While studying finance in college, Ayana Champagne dreamed of trading derivatives on the stock market. At that time, HR wasn’t on her radar at all.
When she landed her first job in the accounting office of a small company that manufactured envelopes, the HR manager also tapped her to help with a handful of people projects–including working with a few employees on the paperwork to help them become legal workers in the U.S.
“I kind of fell in love with the function and decided to go back to school. The rest is history,” says Champagne, who now holds a master’s from Aurora University in HR management and a dual master’s degree in technology and operations management.
Her 20-plus years of HR experience led her to her current role in 2017, as CHRO of Ferring Pharmaceuticals, which focuses on reproductive medicine, maternal health, gastroenterology and orthopedics.
“We really try to live our people-first philosophy every day at Ferring,” she says. That became a bigger focus this year since Ferring, as part of an essential industry, had a mix of work arrangements: Field employees worked remotely with customers, office personnel came in on an as-needed basis and manufacturing employees worked on-site, protected by ramped-up safety measures.
“Safety will always guide our decisions about how we treat employees in terms of how often or who comes into the office,” she says. “We’ve already prepared ourselves for even more flexible work arrangements than we had before the pandemic.”
But, says Champagne, that’s just the start.
HRE: You’re a passionate believer that mental health and wellbeing should be part of a company’s health and safety program. How has Ferring tackled this, both before and after the pandemic?
Champagne: With the nature of our business and of the people we employ, we are very keen on the overall health of each individual employee, [so we] highlighted wellbeing as a particular business imperative. While we were doing many things before the pandemic, we increased our emphasis on supporting employee mental and emotional wellbeing. We reemphasized the benefits and options and kept that information in front of them in a number of different ways, [including] town hall communications and written communications. We also try to do some unique things to make people comfortable to get access to information without having them feel they were exposing themselves. We did roundtables with medical professionals, where [employees] could just call in from wherever they were and get mental health tips. We certainly raised awareness about our program and benefits, [which included] things that were free. We also used our learning management system platform [to help] people [achieve] that emotional balance and mental wellbeing.
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[During the summer’s social justice demonstrations around the U.S.] we held different roundtable discussions to [give employees and especially] people of color a platform to express themselves and bridge the gap between their personal lives at home and what was happening at work and in the world.
HRE: That was your “Courageous Conversations” series, right? Can you tell us more about that?
Champagne: I think most people were feeling like they were in a mental state of ambiguity, like, do I talk about it, do I press it? Do I come into work with my plastic smile on my face and just get the job done?
We thought this was the moment for us to say “We see you” to our employees and our heart aches with you. We couldn’t ignore what everyone was saying on the news or on social media. We wanted to create a platform that gave employees a place where they could demonstrate trust in each other but also give them an opportunity to kind of wrap their virtual arms around their colleagues.
I created eight different session opportunities for all employees to dial in, choosing whichever one would best fit their schedule to just talk. A good percentage of the employee population attended more than one session. [The sessions] were all very different and they presented stories that just pulled at your heartstrings but also challenged you to think differently and check your own unconscious bias. It gave us an opportunity to recognize each other in a way that we hadn’t before, even though we had worked with each other for a number of years. We never talked about this stuff, so we didn’t know what some of our colleagues were suffering through. I also carried out a couple of sessions for just the Black community so they would have a comfortable platform for these conversations.
We learned coming out of this that we employ some really courageous people, some amazing people who are thirsty for knowledge and willing to help each other and grow.
HRE: What are the biggest lessons you learned in 2020?
Champagne: I think every company is probably faced with the same “a-ha” moment: “Oh, my gosh. We can be productive 100% remote or something close to that?” Is it ideal? No. Is it something that every industry can do perfectly? No. But, more than we thought before, we can be successful this way. I think our employees have realized, “Hey, this could work but I need [the organization] to help me find that balance so I can shut off when I need to because that bleed through is never-ending.”
I think the pandemic is teaching me specifically that we have to lead differently. [We] cannot measure performance by walking around. We have to really lean into being more intentional about checking in with our employees, not just for their productivity or their performance but on how they’re doing because [when they are remote] you don’t have that eye on them as you want.
Related: Why HR will remain in the ‘front seat’ of the COVID crisis
HRE: What career advice would you have given to your younger self?
Champagne: On one hand, I would have told myself, “Give yourself a break, Ayana. It’s going to be OK. It’s all going to work out. You can relax and have some fun and be a young person. Responsibility, credibility and progress are in front of you and will be there for you.”
On the other hand, I would have told myself “Go harder, go faster, do more because you can have a bigger impact on the world.”
My mother has asked me this question before and I’ve simply told her I would tell myself: “You’re doing exactly what you should be doing.” When you are growing up, you don’t know what you don’t know.
HRE: Can you tell us a little about your personal life–family, interests, how you are coping with the pandemic?
Champagne: I live in Brooklyn with my husband, Zeph, and my daughter, NoÁ«, who turned 2 in December, and my Great Dane, Pharaoh. New York apartment living with a Great Dane is interesting, but we make it work.
I love photography but I haven’t been able to pick up the camera the way I’ve wanted to this year, mostly because I think across the world, not just me, the strain on HR has been tremendous as we try to work through everything with the pandemic and the social unrest. Besides that aspect of it, I’ve been dealing with the pandemic pretty well, I think, but certainly, over the course of the last 10 months or so, there have been moments when I’ve thought, I don’t know if I can do this, if I can pull this off. What has given me some grace has been finding a structure, my balance: I’m going to this at this time and this at this time. I’m a very structured person so when it was more in disarray, I had more stress than ease. That schedule has really helped me and my family.