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One of hottest tech companies says WFH is getting worrisome

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At Databricks the valuation rose to 28 billion US dollars, at the same time the networking of the employees decreased. Its chief people officer says 2021 will have to be less about Zoom’s happy hour and more about addressing the root causes of disconnectedness.

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Since March we have been publishing and analyzing internal surveys on a regular basis to determine how employees are doing at home and what impact working from home has had on their perception of their experience at the company. For the most part, we’ve found that employees are very happy with their working lives during the pandemic. In a survey a few months ago with a 94% participation rate, 97% said they were proud to work for the company and 96% said they knew how their work makes the company successful.

However, last month’s survey showed a decline in employee networking. Not entirely surprising: people have been working from home for ten months, and the tactics we originally put in place to encourage connectivity have lost their luster. Employees still feel happy and productive, but the lack of personal interaction increasingly affects them, making them feel more drained and less creative in their work. The question for employees and HR managers: where do we go from here? And how do we combine our new normal remote work with the uncertainty about what office life will be like in 2021?

In my opinion, 2021 is less about Zoom’s happy hour and more about addressing the root causes of disconnectedness and building a long-term, collaborative culture. This means that we consciously focus on how we develop inclusive design, involve a distributed workforce, and implement consistent practices to standardize it across teams and time zones. We know 2021 will be another year of transition and we must do our best to control what we can. The following is the most important thing for me.

Standardization of recruitment and induction processes

Connectedness begins with the first interactions you have with a company – the first meeting with your interviewer on Zoom or a one-on-one conversation with your manager. When the pandemic started in March, we jumped straight into the remote interview process as we continued to hire and scale our team. We also did this initially with the idea that it was a short-term change. Given that many companies will again be working in a hybrid remote working model, the experience with remote candidates must be repeated further in order to create the most structured and comprehensive interview and onboarding process possible.

This includes determining how integrative remote interview processes can be standardized – from the basics of making sure job descriptions are inclusive, providing unconscious bias training, communicating clear expectations about interview etiquette to all teams in remote interviews and helping HR managers and interviewers understand how to engage in a remote candidate interview context.

We’re also putting energy into figuring out how to create the most engaging onboarding experience possible and how to make sure people connect in different ways than before. I like to describe today’s onboarding process as “onboarding for sensory deprivation” – you only see the ten people you met on your zoom screen, but no other contexts and senses that come with office life. So we have to work harder to remotely connect. That’s why we’re now bringing new attitudes classes back together for virtual social events in the first quarter to deepen their connections.

Remote onboarding requires a much more focused effort on the part of managers and teams to provide context, make connections, address integration with company culture, and provide more structured training plans. We took a data-driven approach to understanding the effectiveness of this effort by measuring the onboarding experience after a week and 30 days and sharing that information with managers so they could have quantitative data about their employees’ onboarding experience really understand.

Continuous investment in virtual internship programs

If our early talent feels connected now, we’ll set them up to stay connected and invest in Databricks in the future. One area that we have invested heavily in this year and that we will continue to prioritize is building strong remote internship programs.

By revising what our new alumni community might look like, what was usually a small, personal network has become a global opportunity for employees to exchange ideas across teams and locations. We hosted events such as improvisation classes, game nights, storytelling workshops, and a week-long “Intern Olympics” competition to help our cohorts build a supportive and fun community. We have had interns working with teams in San Francisco and Amsterdam and new graduates building networks that spanned North America, Europe and Asia. With everyone working remotely, the barriers to these networks were removed and we were able to offer a truly global experience from home.

Now that we’re looking to hire for next year’s programs, we’re rethinking what early talent recruiting can look like. While university recruiting has traditionally relied on a series of core target schools and face-to-face events, we can now use tools to expand that pool. With travel capacity no longer a limiting factor, we can tap into a larger and more diverse talent pool as we build the company’s future.

Mental health prioritization

A connection between team members can only be established if employees feel safe, supported, and sane at work. This period of remote working has severely affected people’s mental health and uncertainty about getting back to the office is a concern for many. People and HR managers need to start 2021 with mental health in mind and think about how best to support employees and their various anxiety levels of COVID and back-to-work measures.

This means considering programs, training, and support systems to cater to staff, and being prepared that when the time comes to slowly get back into a physical space, it becomes increasingly important. We have started diversifying our team retention activities to find new ways to connect and continue to support employees, especially during the holiday season. We have created a Databricks Family Cookbook in which more than 300 employees share their favorite recipes and stimulate conversations across the company. We also launched a “Month of Gratitude” with Giving Tuesday events and keynote speakers on the “Power of Positivity” in December.

I was very clear about what had to be done during the first few months of the pandemic to keep our team at home safe and productive. Our last survey showed me what to focus on the most and helped me understand our top networking priority for 2021. We will continue to rely on data to learn how to best support our employees and encourage other employees and HR teams to turn to the numbers that will help us manage the inevitable transitions we will see in the coming Year will accept.

– By Amy Reichanadter, Databricks Chief People Officer and a member of the CNBC Workforce Executive Council

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