Looking Back, Looking Ahead

Three lessons learned from the pandemic’s quick shift to a remote workforce that will have a lasting impact.

By Joan Burke

HR teams have always evolved quickly, but 2020 has truly tested the limits of what’s possible. At the beginning of the year, DocuSign embarked on a study to take the temperature of today’s HR leaders. The results of the HR Trends 2020 report found was that these professionals overwhelmingly recognize hiring (28 percent) and employee benefits (16 percent) as their top two priorities, but are running into hurdles freeing up time to focus on those responsibilities. In a standard week, tedious operations and payroll tasks left respondents with hardly any time to do their most important work. Half a year—and one global pandemic—later, it’s more apparent than ever that HR needs to evolve.

Given that the fundamental role of HR is helping people, it makes sense that HR professionals are hesitant to replace face-to-face processes with virtual solutions. But COVID-19 forced HR teams to face their efficiency limitations head-on and make instant adjustments. Some of them are short-term patches; others are overdue process updates that will become permanent and lead to long-term improvements.

Here are a some lessons HR leaders can carry forward following the abrupt shift to remote work.

1. Give employees the flexibility to focus on their own wellness. Working remotely for prolonged periods is an unusual circumstance for most employees. It also comes with a wide range of new challenges: children to supervise and educate, parents or grandparents to care for, home offices to improve, mental health issues to treat, and more. Without a common working environment, it can be incredibly hard for an employer to assess these hurdles and come up with solutions. The problem is big and complex; there’s no silver bullet solution.

There’s a common thread running through the new struggles employees are facing: They’re not work problems, they’re human problems. It’s easy to look at a company as a combination of marketers, sellers, engineers, and customer service reps, but the problems that have emerged during the pandemic show that these are all secondary roles. Employees’ most important responsibilities are as parents, partners, children, and pet owners. HR teams should recognize those human needs and encourage employees to prioritize them.

DocuSign took steps to support individual employees by designing a series of programs that put employees in charge of their own wellness as they transitioned to remote work. For example, one initiative reimburses employees for expenses related to childcare, educational resources, fitness programs, parental care, home office furniture, and pet care. Another program provides employees with reimbursements to cover the costs of computer peripherals like monitors, keyboards, and mice. Parents are encouraged to work with their managers to develop flexible schedules that allow them to be supportive of their family members. The principle underneath these initiatives is that every employee is uniquely positioned to determine what is best for their own wellness. They should be given freedom to focus on those unique human needs with the assurance that their employer is supporting them.

2. Adapt culture to a remote workforce. So much of the value of an HR team is creating a culture that keeps employees satisfied and productive. A sudden shift to remote work requires a shift in HR’s efforts to adapt culture to the new working environment. The isolation of remote offices can make it impossible to create a community of employees who feel connected to each other. Without a common place to interact, it can be difficult to maintain the comradery that establishes workplace culture. It’s extremely important to find a way to translate the existing company culture to fit the remote environment.

Maintaining a strong cultural connection is a new problem that has been exposed by the pandemic, but it won’t be going away once the crisis has passed. It’s becoming clear that a significant percentage of employees are more comfortable and more productive working remotely. Despite all of the complications of a remote workforce, it’s undeniable that work is still getting done. For some people, productivity is improving at home; those employees should be allowed to continue working that way, at least part of the time. It’s imperative to find a way to connect those employees to the collective office culture.

The key here is to recognize what the team has done well and avoid reinventing the wheel. Look for ways to bring the existing culture into the virtual experiences that connect the remote team. This is easier said than done and it takes some creativity. Try to preserve as many of the existing programs as possible, even if they need to evolve.

For example, at DocuSign, volunteer work is critical to company culture. The team can’t get together to plant trees or pack food boxes anymore, but that just means the company needs to find new ways to volunteer remotely.

3. Onboard employees effectively. As long as employees and HR teams are working remotely, there needs to be an effective way to develop connections for productive onboarding. Traditionally, seeing a friendly face is an easy way to make a new employee feel at home on their first day. Without the standard in-person welcome sessions, HR teams are rushing to put together a process to welcome new remote workers and make them feel like part of a thriving culture.

The reality is that remote onboarding is new and it’s difficult. There are some parts of in-person sessions that cannot be replicated virtually. On the other side of that coin, remote onboarding also offers unique opportunities. For instance, the DocuSign team was able to add its CEO to the new hire trainings. Clearing his schedule for a monthly new hire orientation session in Seattle isn’t realistic, but clearing his schedule to lead a Zoom session is much easier. Now, all new team members get early face time with the CEO, where they can hear his personal experiences while discussing company culture.

There are other ways to personalize onboarding with a “choose your own adventure” style library of on-demand sessions. Every company is different and has unique needs for new employees, but there are ways to make virtual onboarding engaging and effective. HR just has to be creative and focus on the needs of the new employees on the team.

There’s nothing normal about the sudden change to an all-remote working environment—it’s a tectonic shift for every employee. But there’s no reason it can’t be a positive experience. Different doesn’t mean worse. It won’t be comfortable, but rethinking the way teams handle remote workers is definitely a necessary step in the right direction. When physical offices reopen, HR leaders can take another pass at designing their talent processes, but the improvements they make now to empower remote employees will last a lot longer than the office closures.


Joan Burke is chief people officer of DocuSign.

Posted October 15, 2020 in Engaged Workforce

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