How Core Principles Won the Day Amidst Uncertainty

After a year like no other, it turns out that as a company, we were focused on many of the right things all along: employee experience, belonging and diversity, and agility. Read more from Workday Chief People Officer Ashley Goldsmith.

We all play a wide range of roles in our personal and professional lives, which may include parent, child, spouse, partner, friend, manager, and leader. When the pandemic hit, we still inhabited those roles, but often with new dimensions and new urgency: teachers for our children, counselors for our friends, and cheerleaders for our local businesses. 

As leaders, we took on new roles, too. As Workday’s chief people officer, for example, the health and well-being of our Workmates has always been an important part of my job, but the focus on these areas increased dramatically, and I had to view them through a completely new lens. 

2020 challenged us to stretch our responsibilities like never before, but as I reflect on the year, not everything in human resources was a 180-degree shift. I’m proud that as a company, we were focused on many of the right things before the pandemic: employee experience, belonging and diversity (B&D), and agility. What changed was the intensity and urgency of our efforts in these areas.

Employee Experience Gets More Personal 

Even before COVID-19, the holistic well-being of the workforce—emotional and mental health, physical health, financial health, and family life—was quickly rising to the top of every organization’s priority list. We’ve always been laser-focused on our Workmates and their experiences at Workday, but meeting people where they are has never been more important. 

While we’re all being impacted by the pandemic, I heard a fellow CHRO accurately point out that “we’re all in the same storm, but we’re in very different boats.” People might be living alone and missing in-person connections; they might be juggling the responsibilities of caring for young children at home while working full-time; they might be a member of our Black community, trying to process the social injustice we witnessed this past year. 

These are just a few examples, and the reality is many people faced—and continue to face—several of these circumstances at once, making it more critical for us to consider the unique needs of each Workmate and take into account the whole person. To accommodate a range of situations, we provided new benefits, from financial support to caregiver support to a menu of flexible schedule options. Our ongoing goal is to put employees first and help people find or maintain their resilience.

And for leaders, showing compassion and empathy is no longer an occasional experience reserved for someone on the team who’s going through a tough time—it’s a daily necessity. We’ve been catapulted to more personal places in each other’s lives, as kids pop into Zoom calls, dogs bark during presentations, and we try to balance all the demands placed on us. Before COVID-19, we were reluctant to delve into the personal lives of our workforce, but now we welcome each other (virtually) into our homes. As the boundaries between the personal and professional have blurred, we as leaders have prioritized embracing grace and empathy, and our employees have welcomed a more personal approach. 

A Renewed Focus on Belonging and Diversity 

An overdue outcome of 2020 is that our B&D efforts have grown even more ambitious. Following the death of George Floyd, we recognized that we needed to see more progress, more quickly. 

So as an organization, we put our commitments and actions at the forefront. They’re all rooted in VIBETM (Value Inclusion, Belonging, and Equity), which is Workday’s unique approach to B&D. Under the leadership of Carin Taylor, our chief diversity officer, and with the full engagement of our executive team, we took steps to understand why some of our B&D outcomes were not matching our good intentions. We created a dedicated team to turn our ideas into concrete programs and practices, and we developed company commitments backed by an increased investment of $45 million over the next three years in B&D.

As a company, we were focused on many of the right things before the pandemic: employee experience, belonging and diversity, and our ability to embrace change.

While remote work has come with its fair share of challenges, it has also provided us with some unexpected benefits as we drive toward these company commitments. By increasing hiring efforts outside our Pleasanton, Calif. headquarters, for example, we’ve been able to expand our talent pool and our reach, increasing opportunities to recruit underrepresented minorities. And in our day-to-day meetings, remote work has put many of us on the same footing, appearing in the same sized box on Zoom. Someone who had to dial in remotely before is now just as connected to everyone in the meeting, and more voices are being heard. When we do return to physical workplaces again, we’ll need to give a lot of thought to preserving the positives we’ve experienced during fully remote work.

Recently Aneel Bhusri, our co-founder and co-CEO, said “companies must have a soul.” Taking a stand on issues that are impacting our communities and providing equal opportunity for all is simply the right thing to do, and we also know it’s important to our candidates, employees, and customers, who feel strongly about working for, and with, companies with a moral compass. For a values-driven organization like Workday, we see our increased commitment to B&D as an opportunity to be a positive force for change.

Agility Is More Critical Than Ever

For every successful organization, agility and embracing change have been crucial this past year. Personally, I’ve been feeling like a tennis player bouncing on my toes, trying to be ready for whatever comes at me, no matter how unexpected. The lesson for me is that we can’t be flat-footed. 

We had to demonstrate this agility early on in the pandemic, as we closed offices worldwide, but needed to establish processes and protocols for our eventual return to the workplace. We modeled dozens of scenarios based on a number of factors, including the effects of the pandemic in each location, office utilization, sanitation supplies and protocols, and individual health and safety details, such as attestations, temperatures, and testing. As the pandemic continues, organizations will need to continue to operate with speed and agility as they determine what’s best for the health and safety of employees, and for the business.  

We continue to evolve our thinking about skills, too, as we embark on a journey to refocus our talent management to a skills-first approach. In the area of recruiting, we’re shifting our focus to skills and experience to reduce the weight of academic degree or pedigree. We’ve also provided reskilling for our own Workmates. According to the World Economic Forum, more than 42% of jobs will require reskilling within the next three years, but the pandemic rendered certain jobs obsolete overnight. As some of our needs evolved, we shifted many of our impacted employees to gig work, such as project management and supporting the expanded need for virtual training workshops. 

As the uncertainty continues, we have to continue to make sure we have the programs, practices, and technology in place to respond to existing challenges—and the unknown ones sure to come—in an agile way.

Looking Ahead

We’ll carry the lessons we learned in 2020 into this new year as we define what our future of work will look like.

At Workday, we believe that some of our best work happens when we’re together in person, cultivating our great company culture, but we’ve also seen that our Workmates can deliver significant contributions remotely. As we navigate a return to the workplace, and the reopening of our offices when it’s safe to do so, our objective will be to find the right blend of both in-office and at-home working time.

One of the things from 2020 that I hope continues is the spirit of hyper-collaboration across organizations and among CHROs. The pandemic helped break down walls built by competition and elevated our camaraderie to help us solve many of the challenges we collectively face. 

The overall message of 2020 is crystal clear: When we work together, no matter where we are physically, we can find answers to difficult problems and make positive changes. As a community, we are powerful.


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