Faces of HR

Storytelling: How an HR Pro at Microsoft Keeps Internships Alive During the Pandemic

The importance of storytelling is not lost on today’s “Faces of HR” guest. She leans on her storytelling past to keep Microsoft’s internship program alive even during the chaos of the pandemic.

Meet Miri Rodriguez, Storyteller & Global Head of Internships at Microsoft.

An internship is one of those things I don’t think a lot of people are thinking about right now. It’s likely a lot of programs got put on hold. I imagine it’s similar to hiring remotely if you’re still trying to get interns. How does that work?

We were able to continue and not pause anything. The only program we paused last year was a very small high school program that we have that is typically local to the Seattle area. Microsoft continues to focus on students’ health and safety during this global pandemic and we continue to explore best ways to deliver an internship experience to our candidates worldwide. We are learning and have learned a whole lot in this past year on leveraging virtual platforms for internships.

Basically, we kept the program as is and moved people over to a virtual team site. Students were able to connect with their teams through our own technology. The hiring process was the same in terms of timelines. We just had to move everything like interviews and final interviews and all of that to virtual and then consider location, tax implications, and people moving around countries if they were not in their home country or if they had to go back to their home country and were Visa-dependent. All of these dependencies basically applied to students on their own basis.

We also had to consider Trump’s executive orders and how that impacted international students. Navigating through all of it, we were able to still offer internships through and have moved forward with fall and winter, which are off-season internships. These are typically very small internships, and we’re basically deciding what to do next for our FI 21 Summer Internship, which is the largest goal for us.

I’m glad you’re able to still keep things going. I guess I didn’t realize how international that experience was.

It’s global. We offer internships all around the world in different locations, and we bring international students to HQ in Seattle.

You are a storyteller at Microsoft. What does that mean?

Part of my career progression at Microsoft was that I came to Seattle to start talking about our stories of our internal digital transformation and share them with IT pros and partners to let them know how we were doing to move our data from on premises to the cloud, and that really evolved into a community of storytellers we now have at Microsoft in different business functions.

I initially served as a storyteller within the engineering function where I was able to learn and eventually teach storytelling techniques where I leveraged design-thinking principles to prototype stories for communication to lead with empathy and activate culture. When I moved from engineering over to HR, I brought this skill set with me, and I continue to teach at different functions inside and outside HR in Microsoft and outside Microsoft on how to design stories for human connection.

Was that your first experience in the world of HR?

I’d never been in HR before. I did a quick stint—for like 8 months—as an HR generalist many years ago, but that was definitely not part of my career path. And now, I lead the internship program with the skill sets I’ve developed, which includes storytelling, to be able to actually just infuse our program from a culture perspective.

And that’s been for how long?

It’s a little bit over a year. I started in April or May last year.

Was that something you sought, or was that something that just happened?

No, the GM actually met me or saw me at a speaking engagement and invited me to come and join the team. It was not something I was seeking at all.

And what about now? What do you think about being in that world?

I consider myself fairly new, and I don’t really know the entire scope of it. I came in, again, from the intern program perspective, and HR is just so broad on so many levels. I’m still learning, and I’m still understanding. Honestly, my first impression is that it is a legacy organization in general as a business function. I come from engineering and marketing. Typically, those are organizations that are forward-looking, very futuristic, and very creative in essence. For me, HR relies a lot on traditional systems or processes that have worked for so many years and continue to work, so it’s a lot of pressure I think, and it’s definitely good learning.

There is plenty of growth available in the field of HR because of how rich and complex and often fulfilling it can be.

I’ve heard that, which is really nice. I have typically moved around disciplines. I do that every 2 years; I love to understand the 360 of a business, so I really welcomed the idea of understanding HR. I have this vision; I find it so deep and just so complex in all wonderful ways that I feel I can stay in there forever. I mean, there’s no way that I will have conquered anything in 2 years to say I’ve learned, I came, I saw, and I conquered. I may stay here forever.

I mean, the thing that’s kind of beautiful about HR is that it really permeates when done correctly. It’s sort of the spirit of the organization, and it touches everything. It’s the connective material between the employees and the managers and the upper echelons of the managers and leaders. When something like the coronavirus happens, or whatever the challenge, it just redefines that entire landscape. Now you have everything you thought you knew, but you have to do it again a different way.

Absolutely. I’m experiencing that firsthand. And what I appreciate about the HR space is that, again, I’ve been in so many other places where the outcome or the goal is the product. In HR, the outcome is people, thinking about people from an end-user perspective.

What I’m doing today is impactful to people all around us, and it impacts the culture immediately, right? We’re driving the culture, and people are culture. Everything from a call to a small decision around COVID really has so many implications and considerations because it drives people’s responses, and it drives the way we will show up as a brand—I mean, just everything. It’s very detailed because there are so many dependencies. I think that’s the best way to say it. It’s just very dependent on so many different things.

Your multidiscipline background must provide you with a lot of material to draw on as you enter the people realm. According to your history, you have storytelling and social media mixed together. Can you tell me a little bit about if you’re applying your storytelling experience to your HR experience?

I didn’t know my mixed background would ever play in as a culture activator in HR. Honestly, I didn’t understand the space before I came in, like the GM was thinking when he brought me in from outside. Now, having been here for a little bit over a year, I can see his vision. It’s really around the way I have learned storytelling and the way I been able to apply and teach it in a multilayered approach. I’ve been able to really connect with brands big and small from different spaces, not just from a marketing-specific perspective. It could be HR, and it could be leadership and really, truly how we lead with empathy.

You know, using the design-thinking approach, I teach that as a model based on the way I’ve used it to design my own stories. It has proven very successful. It starts with empathy as the first phase of design thinking. So, it aligned quickly with our own core values at Microsoft and within HR leading with empathy; a growth mind-set; all the things that are inclusive in our talk and in our actions; and, of course, diversity. All of that really emanates from an empathetic standpoint. When I came into this work, it took multiple forms. The first one was around our interns. We hire a lot of them; we hire over 4,000 interns worldwide. And there is culture shock, right? They come from different backgrounds and different parts of the world.

How do we use “story” to let them share with us their own experience so we can drive it better to learn? How do we create spaces for them to do this? It’s a different approach; it’s a multifaceted approach. The first one is from a feedback perspective; it enables space for conversations.

When you add on the complexities of what we’re seeing now in terms of COVID and then social injustice, it sets the platform for where people, such as interns, could feel comfortable enough to have those conversations. We’re creating this culture of “let’s have the uncomfortable conversation.” It’s not a foreign idea. From a leadership perspective, it’s how we tell the stories. It’s how to use storytelling with data to convey our leadership principles and our values and how they trickle down to our teams and beyond. It’s a connecting point where all of us give a space and create a space for conversation that typically would be assumed people will understand. Instead of assuming, we lead with empathy, we create spaces, we listen more, and we welcome difficult conversations.

Where do you think workplace culture is headed now that everyone kind of has his or her footing?

I did a lot of work before writing the book about storytelling around what I call “unobvious trends” of what we can expect. And that’s matched up with economic situations; pandemic situations; and then, of course, our own people and culture and how we evolve. We use demographics on Gen Z and Gen Alpha and their own evolution in the workplace. You have to consider what happens when Boomers start dropping off and new generations coming in. How does that affect the environment? How does that affect the workplace? How does it affect the dynamic of social issues within the workplace?

From that work, I really want to determine a few things that are playing out right now. Who is this future worker? We spent a lot of time thinking about the more advanced workplace in terms of technical solutions that we applied to remote working or a virtual or hybrid environment. But there’s a mentality that also comes with that in Gen Z; also, Gen Alphas are native to remote and virtual, and they demand it. They expect companies to provide a hybrid environment that allows them to explore their best way of working and that gives them the flexibility. They’re demanding to have control over their own destiny in their career path. It’s no longer that we create that from the top and say, “Hey, here’s your career path and where we think you can go next.”

They’re determining, “Hey, I want to pivot. I want to go from engineering to HR. I want to go from HR to China and hang out there for a little while. What can you do for me before I go to another company and demand the same?” So to answer your question, I believe that along with COVID, which forced a lot of companies to think differently, we are now not only embracing digital as a way to work but also thinking ahead of that immersive experience that digital brings. What are the possibilities for all of us to enable a working environment that is inclusive and diverse and that appeals to the next generation coming into the workplace now? That’s what we need to be thinking.

What’s something you’re really looking forward to accomplishing, say, in the next year?

That’s a great question, Jim. COVID has, in a way, enabled a lot of exciting possibilities for HR. At the onset of last year, I was having conversations about our virtual platform, virtual learning, and enabling virtual experiences. We actually piloted that in Asia just so we could prove we could do it. I was really excited. And then COVID hit, and we forced ourselves to do this globally. It basically forces conversation and enables our capabilities. What can we do, and what can we learn from this experience? Now that we have set the platform, there is no going back, really.

New individual things are happening. I’m looking at innovating those opportunities to enable a more inclusive program and offering for our students and to be able to do this from a truly global place. Even though we talk global, right now, we are a U.S.-based company. Our HQ is in Seattle. It tends to be with our biases that we think American, right? When we deliver ideas, it’s always with those biases integrated. I’m loving that we’re now really, truly going to globalize our programs in our thinking, and our virtual space is global. I think that’s the biggest gift we got. We unified the globe with our virtual platforms and digital presence.

Where do we go from there? Now, we truly need to start thinking differently about things like empathy, conversations, and time zones; these are all now real concerns. Our partners are everywhere, and they are very present now. Now, we need to consider things differently. I look forward to really elevating our digital platform and making offerings that are truly inclusive for our students.

I’m looking forward to giving opportunities to underrepresented communities. I’m looking forward to a lot of diverse talent coming out of this project and offering and making sure that we elevate and increase our diverse hiring and have true representations in our company.

One of the biggest concerns about going truly global is the logistics of it. You can’t have a 24-hour workday, right? People need sleep. They need a separation from their life and their work. But if you have a true global organization, you really have to solve that problem. When does the day start? When does it end?

We have to think about a futuristic approach. I think it’s going to come to a point where the idea of 9 to 5, Monday to Friday, doesn’t work anymore. That was created during an industrial era. We are now in the digital era, and the reality is that nobody has worked 9 to 5 ever. We all sign in at night or on Sunday or whatever. We just had not considered it part of the actual work we do. COVID-19 has brought that to the surface. We really have to embrace the demands of the modern worker.

It’s going to be more about logistics than activity. It’s going to be more about when your best time to work is. There are people who are good at working 12-hour days, and there are people who can get stuff done in 4 hours. It really brings forward some conversations around individual work styles, learning styles, productivity styles, and individual energy that we have for all of us. This virtual age is immersive that way. We are all being led by Gen Z and Gen Alpha. They aren’t having consultations; they’re demanding their space, and they’re demanding that their individual styles be met. It’s all culminating in something that is going to drastically involve HR. And, it’s going to evolve the organization in general. I’m glad to be here for it.