Be More is a weekly one-on-one podcast about how everyone can thrive in the new world of work, hosted by Workday’s Patrick Cournoyer. This week: Adriana Bokel Herde, chief people officer at Pega, on avoiding team burnout, and leading with transparency—not necessarily by example.
We all need time to disconnect, but 2020 made that a tougher prospect than normal. For those who were working remotely, you were always at home—right? Surely the familiarity of your working environment made unwinding that much easier? However, as many of us know, that was far from the case. 2020 was the year of always being on.
Whether you’re an essential worker who faced the public tirelessly through a pandemic, or someone who made the shift to working from home, annual leave usage has declined. After all, where can we really go? As Adriana Bokel Herde, CPO at Pega, explains, even if you can’t get away, you’ve got to get away from your desk—whether you’re a team leader or a team member.
“If we are not well as individuals, it’s really hard to take care of others.”Adriana Bokel Herde
If you want to know more about being a successful people leader and supporting your team during an unprecedented time, then check out the key takeaways, or read the transcript below.
Patrick: Last week I had a conversation with a leader who was really struggling with the pressure of supporting their team. We had a frank conversation about the challenge that many leaders are feeling right now. These conversations are happening in all of our organisations and they’re increasing.
I love to see creative ideas that organisations are taking to help support their leaders. My guest today has been driving creative thought for over 20 years, Adriana Bokel is currently the Chief People Officer at Pega. She’s also a lecturer at MIT’s Sloan School of Management where she completed her own MBA and she’s a member of the MIT women alumni team. Adriana, welcome to the podcast.
Adriana: Thank you, Patrick. It’s a pleasure.
Patrick: Let’s start out with a brief overview of what Pega does as an organisation.
Adriana: Thank you, Patrick. Pega is a technology company based in Massachusetts, and really what we focus on is digital transformation. How we connect our clients to their customers. Especially now in the time of COVID that became even more important. We are working diligently to really help those clients connect to people who are now at home and that became an even more important aspect of what we do.
Patrick: How many employees do you have? Where are they located in the world?
Adriana: We have, around the world, close to 6,000.
Patrick: That adds a certain level of complexity in and of itself with having thousands of employees that are located in different countries around the world, but we’ll talk about that in just a minute. As I said, I’ve been having these conversations — I’m sure you’re having these conversations on a very regular basis with your leaders in your organisation. There is a significant challenge that is just building right now for people leaders in businesses. Not only is there a need for those people leaders to support their teams and their individuals on their teams but really to support themselves as well.
Maybe six to eight months ago, we thought that by the end of 2020 we would be able to start seeing a light at the end of the tunnel. There was maybe going back to some sort of a normal environment or expectations, but for at least the next 12 to 18 months, it’s probably not going to happen. From your perspective as having over two decades of experience with people leadership, leading creative thought at organisations, what do you think is the biggest challenge right now that is facing people leaders?
Adriana: There are many as you mentioned. I would say probably the most complex one is how our organisation — and I think that’s true too many global organisations — are truly diverse organisations. You have millenniums, you have baby boomers, you have different countries, so the complexity of people being very diverse. When I see my own team, I have people in different countries, I have people in different genders, I have people in different nationalities. Everybody today is struggling with different things. As a leader trying to meet their employee needs as well as looking into: how can I manage my team as a team but each individual as an individual?
People are struggling. I have parents with small kids. I have parents with grown-up kids living in different countries. The realities of my teams — and I think that’s the reality of many leaders — are just different. How do you cope? How do you help your employees with their individual needs while you still need to be able to get your work done and make sure that the business is moving forward?
Patrick: Along those lines, there’s this additional level of complexity, which is them taking care of themselves. They’re taking care of their teams. They’re taking care of the individual needs of their teams, which, that in and of itself is incredibly complex, because if you have a team of even 10 people, those are 10 different individual needs that you’re having to manage. How do you see people putting themselves as a priority or putting themselves first? You recently wrote an article around caring for ourselves inside and outside and putting ourselves first. How do you see that factoring into this equation right now?
Adriana: I see that as a challenge. Culturally, we have been always told that you look after the others, take care of others first and I think that is difficult. If we are not well as individuals, it’s really hard to take care of others. That could be your immediate family, it could be your people at work. One great example that we try to use in trainings to leaders is the example of the mask. You should put your oxygen mask first before you put it to somebody else. Because if you’re not well, you can’t provide that support to others around you.
I think it is something that we all have to challenge ourselves because culturally we are told on a daily basis you need to look at others, and finding that right balance — that of course, we should be there for each other, but in order for you to be able to do that, you need to be well. That also means different things to different people. Some are doing more meditation, some need to go into more exercise. Have that understanding that what means being well for you might be different than what it means being well for me.
Patrick: You’ve taken quite a bit of active or have taken a very active role as an organisation to create a supportive environment for the Pega team and your employees around the world. I was quite inspired in reading some of these creative ideas that are probably not easy to implement and to have had a lot of specific thought around how they’re going to impact a supportive culture and a supportive environment. Could you talk us through some of those initiatives that you’ve implemented and some of the success that you’ve had with them?
Adriana: Sure. I would say to start is really trying to get a feeling for how the employees are feeling and what would help them. What you think sometimes helps the people might not be actually what helps people. Some ambassadors are in the field to help us really implement things that could help at least a majority of the people. One of the things I would say was probably the most received, the most used, was the implementation of a meditation app. This has now been for almost 6 months that we did that, and until today we see people mentioning in blogs. We see people using it. We have lots of what we call team chats and people using it and mentioning it again.
Some it was a little luck because it’s such an unprecedented situation. You needed to do some trial and error, I would say. I don’t think even my long experience really tells me 100% what to do and if you will be successful or not. We have tried things that we thought would be great that some people use. We have a fitness app that we implemented, We have people using it but it is the minority because people feel fit differently. A lot of people especially — because we are so confined at home — wanted to be outside. Using an app wasn’t probably people’s first choice. Some of it we just saw it and some you have to try.
The reality for a company like us, Patrick, is we don’t have so much money that we can just put more and more. We have to be thoughtful on how we’re going to use our resources knowing that some of our competitors have a lot more resources, and how can we still be able to support our employees with what we have? Most important, honestly one thing is the financial support that we are able to provide in some cases. But the focus is that they know that we are on their side and that we are willing to compromise or really take into consideration some of the personal situations.
What we have done that was probably most impactful to a group of people was an employee fund where we saw lots of people losing, if there wasn’t us as in employees, but their partners or immediate family losing their jobs because of COVID. We are able to help with additional finance or financial means to help them get up to speed again or be more of a smooth transition until they find a new role.
Those are the things that came through conversations with employees, what leaders were listening or hearing, and us as an organisation trying to support the broader good as well with additional donations and things that we saw the world could benefit from in addition to our own employees. We have many employees donating money to those causes as well as to the employee fund. There was support from the employees. Pega matched every single dollar. There was also something, we saw lots of engagement of employees who had more means really wanting to contribute and help the people around the world that were in different situations than we are.
Patrick: I love that idea of employees stepping up in a time where it could be a bit hard for them too but being able to know that there’s somebody else in their team that maybe they probably don’t know but they know that they’re part of a global organisation and a global team. This idea of stepping up to help people has really come forward in many organisations. In this conversation that I was having with this leader, we were talking a bit about support networks.
I know that you’ve also done quite a bit of workaround creating internal networks with caregivers and parenting and working parents. Can you tell me about those networks and how they’ve been successful with connecting people that have similar challenges?
Adriana: Sure. I think it got to a point in our journey of trying to help employees with COVID that we realised a lot of what we can do is just to show that we see them, we understand them; because people are in different situations. Small kids need a different type of support than a teen or students who are back from college. Really we felt almost a little bit powerless because we just didn’t know what else to offer that we could meet most of the needs of our broader workforce.
In this case, the idea was, one of the things people have, and we have is the opportunity to connect with people. We did a working parents network. Before I joined here I was just there listening and hearing, “It’s so inspiring”. It helps put things into perspective too. We all have bad days and we can realise that some people are really struggling much more than we are. Maybe a word of support, a word of understanding goes a long way. That’s where we saw that continuing. It’s really vivid. It’s really people-contributing.
After that, we heard that there was a need of working parents that have children with disabilities or even adults — they’re caregivers of adults with disabilities. We created a side conversation to allow that to happen and so that people felt more supported as well. There’s a lot of tips and a lot of recommendations. More than anything, people know they are being listened to and that we care. There are many people around the world that share some of their experiences and can participate with what they are going through as a family or as individuals.
Patrick: I really love that aspect about connecting parents that have children with special needs and how they’re managing through this. One of my nephews is a special needs child and he is going through figuring out how to have remote school. It’s super hard and he doesn’t understand why he can’t go to school because he loves to go to school and be with his kids. My sister’s home, working two days in the office and is home and trying to manage all of this, it’s a lot. It creates stress. It creates anxiety. Being able to connect people with a common need of support is a really powerful aspect.
You bring up an excellent point, and I think many organisations are getting to this point where they feel that they’re doing so much and they don’t really know what else to do. Being able to put it out to the 6,000 people, or 2,200 people that are at their organisation to help them and to help each other, the weight doesn’t always just sit on an organisation to do everything. Employees are really stepping up right now and becoming the support systems that we need.
I’m curious to hear your perspective on taking time away from work. One thing that is becoming a bigger challenge is being able to step away and truly disconnect when we are in these distanced work environments; working from home. There are some mixed emotions around the term “work from home” and remote work. However, we look at it, we’re not in the work office and our work lives and our personal lives have been blurred into one. What is your perspective: do you see people taking time away? Do you see it becoming more challenging for people? How are you handling that? Or how are you approaching time away from work?
Adriana: That’s probably I would say one of the things we have been challenged the most with around the summertime in the US — which is not summer in other parts of the world. Three or four months have passed with COVID. We did an analysis of how many people have taken time off between March and June, and we had one-third of the days off that normally we had in prior years. That was really an “aha!” moment for us to realise, “Okay, people will get to a burnout situation if they don’t take time off.”
Of course, at that time, summer plans were starting to fall apart. We were learning that camps weren’t going to happen. So we were able to do a lot of campaigns to some extent. Patrick, I think that is also something. We are in a group environment. We do have a lot of people who are high performers and people want to do a good job, so people over stress themselves, and I probably belong to one of those.
The reality is sometimes the fact that so many people — especially around May, June — we saw a lot of people losing their jobs. I think that didn’t help, that people were saying, “Okay, I’ve got to do a good job because we don’t know how companies are going to go,” and we saw more and more coming over after the summer. We are in a lucky situation that we were able to communicate this — that we are in a good place and we wouldn’t be doing layoffs. But there is the fear so that doesn’t contribute to people feeling the freedom to take time off.
Every company call that we had, we were doing check-in calls on a monthly basis. First, we start on a weekly basis, then we moved to every two weeks and now we do it on a monthly basis, really telling people, “That’s okay.” We made commitments to the organisation that we are going to — each one of us in the executive team — made commitments to our own function to take time off and not to connect.
We all try our best. I can say for myself, I’m not the best role model on that as well. I just love what I do and sometimes it’s hard to disconnect. I also know that I can be a bad influence to my team even though I don’t expect that from them. I remember when I was in their shoes that often I was saying, “Oh, if I’m getting emails on somebody’s vacation then maybe that person expects me to do the same.” I try to take that into consideration.
I personally am very open to my own team that even when I send emails in the evening or on the weekend just because it works for me personally, but I don’t expect that of them.
I remember starting at Pega two and a half years ago, and that’s how I led my first meeting with my entire function with some of who I am. That’s part of who I am, but I don’t expect. I tell people, “If I need something from you, I will find you.” Email is for me just one part of how I work.
Honestly that one specific is something that is very individual. People work differently and function differently. Some acceptance, as well, that people will have different sources and types of motivation and rewards, and, honestly, sometimes to what they can do. Some people are taking time off because they need to be available for their child to do some remote work, but they still want to be connected.
I don’t think vacations nowadays, at this point, are really the same vacations people had in the past. I try to be at least open that people’s realities have changed. As long as people are taking time off and disconnecting — that might be different things to different people.
One thing we did, and we are going to do it for the rest of the COVID while we’re home, is to have days where we say “no regular meeting days”. I know other companies have done “no days” like free days or Fridays off. We weren’t able to accommodate that, but we now have every month, a day where we say “no regular meetings or no big meetings”. People at least can have a bit less of Zoom time or Webex time and spend more time, maybe doing some work on the emails or thinking more strategically, which is really difficult if you are 9:00-21:00 or 8:00-20:00 on video calls.
Patrick: There’s a couple of things in there that are very good suggestions for the audience. The first one is that setting clear expectations about what works for you, doesn’t mean that it has to work for everybody on your team. Particularly now when emails — like you said, you may be going through emails at eight o’clock at night because you had something going on in the afternoon or maybe on Sundays, how you prepare, but that’s how you work. That doesn’t mean that your team needs to work the way you work, so that’s a great pointer.
The second takeaway that I heard in there — and I’ve been guilty of this in the past — is truly taking time away, when you’re on holiday or when you’re away. Just really disconnect. And not only from the personal perspective of not answering emails or not checking Slack and leading by example with that, but all of us realizing that we are — I read this statement recently and it really resonated with me: we’re tenants of other people’s time, right now.
When somebody on our team goes away on vacation, actively making the conscious effort to not email them, to not copy them in an email, to not Slack them or send them a message. Even a message saying, “Don’t look at this until you come back from holiday,” they’re going to look at it.
Adriana: They’re going to look at it.
Patrick: That’s a good suggestion for people to keep in mind is, we’re just ending Mental Health Awareness Month, and if anything, right now being able to truly disconnect if you’re on holiday or on vacation, and you’re able to step away, a) allowing yourself to do that, but, b) your peers or your leaders allowing you to do that too, could not be more important than it is right now and will be for the future.
Adriana: That’s great. I have one of my high performers on vacation, I sent something to her yesterday, and I did the option on the email where I’d send it the day after she comes back, not even on the day she comes back because we know how it is to come back to handle emails. It wasn’t very important. I didn’t think she needed to worry about when she was on vacation, but you need to make that as a conscious effort to make those happen, especially now. You’re right.
Patrick: Adriana, thank you for the creative ideas that you’re doing at Pega. It’s clearly making a difference with your team. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and insights. I feel that at a time, when we’re all struggling to do the best for our companies, do the best, really, for our people. Getting ideas and hearing what works and what doesn’t work at organisations is really helping people think a little bit more about what they’re doing and how it’s impacting their people.
We have a long future ahead of us of having to remain creative because what’s working today is not what was working for us seven, eight months ago. And six months in the future, we may have to be resetting what we’re doing today
Adriana: This, I would say, Patrick, is probably the biggest struggle for companies, is because you have employees who really wanted to get some certainty, and we can’t really because we don’t have that certainty for ourselves either. How can we make sure we give some certainty with all the uncertainties that we have around offices, working from home and all the other things: people that want to move away from the office, because it’s cheaper?
There are just so many side parts that it’s really critical that we continue the conversations with our teams to ensure that we are that thing as the world is becoming a bit more secure; or insecure, who knows? But as the situation changes.
Patrick: Yes. 100% I agree with you. Adriana, thank you for spending some time with me today. I have greatly enjoyed the conversation and thank you for inspiring us to be creative with our thought, but also be patient with ourselves. Because like you said, uncertainty is here, it’s here for the future, and we just have to work through it the best that we can. Thank you for spending some time with me today.
Adriana: Very welcome.