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‘A whole new mindset’: HR experts and researchers share tips for a successful return to office

Future of Work Panel at the 2022 GeekWire summit, left to right: Holli Martinez of T-Mobile and Julia Anas of Qualtrics. Megan Hansen of Smartsheet moderator Arianne Cohen of Bloomberg News. (GeekWire Photo by Dan DeLong

Companies are still grappling with the challenges of the COVID-19 epidemic, even as they begin to feel less worried. Who’s coming into the office, how often, for what purpose and what does the workplace itself even look like?

Three tech executives joined last week’s GeekWire Summit to discuss their plans for how they plan on navigating the workplace in 2022. They agreed that flexibility was a key ingredient in navigating this new age of hybrid work.

Julia Anas was the chief people officer of Qualtrics. Megan Hansen was chief people and culture officer of Smartsheet. Holli Martinez was vice president, head of diversity and equity at T-Mobile. Arianne Cohen, Bloomberg News, moderated.. Here’s their advice:

Be deliberate

Smartsheet leadership looked over every job within the company about a year back, determined which jobs were remotely eligible and set expectations for each position. Smartsheet is focusing on flexibility and employee choice in responding to the workforce’s needs.

“We’re trying to make choices that align with our purposes and our mission,” Hansen said.

Qualtrics proposed at first that employees should only come in for three days each week. “It didn’t go over well for our population,” Anas said. It was redesigned and each team could set its own schedules. Now, most workers only work one or two days per week at the office.

Your employees are important to you

The three companies all used multiple channels to get feedback from their workers. Qualtrics included five questions they asked 10- to 15% of their workforce every week. They wanted to know: what are your motivations; how frequently do you arrive at work; what draw you in; satisfaction with the job onsite; have you made meaningful connections; were you productive?

The survey also includes an open-ended question about how they could improve the experience, which generates “a lot of creative writing and ideas,” Anas said. So far, the company has surveyed 70% of its employees.

Martinez said that T-Mobile’s strategies include hosting listening sessions and working with employee resource groups (ERGs) to make sure that they’re hearing from workers who belong to minority groups.

Change your workplace

During the pandemic, T-Mobile merged with Sprint, which led to a $160 million remodel of the company’s headquarters and a re-imagining of its workspaces. This new design features living rooms and dining rooms that encourage collaboration, rooms for prayer and nursing mothers, and even a pub.

“There are spaces that make you want to be there,” Martinez said.

Qualtrics has recently established a co-headquarters office in Seattle and Dublin. It was all about social and workplace collaborations.

“It draws people to have those ‘casual collisions’ where you can grab someone just to catch up,” Anas said.

Smartsheet’s physical space footprint has been reduced by the pandemic. It now rents space for large events. It’s also valuing conferences as a means for reconnecting workers, including the upcoming AFROTECH Conference in Austin.

20221006 GeekWire Summit 577 Teevan
Jaime Teevan is Microsoft Chief Scientist. He speaks at Seattle’s 2022 GeekWire Summit. (GeekWire Photo / Kevin Lisota)

While these companies are coming up with strategies that seem to be working, it’s clear that there will be ongoing challenges as employers and employees redefine work.

Jaime Teevan, Microsoft’s Chief Scientist presented at the GeekWire Summit. He shared results from a Microsoft survey that showed a significant disconnect between managers and employees. It found that 87% of surveyed workers say they are productive at work, but only 12% of leaders say they’re fully confident their employees are productive.

These results were based on a survey that included 20,000 respondents from 11 different countries.

“No one questions that we’re working more,” Teevan said. Microsoft collected data that showed an increase in meetings, emailing hours and meeting scheduling.

But that doesn’t tell the whole story. The problem, Teevan said, is “leaders aren’t convinced that their employees are working on stuff that matters.”

While employers may be eager to have workers return to work for various reasons, there is a drawback for workers: the ability to network with peers and help rebuild their teams. This was evident in the Microsoft research.

Teevan stated that there is much more to learn.

“It’s not even just new skills that we need to learn. It’s a whole new mindset,” she said. “It is essential that we are doing this experimentation. We need to be [using] what we’ve learned.

“If we can do that, we have this opportunity to completely reimagine work,” she said, “and hopefully create a new and better future work.”

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