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Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, organizations have had to quickly consider how a disease outbreak would affect their operations and outlooks. But for BlueDot, the whole company had been doing exactly that for years. And when the time came, they were ready.

BlueDot’s global early warning system combines human and artificial intelligence to assess and contextualize risk from infectious disease outbreaks. The fast-growing Canadian company was among the first in the world to identify the emerging risk from COVID-19. BlueDot used its proprietary models to predict the global spread of COVID-19, and published the first scientific paper on the disease. It then disseminated real-time information to clients, including governments, hospitals, and airlines.

We recently spoke to Cerys Cook, the Director of People and Culture at BlueDot, about what it has been like to work for an organization so involved in the COVID-19 pandemic, and how BlueDot’s people strategies have adapted as a result.

About Cerys

Cerys leads BlueDot’s people practice supporting strategic success through design, implementation, and refinement of our People and Culture strategy. She profoundly believes in the power of people and building strong mission and values driven cultures. She is a seasoned professional bringing over 20 years of HR, People, Culture and Employer Branding experience to BlueDot. Cerys has held multiple leadership positions within fast-paced culture focused companies receiving the following recognition during her tenure: Canada’s Most Respected Corporate Cultures, Great Place to Work Canada and Canada’s Best Managed Companies.

What has your experience been like working at BlueDot, a company that is leading the curve in terms of information about the current pandemic?

I would say I have been doing the best work I’ve ever done, although it really doesn’t feel like work because the team is unbelievable. Our purpose is so strong and our founder and CEO, Dr. Kamran Khan has truly been our guiding light. He leads our amazing team of subject matter experts who help our partners around the world frame the reality of what’s going on right now. It’s incredibly rewarding to be working for a company that has a direct impact on helping the world manage COVID-19. 

At the same time, this means our team is always thinking about the pandemic. We’re really focused on supporting them with an employee and family assistance program, lunch and learns on mental health, Q&As with our experts on what we know about COVID-19, guided meditation sessions, and of course, continuous feedback.

As you’re relatively new to the team, what did you plan when you started at BlueDot, and how has that shifted as a result of COVID-19?

I started in January at the same time that COVID-19 was beginning. We still had the luxury of in-person meetings back then, so I actually met with every team member to get their perspective, a little bit of history, and their views on what has worked and what hasn’t worked in the past. 

I needed to understand my own team and the overall company strategies to align the people strategy with the organizational goals. I’d just finished developing that full strategy and was about to present it to the organization when suddenly everything shifted. We had to take everything remote. And then, all of a sudden, there was a big spotlight on our work. We faced more volume than the existing team could handle. Most of the people and culture team’s focus had to instantly shift to recruitment and onboarding as we hired teammates quickly and without sacrificing high standards that we have in place around quality of candidates, cultural contribution, and aligning with our values. 

As people were hired, we worked to ensure that our onboarding was the best that it can be, providing those new team members with the very best employee experience possible despite never having met them face-to-face. 

It wasn’t just one or two people — the company has doubled in size in the last couple of months. But at the same time, there’s no sense in building a team on one end and then losing your team on the other end because you’re not supporting development opportunities for your existing team. So we’ve been making sure that we’re having those conversations and continuing to focus on employee development.

How has the company culture shifted and what are some of the initiatives that you are taking to keep the company culture alive during this time?

We’re lucky because our team already had the ability to very securely work from home. So we didn’t need to implement new systems that way. In addition, because of the nature of our work, we uniquely knew this was coming before just about anyone. So it was easier for us to prepare and we had time to fix any bugs that came up before we all switched to working from home.

Our culture is people first, and that’s largely remained untouched. We do the right things for the team because it’s the right thing to do. And doing the right things really allows our team the ability to do their very best work, even remotely. 

That said, we do miss each other and the collegiality of being in the same space, and we are definitely looking forward to getting back to that. 

How has it been adjusting to working fully remote?

The biggest thing that stuck out in the beginning was video-call exhaustion and the feeling of the team needing to be on all the time. It became a huge issue, so we mindfully implemented a few things to combat that. We really got better at cutting 30-minute meetings down to 15-minute standups with clear and concise agendas. Then we moved some of those more meaningful one-on-one conversations to be a little bit longer so teammates could discuss their growth and development with their leaders. 

We also have turned off self view on Zoom. In normal life, you do not look at yourself in the mirror when you’re talking, so why would you want to do that during a video call? It is a small change, but it has been a game changer.

Another really important thing that we did very early on as a leadership team was deciding that we needed to be extremely intentional about when we were sending messages out to the team. So we either set a time delay on those late-night emails, or save the draft and then send them out in the morning. We do the same on Slack and in phone calls: We stick to core hours unless it is extremely urgent. And we’re mindful about how we define urgent.

What are the biggest challenges you’re facing right now from a people perspective, and what has your strategy been for addressing those?

We really wanted to keep offering performance feedback, onboarding training, and more, while being remote. So we’ve switched to a lot of online tools organization wide, which is extremely helpful, and a great way to keep everything in one place. We recently implemented 15Five to keep that continuous feedback as open as possible and facilitate the weekly one-on-ones and individual growth dialogues that we’re having with our teams. We also implemented BambooHR for onboarding for recruiting. And we’ve been using tools like Zoom for those one-on-one conversations we would would normally have in person to really train and get people onboarded into the systems as well as very importantly, the work itself. 

Do you have any anecdotes about exemplary leadership that you’ve seen during this time?

The entire team is great across the organization, so it feels wrong to just highlight only a few. I’m so incredibly proud and impressed by how they have adapted to this “new normal”, which isn’t normal at all. From organizing random social events on Zoom to keeping the team engaged through our Slack channels to really making use of the “high five” feature on 15Five. We’re checking in on a regular basis with team members who live alone and may be struggling with this physical distancing a little bit more than others, and then also making sure that those people who are surrounded by their loved ones are okay, too.

Can you speak to diversity within your organization?

As an organization, we’re very diverse in the traditional sense of the word, but also through the eclectic group of people that we brought together. We come from so many different schools of thought, and work to ensure every voice is heard and every person is valued. We encourage every single person always to bring their authentic selves to work along with their unique thoughts and opinions, which makes it easier for us to solve this complex problem that we’re lucky enough to be able to tackle on a global scale. Our diversity is very clearly our strength.

My hope for BlueDot is that we continue to build the most incredible team that I’ve ever had the opportunity to work among, and to continue to grow together. As we build tools to manage risk for our clients and our partners, BlueDot will play a key role in helping governments, companies, and individuals better respond to the next disease outbreak. It’s a bold mission, and I’m very excited that we’ve got the right team and strategies in place to take it on.