A headshot of Microsoft Ireland’s Cathriona Hallahan, a woman with short brown hair and glasses wearing a white blazer and pink top.
Cathriona Hallahan, Microsoft. Image: Naoise Culhane Photography Ltd

Microsoft Ireland MD: Empathy is important when managing remote teams

9 Sep 2020

Microsoft’s Cathriona Hallahan spoke to Siliconrepublic.com about how the tech company has helped communities during Covid-19 and supported its own employees through remote working.

While many companies have been forced to re-examine their IT infrastructure, working practices and business objectives due to Covid-19, it’s important that managers also examine how they support their employees.

As we look at the prospect of continuing remote working through the winter months, Siliconrepublic.com spoke to Microsoft Ireland’s managing director, Cathriona Hallahan, about how she has found managing remote teams and what her top advice is for other managers.

Hallahan has worked for Microsoft for around 34 years, having started with the company about six months after it opened its doors in Ireland. She now leads more than 2,400 people in its Irish operation.

While she explained that Microsoft has always had a remote working philosophy, many of its employees were still based in physical offices until Covid-19 hit. So, like many businesses in Ireland and around the world, the company had to switch focus.

‘It was about really understanding from an empathy perspective what our employees needed’

“For us, it was about really understanding from an empathy perspective what our employees needed,” she said. “One of the areas that has been really amplified has been how difficult it is to parent while working from home.

“We have a modern parents’ group that started to do more sessions virtually to work and act as a support mechanism to each other, to share the challenges that parents were having and to help each other.”

Other supports that employees typically had access to at the office, such as classes or the gym, have been offered virtually by Microsoft, including one-to-one-sessions with a nutritionist and mental health workshops.

Back to basics

While the supports that Microsoft can offer as a large organisation are impressive, Hallahan also gave advice for smaller companies that want to ensure they’re supporting their employees right now.

The starting point for me is the empathy piece, it’s just sitting down with your employees and talking to them about the challenges they’re experiencing and what support they need,” she said.

“You don’t necessarily need the advanced infrastructure that a company like Microsoft has. What you need is to just have that human connection with your employees, to understand where they’re coming from and to see if there are small things that you, as a small business, can do to support them.”

Hallahan said another discussion currently taking place in Microsoft is around working from home during the winter and how days could be adapted to ensure employees get extended lunch breaks to make the most of daylight hours.

She said it’s important to “give that flexibility” and believes any employer can implement changes like that to help their employees. “It’s about asking the question, listening and keeping the engagement with your employees as a community.”

Another focus for the company in terms of remote working has been supporting its manager community. “That one-to-one connection with employees became more and more important,” Hallahan said.

She added that it was crucial to make sure managers were focused on how they could help their employees, listen to their challenges and learn how to make allowances for that in their expectations of people.

Helping the community during the crisis

Outside of adapting to a remote workforce, Hallahan also spoke about the work Microsoft has done within the wider community during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“At the start of the pandemic, we worked with our catering company to provide healthy food options to the Simon Community, but also to the frontline workers,” she said. “It kept our catering company in employment, so people were continuing to be able to work, which was really important for them, but it also helped the most vulnerable in society.

“We also worked with [charities] like Barnardos to give them devices so that they could keep access to the families they worked with.”

It also worked with Enable Ireland, which had a lot of its services disrupted because it didn’t have access to its day care centres. “We worked with them to bring virtual classes, so we were able to bring a lot of their activities that they would have done physically into a virtual world.

“Their feedback now is that they’re reaching some of their users more than they ever would have before.”

Hallahan also spoke about how the company reinvented its DreamSpace initiative, an innovation space within the Microsoft building in Dublin that previously hosted primary school and transition year students throughout the year to learn about STEM.

With the physical space currently not in use, the company pivoted to a ‘HomeSpace’ programme, so that children between ages six and 16 could still learn about STEM at home through immersive online activities.

“We’re continuing to evolve that now as we go into the new school year to reimagine what education will be like and how we can continue to bring a kind of TV version of our DreamSpace to children across the island of Ireland,” she said.

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Jenny Darmody
By Jenny Darmody

Jenny Darmody became the editor of Silicon Republic in 2023, having worked as the deputy editor since February 2020. When she’s not writing about the science and tech industry, she’s writing short stories and attempting novels. She continuously buys more books than she can read in a lifetime and pretty stationery is her kryptonite. She also believes seagulls to be the root of all evil and her baking is the stuff of legends.

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