HR@Home Ep6: Julia Birkett, senior director of people at Acquia

Join The Hive as we stream into the homes of some of the world’s most innovative HR leaders to uncover how they’re meeting and overcoming the challenges they face

Today, we’re talking to Julia Birkett, Senior Director of People at Acquia. Julia has extensive expertise and a proven track record in Executive Coaching and successful change management, with over 25 years of cross sector experience in the field of HR. She joined Acquia in 2017 following positions at Salesforce and BMC software.

You can watch the episode below, or read the full interview underneath.

How have you and your organisation adapted to the COVID-19 challenge?

Julia: We have our roots in community right the way across the globe and I think that the sense of community has played a really important role in how we’ve adapted at Acquia. We believe one of our mantras is stronger together. And I think that in this situation that’s really proven true and it’s been one of our real strengths.

For myself, I think I’ve been supporting employees in a lot of different ways and maybe taking more of a wellness and support role to make suggestions or offer a sympathetic ear on family matters and other issues that are really important to our employees right now but, perhaps traditionally, have been viewed as crossing over a line, which we’ve not really explored before. You know, personal was very personal, work was work.

But now we’re finding that we’re crossing that line more and more into people’s personal lives due to this situation that we find ourselves in.

For me, I think it’s important to remember that this is a privilege and employees need to feel safe, and that there’s trust so that you can help them and work with them in a respectful and effective manner.

In terms of making the technology adoption, it was pretty easy for Acquia because 30 per cent of our global workforce is already remote based, so they don’t come into an office every day anyway. So we were already pretty well set up.

We had a practice day on the Friday, where the Intel global company worked at home just to check that there were no issues with any of our systems, which there weren’t. On Monday morning we started to work remotely and that was the Monday before the UK government put the official lockdown in place.

You touched upon mental health and wellbeing. What other things have you done to help support people’s wellbeing during the COVID-19 challenge?

J: I think the first and key factor is that the wellbeing of all at Acquia has always been important to us. Right now our primary concern is that every Acquian can stay at home and be safe.

We already provide benefits such as private medical insurance and employee assistance programs to our staff and we’ve also got a very active wellness calendar. So we’ve just switched mediums for that. For example, our yoga classes in India have switched to online; informal meetings have switched to coffee morning formats, which have been chaired by our head of support for EMEA. And they’re proving really, really popular.

People are just dropping in to have a coffee. Our Executives drop into them, even though they’re at a really antisocial time for the US - I think it’s 6:00 AM for them - and they’re really connected. I think that’s really the key point: our Executive Team have been phenomenal.

We’ve had weekly video updates from our CEO and other Execs. They’ve been giving us business updates and they’ve also been providing us film suggestions and Netflix suggestions in a really informal manner. Our team meetings are fun and transparent, and we’ve also been doing fun things like virtual happy hours so we can relax and talk about things that are maybe a concern outside of the workplace.

One initiative that we have, which was pretty unique, was inviting a virologist to come and speak to people to give us some facts around Coronavirus, and to dispel some of the social media myths. We had over 500 attendees to that talk, which shows that people really are concerned and they do really want to educate themselves.

I think overall there are really three key tenets in this challenging time. Number one, it’s important really to be transparent and have clear communications. Number two, to be accessible to everybody and really listen to them, listen to what they’re telling you, and finally be empathetic. Everyone’s got a different concern right now, a different worry and something to overcome.

If you can support them with understanding that goes a long way to helping them be more positive and productive and in the right mind-set for work. But it’s also important to remember that people seek connections in different ways. So a team meeting might be enough for some, but some people may need to be one-to-one personally on a video call like we are.

So everyone’s different and the great leaders in Acquia recognise this and I think they’ve been adapting their style accordingly.

How is technology enabling you to overcome the COVID-19 lock down and ensure operations continue?

From an HR perspective, we were already in the process of utilising lots of cloud-based technology to help us function as an HR team globally. Systems which really span multinational setups, and they are used to capture and report on data to help us make better decision making. So the systems have continued to work well. Anyone in the HR team, on any timeline, can access data swiftly with clear instructions.

I think the key thing that really helped us is to be transparent and have clear documentation on our systems so managers can continue to use it, and HR employees can continue to use them without interruption. More widely Acquia has been able to step in and help our customers who need to make a quick pivot to continue to reach audiences.

For example, we’ve helped a large church network in the US make a seamless switch to online services and pastoral care, which I think has been vital to some people during this crisis and obviously links back to wellbeing.

We’ve also helped one of our fitness customers quickly spin up online classes and continue to offer fitness and wellbeing programs without a blip. Again, keeping active has helped them and actually for myself, it’s also helped me keep positive and focused at this time.

I really hope that some of these initiatives for our customers continue in a post COVID-19 world, as they’ve brought a sense of fun and community to a whole raft of people who may never have experienced anything like an online fitness class before. And I think this could be a great positive outcome to this unprecedented situation. And one of the initiatives that I really hope continues and I’m positive about for the future.