Encourage bottoms-up innovation and not just innovation driven by management: Stella Joshua, Uber
Today’s products and services— along with the processes and systems that design, build, market, and deliver them— can become obsolete overnight, with replacements subject to their own displacement just as fast.
In such turbulent times, conventional strategic planning processes are no longer robust enough as companies must also strive to keep a pulse on disrupters that can threaten or provide opportunities that impact their strategy.
In this interview, Stella Joshua, Senior HR Business Partner Tech, India, Uber Technologies interacts with People Matters on how HR can play an enabling role in building businesses for the future that fuels constant innovation.
Q: What were some of the people priorities fueled by the crisis that led you to reimagine your people agenda for 2021 and beyond?
During the early days of the pandemic, Uber relooked at its work philosophy and reiterated that the company is, and was built on, rapid action (Hustle) with an intent to help people in a new way ("Heart"). With the 'Hustle and Heart' philosophy, the leadership encouraged managers and teams to be empathetic to the unique situation of teams, and also address challenges for women who are caregivers.
In November 2020, Uber announced the Global Caregiver Enhanced Flexibility Policy for COVID. This policy provides flexible options to parents and caregivers during the extended work-from-home period. Options include workday flexibility, freedom to change daily/weekly schedules (within reason and based on conversations with managers), and changes in shift assignments should the need arise. Employees should work with their managers to find the best solution that supports both the employee and their continued productivity.
- Flexibility throughout the day: Working hours and days are unchanged, but caregivers can skip low-priority meetings (as needed) and get caught up later by a colleague or Zoom recording.
- Redistributing work hours: The same amount of time is worked each week but work hours and/or days can be modified (e.g., working long hours on some days and shorter hours on others).
- Shift changes: Employees can request shift changes to better align with their schedule (e.g. moving from morning to evening shift if someone needs to manage homeschooling responsibilities).
- Reimbursement was extended for COVID-19 tests medically requested by a registered doctor
- Virtual consultations are reimbursable under medical outpatient program ‘COVID Care 360°’- a comprehensive platform through a self-pay basis to get access to COVID-19 testing and home/hotel care packages to isolate/recover
- Time off: two half days of leave for employees taking the vaccine shot
Uber recognized the need to support its employees in these difficult times. We created structures for this:
- Bonus & Equity: Uber provided a cash bonus advance and equity advance to ensure employees were enabled and motivated as they work remotely.
- Office set up stipend: Stipends were given to enable office set up at home.
- Wellbeing allowance was expanded to allow anything that could not be brought home (or can’t be easily transported) from their desk at the office
Q: As firms scramble for competitive advantage, what do you think about the role of HR; how HR can play an instrumental role in enhancing the innovation quotient of an organization and ingrain it as a core of the business?
In 2020, Uber felt the need to structure and cascade the performance philosophy and program. Providing a concrete Impact framework and competency structure enabled employees to hinge their work around innovation. The year was one of the internal and external hackathons to energize and generate multiple ideas for Uber.
- Bringing in a diverse group including girls from colleges and universities via our program She++ helped them get a view of how Uber works but also helped us understand the needs of that demographic.
- Setting up a platform for diversity and inclusion sparks innovation: Uber introduced Bias Busters, Allyship and other programs to build an inclusive environment for a diverse workforce
Programs such as Lightbulb and My Innovation Time (MIT) provide several hours and frameworks to employees to pursue their individual/team ideas. Several work charters and product features have been introduced via these programs.
Q: What is the current challenge when it comes to innovation at an organization-wide level? How is Uber, which is the center of innovation, solving this dilemma/challenge you shared?
Being remote takes away the real-time culture connection, given we are growing at scale it takes longer for employees to absorb Uber’s innovative culture. The introduction of various tech-enabled mediums, discussion forums, lightning talks have helped accelerate the same.
In the new world it is key to look at innovation at the micro and macro level. We encourage bottoms-up innovation and not just innovation driven by management
Q: How do you see diversity leading the vision of an innovative business? How is Uber championing D&I efforts which directly impact the company's innovation quotient?
Uber is set up at every stage of the employee lifecycle to champion diversity and inclusion.
- Recruitment: Uber has adopted the ‘Mansfield rule’ that ties directly back to getting the desired mix of diversity into the organization
- She++: This is a campus program where we provide students an opportunity to visit Uber, it is learning for our employees and for the students
- Bias Busters: This program is designed to make our employees aware of unconscious biases and suggest ways to address them.
- Culture Forward: This program is designed to set Uber’s views on D&I and to give the opportunity to have an open and honest conversation to bring a change in the culture.
- Employee Resource Groups (ERGs): Uber incentivizes employees to drive resource groups with employees with similar interests. This builds the fabric of inclusion. A list of some of the Employee Resource Groups are seen below
- Diversity Advisory Council: Diversity Advisory Council includes six ERG members from around the world, as well as external experts across a variety of fields. They met to discuss and give feedback on Uber's diversity and inclusion strategy and initiatives.
- Global Self Id: We have expanded the set of options available to better allow employees to share information about how they identify themselves. Sharing this information is entirely voluntary. The idea is to help us create a more holistic picture of our workforce. We can’t measure our progress around diversity and inclusion without data, and we want to make sure we’re counting as many as possible
Q: Creative abrasion, the ability to develop a marketplace of ideas not from a single flash of insight but from a series of sparks generated through rigorous discourse and debate, is said to be a core capability needed to engage in innovative problem-solving. What are your views and how is HR in Uber accelerating this capability in the workforce?
Many teams within Uber are committed to looking at a holistic three-year plan with regards to their workforce. This enables a proactive approach and periodic check-ins to see if we are on the path we intend to take. Uber is dynamic and market sensitive, these changes build opportunities to drive innovation.
We have programs that provide several hours and frameworks to employees to pursue their individual/team ideas. These programs are revised every six months. Several work charters and product features have been introduced via these programs to celebrate innovation and success. We have employee-generated videos called ‘My aha moment at Uber’ that reinforce our culture of innovation.
Q: Governing innovation is not easy! It takes the courage to act in the long-term interests of the organization even when markets are more short-sighted. Can you share some suggestions when it comes to governing innovation as the priority and focus among all the levels in an organization?
In India, Uber has an employee-empowered approach to address governance for initiatives. Multiple pillars are created by employees and managers that are tracked quarterly, the success criteria are evaluated and tweaks are made.