EP 21: Redefining Hybrid Work: Engaging Employees in the New Normal

Navigating the Shifting Landscape of Work and Employee Engagement

In this engaging episode of Tech UNMUTED, host Santi delves into the intriguing dynamics of hybrid work with seasoned marketing executive Jenn Caria, VP of Field Marketing at Fusion Connect. Together, they dissect the surprising decision by Zoom and other companies to mandate employees' return to the office and explore the multifaceted aspects of remote and hybrid work models. Discover valuable insights into the importance of technology, employee engagement, and flexible strategies in shaping the future of work. Join the conversation and stay connected to the ever-evolving world of hybrid work.

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Transcript for this Episode:

INTRODUCTION VOICEOVER: This is Tech UNMUTED. The podcast of modern collaboration – where we tell the stories of how collaboration tools enable businesses to be more efficient and connected. With your hosts, George Schoenstein and Santi Cuellar. Welcome to Tech UNMUTED.

SANTI: Today I am joined by a dear colleague, Ms. Jenn Caria. She is a fellow colleague here at Fusion Connect. She's actually the VP of Field Marketing. Jenn's got over 20 years, wow, of executive marketing experience and based out of Philly. Welcome, Jenn. Welcome to Tech UNMUTED. This is great.

JENN: Thank you, Santi. Happy to be here. Really glad about the discussion we're going to have today.

SANTI: It should be good. Listen, I'm hearing a lot of rumors about something about the Kelly Green shirt coming back. What's all that about?

JENN: It's not a rumor. It's out, announced. Basically, it's a throwback to the shirts of the '90s. As you know, here in Philly, we bleed green. We love our Eagles, or we hate them, but the shirt is going to sell out.

SANTI: One or the other.

JENN: Definitely going to be on the holiday wishlist this year, so we're really excited about it.

SANTI: That's awesome. It's like a retro. I saw it. It's a real retro shirt going--

JENN: Real bright. Now I believe it's a helmet to match, which was the sticky point for the last 10 years as they went through the negotiations to get that shirt.

SANTI: Very nice. Listen, I have a thing where if I state something in a live podcast, it is forever etched in the interwebs. I'm going to call you out. You promised me if I ever come to Philly, you are going to make me a genuine Philly cheese steak sandwich. I hear you make the best.

JENN: I did promise to make it for you, didn't I? There are plenty of places we can go-

SANTI: Oh, no. The best one is yours.

JENN: -but the best one is homemade in my own kitchen and I have lots of fans, so-

SANTI: That's awesome.

JENN: -I'm happy to make it for you, Santi, whenever you come by.

SANTI: Thank you very much. Jenn, listen, I really wanted to start this podcast today talking about what I thought was odd. This is just my perception. Maybe you share the same perception, but did you see the announcement that was made about Zoom? When I say Zoom, I'm talking about the video conferencing platform that a lot of people-- You hear people say, "Get on a Zoom call," right?

JENN: Right.

SANTI: They made an announcement about requiring their employees to come back to a physical location. Again, this is my own personal, I was blown away because to me it seemed odd. This is that one company that during the pandemic pushed for this remote work, all of a sudden now, they make this announcement. I don't know what your take was, but it just struck me so odd.

JENN: Oh, Santi. I keep calling it the headscratcher. Just could not understand it when I heard about it and had been digging into as much as I can read on it as to the whys and then just debating it with colleagues because it doesn't always make sense. Now, it's a big conversation about hybrid work. We see other companies doing this as well, but for Zoom to do it, it felt off.

SANTI: It felt off. Man, what a great way of kicking us off is why. I've been asking myself that question as well. Listen, I'm sure there's a reason. Maybe it wasn't clear as to the why, but I would love to peel back what-

JENN: Yes, let's do it.

SANTI: -you think is some of the whys. One of the ones that I thought about immediately was maybe it was just financially driven. Maybe they own commercial real estate that they need to get an ROI on. I don't know, but that was one that jumped out for me.

JENN: We're not picking on Zoom today, for sure.

SANTI: No. Of course not.

JENN: We do know, however, they've been having some financial issues. However, I think you're right on with the real estate. We know that since I think January of this year, most offices are at around 50% occupancy. There's a lot of space that's not being used. That probably puts executive pressure on the folks in operations who know that they're not at capacity. Do they need to fill it back up with employees again? Could be as simple as a decision as that, but I don't think so.

SANTI: What else do you think it might be then?

JENN: I think the executives themselves might be feeling some pressure because it seems to be, I hate to use the word trend, but we see other companies doing it as well. Maybe they feel that as an executive and a peer group, they're not making the same decisions that their peers are doing and they need to get back in there and get the employees back, but there's always something underneath it. I think it comes down to statistics and measurements and that employee engagement. Are they really looking at the "why" they feel they need to bring the employees out and are they looking at the right data?

SANTI: That's a good point. If you think about when the pandemic first started, everybody was about being remote and everybody talked about how great remote was and how we're just going to stay this way from now on. Is this going to be a permanent change? That was the whole conversation. Then when things started to settle down, it went from that to, "Hey, maybe it's a mix of the two. Maybe it's a hybrid," and "Oh, yes. We support this and it's flexible and you're here and you're there and it's okay," but now, to your point, I'm hearing other companies requiring. That's a strong word. Requiring.

It's so odd to me. It's not just Zoom, you're right. There's other tech companies in this mix that, by the way, have the capability of remaining in a hybrid mode or in a flexible work style, but they're requiring. I don't get it. Is there a lack of trust? Is there something going on?

JENN: Probably. I think you've hit it. I think it's a lack of trust. There are probably a lot of reasons for that. Are they offering the right technology to their employees so they can get the job done? Are they able to measure what that employee's output is or are those employees themselves able to be accountable and demonstrate their results to their employers? There are a lot of things there in the mix, Santi, but I want to get back to your point about the requirement. It's a mandate.

SANTI: I know.

JENN: You have to come back now. Have they even engaged those employees on what that strategy should look like? I think that's probably the differentiator of the enterprises that are doing it well versus those that aren't doing it well. In Zoom's case, it feels like there's a lot of backlash from the employees on it.

SANTI: I don't know what to make of it. I get the part of maybe there's outlined and quantifiable lack of results. I can see that. Maybe that could trigger, "Hey, maybe we need to go back to doing things the way we used to because we're not hitting certain numbers," but to me, I actually think if you're lacking results, in my mind, it may not be that your team is remote. It may be that you got the wrong team.

JENN: Wrong strategies.

SANTI: Wrong strategies.

JENN: Wrong execution paths. Exactly.

SANTI: What was that? There was a recent podcast we did. One of the things that came up, we touched on a similar topic, but it was, "Hey, you have to make sure that these folks are self-starters." That was the term that we used. I do believe that if you did not have somebody who was a self-starter before the pandemic hit and then you forced them to have to go remote, they probably did fine that first year because they had no choice. Those are not self-starters. The lack of that is going to catch up to them. I think maybe it was the wrong hiring profile for remote work, to begin with, and now we're just seeing the drop off of performance. In my mind, I could see that happening.

JENN: I don't know. I guess that's one proposition that could be there. I think also for every step I read that remote workers are not as productive, the next article says they're just as or more productive.

SANTI: I know.

JENN: It's like we don't have consistency on what those metrics are. I certainly have worked with organizations where we can prove high productivity, but where you are talking about that actual employee, all people are different. Some people struggle in a busy work environment. Some people prefer the remote work environment. You have to, I think, work to your employees' skills, hire for what you need, and coach to how that employee needs to behave as well.

SANTI: We'll talk about that.

JENN: It's all on the mix and it feels like some of those decisions are rapid, rather than peeling it back and saying, how are we going to behave now as a company?

SANTI: Let's do that.

JENN: I also want to bring up the point that with these mandates, it feels that it's anti-employee in a sense because many of these employees made lifestyle decisions during the pandemic.

SANTI: Oh, I see what you mean. Sure.

JENN: They moved, they sold homes, they rearranged their personal lives in order to fit and accommodate what we were experiencing during the pandemic with a mantra above them of, this is how it'll be, you can go work at home and do what you need to do. Now pulling them back, there's a harsh reality for many of them.

SANTI: I never saw it from that perspective, but man, does that make sense? I want to do that. I want to peel that back. You've led marketing teams. I know this for a fact because we've had this conversation. You have been an executive in a hybrid/remote role for a long time. Even before this pandemic.

JENN: For a very long time.

SANTI: Maybe what we do is we take a time out and talk about the things that you did, one, to support your teams, but also what are some of the things you did maybe as an executive to measure and make sure that things were going on the way it should be going on, and the workflow is being completed in this style? Maybe that's a good place to go.

JENN: Yes. I'll even start with just the hiring plan. Working remotely in a hybrid environment gives a manager the option to hire where the talent is. That's something I've been-

SANTI: There you go. Sure.

JENN: -able to do over and over again. Geography has no impact. If the hire I need is in Austin or Chicago or Seattle or somewhere in between in a small town in Pennsylvania-

SANTI: I love that.

JENN: -but they're the right candidate, I can hire them-

SANTI: I love that.

JENN: -and they can come in. Beyond that, being a manager, facilitating development is a process. It's not once and done. It's not here you're working remote and have added. We need to train. We need to provide the right tools so they can connect and collaborate with their peers, with their partners, counterparts throughout the whole ecosystem. Then we also have to maintain that connectivity with them.

The same rules apply when you're in an office as a manager, apply to not being in an office and managing an employee remotely. You need to have that connectivity, whether it's the one-on-one meeting every week, whether it's the team huddle up on the alternate week, even the tools that we use here, the Microsoft Planner and Loop, where we not just demonstrate our work, we show the accountability for it. We have our timelines, our processes, our due dates. It's very transparent. You and I work together closely every single day, but I never feel disconnected from you.

SANTI: Right. Number one, I appreciate you making that comment, but two, oh my gosh, that is so true. I tell people, I've been working in a remote/flexible type style. I'm going on 10 years.

JENN: Wow. [crosstalk]

SANTI: Yes. Well before the pandemic. I can tell you that I've never felt more productive. When I worked in the office, we know this, water-cooler talks, people come to your desk.

JENN: I was going to say [unintelligible 00:12:41] water cooler.

SANTI: Oh, my gosh. The coffee maker.

JENN: Big discussion.

SANTI: The break rooms and the water coolers, those are the two biggest distractions. When you go to the break room, you have to do this and walk in or get your coffee and walk out because somebody is going to grab you-

JENN: You're going to get called.

SANTI: -and say, "Hey, by the way," next thing you know, you have an entire meeting in the break room.

JENN: Truly.

SANTI: Or just a simple distraction of walking over to your desk and now you have to stop and drop everything you're doing because-- There's a lot of interruptions, in my opinion, in the traditional workspace. I'm not saying that there aren't interruptions in a remote scenario, but they're not the same. For example, just before we got on for this recording, I had a request from somebody who wanted to talk to me right away, and I was saying, "I can't right now." That was the extent of it.

Basically, at that point, you're just, "Hey, why don't you find a spot in the calendar and let's catch up?" That was the extent of the distraction. It's more difficult to steer that conversation out when they're in your face or in the break room where they catch you off guard. I just feel more productive and a lot less distracted when I am in a flexible work style. That's been my experience, so I can relate to everything you said. I absolutely never feel disconnected from you or anybody else I work with at all. I don't feel that way.

JENN: One thing that differentiates you is you have a high level of engagement. I've been reading about employee engagement. I've, probably you have as well, taken part in employee engagement studies for years and years. An interesting poll came out of, I believe, Gallup, that said 31% of remote workers feel disengaged.


JENN: Of course, put whoever is promoting this article as a third or disengaged. The flip side is it was almost the same stat for employees in the office.

SANTI: Oh, really?

JENN: Building employee engagement is critical in a remote work environment and all environments, right?


JENN: Again, getting back to that providing technology, having the right coaching, having tools to track and measure. I'm not talking like keystroke tools or anything that demines us as humans, that we actually are clicking. Something else I want to bring up is part of that engagement is a study I read, or at least it was in an article. I characterized many of these executives who are saying, "You've got to come back to the workplace," are feeling regret.

It's like we talked about. We had the big resignation and the big hire, and then it's like the big regret because they haven't engaged their employees on what that should look like. I think that's probably the biggest thing I'm hearing as I read and research on this topic, is that the mandate that just says you have to come back Tuesday and Thursday is not going to work. Hybrid work now means there's also flexible models for what in-office looks like.

SANTI: Right.

JENN: Right? Maybe it is based on real estate and other operational considerations, but bringing the employees into what that decision looks like is probably a good thing. I know that Ernst & Young, for example, is providing some financial incentives to folks who were working at home and now they have additional costs for pet sitting and childcare.

SANTI: Really?

JENN: These are not little things.

SANTI: No, they're not.

JENN: These are how people live, and they've given up the cost and in this economy, every penny counts. The employees are more involved in deciding what that approach looks like, or even being within the window of saying, "Okay, yes, it is Tuesday and Thursday, but maybe these are the hours that I now come in and exit because I've shifted all these other things in my work and my life balance." We're not going back to how it was in 2019. It's a new model.

I think that's probably the backbone of all this conversation, is that it's the new model for being in the office. What does hybrid work really look like? Making those adjustments, not mandating it because it is not a one-size-fits-all.

SANTI: Yes. The other thing I think about a little bit is the new generation. When I mean new generation, I'm talking about-- Millennials are now old enough to have managerial, director, even VP-level titles and positions, right?

JENN: Yes.

SANTI: The generation right after them, the ones who they're going to be managing, they would probably prefer a hybrid model, right?

JENN: Yes.

SANTI: They expect, to your point, to have the tools and to walk into a company-

JENN: They really do.

SANTI: -that is prepared to support, I believe, this flexible work style type of model. I think that unless executives start looking at the new generation that's coming into the workforce and what their expectations are, I think we're going to miss a lot of talent.

JENN: You hit it spot on. This is a generation that went through their academic years with virtual learning. Now, I'm not saying that was great for all of them, but they learned, as did the teaching environment, learn what made a successful education program for them in terms of the technologies they needed and how they approached academics. They're bringing that into the workforce. You're absolutely right. Many of them have never worked in an office environment.

There weren't even the part-time jobs for them during some of these recent years in the environment. Yes, it's going to be a learning process for all of us as we get through what hybrid work really looks like, or if we want to call it flexible work in some cases. I think the model of just saying, "Come on back to work," as it was, really shouldn't be happening right now. I'm pretty opposed to it. That it's more a win-win about engagement with the employees and the company and what makes sense for everybody.

SANTI: I feel the same way. If I had to wrap up and summarize everything you just said, because I love this conversation and you bring so much insight into this because you've been doing it for so long. If I had to sum it up, maybe keep me honest here, I see three takeaways. One, companies should really be considering the support and the tools and the technologies that they have in place in order to support this remote hybrid, or like I say, flexible work style. I believe that alongside those support and tools and technologies, they need to have real planning that takes place and clear expectations.

Then I think, to remain connected and avoid anybody being disconnected, there's no reason why you wouldn't continue those one-on-ones with your employees and your meetings anyway.

JENN: Absolutely not.

SANTI: If I had to summarize everything, those are the three takeaways I heard from our dialog.

JENN: I agree. It's the technologies, the right metrics, and that whole development connectivity that you do with your conversations with your employees, having all those conversations on the weekly. It keeps that engagement high. As a summary, it's all about the engagement by using these different perspectives.

SANTI: Yes. Listen, every time we hit a topic that I get real passionate about, I feel like I could go on forever. [laughs]

JENN: Yes, we could. There's a lot to piece apart here and talk about. This has been great.

SANTI: We have a producer, bless her heart, that keeps us in check. Because I love this stuff, but we do have to bring this podcast to an end. I want to say this, Jenn, man, do I love talking to you?

JENN: Oh, great. I love talking to you too, Santi.

SANTI: I love your insight. I love the banter we have. I always learn something new whenever you and I-

JENN: Fantastic.

SANTI: -just have these encounters. Now we were able to do it on a podcast. Everybody gets to see what our encounters look like, and I love that.

JENN: That's great.

SANTI: Listen, thanks for joining Tech UNMUTED.

JENN: Thank you.

SANTI: Thank you for the input and the insight. I'm in agreement with everything you said. Folks, do not forget to take this time to subscribe to this podcast on your favorite podcast platform. That way you don't miss the next episode because you never know who we're going to have on. You've got to make sure that you're following. Until next time, remember this, folks: stay connected.

CLOSING VOICEOVER: Visit www.fusionconnect.com/techunmuted for show notes and more episodes. Thanks for listening.

Episode Credits:

Produced by: Fusion Connect

2023 TMCnet Best Tech Podcast award winner

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Tech UNMUTED, the podcast of modern collaboration, where we tell the stories of how collaboration tools enable businesses to be more efficient and connected. Humans have collaborated since the beginning of time – we’re wired to work together to solve complex problems, brainstorm novel solutions and build a connected community. On Tech UNMUTED, we’ll cover the latest industry trends and dive into real-world examples of how technology is inspiring businesses and communities to be more efficient and connected. Tune in to learn how today's table-stakes technologies are fostering a collaborative culture, serving as the anchor for exceptional customer service.

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