The ongoing debate around what form the future of work will take is one that will rumble on. While some organizations have re-opened their physical workspaces, others continue to talk about working from home as being a permanent part of their planning. The reality is probably somewhere in between for most companies - a hybrid model with some in-office presence and some remote.
A number of the sessions at this week’s Zoomtopia event inevitably picked up on this debate. The most interesting commentary I felt came from a conversation with Daisy Auger-Dominguez, Chief People Officer at Vice Media Group and Hamet Watt, CEO and founder of Share Ventures, a venture capital firm that focuses on “innovative companies that unlock human potential”.
Both talked about the longstanding gap between the desired/stated culture of organizations and the reality of the culture that does exist. Given the disruption caused by the COVID pandemic and the seeming acceptance that this is a tipping point for change in how work is regarded and actioned, that bridging that gap is ever more important. Auger-Domiguez argued:
I frame it as the gap between the values that organizations espouse and the experience of employees. What I mean by that is that there's what we tell the world we are and how we operate and then the real sore spots employees experience in their day-to-day, which is sometimes miles apart…Now as we're moving towards this new way of working, which we're calling hybrid, because frankly, we don't know what else to call it, that's coming to the forefront.
It’s important to ask what that means for workplaces, she added:
Whether you're in tech, whether you're in media, whether you're an HR leader, everyone's trying to spin up management training and guidance and programs to help their people leaders manage what's coming next. While the details vary, sometimes it means that employees are back in the office; sometimes it means that people with small children who begged for a quiet place to work want to not come back to the offices or really can’t because they're still trying to manage their their children at home. Other times, hybrid means that we're remote and that we're hiring people all over. But that's not the same for every organization. So even how we define hybrid and how we define the experience of employees within organizations is shifting.
To address this, it’s vital to be ready to admit that sometimes you don’t know the answer, she advised:
We really have to admit to ourselves that we don't know what this is going to look like, that we're still dealing with the ground shifting under our feet every day, and and that we've forgotten even what it means to be happy at work… I think many of us are learning to be okay about saying that we don't know what we don't know.. As leaders, we were taught to have all the answers. We develop 'followership' by always telling people where we're going next. And the fact of the matter is that most of us don't know where we're going next. We know that we are in a place now where we solve for today and we transform for tomorrow.
For her part, Auger-Dominguez has clear strategic objectives for her global HR team for the rest of the year, focusing on managing attrition, trying to ensure employee wellness and to increase employee engagement, while meeting the business and strategic needs of the organization. All of this has been communicated from what she calls “a human-centered perspective” that involves re-thinking organizational ‘rituals’:
What everybody's confused about is, what are the new rituals to welcome in new employees, to re-introducing colleagues to one another, to making sure that we're recognizing co-workers milestones, because we can't do the same shortcuts that we used to before. Those were the things that were easy to us. So what we're learning is how to do that differently. How do we personalise daily interactions differently, such as starting a conference call, asking people what are they seeing outside their window, to ground the conversation.
It’s important to be intentional in approach, opined Watt:
The reason we think it's so important is because we see it's such an incredible difference between companies that are thoughtful about the culture that they want, and thoughtful about the fact that the gap may exist. Hybrid and distributed work is only increasing that gap. But being intentional about it from the start helps you be prepared for what might happen.
The reality is, he added, that a lot of us come to work for a sense of belonging and connectedness and new tools are going to be needed to deliver that in a new world of work:
I started going down my list of infrastructure tools that we use for our business - Salesforce for sales and HubSpot for marketing and [when] I was setting up payroll, I went onto Gusto and it was so easy - it was all in the cloud, it was beautiful. I started reaching for tools for culture in the same way. I wanted something in the cloud to help me design the culture, to really think about the needs of the team and the outcomes that we wanted to get, understanding psychometrics. And I couldn't find much. I went out and started talking to all of these machine learning folks and organizational psychologists, just to try to think about what's happening in the analog and what, if any, tools existed out there to help us do it all in the cloud.
What we found is that there's just been incredible breakthroughs in the fundamental technologies, the ability to use machine learning in thoughtful ways, around understanding how to measure culture, the ability to just understand how all our different personalities coming together make us create a whole new dynamic in a group. So for us, it's been about thinking about those fundamental technologies and figuring out how they become the building blocks for tools that we can use to design our culture with intentionality, to measure it on a very consistent basis, going well beyond just using assessments. Assessments for us haven't worked out great, because people just get fatigued with assessment. So we wanted to figure out, 'Hey, what is the next innovation? What is the tool that's going to allow us to do it in a much more passive way?'.
Getting it right this time
Both Auger-Dominguez and Watt made the point that a lot of the questions (and answers) under debate today are really things that have been - or ought to have been - on the agenda anyway. As Auger-Dominguez pitched it:
You don't have to do anything differently than what we were supposed to have been doing all along, which is listening to our employees, which is meeting them where they're at, which is recognizing that, particularly in this last year and a half, everyone has re-oriented their lives, everyone is thinking about life and work differently. Perhaps that's not as bad as people may think. This is an opportunity for us as managers, as leaders, to question our role in how we grow, how we develop and how we support our teams.
It's also, for HR professionals, an opportunity for us to re-think how do we show up for people and how do we re-think what are the skill sets that we need for business leaders. It's an opportunity to recognize culture eats strategy for lunch every day, right? We've been hearing that for decades...We've known this all along. And we know that right now we're at a place where people are not just burnt out, they're burnt crispy. There's nothing else to give and to do. So how do we create spaces for people to feel seen, heard and valued, which often really is just a human expression of what we all need?
Watt agreed that there are lot of fundamentals that need to be addressed, like listening to people and understanding baseline human interactions that really lead towards better cultures. But there are things that need to change, he concluded, particularly around organizational rigidity:
Rigidity is not good in this environment. We have to understand how to be flexible, how to have a set of core values, but really how to understand how to be adaptive and to make sure that's part of our culture. Feeling like we can do things the old fashioned way, in some ways is something that might slow down this return to normalcy. So I think it's it's about embracing the change and embracing some of the tools that are going to be helpful in that change.
Two more voices in a debate that will continue to run for some considerable time yet. For me, the most interesting point made during this debate was that the topics under discussion today are things that should be ‘bread and butter’ stuff anyway. Maybe we overcomplicated things before? Maybe we just lost sight of the ‘day job’ when it comes to people management? The COVID crisis perhaps in its own way provided us with a painful reminder of that and exposed our shortcomings? If so, then the time is ripe to turn that infamous gap into an opportunity to get things right in the Vaccine Economy.