Better Business Begins with Strategic HR Partnership at Heart

Jason McRobbie

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Julie DeBuhr, head of HR for 1Password, knows just how far the human resources profession has come—and how exhausting the last two years of the journey has been despite the exponential progress made on multiple fronts. From winning the respect of employers juggling people problems on every front to championing the success of remote workers, the ascendancy of HR as a key business partner has never been more apparent. That said, it has not come without burden—and more heavy lifting with a light touch lies ahead.

Key Takeaways:

  • The role of HR as a key business partner has become far more widely accepted by the pandemic shutdowns and ongoing social crises.
  • Increasing numbers of professionals are wary of working for a company where HR is not leading the growth forward.
  • Putting HR’s people-first thinking at the heart of business is essential in an increasingly competitive and distributed scenario. 

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Work and the Wider World Now One

Since joining 1Password in 2020—a company that has been fully distributed since its inception—Julie has not only been at the heart of a massive upscaling across countries and continents, but had to contend with one social issue after another, each as dire as the last, and all with potential impacts on the business.

“I like to say it took us 10 years to go from zero to 200, and 10 months to go from 200 to 400 in 2020,” said Julie. “And then we did it again.”

1Password’s explosive growth parallels peoples’ growing awareness—particularly during the remote work mandated by the pandemic—of just how much of their lives is now carried on a range of devices.

Now numbering over 800 employees, spread across Canada, the U.S., the Netherlands and the U.K., 1Password has aligned its growth with extensive HR thinking from the start—a policy which has served them well throughout both their growth and the impact of the wider world on their employees.

“I think in general it has meant that HR has really had to be all things to everybody, and it may sound a bit cliché, but it’s the truth,” Julie explained. “At one minute, we can be sitting down with a manager going over an org chart and then the U.S. Supreme Court leaks a document that sends us in a completely different direction,” says Julie. “What do we do? How do we respond? Do we respond? What are the risks if we do or if we don’t? What do we do for our employees? And at the same time, you are still working the org charts with that manager. We have to try and balance the shifting context constantly, from conversation to conversation, email to email. It’s exciting, but exhausting.”

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The Smarts of Starting Up With HR at Heart

“I think we’ve been headed in this direction for a while. The curve towards employee-thinking was already in motion, especially in tech companies. Instead of waiting until companies got to 100 or 200 people before they brought on HR, they were bringing them on much sooner,” said Julie. “I certainly saw this with a lot of engineers who would not join a company if they did not have HR. That became a benchmark for companies showing employees that they were being thought of from the ground up.”

Truth be told, when Julie sees companies that have waited to bring on HR, “it’s usually a bit of a red flag.”

“A lot of startups begin with a founder and an idea, then the engineers and manufacturers, then the people to market and sell…and THEN someone to be in the HR role,” said Julie. “You can only do that for so long, but when you bring in HR from the beginning, you can get that strategic vision at the root of the business.”

The benefits of the HR business partner unfold from there.

“You can get strategic about what it’s going to take to scale the org. You can answer why it’s important for people to know about our great practices around how we handle crazy stuff?” said Julie. “Why is it important that we have identifiable values as a company that we can anchor to? Why is it important that people have someone they can talk to when things aren’t going right at work—or when they are going really well and we need to help that person advance?”

“The HR function is really being seen as just as strategic as a marketing leader, as strategic as a sales leader. It’s not the high school counsellor role, nor is it a paperwork role. It’s about asking, ‘how do we lead this business, through our people, to where we want to go? What do our people tell us they need? How do we allow people to do their best work for us?’ We need to take care of these things, but at the same time, the things we need to take care of today have really shifted,” said Julie, adding an important caveat. “What our parents needed, what we need and the needs of a 24-year old entering the workplace are different. But we need to be addressing them all.”

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Making the Implicit Explicit in the Remote Era

As for addressing those needs in the remote era, Julie acknowledges the ongoing learning process for many, but offers some ‘friendly’ advice that has served many well.

“I am going to steal a phrase from my friend. I would owe him a million dollars if he had it copyrighted. ‘We have to make the implicit explicit.’ In order to build community when you are distributed, you have to communicate more, you have to do more, be more,” said Julie. “It’s like going on a Broadway stage and learning to project to the back of the room so that they can hear you and have the same experience as the folks in the front row. I feel it’s very much the same in a distributed environment.”

“You have to communicate in six different places because some people want an email, others a video, some prefer Slack or another tool. You have to hit all those bases and communicate in a way to help people fill in the blanks in a distributed scenario. It can be as basic as letting people know, ‘I’m off to lunch,’” said Julie. “I think about this along more serious lines too, like a big change happening in the company. Before, you used to know when something big was happening in the office. There was a telegraphing of events in the shared office space. Now we need to be explicit in sharing what’s going on.”

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HR Stewards on the Road to True North

This renewed focus on both the mediums and the messaging has also created the opportunity for HR business partners to help companies better define and leverage their identity to build deeper relations with employees and customers alike.

“Amidst the pandemic and hybrid and remote work, we’ve been invited into people’s lives. We’ve been invited into their homes—we see a kid on a coworker’s lap, a dog in the background. People are showing up in ways that I find fascinating. I’ve been so lucky to have always worked in places where that was always okay, and I’m grateful for that experience,” said Julie. “Now, I’m glad to be in a position where I can help make sure that others can have the same encouraging and flexible experience as I did. Folks whose previous work situations may have restricted their options of where and how they work can now be more active members of their workforce and contribute to their teams. It’s extraordinary.”

In her work, Julie stays true to what HR has long championed what is now increasingly accepted as ‘sustainable business wisdom’—a strong connection to a core culture, one that conveys “who you really are, what your goals are, your True North.”

“We all need to be able to say, ‘Our company believes in these things. We do this work and we want you to want to do it. If you don’t, that’s okay—but this might not be the right place for you,’” said Julie.

Not only does this generally unite and delight any team, distributed or otherwise, it serves as a magnetic beacon for talent with not only the skills, but the values that drive your company.

“Business itself has not changed in a lot of ways. We are a company and we are meant to do a thing—whether that is to add value to our consumer or jobs for our employees: value for our stakeholders. There will always be that element of ‘work to be done’ and promises to be delivered upon for the market. That all still has to line up and for us, that has to be done remotely across four countries and 12 time zones,” said Julie.

For anyone still questioning the need of an HR business partner, Julie encourages you to consider the cost of thinking otherwise. The risks of not thinking people-first have never been more immediate.

“If I just made decisions for whatever bureaucratic reasons, employees could and would eventually quit. I am not willing to take that risk. I will do a lot to get to yes,” said Julie. “Because in the end, it’s a win for everybody.”