The future of work, according to Gloria Chen, is not one destination —it is a journey, one where we will be learning as we go. In an interview with The HR Digest, Chen explains how she is future-proofing Adobe through digital transformation —and how she sees the Taking Action Initiative as the path toward growth and advancement for the historically underrepresented talent groups.
The HR Digest: Adobe has been recognized as the World’s Best Workplace by Great Place to Work and Fortune for the sixth year in a row. Do you still see room for improvement in Adobe’s employment practices?
Gloria Chen: I’m incredibly proud of the recognition that we’ve received over the years. It’s a testament to the values that have been established since our company’s founding: that our people are our most important assets, great ideas come from anywhere in the company, and we should treat others the way we would like to be treated. We’ve worked hard to live those values over the years in how we hire, grow and promote talent; how we cultivate a strong sense of community and belonging; and through our progressive benefits and programs. But as a company who also values innovation and “looking around the corner,” we are always challenging the status quo —so absolutely, there is always room for improvement!
We were certainly tested with the onset of the pandemic, as almost all our 24,000 employees moved to remote work overnight. Suddenly, “employee experience” was not just about the workplace experience —it was about juggling personal and professional responsibilities throughout the day, while working from a variety of home environments, including living rooms and kitchen tables. The basics started with covering home office setups and providing extra time-off benefits, and soon expanded to reimbursing the cost of kids’ activities while parents worked. Seeing mental health emerging as a front and center concern, we provided meditation apps and emotional wellbeing workshops, along with our employee assistance program which offers free counseling support. But by far the most appreciated benefit was giving our entire workforce every third Friday off to allow everyone to unplug and recharge together.
Adobe For All is a core platform of our employee experience, and during the pandemic, our employee networks went global as they stayed connected and engaged virtually. In 2020, our Diversity and Inclusion team and the Black Employee Network launched the Taking Action Initiative task force to explore and drive actions we could take to make meaningful change internally and externally to the company. In addition to improving existing programs and practices, the effort led to a dedicated diversity talent acquisition team and greater HBCU and HSI partnerships, a sponsorship program to support career advancement, and other programs. Involving employees from concept to execution has helped us stay focused on what matters most to both our workforce and the communities we serve.
Looking ahead, what does the “future of work” at Adobe look like?
We believe the future of work is hybrid. Digital transformation has fundamentally changed how we work, as we now have the ability to work anywhere. And as a company, we’ll lean into digitally enabled workflows and digital tools and resources for people to be productive working wherever they are. But at the same time, we believe in the value of people being together and that trust, good relationships, and collaboration come from people spending time and working together.
We’re working hard to enable digital-first workflows across our Adobe employee experience —from onboarding new employees, virtual collaboration tools, and learning and development opportunities. Our smart digital campus Adobe Life app will be at the center of this transformation, giving in-person and remote employees access to a variety of health and wellness tools as well as being able to book meeting spaces, order food from the office café, and make appointments with IT.
At the same time, we’ll be intentional about in-person interactions, and we know the design of our physical spaces as vibrant hubs for in-person gatherings is key. We like the “neighborhood” concept —a mix of design, technology, and service within each Adobe office to encourage and support casual collisions, impromptu gatherings and collaboration. We’ll also have flexible meeting spots for hybrid teams, providing a dedicated space with a range of configurable settings such as multi-modal furniture.
One innovation I’m particularly excited about is the experimental approach we are taking to evaluate different hybrid work approaches, working with several volunteer engineering and sales leaders. We’re A/B testing different virtual onboarding approaches and measuring the impact on sales productivity ramp, and testing the impact of different work schedules on engineering productivity metrics. We know that the future of work is not one destination —it is a journey, one where we will be learning as we go. This model of engaging employees in the ideation, experimentation, and learning is so in line with the idea that good ideas come from everywhere —one of the principles our company was founded on. And as a company filled with analytical engineers, empirical evidence is a fantastic way to promote the best ideas!
With one of the largest and most diversified software companies such as Adobe, you must have a unique perspective on what is essential with core competencies for leaders navigating key challenges in the future of work?
As a global software company, we have decades of experience with software teams who are geographically distributed. Pre-pandemic, many Adobe teams had already adopted some form of a hybrid work model and we knew that “one size fits all” is not a workable strategy.
Based on our pre-pandemic experience as well as more recent experiences as employees have re-entered the office, we’ve found that there are four key areas leaders should focus on when navigating the future of work:
- Shift the focus from where and when people work to trust and outcomes: Leaders need to lead with compassion, share expectations and goals proactively with their teams, and regularly check-in with their employees to build trust.
- Lead purposeful and inclusive digital-first meetings: When managing hybrid teams, leaders must think asynchronously and reconsider if a meeting is necessary, be diligent about sharing meeting agendas and pre-reads ahead of time, as well as capture and share action items post-meeting.
- Include wellbeing as part of work: Wellbeing is no longer a nice-to-have. Leaders must take care of their own wellbeing first and lead by example, be open to flexibility and what individual needs are, and create a sense of community and belonging with their teams.
- Commit to growing careers for all: To ensure both remote and hybrid employees are on an equal playing field, leaders must be inclusive of all team members and understand individual strengths and development areas regardless of their location and encourage career growth.
The future of work is not just about changing policy and process —it’s a cultural and organizational transformation that won’t happen overnight. If leaders can start with these best practices, we’ll set ourselves up for success as we navigate challenges in our new hybrid world.
You’ve been with Adobe for quite a while. What would you say have been the most interesting transformations in your career?
Without a doubt, the most interesting transformation in my 20+ years at Adobe was our move from selling boxed software to the cloud over the past decade. It’s literally a Harvard Business School case study in business model transformation, but when I think back on it, the impact on the entire organization has been amazing. When I started at the company, our products like Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Acrobat were updated once every two years and were sold in boxes through mail-order catalogs. There wasn’t a lot of direct customer interaction, and innovation was hindered by this schedule. Our business plateaued and growth stalled.
To keep up with the pace of innovation and to reinvigorate growth, we decided to move our software to the cloud and offer it as a subscription model. But there were challenges with this transition to subscription: it meant customers would have to change how they buy our software, and our annual revenue would drop by hundreds of millions of dollars as we dropped our price and built up a subscriber base. And above all else, this meant we had to rethink every part of how we operated the business —from how we continually release new product features and engage with customers on every part of the customer journey, to how we update our financial and business cadence and motivate and incent our salesforce.
What we learned about this from a change management perspective were three things: having the courage of our convictions about our strategy, having champions within the organization who believed in and could affect change, and never tiring of the communication of where we were headed and why. This context setting was critical in empowering teams to drive change in a way that was geared toward learning and iteration. Transformations come with a lot of unknowns and being able to maintain focus and the conviction of our leaders and teams in the vision led to the success of Adobe Creative Cloud, Adobe Document Cloud, and Adobe Experience Cloud.
What’s the key lesson you want aspiring CHROs to take away from your work?
As a non-HR professional stepping into a CHRO role right as the pandemic was hitting, I was immediately immersed into the trenches with my Employee Experience leadership team. I was both humbled and incredibly appreciative of their expertise, capabilities, and dedication to our employees, and quickly found my groove by utilizing my own strengths in structured problem-solving, change management, and communication-capabilities developed over the years both as a consultant, chief of staff, and frequent leader of cross-functional virtual teams. I learned that as a leader, I don’t have to have all the answers and I don’t have to do it alone —we each bring our strengths to the table to serve a common purpose.
But beyond the work of the Employee Experience team, what I have come to appreciate over the past year –especially with the passing of one of our beloved co-founders – is the incredible responsibility that I have as the voice of our values and culture. Ultimately, bearing that torch is the most important role that I play, bridging the past, present, and future employees for Adobe.
How are you going to shake things up next?
Adobe has an amazing mission of changing the world through digital experiences, and this means we have a tremendous growth opportunity —and our employee experience is no exception. This year, we are celebrating Adobe’s 40th anniversary, and I believe it is going to be a turning point year for the company. We need to be prepared, resilient, and agile as we create our future. When I think about my future at Adobe, I get excited about building on our great foundation of people-centric culture and values and applying it to new ways moving forward as we set our company up for success for the next 20 years.
As Chief People Officer and Executive Vice President, Employee Experience, Gloria Chen leads all aspects of people strategy and operations for Adobe, including talent development, diversity and inclusion, and all human resources functions. She’s charged with creating an exceptional employee experience for more than 25,000 employees across 75 locations around the globe.
Gloria serves on the board of The Tech Interactive in San Jose and the Carnegie Mellon Electrical & Computer Engineering advisory council.
This profile was published in the January 2022 issue of The HR Digest.