Dawn Sharifan quote "It's the underlying culture of a workplace which really drives a sense of connectedness."

Dawn Sharifan is keenly aware of the vital role HR professionals can play in the digital workplace to ensure employee experiences help attract and retain staff.

"There is a Voltaire quote that I love, made popular by Spider-Man, that says, 'With great power, comes great responsibility,'" she said. "We have a tremendous responsibility to our employees, our business and ourselves as HR professionals: Never stop learning and always strive to improve your craft."

Sharifan is currently the head of people operations at Slack Technologies. Prior to joining Slack in August 2015, she worked in a variety of HR roles at companies including BrightSource Energy, CBS Interactive and E-LOAN. Since 2013, Sharifan has also taught as an adjunct professor in San Francisco State University’s Business Department to help nurture the next generation of HR professionals.

"From my years of experience, I’ve come to view HR as a craft," she said. "Teaching helps me more deeply interact and learn from the next generation slated to enter the workforce and prepare them to do their best."

'Transparent, Accessible and Collaborative’

Working at Slack and teaching at SF State has given Sharifan the opportunity to think about and influence the future of work. "I believe that the workplaces of the future will be transparent, accessible and collaborative," she said.

What keeps Sharifan working in HR is the knowledge that she’s having an impact on the lives of others.

"People spend a lot of time at work and the way that work defines values, creates rewards and/or offers learning, are the moments that will professionally matter," she said. "Creating community and connection in service of business objectives can be hard, but the hard things are also the most rewarding. Who wouldn’t want to do the hard thing?"

Sharifan is a speaker at CMSWire and Digital Workplace Group’s Digital Workplace Experience taking place June 17 to 19 at the Radisson Blu Aqua hotel in Chicago. She will be giving a session titled, "How HR Can Help Fix Employee Experience" on June 18. Slack is one of the sponsors of the conference.

We spoke with Sharifan about the changing role of HR within organizations, current gaps in employee experiences, and the positive impact supporting life-long learning and side products can have on both employees and companies.

Provide Meaning and Impact to Avoid Employee Burnout

CMSWire: How have you seen the role of HR within organizations change and what impact has that shift in importance had on businesses as a whole? What are your thoughts on the scope and purpose of HR departments in the future?

Sharifan: The role and expectations in HR have changed dramatically. HR is no longer an administrative or even exclusively a service organization.

HP CHRO Tracy Keogh once said, 'HR doesn’t need a seat at the table, we are the table.' So, everything the business builds and does is on the foundation of people. You can have the best business strategy in the world, but if your team doesn’t want, or know how to follow you, you are sunk before you’ve even begun.

Overall, workers want to feel connected to the work they are doing and the colleagues they are working alongside — to be part of a community. The value of connectedness cannot be underestimated when it comes to creating a collaborative and productive workplace.

I believe that the future of HR is that of a strategic business coach. This means having deep business acumen, analytical skills and the “soft skills” that allow others to drop their defenses and get to the deeper-level business challenges, which inevitably involve how humans work together. Traditionally this might be known as organizational design, recognition and engagement.

CMSWire: In your opinion, where are the key gaps today in the employee experiences organizations provide to their staff? What are companies forgetting to take into account when thinking about redesigning employee experiences?

Sharifan: Culture is incredibly important and can be underestimated when it comes to the employee experience. However, culture is not just HR’s job, it’s everyone’s job.

Collaboration tools, like Slack, and app integrations, may help to foster a transparent working environment, but it’s the underlying culture of a workplace which really drives a sense of connectedness.

Every company builds two things: the products they sell, and the culture inside the company. At Slack, we believe that our culture is a competitive advantage. We help teams bring the right people and knowledge together to help get work done.

Our customer HubSpot uses Slack to support its global culture, beginning day one of a new employee’s start date. For example, HubSpot team leaders customize a bot to deliver exactly what new hires need to know and when, so they feel in the loop and connected.

CMSWire: How should organizations think about measuring employee experience? What should they do with those metrics once they’ve gathered them?

Sharifan: Understanding your employees and performing a temperature check of their satisfaction involves listening to them, really hearing what they have to say, and answering the questions they bring forward.

It’s important to have challenging conversations out in the open and to discuss questions or concerns at the leadership and management level.

We’ve seen some HR departments use Slack to poll company culture and conduct employee sentiment checks. For example, Trivago has a bot that sends weekly surveys to employees, promoting a frequent feedback cycle throughout the organization. The HR and organizational development teams review the answers quarterly and share reports with the whole company and address small concerns before they become large issues.

CMSWire: What more can organizations do to enable their employees to benefit from life-long learning? What are the benefits of investing in ongoing employee education and training for both an organization and its individual employees?

Sharifan: The number one characteristic I hire for on my team is eagerness to learn. I ask questions like “Are you a learner?” and “What have you learned recently?”

The world changes and evolves more quickly than ever before. I think organizations can help their employees by pushing them out of their comfort zones, such as providing stretch assignments that help deepen someone’s subject matter expertise.

Working in a different country, or even in a different building or on a different floor, will teach you something new. Develop your managers into coaches so you’re arming them with the knowledge and answers they need to respond to questions they face from employees.

CMSWire: What additional actions can organizations take to try to boost the health and happiness of their employees and to avoid burnout? What are the benefits of allowing staff time at work to focus on side projects or hobbies?

Sharifan: I believe an organization’s primary responsibility is to reduce and remove worries and distractions so employees have the greatest chance of successfully doing great work.

Paying employees a fair and equal wage, providing access to excellent healthcare for them and their families, creating an environment of dignity and respect in the workplace, where they can be their authentic selves, and providing clarity on a common goal are ways to increase engagement and create conditions for employees to increase their health and happiness.

Competing to provide every perk or concierge service to employees is not sustainable for an organization and research shows those things don’t fundamentally move the needle when it comes to employee health, happiness or engagement. Meaning and impact are the ways we avoid burnout.

I’m a fan of folks taking time to work on side projects or hobbies. At Slack, we’ve offered professional and personal development dollars for employees for years. We encourage employees to do things like take an Italian class or — in my case — learn how to fly a plane. We believe it adds to the whole person and that whole person will be a better employee for the organization.

CMSWire: What first sparked your interest in flying and led to you getting your pilot’s license? What do you like so much about flying? Are there lessons you’ve learned as a pilot that would also apply to the business world?

Sharifan: I always call my pilot’s license my first advanced degree. I grew up fairly poor and never knew anyone who had their own plane or that getting your pilot’s license was a possibility.

I dated a guy in my early 20s who was a pilot and we flew a lot, so I decided I’d better take a 'right seat' class so I could land the plane if we were ever in an emergency situation. From that moment on, I fell in love with flying. It pushed my boundaries of what I thought I could do and what I was comfortable with, and it helped me develop a sense of calmness internally in the midst of chaos.

If we as HR professionals can bring opportunities like these to our employees by encouraging them to push their boundaries and strive for calmness in chaos, then we’ve done our job. Those are the invaluable life skills that can be applied both inside the office and outside of work.

If there is one lesson I’ve learned as a pilot that applies to my job, it would be the first lesson they teach you when learning to fly: the teacher takes you up and then turns off the engine.

All my instincts wanted to panic as I expected the plane to plummet to the ground, but instead it turns into a glider and it’s quiet and you have time to think through what your next steps are and to run through a check-list of what to do.

This is what we do as HR leaders every day at work. We make a decision and decide whether we are going to panic, or stay calm and guide the team safely to the ground.

Learn more about the Digital Workplace Experience.