Unlocking Human Potential: A Q&A With Upwork’s Chief People Officer Sunita Solao

Elisabeth Hutchinson
Elisabeth Hutchinson
September 26, 2023
September 26, 2023
Unlocking Human Potential: A Q&A With Upwork’s Chief People Officer Sunita Solao

At Upwork, we help our customers transform their businesses by connecting them with highly skilled, independent professionals from around the world. This isn’t just a service we offer—it’s in our DNA. In fact, over 3/4 of our workforce is made up of independent professionals we’ve sourced through our own work marketplace.

Navigating the dynamic environment of a global workforce is no small feat—it requires bold and innovative leadership. This is why we’re so thrilled to have welcomed Sunita Solao as our new chief people officer in May. Sunita will help to further drive innovation in our workforce strategy and design a world-class team member experience for our blended workforce.

Sunita has over two decades of expertise and an unwavering commitment to our mission to create economic opportunities so people have better lives. She will play an integral role in leading our next chapter of growth.

We spoke with Sunita about what drew her to Upwork, what was top of mind for her as she settled into her role, and her advice for organizations looking to navigate the modern world of work.

Welcome to Upwork! What drew you to the company?

There were a couple of factors that made the invitation to join Upwork too enticing to turn down. First and foremost, the opportunity to lead and be a steward for the existing best-in-class people team and programs. There’s an incredible foundation already in place and I’m looking forward to taking these initiatives and the team to the next level as the company continues to grow and mature.

I was also inspired by the company’s commitment to being its own “customer zero.” At Upwork, 75% of our workforce is made up of independent talent sourced through our work marketplace, and the company has been able to deliver compelling business results because of it.

This workforce model can be game-changing for organizations navigating a variety of business scenarios, including those:

  • Experiencing explosive growth
  • Working on fast-turn projects
  • Seeking new, cutting-edge skills
  • Adapting to fast-paced industry shifts such as the advent of generative AI, increasingly distributed teams, or volatile macroeconomic environments

This model also works for highly skilled professionals in every corner of the world who are increasingly choosing to work independently in search of more flexibility and autonomy. And as both an HR professional and a working parent, I can attest that tapping into a global talent pool allows for more flexibility in work and in life.

There’s a massive opportunity for HR professionals to leave behind traditional staffing approaches in favor of more cutting-edge workforce strategies that will allow us to lead and support the business in more meaningful ways. I look forward to sharing these insights with my peers and evolving the people function, and the HR industry as a whole, through this work.

What are your first priorities as Upwork’s chief people officer?

First, learning and understanding Upwork’s people, culture, and processes. I believe that the key to making positive change lies in comprehending the "why" behind things, understanding the context, and appreciating the rich history that has brought us to this point. It’s like working on a puzzle—knowing why each piece fits and how they connect is the only way we’ll be able to see the full picture.

I’m also excited to dive into creating programs that empower each team member to reach their full potential. The last few years have been tough for all of us, and I want to do what I can to ensure that every team member has the support to not only bounce back from these challenges but also thrive in their roles.

Creating a learning culture and pathways for professional growth and development will be at the heart of these programs. In this way, we’ll help equip our team members with the right tools and information to excel and do the best work of their careers.

It's not all work and no play, though. I have a strong belief in the importance of having fun! A crucial element in fostering a positive work environment is ensuring that we enjoy working together. One way we do that is by recognizing the contributions of our team members through our LUV (Living Upwork Values) award program and #dailyluv Slack channel.

Although we’re proudly remote-first, we also recognize the positive impact of coming together in person periodically to build and maintain team cohesion and foster deeper connections. To this end, we just launched updated in-person planning guidance to give leaders what they need to plan effective, engaging, and consistent in-person gatherings.

You bring up a great point. How do you create a positive and productive work culture in a remote setting?

Nurturing a positive work culture and ensuring employee satisfaction in a distributed environment comes down to four key ingredients: autonomy, flexibility, clarity, and purpose.

At Upwork, we prioritize providing autonomy and flexibility for our teams. In other words, we trust them, and we treat them like responsible and capable adults. By establishing clear goals and expectations, as well as evaluating performance based on outcomes and impact, we empower our team members to manage their work on their terms, without being bound by rigid schedules or the need for constant "face time."

Purpose is also crucial in driving job satisfaction and avoiding burnout. Recognizing the profound impact that a strong sense of purpose can have on employee motivation and fulfillment, Upwork recently went through a months-long process of redefining our corporate values and crafting new working principles. The goal of this framework is to foster cohesion, guide decision-making and behavior, improve trust and engagement, and cultivate genuine connections to our company, regardless of where our team members are located.

What advice do you have for organizations looking to embrace a blended workforce of both employees and independent talent?

One of the biggest learnings and insights for me in my first few months at Upwork has been around how Upwork operates. Every department is made up of full-time employees and independent talent hired on the Upwork platform. For many companies, it’s easy to think of examples of departments—like marketing, engineering, or customer experience—where bringing on freelancers for short-term projects feels more natural.

But in our organization, our legal team, our HR team, and even our finance team are all hybrid—we’ve established that as an expectation, not an exception. This allows us to accomplish big things because we have the right people in place when we need them and in arrangements that work for both their needs and the company’s.

Building a “virtual talent bench” of remote freelancers also helps prevent worker burnout; employees get the support they need when workloads rise and they need some relief. So my advice to organizations looking to tap into these same benefits is to think outside the box and look for unique opportunities to integrate flexible talent across your various departments.

At Upwork, we call this a “talent access” approach. Today’s workforce requires speed, ingenuity, and adaptability—and relying solely on traditional "talent acquisition" approaches where you consider hiring full-time employees first is, frankly, slow and costly. A “talent access” approach, however, recognizes that independent talent play a critical role in meeting business needs at speed and scale.

Embracing an approach like ours not only provides access to top talent but also offers the flexibility to adapt to changing demands and seize new opportunities. In fact, 79% of businesses agree that working with freelancers enables their businesses to be more innovative, and among hiring managers who use independent talent, 84% say they are confident in their company’s ability to respond to disruption, compared to 69% of those who do not.

So be bold and explore more innovative workforce solutions that you may not have thought about previously. You will find that leveraging independent talent comes with outsized rewards!

What is the most recent thing you’ve hired for on the Upwork platform?

We recently launched a job and salary architecture project to provide clarity to our employees on what the job expectations are by level. A crucial piece of this project is building career ladders as a tool and guide for manager/employee career conversations. Instead of adding more full-time employees to my team for what ultimately is a 6-9 month project, we found a subject matter expert on the Upwork platform to help us accomplish this work quickly and efficiently.

Let’s change gears a bit. Before we wrap, let’s chat about your life outside of work! What do you like to do in your free time?

Outside of work, I love to spend time learning new languages, which actually fits quite well with Upwork’s global business and team. I have dabbled in learning Mandarin, Spanish, French, and Italian, and I speak three regional languages from India.

Another passion of mine is food! Specifically, traveling to new destinations in search of local, authentic food experiences. I recently had a memorable two-week trip to Penang, Malaysia. Among die-hard foodies, it's known as the original street food capital of Asia. There are even some Michelin-starred street food carts! My family, including my 11-year-old, had the most amazing time eating our way through the streets of this incredible island at the confluence of so many Asian cultures. I highly recommend it!

What’s one thing you can’t live without?

Coffee! I’m a huge coffee enthusiast. I literally own every possible contraption that can make coffee. I cannot start my day without it… even my 3-year-old mini Goldendoodle Barley knows he can't get me to do anything for him until I've had my first cup!

And finally, what’s the best piece of career advice you’ve ever been given?

A few years ago, a mentor reminded me of a very simple yet profound truth, which is that we can’t control everything. And if we were to try, we’d get absolutely nothing done while making very little positive impact. I know it sounds easier said than done, but the trick is to control what you can control and let go of the rest.

It was only when I was able to shift my perspective from “be all things to all people” to “I genuinely believe I’ve given my all for the people I serve and focused on what I can actually influence” that I was able to find perspective, achieve greater work/life balance, and ultimately be a more effective leader.

With this philosophy in mind, it's just one of the many reasons why I’m excited to be a part of Upwork—a company that shares my belief in empowering individuals and organizations to shape the future of work, regardless of any uncertainties or challenges that come their way.

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Elisabeth Hutchinson
Director of Corporate Communications

Elisabeth Hutchinson is Director of Corporate Communications at Upwork. An accomplished marketing and communications professional, she has more than a decade of experience increasing awareness, elevating brand reputation, and driving business growth for both high-growth public tech companies and global nonprofit organizations. Elisabeth holds a Bachelor’s degree from the University of California, Santa Cruz and a Master's in Public Administration from San Jose State University.

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