The Cocoon support model (and why it works for leave management)

Cocoon’s Head of Support explains why software solutions for managing employee leave are more supportive and personable than you might think.

Nikki Henderson
Nikki Henderson
The Cocoon support model (and why it works for leave management)

The turmoil of the pandemic and the “Great Resignation” have taught us many things (maybe too many things…!) with one clear takeaway for People teams being that simply having “the right list of perks” isn’t enough. Employees need to know that their company has their back in good and bad times. That’s why more and more companies aren’t just offering competitive leave programs, but taking a more structured approach to leave management. In order to do that, however, People teams need to find scalable solutions for today and the future. That’s why we talked to Sterling Kahn to understand the current landscape, where Cocoon is taking it, and why.

Meet Sterling Kahn

Sterling Kahn helped found Business Operations at Cocoon over two years ago. Previously, he worked with some of the largest and fastest growing businesses in tech, like Stripe, helping to develop their global support and education programs. As the founding member of the Cocoon support team, Sterling is a Certified Leave Management Specialist. He’s guided thousands of humans—and the people who love them—through their leaves, making him uniquely positioned to see the internal process at Cocoon and the external impact it has for customers. We sat down with Sterling to learn more about Cocoon’s support model, how it came to be, and why it’s the future of leave management.

How have leaves traditionally been managed?

“Many companies who look externally to manage their leaves have traditionally chosen to work with firms that use a ‘rep-based’ model. That means, as the leave taker comes forward, the leave-taker gets introduced to a third-party representative who’s then responsible for helping the employee manage all aspects of their leave. Given their nature to care deeply, People teams want to be more hands-on with leave, but simply don’t have the time, knowledge, or resources to do so—so they leave employees in the hands of someone who, in theory, does.”

Why do you say “in theory”?

In theory, a third-party rep is great at what they do, has experience and accurate information, is quick to respond, and makes leave-takers feel seen and heard. But the reality is that the vast majority are overworked, and have too many accounts to give each person a personalized touch. Combined with high turnover, this can lead to inconsistent and unreliable care when your people need it most.” 

“It’s unrealistic to think that one person is going to be able to take care of every single thing for you during your leave. For one, they have to be an expert in federal, state, local, and your employer’s policies, insurance forms and filling them out, payroll… and constantly be communicating clearly about how to tackle all the work behind the leave, and helping you hit your deadlines. In the end, there’s just too much room for error and miscommunication, which is why the founders of Cocoon wanted to offer a totally different approach.

What makes Cocoon’s approach to leave support different?

“So many factors! (laughs) But for one, Cocoon doesn’t have a ‘monolithic leave expert.’ Instead, we offer a team of empathetic, specialized experts across topics like leave, claims, or pay. We ensure that leave-takers are supported when they need it by someone who knows what they’re talking about, and that this specific thing goes well for you.”

“More broadly, we really see the Cocoon product offering itself as something strong enough to take the place of a leave rep. In an ideal world, we’re building a product so great, you won’t even need to interact with our support team; but when you have specific questions, we’re right there.”

How does the Cocoon product replace a leave support rep?

“For some People teams, having software as ‘the front line’ may sound impersonal, but Cocoon isn’t just a help-doc knowledge base or a support chatbot. It’s a constantly evolving and complex software tackling anything from supporting and educating People teams, managers and leave-takers; to using algorithms and automation to improve error-prone pieces of the puzzle like payroll calculations.”

“Cocoon does all of this with an interface and experience that takes into account the different needs, experiences, and emotions of the people using it."

"We want to harness the power of human-to-human moments of deep empathy to inform our empathetic software solution."
- Sterling Kahn, Head of Support Operations at Cocoon

“We take in feedback to constantly improve our product, product experience, and the education our product provides. All in all, that means we can leverage technology for what it’s best at while retaining the best of what makes human interactions important and special.”

What benefits do HR teams and leave takers get by doing it this way? 

“Lots! But focusing on the top three, People teams will first see that this strategy is scalable—the knowledge doesn’t just live in one support rep’s head. So if someone is out of office or they leave the company, your leave program isn’t suddenly on hold or left to a newbie. Cocoon can grow with your company in ways that one person cannot.”

“Secondly, it puts the power and privacy back in leave-takers’ hands. By being a dynamic tool that lets you project different scenarios (before you even need to tell anyone you’re taking a leave!) we help leave-takers make the best decisions for their own life, with the modularity to make it work for anyone.”

“Lastly, Cocoon and its platform also serve as the education center for leave-takers, People teams, and managers. We need to teach employees and employers how leave works, not just toss over a bunch of insurance claim paperwork and hope it works out, or say “trust us” and not explain anything we’re doing. This lack of understanding and education is fundamentally why leave is in such a dire state across the industry.”

Any final words of wisdom for People teams looking to improve their leave management support this year?

“Whether this topic interests you from the standpoint of company culture or simply staying compliant, continuing to not take action or consider better alternatives can be costly. Taking a leave is often one of the biggest inflection points in a person’s career. If you mishandle the process, your employee might choose to leave, costing you 1.5-2x their salary and the time to replace them; or you could get sued and face FMLA damages to cover lost pay, etc.”

“The topic of leave is ever more important not just because it’s a “feel good idea”... it’s just better for everybody. Without better leave management support, leave can be one of the most treacherous parts of someone’s career in a moment where they’re already going through a lot. So don’t just offer “competitive leave”—get a solution that ensures you’re compliant and takes really good care of people.”

It's time to enter the next generation of employee leave