New Normal, New Customs: Workplace Trends and Challenges in the Era of COVID-19 with Katie Burke, Chief People Officer of HubSpot (Part 1)

October 27, 20205:15 pm2099 views

On the economic front, there is no doubt that the impact of COVID-19 is being felt by all businesses around the world. While there are sectors that might be hit the hardest like aviation and hospitality, some others like health and telecommunication industries are finding themselves thriving during the pandemic. Amidst global uncertainty, however, one thing is for sure: everyone is coping with the challenges of the new normal. 

On this occasion, HR in Asia sits in a two-part interview with Katie Burke, Chief People Officer of HubSpot to shed a light into the trends and changes brought by the pandemic. In this first part, we discuss the impacts COVID-19 has left on all industries and how business leaders and employees deal with them so far. Stay tuned!

Katie, how do you find yourself adjusting to the ‘new normal’, especially at work? What are the biggest changes happening at your office in the era of Covid-19?

For me, the first few weeks were a real shock to the system — I was planning to spend April, May, and June mostly on the road, including a visit to our JAPAC teams, and instead for the first time ever I was at my kitchen table every single morning running a daily standup on pandemic response with folks from our security, facilities, core HR, and IT teams. It was an incredibly hard time because there was so much uncertainty in the world, and the primary emotion at that time was really fear and concern. I think in March and April, I was mostly running on adrenaline and the need to make sure our employees were safe and sound, but in May I had a really hard time. That was when I first realised this wasn’t going to end in weeks or perhaps even months, and that was a tough pill to swallow.

In terms of the biggest and most obvious change, it’s that we went from around 10% of our workforce being remote to 100% in just matters of days. And, like many organisations in 2020, we’ve realised that we need to evolve. Remote work isn’t new at HubSpot, but we’ve historically been what we call ‘remote-ish’ – we’ve embraced remote work, but it was a sub-culture at HubSpot versus woven into our daily operating rhythm. That’s why in 2021, HubSpot will move to a hybrid remote-office model where career growth is equitable for everyone, regardless of location. We developed this model based around feedback from our employees on how they want to work – we wanted to make sure that the model we chose worked for everyone, and not everyone works in the same way. Based on our survey results in Singapore, our employees are likely to work remotely roughly 30 percent more often post-COVID than they did pre-COVID. And even as offices reopen, 40 percent of our SingSpot employees plan to stay remote for a few months until they feel more comfortable being in the office and commuting.

Working from home for a while now, maybe some people have cultivated some new habits. What are top habits you think everyone should bring back when they come back to the office again?

When in doubt, over communicate. We all communicate a lot more than we realise through informal settings, like water-cooler chats or coffee (in my case, raiding the snack cupboard) breaks. In a virtual world, these opportunities for an informal catch up don’t exist. As a result, we’ve had to develop new communication habits. A lot can get lost when you’re remote, so it’s important not to assume, and to be transparent and intentional in the way you communicate.

Place greater emphasis on mental well-being. “How are you doing?” We’ve become a lot more accustomed to asking that question – and meaning it. Creating space for yourself and your co-workers to talk about your own mental well-being has brought us all closer. We could all use a bit more empathy in the world moving forward, so let’s not forget how you feel when someone asks you that simple question.

Work when you can do it best, not when you’re ‘supposed to’. For many years, we’ve been accustomed to 9-5 work schedules simply because it was the norm. With many adjusting to work and home life under the same roof, people have had to adjust their schedules to work when it works best for them and their families. And, I think part of that has been recognising when you’re most productive and really leaning into that.

At HubSpot, flexibility and autonomy have always been core to our culture, and we believe that results matter more than how many hours you put in, or where you work. This is a good perspective that we hope more employers start to cultivate with their teams.

Allow work and personal life to blend. In 2017, the world laughed when Prof. Robert Kelly – better known as ‘BBC Dad’ – was interrupted during a live TV interview by his daughter. Today, having children and pets walk in on business meetings is an everyday occurrence. We’ve always believed that work should revolve around your life, not the other way around. I think the challenge for all of us is to normalise the human elements of working at home and to balance that with setting some boundaries that work for us to relax and recharge when we need it.

See also: Elevating Your Presence on Virtual Meetings with Phil Haynes, Head of Global Talent Acquisition at Zoom Video Communications

What kind of adjustments do organisations need to make as they move their teams back to the office – and will employee productivity be affected?

While working from home has its own set of challenges, the flexibility in working hours and convenience from not having to commute to work every day are attractive incentives for employees. I think employees and candidates will continue to seek work that gives them flexibility to do their best work – wherever and however that may look.

This means that organisations now need to ensure that their operations and programming remains remote inclusive, and leaders shouldn’t create scenarios that incentivise or pressure employees to be in the office. Team meetings are one example here, even before HubSpot moved to a hybrid approach to work, some of our teams encouraged every team member, remote or not, to dial into to meetings so that the experience was the same for everyone. Benefits and workplace perks are another example, you have to be really intentional and thoughtful about creating inclusive programming and perks – no one should have to come into an office to experience or enjoy your culture.

Physical distancing is highly encouraged to contain the spread of the virus. In your opinion, how will this affect organisational culture, and how can firms continue to make culture a priority?

I think at our core humans want to feel connected, and historically the office created a vehicle for connection that was rooted in proximity. I think even before the pandemic, as we moved to a more global-first company, it was clear we would have to get much better at creating meaningful connections across geographies and across teams, so I think long-term companies have to do a better job driving connectedness without physically being in the same location, and the pandemic just accelerated that shift.

For us, what we are working hard this year to do is moving away from the “copy and paste” mindset. In other words, rather than taking a bunch of in person events and moving them to virtual isn’t going to create the conscious mindset shift we need to create a truly inclusive hybrid company moving forward, so we’ve had to find new and innovative ways to create connection without depending on proximity.

Culture isn’t about posters on the wall or snacks in the kitchen. It’s the promise you make to your employees and customers. It’s the values, beliefs, and mission that make your organisation unique. It’s how you show up for people and communicate with them when things aren’t going well. And it’s how much people feel valued, included, and connected to the company’s mission–all of those things have little to do with your physical location or number of work hours, and far more to do with your ability and impact. We need to keep that in mind, and not rush to return to the way things used to be.

Read also: COVID-19 & The International Business Expansion Plans: Interview with Lee Quane, Regional Director Asia at ECA International

About Katie Burke

Katie Burke is the Chief People Officer at HubSpot, where she oversees HubSpot’s global employment brand to attract top-level talent as the company continues to grow and enter new markets. She creates and delivers the optimal candidate and employee experience for HubSpot’s offices around the world. Katie manages the team responsible for HubSpot’s award-winning culture and commitment to transparency and autonomy.

During her time at HubSpot, the company has received culture commendations from Entrepreneur, Fortune, The Boston Globe, Glassdoor, and The Boston Business Journal. Katie’s emphasis on a culture of inclusion, diversity, and support has also placed HubSpot on’s “100 Best Workplaces for Women” list.

Content rights: This exclusive interview content is produced by HR in ASIA. Any redistribution or reproduction of part or all of the contents in this interview is prohibited. You may not, except with our express written permission, distribute or commercially exploit the content.

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