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Future of Work Forum recap: Coronavirus crisis forcing leadership to evolve

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Gone are the sixty-hour work weeks and rigid 9-to-5 schedules in our new normal, as realities of work-life balance — particularly when it comes to parenthood and productivity — have come swiftly into the foreground this past year.

But the pandemic has done more than force company leaders to accommodate workers’ schedules for their child’s virtual learning or offer temporary flexibility around remote work. If companies have learned anything from the new WFH culture, it’s that leadership can no longer rely on an executive culture that prioritizes margins above grounding operations around the basic humanity of their employees.

Instead, managers are leaning into trust and empathy when it comes to supporting their staff. “This notion of actually caring is truly a commercial issue,” said Anne Erni, Chief People Officer at Audible. “Your people will give it their best when they know a company is there as a safety net to support them through these really difficult times.”

A major part of this renewed focus is that employers are placing a greater priority on empowering women and BIPOC workers to find success without having to compromise things like family life — in this new normal, firms like Verizon and Google are working toward fostering an equitable environment where employees can bring their authentic, whole selves to work without fear.

People over profit

Steve Hyde, CEO of 360xec, talked about the coronavirus crisis exposing companies who had “camouflaged” stodgy, legacy-based leadership structures. If the pandemic was a catalyst for change, the year ahead will be a stern test of whether companies have done enough to break the obsession with margins that tends to dominate c-suite culture in favor of a more people-centric approach that centers humanity within the workplace.

So what kind of leaders are best placed to navigate these transitions in the boardroom and across their businesses at large? “I think largely it’s applied common sense and absolute conviction,” Hyde said. But his top tip, via an encounter several decades ago with The Beatles’ legendary producer, George Martin? Seek out good advice. “I think the thing that for me makes leaders stand out is they don’t prevaricate, they take advice,” said Hyde.

Over at Audible, we heard head of Talent Ara Tucker and chief people officer Anne Erni flag a leader’s capacity to express vulnerability as a key strength. “We believe that leaders should be accessible and also vulnerable,” Tucker said. “We do our best to listen first, to understand without judgment. We want people to feel safe sharing exactly who they are and where they are and what they need to get to the place we need them to be. And I think that empathy and compassion are how you actually build trust.”

Flexibility first

Many leaders won’t be asking their teams to return to the office anytime soon. Speakers from organizations as different as UNICEF and Audible said work from home will continue until at least July, but basically will remain the default until they determine its safe to go back to the office. Even then, both said they’ll be implementing a hybrid model.

Shelley Diamond, CMO at UNICEF USA, said leaders need to ask themselves how to adapt the physical office space to fit the new way of working. “Do we need all these offices?” Diamond said. “We’re going to have half the number of people. Do we change the way we work as an organization and create space around that? Those are the conversations we’re having now.”

Erni said Audible is developing a “work from hub, work from home” model. Employees will be expected to live within commuting distance of the office, but may only actually go in every week or two. Even then, working from the “hub” will be determined by use cases where the task benefits from in-person collaboration. “It’ll be cross functional brainstorms, certain team meetings and projects, new hire orientation, mentoring interns and engaging in some of our ‘Activate Caring’ opportunities,” Erni said.

More than a healthy workplace

Flexibility extends beyond the boundaries of the physical work environment. Many of the leaders we heard from said new modes of work must be built around an insistence on the kind of flexibility and allowances companies have granted employees during the pandemic. Getaway founder and CEO Jon Staff said that starts with an acknowledgment that while work matters, it can’t be the core of a person’s identity.

“I don’t want to diminish the importance of having a healthy workplace and having a good job in your life, but we need stuff outside of work, be it our partners or friends or faith or volunteer activities,” Staff said. “You’ve got to have a support system, and work can be one of the supports, but it can’t be all of the support.”

This is particularly important when it comes to female workers and leaders. Shruti Jain of Google and Samantha Hammock, vp of Talent at Verizon, both said the effects of the pandemic could roll back years of progress. Many women have left the workplace under the duress of balancing professional and personal responsibilities, including not only childcare and other caregiving, but in many cases also managing schooling or virtual learning. As a mother, Jain herself said she had contemplated walking away several times through the pandemic.

“How do we empower women empowering other women?” said Hammock. “Showing those behaviors and practices and how we bring those along is going to be really important so that we continue to engage in this workforce.”

Overheard

“They know the customer better than anybody else in the company. If the company stops listening to the CMO because the CMO isn’t represented, are they truly listening to the customer?” — Steve Hyde, CEO, 360xec

Many organizations have not yet replaced CMO roles cut at the onset of the pandemic, or these roles have been merged with other positions and watered down as a result. Steve Hyde talked about the humanizing and balancing influence CMOs often have within the c-suite, but also their centrality as amplifiers of consumer sentiment. Leaders who fail to appreciate the contribution CMOs play may rue the oversight further down the line.

“I really hope just sitting in an office, in a cubicle with your headphones in, sending emails and Slacks, is not a thing we’re going to require people to do again. I hope that genie doesn’t go back in the bottle.” — Jon Staff, Founder and CEO of Getaway

“Even with a vaccine, many folks on our team — critical people on our team — won’t return to the New York area, and we will continue to have a portion of our workforce that will be 100 percent remote.” — Shelley Diamond, CMO, UNICEF USA

“Both sides have to evolve. Women need to get more confident asking for the compensation they feel they deserve, and then organizations need to find a way to make sure that there is equity in compensation, as well as in the benefits we create for women.” — Shruti Jain, Director of Global Acquisitions and Diversity Council Lead at Google

WTF

Diagonal thinker

For decades, we’ve thought of lateral thinking and linear thinking as being mutually exclusive, and applied these terms as such to characterize different types of personalities in the workplace. But in recent years, the term “diagonal thinking” has been popularized to describe the type of mindset — equal parts practical and analytical, imaginative and abstract — that often underpins success in creative industries. The term has its roots in the ad industry, but the concept applies equally to creative roles in tech and marketing firms. 360xec’s Hyde said these individuals fit the profile for the kinds of leaders organizations will need to steer them through this period of transition and holistic change.

Stats to know

  • Black women make 66 cents for every dollar earned by non-Hispanic white men — Shruti Jain, Director of Global Acquisitions and Diversity Council Lead at Google, highlighted this data point from a study carried out by the Economic Policy Institute

Breaking it down: The work of dismantling barriers to people of color, women and other under-represented groups in tech, media and marketing continues, but at a frustratingly slow pace. As the Diversity Council Lead at Google, Director of Global Acquisitions Shruti Jain said one issue is that companies have to make sure the people working on DEI are actually representative of the workforce and understand the challenges colleagues face.

In particular, Jain said that across many industries, programs intended to advance the position of women in workplaces are often lacking when it comes to diversity. “Where are the Black woman in the conversation? A lot of a lot of the conversation around women often excludes Black women,” she said. 

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