hodes, VP of Human Resources at AAA Oregon/Idaho

Marisa Hodes

Marisa Hodes, Vice President of Human Resources for AAA of Oregon/Idaho, joins Cresa's Blake St. Onge to discuss how they pivoted to create a flexible workplace across their multi-function team.



Podcast Transcript: Everything Can Change- How AAA Pivoted to Create a Flexible Workplace


Marisa Hodes, Vice President of Human Resources for AAA of Oregon/Idaho, joined Cresa's Blake St. Onge to discuss how they pivoted to create a flexible workplace across their multi-function team.


(We use a transcription service; please excuse any errors)


Blake St. Onge  01:03

Welcome to Think Beyond Space, the PDX Workplace Insider Podcast. I'm your host Blake St. Onge, Principal for the Portland office of Cresa, a global corporate real estate firm. From the people, the culture, and their thoughts on the future of work, we sit down with leaders from Portland's most respected companies to learn about what makes their workplaces tick. Subscribe at or wherever you find your podcasts.


Hey everybody, welcome back to the podcast. I am really excited to have  Marisa Hodes with me.  Marisa is the Vice President of Human Resources  for AAA here in Oregon. Marisa, welcome to the show.


Marisa Hodes  01:37

Thanks, good to see you.


Blake St. Onge  01:39

Great to see you too. So Marisa, my guess is that most people know who AAA is and what you company does. But for those that may not, if you could sort of walk us through a little bit about that piece of it. But I think more importantly, walk us through who you are, what your career journey has been how you became the VP of HR at AAA, I know you have a deep experience with international business as well. So let's just start there, and rock'n'roll.


Marisa Hodes  02:04

Absolutely, well, AAA has been around for over 100 years community, nonprofit based organization. And really, our history is around roadside and helping people at the side of the road when they need us. But we have actually several lines of business. So in addition to doing roadside membership also serves insurance industry, as well as a travel agency. And of course, all the wonderful discounts and rewards and benefits of being a triple A member. So I had up our HR or triple A Oregon, Idaho and take care of folks route Oregon and southern Idaho. And we operate as an independent nonprofit for this region, working really closely with all the other triple A's across the US and beyond.


Blake St. Onge  02:51

So let's get into a little bit with Triple A itself. I've certainly called Triple A few probably too many times that I've needed to in my life. I'm sure many listeners have as well. But walk us through the size and scale of AAA maybe as a holistic across the country. And then you know dive into what the AAA of Oregon and Idaho is like north of how many people you have, how many locations you have some of the things that you guys are have done maybe in the last 18 months since COVID. Hit and walk us through some of that just sort of baseline piece of the organization.


Marisa Hodes  03:25

Absolutely. Well, certainly in 1000s of employees across the way  , I'll focus primarily on Oregon, Idaho. So that's really where our footprint is.  , and we've got most of those staff are here in the Portland metro area, about 450 employees across our region 300 or so in the Portland metro area, and then the remainder across 26 locations. And so the structure of that is really here in Portland, our administrative offices, our fleet, our call center, that's where the primary folks that is based. But then we also have our service centers, which are located throughout the region, which may be as big as a couple employees to 20 employees, depending on the size of that office. And then of course, there's all of our provider networks that we partner with in terms of roadside and shops that are throughout the region that we maybe can't get to tomorrow are owned and operated.


Blake St. Onge  04:27

 So the 300 or so that are sort of in Portland and do that for 50. Across What was it like when we COVID hit? I mean, I know that you guys have a locate, you know, your three headquarter right downtown Portland, I know that you've got sites sort of around the metro admin sites as well. What was that? Like in terms of just communication to employees from a leadership team perspective? How did you disseminate the information of what the plan was going to be? And then what does that look like 18 months later, in terms of your workforce and work Place planning and the way you use the office, the way you plan to use the office, and all those sorts of things, will walk us through a little bit of those dynamics. I'm sure they're not easy. So


Marisa Hodes  05:10

ever changing. I think everyone's probably read that that same perspective right now. You know, in the beginning, I think it was really about us being thoughtful and communicative about what we knew. And what we didn't know. If I ever learned anything, is the first thing we came out to say was, here's what we know, here's what we don't know, here's what we're doing today. And we were hearing things in the press set from the health department's the same time as our boys, often, many employers were. So employees would be listening to the same press conference the same time we were and then kind of asking what's going to happen. And I think one of the things we did well, and I would say, got better at it, like most organizations, is to come out really early and say, we heard it too. And we don't know yet. But we're working on it. Because some sometimes miss that silence can be really hard. And so our dissemination, we took a lot of different approaches. We know that people cheer and digest things differently. We had our CEO would regularly do all the voicemails, so they can hear His voice. And he can give an update on what's going on in the world and said, Call me back. Here's my direct line. And you can talk to me, we had our leaders getting together via zoom on a regular basis to say, what are you experiencing? What are you talking about with your staff directly? Because we knew we needed that high level communication. But really that bread and butter is we know that leader to that employee, right? The person that's helping you pack up your computer and send it your home and say, right, we don't know how long it would be there.  , then we did good old fashioned emails and it triads. So I'm thinking about everybody digest arranged a little bit differently. So don't want a high level voicemail and someone some language they can get through.  , we really kept it with there's no one good way. But you can never communicate enough.


Blake St. Onge  07:15

 How do you? How often did the CEO leave voicemails? Was it once a month? Once a you know, what was that cadence? Like? Because it's a really, that's a really interesting, that's a really interesting way of doing things. We've heard some people to, you know, the CEO or leadership team came on, did a quick two minute video once a month, just to let people you know, just have that open that dialogue. It's just curious, what that was there a specific cadence that went along with that? Or was that just something that was like, You know what, let's just try something. And here we go. We're trying it.


Marisa Hodes  07:47

No, it was not a specific cadence. It wasn't up to our organization to do that, to have that type of communication style. But what I think made it right and authentic is that it really was topical. So our CEO didn't want us drafting what he was going to say. It was when something's going on, and we feel something's going on, we're gonna pick up the phone and call everybody. So I think that what was powerful about that was, it probably happened about once a month. But it wasn't a prescriptive state of affairs. It was really an authentic, hey, this is what's going on. And then on top of that, we had some more formal leadership sessions, Zoom sessions, where we'd say, here's a town hall, here's a business update, where it could be a little more interactive.


Blake St. Onge  08:31

And how often did you guys meet as a leadership team? I mean, were you guys meeting every week, every other week, sort of just to talk through some of the all the things that were going on? I mean, it was literally by the email or the phone call, things are changing. So you know, I'm sure employees were looking at leadership to saying, Okay, well, what's the plan? And hey, you guys might have been? We don't know yet.


Marisa Hodes  08:52

No, in the very beginning, I would say every day, there was constant communication.  , we had scheduled calls at least weekly. But I nothing brings you closer to your team, but then going through something like this.  . I feel like I probably talked to my colleagues more than I had in the last several years, just because I talk things that I would say daily.


Blake St. Onge  09:20

Wow. That's impressive. But I think it's all that I mean, with that many people in the organization, it's, it's critical to keep that that that that leadership flow going, I would imagine, so what do you guys do? So what did you do from a space perspective? Like I said, I you know, you got your headquarters downtown. You've got space like Oswego, you've got spaces and quite sort of all over the metro. What was the workplace like or the workspace like, pre COVID? Was it sort of one person gets one desk, one person gets one office? What's it like? Did you sort of go through some, any workplace strategy discussions around this hybrid or anchored way or flex way of working During the last year and a half, and then what maybe is your plan moving forward.


Marisa Hodes  10:04

So that we I think the key was to be flexible and look at it in the specifics of each location and each job function. Because it really is different. We have a lot of different types of locations, a lot of different types of roles. The ones that could go home with the beginning, like the rest of us, or at all, obviously, can't tow someone's car, in and out hope job. And so there are positions that we had to think differently about, he had the luxury of have been really strategic in the last several years in particular to really invest in having nice, ergonomic, well ventilated workspaces. So in a lot of our locations, we had already done some of that work, where everyone does have a private cube, got our physical structure was well suited to making it a safe environment. There's a lot of space around, and where there wasn't invested to make that. So knowing that at some point, at least portions that workforce and be back. So who could go home, we sent home, the ones that couldn't be stayed on the site. And for the future, as we looked at certain positions, being able to stay in long term position, certain positions, being able to work hybrid. I'm in the office today.  , focus is very much on how do we act safely with each other?  . So how do we ensure that we are staying home when we're sick, and we're distancing? And we have lovely various face coverings that we can wear and existing with each other in a very safe way?


Blake St. Onge  11:43

 And have you is the plan that you guys have some an ongoing, or at least a plan for an ongoing policy around, you know, flex, working, hybrid working, come in the office one day, a week, two days a week, whatever you feel like, you know, what's sort of the thinking around that? I would imagine, you're sort of front and center of that from an HR perspective.


Marisa Hodes  12:04

Yes. We did a cut. Yes. It's funny, because I think right now, everything can change, we learned anything. And everything can change. And we talked a lot in the last year about being able to pivot when needed. And some of my colleagues here have heard me say, let's just make sure we're pivoting and not yelling, Serpenti. Those are two different paths. So what I think about what, oh, the way we've approached it is, for individuals where we know the solution, let's give them a path for that. So we do have a work from home hybrid, from home application process. So we could go out to the individuals where we knew for sure, in this position, it's working, we can make this work.  . Even though we may not be planning to bring you back yet. We're gonna go ahead and like know that, you know what your future is going to be? Right, right. And then for the individuals where we're not sure we're, we're taking it day by day, we're saying, Yes, we are going to have a portion of our workforce working hybrid, we want to have you in the office two to three days a week, we want to make sure that we still see you, but we'll give you that flexibility. We have positions where it works really well to the home full time and that. And then again, because the nature of us being a very relationship based and member facing organization, there are a lot of individuals that will be or have already come back to the workplace. So how do we then focus on being really honest about why we're bringing you back? talking it through with you about the timing that and then really talking about if that's the reality that you need to come back on site? How do we make you feel safe and comfortable?


Blake St. Onge  13:46

 It's such a I mean, I would say it's not I would say it's such a new phenomenon, but it really isn't anymore. I mean, we've been in this for, you know, so long now. It's just like, it's just unbelievable.


Marisa Hodes  14:01

I mean, I think the main headline is, it's not one size fits all.  . So the first thing we did is we didn't send out a mass. This is when everyone's coming back email. Our first action was, we have each of our leaders reach out personally, and talk to every 450 employees and say, How's it going?  . What do you want to do? What do you want us to think about?  , before we come up with a strategy?


Blake St. Onge  14:28

And have you have you what's have you guys grown in the last, you know, there's been several organizations that have sort of grown during go and I mean, have you have you guys grown people wise in the last 18 months, or has it been? Have you guys just, you know, sort of relatively where you were pre COVID, in terms of people and headcount


Marisa Hodes  14:48

were relatively where we were at which the little bit smaller as through natural attrition.  , but we don't we're pretty relatively the same size.  . You didn't know going into COVID that in AAA wasn't going anywhere. So


Blake St. Onge  15:05

Right.  You're not a fly by night. You've been around. We were We were confident we were


Marisa Hodes  15:09

going getting room had that confidence.  . And we were also going through Travel Bookings being canceled and people's patterns changing. But for the most part, we're holding strong and our headcount.  . And I anticipate growth coming.


Blake St. Onge  15:23

That's good to anticipate that dude, because they don't they gotta make plans for those things. So what are some of the things that you have you personally,  Marisa have learned in last 18 months as a leader, right. I mean, you your history, from international business, Doc Martens, with some other local nonprofit work. And now at AAA, we haven't had a pandemic in the last, you know, 16 years of professional, you know, our professional careers or whatever. So, what's some of the big nuggets that you've, you've learned about yourself in the last year and a half that you want to share?


Marisa Hodes  16:04

Well, it's, it's been a big year, I think we used to joke about who would survive the zombie apocalypse. And I'd never pinned myself, somebody would make it through the apocalypse. So I've learned there you are, I can do it. I think I would survive the zombie apocalypse. So I did learn that. That gives you a little bit of confidence.  . You know, I think one of the things, and I do attribute my history of work throughout the years to this is the importance of being really authentic and being vulnerable. I think that's something you hear more and more about. But I can distinctly remember a time really early on in this pandemic, where I sat with my immediate team. And he said something to the effect of, I spent a lot of years honing my craft. I'm confident saying I am good at what I do.  . And I have no idea what I'm doing, right.  , here's the good news.


Blake St. Onge  17:04

We were called BS, if you would have said, Hey, I know exactly.


Marisa Hodes  17:07

Think sometimes as leaders, we feel like, we need to project 100% confidence that I've gotten this.  . And I think that authenticity, to say, this is hard, and we're all learning it. And I'm gonna have moments when I struggle, and you're going to have a new struggle. And that's okay. And we're gonna get through it. The other mantra that we talk about a lot is, it's okay, if we break once in a while, we're all gonna break once in a while. We just can't all break at the same time. That's good deal.  . And that really helped. Right? This was like,  , I'm having a tough day. Okay, well, then, I'm gonna, I'm gonna help you through today. And tomorrow when you're having a tough day. Right? The same will happen.


Blake St. Onge  17:53

That's teamwork. I mean, I think that's been a big question. I think throughout this, too, is how do you as a leader, show that authenticity and transparency, vulnerability, you name the term, while also showing the organization and the team and the employees that you have a backbone to help drive something forward? Right. Like, it's a very, very tight balance about showing that transparency, showing that, hey, we don't necessarily know what's going on. Because, you know, with 450 people, right, it's not as if you have no 10 people or two people, it's like, it's a big organization. Right. So like, there's got to be some sort of leadership piece that people look up to, to say, okay, you know, how are you going to steer the ship? Now? How are we going to do this, and so like to know that we don't know exactly how we're going to do it, but we know that we've got the right team, do it. Just buckle up, because we're in work, we're on the ship together, and we're gonna, you know, hopefully go find an island.


Marisa Hodes  18:52

Absolutely. I liked your link back to the zombie apocalypse there. I didn't. I just wanted to mention that. I think you're absolutely right. I think that you balanced that vulnerability with the fact that you know, we're gonna get through it.  . And I think that's really key. We talked about, we didn't have a specific answer to how something was going to be handled, at the very least have some guiding principles of how we're going to handle it.  . And deaths, keep communicating. And if you change, you know, the other thing, we talked a lot in HR, we were pushed to give advice we wouldn't have in a pre pandemic world.  , very beginning of, please ask your employer if they have a temperature. That's not something I never advise someone to ever do. But we call that out. We said, we're making some decisions that are unique for this situation. And in two months from now, I might say I'm going to give you different advice. Right, but I'll at least tell you why. 


Blake St. Onge  19:54

You know, it's interesting too, so triple A Coronavirus. It's over 100 years old in terms of age Let's just say of an organization. And if you hearken back to the early 19th century, or early 20th century, that's when the Spanish flu was right in 1918, and 1919, etc. So been around for 100 years or a century, and maybe that period of time, like, it just gives you some staying power, right, like for the next 100 years at AAA. I mean, hopefully, hopefully, you're not there for the 100 years. But I like


Marisa Hodes  20:23

that I hadn't connected that. But I like that.


Blake St. Onge  20:27

Think about that. So there's some really good things that that that, you know, come out of these challenging times. For sure. Well, I think for us,


Marisa Hodes  20:37

thinking back to triple A's beginnings, it really did, was born out of people helping people. It wasn't a nonprofit corporation right out of the gate. Right. It was an agreement amongst drivers to take care of each other on the side of the road.  . So that focus of being supportive of each other and be supportive of our members, and our community is so ingrained in what we do. That really did. And it also positioned us well for the pandemics.  , hopefully, that was the intent necessary. But it that was a great guiding principle, right, how are we taking care of each other? How are we taking care of our members? And doing it in a safe way?  .


Blake St. Onge  21:18

I mean, there's plenty of people in organizations that should look at AAA and the guiding principles of helping neighbor and helping each other should adopt those things these days, that's for sure. So versus if you had a chance to share coffee, or a cocktail with anybody in history, Pastor, or present, let's say, or maybe in the future, a zombie apocalypse? Who might that be?


Marisa Hodes  21:42

And why? First, I just like to say, I really appreciate that my podcast will have a zombie apocalypse.


Blake St. Onge  21:51

Say the first, the very first, you are a first that's fine.


Marisa Hodes  21:55

That's I should have said that. Leading through this pandemic, with skimmer I think, is really key. So I actually gave this question a little bit of thought, probably more thought that I should have. And I can't have sorted with the philosophy of you got to pick someone living, because there's an off chance they run across this podcast, so and they think she's lovely. I want to have coffee with her. So I am slipping on that. And then started thinking through maybe it's an author, and I really love kind of that being able to use wit and poetic prose to speak about society.


Blake St. Onge  22:32

We did enter liberal arts, did you go to liberal arts?


Marisa Hodes  22:35

I did go to a liberal arts college. They teach us how to think I love that I love language. But it's got to be someone with humor. I don't know that I settled on someone. This is a horrible answer to this question. I'm going to tell you why.


Blake St. Onge  22:46

How am I? How am I supposed to send the podcast out to someone to a no name to have coffee with you?


Marisa Hodes  22:52

They're not going to know. Well, someone did suggest to me Betty White. And I was like, that could be fun. So maybe that he white? She's been around since the start of AAA. She. So I should check if she's a chip AAA member? I hope she is. Maybe Betty White. But then I thought, you know, I'm going to give you my honest answer, which is nobody and everybody. You know, I think if I've learned something throughout my career, it's that people are people, whether they're famous people, whether they're people who've been successful on paper. And I really appreciate the coffees and cocktails that I've had so many people throughout my career that I didn't know would have impact on me until they did. So I think I want to let fate take it. And anybody listening to this podcast that thinks I sound delightful, might be that person that I learned from and get better at what I do.


Blake St. Onge  23:47

I think that's a really interesting answer to be honest with you. You know, it's the My business is such that I'm sort of out meeting people often. And I don't think I've ever I would probably say similar to you. I don't think I've ever regretted having a bite to eat or a copy with somebody because there are there's always some little nugget that you can take from that, that it might apply the next 10 minutes might apply in the next 10 years. But she didn't need to go hmm. I remember meeting that person. And  , that's that was really, you know, she talked a lot about the zombie apocalypse. And, you know, here we are living it. Well, that's a good,  . I appreciate the authenticity in that in that answer to. So versus for those who may want to sit down and have a coffee or a bite with you, where can they find where can they find you?


Marisa Hodes  24:42

LinkedIn, I think that's the classic place to find folks. I'm always open to talk about our organization and what we're doing and who we're hiring for because everyone else we aren't we are hiring and some great openings right now. So LinkedIn, ping me a message in Boston. I'm happy to


Blake St. Onge  25:00

And what about where do where do we find more about AAA?


Marisa Hodes  25:03

Good old fashioned trek, check out your blade calm, and it'll lead you to our website. Definitely encourage folks to follow us on social media, get great tips about what's going on in the travel world, that everyone's navigating what's happening roadside safety. So check out our website and follow us on social media.


Blake St. Onge  25:24

Awesome. versa. Thanks so much for the delightful discussion. I appreciate you saying yes. And coming on. We hadn't had a chance to meet each other until you know, about 30 minutes ago, but I can tell that we would have a great time over cocktails or over coffee. So I just appreciate you saying yes to join at eight and


Marisa Hodes  25:41

I should have said like was my answer. Oh, no, no, no, no, please don't answer. I've already done that now.


Blake St. Onge  25:51

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