When Zoë Harte was named HR leader at Upwork, the newly created company born of a merger between global freelancing-platform competitors Elance and oDesk, the organization was about to face a triple threat of transition: a rebranding, a new CEO and an initial public offering.
With a widely distributed workforce comprised of over 450 full-time employees and over 1,000 freelancers, Harte, as senior vice president of HR and talent innovation, had to confront the challenge of sustaining a corporate culture while keeping critical talent in-house and engaged during the transition and beyond.
Six months after going public in October 2018, however, the company’s engagement and retention figures exceeded previous levels, with engagement nearly 10 points higher than the industry average, and employee tenure roughly double that of its competitors.
One of the major driving factors of that success—which helped earn Harte a spot on this year’s HR Honor Roll—has been her commitment to fostering a corporate culture that empowers workers to bring their “whole selves” to work, with a strong focus on diversity, belonging and inclusion.
“Zoe’s role is incredibly unique,” says Stephane Kasriel, CEO of Upwork. “She architected a culture of trust, transparency and continuous improvement and has been able to retain the culture despite the company’s massive growth and maturation from scrappy start-up to large public company.”
Streamlining Talent Innovation
Upwork’s mission is to create economic opportunities so people have better lives, Harte says, “and, though we sell that, we also live that internally.” To that end, each of its departments uses Upwork freelancers—but, previously, each managed its own siloed processes differently. With nearly 1,500 full-time employees and freelancers working for the company at any time, it became clear to Harte there was room for improvement.
“It was somewhat efficient,” Harte says of the old process, “but certainly inconsistent about who had access to what parts of data sets and how people were being communicated with and how we were thinking about compensation.”
Harte and her team set out to centralize the function and build a homegrown solution to quickly access, scale, evaluate and engage freelance talent. Christened the Talent Innovation Program, TIP team members ensure a freelancer’s onboarding goes smoothly, that he or she has access to the right systems and is integrated into internal communications, “and that they understand how the work they do connects to our mission,” Harte says.
HR incubated the program into maturity, and it has since expanded and moved under operations.
“It’s become a great way to connect to a diversity of thought and experience and remain fully engaged in why we do what we do,” Harte says, “and how we are democratizing opportunity through the work we do.”
Breaking out of a siloed mentality is something Harte has experience with, starting with her tenure at Yahoo!, when she left the senior HR business partner role to lead international customer support in Dublin and oversee a 300-person organization across 20 countries.
Since that experience, Harte’s made it a part of her mission to “reinvent the corporate ladder”—a mode of thought she calls old-fashioned and limiting—by mandating that her own HR team gets that same sort of exposure outside of HR.
“People do their very best work when they are engaged, inspired and passionate about what they are delivering for the business and the impact they can make,” she says. That may not necessarily mean a linear succession of two-year stints followed by a promotion to bigger role in the same department.
“We think about it more as: Are you learning? Are you challenged? Are you motivated?” she says, adding that internal transfers and job rotations ensure workers get the exposure they need to succeed.
Last year, for example, a senior director on Harte’s HR team transferred to work as a product manager. While it was “two levels down” from her previous post, it was also a “huge opportunity” for the team member to share everything she had learned working on Upwork’s compliance-product project.
“They’re selling it to businesses,” Harte says, “and she understands exactly how that works and how it could be better. So, when she’s working with engineers and sales leaders, she’s helping them because she understands the HR piece of it.”
“Belonging and Connection”
Among the ways Harte has worked to maintain a sense of community at Upwork is with employee resource groups, including new ones for LGBTQ, African-American and Latino workers, as well as one for workers with families. The groups do more than garner increases in engagement scores, she says, adding that Upwork already enjoys higher retention and job-tenure rates than the industry average.
“That sense of belonging and connection we have here,” she says, “is something you have to consciously prioritize as an organization.” That is done, she says, by connecting people who are similarly situated in other life areas to “talk about what’s going great for them at Upwork,” as well as opportunities for improvement.
“I don’t pretend to know what it feels like to be a single dad or an African-American sales rep at Upwork,” she says, “but I care a heck of a lot about it, and I want that community to feel engaged and supported.”
The groups are run by employees themselves, not HR, she says. “We don’t drive the process. We remove roadblocks and get funding.”
For example, as a result of the ERG partnership, the company recently increased and updated its parental-leave policy to make it the same for birthing parents and partners. Now, both men and women can take leave all at once or over time during the first year, and it’s the same for adoption and fertility support.
It’s exactly that sort of result that drives Upwork’s success, says Upwork’s CEO.
“Zoë always brings value to the table,” Kasriel says, “and the initiatives she’s driven have resulted in a measurable impact on Upwork’s bottom line, as well as among the clients and freelancers we support.”