An illustrated portrait of Nadia Rawlinson, Chief People Officer at Slack
Transformation

Nadia Rawlinson on supporting employees through uncertain times

Slack’s chief people officer shares her take on building culture, deepening connection and leading with empathy in a remote world

By the team at SlackMarch 24th, 2021Illustration by Justina Leisyte

Nadia Rawlinson might not have met her Slack colleagues in person yet, but she’s spent countless hours understanding the support they need as individuals.

Rawlinson joined Slack as the chief people officer in September 2020, six months after the Covid-19 public health crisis pushed our workforce out of offices and into ongoing uncertainty. Her team oversees all aspects of Slack’s employee and workplace operations, from global recruiting and people operations to organizational effectiveness and more. And while those areas have long been vital to the employee experience, the events of the past year have revealed a clear need for companies to be intentional about building strong, people-centered cultures so employees feel supported and able to bring their “full selves” to work.

We all have an opportunity to reinvent the way our organizations work—for good and for the better. To help unpack how to do just that, and explore changes Slack has made within its own organization, Rawlinson sat down (over Zoom, of course) with CNBC’s Deirdre Bosa. Watch the recorded conversation below, or read on for a lightly edited transcript.

Two values you’ve carried through your career are inclusion and empathy. How did you get those across remotely when you joined Slack?

First, you have to meet people where they are and acknowledge that we’re in this crazy time and things are just not normal. And that’s ok. Acknowledging the moment is important no matter what type of company you are—how fast-growing, technologically savvy or how traditional. Connecting with people is basic human nature, and it’s been helpful to just stop, listen and acknowledge what people are going through.

Another [important factor] is transparent and open communication. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all [answer to what people need]. In my previous jobs, you might ask, “What’s the lowest common denominator that exists to institute a benefit or a career program that will impact the broadest number of people?” We’re now in a moment where you’re playing to every single person on your team, because they’re experiencing this time period in very different ways. Meet your team where they are, and provide support and resources that are specific to the moment that they’re experiencing.

How have you dealt with screen fatigue, both personally and in support of employees?

If there’s anything that this pandemic has shown it’s that we are all vulnerable. And as a leader, it’s actually more powerful to lean into that vulnerability and in-the-moment experience during this pandemic more than you would in any other time, particularly when your instinct is to do the opposite. People relate to and connect with that vulnerability. It builds a feeling of trust and safety. So when I’m completely spent at the end of the day, I need to say, “You know what? I need a break. I need a break from having the camera on all the time.”

So for me, it’s giving permission for people to turn the camera off, and then doing the same myself. I tell those I am meeting with “I’m going to take this zoom meeting as a call today. I’m taking a walk around the block because I need to get out of the house, or I’ve been sitting at my desk for six hours straight & need to eat lunch. Feel free to do the same.” That helps with burnout.

It’s also important to create policy for how the new ways of working will be codified in the future. For example, we tell employees to take the time they need to take care of themselves. Some people might say, “That’s great. Maybe you as a leader can do that, but I can’t. I need to figure out how to balance all of this—the collapse of the personal and professional into one.” [To help], we instituted what we call emergency time off (ETO). This is in addition to the paid time off (PTO) people accrue, because we found people were using the PTO they worked so hard to earn to do life maintenance work. Things like taking one’s older parents to get a Covid-19 test in the middle of the day.

We’ve instituted 80 hours of ETO for everyone in the company, and it can be used in hour-long increments. If it’s your turn to set your kids up for online learning in the morning, you can take the time you need from your ETO bank to manage those personal life demands.

What about industries that might not have that luxury, or essential workers who can’t turn off a camera or leave a cashier line? What advice do you have for their chief human resources or people officers?

Culture is everything. This crisis was a time when companies had to redefine themselves, and culture is the predicate for that. Culture is the bank you’re going to draw credits from when you have to make tough decisions about your workforce, about salary and pay, and about investment or lack thereof.

As we come out of the pandemic, it is important to invest intentionally in your culture. Hopefully, with the vaccine roll out, we will have a new normal and way of working. Organizations should use this moment to re-certify their culture and who they are, because that’s going to give people an anchor to connect to. This isn’t a time to expect that what has been the culture pre- or during the pandemic is going to remain the same. Intentionally declaring it will lay the foundation for how companies will engage with their people in the future.

Amid the pandemic, this has also been a year when companies have spoken on social and political issues more than they did in the past. How do you manage the issues of diversity and inclusion alongside a shift to remote work? Was it a challenge on top of a challenge or in some ways did that democratize it and make it easier?

Both. As a Black executive of a tech company, and even before in the entertainment industry, it was really hard. First, we had the pandemic, and in my role as the chief people officer, I was responsible for the caring and feeding of my workforce, and making sure they were safe, healthy, and taken care of.

On top of that, you had the murder of George Floyd and the ensuing social justice movement around the world. Having to manage through that, as well as managing my own personal experience and emotion around it, was hard. And I don’t want to breeze past that, because I think for executives and leaders of color, and our employees of color, this was a moment that was really difficult to work through, a reckoning that we hadn’t dealt with before while trying to keep your head up and remain unaffected at work. And often, it didn’t work.

One thing that was helpful for me was being open about what the experience was like, sharing that authentically and giving that same grace to those around you—really giving people the space and time to process things. If you don’t have the words, acknowledge that, but also acknowledge you want to be there as an ally, as a friend or as a colleague. It goes back to meeting people where they are.

This has been a tough moment for the world, but I do think it’s a time when the world is shifting and changing, and companies are shifting and changing too. Inclusion and belonging should continue beyond this moment. And we should leverage the momentum that we’ve had during this time to make the future different and better for all employees.

Another concept your team implemented at Slack to combat burnout is “Fri-yays,” one Friday each month that the entire company around the world takes off. How has that worked?

Coming into the pandemic, it was very clear that people were reaching a breaking point of exhaustion and burnout. So we instituted this program called Fri-yays. This creates the space and gives permission for people to take a breath and restore themselves. Because everyone is taking time off simultaneously, no one feels the pressure to check email and Slack messages. Everyone can really shut down.

Of all the things that we’ve instituted since the pandemic, this has been the benefit that’s been most appreciated and taken advantage of by our entire workforce. And not just the rank and file; it’s also leaders, who are also reaching the point of burnout. It’s really been restorative, and we’re continuing it, not just through the pandemic, but into the foreseeable future.

As we look toward a reopening of offices, what are you hearing from employees of all levels?

At Slack, we firmly believe that the future is very different from the past. Going back to an in-person model of traditional work—sitting heads down, next to each other in cubes, in order to get things done and be productive—is no longer an article of faith. When you have the ability to work in this remote and distributed way, you can be more flexible, more productive and have greater connection—as long as you have the tools, resources and great culture to support that.

According to the Future Forum, a consortium we’ve sponsored that’s dedicated to designing a people-centered and digital-first workplace, more than 80% of knowledge workers want some sort of hybrid work environment. They don’t want to be in the office five days a week. They don’t want to be tied down by a long commute, living in expensive cities and making decisions in in-person meetings.

Knowing that, how can we be productive and successful in this new world? It goes back to intentionality. Thinking about culture—who you are, what you stand for—defining that for your people. Allowing people to work when they need to, in the ways that suit them best, is going to be the winning strategy. I hope that other organizations follow suit, and I think that’s when you’ll win not only the productivity war, but also the talent war too.

When you do finally return to the San Francisco headquarters, what’s the first thing you’re going to do?

I’m going to hug everyone first, because hopefully we’ll all be tested and/or vaccinated. I also want to see everyone and say, “It’s great to meet you in person.” It’s not about work, it’s about connecting, and that will pay off in spades. That’s what I’m looking forward to when things open up.

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