Op-Ed: Why One of Market's Hottest Tech Companies Says WFH Needs a Better Connection

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  • Big data firm Databricks, which recently raised $1 billion from investors including Microsoft, Alphabet, Amazon and Salesforce, helps companies analyze data and build AI models.
  • The late-stage funding was a sign of its success through the pandemic, but the company's chief people officer writes that work-from-home is becoming a bigger risk to productivity.
  • There are signs that employee connectedness is declining, says Amy Reichanadter, Databricks chief people officer.

Since March, we've released and analyzed internal surveys regularly to determine how employees have fared at home and the impact working from home has had on their sentiment about their experience within the company. For the most part, we've found employees are very happy with their working lives during the pandemic. In a survey from a few months ago, which had a 94% participation rate, 97% said they were proud to work for the company, and 96% said they know how their work contributes to the company's success. 

Last month's survey, however, showed a drop in the level of connectedness across our employees. This isn't totally surprising: people have been working from home for ten months now, and the tactics we initially put in place to foster connectivity have lost their shine. Employees still feel happy and productive, but there is an accumulating impact from the lack of in-person interactions leaving them feeling more drained and less creative in their work. So the question for People and HR leaders: where do we go from here? And how do we merge our new remote work normal with the uncertainty of what office life will look like in 2021?

In my mind, 2021 will be less about Zoom happy hours and more about addressing the root causes of lack of connectedness and building a long-term, collaborative culture. This means staying intentional with how we design inclusive, engaging dispersed workforces, and putting consistent practices into place to standardize it across teams and time zones. We know that 2021 will be another year of transition and we must do our best to control what we can. Here's what's top of mind for me.

Standardization of hiring and onboarding processes

Connectedness starts with the first interactions you have with a company — the first time you meet your interviewer on Zoom or have a 1:1 with your manager. When the pandemic started back in March, we jumped right into the remote interview process as we continued to hire and scale our team. We also did so initially with the idea that it was a short term change. Given that many companies will return to work in a hybrid remote work model, this drives the need to continue to iterate on the remote candidate experience, creating the most structured and inclusive interview and onboarding process possible.

This includes determining how to standardize inclusive remote interview processes — from the basics of ensuring job descriptions are inclusive, providing unconscious bias training, communicating clear expectations around interview etiquette in remote interviews to all teams, and helping hiring managers and interviewers understand how to be engaging in a remote interview context for candidates. 

We're also dedicating energy to figuring out how to build the most engaging onboarding experience possible and ensure people connect in different ways than they have before. I like to describe today's onboarding process as "sensory deprivation onboarding" — you only see the ten people you've met on your Zoom screen but are devoid of all other context and senses that come with office life, so we have to work harder at creating connectedness remotely. Because of this, we now bring new hire classes back together within their first quarter for virtual social events to deepen their connections.

Remote onboarding requires much more intentional efforts by managers and teams around providing context, making connections, addressing how to integrate into a company's culture and providing more structured training plans. We have taken a data driven approach to understanding the effectiveness of these efforts by measuring the onboarding experience at one week and 30 days, and sharing that information with managers so they have quantitative data to truly understand their employee's onboarding experience.

Continuous investment in virtual intern programs

If our early talent feels connected now, we'll set them up to stay connected and invest in Databricks in the future. One area we've invested in heavily this year and will continue to prioritize is building strong remote intern programs.

By reimagining what our new grad community could look like, what is usually a small, in-person network became a global opportunity for employees to engage with each other across teams and locations. We hosted events like improv classes, game nights, storytelling workshops, and a weeks-long "Intern Olympics" competition to help our cohorts build a supportive and fun community. We had interns collaborating with teams in San Francisco and Amsterdam and new grads building networks that spanned North America, Europe, and Asia. With everyone working remotely, the barriers to these networks came down and we could offer a truly global experience from home. 

Now, as we look to hire for next year's programs, we're again reimagining what early talent recruiting can look like. While university recruiting traditionally relies on a set of core target schools and in-person events, we can now leverage tools to expand that pool. Since travel capacity is no longer a limiting factor, we can engage with a larger and more diverse talent pool as we build the company's future.

Prioritization of mental health

Connectedness across team members can only happen if employees feel safe, supported, and mentally healthy at work. This period of remote work has taken a toll on people's mental health, and uncertainty around returning to the office is a concern for many. People and HR leaders need to start 2021 with mental health top of mind and start thinking about how to best support employees and their varying anxiety levels about Covid and back-to-work measures.

This means considering programs, training, and support systems to offer employees and being prepared that it will be increasingly important when the time does come to slowly trickle back to a physical space. We've begun diversifying our team bonding activities to bring in fresh ways to connect and continue to support employees, especially during the holiday season. We created a "Databricks Family Cookbook," which featured more than 300 employees sharing their favorite recipes and sparked conversations across the company. We've also instituted a 'month of gratitude' with Giving Tuesday events and keynote speakers on the 'power of positivity' throughout December. 

I felt very clear on what had to be done in the first few months of the pandemic to keep our team safe and productive at home. Our last survey showed me what we had to focus on most and helped me understand our key priority of connectedness for 2021. We'll continue leaning on data to learn how to best support our employees and encourage other People and HR teams to turn to the numbers to help provide guidance as we work through the inevitable transitions which we will embrace in the year ahead.  

—By Amy Reichanadter, Databricks chief people officer and a member of the CNBC Workforce Executive Council

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