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Engaging Global Teams and Communities during Shifting Tides of COVID-19

  ANA WHITE

  MIKA YAMAMOTO

Published April 02, 2020
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As COVID-19 continues to make its impact felt on a worldwide scale, F5’s Chief Human Resources Officer Ana White and Chief Marketing & Customer Experience Officer Mika Yamamoto reflect on implementing response and readiness efforts reaching employees and communities worldwide.

Like most companies, F5 had previously developed disaster recovery and mitigation plans. And while those have proven to be valuable tools over the past several weeks, the current pandemic brings with it an unprecedented human element that no general collection of best practices could sufficiently address.

Our goal with this article is to share the company’s response (and lessons learned) to date as situations have evolved and become more complex. We’ll also emphasize how making thoughtful decisions with imperfect information is essential in continuously protecting employees, customers, partners, and communities. Our hope is that by sharing our story, we can spark some ideas for other professionals also leading their organization through this unique and ever-changing situation. After all, we’re in this together and our collective best practices serve to make us all better, or at the very least to realize we’re not alone.

Focus on What Matters: Be Human First

Our guiding principle at F5 is simple: Do the right thing—for each other, our customers, our shareholders, our community, and the world. We believe if all decisions are made through this lens, decision-making becomes much more focused and efficient. Importantly, it also ensures our decision-making reflects the "human-first" culture of our company.

Along the way, this guiding principle helped us stay focused on the things that really matter while working through the following steps and initial guardrails:

  • Safety first – In situations where a particular option would compromise personal or emotional safety, we chose another course.

  • Keep the connection, change the medium – More than ever we need to stay connected. Rather than just cancel in-person events or meetings, we are seeking creative and accessible ways to meaningfully connect through video conferencing and webinars. In fact, we have seen countless examples of our employees using these mediums to forge even stronger connections in their teams and communities—leading everything from meditation and yoga sessions to virtual workouts to end of the week virtual happy hours to story time for children studying at home.

  • Solicit feedback – Establish a dedicated means for employees to raise questions and concerns. Addressing feedback is key. People need to feel heard.

  • Recognize the daily collision and conflict between work and family responsibilities – For many, this struggle is acute. Do not just talk about the crisis itself, but also about how employees and their families can adapt. Provide links to resources for kids, ideas for quarantining alone, and best practices for virtual meetings.

  • Remember the whole person – Our employees are so much more than their jobs. Put in place resources and well-vetted training sessions on stress management and remote working best practices. Enable employee counseling via Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) and related offerings. And find ways to fast-track employee benefit enhancements that will make a difference.

As an example, even when we had conflicting guidance and incomplete data, we chose to move ahead with aggressive safety measures, such as canceling large in-person events (before this was commonplace) and accelerating our employees’ transition to a work-from-home model (before official mandates were released to do so). At the time, we were criticized in some circles for being alarmist. Our employees, partners, and customers were thankful for the caution.

Communicate with Transparency, Early and Often

Any crisis requires clear and constant communication, especially amidst uncertain and fast-changing conditions. Early on, we took a position that even if we didn’t have all the answers, we would communicate early and often. In a situation with global health implications, we chose to show up in the following ways:

  • Be upfront about ambiguity – It is much better than trying to come across as instant experts. Begin from a place of humility and mutual respect to uphold employee trust. We were purposeful in our human-first messages and, where we could, we made proactive decisions and took decisive actions that were consistent with local authorities.

  • Be as open, transparent, and timely as possible with employee communications (while keeping employee health and privacy as priority considerations).

  • Recognize that diversity of inputs yields better decisions – We are so grateful that—early in the processwe established a cross-functional core team of HR, Communications, Operations, and Legal professionals to meet at least twice a week to proactively refine employee guidelines and associated policy decisions.

  • Establish a cadence that employees can count on – By establishing a predictable cadence and consistent voice of the company on COVID-19, employees know they can rely on corporate guidance rather than speculating (or worse, listening to unfounded rumors).

  • Embrace the use of collaboration tools – We are connecting in every way that we can. In addition to bolstering our internal collaboration tools through means such as new Microsoft Teams and Zoom channels, different functions have also set up a series of virtual meetings and office hours to connect and align.

  • Provide leadership guidance at all levels – Our functional team meetings are also overlaid with broader company meetings and manager sessions led by our CEO and the leadership team, as well as relevant content published to our external corporate blog for additional transparency, such as this message from our CEO.

  • Recognize that region-specific updates may be necessary – This pandemic is clearly manifesting itself differently in each corner of the world. Though we have been intentional in communicating universal messages, we have also responded empathetically to region-specific situations—such as the current burden on Italy’s medical facilities—with specific policies and procedures that were not necessarily relevant to our global population.

  • Consider multiple data sets and experts – Because this situation has no modern precedent, we’ve chosen to leverage multiple data sets and discuss the implications in our cross-disciplinary forum to address any conflicting data while deciding a course of action and ensuring clarity and alignment across leadership.

Stay Flexible and Prioritize Empathy

Many of the capabilities that have helped F5 respond to the current crisis find their roots in previous programs implemented by the company. For example, transitioning employees to work from home was eased because of our “Freedom to Flex” program which gives F5 employees the option of working remotely in a wide range of scenarios. With this program, and the parallel investment in secure technology, we already had a culture where employees could work adjusted hours and telecommute. This experience made it relatively seamless for all employees to shift to a work-from-home model.

This has not been flawless, of course, as there are stressors that none of us have previously faced impacting how we work. We’ve embraced some important principles along the way:

  • Encourage opportunities for joy and gratitude – Sometimes, even a small gesture can go a long way in helping people feel more connected. For us, sharing photos, stories, and recognition in a dedicated area reminds us that we’re all in this together, and we’ll get through it. Some teams within F5 have established regularly scheduled virtual watercooler conversations where individuals connect over non-work-related topics as they might in the halls between meetings or at the coffee machine.

  • Think through how your company can help the community – We continue to spend a great deal of energy considering how we can leverage our expertise and resources (people, technology, and funds) to support broader humanitarian efforts (for example, helping with increasing remote worker capacity for nonprofits). Similarly, inspiring and relevant posts on social media can also lift spirits and remind employees how organizations are a force for global good.

  • Adjust as necessary – Our core team has kept one another up to date, 24x7, with the latest from around the globe, sharing perspectives on whether we should amend our guidance, and how to do so. As the situation has evolved and escalated in some areas and dissipated in others, we’ve adjusted accordingly with multiple data sources as our guide.

  • Leverage your network – We’ve benefited greatly by reaching out to our peers around the globe facing similar situations to exchange ideas about how to lead in these uncertain times. These have been invaluable, if only to remind us all that we are not alone in wrestling with these complex circumstances.

We hope these perspectives and lessons learned prove useful to other companies. We’re all learning on the job as we go through this, supporting each other and sharing our experiences. While we won’t always hit the mark on the first try, ideally others can build from the experiences we’ve lived over the past several weeks in successfully adapting processes to better fit our collective new reality. Let’s continue to share, demonstrate kindness, and look for innovative ways to get to the other side of this as a global community.

For additional information on F5’s corporate response to COVID-19, please visit: https://www.f5.com/business-continuity

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