This pandemic year has been tough on all of us. But as I reflect back on 2020, I’ve realized that the strains also brought opportunity. The profound dislocations of the year prompted new ways of thinking about nurturing team culture, buoying morale, and maintaining strong forward momentum as a business amid steep challenges.
As chief human resources officer for a fast-growing biotech, I’ve found myself focusing on two essential goals over the past year: Reinforcing the power of purpose and making space to listen.
Both of these require commitment from everyone on the executive team. Both are vitally important to keeping a company on track — now, more than ever.
Reinforcing the Power of Purpose
There was a time, a few months into the pandemic when many human resource teams turned their attention to raising morale. We organized online yoga classes, Zoom cocktail hours and “Dapper Friday” dress-up days. Feedback was positive and employees asked us to continue these initiatives.
But it wasn’t long before we realized that you can’t yoga your way out of burnout.
The pandemic put an enormous strain on everyone. Human resources departments did what we could to help with the practical burdens. I was proud, for instance, that my company subsidized at-home childcare for working parents. Yet it became clear to me that more was needed. We needed to think more deeply about how to help people struggling with overwhelming feelings of being unmoored and of exhaustion.
Here’s where the power of purpose comes in. My company, AVROBIO, has always been driven by our purpose: to free people from a lifetime of genetic disease. But a couple months into the pandemic, we were beginning to feel untethered, both from our purpose as a company and from the energy of the life sciences community writ large. We needed to reproduce an environment where each of us could more readily realize how meaningful our work really is. Over the summer and fall, we launched several initiatives with that goal.
Our tremendous patient advocacy team put together events twice a month when we could hear directly from families living with the rare genetic diseases we are seeking to treat. It’s one thing to read about the symptoms online. It’s another to hear from young parents talking about how their two-year-old copes with failing kidneys, frequent vomiting and a persistent odor of rotten eggs on his breath and skin – a by-product of the dozens of pills he takes each day for cystinosis. It’s hard not to feel a renewed sense of purpose after listening to these personal, heart-wrenching stories.
To make sure we got the most out of those sessions, we also held regular debriefs as a company to talk through what we’d heard from patients. These sessions proved to be incredibly powerful on two fronts: They fostered a shared understanding of our purpose and reinforced the meaningfulness of each of our jobs in realizing that purpose.
Making Time to Listen
My second key takeaway from the Year of COVID is the heightened need for listening.
Over the summer, we began scheduling regular rap sessions with employees, an initiative we called “Let’s Connect.” These video calls teamed executive leaders with about six employees at a time. There was no agenda; this was our opportunity as leaders to listen.
“When work is purpose-driven and meaningful, it’s exhilarating,” one employee told me. “I admit to being on the verge of exhaustion at the end of some days. But it’s with a feeling of accomplishment.’’
In another initiative, we recently held a series of focus groups with senior leaders. We wanted to understand how well we are empowering them: Do they feel they have the ability to make a meaningful impact? Do they feel a sense of ownership over their work?
These sessions provided a clear roadmap as to where we could improve. The executive leadership team is working to ensure our senior leaders are heard and even more empowered in 2021.
Would we have had these focus groups pre-COVID? Possibly – but probably not. They grew out of our determination to try to address the sense of being unmoored in the work-from-home world – to rebuild the connective tissue that had once kept everyone moving in sync.
The Changing Role of the CHRO
The changes we’ve made to improve communication and reinforce the power of purpose have helped us immensely throughout the pandemic. We’ve been able to regain the sense of energy, mission and unity that we all felt before COVID-19 shrank our worlds to a series of Hollywood Squares Zoom screens. We’ve been able to recruit and retain top talent. And we’ve been able to make great strides toward realizing our purpose.
Like everyone else, I can’t wait until life returns to normal. But when it comes to my work, I won’t revert to old practices. We have no intention of discarding the initiatives we launched to cope with the pandemic. I am confident they will continue to strengthen our team for years to come.
About the Author:
Chief Human Resources Office, AVROBIO
Georgette Verdin, the chief human resources officer at AVROBIO, is an accomplished leader with deep experience developing HR strategies aligned to drive business results. She previously led global human resources at Novartis Institutes of Biomedical Research, where she partnered with executives and their scientific research teams across seven sites in the U.S., Asia and Europe. Before that, she served as vice president of global corporate human resources at Biogen Inc. She lived and worked in Europe for more than 10 years nurturing startups and has proven expertise at helping build cultures that attract, retain and develop world-class talent. Georgette has a passion for supporting women in business and paying forward the benefits of mentorship. She founded the Professional Women’s Association in Budapest, Hungary in 1998. She also founded Girls Night Out in Seattle in 2005 and then extended the organization to Boston. Girls Night Out is dedicated to connecting and supporting women in their careers and through their transitions. Georgette received a B.A. from Georgetown University and an M.A. in International Relations from the American University School of International Service.