Discovery's HR leader is thinking of employees as consumers

In this interview, we talk with Discovery's Executive Vice President Human Resource: Amy Girdwood

Wolff Olins: How has the past 6 months been for people at Discovery? What are the big things that are happening right now and that have happened from a people perspective?

 Amy: As a business, we take a relatively protective view of our employee health. And so at the outset of the pandemic we were very proactive and shut down our offices, in general prior to government mandates. Being a global company, we had our canary in the coal mine sitting there in Beijing, and then later in our Milan offices. This meant that we were learning all the time about what was coming. So by the time it hit places like London, Paris and Warsaw, we were pretty well disciplined in what we were doing. Also, as we were already working agilely across the world, working from home was not that much of an issue.

In terms of things that we put in place to support employees, communication was a big thing. Not just using zoom, but also building new types of communities. We already had employee resource groups supporting networks like LGBTQ and multicultural alliances, but as a response to the crisis we built new communities for people struggling with new experiences. For example we created a support group for single people living alone which we called ‘Alone Together’. And there’s a community for parents with school aged kids and we actually curated some content for the children. This was all through Facebook Workplace.

We also put in place a series of live communications from leadership to the global workforce. This is attended by 8000+ employees and generally involves the CEO and potentially external speakers. For example, we had a talk from the CEO of Zoom. What’s been really interesting is employees feel very connected to leaders in a way that they never seemed to do when we were in a physical space at a town hall with 2000 people and the leader standing behind a podium.

It strangely feels very personal. I also feel like the leaders themselves are much less scripted and guarded. And so, you know, the CEO starts these big virtual meetings with what’s really been bugging him this week, or what TV detective series he binged on at the weekend. There’s sort of a humanisation of leaders. You see them in their home, you see the photos of their family, they talk about the things that really matter to them on a personal level.

At one point, we surveyed employees about what they valued, and we found this personal dimension was really effective. We also found we had very different issues in different parts of the business. We have a sports television business and obviously the sports business was decimated by COVID, given there has been no live sports. So we created a program called ‘Skills Hunter’ which enabled the groups of people that had a lot more on, to share their workload with those that maybe had a hold on their position or whose work had been reduced in scope. Utilising our workforce in this way has raised a real awareness that you don't have to be sitting in the same location as somebody, for them to be able to contribute productively to the work that needs to get done. That was really positive.


Wolff Olins: So what now? How do you support people to go back to the office but also keep some of these wonderful new dynamics going on?

Amy: I think there is an economic drive that underpins some of these things that will sustain it.

The idea that people will fly around the world to do big town hall meetings, with the extravagant canapes, disrupting people’s personal lives, sounds ridiculous. Why would we do that, when we can sit at our desks in our houses and have the same effect? And if anything, do it better! People love it. And it’s extremely cost effective.  

We surveyed people about how they’re feeling about working from home and in the future. Less than 5% of the company said they wanted to work in the office full time. Of course there are parts of the world where connectivity issues, or people living in shared accommodation means the physical offices play a really important role in terms of their productivity. But that was less than 5%. The vast majority of people want to work two or three days from home a week. So, from a real estate standpoint, I can't see us going back to fully utilized offices in the same way. I think our real estate footprint will shrink. And I think it will create the kind of work patterns that people have been asking for.

Less than 5% of the company said they wanted to work in the office full time.

Although there are hidden costs to think about. You have to ensure that people have the right setups at home, the thing that people seem to miss most about the office is their chair!


Wolff Olins: There are also intangible things like culture to sustain when working from home. Do you have anxieties around that?

Amy: I think part of the reason we've been so super successful is because we have a great culture. And that culture was obviously born from people being in person almost all the time. So can it sustain if it's not in person almost all the time? That does concern me. I also think for early career people coming into the workplace, a lot of the way they learn and a lot of the way they develop is through watching others and interacting with others. That’s something that we have to be very cognizant of and think through how we manage that.

It will always be a balance; you will need in person interaction. I think that if people don't have to spend that time commuting, and the company can be more open minded about the geographic plot of the organization, then there will be a greater focus on productivity and output. We have definitely seen that, there's no reason why that can't sustain.

To maintain culture, we just have to make sure that we continue to connect with people, both in person and virtually in a way that just continues that very consistent message about who we are and how we operate and what we do.


Wolff Olins: Do you feel Discovery’s values have served you well during this time?

Amy: Yes I do. We bought a company a couple of years ago, it was two very similarly sized organizations coming together and so we created a set of eight guiding principles or values. Defining who we really are. I don't love all of them but they really are reflective of who we are. When you have that kind of clarity all of the rest of it is so much easier because it just falls in line. And you know that there's real authenticity in leadership.


Wolff Olins: So tell us a bit more about your back-to-work plan? What are the things you’re putting in place to help people make that transition?

Amy: We're communicating very proactively and very frequently with all employees. The strategies are really quite local, because the local needs are different. So, for example, in Asia, almost all employees wanted to go back to the office even though we had a principle that anyone that did not want to work in an office did not have to.

Almost everybody wanted to go back because a lot of the accommodation that many live in can be environmentally challenging. So we worked out a way that we could do 50% on / 50% off arrangements. We operate a clean desk policy so people can sit wherever they need to sit. We've marked off all the desks, we have single direction corridors, we have more sanitizer than we know what to do with (!), and very strong directions on what needs to happen. We have masks in all of the offices. Everyone has to wear a mask.

Wearing masks has been completely accepted by Asia, but when you move to Northern Europe, it’s a different story. They simply don't like wearing masks and there was a lot of really strong resistance. And this is where you can rely on your guiding principles. One of our eight guiding principles is ‘Do the right thing’. We don't put in place these restrictions capriciously, we do them with real research. And people respect it. Government’s rules change in significant ways across the world as people find new information, so we feel pretty confident that we have the right level of responsibility in putting our employees' health first and foremost. And then being reactive and nimble and agile to when things happen and when new information comes in.

So in the Western markets, the only people going back are people that really need to get back like people in sports production. We’ll still have the vast majority of people working from home and I think we will do until there's a vaccine, or until there are so many people with the antibodies that we have herd immunity. Then we will return to whatever the new normal looks like.

They’ll be less travel, less big meetings, less people going to places and having big groups together; there will be much more digital communities and you will see people in roles that are sitting in multiple geographies.

I think all of these things are going to be the reality of what our future holds. And it's positive. It's actually a great opportunity to completely rethink what you want to do. How do we want to communicate? How do we want to interact? We have a chance to recreate all this stuff.


Wolff Olins: So are you and the People team getting into creation mode? What are the different components of your employee experience that you’re beginning to rethink for the long term?

 Amy: I think some of it we've already had to do. We have been doing learning and development programs virtually. We’d already moved to a much more digital sort of community based peer network structure - facilitating communities coming together to discuss things virtually. When you have quite a disparate organization spread over lots of different locations, again, it's very economical.

Doing these things online is very inclusive, it means you don't have the places with the big populations getting all the juice and the small locations getting none of the benefits.

I do think in-person is important, but I think some of those big gatherings like learning and development programs are redundant. But yes, things like induction and onboarding, we’ve done these things working from home, so now we need to analyse the bits we need to bake into our future, and the bits we still need to enhance.


Wolff Olins: At Wolff Olins, we believe we’re entering a new era of brand - what we call ‘Conscious Brands’. Do you see some of this in your own organisation?

 Amy: There's been a lot of language around purpose and particularly some of the earlier career generations wanting to work for companies that have a real sense of purpose and wanting to do good. We have absolutely seen this internally. When we surveyed employees on the things they really value, a frequent answer was about how Discovery is giving back and how it’s showing support for institutions and organisations that are relevant at this time. 

Black Lives Matter sent shockwaves around the world and many at Discovery felt very, very strongly about it. And we have done an awful lot in the last month around levying and leveraging support for external institutions as a tie to the blacklivesmatter situation. This in hand has brought a groundswell of internal motivation as I think people are looking for positive things to channel their energy into. Being trapped inside a house can mean a lot of pent up energy, and it's a great outlet to have something to care about that also feels important.


Wolff Olins: What would your advice be to People leaders at other organisations as they emerge from lockdown and find their footing in a changed world?

Amy: I think as we go forwards, think of your employee as your consumer, and listen to what they are telling you that they want, and work out ways to deliver that. The opportunity is now to really shift what you're doing, to start delivering things to your employees that really matter. It’s a really great opportunity. We definitely need to not miss it. Because once you get back, and everyone sort of assimilates into whatever that normal is going to be, the moment will have passed. The time really is now.

Think of your employee as your consumer, and listen to what they are telling you that they want, and work out ways to deliver that