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HR@Home Ep12: DeLisa Alexander, CPO at Red Hat

Today, we’re talking to DeLisa Alexander, CPO at Red Hat. DeLisa serves as the executive vice president and chief people officer of Red Hat. During her tenure, Red Hat has grown from 1,100 to 14,000 plus associates and has been recognised, as one of the best places to work in multiple publications around the globe. DeLisa joined Red Hat in 2001 and served in the office of general counsel until 2006, culminating as Assistant General Counsel and Assistant Secretary.

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

How have you and Red Hat have adapted to COVID-19 challenge?

DeLisa: I think we’ve adapted quite well actually. We have offices around the globe and in some of the countries where we work, our people have been working from home for six weeks, two months, etc. We’re really fortunate that we are pretty experienced with remote working. Historically, about 25 per cent of our workforce has been working remotely. So that’s a good basis from which to draw.

But it was a really rapid and unprecedented decision that we made to take care of our people and to move everyone to working from home. We did that really quickly and it meant a lot of really big adjustments. There’s a lot of things that we did live that now we’ve shifted completely to virtually.

For example, we have been a company that’s been growing for years, so we’ve been doing a lot of hiring. So we moved all of our, interviewing across the board, to virtual interviews, which of course creates some discomfort for everyone. We have a pretty intensive and really well-regarded new hire orientation, and that’s a kind of a signature moment that matters for people - and we moved that to be completely virtual.

We’ve also always been known for our kind of inclusive practices - we are a meritocracy as an organisation. We expect everyone to speak up and to share their thoughts. But I will say that being part of a virtual team is helping us to gain much more experience and really build our muscle around how to be inclusive of everyone who is not in the room - because nobody is in the room! So that’s been a good learning for us and helped us to really activate things more quickly.

We have also really matured our approach to taking care of our people globally and locally. We formed a cross functional team of people that are at headquarters, and then people that are all over the world in the field try to figure out the right approach to dealing with immediate needs, like closing down badge access to an office.

Then right now we’re thinking about how we stage re-entry into an office, which I think is going to be even more challenging than moving to work-from-home. So that’ll be a big learning for us.

The other thing that I think we’ve done a much better job of is thinking about what is the right cadence to communications. We’ve always had global lists where people can share and provide information, right, but now we’re like, okay, how do we provide this in a way that is something people can count on?

We created a site on our internet that is our COVID site, and everything is there, a one-stop shop. Once a week - at least - we are sharing updates of things you need to know, things like, we’re all working from home right now, we’re all staying in our workplaces and not traveling without having a senior vice president approve that travel because of how tricky it is to travel right now, etc.

Those are some of the things we’ve done and I’ve received so much feedback that people really appreciate that communication. It seems like something that would be a no brainer, but we’ve been regimented in terms of the way we think about how we get this out so people know what we’re doing

In terms of remote working, we’ve already equipped everyone with laptops, that’s just the way that we equip our people. And so that has been a relief that we haven’t had to do a major equipment fitting.

I will note that our new hires, particularly in India where there has been much more of a lockdown, some of them have had to work on their personal devices, or their phones have been the only tool they’ve had. Learning to work at a new business, with a new tool, I think that’s something where I really give a lot of kudos to our newer folks that are joining during this time. We’ve been able to try to help accommodate that but they’ve been very resilient.

In addition, once a week we are also having a kind of all-hands meeting. We’ll have one in the morning for North America and EMEA, one in the evening for our APAC folks; where we’ll have a whole group of people that are there from across the business and people can ask any questions that they have.

We have a system where people pre-submit questions and everyone votes up what questions are most important. Then we’ll figure out who are the right people to answer these questions and assemble a panel so that we can have a conversation with people.

I think that’s been the most important kind of communication vehicle that we’ve put into place. So that’s kind of our story of adaptation.

How do you think this working from home ‘experiment’ will impact the future of work?

D: Significantly. In our organisation we use the term VUCA: volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous. The work environment that we all live in, it just got more volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. This has forced us to really think about working in a different way that we will never go back from, and I think the expectations of workers over the last few years have certainly been that you want to be able to work wherever you want to work. In some cases that works well, in some industries it doesn’t work so well.

I think that this experiment is really solidifying the expectations that more flexible work environments are possible. I also think that the agility and flexibility that we’re dealing with right now, we’re going to have to keep doing that, because my guess is that when we open an office, for example, somebody will be sick and then we need to close it again. And this will happen all over the globe probably for many months unfortunately.

So that, going in, coming out, going in, coming out - I think that flexibility is going to be something that people are going to become used to like, okay, this office is closed now we’re back to work from home. Okay, this office is open now I’m back in.

I also think that people are going to think about ways of working in a different way. I love to print out paper and I love to mark-up documents and that’s how I go back and forth with my team. Well, not anymore. I have become an expert now in using new collaborative tools, Google docs for example, where we’re all in the tool together, we’re editing together. We’re very dynamic in the way that we’re working together. So we’re much more agile and also using a lot less paper.

If I had not been forced into this situation, I probably would not have forced myself to move from my old practice into a more modern practice. And I don’t think I’ll ever go back, and I think that’s good. I think that it’s helping some of us to be more effective about moving into the world we live in today, those of us who were not perhaps digital natives.

I also wonder about social distancing and whether it becomes much more of a norm? Think about the way that our offices have been configured in a lot of organisations - there’s more open work spaces and that’s been great for many reasons, and that certainly is fun to go into a workspace that looks that way.

Are people going to be comfortable going back to that type of environment, at least right now? How will people be comfortable going back into an environment where there are more than 10 people in a room? And so we’ll have to give that a lot of thought and really have a good conversation and dialogue with our people.

I’m sure many companies will be doing the same, thinking through, how do we do this? We’re thinking a lot about re-entry into the offices and the frameworks for re-entry and certainly government regulations will play a big role in that. Then you think, okay, well now the governments are saying we’re fine with you going back. Right?

Okay, let’s say we get to that place. Well then you have to think about, for example, how do you get to the workplace? You’ll have to ride a crowded subway, so how do we get you to the workplace safely, even if the workplace itself is safe?

What we’re planning on doing is creating a framework of criteria and questions, and then opening it up for all of our associates and managers to find the “bugs” - did you think about this? Did you think about that?

There’s no way that any one person or even one group is going to think about every situation and every issue that may arise. So the more things that we kind of surface up front that could be issues and then we think about ways to address them, I think that’ll be the way to success.

I’m looking forward to that dialogue as we go into the next phase of this. But I think that what we’ll find is we’re going to learn a lot more about how people feel about the workplace and that will be something that we take with us from this experiment for a long time from now.

How are you ensuring people at Red Hat are staying connected and productive during this time?

D: This has been the big question of the day. One thing I will say is that people come to Red Hat because of our brand and our mission, and they stay because of the people and the opportunity. They love working with each other and so the connection, that personal connection, is a critical aspect of the employer value proposition.

We’ve been thinking a lot about how we maintain these connections and what happened was really interesting. As soon as we went remote, people started chatting with each other and sharing with each other what was happening in their lives, and ideas they had about how to cope.

Our list started filling up with great ideas. A team of people self-formed and said, “you know what, we would volunteer to be team captains and curate all this great content and create a steady stream, where people can we hear from a central group like, here’s what all your colleagues are saying, or coping mechanisms or ways to stay connected, ways to stay healthy, ways to stay productive.”

So now, every week, this team curates and then reshares with the entire company, how to stay well and how to work effectively in this remote environment. We’ve also created this whole program called, “we’re in this together” and there’s a newsletter that comes out weekly, to the management team and also to all associates so that we can all be helping to take care of each other.

Another thing that is really important in our culture is the giving back aspect. We are a mission driven company, you know? We are together because we believe that open source unlocks the world’s potential and that it is a better way of allowing people to innovate and collaborate. Our team wants to collaborate of course on taking care of each other and taking care of others outside.

We’re fortunate that with our ability to work remotely that we have the ability to do our work and we have the ability to take care of customers who are in critical infrastructure, such as Governments. Obviously that makes people feel really, really good when they know that we’re helping an organisation, maybe a pharma company, to be able to do experiments and remain up and running.

So these volunteer opportunities are a way that we catalyse our organisation and really help people to feel engaged in what we’re doing since we are some of the lucky ones and are able to support others, who are really on the front lines.