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"I did not go into HR to be sitting by myself looking at myself on Zoom all day!" - the lowdown on lockdown from DocuSign's Chief People Officer

Janine Milne Profile picture for user jmilne April 24, 2020
How Docusign is striving to keep a remote workforce engaged and supported under COVID-19 lockdown.

Joan Burke, Chief People Officer, DocuSign, (via Docusign)

COVID-19 has tested organizations in ways few could have imagined just six months ago. Companies have had to adapt fast to the new normal, where office workers become home workers and where new ways of communicating, managing and engaging the workforce have had to be forged quickly.

As a tech firm, DocuSign, the e-signature company that enables companies to sign and authenticate documents electronically - an obvious boon given current circumstances - has found itself better placed than many to transition to home working.

According to Joan Burke, Chief People Officer at DocuSign, there were only a few employees, such as receptionists, who couldn't take their work home:

We were fortunate, because we are a knowledge-based company - out of our 4,200 employees, I don’t think there were 20 who didn’t have a laptop. So we announced on a Wednesday that we were closing the office on a Friday. There was of course a ton of work needed by our IT staff to do that.

Burke is quietly confident that the company has made some good choices. One key thing was that it acted fast. It began by closing its largest office in Seattle about seven weeks ago, but within 10 days it realized that every office from Tokyo to Dublin, needed to be shut down.

Since lockdown, the company has established a number of measures to support staff. There are webinars on how to manage stress and how to manage through uncertainty, as well an EAP (employee assistance program) which allows employees to confidentially go for counselling sessions. Burke expands:

When we went remote, we said to every employee, if you need to purchase any equipment, like a montor, that would make your workspace more productive for you, you can spend $300 on whatever you want.

Shortly after that, because it was so clear to me watching parents with young children, perhaps when there were two people working trying to manage that with no day care and no school, that we also set up a program called DocuSign Cares, where employees can spend up to $1,000 on anything that’s going to make their family life better right now. We really were very broad about that, so if someone’s kids are driving them crazy and they wanted to get them video games, no question. Whatever they need to do, we want to be there for them.

This helps in some ways, but it’s tough and I talk to many employees, especially the ones with small children, and I can feel their stress. We’ve also said to managers, please be flexible with your teams. If somebody needs to have different hours to manage their kids and to manage their spouse’s schedule, then do it.

Another big change is that the amount of meetings everyone’s having has ramped up significantly, says Burke.

We’re having so many more meetings because people are trying to use it as a way to ensure people feel like they know what’s going on.

Gauging by the emails already sent to the CEO, many employees feel positive about the way the leadership team has handled the situation so far, but the company will soon have a far more accurate picture, as it’s six-month engagement survey using the Glint engagement platform is about to launch.

While many of the survey questions will cover the usual ground, giving the company a useful baseline on how employees are feeling, there will also be others related to the current situation and how employees feel the company is supporting them. The results will quickly be available on managers’ and leaders’ dashboards, so both managers and the leadership team more broadling can respond fast to any areas of concern.

As well as the lockdown, a key area focus for the Glint survey is diversity and inclusion as well as career development. Burke is mindful, however that:

Because we are a Silicon Valley company and so many companies are laying people off, they might answer that question [on career development] favorably because they feel grateful to have a job, so it will be interesting to see how that compares.

Employee engagement 

Burke is confident that engagement levels will remain high, partly because they have tried to make it business as usual as much as possible. So, for example, rather than cancel performance reviews, as many prominent firms have done, DocuSign regards it as even more important for employees to feel connected to their managers. Burke adds:

We are in a very fortunate position, not only have we not had to lay anybody off, we have continued to robustly hire during this period, even though there are no offices for people to go to.

Alongside a continuing recruitment program DocuSign is also going ahead with its internship program, albeit a very different from what interns would normally expect.

Burke believes that even when things go back to whatever passes for normal, there will be permanent changes to the way they work:

I’m not one of these people who likes working remotely. I did not go into Human Resources to be sitting by myself looking at myself on Zoom all day, so I’m looking forward to the day when we can all go back. That said, we have some managers in our company who I think had a pretty narrow view on working from home and felt that their team needed to be together and they were afraid that they’d lose productivity and the thing about this is that it’s challenging those perceptions.

While Burke doesn’t anticipate the 500 or so staff who were home workers before the pandemic to increase substantially post-lockdown, she believes that many employees may choose to work more flexibly and perhaps work from home a couple of days a week.

Burke herself has been surprised about how it has challenged her perceptions. Before lockdown, the company ran an orientation program once a month in Seattle, flying every new employee from around the world for a two-day program so they could totally immerse themselves in the company culture.

Burke’s team had to quickly change tack a few weeks ago, creating an online orientation program for new hires:

If you told me two months ago that my team was going to have to find a way to do that orientation and give the DocuSign experience remotely, I would have said give me six months and we’ll get one, but they did it in three weeks - because they had to.

It’s a totally different kind of experience, but still very interactive, and there are benefits to it. For one thing, it means that DocuSign chief executive, Dan Springer, can talk to new hires, which simply wasn’t possible for every physical event.

After lockdown

Whenever the return to the office eventually happens, Burke is clear that things will not return to pre-lockdown conditions overnight:

The return to work is 10 times more complicated than closing the office. There are so many elements to think through....It’s important for us to get it right and there are so many unknowns right now.

So, for example, if social distancing needs to be maintained, does that mean half the workforce will come in for two weeks and then swap over with the other half of the workforce? Will it require a medical professional taking people’s temperature at the door of every office? And what about the new hires? Burke says:

If we keep hiring at this rate for the next three or four months, we’re going to have hundreds of people who have never been to our office and don’t have a desk.

So those people will need a desk. Or will they, if people are going to be working from home to maintain social distancing? All these elements will need to be carefully thought through. It’s complicated and none of us have the answer.

 Which pretty much sums up the situation with the pandemic as a whole.

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