Nearly six months ago, Twitter mandated that all of its 5,000 or so employees begin working remotely. This sudden and widespread shift to remote work is by now a familiar story — but the consequences of that shift, what it means for the future of work, workers, and workplaces, are still very much in question.
In late July, I spoke by phone with Jennifer Christie, Twitter’s Chief HR Officer, about what it’s been like to lead employees (whom Christie and others at Twitter affectionately refer to as “Tweeps”) through this rapid transition. Christie spoke to me about the challenges — and unexpected highlights — of the WFH boom, how the company is supporting its remote workforce, and the changes she expects to last long after the pandemic.
It’s been a pretty historic spring and summer, and you’ve said that Twitter will never be quite the same after this. What did you mean by that?
People are getting into new routines. This isn’t something that’s happened for a week or two, right? People are really beginning to understand what their capabilities are working remotely, and managers are feeling more comfortable managing people from a distance. So, as we come out of this, whatever the “new normal” looks like, it’s going to be different. Not just for Twitter, obviously — for everybody.
What has this transition to remote work been like for you as the head of HR for Twitter? Are you thinking about your role and responsibilities in a new way?
HR is more involved in the personal lives of our employees than we’ve ever been. We need to support them at every level: physical health, emotional health, mental health. We’re providing a virtual “camp” for Twitter parents this summer to help give their kids options to stay engaged — things that we probably wouldn’t have thought about before in terms of how we get involved in our employee’s lives. It’s a whole new level of engagement and responsibility.
I don’t think you pull back from that coming out of this. Now we’re exploring ways we can provide more end-to-end support for our employees’ lives — personal and professional.
What did Twitter’s preparation look like leading up to the decision to go remote in March?
We had been preparing for remote work for about two years, but obviously, we were not foreseeing a global pandemic. We were preparing for more flexibility, just recognizing WFH as a growing trend in the marketplace. Employees demand a lot: They want to work for a company with purpose, they want a company that treats them well, and they want a place where they have flexibility so they don’t have to make as many personal tradeoffs to have the kind of careers they want to have.
What were the biggest organizational changes you had to make in response to Covid?
First, our hiring process, which, prior to Covid, was very heavily office based. We would fly people in for a series of interviews, in part because we’re a very people-focused company and the offices are very social environments. Pivoting to all-virtual hiring required a lot of work in terms of making sure that our hiring managers and recruiting teams were ready for it. Most of all, though, we had to ensure that the candidates’ experience was going to be one that was good: Sharing videos of the offices and making sure they really felt the kind of immersion they would get in an office — receiving swag, being greeted online, giving them tech support if needed, and feeling really cared for.
The other major area of change was onboarding. Usually, we bring people to San Francisco for a week of learning about Twitter — our culture, our processes, what it means to be a Tweep and be part of Twitter. We had a group of people who were actually heading to San Francisco for onboarding that we had to halt at the end of February and very quickly come up with solutions to provide what we wanted to be a great remote onboarding experience.
Given how central the in-office experience has been to Twitter’s culture, how has remote work affected culture? What’s lost and what’s gained in that transition?
I’ll give you an example of something that’s gone well. We have a practice of having #OneTeam, full-company meetings every month, and we were nervous about doing these #OneTeams completely virtually. Previously, these meetings would be hosted in-person from San Francisco or another office location and broadcast to other offices.
But as it turns out, our all-virtual #OneTeam meetings have been so much more engaging that I don’t think we’re going to go back to that in-person practice when all this is over. We have Slack channels running the entire time, so people make comments and ask questions in real time, which raises accountability and transparency from presenters. And because everybody is remote, everyone has the exact same experience. It’s much more personal that way, much more up-close, and you don’t have that sense of “haves” and “have-nots” seeing people in the room and people not in the room.
And we think some of these changes will stick. We’re talking about having everyone join even small meetings on their computer, even if they’re sitting in the office.
What about some challenges?
Well, burnout. We’ve done several surveys of our employees — and one specifically for working parents. And overwhelmingly, we’ve heard people are really struggling with defining their schedules. So we’ve been monitoring this, and we’re seeing something like meeting overload. What used to be a quick conversation in the hallway has become a 30-minute meeting, and people are just getting really overloaded.
In response, we’ve refreshed our meeting guidelines: If you’re going to host a meeting, you must have a specific agenda. We’re encouraging people to call into a meeting by phone. We’ve pushed to establish team-wide agreements where members share when they’re going to be online and when they’re going to be offline. People have found that sharing that information helped alleviate some of the pressure to always be on.
Speaking of overload, how do you support teams that are dealing with surges of news right now?
So we launched something this year to respond to Covid-19 called the Tweep Exchange, where teams that are overloaded can pair up with teams that have some more bandwidth. Managers ramped up quick training programs, and we put a process in place for people to raise their hands and get trained on another type of work during a period of time, so they could help with surges and support other areas of the business.
Twitter has more than 5,000 employees all over the world. How have you been offering support to employees in terms of their physical and mental health?
We have a clinical psychologist who runs our global wellness program, and she’s made sure that we’re providing office hours and plenty of opportunities to engage with employees. Our health benefits provide several sessions of counseling for all of our employees, and we’re making sure that they’re aware of that resource.
For our working parents, we have a @TwitterParents Business Resource Group, which is great about flagging issues to us. And we had a survey with them and some listening sessions to understand some of the challenges that people were having, especially as schools started to send their kids home. So we’ve provided more benefits around day care support and flexible work hours, and we’ve worked with managers to make sure that they’re being as flexible as possible with working parents.
Have you tweaked performance evaluations?
Yes. We’ve suspended performance ratings for the year just to make sure that, as hard as everyone is working, and as stressed as everybody is, we need people to prioritize their own health and wellbeing over everything else.
This summer has also been a historic moment of protest and activism around racial justice in the U.S. How have you handled that?
Ultimately, we’ve used this moment as an opportunity to really make sure that we’ve got the right energy and the pace behind all the work that’s already underway. We’ve had an all-hands meeting that just focused on inclusion and diversity to talk about all the work that we’re currently doing and the work on our roadmap, so that people are clear about where we might have gaps and what our plans are to fill those gaps.
We’ve also had several listening sessions with all Tweeps to hear their experiences, to make sure that we’re fully understanding their multitude of experiences. We’ve run a survey to help better understand: Do our people feel included? Where do we have gaps? It’s going to be an ongoing journey, and we’re never going to feel like we’ve completely accomplished what we want to accomplish.
You’ve mentioned managers a few times. How are you thinking about the role of managers and what resources have you been providing them?
One of our biggest learnings has been how important frontline managers are to the success of any kind of major transition. It’s not only their ability to manage remote employees, but also their ability to make sure that they’re keeping their hand on the pulse of how their employees are feeling. They’re that first line of defense to help us understand what’s happening and what’s needed.
So, we’ve done very targeted training and provided online resources for our managers around managing distributed teams. And then also around how to engage and leverage all the resources and benefits Twitter provides, how they think about their flexible schedules for their teams, how they do monthly check-ins to make sure that they’re managing an appropriate workload with their people.
What’s the future of Twitter’s office spaces?
We’re looking into how to reconfigure our workspaces, not just for social distancing purposes, but for how our people may want to use the office in new and different ways.
Our people actually already had the option of being “remote forever,” if you will, before Covid. We’re just making sure they understand now that they can always opt into that. Given the surveys that we’ve done and the information we’re getting back from our people, we’ve definitely seen a growing appetite for people who want to be full-time remotes coming out of this. Our office configuration will ultimately depend on what percentage of people actually want to come back and what percentage would rather do a hybrid of WFH and work from the office. But it’s going to fundamentally change. It’s safe to assume that the largest cohort of Tweeps will not be in the office full-time once we reopen.