Adam Grant and other leaders weigh in on leading the future of work

Employee experience in focus

WORK

Camille Rasmussen
November 5, 2021

With 2022 right around the corner, many businesses are approaching the moment of truth for their return to work policies: Will your approach hit the mark and yield engaged and highly productive teams? Or will it open the door to unexpected challenges or push-back? Of course, there’s an added pressure to get things right with The Great Resignation threatening your most valuable people.

The truth is, nobody really knows how to bounce back from a global pandemic and multiple parallel crises. We can only learn from our mistakes and use the best information available to us to course correct and try again. 

Challenges aside, business leaders are at the precipice of something truly remarkable. We have the opportunity to reinvent the way our businesses work for the better. These are big decisions—from reimagining the workplace to changing real estate investments to building value propositions that position our companies to hire and retain great talent. As we venture once again into uncharted territory, leaders will need to test, learn, and iterate on their strategies based on the feedback they gather. 

Here we’ll share four key insights from the executives and workplace experts who presented at our recent event, CXO Insights: Employee Experience in Focus, including bestselling author Adam Grant, HubSpot Chief People Officer Katie Burke, and LiveRamp Head of Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging Khambrel Ward. Read on for advice to help guide how you think about the employee experience in the new year—from ensuring the future of your workplace is aligned with your culture to customizing your return to work approach to the demands of different roles.

1. Align the future of your workplace with your culture

People everywhere are proclaiming they’re ready to return to normal. But the old ways of working and doing business didn’t work for everyone. Today, businesses have a unique opportunity to mold their workplaces into something more inclusive, accessible, and aligned with their values.

Katie Burke, chief people officer at HubSpot, recommends acknowledging what’s working and what isn’t and focusing on being intentional with your approach to work to ensure it complements your culture. “One of the things we have to be okay with is exploring what didn't work about our past workforce experience and being bold enough to create a future that's exciting and accessible to many people,” said Burke. It’s also important to separate your personal preferences from what’s best for the organization, because they can differ.

“One of the things we have to be okay with is exploring what didn't work about our past workforce experience and being bold enough to create a future that's exciting and accessible to many people.”

Katie Burke

Chief people officer, HubSpot

For companies that aim to foster a culture of diversity, equity, and inclusion, remote work can help level the playing field by removing a major barrier for entry for underrepresented minorities to enter the corporate world. According to Khambrel Ward, head of diversity, inclusion, and belonging at LiveRamp, minority groups often need to make a choice between leaving their communities behind to relocate to hubs like Silicon Valley or Austin or staying in their communities that they love and are so important to them. “If the pandemic has taught us anything, it's taught us how to effectively work remotely,” said Ward. “I think that's going to be the driving force behind the uptake and diverse representation in the corporate setting.” 

Expert tip: As you aspire to build a future workplace that’s more inclusive, engaging, and productive, it’s important to give yourself the time and space to gather insights from your team so you can create better employee experiences in the future.

2. Build culture in a remote and hybrid environment

It’s no secret that remote work comes with some challenges, particularly around culture-building and collaboration. Companies that have embraced remote and hybrid work models going forward will need to put a little more effort into maintaining a positive culture that facilitates connection and collaboration between employees. 

After all, building a strong connection between teammates—and with the company’s mission—is central to keeping employees happy, engaged, and loyal for the long-haul. In fact, a recent Momentive study found workers who feel more connected to their colleagues are nearly three times more likely to describe themselves as thriving compared to those who feel less connected.1 So how can organizations foster connection in a remote and hybrid world, where the bulk of our interactions are transactional conversations over Zoom? 

Workers who feel more connected to their colleagues are nearly 3x more likely to describe themselves as thriving compared to those who feel less connected.

To build culture from a distance, Adam Grant, organizational psychologist at Wharton and New York Times bestselling author of Option B and Think Again, recommends you start by identifying your culture carriers. These are the folks who exemplify your organization’s values and act as ambassadors for your brand, but most business leaders have no idea who they are. As a result, Grant argues, culture carriers are underutilized in terms of their influence by many organizations. You can identify your culture carriers by surveying your employees with a simple question: if you could nominate one person at [your company] who could help anyone understand what’s so special about our culture, who would that person be? 

Once you’ve identified them, your culture carriers should be put in visible positions, such as leading all hands, helping with recruiting efforts, and meeting new hires during onboarding. “[Culture carriers] go above and beyond to live everything that's meaningful about your culture, and the more visible they are to everybody else, the easier it is to spread that culture,” said Grant. 

A more challenging aspect of building culture in remote environments is adding in the whimsical and fun elements that get employees excited about the company and inspire connection. It helps to start building excitement from day one—which means your onboarding program should get new hires amped about your organization’s mission, vision, and values rather than jumping straight into job-specific duties and tactics. It doesn’t hurt to include some fun activities and provide plenty of space for connection amongst new hires and with their teams. 

Expert tip: Don’t assume you know what your employees want or need to feel connected. Ask them, and use the insights to guide your culture-building initiatives. Listening and responding to feedback, even when you’ve missed the mark, makes it clear that you care about your employees.

3. Avoid a one-size-fits-all approach to building culture and retaining employees

As business leaders iterate to find the right balance between workplace flexibility and culture-building, it’s important to recognize that one approach won’t usually work for everyone. 

Adam Grant offered this suggestion: “Let's actually analyze what kinds of jobs people are doing. Because some jobs are easier to do remotely than others. How much collaboration does your job require?”

For roles that resemble team sports—those that are strategic, highly collaborative, or feed off of the team’s energy—it’s probably appropriate to have these teams in the office interacting face-to-face more often. But for roles that are more like individual sports, it’s less important for these employees to be in the same place or even the same time zone. Then there are the relay sports, like customer service: what’s most important for these employees is ensuring teammates have synchronous communication when passing the baton. 

“Let's actually analyze what kinds of jobs people are doing. Because some jobs are easier to do remotely than others. How much collaboration does your job require?”

Adam Grant

Organizational psychologist, Wharton

Just as it’s hard to land on a single approach that will be functional for everyone, the same is true for retention. In HubSpot CPO Katie Burke’s words, “It's really hard to do a one-size-fits-all retention plan. Instead, you have to be clear around what your intention is, who you're trying to retain, and what really drives their decisions to stay.”

Expert tip: When you’re not sure what working arrangements will work best for each team—or each individual—one solution is to give employees a say. Here at Momentive, we elected to launch a “choice” model for return to work, giving employees the option to choose the work arrangement that works best for them. 

4. Be mindful of bias in the workplace

Rethinking the workplace should include removing bias from processes and the company. One type of bias that’s been getting a lot of attention these days is proximity bias—the idea that those team members we’re in close proximity with will be seen as better workers, leading to favoritism and unequal opportunities for career advancement. This is not a new concept, particularly among geographically distributed workforces. Katie Burke noted, “You also need to make sure you're actively listening to what's working and what's not by region.” 

For remote workers, missing out on casual conversations at the coffee station or bumping into colleagues in the halls can limit the number of people they can get feedback and information from. Becky Cantieri, our chief people officer here at Momentive, notes that we’ve lost one of the tools from our toolkit without the ability to wander around, talk to people more broadly, and travel to offices in different geographies. “That really presents a challenge,” said Cantieri. “It makes your sources of input and information more limited when the breadth and depth of our input sources are part of our superpower to understand, demonstrate empathy, listen, and iterate really well when we're not confined to a Zoom environment.” 

Another area that needs to be reimagined, according to Khambrel Ward, is the talent review process: “That process can be one of the most biased at any company, because it's based on your manager's thought process about the way you work.” When only one person—your manager—is in control of whether you get a raise, promoted, put on a performance improvement plan, or fired, this can affect the movement of diverse individuals in a way that is unequal. “It needs to be more committee-based,” Ward said. “To create equity in that space, we need to reimagine how we do the talent review process in order to drive the continued uptake in representation.”

Expert tip: To tackle bias and build systemic change, it helps to have a dedicated team that’s responsible for working on solving big issues impacting underrepresented groups—like pay equity, leadership opportunities, mentoring, and sponsorship—and remote workers.

Leading your 2022 back-to-work initiatives

When it comes to making big decisions around returning to work that will impact the broader organization, don’t trust your intuition—test it by gathering objective feedback. Ensure you’re listening to employees and getting their input at a regular cadence—that’s what’s going to help you nail the rollout of your back-to-work plans and boost employee retention as well. If something isn’t working, acknowledge it, learn from the feedback, and put insights into action.

The insights in this article are based on our recent event, CXO Insights: Employee Experience in Focus, now available on-demand

1 SurveyMonkey online poll conducted October 18-25, 2021 among a national sample of 11,227 adults.

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