Louise O’Conor has lived in 10 countries, speaks 6 languages and has an exceptional track record across multiple sectors – having worked in startups, multinationals and even the United Nations. She is now Chief Digital Officer for Abodoo, a smart matching recruitment technology platform matching employers and smart workers. In this interview, Louise speaks about her current and past roles, smart-working, and the importance of diverse teams, among others.

Interview by Talita Holzer, reviewed by Vithória Escobar.

Talita: Could you start by introducing yourself and talking a bit about your role at Abodoo?

Louise: My name is Louise O’Conor and I’m Chief Digital Officer for Abodoo, a platform connecting companies with people who are searching for smart-working roles. These can be full-time remote working, like home working or using co-working spaces, or hybrid models, which is part home and part office. We just don’t allow anyone to post full-time, 9-5 in offices, because we just don’t believe in this model, we don’t believe it’s the future.

So, my role in Abodoo is… I was actually telling somebody today, I think I have 7 roles! As a startup, everyone works on multiple roles. On the digital side, I’m responsible for the overall strategy of channels, brand, optimisation, lead generation, content, social, PR, communities, events and scaling the business. In the past, I used to run teams of UX designers and developers – understanding the product as a whole and the technology behind it is crucial, as it then relates to how you brand and market it. That’s kind of what I do.. everything digital related, including the use of available technologies such as Slack, Asana, Jira, Zoom, Canva etc.. there are so many platforms and we’re using a little bit of everything. Whatever is free!

Talita: What is smart-working? Why do you say it’s the future?

Louise: How long do we have? Because my parking is up in 1 hour (laughs)! Smart working is simply offering flexibility. Let’s start by looking at it from an employee perspective and the commute. People spend on average up to 2 hours sitting in traffic every day. It’s stressful! They wake up 2 hours earlier than necessary just to get to an office building, which is only a building at the end of the day. A lot of their work could be done from anywhere, as long as they’ve got the technology and connectivity to do it. In addition to the time wasted commuting, people then go to an office building and waste a lot more time sitting around chatting, going out for breaks, unnecessary noise and interruptions. It’s insane when you actually stop to think about it! When I wake up, I have my shower, coffee, read the news, and I’m at my laptop by 7:00 AM. I have no commute or stress to deal with and am ready to work straight through the day. I sometimes have to set reminders to have lunch or go for a walk because I often don’t see the time passing. My productivity levels are higher than ever because I have the freedom to work with fewer distractions, have missed the stressful commute and simply have more hours in the day for me. 

Culture and trust are some of the biggest obstacles for companies and employees. Many employees feel they could be passed over for career advancements if they’re not seen every day by their managers. Managers don’t always feel comfortable not knowing what their employees are doing or if they’re working, if not physically present. This is where it requires a change in mindset to make it work. Nowadays we have the technology, the connectivity and if every home doesn’t, there are over 200 co-working hubs around Ireland people can work from. Smart-working is based on output, as opposed to the hours per day. If somebody is taking time out during the day, but working at night then who cares? As long as they communicate and meet their targets. 

Companies offering smart working also reap the benefits of a less stressed, more productive workforce. If that wasn’t enough, research also shows that companies can save up to €11,000 per year, per smart worker in overhead costs. With increasing property and building rental prices, we’re seeing many companies offering smart working options simply out of necessity to scale. They provide office hot desks and encourage people to work a few days from home per week because they just don’t have the space. Through necessity, they suddenly come to realise that they have a happier, more efficient workforce. 

This is what Smart Working is all about – it gives people back time and reduces stress levels. It supports parents, people returning to the workforce, people with mobility issues, people struggling with rent prices and those who may be caring for elderly parents or relatives and want to be close to home. It also supports rural regeneration by bringing jobs to the skills available in towns and areas outside of larger cities, thus supporting communities and inward investment. 

Talita: You’re obviously very passionate about smart-working. Was that a big factor when choosing to join the Abodoo team?

Louise: The absolute opposite, actually. I even requested a co-working space be added to my contract as I couldn’t have imagined working from home full time. The words ‘remote working’ sounded too isolating. I love my home and the thought of making it my workplace too just didn’t sit right with me. Also, building a career, especially in a previously more old-school, male-dominated industry, I felt I had to overcompensate so I was always the first one in, and the last one to leave. Presentee-ism was essential and I never questioned it. As a leader, I enabled teams to work from home but often that was out of necessity to support or retain good people; there was no company policy. We also didn’t have the technology that we have today. We didn’t have laptops for the first half of my career. Technology such as Slack, Skype, WhatsApp, Zoom didn’t exist back then so smart working simply wasn’t an option, whereas now there’s no reason we can’t. 

So, that was not the reason I joined Abodoo, but I think about 2 weeks in, I was sold. I could see the trust, engagement and productivity levels of everyone on our weekly Zoom calls. In fact, I remember thinking it was all a bit crazy when I was asked to join the company… I mean the co-founder and CEO had never actually met me in person! It was all done through Zoom calls and that was a very senior hire for a startup company. I had the same hesitancy again when I started hiring interns… I interviewed, hired and worked with two of them via Zoom for over 2 months before we met in person and when we did meet, we all hugged each other as if we’d known each other for years. The trust that’s built when you are looking at someone via video every day is so real; you can’t just pretend. It’s more productive and more personal than any boardroom meeting I’ve attended where people are half listening, answering emails and most of the time disengaged. On video, you have to be engaged, so it’s just completely different.

Talita: So, even though you had concerns, you ended up falling in love with it.

Louise: I did, but the biggest reason was the people. I’ve worked in many different environments, from multinationals, the UN, startups and SMEs .. and as I became more confident in my knowledge and experience, I realised that like-minded people with shared or similar values is the most important thing I was looking for in a company. It all comes down to people. I swore I’d never work with another startup.. the stress, no budget, no team, long hours and add no office to that… Are you kidding me? But at the end of the day, when you see the passion in people and know that you can, and want to work with them it all disappears… I’ve never felt more connected, supported and passionate. We’re spread across 4 continents, have over 6 nationalities, we’re predominantly all women and we really believe we can help make a difference … what more could you ask for!

Louise O’Conor (Abodoo), Regina Moran (Vodafone) and Vanessa Tierney (Abodoo) at Look The Business 2018.

Talita: Speaking of diverse teams – how important do you consider diversity to be to any company, from startups to bigger companies?

Louise: Important is an understatement! Travelling opened my mind to some many types of diversity. The more you travel the more you learn, the more you experience, the more people and cultures you meet, the more new ideas are generated with endless possibilities. Being exposed to different cultures, I learned something all the time. If we don’t have that in the company, everyone ends up always thinking the same way and you don’t get that same level of creativity.

At Abodoo we certainly practice what we preach. I’m Dublin based, the two co-founders are in Gorey, Wexford, our CEO is in London, our lead content writer is from Brazil, our data analyst is from India, our customer success manager is between Ireland and Italy and we have a few others spread around Ireland, the UK and even one on an island off the coast of India. Our diversity means we come with so many ideas from our own cultures. Diversity is vital to any business nowadays. I could talk about the value of diversity all day! I honestly don’t think a company can actually survive or grow or be creative or scale without it. Diversity being much more than gender – that’s culture, nationality, mobility, everything.

Talita: How important was it for your career to have exposure to so many cultures?

Louise: I don’t know if I saw it at the time. Growing up it was just what we did. My Dad was with Enterprise Ireland and we lived in Lagos, Sweden, Belgium and between each post, always returned to Dublin for a number of years … The hardest move was at the age of 14 when I thought we’d settled only to be told we were moving again. However, on the first day of the European school in Brussels, I was among 4,000 students of every nationality and felt at home. 

Those experiences certainly affected my later career choices and opened me up to new cultures. Straight after my masters, I moved to Rome and started working with the UN.. this was another extreme. Despite having 6 languages, I didn’t know how to use them all in one sentence or know that I could understand them being used in that way but somehow I did! I was surrounded by people mixing French, Italian, English  German and Spanish all in the same sentient yet I understood everything they were saying.. but I had no idea how to reply because I was used to speaking either English or French, or Italian not all of the together. After a while, you start getting used to using whatever word comes quickest in whatever language so you can actually have a sentence with all 4 languages in one sentence because they are the words that come quicker and this is mind-blowing. Took me about 3 weeks to actually speak, when one day I answered the phone to a colleague in a panic, and responded in French then Italian.. she then returned to the office announcing to everyone: ‘She speaks! French & Italian!’. 

So, I think from there adapting and learning really influenced my career. I didn’t expect to be in the tech business. I was never techy, didn’t have a mobile phone until my third year of college, hand-wrote my Masters’ thesis and had to get a friend’s older brother to help me type it up! Even email, I didn’t know how to use.. just kept everything in the Inbox until it started exploding. So, you can’t know at the start where you’re going to be, but I think everything happens for a reason and each experience brought me to where I am now.. along with a lot of hard work and determination too.

Talita: From all your work experiences, which ones had the biggest impact on you?

Louise: The UN and being based in Rome. Being able to use languages in that way surrounded by so much cultural diversity had a huge impact on me. I worked in the central Africa division and I was the only mother tongue English speaker. I don’t think I realised it at the time, I was too young to really appreciate it. You understand that you work for the UN, but I wasn’t in a senior capacity as it didn’t relate to my qualifications. I didn’t really know what I was doing but I worked it out, and looking back that was an incredible, incredible experience.

London also had a huge impact. I joined a company which circa 500 people and it was daunting coming from an SME in the Irish market. I remember thinking ‘oh my gosh, okay, I’m here, can I actually do this in London?’. You know the expressions: ‘fake it ‘till you make it’ or ‘imposter syndrome’, where you think ‘I don’t know if I can actually do what I said I can do and at a bigger scale’… I think we all doubt ourselves, especially women, and we all have that inner voice.. but I have amazing, incredible friends and family, who always have my back and make me strong. 

Before leaving for London, I mentioned my nerves to an ex-manager who reminded me of a story. He said he had once asked me (almost 10 years earlier) ‘do you know about PPC?’ and I was like ‘of course!’. He said ‘okay, so let’s set up a PPC campaign tomorrow’. I had never heard of the expression as they had only just been released! He knew I had no idea, but didn’t say anything. So I googled all night going ‘what the hell is PPC? How do I do it?’ Next morning I came into the office and set up my first PPC campaign. He said: ‘Don’t doubt yourself.. you’re the person who told me you could do a PPC campaign when I had no clue what it was myself and you pulled it out of the bag and ran it. You can do anything.’ 

In London, I joined a company who were failing to make digital work and started with a team of 3. In 4 years we had a full Digital Department running multi-million campaigns globally in 10 languages, with 30 people in-house and another 40 outsourced. We were smart working, as I’d call it now. I was working with an incredible team and we built it together.. that was phenomenal and really, really special. I would poach any of them in a heartbeat (laughs)! When you have that experience of growing together as a team and you’re learning together, it’s just priceless.

Talita: You are a mentor with Enterprise Ireland and I’m sure you’ve had mentors throughout your career. How important do you think it is to have a mentor and to be a mentor?

Louise: I had an incredible mentor in London, who was a phenomenal man. What he was doing in a small company, I have no idea! I always believed he was my godsend because he put that confidence in me that’s there still, and had my back. Sometimes that’s all you need. When you’re fighting for something, you need someone to have your back or to say ‘calm down’ and make you think in a different way. He did that. I think I would not be where I am right now without him. I’ve had lots of other mentors, but I didn’t think I knew what they were along the way. You learn from people. We learn what NOT to do in some cases, and how NOT to treat people sometimes.

Louise O’Conor

So, having that mentor in London was huge for me. I was the only senior woman on the management team in the company and I didn’t see it as that, but he showed me that it was up to me to also help others and also start mentoring and helping because I was seen as somebody that they could aspire to be. Whereas a lot of the time it’s men in those positions. I know it’s changing, and I don’t like focusing on gender because diversity is equal of everything… but I do think that women doubt themselves a lot more and therefore need a hand up sometimes. So that’s where that started. Then, when I came back and I was looking for the right role, it took me months because I wasn’t willing to settle. I wanted a challenge and I started just working with different companies and meeting with different startups and just helping them. I still do that on the side as well. So, when the opportunity arose with Enterprise Ireland I jumped at the chance – to add to my crazy workload (laughs)! But no, I think it’s really important. If you have experienced something that you can give to somebody else, I think it’s crucial that you do.

Talita: What advice would you give women starting their career in tech?

Louise: Fake it ’till you make it. If you doubt yourself, don’t worry – just keep going. Just don’t let anyone bring you down or tell you that you can’t.. just do it and prove them wrong. Have confidence in yourself and don’t worry about failing. The more we fail, the more we learn.. I’ve failed a million times.. just keep going. Bring people on the journey with you – find mentors, seek like-minded people, and don’t accept jobs for the sake of it. I know it’s hard, we all need to pay rent. But choosing the right job is so important as the wrong one can set you back. Try to only work with people who share your values, trust me on that. Go to as many talks as you can, build your network and always pay it forward. Help anyone you can because it will always come back.