Faces of HR

An HR Perspective on Going Back to Work

What does it mean to go back to work? Can we even do so safely? These are the questions we’ve been tackling over the past few weeks as states open up, as well as organizations’ doors. I recently spoke with an HR expert about what it would take to get people back in the office and what the future even looks like anyway.

Meet Lindsay Grenawalt, Chief People Officer at Cockroach Labs, a computer software company that develops commercial database management systems.

Let’s talk about going back to work. In the beginning, employers tried a lot of different strategies to keep people at work before realizing these strategies weren’t working so they had to send everybody home—for example, doing rotations of employees so not everybody’s in the office at the same time. We had a company next door try to do that, and then it was a week or 2 later when it just sent them all home because it was not sustainable. I guess my first question is: Why would that be sustainable now when it wasn’t before?

For us here at Cockroach, we did everything we could before officially closing the office. We enhanced cleaning. We made sure individuals who did not feel comfortable commuting to the office had the option to work from home. Looking at that in the aftermath and looking at these plans that are being made in the aftermath with these 6-feet circles and signage telling people where to sit or how to walk, it just isn’t realistic for us.

Before we make any decisions about what return to work looks like, we want to put thought behind what that workplace experience is and what “workspace” actually means. “Workspace” is fluid: you can have your workspace at home, you can have it in a hotel, or you can have it in a coffee shop.

Right now a lot of companies that previously had the philosophy that employees need to be in the office to collaborate, be productive, and be successful are being challenged. We’re recognizing now at Cockroach Labs that we do have the ability to be productive and we do have the ability to collaborate .

I do want to state that our situation is a very fortunate one.The majority of our workforce can work from home successfully. They’re not required to be in the office, so that’s working in our favor. A few key elements of our company culture and values are key to making this new normal sustainable.

First, we had somewhat of a distributed workforce to begin with. As ex-Googlers, we’re very much of the philosophy that you don’t have to be in the office to collaborate or for innovation to happen. As we were hiring very early on, we started recognizing that you can find great talent anywhere.

I still remember when we found this amazing human who had an extensive background in Kubernetes, and his wife was doing her residency down in Kentucky. The founders had said to me, “No more remote people.” But we found Alex, and they were like, “Maybe one more remote person.” And that’s the reality: You find amazing people everywhere. So it really challenged us early on. We found that we had to adopt the ability for everybody to be productive regardless of where the person’s location is, and a lot of that was supported by our culture.

From the beginning, another one of our values was around establishing balance. We have to allow for humans to recognize when they’re productive and when they’re not productive. I get up very early in the morning, and I’m productive in the morning. You may be wildly different; you may get up later and be more productive later.

Also, time zones come into play. If I try to schedule a meeting at 10:00 a.m., I can’t have that meeting with key stakeholders on the West Coast. So this mind-set of flexibility is key to upholding that value of establishing balance.

Finally, we believe in the value of being transparent about both highs and lows. It’s not just being transparent about all the great things that are going on but also being transparent about some of the things we’re learning from some of the challenges where we really find a lot of the value. For this to work, you have to document and make sure you have platforms you can communicate effectively on. Regardless of whether you’re doing synchronous or asynchronous communication, you can be ensure that transparency is occurring.

So ultimately I think making this work will need to come from two different perspectives: that organizational structure and the investment we put into our culture and really defining those values early on to support what would be a distributed and remote workforce.

Earlier, you mentioned you’re heading back to Manhattan. Is that where the office is located?

That is where our main office is located. I have not been there for over 3 months.

Are other people going back, too?

No, at this time, our offices aren’t open. We’re not in a position where we feel comfortable opening up our offices, and we’re really waiting for more guidance and more data to make thoughtful decisions about what that future workplace experience would look like.

Let’s talk about what the “end of all of this” will be. What are the conditions under which you would feel comfortable opening your doors again?

We saw cases increase significantly over a short period of time. If you look at those graphs, they’re absolutely staggering. One of the things I did not know—and I think a lot of us do not know—is that the pace at which things would start falling back down is very slow. And the rise up was super quick.

The lowering back down is going to be slow. And I would want to see a complete reduction in those cases before I even made the recommendation that we open up the offices. We need the data to support that.

I don’t feel comfortable saying to my employees “You are required to come back to the office” because everybody’s situation is unique. And that’s something we’ve really been working with at Cockroach. I think we’ve recognized from the beginning that everybody’s situation is unique.

Everybody’s risk tolerance is different. You may have people at risk at home who we’re not aware of, or your commute may be longer. There are a lot of different factors that come into play. So even at the onset of all of this, we really wanted to be considerate of the fact that everybody’s situation is unique. And we have to really work with our managers to ensure we’re addressing those unique situations.

One of the things companies are going to have to do is create a set of guidelines surrounding what milestones they have to hit before people should think about coming back. I know what my milestones are for going back to work, which are that I can prove I’ve had it already, there’s a vaccine, or there are zero cases.

It’s so hard to talk about what it’s going to look like when we go back because I just can’t envision a scenario in which we do. And yet, there are places that are doing it right now, which is amazing given where the numbers are.

I do agree with you. I think thought and consideration are imperative right now because the consequence of this is death. Governor Cuomo has spoken so eloquently on all of this. We’re talking about wearing a mask to protect people around you so as not to lead to more deaths. When you put it that way, the cost of human life is what scares me as an employer, right? That should be something employers are really being thoughtful about instead of rushing back into the office.

I think we really need to move away from the mentality that you need to be in the office to be successful. And yes, changing behavior is hard. I am notoriously horrible at Slack. And guess what? This whole thing has made me get a lot better at Slack. I’m much more responsive. I love to visually communicate. I love to be in a room with a person and build rapport with an individual. We can’t do that anymore. This is making me find more effective ways of communicating with people virtually.

HR is always a tough job because you’re caught between the leaders and the employees. But I imagine it’s even harder now.

I do believe, in a true crisis, that that’s where your culture is tested. That’s where what you represent, not only as a business but also as humans, is tested.

These are the moments that define us, either for better or for worse. I was reading the news this weekend, and Obama had finally made his statement on our current situation. He said that even for the best leaders, this situation would be challenging. There is so much truth within that. Even for the people who are strong and can find answers and move forward and make decisions that are based on data and are the best decisions with the data they have, this would be a challenging situation.

Going back to Cockroach Labs and the decisions we’ve made, I do feel very fortunate because we are not dealing with the level of complexity that those who are either losing their jobs or being asked to go into the workplace and being put at risk are dealing with. We’re very fortunate in that sense, but we’re still having to make decisions, and trying to make the best decisions with the information we have on any given day.

Those decisions could be wrong in that moment. You could look back on them and say, “We could have done better if we had more information.” But I think the thing I’m hearing from you specifically is that people are making decisions that are putting people’s lives at risk based on there being data, right?

We see the data with mortality rates, and they’re still making those decisions. And I guess I would ask leaders to really ask themselves what they stand for. What do they want to represent in a time of crisis? Because again, that defines you as a human.

It really does. One of the problems with humans being social creatures is that we have a method for dealing with fear, which is to just either ignore it or create a little fantasy that allows us to handle it. It’s not particularly healthy, but we all do it. For example, my wife and I both got really sick right around the time we all got sent home from the office. My daughter got sick, too, and it was pretty bad, and it was all the kinds of things that are associated with COVID, and it could have been that.

As we’re talking about every single thing we have to calculate—how to get our groceries, how to get our medicines, what risks to take and when, and how to characterize it all—it’s so easy to just, at that moment, be like, “Well, I already had it and think that somehow protects me.”

We don’t know that we had it, but that is a very attractive thought. You can see how people might just take that fact and act recklessly because of it—that or they bury their head in the sand. And that’s one of two very dangerous, attractive, stupid things people do when they get afraid.

The other thing is the Darwinian concept, which is let’s just let all of us get it and see what happens. And then the people who survive can go back to work, and in our fields—you and me, obviously—it doesn’t make any sense. But for those working in a meatpacking industry faced with the very difficult situation they’re in, you could see how that would be a very attractive concept to just say, “Can I just get it already and be done with it so I can go back to work and feel OK?”

These are not our finest approaches as humans, but they’re playing a real role, especially in aggregate across the entire country, that’s having a real impact.

I recently started reading up on experiences captured from people who went through the Spanish flu, and what was reassuring, after reading through that, was that in the situation we’re in today, many of us are simply being asked to work from home.

For those who are not, obviously, it’s not as applicable, but people being asked to work from home are going to be OK until they can live through this. You just have to change what your expectation of life experience is.

One of my favorite images was F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife, Zelda, driving up to the veranda where Ernest Hemingway was sitting with his mistress and his wife and his young son, Bumby. They practiced social distancing, with the Fitzgeralds in their car drinking cocktails, and started discussing things over the sunset and cocktail hour.

And in those moments, you realize that not much has changed, but we have so much more support today in going through this. So as humans, we are resilient, we’re going to survive, and we will live through this. As I said before, each decision we’re making right now defines us. And when we look back on this and we say, “This is how we impacted the world around us,” do we want to be remembered for those things?

This whole situation invokes a certain sense of futility about everything from what the meaning of work is to what it means to live through this.

This is a cultural shift away from the American dream, right? This is what changes behaviors. Right now, when you look at change management, you have to look at the investment of time you’ve put into actually having people notice change, want to sign up for change, and then adopt the change. We’ve been pushed into immediate change duress. I mean, if there is a time to be shaped, it’s now.

It was funny—one of my employees was taking the day off, and he said, “I just don’t know what to do with my family.” And then he’s like, “If the kids have school,” and I was like, “You play hooky. You take your kids out of that Zoom call or whatever it is they’re on, and you play hooky.”

Some of my best memories with my mom was when we moved over to Scotland when I was in fourth grade. And then from the period of fourth to sixth grade, my mom would just take me out of school. She’d be like, “We’re going to go out and drive around Scotland. And we’re going to go and have hot cheese and see these little towns and villages.” It had a lingering effect on my grammar, as well as my math, but we took care of it in seventh grade.

But because of that relationship I built with my mom, she’s now my best friend. And that’s time you just value so much. What you’re doing with your children today is building a bond with them for the future. This is why we value balance so much in our organization, because we realize how important this time can be for families and personal growth.