In our recent interview for The #WorkLifeShow, Kathryn Wilson was joined by special guest, Gil Cohen, founder of Employee Experience Design, a company that helps leaders evolve their people practices and improve human and organisational outcomes. The interview aimed to learn more about employee experience and find out how leaders should be investing in this, particularly now with many people working remotely.
Kathryn started by reminding us how companies invest so much in their customer service and asked Gil to share some tips that leaders can use when investing in employee experience and to evolving their people practice.
Gil believes that a lot of employee experience is about understanding one’s humanity: “Right now, I think one of the things that helps people is when leaders and managers lean into their humanity and lean into their people's humanity because ultimately that is one of the differences that I found between managers - those who have struggled in the transition, whether it be a remote work or an adjusted version of being in the office or being in the workplace, and those leaders who have understood that they're working with people. We're all in a pandemic right now. It's not easy to deal with.”
“One of the great quotes I saw, early on in the pandemic, was that what people are dealing with is not typical remote work. It's working from home in a crisis.” Gil built on this with the example that although he has been working from home for most of his twenty year career, he’s only recently had the added distraction of having his sons home all day as well as doing virtual school, with his wife in the background trying to keep them busy.
His biggest suggestion in current times is to understand that people aren’t always going to respond the way you want them to. “People right now are ten months into a global pandemic. We don't have the same resources in terms of distressing, exercising, seeing family members, all of those things.”
“So people are having a difficult time. By only focussing on them as a resource to you, getting the job done, will just cause them more stress. But leaders who have understood and tried to help their people adjust to whatever the new environment is, the changing environment, have helped their people get through a pandemic. This is one thing which is a good enough goal as it is, but also to have their people ultimately become as or more productive, because working from home does help people - when done right - to be more productive. When done wrong, it causes stress and demotivation and that Sunday feeling in the pit of your stomach.”
When asked how we can still be productive whilst relying mostly on Zoom calls for meetings and interaction, Gil reminded us that everyone is coping under different circumstances.
“One of the difficulties about this pandemic is that we're all in the same storm, but we're not in the same boat. And it's very difficult because you have one person who's a single parent taking care of kids who are home-schooling, and has a full- time job - they have that struggle of being overwhelmed. And then on the opposite end, there is a person who's living completely alone and missing human contact. So they are struggling for different reasons.”
“I think the biggest tip I would have for any of them is around self care and understanding that you need to take care of yourself. Your mental health isn't just about taking a hot bath or something like that. There's a lot of ways and it means different things to different people. But by making sure that you're able to handle what you're going through, be it a 15 minute walk around your house, a stretch, or whatever it is - it can help you then deal with whatever stresses you're dealing with a little bit easier. It's not going to go away. This is a terrible situation we're all in. But by setting yourself up for success and for resiliency, you'll then be able to deal with whatever you're facing more effectively.”
Gil then elaborated on his own work life balance and self care routine: “In terms of handling my work life balance, I try to make sure to separate the two. So when I'm in my basement, this is where I work. And then at the end of the day, I go upstairs for home life. But sometimes I come back to my basement to play video games with my sons. But I try to make sure that I've created a separation that when I've finished for the day, barring sometimes you've all got extra work to do, I'm with them. I'm not sitting there thinking about that task that I have to get accomplished - the client I need to help - nothing like that. It's all about being with them.”
“That also ties into the question about self care, because one of the biggest aspects of self care for me is around mindfulness and mindful meditation. So that is about being in the moment, accepting things as they are, in the moment. By being able to do that, in learning that over the years, I'm able to then not think about work when I'm with my sons and my wife. I’ve learned not to have that occupying my mind constantly because I'm able to let that thought go - and that's okay. And I'm able to be with my family.”
“In some ways to be honest this has been a collateral benefit of the pandemic for me because I've had time to slow down and not focus on going out places on the weekends. Now it's just become family time. And that's something I'm certainly grateful for - learning how to become more present when you're actually in the room. I think we've all been guilty of not being present. So that is definitely one of the benefits for me as well.”
Gil believes that, once the pandemic is over, people will choose to go back to work having adjusted to a new, slightly different normality, “It will not be what it was before, but it won't be what it is now. There will be a period of adjustment. For example, back in March, I had a lot of remote work loving friends who were excited and thinking, this is the new world - the opportunity and the catalyst to get everybody going remote. Six weeks later, I had half of my friends desperate to get back to an office because this wasn’t natural to them, and it still remains true to a lot of people that I speak to.”
“What I expect will happen will ultimately be a range. Most places, I think, will have a hybrid. Where there is some work that is just better done face to face, whether it be on Zoom or in person - ideally in person for a lot of it because Zoom can be stressful and straining because it's not natural for us to be sitting on a call with eight faces staring at us so close and being so conscious of being on camera the whole time. I think companies will find and determine what's right for them in their employee cohort, and as we learned, some jobs can never go remote.”
“Some jobs are too essential to go remote. That's not going to change. There are some jobs that now that they're remote, they're not turning back because there are some companies that are elated by this. They may have been hesitant before, but now that people are actually doing it and they're productive, saving money and saving time - they may not have any expectations of going back to the office and maybe they're letting their leases lapse.”
“So there isn't going to be one new way of doing things. It's going to be about what's right for that company, right for their circumstances, and right for their people. Because if a company was built around getting together and being social, then that's ultimately what drives their productivity together because of the relationships they build by being together - they're going to benefit from going back to the office. Some companies were remote beforehand and they have no need to go back to the office. It's an exciting time because people will then ultimately be able to find what works for them.”
Kathryn asked Gil about his experiences of working from home, believing that a lot of people actually enjoyed having more time to exercise or spend with the families because there was less of a commute. He explained that he had started working from home a couple of months before the pandemic hit. “When I think about it, before, the commute was about forty five minutes each way. I don't miss it. I have more time to do other things.”
He spoke about a gentleman with whom he had recently had a conversation about the commuting situation: “This gentleman used to have to stress about leaving work to get home because he wanted to be home to have dinner with his wife. And now what he's able to do is either cut it off at five o'clock like you normally would or if he's in the flow of things and enjoying and getting work done, he can work all the way until six thirty when he goes and has dinner. So he never has to miss dinner with his wife. And he has the capability of either resting or having more productive time. So it's a win all the way around.”
“But he was also saying that when things go back, he does not want to work in an office five days a week, certainly not even probably three days a week. But there are certain aspects of his work and many people's work that we benefit from being around people. I love working from home, but I also love the energy of being in an office. And I definitely appreciate that. People miss that, too.”
When asked about managing the work life balance from a management perspective, for example, someone who has just received a promotion and is now expected to be contactable even after hours, he had the following advice: “It’s a difficult situation because one of the things that we come to learn is around the micro culture of leadership because while there is a broad culture throughout an organisation that is ultimately important, there will be slightly different ways of doing things with different groups. In this example, the way it's been accepted amongst the leadership team is that they work at all hours. They are very comfortable texting each other, emailing each other at all hours, which will have been led by the CEO.”
“The risk is that by cutting that off is the perception from others, and if you don’t cut it off there is the impact emotionally and potentially on the team. The first step I would do is to talk to your direct manager, if it's the CEO or VP or whomever, and say, ‘This is what I've found. Is this true for all executives?’ Because you might find out that some executives have been successful in cutting it off and they still have opportunities to be successful. Or you might find out that if you want to be an executive at this company at this time and be successful, you have to play the game. And that's their environment that you’re coming into - you can influence in certain ways, but there's only so much influence you’re going to be able to have, especially when you’re the new person. So that would be my advice. Talk directly to the manager with the caveat that it might get you nowhere.”
On the subject of keeping your team motivated and productive, Gil reminded us that team leaders are having their own experiences: “They're human beings themselves. And I think a lot of employees often forget that this demotivation that we can feel, this stress, this disconnect due to being online or living through a pandemic - is not just something for frontline staff or supervisors. Executives go through this too. And the reality is that they need to, first of all, be compassionate with themselves because beating themselves up over it is just going to make things worse.”
“Then they need to focus really on what matters. Go back to your values - what the leader truly, truly cares about. What are they trying to accomplish? Some are motivated by the vision of the company - for example, they’re really trying to have a particular impact on the world. Some people are motivated by the impact they have on their teams, for example, they want their people to be thriving so that ultimately the company can thrive. Double down on the most important things to you, because that's where you will find your motivation, your energy, and ultimately everyone else feeds off of the CEO's energy - if they're feeling down, if they're feeling negative, it's going to impact those around them.”
“Being a CEO isn’t just about the big decisions, it’s also the subtle things - the wording they use, and the tone. Recognising that the tone has an impact, they need to change that tone by focussing on what they really, truly care about most in this difficult time.”
“The next 30 to 60 days will be challenging for leaders. As we've seen through Covid there is a lot of uncertainty. We're in the heart of a terrible winter. We are dealing with the fact that people aren't able to get the sunlight that they normally get. People aren't able to interact with each other the way they normally can, and there's a lot of negative news because of how bad things are with Covid through this time. Leaders will be facing people with struggling mental health. New lockdown orders bring ongoing challenges - kids and parents at home, everyone is struggling. Focusing on people's mental health and helping them get through these times should be a priority.”
On a lighter note Gil wrapped up by telling us about Virbela, a virtual reality app that he feels will be a great tool for the future, particularly in a world so reliant on Zoom: “You talk about the strain and drain of being on Zoom. This is a way you can be with other people while not actually being on camera. I'm currently doing training in this as there's a lot of other possibilities that I think people can use, as it's a way to connect with others and share a space without having to feel the pressure of the camera on you. This is something that is really exciting me.”
Gil described Virbela as similar to The Sims, but for a business environment: “Imagine The Sims for business. You make your little avatar, you move your person around. There's a broader campus where you can do presentations and workshops - collaboration events. There are so many different ways you can use it. It’s so energising because it takes a lot of the noise away and just lets you focus on the task at hand. This is something that I've been working in and am personally excited and optimistic about as I believe that over the last 10 months a lot of innovation has happened quietly. People have been doing things to adjust and adapt to the new world that we're living in. And I expect that over 2021 there will be a lot of these innovations to come out, similar to the Great Recession in 2009 when companies like Uber and Airbnb came out - from necessity being the mother of invention. And I do believe that - in 2021 and 2022 will be very interesting from that front.”
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