'We have the opportunity to impact the next generation of workers’: executives and employees talk about thriving in the hybrid work world
As vice president for a multinational company, Cynthia has been working with staff remotely for more than a decade. The company has staff working in their offices, remotely from home or wherever they are travelling as they meet with customers across the globe. Teams are composed of people of different nationalities, and many are based in their home countries or are expats.
This multinational collaboration continued even as borders in various countries closed, says Cynthia, who requested that her full name not be used. “The past two years have shown many global companies that staff can work efficiently outside of the office.”
Looking at the trends and areas to watch out for in the evolving workplace, she observes: “The future for many global companies is to create an engaged hybrid/remote staff that covers every part of the organisation. Savings can be found in limiting face-to-face meetings aided by technology. At the same time, there is a need to balance staff engagement and corporate grip or control.”
Aren't we all essential workers?
She notes many organisations have to manage potential tensions between those who have to be physically present to do their jobs such as R&D and services, and those who can efficiently work off premise, and they include senior management. “The term 'essential' workers usually refers to the former. But aren't we all essential because without our roles, the company would not flourish?”
She espouses ways organisations can handle this balancing act. “For those who need to be physically present, firms can offer a form of hybrid work like a shorter work week onsite including partial work from home and longer hours on onsite days as needed. They can provide off-premise workers the same physical support that they need to do their jobs from access to digital technology, online connections, and any needed adaptations to their physical workspace. The key is to get everyone to understand that the company needs both onsite and off-premise workers to become successful, and that there is no favouritism or impact in their career progression.”
Companies can ensure that remote staff get similar onboarding and welcome kits, and are introduced to key people in the organisation. “These can be done through one-on-one and small group meetings so they can feel and understand the corporate culture,” says Cynthia. “Long virtual meetings are exhausting so they should only be reserved for specific purposes.”
Recently, Cynthia hired new global staff members. “I made sure that the onboarding activities remained the same, including digital time with both internal and external collaborator leaders and teams.”
She broke up essential strategic day long meetings to a series of consecutive two-to-three hour meetings. “It is challenging to find appropriate time for everyone, so we have chosen early EDT (eastern daylight time) for most meetings. It can start very early in the morning to accommodate mid-day for Europe and late afternoon/early evening for Asia Pacific.
“We alternate the time for the meetings so that not one regional team is always working very early or very late in the day. I also encourage the regional leaders to allow their junior staff to present during our global meetings so it is not always a top down discussion.”
“I use multiple communication tools even during the same meeting like having notes/chat for all in the group and separate safe/confidential chat lines for specific coaching/comments to individual staff as the meeting progresses.”
“Presence of mind is key so you do not inadvertently comment to the whole group. I also do a follow up meeting with key stakeholders/presenters right after a large meeting to get feedback and align on next steps prior to sending out meeting notes.”
She is careful not to rely on video recording for strategic meetings since these can be forwarded. “In many cases, we record training and information sessions for those who cannot attend. I always assign a note taker so that we can share key points and next steps. People should understand that better practices should always be in place whether it is onsite or remote meetings, including respect for confidential information and intellectual property. Having a seat at the table for strategic meetings should be taken seriously by all attendees.”
She recalls how in one mandatory training, the trainer asked everyone to mute their lines and use chat or emoji hand signals when they needed to speak up. “I heard snoring midway and the trainer (outside of the company) ignored it since she probably was paying more attention to her delivery. Her meeting coordinator also failed to do anything. I looked at the attendee list and identified one whose mike was on and I sent her an email - hoping that it would send an audio prompt when it is sent - to tell her to mute. In a few seconds, she quickly muted herself and apologised to me. She was a new hire and I did not notify her boss since I think she got the message. The trainer was not very good and ignored specific signals so I gave feedback to the training organisation after the session.”
An area that organisations should focus on is mental health, says Cynthia. She says another senior work colleague ensures meetings - increasingly becoming online due to their multiregional work - start with colleagues talking about a recent experience or what he or she is looking forward to at work. “These ‘how are you’ conversations are very important at this time when staff are juggling various concerns, at work and even in the household.”
Recently, Cynthia met with a group of executives - face to face - for the first time since the pandemic forced them to work remotely. They agreed to take a test to ensure they were negative for Covid and to practice social distancing at one of the meeting rooms in their corporate headquarters.
She is concerned that employees who are starting their first jobs or a new role during the pandemic may find it more difficult to establish strong working relationships in workplaces that have a more fluid work locale and shifts. It is, she says, another area leaders should consider as they build a positive work culture in a hybrid work model.
Building a great culture in the evolving work environment
Cecilia Paredes joined a FinTech company in August 2021, during the second nationwide lockdown in New Zealand.
The company, Open, provided a flexible schedule, allowing her to work remotely or in their office in Auckland’s central business district. But due to the lockdown, she started as Senior Brand and Communications Manager working from home.
“One of the things that made an impact for me as a new starter wasn't a particular activity or benefit per se but how the culture of the organisation unfolded for me in the first few weeks,” says Cecilia, who now works in the office and remotely, as the need arises.
“A lot of people will say, ‘Let me know if you need anything!’ But as a new starter, it's intimidating to ask for help from colleagues you've never met in person before – I didn't have the chance for a water cooler chat, or to bump into someone new on the lift.”
“Instead, it was the people who reached out to me, made the effort to introduce themselves and interacted with me independent of the formal induction schedule I had, that made me feel welcomed as a part of the team.”
She says one of the co-founders gave her and another new employee an hour-long ‘Industry 101’ lesson, knowing they were both new to the field. The discussion continues with her colleague, and they talk regularly, a bond cemented by the learning session they attended as newbies.
And in a twist reflective of the changing work environment, she says, “One of the people I'm closest to at work I've never met in person. She organised a virtual morning tea with some of the other women in the team whom she thought I'd like to meet.”
Her advice to organisations on building a great culture in the evolving work environment?
“A lot of employers will scratch their heads trying to come up with activities/assistance/benefits to make a great culture,” she says. “Those things are great, but if you really want to make a difference, actually take a step back and see how the culture is LIVED within your organisation.
“You can organise all of the virtual social activities you like, but if you're not a) hiring for the right culture fit; and b) empowering your people to help you build a great culture, then I can see how it'd be very difficult to have a genuine culture at all, especially in the remote environment.”
The second lockdown was harder
Michelle Frances just completed her business degree when she joined her current employer in Auckland. “As a new graduate, adjusting to a new work environment is important for me to be able to work and communicate properly,” she says. “It helps improve the quality of work and improves a staff's perception of going to work every day, especially now that some businesses still continue to work from home.”
Then the first national lockdown happened and she and her colleagues had to work from home. The experience highlighted to her why it is important for organisations to find ways to engage their staff to connect with each other, whatever their work location or circumstances.
“I think it is important to build up a work culture that also helps the staff's mental stability,” says Michelle. She and her co-workers have different schedules, with some working remotely and others working some days a week in the office. “We barely get the chance to meet, and even new staff members start working from home.”
“I must say this was more difficult than the first lockdown,” says Michelle, who has been working from home for the past six months. “It is a struggle adjusting from working at home to coming into work for a few days, where you are starting to enjoy a different view and seeing your colleagues, instead of staring at the four walls of your home, then going back to another lockdown.”
“It is also harder for my colleagues who have a family, especially with kids, because even if you set up a boundary to focus on work, there would still be times that you'll be disturbed.”
Her employer listened to their concerns and organised programmes to help staff deal with some of their “mental struggles”.
“Our direct managers also try to do something new in our team meetings to make them more engaging,” says Michelle. “We had a few group sessions with psychologists to help us understand how we are and how to cope with it. Personally, I learned a lot and it somehow decreased the anxieties of working from home.”
Happiness is a ‘wet nose’
“As leaders, we should consider running some training for our remote workers to prepare and assist them in working remotely,” says Stephen Griffin, business coach and consultant.
“Some people will adapt very quickly, and others may struggle. Loneliness is a genuine concern,” says Griffin, who was a technology firm executive and military commander, before becoming a strategic business consultant. “We should consider how we socialise during work hours and provide the tools and time to enable this to happen.”
He says remote staff can opt to “change the venue” at work. Pandemic restrictions permitting, they can schedule time to work outside the home, such as a coffee shop, a library or communal space. They can also hold a “social hour” meeting time with co-workers, via phone or video chat, to talk informally and establish connections.
“Consider having a pet,” he adds. “A furry companion is an excellent reason for taking exercises and having breaks. Happiness is a wet nose!”
When virtual onboarding is the norm
Nadine Paredes shares her experience moving to a new role and sector - technology - in the midst of a pandemic. She has a bachelor’s degree in fine arts from the University of Auckland, and had just completed her masters in user experience design at the Victoria University of Wellington when she got the job.
“I didn’t have any prior experience working in the tech sector, let alone a corporate. I got the job just after lockdown, so my expectations for my new role were largely unconventional,” says Nadine, a UX Designer at Spark New Zealand.
Nadine also knew she would not get the in-person onboarding experience that so many new graduates before her have gone through and “often dream about when they’re about to embark on an exciting new career”.
So what helped her in the move?
“There were a couple of remote onboarding procedures within the company that were put into place when I first started, such as having access to company resources through the company portal/intranet. It’s easy enough to search for anything about the company within that portal, which really helped my understanding of the company’s culture and its infrastructure. I was also introduced and invited to tribe meetings, and got to do an introductory PowerPoint presentation about who I was to the rest of the team.”
She says daily stand up meetings are incredibly important. “The meetings helped me figure out my co-workers’ roles and areas of expertise. I think the latest communication tools outside of just using emails have really shaped the way we work and the possibilities of what meaningful collaboration could mean for the contemporary workplace.”
She sees the upside of the experience. “This pandemic has proven to the working world that a hybrid way of working between our homes and the office has created an abundance of benefits to our wellbeing, especially to those who have suffered trying to find a balance between their personal and professional lives in the past.”
As Cynthia, the executive from the multinational company points out: “We have the opportunity to impact the next generation of workers that the new hybrid workplace is for them.”