The business whose people “work magic”

Better for people, better for business says Wellington company.

Initiatives which have had a “tremendous impact” for employees earned Rob Holmes, Discovery Director at digital product design firm PaperKite, the Wayfinder True North Award which is for a people-leader who has improved their team’s health and wellbeing through positive leadership.

Rob Holmes has a mantra: Trust in the workplace is the secret ingredient of innovation.

It is a philosophy he shares with the team he leads at PaperKite. “If you’re trying to get great work out of people who aren’t in a good place, it simply doesn’t work,” he says. “But once you have experienced trust you want to create this environment again and again – give people the space and they will work their magic.”

Wellington-based PaperKite hired Holmes in December 2019 to boost innovation rather than in a people-leading capacity – and it was a move that paid almost instant dividends.

The first change he made after taking up the appointment was to improve sick leave provisions, allowing staff to take it from their first day rather than waiting six months for it to kick in.

“I thought it’s ridiculous that you can’t get sick leave for six months. It was nothing to do with my role, but I put it to the leadership team. A few days later, it was done.”

Holmes believes empowering employees is at the heart of any innovation strategy. This was something he picked up in a previous job at NZ Post after his boss there gave him the green light on a big budget project after a mere 15-minute chat.

He says he couldn’t believe the trust he was given, and as a result he and his team were more motivated than ever to work hard and deliver. Ever since he has been keen to in turn share trust with the team he leads.

Registered psychologist, Moira Howson from Worklife Psychology says:

We have learnt in the last few years how important it is to stay home from work if we are ill, and many of us know that it is often the first few months back at work, when children start childcare, that time off is needed.

Making sick leave available from the first day of employment helps reduce the stress out of either having to take unpaid leave, coming into work when you probably should not or worrying about children who are unwell. These concerns can impact on the ability to focus on the job at hand. It also draws attention to the importance of encouraging people to take time off when it is needed as studies have highlighted that many people may avoid sick leave due to “absence anxiety” for not getting the work done or overloading colleagues or perception concerns.


  • Ensure managers role model that it is okay to take time off when unwell
  • Communicate the benefits of flexibility and check in with staff regarding workability and perceptions of fairness.


One of the most significant of his initiatives at PaperKite was the introduction of a dual coaching system through which every PaperKiter has a people coach and a discipline lead to assist with personal and professional development and who are responsible for providing pastoral care and helping staff grow well beyond their time at PaperKite.

The move was in response to feedback from the company’s leaders, who were feeling overwhelmed with having to do both coaching roles at once.

Holmes drew inspiration from Sport New Zealand’s children coaching guidelines suggesting parents and coaches focus on play, inclusion and effort rather than performance and winning and losing.

Coaching staff to achieve their personal goals is not always about making sure they stay in the company and give it all they have: “Some of these goals are: ‘I work to live rather than I live to work.’ Or ‘I want to spend more time with my family’,” he says.

An example of this system came when the company supported a PaperKiter to prepare for running the Kepler Track in the Fiordland National Park. He had problems with his ankle and needed a lot of physiotherapy to enable him to train.

“We designed his working situation around his need to do these runs while it was light and not dark,” Holmes says. “It’s not strictly a work goal, but it means he is super engaged at work.”

While some staff have left as a result of the coaching – either to further their studies, move overseas or take on new opportunities- but all stay in touch and continue to speak warmly of how PaperKite has helped them. “The return on this genuine care for people is that they continue to deliver even after they're gone,” Holmes says.

The dual coaching approach also led to a new performance review format through which employees present to their coach and discipline lead. Where once there was fear, anxiety, and discomfort about the reviews, there is now a real sense of celebration.

This is because the coach and discipline lead help employees prepare for the presentation by offering to review drafts and suggest highlights from the year that came up from one-on-ones or through feedback from others.

“The content of presentation is therefore definitely not a surprise to the audience because they have been close to the person all year and helped prepare it,” Holmes says. “The pressure is off - and the presentation itself is a celebration of the highlights of the year for that person.”

Holmes says designing work to fit around life outside of work has become the norm. Parents, migraine sufferers, keen runners have all benefited from the approach.

Dr Denise Quinlan, Director of the New Zealand Institute of Wellbeing & Resilience, was one of the judges at the awards said Holmes “ticked a whole lot of boxes for me. The team actually gets to contribute to the strategy.

“This isn't about giving people wellbeing initiatives after they're broken; this is about changing the actual structure of the work to give people dedicated time to focus. It gives people control over how and when they do their work.”

This article was first published in New Zealand Herald.

Learn more about the

Southern Cross Health Insurance Wayfinder Awards