Pioneer Profile: Meet Michelle Davies

4th Oct 2023

It’s time that we recognise the people behind the evolving world of work. Our working lives have shifted to being more inclusive, more people-centric, more flexible, and just plain better for both employees and companies. 

These changes didn’t just happen: they were put into place and upheld by individuals and teams working to create a better working future for everyone. 

So we’re finally putting the spotlight on the people who make great companies great: the people-people.  

People-people are crucial to the success of every company. They find you the talent that drives you forwards, and they’ve taken on an increasingly strategic role in the past few years – often taking on responsibility for mental health, diversity and inclusion, culture, EVPs, Employer Branding and team happiness. 

Read more about the Pioneers List and go behind the scenes to understand how and why we’ve selected our Pioneers.

We were lucky enough to speak with Michelle Davies, VP People at one • fıve, about her career, her experiences with flexible working and building great company cultures, and her hopes for the future of work. 

Tell us a little bit about your career history, and how you got to where you are now. What were the key milestones?

I've always loved creating experiences for people. I first studied event planning, before I realised the bits of my office admin job that I loved during the day were HR (or People as we'd call it now). I was lucky to get my first full time job after university in a startup, and I've loved scaling businesses ever since; starting from scratch, figuring out how all the pieces fit together across the business, to make the best experience for each person there.

After nearly 9 years and helping scale that first business from 20 to over 400 people (going from Office Manager to HR Director for the group over that time), and exiting two businesses under the group, it was time to move on – to go to an earlier stage startup again, and move to the UK. 

I've spent the last 8 years based in London building Fintech, expanding a Martech business into the US, scaling a Social Enterprises company operating across East Africa, and now helping to build a Biotech in Germany (with a global team). 

When did you become interested in flexible working, EVPs and the future of work?

I couldn't have done any of my past jobs without some level of flexibility, and the cultures I've loved the most are built on trust and individual ownership – if you have those building blocks in place, it matters a lot less where and when people work. 

I learned a lot of lessons the hard way, in my first HR role, about creating culture from a distance. Our second office was a disaster at first, because we didn't do enough to support them. That was pretty much where it started for me: realising that if you give people clear expectations, the tools they need, and the ownership, they can build great things and you don't need to check when they clock in or out of the office. 

In the last few years, we've all had a crash course on remote working, which has driven things even further. Seeing companies go back to in-person requirements makes me furious for the broken promises, but also for the fact that flexible work is by definition more inclusive! And that's something we should all be striving for, because sadly we aren't there yet.

What's the most impactful change you’ve overseen?

In terms of flexibility, unlimited holiday or work from anywhere policies have had the biggest impact on team lifestyles, although they need to be worked out carefully to ensure that they have the intended goals of flexibility and ownership. 

But those are more recent. Earlier in my career, even things like work from home policies for a couple of days a week, or core hours, made a huge impact on individuals on the team, and built much more diverse and inclusive teams as a result of simple shifts in working policy. We've come a long way!

What’s the biggest impact flexible working has had on your own life?

Today, I work remotely for a German company. I spent two years leading a team that spent 99% of their time on a different continent to me. I couldn't have had any of those experiences of culture and growth, had it not been for flexible work! I also love to travel – a huge part of the reason that we moved to the UK in the first place was to do that more, and being able to work from anywhere has allowed me not only to spend more time travelling and working in unique places, but to spend longer periods of time visiting my family back in Vancouver too. 

What’s the biggest challenge of being in your role/industry right now?

Startups are a rollercoaster! You have to want to be on the ride. My last company was doing so well and growing, but sadly, fundraising for a pre-profit social enterprise in early 2022 just didn't work out (shocker I know!), so we had to close. That obviously sucked, but it was an incredible learning experience; and once I took a few months to reset and take a deep breath, it was time to join the next one (even smaller, seed stage). I've been super lucky to have several other companies grow hugely and exit to PE, and I’ve met incredible people along the way that will be friends and future colleagues again. 

What do you think the next big trend is in working culture?

I find it really hard to predict the next trend. I love that we have opened up to each other in the last few years on mental health and have embraced remote work (in some cases). We are still stabilising culturally (and very locally) on what remote or hybrid work means, and how we build forward from here. I'd love to see the future be made up of genuinely trusting, transparent and honest businesses. If you've got that, then the flexibility and great culture comes easily!

Take a look at the other Pioneers who made the list, and subscribe to our newsletter to get updates on new Pioneers, guides to help you navigate your strategic role, and exclusive invites to webinars and events.