Podcast: How Workday Uses Feedback to Support Culture, Remote Work

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Mark Feffer: Welcome to PeopleTech, the podcast of the HCM Technology Report. I’m Mark Feffer. This edition of PeopleTech is brought to you by advos. Its web platform provides the tools you need to elevate your company’s brand and amplify its message. It’s marketing software that works for you. Learn more at www.advos.io.

Today my guest is Greg Pryor, Workday’s senior vice president of people and performance. We’re talking about how Workday maintained and maybe even increased engagement as it pivoted to remote work during the COVID-19 pandemic. Also, Greg has some thoughts about lessons learned from the early days of the crisis, and how they can be used by both people managers and corporate executives.

Greg, thanks for being here.

You know, we wanted to talk about engagement and agility, and the new remote-heavy workplace. Could we start by having you describe, what is the new reality? How has the workplace environment changed from the pandemic?

Greg Pryor: I think in many ways, what’s happened in the world is that we’ve actually fast-forwarded five years into the future of work, and not just from a remote work perspective, but the agility that you talk about. I often spend time with groups and talk about some of the trends we see in the future of work, and I jokingly say, you know, we probably won’t see these overnight, but I really believe we’ll see them over time.

I think specifically, the agility you talk about is so important, our ability to get listening mechanisms to understand where our employees are, what’s happening. I think this whole idea of being able to understand and meet people where they are, obviously, for us right now, our employees’ experience in New Zealand is very different than it is in New York. And so, how do we continue to be very context-sensitive?

Podcast: @Workday VP Greg Pryor on engagement, agility and the new remote workplace. Feedback and communication matter. #HR #HRTech Share on X

We feel very lucky and very grateful at Workday; we’ve actually been, for … years now, understanding our employee sentiment through something we call Feedback Friday; we pose two or three questions every Friday. And one of the things we had actually discovered, an insight that we had going into this COVID scenario was that actually, the experience of our remote workforce was at least as good, and in fact, in many ways, our remote workforce was having a slightly better experience than our location-based workforce.

And so, that gave us maybe a little bit more confidence that, as we were required to, and clearly we needed to safeguard all of our workmates by having them work from home, that we had put in place over time the infrastructure, whether that be Zoom or other types, or Slack or other types of way to stay connected, that we had had that in place, and then we just were in a spot where we just needed to lean on that for the entire workforce.

So, I think much of the work that myself and similar practitioner roles around the world, we sort of tested that future plan, candidly. Some are maybe doing better than others, some were maybe a little bit more prepared than others. But the things that were and will be even more important, agility, as you talked about, the employee experience, the ability to stay connected and to nurture social connections, even while working remotely, these things are now, I think, even more important, perhaps, than they were just a few weeks ago.

Mark Feffer: Now, to achieve that is a lot more difficult when you’re dealing with a remote workforce, isn’t it?

Greg Pryor: Yeah, I think… So, one of the things that was interesting, and as I mentioned, while we also have been doing Feedback Friday for many years, we immediately pivoted that capability to understand our employees’ sentiment in the context of the global health pandemic. And interestingly enough, overwhelmingly, the number one thing that our workmates told us and asked for support in is to continue to have the connections, to continue to make sure that social distancing did not turn into social disconnection. And as well, one of our core values is fun, and overwhelmingly, our workmates said, “Clearly, it’s a sober time, there are many things to be concerned about, but we rely on the relationship with our workmates, we rely on the culture of our company to keep us energized, to keep us upbeat, to give us some sense of certainty in the world.” And what our workmates told us in that initial feedback was they needed us to lean in even more than ever.

And so, to your point, we really doubled down on those efforts. We thought about creative ways to leverage creativity of… Even our workplace coordinators, who typically looked after the physical workspace of our offices around the world, immediately pivoted to being almost the cruise directors, pivoted to using Slack channels, to using other methods to engage and keep people connected.

Mark Feffer: How has the motivation been on the workers’ part? Has there been a lot of motivation coming directly from the workers, or have they been more responsive?

Greg Pryor: Yeah, no, it’s a great question, and I… Again, we talk about this, one of our six core values being fun, and fun is less a corporate program, less a summer picnic, more, I think, a colleague-to-colleague celebration. Our colleagues are really famous for decorating people’s desks and, you know, for birthdays or workiversaries or other special events. Clearly, that has gone away overnight, and so what we’ve found, as an example, is people creating Zoom backgrounds to celebrate their colleagues. We’ve created digital badges to celebrate folks, and those are now getting posted on Slack channels.

I would say that as we completed that employee sentiment about a week or so into the global health crisis, the way… We got that data back days after, and then because we’re able to distribute those insights directly to each of our people leaders, I think that’s the new agility, to your point. We were able to quickly get insights and capture those insights to do some broad analytics, and distribute those to the places that mattered, and then connect with people actions that they could take. I think that cycle is the new agility: quickly understanding people’s experience, being able to distribute those insights and analytics, and then equally, accompanying that with actions people can take.

We have a people leader toolkit that we immediately created. We use Workday’s Journey capability to be micro-curating specific journeys out to people based on the context of their team. So that flywheel, what used to be maybe happening in a quarter, now needs to happen in a week, if not in a day. So we very much take an enablement approach. How can we help people? And then that connection, at the end of the day, really happens with each people leader.

Mark Feffer: I’m interested in what you were just talking about, the new agility. What was the old agility?

Greg Pryor: We would share with people that we surveyed our entire company every Friday; every Friday was Feedback Friday. And I absolutely would say to people, “Listen, I’m not suggesting this is right for you. You have to do what’s right for your organization.” But what I found, at least, was the experience of our workforce was much more dynamic because we could measure it in these very short snapshots, if you will. I think about some companies who I talk to who would say, “Gosh, we measure employee sentiment every two years.” That just doesn’t… It almost is laughable when you think about today’s world.

And then again, you think about the local context. Our colleagues in New Zealand and our colleagues in New York, to do a comparison, live in very different spaces, live in very different worlds today, relative to the flexibility they have to go out, to the amount of contagion, to the types of offices they work in. And so, all of these things we need to, I think, be very, very context-sensitive. We need to be able to understand, A, specifically, this is what’s going on for this time, and to be able to curate specific actions, abilities directly based on that team’s need, as opposed to a broad company need. And that needs to be happening so much more frequently. I would say it’s the idea of micro versus macro, and it’s regular versus infrequent.

Mark Feffer: Now, that’s a very different picture from the manager’s point of view than many line managers and department heads are probably used to dealing with. What in particular do you think managers have to do differently now to promote this kind of engagement, to promote this kind of agility?

Greg Pryor: I think this was something that was probably… I know it was always true at Workday, and I think it’s becoming more true, and in many ways, there’s been some positive unintended consequences of this. So, at Workday, our first value has always been employees. We’ve always been very intentional that that’s our first principle. I think what’s really changed, and most people have responded to, is this idea of a people leader’s responsibility to do a couple of things, probably… It probably boils down to three things at the end of the day; at least that’s what we’ve been measuring.

One is to ensure the wellbeing of that workmate, whatever that may look like. We did a town hall with our workmates yesterday in Minneapolis, and one of our amazing leaders was super clear and said, “If you feel unsafe at all, you let me know, and I will do whatever I can to support you.” So, I think so many of our folks have moved to, first and foremost, a sense of wellbeing, “I need to safeguard the wellbeing,” and that’s maybe physical wellbeing, maybe that’s increasingly, unfortunately, mental wellbeing. There’s a whole context around that.

I think the second thing is support. “How do I support you?” How do I support you if you’ve got specific childcare or care context? One of the things we discovered, interestingly enough, when we asked our second employee sentiment survey, is the overwhelming feedback the second time came back as, “I could use noise-canceling headphones.” And overwhelmingly, what people said was, “I just live in a place where it’s hard.” We may have many of our younger engineers who have roommates in cities, I don’t think we’ve said that to a large group, and one of our senior leaders said, “Yes, I got a pair of noise-canceling headphones for my wife, who wants to block me out.” So, we didn’t ask who the noise-canceling headphones were for, but we did go ahead and support that. So, I think there are all sorts of interesting support things, once you ask.

And then the third, and obviously related, is “Are you productive, and how can I help ensure your productivity?” I do think the role of a people leader really boiled down, at least in our case, we thought those three pillars were really important. That’s what we measure on an ongoing basis; that’s what we use to think about how we can help our people leaders take action. How do we help secure and safeguard people’s wellbeing, how do we support them in a remote context, and then how do we enable and support their productivity so they can, in our case, they can support our great customers? I think it sort of boiled down, probably, to those three things, and if you’ve got those three things right, you’ve solved for a good amount of what I think you needed to solve for.

Mark Feffer: What can companies, or should companies, be doing to support their managers in all this?

Greg Pryor: I’ve always taken sort of this lifeguard metaphor, that maybe you can’t look after each swimmer in the ocean, but if you prepare the lifeguards, and you help those lifeguards look after each part of their beach, you sort of cover the whole beach. And so, again, for us, it’s been helping, at scale, capture employee sentiment. What’s going on, what insights do we have? Second is then, in our case, we use our technology to distribute dashboards and distribute that insight out to each people leader so they know, across those three areas, how their teams are doing, and they can take action.

And then, for us, we’ve been providing learning programs, we’ve been providing support mechanisms, we’ve been sharing tools and resources. One specific example, as you can imagine was so incredibly important, is we immediately put a tool set together to help our new hires onboard virtually. We took some of the really good and thoughtful research on the importance of how you establish connections, and we shared that both with our people leaders and with those employees. I do sort of worry a little bit about a whole cohort of all people who started a new job during this global health crisis, and I can imagine that they had specific headwinds in getting a sense of connection and feeling connected, and a sense of belonging to the company. And so, one of the things we did was say, “How can we address those really specific situations?” So, whether it’s, again, mental wellbeing, whether it’s virtual onboarding, productivity, I think helping people leaders be really specific in how they can safeguard, support and enable productivity, whatever that may look like at your organization, is really important.

Mark Feffer: Let’s talk about corporate leaders. Do they have to reset any of their expectations about process, how their workforce gets managed, or tool sets, the tools used for management? What changes do they need to be ready to accept to make all this work?

Greg Pryor: I think, to your point, I think there are a couple of specific things. One, when I think about, at least at Workday, the frequency by which, much like we’re asking our people leaders to connect with their employees, the frequency by which our senior leaders are setting the tone, and are connecting to create as much certainty as possible during these very uncertain times with our employees. So, we’ve gotten into a cadence of monthly global town halls. Traditionally, as a company, while each function might have provided a certain frequency or cadence, at a company level, we typically had two global sort of town halls, just to continue to help point at north. Our frequency now is to do that on a monthly basis. So, leaders stepping up, being able to do that.

One of the things that I’m really grateful for, and I think it’s been really powerful for people, is to see the senior leadership team very much in the sort of similar space that they see themselves. So, whether it’s seeing them on a Zoom call in their family room or office, or… And I actually think, again, an unintended consequence, but I think that’s showing a level of vulnerability, showing a level of connection. Aneel, our CEO, was open enough to share that he had just recently cut his own hair, in our first global town hall. And I had a new person, a friend who I had worked with in the past, who started recently, and so I reached out to her to say, “Hey, how are you feeling about your sense of belonging to Workday?” And the first things he said was, “Gosh, when Aneel shared that he had cut his own hair,” she said, “I knew I had joined the right place,” you know, and of all the things…

So, I think showing the vulnerability, showing the connection, seeing family and dogs and life happen in a non-corporate way. I think leaders being able to say, “This is the new normal,” and it’s, in fact, been always the normal, but we never really got a view into that. I think that’s been really powerful. I think to your point, what senior leaders now need to do more than ever is to support their frontline people leaders. You can’t, I don’t think you can expect, given the volatility of what’s happening in the world today; what you have to do is you have to have ideally prepared, and then trust each of those individual people leaders to do their work.

And then, I would say the third thing, and this has been so true for us, is you need to be really clear about what I would call convincing decisions that let your organization know where you stand, that let your people leaders know what they can lean in to. And so, as an example for us, almost immediately following the global health crisis, Aneel and our senior leadership team announced that they would be providing every non-executive in the company a half month’s pay, just to support them, just to deal with unanticipated situations. And again, for me, that was such a convincing decision. That just let, I think, let each of our people leaders know, “Here’s the north star. Here, our company principles are more solid than ever. And if I lean in to these principles, I’ll be supported in doing that.”

And so, I think that’s a new responsibility for senior leaders, is to clearly set that tone at the top, to let people know where we’re going, and then have the agility to support people leaders as they make those decisions, which are increasingly local and have local impact.

Mark Feffer: Greg, thanks very much.

Greg Pryor is Senior Vice President of People and Performance at Workday.

And this has been PeopleTech, the podcast of the HCM Technology Report. This edition was brought to you by advos, marketing software that works for you. Learn more at www.advos.io. And to keep up with the most important developments in HR tech, visit the HCM Technology Report every day. We’re the most trusted source of news in the HR tech industry. Find us at www.hcmtechnologyreport.com. I’m Mark Feffer.

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