Return-to-Office: How Duolingo is Navigating Business Continuity Planning & Prioritization

Published in
5 min readJun 14, 2021


Image source: Duolingo

By Sadasia McCutchen, Growth Team at CapitalG

Over the last 15 months, COVID has brought sharp focus to the realization that long-term goals (or OKRs) don’t always mesh with real-world events that may require fast pivots. As we continue to explore how to approach the future of hybrid work with business leaders in our portfolio, we’re taking a close look at how to balance more immediate implications of new working styles with companies’ business-as-usual priorities.

HR leaders from CapitalG portfolio companies including Duolingo, Everlaw, Niantic and Unqork recently met with HR leaders from Google to discuss business continuity planning and prioritization in a post-COVID workplace. Erica Fox, director of people operations strategy & integration, and Dhananjay (Dj) Misra, head of people operations business planning & infrastructure, discussed getting back to familiar business routines while reinventing the workplace.

What follows are the key insights from the group’s conversation, in particular from portfolio partner Duolingo, to address the challenges of hybrid working styles.

Map out your systems and processes

Start to differentiate which of your goals and initiatives can wait versus what is strategically necessary to keep your business running. Take a look at your core HR systems and processes at a granular level — everything from comp and benefits to employee talent and transformation programs — and map out how they are interlinked, who currently works on them, and the core mix of people and money that’s needed to run those critical functions. Then develop scenarios and backup plans for how to keep the most critical pieces running in an emergency, including unplanned crises, such as we’ve just experienced with COVID-19.

If your plan to update the old performance review system has been years in the making, you might want to wait to roll out the new system simply because your employees are spending 120% of their time and energy doing their core jobs and may not be able to absorb much else.

Christine Raetsch, Duolingo’s Chief People Officer, told us that prior to COVID hitting, her four-person team had planned to work on new processes for leadership development, the promotion process, and the performance management system. But this same small team in charge of identifying these scalable processes was also tasked with return to office strategy and implementation for 400+ employees.

As Christine noted, “Each of my team members is critical, and if one is unavailable, it has a significant impact on our ability to complete payroll, benefits, and other time-sensitive and critical processes.” To address return-to-office planning, the People team documented those processes so that at least one other team member could execute them.

Finally, the People team must stay abreast of internal messaging and communication with the whole company. As Christine said, “We try to think about what messages our employees get from us each week. What are we asking them to do, and how do those asks run up against their day jobs?” In addition, the team must be sensitive to the workload of managers. “What are we asking role managers to take action on or think about? What’s on their plates?” While it can be difficult to pay attention to all these things at once, she continued, “It’s important to keep that in mind as you develop your team’s goals and objectives.”

Evaluate priorities with fresh eyes

Be sure you set the tone on what is most critical for the business now, and which projects should be prioritized on that basis. Our HR leaders even suggested that this is a great time to define what a project means: do its start and end dates align your current needs? Is it agile enough to meet immediate demands without affecting longer-term goals? Of course, longer-term projects can be the most transformative and contribute the most to a positive employee experience. But our discussion concluded that some can wait, and the energy they spark might be better invested in what keeps the business functioning right now.

Think about change readiness and change absorption

It’s one thing for the HR team to develop great ideas, and maybe they even have the bandwidth to roll all of them out. But can your employees actually absorb a lot of change with everything else they’re doing? Remember, your employees are doing their jobs, dealing with COVID, and dealing with all the changes that have been brought on. So while you might be able to push out the original initiatives, they might not be able to adapt as quickly as you’d planned.

Don’t be afraid to say no

Great ideas are plentiful, but saying no to some is a strategic necessity. While it can be painful to say no, saying yes to every proposal can distract you from delivering on any priorities, because saying yes to everything can lead to burnout and team fatigue.

As Dr. Carole Robin so wonderfully observed during a conversation with CEOs in our portfolio, “people do business with people.” Behind the systems and process mapping are people who are doing the work. In reflecting on the challenges we’ve navigated over the past 15 months, I continue to be inspired by our collective resilience. In fact, our HR leaders have previously discussed the importance of resilience, especially after we experienced the second wave of COVID. At that time we understood that we were in a marathon, not a sprint, and that resilience is about rest and recovery, not persistence and grit. We are now being called to a new construct of working. It’s not just about getting people back into the office; instead, what happens when most teams have distributed team members or teams are fully remote and people are coming in on different days of the week?

We’re excited to delve into these questions as we continue hosting conversations in our Return-to-Office series. All thanks to our portfolio leaders and Google advisors who make these conversations lively and useful to everyone. Stay tuned.

Click here to read part 1 of our RTO series: How Company Leaders can Prepare for the Future of Work




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