HR@Home Ep11: Sarah Manning, senior director of HR at Zendesk

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Today, we’re talking to Sarah Manning, senior director of HR at Zendesk. Sarah has spent close to 20 years leading teams and working across all facets of HR in the SaaS and Telco/ICT sectors. She currently leads a team of global HR Business Partners, as well as carrying out the role of HR Director for Zendesk’s EMEA region. Based in Dublin, she partners primarily with Zendesk’s Product Development executive leaders in San Francisco on their global people strategies.

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

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

Sarah: I won’t say it’s been easy. You know, I don’t think it’s been easy for anybody. As we digested and reacted to what was happening, we quickly realised we needed to focus on two things and for us it was going to be our customers and our employees.

We were able to mobilise our business continuity team pretty early on, and through their expertise and listening to our leaders and HR business partners in each country where we have teams, we quickly took action. We took the decision early on, probably the second week of March, to move our global workforce to be fully remote. It wasn’t a decision that was taken lightly or easily, but we closed all of our offices and insisted all of our employees to work fully from home.

This then had a knock-on effect on multiple other areas. From the HR side, it meant we had to move all of our processes virtual - but with that, then came all the repercussions. What does that mean for hiring? What does that mean for interviewing? We had twenty new hires starting - where will they go?

We very quickly mobilised how to interview and how to hire somebody, start-to-finish, virtually. We started posting that content, getting the training out to our hiring managers and then working with our onboarding teams to actually work out how to fully onboard people virtually instead of in a classroom setting, which we normally would do.

Is this the first time that you’ve done fully virtual onboarding as a business?

Sarah: We had never done it fully virtually. But in January we had people who had restrictions on travel, because of what was happening in Asia and other parts of the world, and people were getting stuck and caught. So, prior to this decision, we did run one full onboarding session where it was partially virtual.

We were still in the offices, but some of our new hires couldn’t actually get to the office where their onboarding was taking place - and so we tried to do it regionally. Within Europe we brought all of our new hires across Europe to Dublin and that onboarding was kind of like a trial for us. We had some people virtual, some people in the classroom. It was interesting and went well .

I think anybody that’s used to being on Zoom calls and virtual calls, it’s actually quite hard if you’ve got, half the people in one room and everybody else is joining.

You kind of feel like you’re isolated a little bit if you’re the one person joining from your video rather than being in the room with those six other people; you do feel a bit isolated. But the session where everybody was fully virtual actually worked really well, because everybody was in the same boat; everybody was having the same experience.

You know, one of the challenges with that was logistics. So it was, on our first day we hand over our laptops and we hand over all the equipment and the nice welcome packs and stuff to folks.

It meant additional logistical planning, shipping laptops and getting them through cross borders through wherever we needed to get them to, so that everybody had the IT infrastructure and setup they needed for that day one, to try and make it as successful as possible.

How concerned have you been about your employee’s mental health during the pandemic period?

Sarah: I think every employer should be concerned about their employee’s mental health right now. We’re living in such unprecedented times and there are so many stressors right now in people’s lives, like from worrying about am I going to get sick? Is my partner or loved one or kids going to get sick? Or do we have employees whose partners or loved ones, are frontline workers? There are so many stressors out there for people.

Mental health now has to be one of the biggest concerns for employers - and all of those things, they’re all exterior factors. We’ve moved everybody to work from home, but a lot of our staff will have kids - and kids are also at home, not in school. People are now saying ‘hey, am I supposed to be home-schooling my kids and working and I’ve got all these extra stresses on me?’

I 100 per cent think businesses have a responsibility for employee wellbeing and it needs to be at the fore of all planning right now. And as I mentioned, for us putting employees first the lingo we’re using is self-care, and it needs to be about employees being able to put their own self-care first; so that they’re actually capable of being productive and able to tackle what needs to be tackled in work.

If I look at some of what we’re trying to encourage and for us internally in terms of wellbeing, it’s about empathy. You know, how can we help? So we move people to work from home and it’s making sure somebody has a decent, ergonomic chair to sit in. Is that worth the investment? For us it is.

This is going to be a prolonged period of time and if somebody hurts and puts their back out because of how they’re sitting, they’re not going to be productive and they’re not going to be able to work.

So it’s the physical things, and also the monitor. A lot of our engineering staff, and even our finance teams, need different screens to work with. They’re used to that. So even allowing people to expense a monitor for home - those things help with creating that environment for somebody to be able to maximise their wellbeing at home.

But I think even outside of that stuff that, yes, costs money there’s just the empathy, there’s just being compassionate and considerate to what’s happening - and that doesn’t cost money. You know, having that compassion to know what your teams are going through and being empathetic, and letting managers know: please be flexible with your teams.

Whether that’s parents who need to take time out during the day to mind their kids or parents that can only work five hours a day instead of eight hours a day. And it’s not just parents, it’s dealing with the mental health impacts that this is having and the mental stress it is causing. People just need breaks. We should be vocalising that it’s okay, that we don’t expect a hundred percent right now.

Nobody gets up in the morning and says I want to have a bad day today, I want to do a bad job. Employees intentions are good. I think we should trust that those intentions are good and allow people simply to do their best and encourage that culture of understanding and compassion. Having leaders walk the talk and lead from the top really helps people feel supported.

So, yes, there are financial benefits - it’s great to have a health care cover for people and that can definitely reassure, and I think that’s kind of a base need. But at the end of the day, people right now, I think they just need compassion.

I think that empathy will go really far for organisations, because at the end of the day, if your team are killing themselves, trying to be productive and trying to simply ignore everything that’s going on, they’ll become exhausted. They’ll become fatigued and at the end of the day won’t be, won’t be helpful to anybody, their employer especially.

So being more compassionate now, the better it will be for the employee and the organisation.

How is technology enabling you to ensure operations continue during the COVID-19 lockdown?

S: I think that we’re lucky working in a tech company. I do feel privileged because even when I joined Zendesk, I wasn’t so tech savvy. It took me a while to get familiar with doing Zoom calls when working from home and having to do video calls when I may not necessarily be used to putting on makeup or brushing my hair! So for us, we did have that culture of communicating via Zoom especially.

We have a lot of globally dispersed teams, so we might have, you know, one leader in London managing a team right across Europe or a leader in San Francisco with a team, in various locations. So for us, those types of tools have always been really helpful and been at the forefront of how we communicate.

For us it isn’t just for formal meetings but for little face-to-face check-ins too. We’re trying to trial different things like coffee or cocktails, whichever is your fancy at the end of the day - but doing them on Zoom.

Slack is another one. It’s our internal messaging tool and different channels have spun up within that. There’s often a lot of channels that get spun up on Slack that you get invited into. But these ones are nice; we have new working from home tips channels. We have working from home picture channels: people having their laptop on an ironing boards trying to facilitate a standing desk; two people sitting in their garden with their laptops, so it’s really nice to see, you know?

For me, certainly within HR, we use our Zendesk support tool and our help centre, which are customer experience products. So how we view it within HR is that our employees, they’re our customer, for us internally that’s our customer. So wherever you are in the world, if you email the people ops team at Zendesk, then that comes through to our ticketing system, which then has multiple triggers in it. So every employee just has one email address to contact

If they have a question about hiring or onboarding, those questions will automatically go to our talent acquisition team. If somebody has a question about benefits that will go straight to our benefits team - and it will go straight through to the benefits team for the country that you’re in. So all of that kind of smart routing in the background really helps minimise triage on the front end as to who in HR should answer this question and how that should work. Then we’ve been able to use our internal help centre to post articles and guides.

So we’ve been able to use analytics to see what are the most searched for items in our help centre, to see what are the most frequently asked questions. We can then quickly spin up articles and that allows employee concerns to get answered and supported really quickly.

We use Workday, our employee data tool, for pretty much everything within the HR team. One thing that we have turned on recently is an employee availability dashboard. That’s something that we worked with our leaders as part of our business continuity planning.

It’s really important for us to know who actually is available for work right now, and whether we are at a hundred per cent capacity, or are we at seventy per cent or eighty per cent. So within Workday, being able to turn on that kind of employee availability dashboard has been really helpful for us as well.