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IT and HR working together can help companies weather difficult times

During the pandemic, one company has found a new way to work through some of the challenges of distributed teams.

TechRepublic’s Karen Roby spoke with Kim Huffman, VP of global IT, and Leah Sutton, senior vice president of global HR, for Elastic, a search software company, about how they work together to help distributed employees. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Karen Roby: Kim, let me start with you, as the VP of global IT for a company this size, just tell us how is your workforce distributed? How many employees?

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Kim Huffman: We are distributed in over 40 countries. We have, as part of our source code, we’re distributed by design. So, we have the majority of our workforce distributed across those countries, and many of them work from home offices. We do have office locations in the US as well as in Amsterdam and London. But the majority of our workforce has been and continues to be global and distributed.

Serving that group of employees is obviously our number one priority, both Leah and I partner closely on that. And we find that it is challenging, but it also promotes a great level of diversity in our culture, which we think is very valuable and is one of the things that we value as an organization. So, things like security, onboarding, helping employees, deploying new tools, those are things that we’ve had to kind of work on in this very distributive environment from an IT perspective.

And fortunately, we’ve had great business partners in HR, and they’ve helped us promote what we’re trying to do when we’re deploying new tools, new technology. We work very closely together to make sure that that employee experience or that Elastic experience, regardless of what country you are in or where you’re doing your job, is consistent. 

Karen Roby: Talk to me about some of the challenges that you face in HR and how IT can really help.

Leah Sutton: As Kim said, when you’re as distributed as we are, having great tools is of utmost importance. And while we were doing a lot of this before COVID-19, I think it became even more pertinent during COVID, and I think we were ahead of a lot of other companies in that we’d been doing it. Tools like Slack, Zoom, Microsoft Teams, all of the different things we use from a collaboration and communication perspective. We work in the Google suite, so we do a lot of async work. So for a lot of people that’s new, and making sure that they understand how to do it, that they know what the tools are that they need is really, really critical.

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So when we think about how we service our employees, it’s more of a we take this sort of one Elastic experience view, as opposed to, well, that’s IT’s problem or that’s HR’s problem or that’s finance’s problem, and really think about it from this experience. And as Kim said, we talk about the Elastic experience. So if it is something that is facing our employees, it’s just as important for my team to know where to go and how to make that seamless connection with Kim’s team as it is for her team to ours. So we really think about it cohesively in terms of the tools and how we interact with those tools and each other

Karen Roby: Were most of your employees fully remote or was that something that you had to really amp up to get them where they needed to be?

Leah Sutton: Like Kim said, distributed by design, so we were already working this way. And while we do have offices in many of our countries, I think, for us, the transition was easier. Now, I always tell people you’re at home trying to get work done versus working from home, and there is a distinction there. But it is something I think we were already well-attuned and accustomed to doing, so that switchover wasn’t necessarily the hardest thing.

But working with Kim and her team to understand does everyone have the internet connection they need? Do they have the right equipment at home? Do we need to get them a monitor from the office if they don’t have one? Those things, we certainly had to do, like many other companies. But probably 80% of our people were not going to an office on a daily basis, so that made that transition much, much easier.

Karen Roby: What are some of the challenges that you’ve faced in your role this past year as it relates to the new normal that we’re all living in now?

Kim Huffman: We were fortunate in that we had a lot of the foundation in place. I think where we have had to sort of double-down is focusing really on the collaboration suites that we offer and utilizing all of the features of all the collaboration tools that we currently had already to make sure that we kind of provide that extra level of service so people can feel connected. Because they are so isolated, and that’s really the difference. People worked distributed before, but they didn’t have their partners and their children and their pets and everyone there with them, and they were able to leave the house.

And so, just the emotional space that people were in, we found that it was a little different than what our employees had experienced before. So we’ve invested in some emotional wellbeing tools. We’re trying to help them in those areas. But we’ve also doubled down on collaboration features within the existing tool sets that we have. We’re focusing on that a lot more.

SEE: What the COVID vaccine rollout means for returning to the workplace (TechRepublic)

And then, from a security perspective, it’s been a challenge. We had a very distributed fleet of laptops to begin with. We have seen, however, that the attacks, the cyber attacks are more prevalent now than what we used to see because people are on their home networks, or they’re maybe going to Starbucks and sitting outside, or they’re having internet issues, so they’ve got multiple routers. And so there’s the security infrastructure where they’re using their tools may have changed a little as a result of the pandemic, and so we’re kind of double clicking on that.

And then, collectively, we’re realizing that as this organization has grown, as our company has grown, self-services has become really important. And so, this next year, we’re making a conscious investment in sort of reinforcing that employee experience through better self-service tools, a more consolidated view of what an employee, like a panel for the employee to work with, regardless of who they’re interacting with, whether it’s HR or IT.

We’ve tried to tighten up some of our handoffs, I think. One of them has been onboarding. We do a lot of remote onboarding. But we can always make that handoff between that recruiting and onboarding, that employee and that IT experience of them getting their equipment, and it’s very seamless, I think better. So just continuing to invest in that, doubling down on some of the collaboration tools, and then hardening our security posture, I think would be some of the areas that we focused on.

Karen Roby: It’s really mind-boggling to think about how vulnerable so many companies are now with so many employees working from home. Leah, Kim touched on this a little bit, but I do think it’s really interesting and would like for you to expand on a little bit, about some of the stressors involved, and you being in HR, and you talk to folks every day and they have things they’re dealing with that they weren’t dealing with before, just the average stressors. So how do you help work people through these things, and how can technology help you there?

Leah Sutton: I think everyone has seen, and I’m sure that you’ve felt this in your industry as well, incidences of mental health problems are increasing. People are feeling fragile, baseline stress went way up, and it hasn’t come down. And I think people forget that that stressor is still there sometimes because we’re in for the marathon, as opposed to that sprint that it felt like the first few months.

SEE: Post COVID-19 return to work policy (TechRepublic Premium)

What Kim mentioned is we’ve been trying to make sure that we are providing the resources, whether it is a technology fix or otherwise to our employees, so they have that. Ginger, which is a virtual coaching tool, a mental health support tool, is something that we had in our roadmap from a benefits perspective, but we pulled forward. We actually rolled it out earlier, and we found that we have incredible usage and just connection with that with our people.

And then, we’ve just been trying to bring in resources as we can. So not just for our employees, but also managers who are perhaps managing people in crisis. This is a really trying time. So making sure our managers have tools around resilience, around how to have difficult conversations, know where to send employees to. We have a global employee assistance program, an EAP, doubling down on that and making sure that we are regularly pushing out information to our employees about where they can get help when they need it.

And so, I think where we’ve said, “Hey, we want to try out this new tool,” Kim’s team has always been right there to say, “Hey, how can we help? How can we help implement that faster, drive that more quickly?” And I think that the agility that we’ve been able to work on those things has really made a difference, but making sure that we’re creating that space.

We’ve also just created more time. We’ve moved to giving employees two days off a month, so we have these shut it down days. So just understanding that we just need those mental breaks and trying to help create that space for them. Giving people COVID leave, and then, figuring out how in the systems are we tracking it and figuring this out. So there’s always the, it’s like, “Yeah, that policy seems great, but there’s all this stuff in the back that we have to make sure that works seamlessly with what we’ve got in place.”

But really focusing on, I think, mental health and resilience and how do we make sure that folks know that they have what they need, and if they don’t, if we can’t offer it, that we can help them get to someone who can offer it.

Karen Roby: Yeah, I would certainly think so. Well, Kim, you’ve been in technology in a leadership role here, do you feel like this is something a little bit newer as far as is this partnership just something you see at Elastic that you guys have been able to do, or is this something you’ve seen kind of coming down the pike when it comes to HR and IT and bringing those two together?

SEE: Wellness at work: How to support your team’s mental health (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Kim Huffman: I think we’re going to start seeing it … COVID may have accelerated it, but I think the technology and the business partnership, regardless of function, is critical. Now the cloud has broken down those barriers where you really need to be working in lockstep on your objectives, your strategies, your goals with your business partners, and your technology because the technology stack can really help drive efficiencies and automation.

I think what we’re starting to see that’s more critical is that as people realize that people are the number one asset in an organization, how can we work together closer to improve that experience that an employee has? And I think, as we look at automation to help enable that employee experience, you are going to see the technology and the people, the HR organizations, work closer together and the leaders of those organizations work closer together.

I also think it helps to have a great business partner and a good relationship to start with a common goal. At Elastic, we care a lot about our Elasticians. And so, going in, we have that same hat on, which is, it’s very refreshing to partner with someone that we both have the same kind of objectives. I do think as organizations realize the importance of people, and in a culture that partnership will become more important.

Karen Roby: Leah, where would you say, or where do you see, say a year from now, with all of the changes that we’ve been going through. How do you see that by next year that we’ve really been shaped and how your global culture within your company has been shaped too as a result of these last couple of years?

Leah Sutton: I think the big thing on a macro level is just this has accelerated the change to remote work. The work of the future, I mean, it’s something I’ve been talking about, Kim’s been talking about, we’ve been talking about for years at Elastic, but it has just accelerated that.

Now, that said, I think there’s just a lot of work to catch up on how do we do that effectively? And I think that’s where we really look forward to say, “We want to create better tools.” And I think, honestly, that the sort of flip of that is I think people just want to see each other. I think there is going to be this sort of renewed interest in how do you create human connection? Getting really creative about creating human connection when we can’t get on planes the way we used to. I don’t think we will ever go back to kind of that same level of business travel or interaction, so how do we continue to get smarter and evolve the creation of connections virtually? And I think that we’ve seen really innovative stuff happening, but I do think that that will continue to be a space that really, really grows.

Karen Roby: Yeah, I think you’re right. People do just want to see each other, right? We got to kind of come back together in some way again.

Leah Sutton: With a haptic vest with a virtual hug or something, you know?

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