CHRO Cindy Fiedelman shares how she navigates the safety of both essential and remote workers during the global pandemic while overseeing an acquisition.
By Debbie Bolla
The COVID-19 pandemic posed many challenges for nearly all business leaders, but add on a European acquisition conducted mainly virtually and you’ll start to feel the weight on Cindy Fiedelman’s shoulders. The CHRO of Digital Realty, a leading global provider of data center solutions, rose to the occasion, ensuring the safety of her essential and remote workers; ushering in a new workforce that doubled the size of the business; and aiding in corporate strategy. In fact, she says, “This couldn’t have been a better year to be an HR leader.”
Here, she shares how Digital Realty is caring for its employees during the pandemic, how the company is moving the acquisition forward, and what’s ahead for 2021.
HRO Today: Can you tell me about your workforce and the policies you had to implement due to the pandemic?
Cindy Fiedelman: Digital Realty is a leading data center business offering colocation and interconnection solutions. With this year’s acquisition of Interxion (a leading provider of carrier and cloud-neutral colocation data center services in Europe), we have approximately 2,500 employees around the world running over 280 data centers. In this time, with many businesses going virtual, data has been critical and we’ve played a role in aiding our customers’ decision-making.
For us, half of our workforce is on the frontline in data centers ensuring that customer needs are being met. The other half of the workforce is in corporate offices in a number of big cities in the U.S., Europe, and APAC. Two things immediately worked in our favor when we closed our corporate offices in March.
We have regional headquarters in Singapore, London, and Amsterdam so we could take cues from their approaches from a few months prior. As a result, our global operations leadership team in the U.S. was able to put things into place really quickly, working in partnership with our regional data center operations teams.
With a pretty distributed team, we had already been using virtual connection tools that we rolled out last year. We shifted to our virtual platforms (BlueJeans and Microsoft Teams) full-time. Since we were already on virtual platforms, we weren’t playing catch up and that was a big benefit.
In our data centers, we changed to a staggered shift schedule and adjusted staff numbers based on location and general needs. For each location, we set up protocols including temperature checks, entry questionnaires, appropriate signage, hand sanitizer, and social distancing directions.
We also set up a COVID emergency response team, a 10-person team that connected on weekly calls. Through its work, the team set up a process to track cases for our employees, contractors, and customers who were going in and out of the building. We were constantly assessing what we were doing, how quickly we were shifting, and what was happening based on geography.
We also place set up communication vehicles so that if there were cases, we could report them quickly and do contact tracing. Our internal communications did a nice job explaining the 12 different ways you can be in touch. We were doing leadership team calls on a regular basis with direct team members and we had frequent all company meetings. People felt very in touch with what was going on—the feedback from our engagement survey in June was strong. We also took the approach of being open and transparent with the community in our external communications, establishing a COVID-19 response page and FAQ on our website.
As the duration of the pandemic lengthens, employee mental health continues to be one of our major concerns. Last year, we rolled out a new wellness platform with Virgin Pulse and we were able to leverage that tool to support mental health. What we found is that instead of working from home, employees are living at work. We had to encourage our workforce to find the balance. Employees were given a few unplanned days off and our exempt workforce shifted to flexible, paid time off. We also provided a stipend for basic office equipment for employees who hadn’t worked from home before.
In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, we wanted to support our employees during a time of civil unrest. We invested in our charitable giving efforts through our company matching programs, increasing the match from one-to-one to two-to-one. We saw some opportunities to do a little extra for employees.
HRO Today: How did you manage the acquisition of London- and Amsterdam-based Interxion during a global pandemic?
Fiedelman: Our acquisition of Interxion closed in the second week of March. As the world was in quarantine, we went straight into virtual integration. We doubled the size of our company, but the nearly 900-person, EMEA-based company we acquired was complimentary to our model with many similarities in how we do business.
For the most part, the people working together had not met each other. But when you can’t travel, you begin to realize how time consuming it is. A virtual world actually made it a lot easier to connect. We set up a lot of getting-to-know-you sessions virtually on video. The frequency and quality of our communications played a critical role in our success.
Since we were experiencing the impact of a pandemic while going through an acquisition, ensuring that there was no disruption to business was key. We created a pretty robust project team and I think the strength around that governing model helped make for a smoother process and minimized the impact to the business. We led with principles around putting the customer first, taking the best people and processes from both companies, and the philosophy of “integrate now and innovate later.”
By the end of this year, we will have the majority of the organizational elements complete. If we do this, it’s a huge win. Why? This will allow us to focus on transforming the broader business strategy in 2021. We will determine a greater sense of our product strategy and how we are going to go to market.
HRO Today: What strategies are you leveraging to recruit and hire during the pandemic?
Fiedelman: We have been hiring business as usual. For us, that means between 500 and 600 people a year. In some respects it’s been easier and others harder. With people at home on their computers and not in an office, there’s more flexibility and it’s easier to set up conversations with recruiters. That said, it’s been a bit more challenging to convince top performers to make a change during a time of uncertainty.
For onboarding, we have to get creative and do really strong outreach. For example, to welcome new employees, we have a mentorship program where existing employees help new employees get assimilated.
HRO Today: What’s coming around the bend in 2021?
Fiedelman: We have already been looking at our strategy to determine what makes sense. We are living in a world where there are so many different outlets to leverage to get business done.
We haven’t officially reopened our corporate offices. From a safety standpoint, we are in a number of cities, including San Francisco, New York, and London, where people are taking public transportation. We sent out a survey and employees reported that they didn’t feel comfortable coming into the office until a vaccine is available.
This year, we’ve also been in the process of migrating some business functions. This point in time has made us consider if we need as much of an office footprint. We have taken a closer look at jobs that can be done 80% virtually. We are looking to design the office in a flexible set up so employees can rotate.
This couldn’t have been a better year to be an HR leader. In terms of challenges and learning, as an HR leader you had to be flexible, make quick decisions, and think creatively.