Cosmic Centaurs CEO & Founder Marilyn Zakhour was invited by Airmeet to speak at the Global Remote Day 2021, the world’s largest remote work conference with over 40 speakers, ranging from global remote leaders, to HR executives and entrepreneurs, to Fortune 500 companies, and innovative organizations. During the conference, thought-provoking questions around the new era of flexible work and lots of insights were shared on how flexible work is redefining employee communication and expectations.
During the panel titled “The Remote Work Intervention: Learning to Confront the Evil Twin,” Marilyn spoke alongside with Vaibhav Goel, Group Head HR 2.0 Platform Innovation and Digitalization at Reliance Industries Limited, and Cindy Leong, Enneagram Personality Coach and Corporate Trainer at Relationship Studio. The panel was moderated by Nitin Pratap, Director of Events at Airmeet.
The Human-Tech Partnership
Vaibhav kicked off by stating that the global pandemic made big companies question their policies. Since there has been a lot more work from home now, these companies switched from having a policy approach where everyone had to align to company policy, to context-based policies. “Functionality and flexibility are most important: not just the nature of business, but also that of employees, who need to be given optionality and flexibility. Organizations should adapt in this aspect.“
Nitin then asked Marilyn how to use emerging technology and be ready for the change. “Strategy won’t align everybody,” she responded. Marilyn elaborated, “up until a few centuries ago, we were all working from home anyway. We changed as an echo of the industrial era, and then human resources. We need to bring flexibility to the game, we have to rethink these topics and question how to best design our employees' experience”.
She highlighted the importance of fundamentals. “Organizations have to understand why they exist: their value creation, which services they offer, how organizational strategy supports and nurtures the way they create value, how we divide and produce and reintegrate work.”
She advised companies to take a step back, look at all these ways, and understand that you cannot have one recipe for everything. Creativity sometimes requires co-location, incredible flexibility of the workplace and work time, based on where in the world people are located.
Nitin proceeded to ask Cindy about social distancing, the increased use of technology and how it impacted the mental well-being of people. Cindy’s response reflects her belief that younger people are more inclined to work remotely given their familiarity with softwares such as Slack and Discord. She noted that some people are really struggling, because they had to learn everything from scratch. “It depends on your personality: some prefer [remote work] because they get more distracted in the office, and others like it because it gives them independence. Emotionally driven people find it harder to connect through screens, as they can't tell how you are doing or feeling.”
Vaibhav also shared his thoughts saying that technology shifted to playing a very central role. “Ten years ago, everyone had to do everything the same way in technology systems. Now things have changed: technology helps everyone do things their way.” The challenge resides in lack of organization. People used to do things in a fixed fashion. Before, they were introduced to new technology with a training outlining the exact steps they have to take. “Today’s technology is completely different. We now have a hybrid architecture, same cloud solutions, outside solutions third parties - all work in a common interface to the user. It’s all about user experience and analytics. He states that technology is adaptable, you have to start with the premise: what kind of experience do you want? What do you want to develop for business effectiveness?”
Marilyn’s response reminded the audience that for the longest time, we used to see technology as a controller of employees, to see what they're doing. But now we wonder if we should be afraid or enhanced by AI. She believes in the concept of the Omnichannel Organization (omnichannel: available everywhere, every channel, for employees). “The pandemic made companies realize they have to be omnichannel for their employees. Achieving that requires training and upskilling people. We think because we're all using Zoom, then everyone must be a tech wizard, but it's a wrong assumption. “How can companies enhance the wonder of the human mind and the power of tech, and make sure everyone is on board?”, she adds, and says that to contribute from anywhere at any time is a question of governance. There is definitely complexity: questions of data security, document decisions, governance.... It’s about being disciplined about the small things, such as how we communicate, or document, that have to be re-explored by everybody. Companies have to be open and patient. The US had the highest investment in HR in the past year. “Don’t wait for the next catastrophe, you have to experiment, and see what you need as a workspace.” Maybe a video game view of the office, an immersive experience with avatars?
Cindy agreed with Vaibhav, she believes the way we conduct training has to change. “We need to know how to adapt to different people. Now, personal faces and touches are transformed into numbers, and instead of perceiving them in real life, we have to click. The experience is different. There is a lot more deliberate expert intention in the way we build relationships and interact.
She continues, “Introverts do not mind this change, as they remain in their comfort zone. But those who have a more salient need to socialize, and those in creative teams and marketing teams, who usually get spontaneous ideas, struggle with this change.” She recommends these teams plan to hike or play sports together and be more creative and intentional about team relationship building given how different our world is today.
Challenges and Impact of flexible work
Nitin asked Vaibhav about how to address cognitive challenges, the K-shaped recovery, and how older demographics are struggling more and more. Vaibhav believes there is a challenge in the multigenerational demographic, which is exposed to the same tools. “When you’ve been doing face-to-face interactions for decades, it’s difficult to know whether someone is in a good mood or not. 70% of communication is now more challenging. The K-shape is not just at the economy level. There is a very tough entrance into organization, to get a sense of the feel of it, to get along with the team. Networks that were established before got tighter. Some have to take the backseat. Apple said that some office time is necessary, but it has to be an optional. More flexibility and collocation is extremely important to get a culture of team, faster productivity, as well as creativity.”
Answering the question about how organizations should make the decision between being remote-friendly and remote first, Marilyn stated that we should avoid using the word “remote” and stress on the word “flexible” as the word remote implies that you are far. “How can we increase flexibility? We measure both the ability to be flexible on the company and on the team level. As a company you have to take a step back, think about what you are trying to accomplish in this world, and understand that not everyone is in the same phases of their journey. They don't all need the same things. Some are talent magnets, and some aren't. We will see more talent go to the companies that thought about this. There is nothing wrong with the company taking the time before announcing its work model, you have to look at the data, experiment, then scale it to the rest of the organization. You have to ask yourself: what kind of flexibility do I have to offer?”
Nitin then asked, how can our newfound flexibility help us develop a healthy workplace where everyone feels heard?
“Online platforms flattened the hierarchy,” said Cindy. “In the past, you couldn't just directly go to the CEO's office, but now everyone is accessible, and in a way, equal. We need to be more proactive to send that message. When it comes to flexibility, some personality types are more okay with last minute changes and spontaneity. They love the adrenaline, and find it to be an inspiration, but some people with different personalities get anxiety instead.”
Marilyn went on to say that you have to go slow and steady. Teams have people who need more prep work before hands-on. ”Being a leader is much more challenging now, because you get to see the differences. Terms of geolocation are more different now. If you need something at the last minute, give the task to the spontaneous type. Deliverables and KPIs are more important now. The change of work makes looking at our communication style much more important now, you should take personality into consideration in the mix of communication to suit the different types. With remote work, trust is an issue, since you can’t see what's going on. There are no shortcuts to building trust. Leaders now have to look into that, and the stress levels of different personality types. Some keep it in, some share, you need to pay attention to those nuances. Some companies now have organizational coaches and HR that do that and all this deliberate effort is there to connect with employees, so put additional thought into it.”
Unleashing the Creativity
Vaibhav stated that the new ways of doing business are much more driven by the creativity potential of employees. It’s about the creativity that drives the tech, more than the technology itself. Immersive tech is just waiting for creativity. Tech will be hanging for some time. “The sweet spot is, how are we going to unleash the beautiful mind and its creativity? You have to use tech to augment it. When we do it, we need a culture of experimentation, a culture of transparency and trust. We have flattened the hierarchy, but if it's clashing with a culture of mistrust, there will be more chaos. Tight culture needs to use tech to augment creativity and trust something that works for us.“
Marliyn also shared her thoughts about unleashing creativity. She believes we are a lot more creative when we are in a happy place. as the data said. We need the right environment and psychological safety, to allow creativity. “But if there is no recipe for psychological safety, how do we measure it? How do we create it? How do we ensure it?”. She observes that there is a debate about how much we should bring to the office vs how much we should not. Performance is important, and care develops performance - around a 20% increase. This should be the era of going back to that”. Ask everyday, what's the small thing we can do to right the environment, very actively, consciously, explicitly.”
“The real question is how to maintain sanity,”
Cindy went on to explain that there are nine different ways of seeing the world. There is the kind of personality that highly emphasizes context when navigating life: those people require more care (they start their sentences with “hi wondering if” etc), and there is the personality with lower context: no need to say so much (“hi how's it going”). It’s important to speak the lingo of each personality to get the message across without adding more stress. When someone says “I can't stand working with this person”, you need to know what that person is coming from, and how not to add stress. Some people like weekly checking, some once a month. It’s all about being versatile, and understanding what makes a person comfortable.
Happiness and Business Goals
Nitin asked a compelling closing question: “When happiness becomes a strategy, how do we transform brand and culture towards that?”
Vaibhav said that it's not about always being happy. “We will have stress, not everyone's family will always be perfect. It's about how you deal with situations.” Helping people and caring for them is very important. You have to be understanding of team workers' individual situations (such as caring for parents, having kids, etc). “Here comes flexibility to let them make their own decisions, depending on what works best for them.”
Marilyn argued that there is nothing more ethical for an organization than for it to be profitable, simply because if it is, it can pay for employees. “Don't shoot down people for looking at efficiency. There is a better way to look at it: If employees are in an environment where they are secured and cared for, they will find the performance and innovation for you. These are the people in touch with customers and your product everyday. But they will only do that if they feel like their value is valued”. She stated that all of us have different baselines, and that we need to appreciate our diversity to grow as a business, and be valued for who we are.
As for Cindy, she made the point that happiness means different things to different people. “Some people are happy when they see things improve, maybe put these people in situations where they can improve things. Some find happiness in helping others. Some get excited about data analysis”. Happiness about their own personal life mission. If your life mission aligns with the company's mission, you will have a happy, meaningful journey. You have to believe that everyone has good intentions to grow the company, it’s just that priorities are placed differently.
The panel discussion highlighted a fascinating set of obstacles that come with distributed work. For more on this, tune in to our upcoming Future of Teams Conference where Mark Mortensen will deliver a keynote, unpacking all the challenges that come with being on a hybrid team.