The Flex Study: Global Findings on the Future of Flexible Work. Download the study
Flexible work Podcast

FLEX Episode 6: Making Flexible Work a Standard Part of Your Company Culture

FLEX Episode 6: Making Flexible Work a Standard Part of Your Company Culture
 

 

Alex Campanelli:

Welcome to FLEX, a podcast by Fuze. As a leader in the cloud communication space, we've been passionate about the future of work for over a decade. Join us every month as we discuss the future of flexible work with industry leaders and subject matter experts. I'm your host, Alex Campanelli. Thanks for tuning in.

 

Alex Campanelli:

On today's episode, I'm speaking with with Sacha Connor, Founder and CEO at Virtual Work Insider, about how to make flexible work an integrated part of your company culture. Sacha, welcome.

 

Sacha Connor:

Thanks for having me, Alex.

 

Alex Campanelli:

How has the past year and a half been for you? Being an early pioneer of remote work, did you find it surprising to see how quickly the conversation around it accelerated during this time?

 

Sacha Connor:

So when the pandemic hit, I had been working remotely for almost 10 years and I thought this was the marathon that I had been preparing for all of that time. And so I thought it was going to just feel like normal remote work. And then I realized that it was not normal. I realized that normal remote work, pre pandemic remote work, was a seamless controlled environment. So I have two kids, so I always have two locked doors between me and them. They always had some sort of childcare or they were in school, but what was happening was actually work-life collision. So I like many other people were responsible for not just working, but also to be able to juggle my household duties, my family duties and life like never before. And so it started out with then having to have a lot of empathy for myself, for others about what we were all going through.

 

Sacha Connor:

And as I was working with organizations when this happened, what I was seeing was that these organizations were having to quickly transition into a FROG— or a Fully Remote Organization— almost overnight. And that was a really intense transition with a really steep learning curve because these FROGs, these fully remote organizations, they actually existed before the pandemic, but they had the processes, and the skills and the tools in place to be able to perform in that way. And for most organizations having to transition into that FROG, it was like they were having to learn all of these things as the car was going around the racetrack. And what it did was it created this one huge remote work experiment that has really pushed people's mindsets about what actually can be done across distance versus what must be done in person. And I really think that it has accelerated conversations about flexible work that probably would have taken another 10 years to get to.

 

Alex Campanelli:

Yeah, I absolutely agree. That's been really clear throughout this whole process. But you were an advocate of remote work starting back before you founded Virtual Work Insider at your previous company, Clorox. Do you want to tell us about your experience there and what your role was?

 

Sacha Connor:

Yeah, so back in 2009, I had been working at the Clorox company for several years at that point. And Clorox is headquartered in Oakland, California, and I was living in San Francisco. And my husband and I had our first child, my daughter, and we were living in San Francisco, but we were spending so much of that first year of Nevin's life, traveling from the San Francisco area to the Philadelphia area where I'm from, where my husband's from, so that Nevin could meet her extended family. And at the end of that year, my husband and I had a conversation about what do we want long term? Do we want to live near the family that we love? Or did we want to live near the careers that we loved? And I loved working at Clorox and I really didn't want to leave. And I thought if I moved back to Philadelphia, I was going to have to find a new job. But then I had the bold idea, which was to ask if I could move 3,000 miles away, but keep the job that I had and Clorox was actually I'm open to that.

 

Sacha Connor:

So I had a good relationship with the Chief Marketing Officer and some senior people at the organization, and they said, okay, you can be an experiment for us. You can be a guinea pig to see can you still do your job, but be 3,000 miles away and 3 times zones away. And back in 2010, this was pretty unheard of. So to be working for a large company. So a $6 billion company is how large Clorox is, and in the consumer packaged goods industry. And I was leading large new product innovation teams. So something that you would think really you're working with, like physical products, seeing packaging graphics, having to look at formulas and things like that. And so it was quite an experiment to see how could this be done? And at first I thought let's just give it three months and we'll see how this goes. And three months turned into eight years of me leading large distributed teams from my home office in Philly.

 

Sacha Connor:

So I was leading teams of innovators and marketers and salespeople. And I learned a ton over that time. It was a really steep learning curve at the beginning. I felt like I had a hand tied behind my back or I was blindfolded half of the time, but I quickly realized that a lot of what I was learning how to do while working remotely was actually applicable to 95% of the employee base at Clorox because we were all working across distance. Even though I was fully remote, and there were not many people who were fully remote or working from home, many of us were working in virtual teams. We were working in teams from office site to office site, across time zones, across distance. And the skills that I was learning to work remotely were actually applicable to those virtual teams as well. And so I fell into helping others be able to work across distance and that became one of my true passion areas.

 

Alex Campanelli:

And so in 2018, you transitioned to found Virtual Work Insider. Do you want to tell us about why at that time you decided to make that leap or that transition?

 

Sacha Connor:

So, as I mentioned before, I'm a marketer by trade, I'm an innovator by trade. So I'm trained to see where there are needs in the market and how to position a product uniquely to fit those needs. And I saw that there was a need in the market to help people work across distance, to help organizations and teams work across distance. Because so much of what was taught in leadership development was under the premise of being within earshot and eye shot of each other. And so I felt like I had this unique skill after having worked eight years leading these large teams at Clorox, to be able to help other organizations through that transition and to get to more effective teamwork and more productive work. So I loved my time at Clorox. It was a really hard decision to leave, but I was even more passionate about the work that I was doing to help these teams.

 

Sacha Connor:

So at Clorox, what I did was I had founded the first ever virtual workforce employee resource group. So it was taking this idea of ERGs that had been around for many years, but applying it to the virtual workforce. So I ran this group of volunteers really, who helped to teach the tech tools to teams throughout the company, to help upskill and teach them leadership skills on how to work across distance. And that was the work that was so motivating to me. And I knew that I could take those skills and help apply them to other teams and organizations that were struggling to work across distance.

 

Alex Campanelli:

I love that story. I think that's such a natural progression, and it just makes sense. As you know, we did our recent FLEX study and one of our key takeaways was that flexible work is no longer a perk that companies can offer, it should be standard practice. And we saw that 3 in 4, or 75% of the employees surveyed are now demanding flexible work in their roles. What do you think are key ways companies can make flexible work a pivotal part of their company culture as we move forward?

 

Sacha Connor:

I think as companies consider their workforce strategy, which flexible work is part of, they need to make these decisions based on their company mission and their values. And that should be one of the filters with which that they use to create these workforce strategies. I'll give you an example. I was on a panel recently with some HR leaders from Eventbrite and Dropbox. And I thought it was fascinating because the conversation that we got into about their workforce strategies had to do with their missions and Eventbrite has a mission of enabling people to gather. While Dropbox has a mission of designing a more enlightened way of working. So you could see even from those two different missions that you might end up with a different workforce strategy. So for example, Eventbrite, enabling people to come together. They wouldn't want to go to a fully remote type workforce strategy because core to who they are is about gathering and gathering in person.

 

Sacha Connor:

So they're working through their hybrid flex strategy where they allow flexibility to work remotely, but also will have some sort of part of the strategy where they're bringing people together. Whereas Dropbox wants to focus on designing a more enlightened way of working. They've decided to go remote first. So what that means is everybody is working remotely. However, they will have some physical hubs where people can use to gather, but they're very specifically not going hybrid where they're saying some people can come together in person and others will stay remote. So one of the things that's really important as you're working through that workforce strategy is to know the concept of distance bias. So this is something that the Neuro Leadership Institute talks about within their unconscious bias model and what it is, is it's our brain's natural tendency to put more importance on the people and things that are closer to us than those that are further away.

 

Sacha Connor:

And so I felt this really, really strongly when I was working at Clorox because I was in the location minority. I was usually one of very few people who were not in the room when conversations were happening or decisions were made. I was the one on the video screen, not physically in the room, or I was the one who was having to influence my key stakeholders from 3,000 miles away versus others who were able to bump into them at the water cooler or in the elevator. And so as you think about these workforce strategies, you have to understand where there's distance bias baked into the work that you're doing and your people processes.

 

Sacha Connor:

So for example, one of the things that I didn't mention earlier is that Clorox had said, yes, you could be this remote work experiment for us, but you'll never get promoted because to get promoted to director level above, you have to be here at headquarters. You'll never get to work on certain businesses because those businesses have to be run out of headquarters. And you're going to move from a high potential employee to a low potential employee. Not because your skills have changed, but because potential is linked to promotability, which is linked to location.

 

Sacha Connor:

So it was interesting because me being that experiment actually highlighted a bunch of distance bias that was in those people processes that actually hadn't hadn't poked through yet. And so it enabled me to kind of take that on as a challenge to say, all right, you just threw down the gauntlet at me. I'm going to prove to you, that I can get promoted, that I can work on those businesses, that potential shouldn't be linked to location. And I was able to do that there. I was able to get them to change their minds about that but it took a long time. And what I'm excited about this moment right now is that many organizations are looking at those things with fresh eyes now and seeing where they might have had that distance bias baked in and they didn't even know it.

 

Alex Campanelli:

Yeah. And I think that's so great that you took on that challenge at such an early time, because it just wasn't the norm back then, I feel like. And so I'm curious. So you obviously were able to show your potential, move up in the ranks and to see that forward movement in your career at Clorox. For those leading teams like you were, what are some do’s and don'ts for creating that flexible team culture, some hands-on tips for managers that you have?

 

Sacha Connor:

One of the things that I find is important is to talk about that word, culture, because I think that that word, culture, can represent so much for so many different people. And how I like to define it is I like to say, first, culture is not one more Zoom happy hour. So culture is actually the values, attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors that are shared by a team. It's how people work together toward a common goal. And it's how they treat each other. What Zoom happy hours are is comradery building. So comradery is the mutual trust and friendship among people who spend a lot of time together. Comradery is important. It's an important part of culture, but it's not it itself. So let's just start there.

 

Sacha Connor:

And so, as we think about these hybrid teams that are starting to form, these virtual teams, and you want to maintain a really great team culture. Well, first you got to look and see, do you have that foundation built? Meaning do you have the building blocks in place of defining your team values, defining the behaviors that you want to continue to reinforce? Because when you're in a virtual environment, when you're not together every day, you don't have those ways to pick up organically on how are people working together and treating each other. You're behind these virtual curtains and you only get little peaks in. So you have to, especially as a leader of a team, be really intentional about making sure that those values are defined, making sure what the behaviors that you're role modeling them, that you're recognizing when people are behaving in the right way. And you're rewarding based on that. So that's the building blocks of the culture that is so important in a virtual or hybrid team.

 

Alex Campanelli:

Yeah, I think that makes perfect sense. And so I'm sure you've heard about this. You've read this. We're now seeing this great resignation starting to take place globally, where employees are leaving their jobs and it's becoming this phenomenon as we transition into this new time of work and this new period of time within COVID-19, I guess that whole time span. But across every role and region and industry that we surveyed in our FLEX study, nearly two thirds of workers said they would consider finding a new job for greater long-term flexibility. So do you think that's kind of the primary motivation behind this great resignation that we're seeing? Or do you think it's a combination of factors?

 

Sacha Connor:

I think there's always a combination of factors when these kinds of things happen, but I do know that the question of flexibility has now been raised and been raised by the employer has been raised by the employees. And I think that flexibility has now become an important part of a compensation package. Whereas before it might've been an add on perk that was added maybe at the last minute to help entice a candidate to come to a company. Or in my case, for example, to retain me at the Clorox company, they allowed me that flexibility. It came with all of those caveats at first, but it became kind of this one off perk that I got because I asked for it and I had a good track record versus something that was baked into the strategy, the HR strategy, the people strategy at the company.

 

Sacha Connor:

So I think that it is becoming an important part of the compensation package. And I think it's because time is an unrenewable resource and flexibility gives people time back. And so many people now have tasted that, getting that time back of not having their commute, especially and figuring out where they wanted to put that time into, whether it was more time with their family, more time to exercise, more time to actually work if they wanted to, more time to think. And it's hard to then take that time back away that they had to be more productive in whatever fashion they had decided that they wanted to use that time.

 

Alex Campanelli:

Yeah. You can't put the genie back in the bottle. So, okay. So last question, and I really liked what you were saying about the distinction between culture, comradery, and other sorts of definitions. But what do you think will happen to companies who don't integrate flexibility or a flexible work model into their company culture? Do you think that that's a nail in the coffin for some businesses or for some businesses it's just continuing on as usual?

 

Sacha Connor:

I think that if a company start to adopt a more flexible and hybrid workforce model, then as we were talking about before with the great resignation, they're going to start to lose some of their top talent. So I think that it's going to be harder to keep tech top talent, and it's going to be harder to recruit top talent. So when you think about a competitive advantage being the people that work in your company, that is going to be one of the areas where companies will struggle if they're being too rigid in where people need to be located in order to do the job. And then thinking about the culture within a company that is adopting a hybrid or a flexible work model or fully remote work model, whatever it is, you need to be really intentional about the mindsets that you have within that model.

 

Sacha Connor:

So it's one thing to hire people and say, you can work from anywhere. We just need you to come into an office once a month or quarterly to be able to build relationships with your team members. It's one thing to say that, but then behind that, there needs to be a ton of work in terms of helping to upskill employees on how to work across distance. So that's what we do a lot of at Virtual Work Insider. We help teach the skills to lead collaborate, communicate, build culture across distance because those are skills that have not really been taught in this kind of setting before.

 

Sacha Connor:

And then the mindset shift, back to the distance bias and being able to identify that and put plans in place to mitigate it. Because what will start happening is if you don't have that mindset shift in place, if you haven't stripped out the distance bias, if you haven't upskilled your employees and your teams, then bad behaviors are going to start to happen, where people are going to get promoted, who were the ones who came into the office more often and maybe saw the senior leaders and have more face time with them, if the senior leaders themselves are actually coming into the office more than they should. They're almost magnets, if your senior leaders are coming in, they're pulling people back into an office. Whereas if your workforce strategy is not meant to do that, it's having a counterproductive, measure against what you're trying to achieve. So you need to actually back up those workforce strategies with some scaffolding to support it long-term.

 

Alex Campanelli:

I think those are great takeaways for organizations that might be listening to today's episode. I think that's all the time we have for our chat. So Sacha, thank you so much for joining me.

 

Sacha Connor:

Thanks Alex.

 

Alex Campanelli:

Thanks again for listening to FLEX a podcast by Fuze. Be sure to subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or Google Podcasts and rate and review us. If you want to connect with us on social media, like us on Facebook, or follow us on Instagram and Twitter at @fuzehq. See you next time.