Pioneer Profile: Meet Ozzie Clarke-Binns

21st Feb 2024

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’re delighted to introduce you to Ozzie Clarke-Binns, Head of People at Robin AI and one of our 2024 Pioneers. Read on to hear all about his career, his experiences with flexible working and building great company cultures, and his 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 have had a pretty unusual and eclectic career over the past two decades. I've been a non-executive director since the age of 13, graduated from film school in 2023 and produced a short documentary series called Black Britain Unspoken for Warner Brothers Discovery. 

I studied Psychology at university because I was fascinated with people’s behaviour and motivations, but I knew I didn’t want to be a Clinical Psychologist like most of the course mates. 

So I went to go work in HR and see what that's all about. I started my career in big companies like Channel 4 and Thomson Reuters, then moved into a really small boutique consultancy (On3 Partners), which was one of my biggest career accelerators. I was one of six people so tiny, tiny, tiny, but I learned so much working with blue chip clients from Australia to Peru and from my boss about how to take an Org Design approach to do talent management strategically. Ironically, I left because, at that time, I didn’t want to be remote any more. So, I moved into startups. 

But not long into my startup journey, I had to have a double eye surgery, which meant I was out of work for several months recovering and really took the time to think about my career and where I wanted to go. I spent some time at the Financial Ombudsman Service (where everyone still worked at desktops in the office!), and then at UCL working closely with researchers, which I found really interesting but also really difficult to adapt to the slower pace of academic institutions. 

When the pandemic hit, I volunteered to work at the Nightingale Hospital. Funnily this ended up being a real wakeup call that I needed to leave my job and look for something new. My brother called me and said “so, let’s be clear – you’re willing to go work on the frontline of a global pandemic when nobody knows what might happen…so you don’t have to go to work?” – it was pretty clear from there I was in the wrong role. 

When I landed at Aula, remote first, async, fast-paced, and ambitious, I knew this was the place for me. That said, it hasn’t been all easygoing. Like a lot of others in the People space I’ve had my share of redundancies. I think there's a real pattern here - there’s a lot of People people who are burnt out and have had enough because it's been a tough couple of years for everyone, and a lot of that pressure falls firstly to the People team. When the axe falls, it tends to fall first on you as well.

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

I think I've always been interested, I remember so vividly reading the Netflix culture deck back in say, 2013 when I was in the corporate world and thinking how it'd be a very different way to run an organisation. 

And I think from that point on, it shifted my thinking about what it means to be in a People role. How do you start to shift things, start to improve them in various ways? 

So from then on, it's always been something I wanted to do. In my first remote role I saw the benefits of being the mastermind of your own time, having that flexibility, having that autonomy. 

And could contrast that with the converse: people literally chained to the desk because you have a desktop computer and I was like ‘This is madness. Give me a laptop, I can work anywhere. I need power and the internet, and I’m good”. Of course, there are benefits of being in person, but there should be a balance. The pandemic taught us that.  

I think, ultimately, people know their lives and their work better than I ever can because it's their job, their life, not mine. And so you want to trust them to work in a way that is worthwhile for them and the most beneficial to them.

To me, flexibility really means the power of trust, transparency, autonomy, and delivering an inclusive environment where everyone in the team can work at their very best. I the impact this has on teams is undeniably positive.

What is the most impactful change that you’ve implemented?

It would have to be the 9-day fortnight I implemented at Otta. It was both very powerful for the organisation and the employees, but it was really a demonstration of how you go from good to great. 

When things are going well teams will say “Well, nothing's broken, that’s great!” but there are still improvements to be made. 

How do we improve people's lives at work? How do we improve productivity?

So we tried out the 9-day fortnight, we experimented with it. And it started to answer some of those questions. 

Another powerful change was to onboarding at Aula. We were doing huge amounts of hiring (4x in as many months), and the onboarding process wasn’t cutting it. So we built what we call a community-first onboarding programme into the Aula platform. It was a mix of asynchronous and synchronous onboarding so it worked for everyone no matter their working patterns or where they were in the world, they could still catch up and be bought into what we were doing. 

And I think those two things are, to me, the most powerful because they were about building something that's centred around the individual. Give people the choice, give them autonomy to deliver, and they will. 

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

For me, time is the one uncertain commodity. None of us know how much we have, and none of us can get any more of it. Right? 

It is fixed and finite. And we don't know. 

For me, the ability to manage my time myself is really, really important.

I’ll give you an example my grandfather is in his 80s, and going to Barbados to see him during the pandemic was not possible. But being fully remote and fully async, I was able to go and spend a month with him without feeling like I was falling behind at work. Those moments are precious. 

In the days, I was working - but that didn’t matter. We had each evening, each weekend. Being able to spend time with family who live so far away is something you don’t get to do as often when you come from a global majority background. 

That’s just how powerful it is to have that flexibility built into your life, and to be trusted by your company. Companies that do well trust their teams. Teams that are trusted perform better in the long run. 

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

In the People space, within startups and scale-ups, I don't think we're doing a good enough job at developing future People leaders. It's the cobbler's own shoe problem. 

We focus a lot of time on the rest of the business, making it easy for our own teams to be left behind. It's not about doing CIPDs. It's about building the skills and knowledge that help you become a well-rounded leader within a scaling business. At more junior levels, people can get stuck in a ‘do everything’ role that doesn't set them up well to grow with the company. 

We're seeing the downsides of this and the overall pressure on People teams. 

A lot of People people are burning out, a lot of people are worried, a lot of people have been through a really hard time. They're worried about their job stability and also trying to manage the wider team's angst and support them with their concerns. The job has gotten harder. 

Part of the job of People people now is to be the emotional sponge of the organisation, to absorb a lot of that negative energy. But there is no outlet for it. It's like psychologists who have to go to their own psychologist as part of being able to practise. Yet, People people are doing this with very little support – it’s rare to have your own coach or formal mentor. Those conversations where you can share your problems openly are going to be crucial for the long-term health - and success - of People teams. 

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

Related to the last question, not so much the next big thing, but a large trend we’re seeing right now is People people dropping out of full-time roles and moving to fractional ones. Given the turbulence over recent times and the burnout, people are stepping away from the profession full-time. That might not be the worst thing in the end - for example, if smaller startups get access to People guidance sooner, that’s a win-win - yet, that’s a career path only open to those who can afford to balance out the ups and downs of, in essence, freelance work. We’ll have to watch this space to see how it develops. 

What I would love to see as the next trend is a stronger link between wellness and performance. We spend a lot of time thinking about these two things separately, though I wonder what lessons we can gain from other industries approaching it very differently. Take professional athletes, for example, there’s a huge connection between wellbeing driving elite levels of performance. We see similar patterns in music, with the longevity of opera singers' vocal ability as they age. 

As organisations, we should make better use of the wellness data available to us now and apply it to the People experience. We already know that improved sleep quality, nutrition, and exercise help individuals perform better and, thus, make companies more successful. That’s a win for everyone, and it’s the logical progression of the flexible working movement - taking us to a place where our work feeds our lives, and our lives feed our work. Not staying in a space where they compete and have to be sacrificed for one another. 

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