Episode 267: Asynchronous Work & How Upwork Supports Black Employees

Today’s podcast is part of a series on the Workology Podcast focused on the role and responsibilities of the Chief Human Resources Officer, or CHRO. The CHRO is an executive or C-level role that deals with managing human resources, as well as with organizational development and implementing policies of change to improve the overall efficiency of the company. The CHRO Podcast series on Workology is powered by HUB International. One of the reasons I wanted to do this series is because there is a lot of mystery around the CHRO role. I want aspiring CHRO’s to know what type of skills and experiences they need to promote into a future CHRO role along with hearing from senior HR leadership how they are partnering and collaborating with their executive peers. 

Episode 267: Asynchronous Work & How Upwork Supports Black Employees with Zoë Harte (@zoesharte)

I talked with Zoë Harte, the Chief People Officer at Upwork. She has guided the growth of the Upwork team by more than 75% since the Elance-oDesk merger in 2014. Harte focuses on building a mission-driven culture for Upwork’s team of employees and a global network of freelancers. Her philosophy of bringing one’s whole self to work has resulted in employee engagement scores that have exceeded industry benchmarks for 12 consecutive quarters. 

Zoë started her career as a temp worker staffing assistant at Yahoo, worked in customer relations for a time, and later joined oDesk as an HR business partner in 2013. “Being able to consume what HR offers as an employee is critical to understanding HR. It’s also important to understand the business of the business. What our company is doing, what’s the competitive landscape, what are our strategic initiatives. HR needs to be part of what is done through business initiatives.”

“Telling the truth all the time, especially when it’s hard...it’s your job when you’re the person who helps the CEO.” - @zoesharte #CHRO #WorkologyPodcast Click To Tweet

Upwork has always been a remote company and was likely more prepared than most of us when the pandemic began early last year. Even so, Zoë said transitioning the in-office employees at different levels of the organization to remote teams was challenging. “We want to create an environment where our team members can speak authentically about what’s happening with them.”

Zoë said the company moved to asynchronous work as its primary mode of communication. This concept simply means that work doesn’t happen at the same time for everyone and it can be a real asset for remote teams for many reasons, but especially if you have teammates in multiple time zones. It’s simply a change of expectations; work is completed and moved to the next stage, but a response is not expected until the next team member picks up their portion of the project. It’s a different way of managing projects and requires a lot of trust, but works well for dispersed teams.

I asked Zoë about the company’s Back to Better program, which stemmed from the global healthcare crisis. “What we decided is that we didn’t want to go back to normal. We wanted to go back to better, meaning embracing the asynchronous work style. We had someone with a background in crisis management who led our team to align tools, documentation, onboarding, resources, and so on. We wanted to come out of this pandemic better than when we began.” And many executives are discovering that their fear if people aren’t in the office, they won’t work – because many companies have seen a level of productivity from their remote teams that hasn’t happened before.

Creating an Anti-Racist Culture at Upwork

“I want to give credit to Dr. Erin Thomas who joined us in December of 2019; she came in and very rapidly helped us identify things that we were working on, but not doing as effectively as we could. There was an issue around inclusion and supporting our black employees in career development. She created a Black Excellence Summit in February of 2020, right before the shutdown, where all black employees met to talk about what Upwork can do better.”

Dr. Thomas is now Head of Diversity, Inclusion & Belonging and Talent Acquisition at Upwork and Zoë is thrilled to have her as a work partner within HR. “We wanted to create an Upwork that is all about inclusion…some of the most important work that we’re doing is in eliminating bias in our application and hiring processes.” 

“Erin also led the program offering bereavement leave for black employees in the summer of 2020; we recognized that the murder of George Floyd and anothers was a specific trauma for our black employees and we wanted to acknowledge that. It wasn’t just ‘I need a day away,’ it was a culmination of 400 years of systemic racism that impacted black employees so specifically,” said Zoë. “While we wish we didn’t need to create it, it felt important to acknowledge that this was different and we saw our black employees hurting.”

“It’s the job of HR to be a leader in confronting difficult situations and creating space for employee voices.” - @zoesharte #CHRO #WorkologyPodcast Click To Tweet

“We have a lot of great benefits for mental health and wellness, including therapy or coaching online, we have people on our platform who teach yoga on the side so we’ve had twice weekly standing yoga and meditation, encouraged employees to take vacation even though they’re not traveling, encouraged them to share how they are feeling, and giving them the opportunity to have really difficult conversations about what care we need, how to take care of ourselves…”

In employee surveys, Zoë said Upwork asked a lot of questions about feelings, about what support they need, and we borrowed an idea from another company called “candle in the wind” in which their employees could just check that box on a survey. “It means ‘get me out of here,” said Zoë. “It could be for a lot of reasons, from just restlessness to their home not being a safe place for them. It gave them a chance to let us help them get a break, without having to go into detail about personal issues.”

Candle in the wind is such a great idea, and still so relevant as many HR leaders are still searching for ways to support remote employees as the pandemic continues. Giving employees creative ways to ask for help, especially if that’s challenging for them, is an excellent way to keep health and wellness at the forefront of everything we do.

There have been so many changes in HR in the past decade, but we’ve never lost our focus on people. HR teams are now being formed around an executive level role like CHRO or Chief People Officer who are more connected to the strategy and operations of the overall business. This means that this leadership position has a large role in supporting culture, diversity and inclusion, employee engagement, employee health and wellness, and crisis management. I appreciate Zoë taking the time to share her experience with us. 

Connect with Zoë Harte.


Zoë Harte on LinkedIn

The Path Forward: Cultivating an Antiracist Company Culture (PDF)

Dr. Erin Thomas on LinkedIn

Dr. Erin Thomas on Twitter

– CHRO Job Description

– Upwork Career Site 

– The Great Unlearn

Me and White Supremacy: Combat Racism, Change the World, and Become a Good Ancestor by Layla F. Saad 

Episode 263: The Role of the CHRO Leading Change

Episode Transcript


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Jessica Miller-Merrell

Jessica Miller-Merrell (@jmillermerrell) is a workplace change agent, author and consultant focused on human resources and talent acquisition living in Austin, TX. Recognized by Forbes as a top 50 social media influencer and is a global speaker. She’s the founder of Workology, a workplace HR resource and host of the Workology Podcast.


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