In the age of COVID-19 and civil unrest, Nancy Vitale, Co-Founder + Managing Partner at Partners for Wellbeing and former CHRO for Genentech, shares her expertise on the state of the world in the workplace. With focus on diversity and inclusion, mental well-being, and community, Nancy works with some of the world’s largest firms to advise them on building strong and inclusive cultures. Check out my video interview and Q+A with HR luminary, Nancy Vitale.
Sylvia Flores // Nancy Vitale, I am so honored to be speaking with you today. You are the HR Rockstar in the diversity and inclusion (D+I) space, in the wellbeing space, you’ve just launched a company. Actually, you didn’t just launch a company, but it’s really starting to gain some ground here and you’re really doing amazing things. So I’m going to read a little bit so that I don’t miss anything about your latest venture, rather. Which is Partners for Wellbeing, which is addressing workforce stress and anxiety? There’s never been a better time for that. By implementing wellbeing solutions that build thriving cultures.
You have also been the CHRO for Genentech. You’re an advisor for Espresa. You sit on the board of your passion project, which is the Make-A-Wish Foundation. We’re excited to speak with you today so you can give us brilliant insights on what’s happening out there in the world. So, hello and welcome Nancy. Thank you for joining us.
Tell me about your latest venture. Tell me about your Partners for Wellbeing and what the genesis was of it and how this came to be for you.
Nancy Vitale // Thank you so much Sylvia for having me. It’s a pleasure to be here with you.
I’ve got a multitude of things that I’m doing right now, but to speak more specifically on Partners for Wellbeing. I left Genentech as the CHRO back in July of 2019. And I would say in large part, shaped by the experiences that I had at Genentech. Working with thought leaders like Tom Rath, doing a lot of things around the employee experience. And the things that my team and I implemented around wellbeing just got me really thinking about the important role that wellbeing plays in employee experience and how that plays an important role in the experience that people have around the culture of the company.
And I would say it was born out of purpose and passion to really think more broadly and impactfully and how I might be able to help organizations better integrate wellbeing into the company culture. To help people really be at their best. And I’m such a firm believer, Sylvia, that when people can be at their best, they can absolutely perform at their best. That’s how Partners for Wellbeing was conceived. But I have this whole portfolio of things that are just interesting and exciting to me right now.
I’ve got some really interesting collaborations that I’m doing beyond just the consulting and advising business. One of those is with the industry analyst, Josh Bersin. We just completed a set of sprints with a 150 plus global HR leaders from around the world supporting the big reset and looking at what all these changes in society are bringing to companies and to organizations.
We’re co-publishing some information about that. It’s been an exciting partnership, to think about how to support just the community of HR professionals around the world. You mentioned, Make-A-Wish, one of my favorite organizations in the world. Just the great work that they do and fulfilling the wishes of seriously ill kids. We’ve got more kids waiting for wishes because of COVID and kids having to alter their wishes.
It’s tough times, but we continue to try to bring hope to these kids, which is an important part of their overall experience.
Sylvia Flores // You have a big global view of what needs to happen on this planet with humanity. You have a bigger vision for things. It’s not like you’re just coming in as an HR leader specifically focused in one area. You are thinking of humans as holistic creatures with their own individuality, their own amazing characteristics. And you’re building foundational pieces to help support those individual aspects. Would you say that that’s accurate?
Nancy Vitale // I think you are spot on in that. And as we think about the importance of humanity now, in this day and age, and again, through conversations that I’m having with leaders, with HR pros around the world. This notion of human-centered leadership keeps coming into play and how we embrace humanity as leaders. And the important skills that, that then requires empathy and care and compassion at a time when people are needing it most.
My life purpose is making meaningful connections and I think it’s centering around just what you described, is that notion of humanity.
Sylvia Flores // That goes right into the next question of the mayhem, sadness, strife, and stress that’s going on. And that’s everything from micro-stressors to gigantic life-altering stressors that people are experiencing right now. Not only with COVID, but with civil unrest, with Black Lives Matter.
How is that affecting things right now for the workplace, for the companies and HR leaders you’re advising?
Nancy Vitale // I think what you’ve described here, Sylvia is this crazy confluence of multiple crises. We’ve got this global pandemic, we have an economic downturn, we have civil and social unrest. And all these things are placing HR pros in the epicenter of having to help lead and navigate through these challenging times. As I’m talking with leaders around the globe and thinking about, what does this really mean? We’re starting to see some trends in terms of cultural shifts that are taking place inside organizations and some common themes.
A few things come to mind and I’m going to focus more on some of the positives that are coming out of this.
Going back to how do we think about this from a human-centered approach. One is, we’re seeing a greater sense of agility in organizations that never thought they could be as agile. Organizations have been talking about agility for so long, but now they are thrown into this out of necessity. Now that’s causing them to really experience, experimentation, and iteration they never thought possible.
Making faster decisions, implementing digital tools faster than they ever thought possible. The opportunity here is for leaders, both individually and collectively, to be much more reflective on how to carry that forward. That’s a real opportunity for folks post-COVID.
How do we think about really ingraining and codifying this into our cultural DNA so that we can be more agile and pivot quickly in the future? Another cultural trend that we’re seeing is around how we address employee experience and being much scrappier around that.
We’re seeing more and more pressure on the importance of an employee listening strategy and the importance of frequent pulsing when it comes to understanding the needs of our employees. That has brought both the necessity for greater scrappiness on the part of solutions to address those needs, but also the receptivity of the employees receiving those solutions. We’re seeing companies being much scrappier.
Imperfectly perfect micro-solutions or micro-learnings are addressing the heart and needs that are being surfaced through action, through pulsing and listening strategies. The third thing we’re seeing from a cultural shift is around community connection. No longer do we have our work persona and our personal or home life persona. We are in each other’s homes. You are here in my home. I am here in your home.
Those lines have completely gone away for being able to get a glimpse into humanity, their interests, their hobbies. An extension of employees into their homes, allows us to meet their household members, their family, their pets. And this is enabling a greater sense of community connection inside these companies. There is some definite goodness that is coming out of what is happening around the world, and a lot of new challenges as well.
Sylvia Flores // To very quickly start to define what culture is, not as defined by the company, but as defined by the people who are in it. Through those pulses and through communities that are emerging and through really getting to know your coworkers in a much more intimate fashion. That seems to be something that could really create some major positivity in the future for where we’re at and redefine it. Do you see a big shift in that area on just the skill set required for an HR leader to come into a role within a company?
Nancy Vitale // When you think about the required agility, we’re seeing a new skill set around pivoting quickly. In the times we’re dealing with, there is no playbook. People are defining the playbook as they go. What I’ve seen in the last few months is greater openness and receptivity to think about the broader ecosystem and to hold those barriers down and to connect with others who are facing those situations. That has been wonderful to see people just being able to share and leverage and learn from one another.
We’re all co-creating this at the moment.
HR leaders who are much more open and receptive and generous of their own thinking will benefit greatly as we think about the need to continue to pivot. We’re going to be in these times of this pandemic, where we’re going to continue to see an expansion and a contraction of opening and then needing to shelter in place until we have a vaccine and a treatment.
I know people working on these vaccines and treatments and it’s going to be some time before we enter whatever that new normal might be in a steadier state. I love what I’m seeing out of HR leaders who are just being much more open and receptive and connecting with others to co-create solutions. And being more generous about what that could mean for each other in the work that we’re doing to support the organizations we work in.
Sylvia Flores // On diversity and inclusion, given that, that was a growing trend of focus over the last few years, becoming more aggressively on point over the last year. How are organizations dealing with that? And are they falling behind in diversity and inclusion? Or is there a movement that’s gaining ground where that’s actually starting to take shape in a more meaningful way?
Nancy Vitale // It’s interesting because diversity, inclusion, and belonging have been in vogue for some time. But if we’re being honest with each other, it has not delivered the desired impact or outcomes we had hoped for. This moment is giving us an opportunity to really take stock of our failures and our learnings. And I have to say, even in these last couple months, I’ve really had to do a lot of self-reflection, and the moments where I could have done better, where I made mistakes, where I failed.
I just got done reading the book, White Fragility, and it was eye-opening for me in understanding my own whiteness and what that means.
As I reflected back to some experiences that I had, even at Genentech as the CHRO and some failed conversations that I had, that I could have done better. But that’s all learning. I have to embrace where we are today. I really feel an inflection point here as we’ve witnessed social injustices. Employers are one of the most trusted institutions, not only in our country but in our world. And that puts a lot of pressure on companies, organizations, and employers to take that responsibility seriously.
What I see happening, as we think about redefining diversity and inclusion, is opening conversations. It’s embracing our own racial vulnerability and racial humility. For white business leaders, embracing more of their whiteness and understanding what that has truly meant for their careers and the opportunities afforded them and what it’s not meant for nonwhite people, in particular Blacks and particularly in this country.
The first step is to acknowledge what that reality looks like. As business leaders embrace their own racial vulnerability and humility, it is opening up conversations where we can listen and learn from one another.
I have a good friend of mine Skip Spriggs. He’s a former HR executive and has done a lot of interesting things in his career. But he recently was interviewed by HR Executive Magazine and he talked about how we measure everything else inside organizations, and we hold and reward the accomplishments of those metrics and goals. We have danced around the measurement of diversity and inclusion for a long time. That’s going to be a welcomed change as we think about breaking down some of these barriers, and perhaps organizations playing a leading role in social justice as we move forward in this next year.
Sylvia Flores // Where in politics, you’ve got a separation of church and state. Previously with companies, there was a separation of companies and politics. You didn’t want to mix the two because you didn’t want to alienate any of your audiences, both internally and your customer base. Now companies need to decide where they stand as an organization.
Taking that political stand is really important right now. I do agree with you, Nancy, that companies really have the opportunity here to create social change as an institutional piece that can drive change forward.
Nancy Vitale // I don’t think it’s a political stand. It’s a moral stand and moral obligation they’re taking. You talked about these lines that have been blurred in the last couple of years. I think about the #MeToo movement. The world I grew up in learning human resources is a different world today. Those taboos we would never talk about – sex, politics, or religion in the workplace – they are out the door.
We can have different political ideologies. We can have different views. We can come from different backgrounds and different religious beliefs. From an organizational perspective, we must anchor to the values of the organization and be explicit about them. Leaders have to live those – and if employees can’t live by and work in those circumstances, that’s not the place for them. It’s more of a moral code than a political statement.
Sylvia Flores // That was much better said and that’s why you’re the expert!
People are starting to find their footing in working from home. I know it’s been a horror for a lot of people, especially those with children, cramped quarters, studio apartments, two working adults working within the same place. Multi-generational families, people having to move in and consolidate, internet challenges, Zoom fatigue. The micro-stressors that I know that you’re super aware of.
What are you experiencing out there and what are companies doing about it? Are people starting to feel like they’re getting their rhythm in this space? Or is the struggle is still paramount?
Nancy Vitale // The struggle is still there. That’s not necessarily a bad thing because I think we’re on a learning journey. There is a multitude of micro-stressors that people leaders are now having to address head-on. Loneliness and social isolation, have been an epidemic for us for some time. It’s getting so much more attention now that so many more people are sheltering in place in this notion of working from home. And the workplace is such an important place for people to get that human connection.
I heard a statistic from a 2017 report that the UN put out, that showed a difference in the stress levels of people who were working from home versus in the office. People working from home pre-COVID experienced higher levels of stress than people working inside of an office. That’s pretty telling when it comes to more and more people working from home in the longer term.
How do we address that loneliness and social isolation? It puts pressure on HR teams to think about the mechanisms they employ to enable human connection and social wellbeing to happen in a much easier, seamless, and frictionless way.
Then you mentioned Zoom fatigue because that human connection can’t all just come via these video platforms. That causes other negative consequences, where we’re sitting all day long and glued to our computer, bringing up a whole additional set of micro-stressors.
How we think about a lack of physical movement and how we introduce more blending in terms of how we operate as a team or operate as a company. We’re seeing organizations carve out a meeting time. We’re going to block this time, no meetings, and do what you need to do. Whether that’s time with your kids, getting a workout in. Also, changing the meeting to, for example, walking one-on-ones – people are starting to get more comfortable with audio analog, not just the video.
We’re seeing more pressure on the mental health support and the explosion of needs. Both in terms of how you address and mitigate mental health challenges, but also how you provide the necessary resources for those who are facing those challenges. Then you mentioned the other one, which is caretaking responsibilities as another big macro-stressor, let alone micro-stressor, with working parents at the epicenter.
I can very much relate. Having a nine-year-old at home, my partner, and him and me. You’re working, you’re living, you’re schooling, your summer camping 24×7 together. That’s a huge stressor for working parents, but also for people who have elderly parents who are in a high-risk category.
For HR teams, in particular, thinking about how we can provide resources, support, and operating practices, or team, management, and leadership practices that help minimize, alleviate, or address those needs further upstream, is where we’re seeing shifts.
Sylvia Flores // What kinds of technology solutions are you seeing out there that are helping to support this? Has there Obviously there has been a quick pivot to technology solutions, can you talk about what you’re seeing out there?
HR is responsible for bringing companies back together, bringing companies back to the workplace. If that even happens in a timely fashion. What solutions are you seeing out there that are helping to support that?
Nancy Vitale // I’d say it’s a mixed bag because certainly with the way that we’re having to operate today. It’s putting a lot of need on digital solutions because we’ve had to pivot when you think about hiring and onboarding. When you think about how people teams collaborate, that’s putting immense pressure on technology.
We’re seeing employee listening platforms in terms of the frequency of how they’re pulsing, listening, and digesting data and information from their employees to understand how needs are constantly shifting. When we think about a return to workplace, we’re seeing new solutions coming out there for daily attestation and making sure that people are safe when they’re going back into the office.
How we onboard people into our organizations, the training they need, and a higher demand for ongoing learning has really exploded in this time.
I think about what Espresa offers is playing an important role in organizations as well.
Sylvia Flores // How did you find Espresa? What was the love connection that happened between us and the lovely Nancy Vitale?
Nancy Vitale // I’ve known Alex [Shubat], your CEO, for a number of years. We met through the HR PEER 150 Group. I got introduced to Espresa and the important work that you guys are doing and introduced Alex to Make-A-Wish. There’s a lot of tentacles and connections here.
I’ve learned to really appreciate more of what Espresa is doing. There’re a few things that are really important in this day and age and the solutions that Espresa brings to bear. One that comes to mind is your solutions around wellbeing and fitness. We talked about the micro-stressors in people’s lives and the need for greater movement when we’re attached to our laptops, perhaps all day long. But giving people the opportunity for easy and accessible solutions, so that they can invest in their overall wellbeing and fitness at a time when it is needed most. Is an important platform.
We talked about diversity and inclusion and this whole movement around social justice. And I think about the solution that you guys have around employee resource groups that is going to play an increasingly important role inside organizations. I remember listening recently to a talk by Michael Bush, CEO of the Great Place to Work Institute, and a friend of mine. And talking about the importance of ERGs is inside organizations. And I think express a solution to help people really connect and engage with ERGs is going to play an increasingly important role in the future. And then finally, I think about reimbursements and allowances. It’s something so basic, but as we’ve had to shift away from the office and where people have offices and scale to provide certain amenities and resources that have now been significantly reduced. Giving people access to new and different or expanded allowances, and reimbursements is also an important platform solution that you guys provide that we’re now operating much more in a virtual world.
Those are just three of the solutions that come to mind for me when I think about the important role that Espresa can play inside organizations.
Sylvia Flores // What are you observing regarding the new social contract that is taking place between companies and employees? And what does the future look like as a result of all this change?
Nancy Vitale // I don’t think any of us knows what the future looks like – as evidenced by the world we’re living in today, which nobody would have predicted even a few months ago. What we’re seeing is an emergence of an evolving social contract. I think the importance of safety and security. I’m talking in emphasis on both physical safety and health, as well as psychological safety and health, in terms of the role that employers play.
It is new table stakes. Candidates and employees want to feel like their employer is a place of complete and utter safety that’s both from a physical and psychological standpoint.
We’re seeing a greater desire for flexibility. Flexibility, where, and how I work. We’re seeing more desire for employee ownership around decisions that affect their perceived safety. And going back to some of the conversation we were having on social justice.
We’re seeing an expectation of employees for their employers to take a stand and back that up with real action when it comes to standing for what is right when it comes to social justice and inequity. We’re going to continue to see this evolve over time, but there are clearly new and evolving expectations that candidates and employees have from their employers. And that is putting not only pressure on employers to evolve, but it is also creating some new opportunities for how people relate to company culture and the overall employee experience.
Sylvia Flores // It’s morality, which you’ve touched on. Younger generations want to know where their company stands philosophically. What is the ethos of your organization? What do you support environmentally? And then also these social justice causes. You have been so wonderful to speak with. Do you have parting comments for us before we let you go and do the million rockstar things you do?
Nancy Vitale // I’ll just bring it back to where we started and this notion of humanity. This focus and centeredness on humanity and empathy and care and compassion. This is the new corporate currency. We’re going to continue to see the importance placed on leaders who display these attributes and these characteristics and companies who embrace the humanity of their people.
Thank you for having me Sylvia and thanks for affording me this conversation. It was great to catch up with you.