In high school, Corine Tan struggled with anxiety — although, she couldn’t put a name to the feeling until many years later. She just assumed everyone in her Advanced Placement classes was losing sleep over tests, or skipping breakfast to keep from getting stomachaches throughout the school day.
During her first job, Tan started to experience the same feelings of stress. Still, she felt like she couldn’t talk to anyone about it. She was tutoring kids in China, which put a lot of physical distance between herself and the people organizing her tutoring schedules.
“It was a culture based off of fear,” Tan told In The Know. “I quickly learned that … if you were even five minutes later [to a tutoring call], you would have half of your pay removed.”
The tutoring group she was working with had “some of the highest turnover” Tan said she had ever seen at a company. She added that the company wasn’t sympathetic to sick days or the tutors’ mental health.
It was frustrating on multiple levels for Tan — not only because she personally struggled with mental health, but because companies were encouraging burnout culture.
“I think [society] can ask a lot of important questions about whether or not we are providing enough opportunities, services, and support for people of color, for women, for LGBTQIA+ folks, for all the diverse kind of voices that we bring to the table in itself,” she said.
Now at 21 years old, Tan has taken her experiences with mental health and her previous struggles with work-life balance to help start Kona. The platform aims to help remote managers lead with care — by using automated best practices like employee check-ins and work-with-me guides to spark empathetic conversations in the workplace.
“We’re not just a Slack app or an engagement platform, we’re really speaking for this larger movement [for the safety of] your [emotional intelligence],” she added. “[I] should also highlight that we’re an entirely Asian-American group.”
Tan is American of Chinese heritage and identifies as queer. She said she’s seen her identities set her apart in a positive way, like when she’s on a panel where everyone else is older, male and white. It’s helped her realize that there were a lot of questions and ideas regarding the workplace that were consistently being overlooked.
“It’s creating space for different opinions,” Tan said. “It’s understanding that different voices and different perspectives — you cannot possibly understand what they go through, but you can empathize and you can make space for them.”
Vulnerability and empathy are cornerstones of Kona.
“We believe in vulnerability and transparency, and we have found that those two values are some of the most important across our interviews with 500-plus remote managers,” Tan said. “In order for organizations to succeed, they need to make sure that they have clear communication [and] also make sure that they’re treating their people like people.”
Tan also thinks Kona is important for the incoming Gen Z employees — 38 percent of who, when surveyed by Kona, said that work-life balance was their top priority when it came to choosing a position.
Kona’s research shows that Gen Z employees want a human element in their workplace. That’s what Tan wants companies to start understanding.
“If you want a high functioning team, that means you need to have a vulnerable team,” she said. “The future is folk who look like me, look nothing like me, are disabled, are queer, are people of color. We need as many diverse voices as possible if we’re really going to build the future of work.”
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