How this CHRO keeps a forward focus, despite disruptions

DocuSign Chief People Officer Joan Burke says the company’s growth and investment in its people haven’t been slowed by the pandemic.
By: | December 9, 2020 • 7 min read

The HR priorities of hiring top talent and cultivating current employees haven’t slowed down at business software provider DocuSign; they’ve just changed.

Joan Burke, chief people officer at DocuSign, says the company has continued to recruit, hire and onboard new employees to join its 4,200-person global workforce, quickly pivoting to virtual methods like Zoom. Development, especially of managers, has also stayed at the forefront, with new focuses on the skills people leaders need during uncertain, quickly evolving times.

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Understanding the challenges facing employees and designing programs to meet those needs has also become a mandate for HR at DocuSign, Burke says. Shortly after the pandemic started, the company gave every employee $300 to outfit their new remote workspace; later, it rolled out DocuSign Cares, giving each worker up to $1,000 to use at their discretion on anything that could alleviate the burdens they were facing because of the pandemic.

“It’s a very broad program with very few parameters around it,” she says. “If you wanted to buy your kids video games to keep them busy so you can work, that’s cool. There was really almost nothing we said no to. It showed our employees that we’re trying to help them during this difficult time in any way they decided, versus what the company decided.”

Burke recently spoke with HRE about DocuSign’s work to support and empower employees, while continuing to drive business results.

HRE: Pre-pandemic, where were you focusing most of your energy, and how much has that changed?

Joan Burke

Burke: Beforehand, I was focusing most of my energy on building the team and hiring. We’ve been growing a lot as an organization and I’m responsible for the entire recruiting and talent acquisition function. Another area we were putting a lot of focus on was developing great people managers. We introduced a talent development team a couple of years ago that’s responsible for the growth of all employees but really focuses on helping managers especially. At the end of the day, HR has a small team; the managers are the ones who really know the culture.

Since COVID, I’ve still been focusing on hiring, it’s just different now; everything’s done over Zoom. At first, managers weren’t comfortable with it. They said, “I’m not hiring somebody I’ve never met before.” But you have to get used to it because someone else will hire them. So, fortunately, people quickly pivoted.

And we still continue to develop people managers. We haven’t put any programs on pause, it’s just a different point of view now. [Managers need to focus on] what do employees need right now to help them be successful and to cope and manage in a very different world?

HRE: Do you foresee virtual tools continuing to be used for hiring and onboarding after the pandemic?

Burke: Yes, absolutely. I won’t say we’ll have 100% Zoom hiring, but I believe that people are more comfortable with it now and feel like they can get a good sense of candidates this way so it’ll absolutely be part of our ongoing hiring plans. It allows people to be anywhere in the world and be part of an interview panel, which is really great.

HRE: How have you personally sought to stay in touch with employees, to not lose those human connections as everyone has gone remote?

Burke: It takes work, and you need to be intentional about it; it doesn’t just happen. [Before the pandemic,] I would have my HR leadership team staff meeting every other week, and now it’s every week. Even if it’s a short one or there’s not a lot on our agenda, we still make an intentional plan to get together every week. The other thing I’m doing is a “welcome to HR at DocuSign” special Zoom meeting with all new employees we hire in HR. We do an ice breaker to get to know each other. We’re hiring in places like Dublin, Egypt and, in the past, that [Zoom meeting] wouldn’t have been the case, but now it is. And managers are really working to stay connected to new team members hired during this period and who have never been to an office. One told me that, on their Slack channel, they make sure to keep all of the new employees at the top as a reminder to touch those people at least once a week.

See also: These are 2020’s most admired companies for HR

HRE: What are some of the primary challenges your employees are experiencing?

Burke: It’s clear to us employees are struggling with mental health issues. Anxiety has been a big concern, and parents, in particular, were having a lot of challenges, especially those with kids under 10 at home. As a result, we created a new standalone mental health benefit in addition to the mental health benefits under our medical coverage and EAP. We work with Spring Health, and it allows employees [access to] an app, six in-person therapy sessions, ongoing sessions with a coach. It’s free to employees and, within the first week that we announced it, 25% of employees signed up right away.

We also announced an emergency childcare and eldercare benefit that will be in place in January. The company will subsidize so many sessions during the course of the year when employees are having a tough time or their childcare plan fell apart. There’s also a platform to help them find childcare.

It’s clear that people are pretty exhausted, so we will be having a company shutdown Christmas week, which we’ve never done before. Some tech companies do that, but we never have, and it’s been really well-received. A lot of people were very thankful that the company will be completely shut down and no one is going to send them an email or they won’t be expected to be on Zoom; they can just take that time to be with their family and they can even take the next week on PTO if they want.

HRE: Apart from the pandemic, this year has brought an increased focus on social injustice, along with the recent presidential election. Do you think the divisions and conflicts happening in our country are reshaping the role of HR?

Burke: It is trickling into the workplace, especially when you get to be the size of DocuSign. We’re a microcosm of the world and the country, so we’ve got people on all ends of the political spectrum. The one thing we didn’t do is go to a place of declaring any point of view about who should win the election, other than supporting employees with whatever time off they needed to vote. We also have Volunteer Time Off—usually, people use it to do things like work at a food bank—and we said that people can use it to go work the polls. We tried to make sure we showed people we are social beings and we live in a country that’s divided right now and any way employees needed to do something that felt good, we wanted to support it.

HRE: What sparked your interest in HR?

Burke: I started my career in financial services, in a pension role, which I frankly didn’t like at all. There are a couple of reasons why I chose and stayed with HR. One is the variety. In my role, I have responsibility for total rewards, talent acquisition, HR business partners, employee relations, employee communications, social impact and philanthropy, D&I—the opportunity to work on a breadth of issues is what really interests me in HR. There’s a lot of individual swim lanes in the field but I get to be responsible for it all.

HRE: Outside of work, what are you passionate about?

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Burke: Helping support people who are vulnerable. I had a brother who died a couple years ago; he had MS and lived the last five years of his life in bed and, before that, in a wheelchair. He was well taken care of and his wife was a great caregiver. But my sisters and I often say, “How did it happen that it was Jim and not any of us?” He didn’t get the same shot the rest of us did. So, finding programs and causes that help people—who haven’t had the same level of privilege that I have—to be successful is really important to me. Beyond that, because I’m in HR, I am a pretty social person. I have a deep passion for my family and also friends I’ve had since college. The hardest thing about being in my role and being sheltered in place is being in this office by myself; I never went into HR to be by myself in an office for eight months. We go into this field because we love people and want to help them be successful.

HRE: Is there a mantra or saying that has helped guide your work through the challenges of 2020?

Burke: There is a prayer: Mother Teresa’s prayer. There’s a line in it that talks about how you should do your best and, while it will never be enough, do your best anyway. And, at the end, she says, it’s never between you and them, it’s between you and God. “Do your best” really stuck with me. There were some really low days this year—getting through the pandemic and when the Black Lives Matter movement really came together, I just felt like I couldn’t be doing enough for our employees and felt like I was failing. But I went to that prayer and that line reminded me to just do my best anyway.

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 hreletters@lrp.com.