HR VP Shares How She Started a Thriving Virtual Roundtable to Connect and Collaborate During COVID and Beyond

HR Super Hero: Patricia Trudeau, SHRM-SCP, VP and Chief Administrative Officer

Organization: Association of Corporate Counsel is a global legal association that promotes the common professional and business interests of in-house counsel who work for corporations, associations and other organizations through information, education, networking and advocacy.

Number of Employees: 78 (in the District of Columbia and internationally)

Size of HR Team: 3

Patricia Trudeau

Over the course of the last year, HR professionals have supported and guided their organizations through great change, demonstrating their adaptability, resilience and compassion.

In recognition of these extraordinary efforts, XpertHR put out the call to business professionals asking them to nominate their HR Super Hero. We wanted to hear their stories and celebrate and showcase their achievements.

Our current HR Super Hero is Patricia Trudeau, VP and chief administrative officer at the Association of Corporate Counsel in Washington, DC. Patricia was nominated for establishing a successful virtual networking group for HR professionals, the HR Roundtable, as a way for colleagues to share learnings and advice during the COVID-19 pandemic. The weekly roundtable began with professionals in the DC area and quickly grew to include members across the United States working in a variety of industries, and it remains a valuable resource for its members. 

The interview has been edited for length.

How did you arrive at a career in HR?

Many years ago, I was working in retail part-time while also attending school. I was offered the opportunity to work in personnel - it was called personnel then and not HR. I absolutely loved it and moved into a training position. I dealt with staffing, benefits and all other areas of HR. I really enjoyed working with people and having the ability to support them from the organization's perspective, as well as just being able to help people in general. To me, that was really rewarding.

I've been in HR now for over 20 years. I currently oversee the HR and administrative functions, as well as the ACC Foundation and the communications team.

What were the major challenges that your team dealt with over the past year and how did you respond to them?

The biggest challenge initially was getting everybody comfortable with being out of the office, and keeping staff connected on a day-to-day basis.

The very first day we were all working from home, I started a virtual coffee. For 15 minutes every day, it was an opportunity for us to all get together. It has evolved throughout the pandemic to become an opportunity for us to touch base, to learn more about what other departments are doing, and to not feel so individually siloed working from our homes.

We have even used these morning coffees as an opportunity for people to share their life experiences and discuss the events of the past year, including social injustice and how it impacted them. Unfortunately, we've had staff who have lost family members and friends during this time, and these few minutes each morning gave us an opportunity to talk about it. We also did some lunch and learns, mindfulness sessions, and yoga at your desk. Our team really tried to do different things to allow employees the opportunity to have some sort of normalcy, while also having some fun, because as everybody knows, there was no longer that division between home and work. I think one of our most successful - and fun - engagement events was when staff received their own individual pizza delivered to their homes during our monthly global staff meeting.

Your organization also began offering employees a compressed work week. How did that come about?

People weren't finding a way to "turn off" during the pandemic. Knowing we were already working longer hours, the CEO and I wanted to come up with something that would provide employees an opportunity to know that they could turn off and not feel like they had to be "on" all the time. Staff were given the option to work four longer days and be off Friday or Monday. It's been received extremely well and has provided our staff the ability to take a day off without feeling they should be online connected and engaged.

Do you expect the compressed workweek to continue?

We are absolutely going to continue providing the flexibility as an option for staff. We're also working on putting together a hybrid policy. Staff can choose to be in the office for two days and work the rest of the week remotely - in addition to the option to do a compressed workweek. Staff can also choose to be in the office for five days a week. Whatever works best for them.

It's really great to have the flexibility, it makes work-life balance easier.

It does. I think for several years now, and the pandemic accelerated it, we have been seeing a rebalance that is more focused on the employee experience versus being more focused on the employer's experience, needs and how do we get the job done.

And yes, productivity went up during the pandemic, but so did mental health issues. You must look at the whole picture. We're going to meet an organization's needs even more if we can make sure that our staff is well taken care of and they're getting what they need. That includes a true work-life balance.

You were nominated as an HR Super Hero by one of your colleagues for creating and leading a virtual HR roundtable. What led you to create it, and how did it evolve into a vibrant group of over 100 people who get together regularly?

The HR Roundtable was born in May of last year. Our very first meeting, about 50 people attended. I started it because I wanted to know: What were other HR professionals doing? How were they handling the pandemic? What resources were they looking for and using? I'd been on webinars nonstop, and it felt like, since we'd gone remote, all the information coming our way was becoming a bit overwhelming. I knew that I couldn't be the only one feeling that way.

I reached out to one of the e-groups that I was on, posted that I'd like to start an HR roundtable and asked if anyone would want to join. Then I came up with a basic outline of what we could talk about, and it was so well received. So many people had questions and concerns and appreciated the opportunity to get together as HR professionals to talk about things that you can't really discuss internally. HR is that one group that takes care of everybody else, making sure that all their needs are met. But there's nobody saying to HR, "Are you doing okay? Are you making it through this all right?" This was the opportunity to do that and to help one another. It was also a chance to network with other HR professionals, discuss what you had been doing, and share and exchange the resources you are using.

I'm wondering what the virtual group provides that wasn't being met already by the other professional groups you belong to.

Well, one member of the HR Roundtable called it a 2.0 version of our e-groups because it's an opportunity to have a live conversation with someone. In the beginning of our meetings, everybody goes into a breakout group of four to five people. There, they can grow their network, ask specific questions, and hear what others are doing. Then, in the second part of the meeting, we all join together as the larger group and hear from one another. You're able to ask your question and get it answered, often by multiple people. E-groups are great and they're beneficial, but nothing replaces that one-on-one, human interaction. You can get so much more from those conversations than you can just from emails. You look at a resource and then you have a million questions. How can I make this apply to what we're doing? Will it be helpful?

Moving forward, we want to be able to tailor meetings specifically to what the current needs are in this ever-changing workplace. It's not that other sessions or webinars don't do that, but they were usually very one way. I get on a webinar and there's great information, but there usually is very little opportunity to get a lot of feedback on questions.

How often do you meet and what were some of the topics that the community helped each other with early on?

With the roundtable, we do weekly meetings and we have a monthly diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) roundtable. I also do a quarterly executive leadership roundtable, and once a month I bring in a consultant to talk about a trending topic.

In the beginning, it was "What are you doing to keep people engaged?" That was probably the biggest challenge, because very quickly, we all started to run out of ideas as to what else to do to keep people engaged. We were already starting to see the wear and tear on everyone being on video all the time. So it was great to hear the different things people were doing to keep staff engaged. We had frequent discussions about staff engagement, dealing with paid time off, and how to keep employees who must continue working on site throughout the pandemic safe.

I would always try to end the meetings by recognizing the work that HR professionals were doing, all the time and energy they were putting in, and that what they were doing was making a difference. Because unfortunately, I think that HR doesn't always hear that as often as they should.

Do you think the idea of networking with colleagues and sharing information face-to-face virtually is a result of being forced to move to video meetings in our day-to-day work lives? And then that led to, well, I can interact with my greater network of colleagues in HR this same way, which is totally different from interacting on an online discussion board.

Definitely. Prior to the pandemic, I can say from ACC's standpoint, we tried to get people to use video. And the only people that really used video consistently were our international staff. And then when the rest of us went on camera during the pandemic, the international staff said, "Wow, this is great. We feel we're all on the same level now." I don't think that we would have been able to be as successful with the HR Roundtable if people had not been as comfortable using video. It was the only way we could communicate.

Video ensures we'll be able to successfully continue, even when people start to go back to their offices because you can join from anywhere without losing time leaving the office, for example. It fits in very well with busy HR professionals and has allowed for great networking, both personally and professionally.

Were there any learnings that you and your HR team took away from the past year? And do you see any positive impacts coming out of the pandemic for your team or your organization?

One learning is that our policies and procedures must be flexible. Also, we have to have empathy. HR always has had empathy, but we need to ensure that the entire organization is more aware of what people are going through and [of the need] to be flexible. DEI is important and must be a part of your organization's culture. How you do your job is impacted by your work and personal environments. It's no longer all about how you need to meet the bottom line to be successful. It's also about what you can do as an employer to support, guide and develop your staff.

It includes addressing mental health and work life balance through flexibility. I think that these necessary HR initiatives have helped to ensure HR a seat at the table, if they didn't have it already, and the ability to strategically help drive things. It's absolutely something very positive that came out of the past year.

You must be able to pivot. As HR, we need to be able to adjust to whatever comes next. For example, a lot of organizations are starting to see significant amounts of turnover. How do we address that? What are we doing to retain and recruit staff? What is it that we need to be doing now as HR professionals to help our organizations stabilize as much as possible, but then also be prepared as we move into this new environment of hybrid work and workplaces? Needless to say, our jobs are never dull!