Meet Fidelma Butler – Chief People Officer at Couchbase

5 Mins read

Welcome to an insightful conversation with Fidelma Butler, Chief People Officer at Couchbase. From her early fascination with the intersection of people and work to leading HR transformations, Fidelma Butler shares a journey marked by agility and a commitment to shaping tomorrow.

In this piece, you will explore the unique expectations of Gen Alpha in the workplace and discover how organizations can adapt to meet the demands of this digitally native workforce. Fidelma also delves into the delicate balance between AI and human skills in HR, emphasizing the irreplaceable nature of “power skills.” In a landscape shifting towards responsible spending on employee experience, Fidelma provides cost-effective initiatives for long-term workforce engagement. From leadership development programs to personalized career discussions, Fidelma highlights meaningful approaches that go beyond superficial perks.

Welcome, Fidelma. Can you tell us about your role as Couchbase’s Chief People Officer and your journey to this position? What inspired you to focus on HR and workplace trends, particularly those related to technology and employee experience?

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I’ve always been interested in the intersection of people and work. From a prize-winning teenage essay on how ‘communication is the oil on which the machinery of business is run’ (complete with lots of mechanical puns!), how people relate to each other, make decisions and behave at work has been fascinating to me. My academic focus was in psychology and working for a number of years in consulting in the 2000s gave me a perspective on the pace of transformations which organisations were facing in response to changing technology environments. I began to see change and change management not as isolated initiatives, but rather as normal, always-on capabilities that an enterprise and its people needed to survive. I moved in-house to an organisational development role that included running HR – it was deliberately not positioned the other way around. At Zendesk, I experienced rapid growth and scale – and championed the need for agility amongst our leaders. At Couchbase, over the past three quarters, I’ve been leading with our ‘Make Tomorrow Better Than Today’ value in mind. I am transforming our People and Workplace team. This has included bringing an employee experience perspective to our Workplace team; moving our People Partners up the strategic value chain; introducing new talent development and diversity, equity and inclusion capabilities; and driving efficiency in our use of HR technology to operate at scale.

You mentioned the concept of “iPad babies” as a new generation entering the workforce. Could you elaborate on how this generation’s expectations differ from previous ones in terms of technology and digitization at work and how can organisations adapt to meet the technology expectations of this digitally native workforce, and what challenges might they face in doing so?

While intergenerational differences can be overstated, they do serve to focus us on the changing ways we experience our world. Gen Alpha are those born after 2010, when the first iPad was launched and became a key part of their parents’ toolkit. They are used to being permanently connected. They don’t tolerate not knowing the answer to something. They expect technology to be continuously improving. Their physical and digital worlds are blended. Less interested in email and long-form articles, they consume short videos and agile messages. If your employee tools aren’t app-native, are reliant upon manual processes or lead to a vastly different experience for in-office employees to remote folk, you will not meet this group’s demanding expectations.

While AI is making transactional workloads smaller, you argue that it won’t be calling all the shots anytime soon in HR. Can you explain the “power skills” that HR teams possess and why they are irreplaceable by machines? And how do you see AI and human input coexisting in HR, and what are the key benefits of this synergy?

I believe in the power of AI to complete a number of tasks. From job description preparation to reviewing CVs and summarizing 360 feedback, AI can certainly add huge value. But I see a limit to its capabilities too. We deal with people. There is an inherent complexity and idiosyncrasy in what we do. What the most strategic and value-adding thing HR people do, is bring their previous experience to a situation. They also retain an open-mind for learning and through intellectual curiosity about the business context and employee experience. This means they can easily come up with meaningful solutions aligned to business outcomes. Those power skills can’t be replaced by AI. The overwhelming benefit to the HR community of AI is that it frees us up from the lower value, low complexity, highly necessary transactional work – the work that is often easier to gravitate towards. But truly value-adding outcomes come from when we operate beyond our comfort zones.


Fidelma Butler, Chief People Officer at Couchbase

In the changing economic climate, you mentioned a shift towards responsible spending on employee experience. What are some examples of initiatives that prioritize long-term workforce engagement over short-term perks like kombucha taps and ping pong tables? Could you share insights on how organizations can balance cost-effective measures with the need to create a positive and motivating work environment? On a more positive note, what opportunities do you see emerging in HR for the upcoming year, and how can HR leaders leverage these opportunities for the benefit of their organizations and employees?

I bet that most HR leaders have found themselves googling ‘rule of 40’ at some point in the last year! It essentially means that your revenue growth rate and profit margin should together equal or exceed 40%. One of the ways that organizations can achieve this is by reducing cost. Employees are adults who understand that their employer cannot spend at will and that short term perks aren’t what is meaningful. Prioritize long-term workforce engagement by investing in leadership development programs that enable leaders to be more intentional, more inclusive and more engaging at work. Design short duration, recurring, bite-sized skills interventions for people leaders to coach employees, give them feedback, listen effectively and help them plan for their development.

It doesn’t cost money to ask someone what path they’d like their career to take or what support they need to be more successful at work. Demonstrating to an employee how their work impacts the top priorities of the business and giving them stretch assignment opportunities are completely free initiatives that deliver more meaningful value than ping-pong tables and kombucha taps.

Fidelma Butler, Chief People Officer at Couchbase

HR leaders are in a unique position to influence now, a position that we haven’t necessarily always had before. The pandemic and other recent world affairs have catapulted HR in terms of importance. We used to talk about wanting a seat at the table, without always bringing the commercial acumen that table demands. Now, the table would be a three-legged stool without us there to leverage talent market intelligence, bring employee perspectives, share learnings through data, drive leadership and optimize outcomes.

Can you offer some final advice or insights for HR professionals who are looking to navigate the changing landscape of the workplace and HR trends successfully? And is there anything else you would like to share with our readers regarding the future of HR and workplace trends?

The number one skill in your HR toolkit in this changing landscape needs to be agility. While you need to bring your experience to bear, you can’t be overly beholden to how you did things before. You must be open to new learnings, early feedback, additional voices, emerging insights from data. You also need to be prepared to change course accordingly to meet the needs of your organization. Have a destination in mind for your HR journey but imagine getting there via a helicopter in short spurts making incremental improvements, instead of a jumbo jet that is predictable but takes time to change course. This will involve getting out of your comfort zone. Your sales leaders are managing to a quarterly cadence: your engineering leaders are operating according to sprints: stay close to their changing landscape, seek to truly understand your business and suggest tangible ways to support them based on what is needed by the organization today and into the future.

Further Reading

HR in the Metaverse – Everything You Should Know
Attracting, recruiting, and retaining millennial workforce
Direct vs. Indirect workplace discrimination

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