How HR has the ‘power to shape the future of work’

Throughout his career, Naveen Bhateja has held a range of HR leadership roles–at such organizations as Juniper Networks, GE, JP Morgan Chase, Experian and Amazon. Now, at Medidata–which develops SaaS solutions for clinical trials–Bhateja has taken on the role of chief people officer, which has oversight for all of the traditional HR functions, but it’s a title that offers a unique glimpse into the culture of the organization, he says.

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HRE recently connected with Bhateja to discuss the importance of the role of chief people officer, especially during the pandemic.

HRE: Does your role, titled chief people officer, differ from the traditional CHRO role?

Bhateja: Functionally, it is the same as CHRO. However, it’s important that we use the chief people officer title at Medidata to reinforce and reflect that our business is all about people. Our people are far and away our most important asset. Our entire “people strategy” is focused on how we can support them, encourage growth, drive collaboration and inspire them to do great work and create an inclusive environment. As chief people officer, I lead all aspects of human resources, from talent-acquisition strategy to workspaces and diversity and inclusion. We work together to ensure we’re bringing in and nurturing the right talent, creating an environment that fosters a sense of belonging and helping to grow our business working with our senior leaders as a trusted advisor. There are a number of programs and initiatives within Medidata to ensure that our mission-based, people-based culture is nurtured and maintained. Within our organization, we seek to have it present at every touchpoint of an employee’s career–how they are recognized, evaluated and engaged–and much of this is driven by our people team.

Read more Insights from a CHRO here.

HRE: What is your strategy for dealing with all the uncertainty in the workplace lately?

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Bhateja: We’re focused on the areas that matter to our mission and that we can control, such as the cadence and style of communication to not just the people team but the entire global organization. This is a moment that will set the tone for company leadership for years to come. It’s for that reason our company leadership has continued to display their humanity and have been creating more connections, providing guidance and operating with compassion and empathy. I firmly believe that confidence and vulnerability are keys, in terms of communication style. Everyone is navigating some level of new territory here; there isn’t a playbook and employees don’t expect you to have all the answers. What they do expect, however, is for you to be there as a leader and commit to that ongoing responsibility. One of the programs we put in place is a business resource group (“Remotians”–a play on “Medidatians,” which is what our employees call themselves), like a task force dedicated to helping employees transition to–and be supported throughout–remote work. Additionally, manager surveys help us track shifting attitudes by getting a pulse on which areas might need additional attention or focus, such as balancing work and life or needing additional collaboration tools.

HRE: How are you managing to keep your employees engaged?

Bhateja: One of the most exciting ways we’re engaging employees is by accelerating virtual and e-learning opportunities to transform our learning channels and learning-management features. L&D are critical to keeping employees involved and connected to your company’s mission. For us, training right now is not just about learning new skills for our clients and teams; we are adapting to match the changing needs of employees and managers. In addition, we launched a series of weekly manager emails to provide managers with tools and resources to help themselves and their teams continue to be productive and healthy. We’ve also made an effort to provide outlets for fun and connecting socially, while also acknowledging the incredibly challenging circumstances everyone has faced. At Medidata, we have a tradition of social events and activities for staff, and we’ve continued that with a full calendar of virtual events such as happy hours, “Take Your Kids to Work” Friday events, wellness activities such as yoga, and holiday celebrations. And to offer a bit of a rest for staff, we’ve established a “no internal meetings on Fridays” policy during the summer and gave staff an extra floating holiday on the Monday following July 4.

HRE: What policies/practices have you implemented since the pandemic in terms of people management that you might keep in place even after the pandemic is over?

Bhateja: We restructured our HR processes with the employee lifecycle in mind and made adjustments to our practices and policies in light of the pandemic. [We have] broadened the gym-reimbursement policy to include wellness apps, offered reimbursement for the cost of at-home office equipment, restructured a number of HR processes including virtual interviewing, onboarding and new-hire orientation, and created a new volunteer policy to allow employees who are certified and registered as volunteers in the healthcare system to take two weeks of paid time off to provide emergency assistance to the community. We will continue to stay in tune with the external circumstances and the needs of our business as well as our employees to determine which of these we will continue as the new world evolves.

HRE: What is one thing people would be surprised to learn about you?

Bhateja: I’m not sure how surprising it is, but I enjoy watching comedy shows. Laughter offers a great escape from the intensity of the workday. I also find taking a walk by the water offers me a creative and emotional outlet and helps me find my center and stay balanced.

HRE: What advice would you give to HR leaders who are entering the industry today?

Bhateja: For many years, HR leaders have sought to transition from an administrative-heavy HR function to a more business-relevant, progressive HR function. While HR leaders have always played a critical role, today, more than ever, CHRO leaders are on the frontlines during the COVID crisis. Not only have they had to coach the C-suite on navigating the reality of the situation, they have also had to inspire their HR teams to step up to the challenge and manage their organization’s response to COVID-19.

The companies that will emerge successfully from this pandemic and the pervasive unrest around equality are those that put their employees first. Because of that, the HR team’s counsel, experience and vision are needed more than ever to guide company strategy and to ensure that “people” considerations are front and center.

As such, I’d tell folks who are getting into this field that there has never been a more exciting time to be in HR; our work right now truly makes a difference in the lives of employees. My advice would be to take time to learn your business, be adaptable, flexible and build trust. Business operating models will change in the new world and so will the needs of your employees, perhaps more rapidly than ever. You must build relationships with a mix of leaders, managers and employees to ensure you’re tracking those changes. By embracing these changes that are being wrought upon us, we have the power to shape the future of work.

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Jen Colletta
Jen Colletta is managing editor at HRE. She earned bachelor's and master's degrees in writing from La Salle University in Philadelphia and spent 10 years as a newspaper reporter and editor before joining HRE. She can be reached at [email protected].