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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Management

How This Company is Leading With Empathy During the Pandemic

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The COVID-19 pandemic forced many businesses to transition to working from home, practically overnight. In many cases, employees and managers found themselves separated from the office—and each other—for the first time.

The international cybersecurity firm Palo Alto Networks’ entire 8,000-plus-person workforce is among those that went all remote in mid-March. In response to employees’ changing needs, the company launched a new program called FLEXWORK, an initiative that lets employees choose where and how they work. “We wanted to recognize the individuality of our employees by giving them more choice,” says Liane Hornsey, Chief People Officer. “This relies on having even more trust from leaders and managers, and a deeper appreciation of the fact that we all need different things at different times.”

Through frequent surveys, employee focus groups, and a dedicated task force, FLEXWORK enabled Palo Alto Networks to pivot to remote work while fostering its supportive company culture and encouraging employee development. The key? Leading with compassion. Here’s how they did it.

Give Employees a Voice

During the pandemic, Palo Alto Networks has been regularly sending out surveys and hosting focus groups to stay in touch with employees and learn more about how they are feeling in these moments. “Through our research, we found that employees have wanted more flexibility around more topics,” Hornsey says. “So we decided it was time to disrupt the norm, but for the long term.”  

In May, Regional Manager Toby Liftee signed up to join one of the FLEXWORK focus groups. Over Zoom, employees in this group shared tools to manage remote teams and gave their opinions on how critical in-person meetings are. “The discussions were open and transparent,” she says. “We talked about the benefits of working from home. The main hitters were around saving time by not traveling to and from the office and to visit clients.” Others, however, expressed concerns around Zoom—due to being camera shy or because they missed having their usual water cooler and coffee break room conversations.

Pre-lockdown, Liftee spent a lot of time behind the wheel for work. “It can be stressful since I had back-to-back calls on the road,” she recalls. “Now I appreciate the benefit of being home, being able to focus on the calls, and feel more productive and less stressed from sitting in traffic.”

Offer Flexibility

The idea behind FLEXWORK is simple: With trust and clear goals and milestones, every employee has what they need to succeed. Whether it's a schedule that leaves room for childcare or tech upgrades for a home office, each individual’s priorities look and feel different. “The role of companies is to evolve and change with employees, to enable more employee choice in more moments at a workplace,” Hornsey says.

“I'm thankful that we can continue to do our jobs right out of our homes,” says Liftee, who blocks out times during the day to exercise, eat meals with family members, and get fresh air. “I’ve found that I’m more productive with employees and projects, and I can spend more time with my family. And I know of many folks who have been doing their jobs in different locations, and they are still productive.”

Provide the Right Tools and Support

Because offices remain closed and perks like shuttles, free snacks, catered lunches, and gym reimbursements are no longer available, the company is rethinking its benefits. At the beginning of quarantine, each employee received a $500 stipend to spend on home office upgrades. Liftee, for example, bought an adjustable sit-stand desk, computer monitors, and an ergonomic chair: "My workspace now feels similar to being in HQ,” she says.

The company is also adding an annual “allowance” of $1,000—paid out quarterly—that each employee will be able to spend however they see fit: on food, virtual learning, childcare, meditation apps, at-home workout subscriptions, or other needs. “We’re not telling them how to spend it,” says Hornsey. “It’s up to employees to tell us.”

Managers must adapt and become more understanding, empathetic, and flexible when it comes to team members and their situations, Liftee says. “When a company stands behind its employees and their families, it brings our teams closer than ever, and they work harder together.”