CIO Perspective On Navigating the Safe Return Of Employees To The Workplace

By Pat Calhoun • September 15, 2020

Over the past several months, I have had the privilege of speaking with CIOs and IT leaders about their responses to the pandemic. My conversations have focused on the crucial roles of digital transformation and automation in ensuring success for remote workers. Now, 6 months into the pandemic – which abruptly impacted every facet of our lives since March – enterprises are navigating how to safely bring employees back to the physical workplace. Most will move forward with a hybrid approach that is a combination of work from home and work in office.

Today, my interview with Kumud Kalia, CIO of Guardant Health, has helped me gain perspective on how the Guardant Health team is bringing employees back onsite, best practices for quickly delivering automated solutions that employees will adopt, and their approach to addressing employee burnout and workplace culture for both in-office and remote employees.

Pat: Tell us about Guardant Health and how your organization was impacted by the pandemic. Have you started bringing employees back onsite?

Kumud: While many of our employees were able to work remotely at the start of the pandemic, as a healthcare company, we have a number of essential workers. As an example, the Guardant Health Lab processes blood samples from cancer patients, and that requires a level of onsite staffing. We’ve had to make our office a safe place for the employees that need to be here, which means we will be a step ahead of many organizations when we are ready to bring our entire workforce back to the workplace.

Pat: As a company that has brought some groups of employees back to the physical workplace, what are some best practices other organizations can learn from your processes and protocols?

Kumud: We’ve implemented the usual health and safety protocols such as social distancing, frequent cleaning, hand sanitizing stations, and designated pathways. We also pre-screen our onsite employees prior to their arrival, requiring that they declare their health status daily, which then activates their badge for entry. This is a private declaration via a customized application in Slack and is linked to our access control system. We also require weekly COVID-19 tests for our onsite employees. We provide a COVID-19 test kit that we’ve developed here at Guardant Health and which recently received FDA authorization. This has shown to be extremely effective for our own employees, but we’d like to distribute this broadly. We see this as being ahead of the curve compared to our Bay Area peers.

Pat: Now more than ever, enterprises must be able to provide frictionless help to their employees when and where they need it. Without that, employees will continue to struggle, and digital transformation initiatives will fail. Can you provide some best practices for enabling workforce productivity during this time?

Kumud: What differentiates us from many other companies during the pandemic is that we are still in a high growth mode, so we are hiring. We can do a lot of routine things to help streamline the onboarding process such as delivering laptops to homes and providing online training. But once that happens and employees are set up, people can’t do what they would have done if they were in the office. New employees can’t tap their colleagues on the shoulder to get answers to their questions, and without a centralized place to go for answers, employees can feel lost and frustrated. Social experiences have migrated to Slack, where employees expect immediate answers. But Slack can be disruptive and there is no service level agreement for when an answer will come, or if it will be the right answer.

For employee self-help, organizations are not using intranets like they used to. We’re in a new wave of ‘intranet’ – one that is mobile centric and virtual support agent based. Employees seek an instantaneous response and answer to their questions and prefer automated technologies, like virtual support agents. We use Espressive Barista as a social experience that provides our employees with immediate feedback for any enterprise question. I originally saw Barista as a tool for only the IT help desk, but now I see Barista as an enterprise tool. We are rolling Barista out with IT, Facilities, and People Teams at the moment.

Pat: Yes, and with employees coming back onsite, and new employees starting in a hybrid work environment, you must be getting an onslaught of questions from employees about COVID-19 and the company’s policies around that. Is that the case?

Kumud: Yes, we’re seeing a lot of questions regarding COVID, testing, and office accessibility. Different states also have different health-driven policies and requirements. This is all information that can be made available to Barista, and that eases employee stress when Barista quickly customizes answers based on their location. With Barista, our subject matter experts can customize answers, which means our People Team doesn’t have to remember every policy or continuously look them up. The experience for employees is that they receive a single, customized answer rather than having to comb through knowledge articles looking for a needle in a haystack. We want to give people options and create a safe workplace environment with easily accessible answers for all employee questions.

Pat: A recent study revealed that 62 percent of employed Americans are now working from home, and while 41% are more productive than before, there are concerns that those employees could “burn out” from working too many hours. At the same time, one in three employees are struggling, bringing concerns of employee experience and wellness to the forefront. How are you tackling these concerns for your hybrid workforce?

Kumud: There is not a one size fits all approach to dealing with burnout or employee well-being. The distinction between work and life is sort of gone at the moment – we have all felt that. There is no delineation between fitting in time for work and being present for family members. We are very flexible and tolerant of people being home and getting interrupted by kids or pets during work meetings. What was once seen as unprofessional is now routine for most of us.

Pat: It seems that Guardant Health is doing a great job dealing with the challenges of a hybrid workforce. It’s refreshing to know that many in leadership positions like yourself are back onsite with essential employees.

Kumud: Yes, we think of the office as a safe place. It is helpful for employees that are on site to see the management team on site. I believe that leading by example is key to creating a great workplace culture. Just as important is providing the right tech stack and IT initiatives to support our growth during the pandemic. Employees receiving immediate answers to questions from a virtual support agent is critical in supporting workforce productivity and employee well-being.


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