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Reflecting On The Economist “[email protected] Work US” Event: The Future of Culture & Inclusivity In Hybrid Workplaces

The pandemic reminded all of us in the workplace that adversity often breeds advancements and innovation. What have we learned and will continue to learn from the transition into virtual and now hybrid workplaces? How will this change corporate culture and our experience and expectations of work? What is the best way to use technology to collaborate within a safe company culture in order to innovate?

I am still buzzing from the opportunity I had to delve into these questions as a moderator, panelist, and attendee in The Economist event, [email protected] US.

InnovatorsBox®'s Press Release about The Economist's "[email protected]" Event

The [email protected] US  Economist Event was a three-day event (Oct 18-21, 2021) focusing on reimagining leadership, collaboration, and creativity in the workplace in our “new normal.” The virtual event had over 80 highly distinguished speakers and 3,000+ attendees from all over the world collectively discussing how people and technology will collaborate to be successful in the future of work. 

I feel both heard and inspired as a creative leadership and innovation culture development expert who was able to soak in all the actionable insights, real-life case studies, and vulnerable stories from leaders across several industries all working towards better culture and inclusivity in the new normal.

The question of how we can connect better online is a question I’ve explored deeply since InnovatorsBox made its fully virtual pivot during the pandemic as well. Even though my team worked remotely, our services were all in person and I had to unlearn how we think about the workshop and strategy space as we served online. Now while I’m not travelling like I used to, I am increasingly having intimate conversations about the importance of culture and belonging with the clients I work with. Internally, we not only have expanded our capability,  but are 100% remote. We now have team members from around the world and now serve clients from around the world. I’m very grateful to have these conversations because we’ve learned so much. And we will continue to evolve!

I spoke as a panelist in a discussion called “Leadership lessons in hybrid work models from onboarding to exit: how to overcome the risk of proximity bias and avoid creating second-class citizens?” on October 19, 2021. I also moderated the “[email protected]: to what extent can corporate values transcend the office walls?”panel on October 20, 2021. I want to take this time to reflect on not only the lessons I’ve learned, but the curious questions that I’ve continued to ponder as a result.

Leadership lessons in hybrid work models from onboarding to exit: how to overcome the risk of proximity bias and avoid creating second-class citizens?

Moderator: 

Jonathan Birdwell, Regional Head (EMEA), public policy and thought leadership, The Economist Intelligence Unit.

Panelists:

  1. Lynne Oldham, Chief People Officer, Zoom
  2. Daisy Auger-Dominguez, Chief People Officer VICE Media Group
  3. Matthew Breitfelder, Sr. Partner Global head of Human Capital at Apollo Global Management
  4. Monica Kang, Founder, and chief executive officer, InnovatorsBox

Proximity bias is the idea that team members with closer proximity to the workplace and leadership will be perceived as better workers, and ultimately find more success (regardless of talent or eligibility.) And not surprisingly, the fully remote environments forced upon us in the pandemic has helped us to overcome this bias. In this panel, we discussed how to continue to use empathy, intentionally, and mindfulness to build new workplace models that make everyone feel heard – at every level and from every background.

The Importance of Co-Creation in Testing Our New Workplace Models

Everyone had a chance to explain their current workplace models and their tools for working in this new normal. While we all used different technologies and often asked different questions, one thing was in common – the importance of co-creation. 

Creating new systems of work, especially now, is not about one person at the top deciding alone what to do. Rather creating new methods of working requires a truly collaborative approach that brings in all voices — especially from the up and coming generations. It’s a balancing act of younger generations learning to be humble in learning a craft that takes a long time to learn, but also older generations being open to new practices.  

Daisy Auger-Domingues, the title from VICE Media Group said she was constantly being taught by younger people and is navigating how to find the right balance between the new ways of doing things and the guardrails.

“It’s easier to find those guardrails when there is trust.”

Lynne Oldham, Chief People Officer at Zoom, said they had several focus groups and studied closely what all team members felt about the flexible approach to working – from both an operational and emotional and inclusivity perspective. And technology helped a lot with that – from translation services, to smart galleries which make us look the same, to whiteboards.

“We are in full experimentation mode and lettering up to one goal – to maintain that mutual sense of trust between leadership and employees.” Lynne said, “We know that more trust leads to happier, more productive employees and a workforce as a whole…Technologically we can advance that ability to be flexible, be hybrid, and feel the same.”

"More trust leads to happier, more productive workforce. Technologically, we can advance that ability to be flexible, hybrid, and feel the same.”

At Apollo Global Management, Matthew Breitfelder, Sr. Partner Global head of Human Capital at Apollo Global Management said they are working in a 3-2 model: Most people work the majority of time in office but there’s a day or two a week from home. The model works under 3 Principles:

  • Safety of employee and families
  • Enabling productivity, whether at work or home 
  • Flexibility
 
Matthew said, “We’ve had some of the strongest performance in the history of our company following these principles…one of the strange gifts of this incredibly challenging time for all of us is that it’s given us an opportunity to experiment, try new things, and challenge the mythology that there is only one way to work.

"One of the strange gifts of this incredibly challenging time is that it’s given us an opportunity to experiment and challenge the mythology that there is only one way to work.”

The Role of Intentional Mindfulness & Inclusivity In An Increasingly Remote Environments

The risk of proximity bias is always there when we aren’t intentional about awareness and taking action about it. I was so encouraged in hearing all of the panelists showing that they are walking the walk and talking the talk, reminding us that this is hard work. It takes intentionality and practice and a lot of work, and oftentimes we don’t get results immediately.

“We're human, we all consciously carry biases and we have to be mindful of that,” I said in the panel.

During this time we’re being reminded that it’s not just about providing the technology resources and guidelines to work remotely, but also check in on what’s happening in the process: how are they doing? Is their tech setup the same as your’s? How does your team feel about being on camera?

I shared how for me, I want to see my team’s faces and smiles but through mindful conversations and empathetic attention to their facial expressions (not just their words). I want to build a more inclusive environment virtually for all – those who don’t think like me, look like me, or look or think like me. And I want to find more ways that I can create that by rethinking how I tailor my communication style, project workflow and timeline. It’s important to foster a culture of communication where people feel comfortable asking questions, and feel empowered to ask the right person. 

Lynne Oldham built on my conversation about intentionality by explaining how Zoom has revamped their onboarding process with intentionality in mind.

Lynne said, “We used to fly people all the way around the world to do a week-long event. To learn about the product, but it was less about the emotive piece… now the first day of onboarding is all about emotion … and all of that has really helped us get that empathy factor at our fingertips. And we have to keep going.”

I also loved Daisy Auger-Dominguez’s commentary on how we deal with losing the “water cooler” talks as we move into increasingly remote environments.

“It’s not recreating, it’s reimagining these moments. Culture drives performance, so we try to build a culture of transparency, connection and purpose.”

Training Business Leaders, Especially Mid-Level Managers Through an Empathy Lens

As we noted in the panel, there’s a unique challenge with training mid-level managers to take on the challenges of testing our new workplace models. All of us agreed that empathy – that is listening, adapting, and being vulnerable with our mid-level managers (and really all our team members) is key in moving forward.  We need to help coach leaders on how to tap into what is unique about each person.

“Middle managers get the pressure from the top and the bottom. A lot of times they’re told what to do without the resources.” Daisy shared, “We’re applying a lot of empathy for our managers, and recognizing that all the resources that we provide prepare them for what to come, and they hold a big key into making it the best experience and the most humane experience for their teams.”

“Middle managers get the pressure from the top and the bottom. A lot of times they’re told what to do without the resources."

Matt Breitfelder added that better empathy leads to better trust, which leads to more innovation. 

I’ve walked away from this talk with a renewed sense of passion for creating a hub for creativity, for collaboration, and inclusion. And as Daisy Auger-Dominguez said, the challenge is both operational and cultural.

”This is far from an operational rest, this is a cultural reset. And we have been bringing our teams along for the last few months into the future of work and the new way of working. We don’t know what’s coming but we’re going to do it together.”

[email protected]: to what extent can corporate values transcend the office walls?

Moderator: 

Monica Kang, Founder, and chief executive officer, InnovatorsBox

Panelists:

  1. Ann Powell, Chief human resources officer, Bristol Myers Squibb
  2. Deanne King, Chief human resources officer, T-Mobile USA
  3. Tanya Golesic, Chief executive officer, Mackage
  4. Archana (Arch) Singh, Chief people officer, Expedia Group

Be Transparent About What You Know And What You’re Learning

I’m a big proponent of asking questions and not being afraid to reveal what you don’t know, because that comfort in curiosity leads to more opportunities for innovation. One of my favorite examples of this is Ann Powell’s case study from her work at Bristol Myers Squibb, where an Evolution Research Group (ERG) brought to their attention that over 80% of clinical trials were composed of white people. Highlighting this bias to leadership took courage, and Bristol Myers Squibb’s decision to admit to their problem and their actionable steps to improve it, was an excellent example of transparency.

“The pandemic was almost an accelerator for us.. in the inclusion value especially,” Ann Powell said. “It stripped away the hierarchy. Our boxes are the same size. Our dogs were all running in the background…the one thing that is important as we return to our offices…is that we don’t fall back into our comfort zone, that we continue to show vulnerability and authenticity. That garners trust. It took trust for that ERG to come forth with their concern.”

“The pandemic stripped away the hierarchy. Our boxes are the same size."

Rethinking The Workplace Challenges as a Chance to Improve The Way We Show Up In Company Values

From Tanya Golesic’s drive to stay creative enough to put out new lines of fashion at Mackage at home, to Archana (Arch) Singh’s focus on expanding the accessibility of travel at Expedia group — it’s clear that the corporations who did well are the ones that chose to rethink the workplace challenges as a chance to improve and rethink their ways of working; to throw out the mythology that the only way to work was the old way.

“We’re all finally taking a sigh of relief now, but that is because we have amazing teams who are able to pivot and are able to react to change.”

The incredible case study of how T-Mobile and Sprint handled their merger, an incredibly complex task that was years in the making, in the pandemic highlighted the importance of a collaboration and service-oriented culture.

Deane King, Chief human resources officer of T-Mobile USA, said they had to throw a playbook out the door, as the pandemic uprooted all the operational and cultural processes they had put in place for the merger. But they were able to successfully complete it in part, she said, because of a positive attitude towards their “customer love” framework in customer service, and their respect for each other.

“We now call it our ‘new better normal,” she said. “One of the things we learned in the pandemic is we want to see you, but we don’t want to see you every minute of every day. So, we’ve implemented hybrid work options to use the spaces to lift up and reimburse what’s important to us.” 

“We now call it our ‘new better normal, and we’ve implemented hybrid work options to use the spaces to lift up and reimburse what’s important to us.”

I ended the panel by asking the panelists to gift a question for workplaces to ask to foster in order to foster a culture driven by values in the new normal. I think these questions are a great summary to the end of this event, and have certainly left me curious for more:

Archana (Arch) Singh: What would be most useful to you in all interactions?

Deanne King: Always ask people – how are you doing?

Tanya Golesic: What tools can I give you and what does that new toolbox look like to be successful? 

Archana (Arch) Singh (a twist on the question format:): Listen and demonstrate that you care.

Thank you The Economist for having me at this incredibly insightful and engaging event! I had the opportunity to see the event through several perspectives and as always, I am delightfully left with more questions than answers. As InnovatorsBox continues to evolve, and as I continue to learn from my wonderful remote teams, I will challenge what the future of culture and inclusivity will look like in workplaces here, and around the world.

About the Author

Monica H. Kang

Monica H. Kang

Monica H. Kang, Founder, and CEO of InnovatorsBox® and Author of Rethink Creativity is transforming today’s workforce through the power of creativity. She helps companies rethink culture, leadership, and team development by making creativity practical and relatable regardless of industry or job title. She has worked with clients worldwide including Fortune 500 companies, higher education, government, and nonprofits. Monica’s work has been recognized by The White House, Ashoka Changemakers, National Minority Supplier Development Council (NMSDC), and Women’s Business Enterprise National Council (WBENC). Prior to InnovatorsBox®, Monica was a nuclear nonproliferation policy expert. She holds an M.A. from SAIS Johns Hopkins University in Strategic Studies and International Economics and a B.A. from Boston University.

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