Faces of HR

How One HR Pro Created Real Engagement During the Pandemic

I’ve been collecting approaches to employee engagement in a remote working world over the last 14 months, and there are a lot of people with a lot of ideas. But you cannot solve burnout and stress with a fun hat Zoom call or a free online yoga course. The strategy that goes behind engagement efforts must be commensurate with the needs of employees and employers alike. Today’s “Faces of HR” guest got the balance just right and saw real, demonstrable results.

Naveen Bhateja

Meet Naveen Bhateja, Chief Human Resources Officer at Medidata Solutions.

To get started, could you just let me know how you got into HR?

I decided on a career in HR while I was studying business management as an undergraduate and realized how crucial the role of HR is as far as talent is concerned because I see talent as a true competitive advantage in a company. Anyone in this role has the ability to influence people’s lives, a significant amount of responsibility, and something that you can have a direct impact on your business. For a company that has a better culture, a group culture, and happier and engaged, motivated employees who understand the company mission, versus the company that does not have that, you can look at the financials, and the financials would be quite telling.

So now, after 25 years of experience covering the full spectrum of HR, between business partnership, training and development, compensation, talent acquisition, new position development, CSR, and diversity, I’ve been leading the people team at Medidata and am thrilled about that. It’s a great team. That’s how I got into HR, Jim.

What would you say that your biggest triumph in HR has been?

Great question. If you asked me the same question before 2020, I probably would have said the biggest achievement was taking an idea, working with the business to develop it, and making it commercially viable. Building and scaling companies has always excited me. In fact, in one of my previous positions, the company COO asked me if I wanted to run a piece of business for him, given my understanding of the business.

However, when I look at the last year’s events, I think it’s given me a new perspective on this topic. My biggest triumph as an HR practitioner, I would say, is enabling and accelerating Medidata’s mission. By supporting our people during this unprecedented year, in addition to our business growth, we were dealing with a pandemic, racial unrest, Brexit, election anxiety, and U.S. administration policy changes that impact employees and people’s lives.

The success of these efforts, as the reason I was sharing with you, is demonstrated by the fact that many of these companies like Moderna and Pfizer have created the COVID vaccine leveraging Medidata’s clinical trials platform. If I look at just some of the other metrics, like our talent attrition for 2020 has been the lowest ever compared with the industry benchmark; our employee engagement scores were some of the highest ever, exceeding the U.S. tech industry benchmark; and all of this while navigating a significant acquisition integration, this is definitely on top of my list of accomplishments as an HR practitioner.

That’s very impressive. I don’t know that those results you’ve gotten play out across the country during a pandemic.

Thank you. We’re very grateful. As I said, one of the things that has definitely helped us is constantly ensuring that we stay true to our mission, which is smarter treatments and healthier people. There were several things that were done by the people team, particularly in terms of communication; we constantly kept in touch with our folks and trained managers on skills like empathy, resilience, and compassion or provided them with support and resources and connected them immediately with our remotions. Remotion is a term we used for folks who had been working remotely before the pandemic at Medidata. We had about 28% of our people working their flexible arrangement or remote work setup, so we leveraged them heavily and made sure they were supporting the other folks as they were transitioning into this new normal.

In addition to that, each one of the leaders on the senior leadership team and in the company just really stepped up. The level of communication just went up, and it was absolutely transparent and authentic. If we did not have an answer or didn’t know what was going on, we kept it real. We just shared with them that we don’t know, and this is how we’re dealing with it, or this is what we would do given that we don’t know and based on what we do know. I think people really appreciated all that. We launched several resources. We launched this program called Medidata Cares. Part of that were several resources that were launched for employee wellness and mental health. We really shifted our employee value proposition from “we all have to just worry about work” to “we have to worry about the life of our employee.”

That means when he or she wakes up in the morning and goes to bed at night, what are the challenges he or she is facing, and how can we support him or her through those challenges? One example that comes to my mind is when the racial unrest was happening, I had several employees who expressed concerns to me that they were having a really hard time, not just having the conversation with themselves about this but also having the conversation with their kids at home. That can be hard.

Yes, it can.

So we provided support and the forum and space for them to have those conversations, as well as resources, so they can really take the anxiety out of having a conversation with their child. It went really well. This is just an example. I think the employee value proposition shift from work focus to life focus really served, as well—hence the low attrition and high engagement. I’m grateful to the people team that really stepped up.

How did you achieve engagement with your communication? Were these e-mails you were sending out? Were you guys calling companywide meetings and doing presentations? What was your approach to making sure people were not just getting information but also engaging with it?

From a communication engagement and collaboration standpoint, we used tools such as Zoom and Slack, which have been extremely critical. We also use Zoom for a variety of fun events or engagement events like a Cinco de Mayo celebration with a live band and summer parties in each of our regions with live DJs. We took a virtual farm tour featuring alpacas. We had the ugly sweater contest, for example. This is just an example of how we brought these fun moments and engaging moments in people’s workday.

I would say one of the things we did was heavily leverage technology. For example, LinkedIn Learning was heavily leveraged. We curated online resources to help managers and employees with the transition. As part of Medidata Cares for employee health and wellness, we leveraged this app called Task Human that connects our employees one-on-one over a video call with life coaches, yoga instructors, physical fitness trainers, nutritionists, etc. There are thousands of topics available on that app interrelated to well-being, including parenting advice, by the way, for working parents as they were managing their kids at home.

That sounds great.

Yeah. This was very thoughtful and an effort to ensure we support our employees and create that engagement in that virtual world.

Earlier, you mentioned transparency, and I’m curious about the role technology played in your transparency efforts, if any.

I think that’s a good question. Technology definitely played a big role when it comes to transparency—one, because you’re leveraging the technology to keep a connection with people. So I’ll share an example with you, and that probably will highlight how technology was leveraged. We were using Zoom to do our town halls and many meetings. The fact that people could see each other, and the fact that people could see the way they were dressed or the way they were sitting in their home or the way somebody’s kid would show up, for example, just kept everybody very real with each other, and that is being as transparent as possible with each other. We’ve worked with each other for those many hours. We don’t usually get to connect on a deeper level, and part of being transparent is that deeper level. I think people were able to do that. So without technology, I think it would have been very difficult reaching out to globally distributed teams in that transparent, open fashion without a technology like Zoom, for example. So I’m grateful.

I regularly think about what it would have looked like if this had happened in the early 2000s or even as late as 2010; it would have been instant messenger chats and phone calls, and maybe even some faxes would have been in there at some point. It just would have fallen short, right? I don’t think it would have worked. I know people talk a lot about Zoom fatigue, and it’s been recognized as a legitimate thing, but in the absence of in-person communication, it’s the best you’ve got, and you have to rely on it to some degree. Was there a way you struck a balance with that? Or did you just say, this is an acceptable cost for this, the value we’re getting out of this kind of communication?

I think we have always treated people as adults. We’ve always given them the option, and this situation was no different, when the team meeting was happening on Zoom. There were people at one point in time who had turned their videos off because they had Zoom fatigue, which you were alluding to. That’s the reason the engagement activities and the support we provided were not just to keep those team meetings purely business agenda-focused but also to have a little bit of fun.

So all the managers were literally running two parallel tracks simultaneously. To share an example, I had my leadership team meetings in which we would discuss our business agenda and what was going on several times a week, but we also had our people team happy hour. We had a people team fun call during which people were coming in and just talking about the best joke or the best food they cooked or the best vacation they had been on. It was never driven by rules or rigidity around, oh, you have to keep this on and that on. We give that option to people. And I think that worked really well, at least based on the feedback I’ve received.

That’s a great approach. There is an issue that has come up involving the time needed to participate in such engagement efforts. One of the things I think was a real challenge, especially in the beginning of the pandemic, was we had to do more with less, which is always a shaky proposition. So everyone is busier, and maybe they even have more strain on their time by taking care of their kids or aging parents. Who had the time to attend engagement events at all? Did you guys run into that issue, and how did you solve it?

We did. And the way we resolved it was we did few things. One, the whole launch of Task Human was with the intent that people will leverage it when they have an opportunity based on their schedule. So it wasn’t like, oh, we are running a Task Human session from 1:00 p.m. to 2:00 p.m. Eastern. It was your option. As long as you have a phone and you can download the app, you choose when you would want to have a conversation with the coach about your situation or whatever you were dealing with. That gave people, again, more flexibility from a timing perspective.

The second thing we ended up doing was we created more intervals of time when people could recharge themselves. And we called it recharge days globally when there was no work done. It wasn’t a company vacation or a holiday. It was no work done. You choose to do what you want to focus on. If you feel like you need to catch up on something for yourself, for your kids, or for your work or whatever you want to do, you could just recharge.

The third thing we ended up doing was no meeting Fridays. That also gave people a little bit of breathing space as they were dealing with kids, their education, or their Zoom sessions.

And fourth, we promoted outcome-based productivity as part of manager training and not necessarily, oh, this one has to be at his or her desk from 9 to 5. That mentality and mind-set shift of 9 to 5 got completely shifted into, as long as people are aware of their goals and the outcome, let them decide how they want to do it and when they want to do it versus you standing on their head.

Yeah. It just makes sense. That should have been the way for a long time. Not everyone works the same, and what looks like hard work in one person doesn’t look the same in another. That can lead to great workers being underappreciated because the way they do work doesn’t match up with the idea of a “perfect worker.” But when a worker like that is judged on the outcomes of his or her efforts, what the work looks like doesn’t matter as much.

That’s right. Companies are still figuring it out. Recently, I was reading about Google claiming to go all virtual to now wanting people to be more hybrid. The pendulum will keep swinging. I don’t think people have a magic bullet. I can see both the sides of the story.

There’s a new working pattern that’s emerged as a part of this pandemic. I think there has to be a discussion with the respective manager and the respective individuals to see what makes more sense. But as long as the working pattern supports the business, the stakeholder, and the overall well-being objective and employees continue to be measured on output and impact, people could pilot the change and see how it goes for a month or 2 or keep learning and keep adjusting the approach rather than just making these blanket statements of, oh, everybody will be remote. Oh, everybody will be in the office. I just think the truth, as I always say, lies somewhere in the middle. So that might be the case here, but as long as people are keeping an open mind and really thinking of what the best way to support the business and employees is and focusing on productivity and the output and impact, hopefully this is going to land as best as I’m hoping for eventually.