Episode 3: Together, Apart
One of the biggest problems facing HR right now is how to facilitate connections between their hybrid workforce. We know from recent Microsoft research that remote working has caused our distant networks to shrink, meaning employees could miss out on critical opportunities to network, learn and expand their professional circles. So how should HR intervene?
We put that question to Ingrid Jenkins, head of HR at Microsoft Australia, who explores the benefits and pitfalls of a hybrid workforce with podcast host James Judge. Tune in to hear Ingrid’s thoughts on creating connections in a remote work environment.
“This is our time, I believe. I feel like organisations have never needed [HR] more than now. And the fact that we are in a position to define a new way or the future way of working, I hope, for all of us as HR professionals, that we are inspired by that.” – Ingrid Jenkins, head of HR at Microsoft Australia.
Bullet points of key topics & timestamps
- Understanding the challenges of remote work [00:07:49]
- Proximity bias and how to avoid it [00:13:24]
- Forming meaningful connections, both in person and remotely [15:59]
- New challenges and opportunities for the younger generation of professionals [00:22:26]
- Streamlining communications and the ‘joy of missing out’ [00:27:53]
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Read the full transcript here
James [00:00:09] Hello and welcome to ‘HR in the driver’s seat’, a podcast for HR professionals and leaders looking for helpful insights and advice to shape their future workforce strategies.
My name is James Judge, I’m a human resource and organisational development specialist, a commentator in these fields, and a content creator – and I’ll be guiding you through this limited series and introducing you to our stellar line up of guests who’ve got plenty of practical tips and insights to share with you.
This series is brought to you by LeasePlan, saving you time and money, and keeping you mobile.
James [00:00:48] The legacy of last year’s mass movement to remote work has been the widespread adoption of hybrid workforces – environments where some people work from home and others are based physically in the workplace.
In many respects, they’ve created great opportunities. Employers have been able to tap global talent, meet work-life balance expectations of their people and keep the wheels turning when portions of the workforce are forced to stay at home.
These short-term benefits have been lifesaving for some businesses. But what happens when we look at it through a longer-term lens? How will hybrid workforces impact our connections at work? Will it give rise to preferential treatment to those who choose to come back into the office? And what will employers lose without in-person networking opportunities?
We’re diving into this topic today with Ingrid Jenkins, Head of HR at Microsoft Australia. Ingrid’s HR experience spans 25 years across the Asia Pacific. She’s passionate about the role HR plays in partnering with leaders to inspire employees to reach their full potential. Ingrid, thanks so much for taking the time to chat today.
Ingrid [00:01:55] It’s my pleasure.
James [00:01:56] Ingrid, what do you think are the main benefits of a hybrid workforce to both employers and employees?
Ingrid [00:02:02] I think one of the main benefits is just around flexibility and choice. And this is even pre-COVID. I think COVID has really just accelerated and amplified this, but we’ve all got big full lives and a lot to accomplish in our lives. And work is obviously a key component of that. And I think increasingly, certainly in my experience over the last decade, people are looking for more choice and flexibility in how they work.
And I think the opportunity there is that people can manage their whole lives with that choice and flexibility. So for employees, it gives them the options – how do I navigate, do my work, fulfill the expectations of my role in a way that I can do it? And for employers, I think the benefit is that employees – I feel like it’s discretionary effort that you get back by giving that trust and empowerment to your employees.
So that, I would say, is one of the big benefits. I think another big benefit is just it opens up our eyes in our decisions around where talent is going to be based.
Historically, perhaps we had roles located in Sydney. Do they need to be in Sydney? And for many of us in different industries, the war for talent is very real. The fact that now we can look more broadly and openly and be more expansive around where talent can be located really does open up new doors that perhaps we haven’t had in the past.
And I think the final thing that COVID in the last 15 months has really shown us is that hybrid working and seeing people outside the traditional workplace has inspired a different connection. I think many of us can tell stories. I can tell stories where my kids have walked in, where the dog is barking, where our husbands are coming in, whatever it might be. And it really does generate a different conversation and different level of connection where I think team members and managers have seen into the lives of their teams beyond just seeing you in the office.
And I do think that connection has really brought an authenticity and a more personal way in which people are attaching themselves to their colleagues and to their managers. And in some of the Work Study Index study that Microsoft did, we have really seen that come out in a lot of the responses, where people are saying, because of these experiences:because I’ve seen more into the personal lives of my teammates, I feel I can be more authentic in how I show up at work.
James [00:04:42] Okay, so there’s a range of really strong positives that come about from this hybrid workforce, both for employers and employees, and you mentioned authenticity – what about the blurring of the boundaries between work life and home life and some potential negatives around that, and maybe other challenges for employers managing hybrid workforces, things like proximity, bias and loss of connection, engagement, challenges to mental health – what are your views on all this?
Ingrid [00:05:09] I think we are still learning. We are still navigating what working in a hybrid environment means. And if you think about how many of us have worked for the last 15, 20 years, we establish habits in how we work and we’re putting a lot of pressure on ourselves to create new habits really quickly.
And so when I hear people say, I don’t know when the start of my day starts and when it finishes because now that I’m going from my bedroom to my study at home, those boundaries are less defined. And I think it’s okay because we’re still learning how to create our new habits and new boundaries, and some examples where I’m seeing people creating new habits, one of the managers at work was talking to me about how he does virtual ends of days. So what he does, instead of physically where he once would have left the office, got in his car, done the commute, he now is getting around the block. He gets on his motorbike and he goes around the block a few times because to him that is a way in which he’s disconnecting from his workday.
For others, it’s about how you create more breaks in your day, because we’re seeing with people now relying more on technology, the calendars are filling up and people are saying, I’m not getting breaks. So now people are being more intentional with creating breaks in their day, things like walking meetings. Do I have to be in front of a screen all the time?
I think some of the other challenges that we are seeing are in that connection. So I talked earlier about the fact that people are feeling more connected in some respects because they’re seeing more of their colleagues, particularly in the personal context. But equally, there’s some challenge there in that those impromptu moments where you perhaps are meeting with people outside of your intact teams, the ones that you won’t intentionally have meetings with, is that we’re losing some of those more informal connections. And sometimes those connections are also the ones where we get different perspectives, people that we wouldn’t normally work with.
And so we are seeing some challenge there. How do you still inspire those wider connections, still connect with people you wouldn’t typically connect to, to really bring some of that diversity of thinking and breadth of understanding across the business?
James [00:07:26] That sounds like the classic water cooler conversation you were just talking about.
Ingrid [00:07:30] Well, that’s right, and even those water cooler conversations that extend into further conversations are the things perhaps we are now missing.
James [00:07:38] So, Ingrid, you mentioned boundaries, breaks and potentially walking meetings as something that employees can do. What do you think the responsibilities are for the employer to make sure that these things are happening?
Ingrid [00:07:49] As I reflect on the lessons we’re learning at Microsoft, managers play a key role, leaders play a key role in setting the tone and expectations around how we want to see our teams working. And one thing is just listening systems – really understanding what is the sentiment of our employees. Where are they feeling challenged around the hybrid way of working?
So we have far more intentional ways that we are asking regular feedback from our teams so that we can then define what changes we need to make organisationally to help them.
Tone at the top is really important. And so we’re also challenging ourselves as leaders, around: how are we role modeling the way in which we want our teams to show up in hybrid? How are we showing healthy habits? How are we showing them how to turn off at the end of the day? And I think with that too, having very overt conversations around these things, because our teams are saying, I feel fatigued, I feel tired. And I also think, coupled with that and how we as leaders are leaning into those conversations and challenging ourselves a lot, where are we spending our time? Are we spending our time on the things that matter most? Am I clear on the priorities that I’m providing you to help guide you in how you manage your day?
And I think we’re using our technology more than ever as well. So simple things like now, even in Outlook, there are those options to reduce meeting time from half an hour to 20 minutes so that we are allowing those 10 minutes to just grab the water, go to the bathroom and so forth because we were hearing comments from people, it’s like back-to-back.
And so it’s learning together, I think a key component of that is really about the conversations. It’s listening and it’s role modeling and it’s using all that’s available to us, such as technology, so that we’re maximising the opportunity to make this work.
James [00:09:47] So there’s possibly a danger here, isn’t there, Ingrid, that we assume that all employers can have a hybrid workforce – that’s not the case, is it?
Ingrid [00:09:56] Absolutely, and James, one of my learnings already in talking to people around hybrid is being very sensitive to the fact that not every role can operate under a flexible hybrid construct.
So if you think about – often many of the services provided to all of us – paramedics, police, nurses, etc., or even in one organisation, you may have a mix. For Microsoft, for example, where we run our data centres, there is not an option for those people to work at hybrid. Yet for many of our other employees, there is. So being very conscious around the different demographics and how do you respond to each of those and be conscious of creating a potential ‘us and them’.
So I think for us, we are thinking – and this is where I come back to, we are still learning -how do we think about hybrid in context of these roles that are more challenging, and in some cases impossible, to build into a hybrid construct?
James [00:10:59] Okay, given you don’t have the answer yet, are there any tips or learnings you’ve had to date that you could give to our listeners about how to actually make sure that those ideas around fairness and equality aren’t trampled by these different conditions for different employees?
Ingrid [00:11:15] I think it’s thinking widely around what hybrid means. And if I think about that at Microsoft, we think about it from a work site. So whether that is going to an office or working at home or elsewhere, we think about it from a work location. Does it have to be Sydney? Could it be somewhere else? And we think about it from work hours. Does it have to be full time?
And there are components of that I do think can apply to all roles, and there are other components that may be more dedicated to other types of roles. So what I mean, for example, is there an opportunity when we look at work hours around flexibility? So even if I am working in a data centre where historically that has been in full-time capacity, are there options for us to be more flexible about when and how that person works in the data centre? So I think it’s extending our thinking, going, we acknowledge there are certain roles that need to be done in a certain place. But within that, is there flexibility around how that gets done?
James [00:12:17] It’s almost to use a legal concept, like reversing the onus of proof, you don’t assume, is that a fair comparison?
Ingrid [00:12:25] Yes, one of the questions – it’s asked a lot around hybrid – is why and why not? And why not is probably my favourite, because you probe deeper and deeper when managers go, ‘that won’t work’. Why not? We don’t do it that way. Why not? We did it like this before. Well, why can’t you do it this way going forward? So I do think this is just a wonderful opportunity to challenge what has been the status quo and some baseline assumptions that have been made for many years.
James [00:12:57] Let’s zero in on proximity bias for a moment. The idea that those who are physically closer to leaders and people in positions of influence get more opportunities, get better training, which could eventuate in promotions and high salaries down the track. It’s an issue with a long tail and one that I think a lot of people aren’t really aware of. What do you think HR and leaders need to do to ensure that the in-person part of their workforce isn’t getting preferential treatment?
Ingrid [00:13:24] I think hybrid working is making proximity bias less of an issue, because I think more people will be working in a hybrid capacity. But I would say the other considerations are around being really intentional, around how you think about how you measure performance and how you measure potential, because really that should be boundaryless – that shouldn’t matter on geography. It shouldn’t matter in terms of whether you have a close relationship with a manager or not. And so I do think for each organisation to test for any – how much potentially is proximity bias playing into the way we think about our performance and our potential.
I also think, increasingly, it’s the inclusion aspect, which is, we talk about at Microsoft, is designed for the person out of the room. So how do we ensure that the experience is such that it doesn’t matter?
And I think increasingly, technology is helping us, that it doesn’t actually matter, James, whether I physically see you in Sydney three days a week or whether I’m connecting with you over technology.
And I have a team member in Brisbane, always has been in Brisbane, our relationship has basically over the last five years been grounded on a technology connection, or through, you know, Teams. And I would say my relationship with her is just as connected as the ones in Sydney. So I think it’s also making sure that you are being inclusive and using the options around technology to help you.[SPONSOR MESSAGE BEGINS]
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James [00:15:32] Microsoft recently published a report called the 2021 Work Trend Index, which outlined findings from a study of more than 31,000 people across 31 countries. So I’m sure you’re aware of that.
Well, that report found that over 70% of workers said they wanted flexible and remote work options to continue. Over 65% craved more in-person time with their teams. How do you think that dichotomy can best be handled?
Ingrid [00:15:59] I don’t think it has to be one or the other is the first thing with hybrids. So it’s not all 100% working remotely or 100% working in a worksite and, in fact, at Microsoft, our preferred way of hybrid working is a mix of both.
And so in some respects, answering your question, is that you will have both, you will have the flexibility, but equally you’ll have those options to connect with people in person and build those connections that you may be missing through the virtual environment.
I also think – I would like to think – that over time, that as people get more comfortable with connecting virtually, and I keep coming back to and reminding ourselves that this has been a rapid learning of 14 months of how to do this. And so I think sometimes we are still adjusting to the fact you can be connected even if you’re not physically seeing people. So I do think people’s minds shift about how I previously associated with connection is having to be in the same room with someone to being okay with the fact I can still have that connection through technology.
So I also think over time that perhaps that 65% that craved more in person time, maybe less, because people are saying that they are feeling fulfilled through that connection, even if they’re not physically in the same room.
I think what is also interesting is that organisations may start thinking of more hub-type settings, so that if I make a decision that I want to be located somewhere that’s not in Sydney’s CBD that I still have an option to connect through hubs. So offices setting up smaller touch points where people can go in, which may be close to their homes and still have that connection with others that are in that vicinity, but not having to go to just one point in a capital city. So I think we might see more evolution there.
James [00:18:04] So you’re saying it’s not an either-or proposition. We shouldn’t think about it as it has to be one or the other.
Ingrid [00:18:09] Yes, I think for the majority, for me, it’s about choice. And I think most organisations are not asking people to choose – you either have to be 100% remote or 100% at the work site. You have a choice. And we want to support that choice and to give you flexibility so that you can do both.
James [00:18:29] I just want to play devil’s advocate for a moment. What about those instances where you do have people working from home, thinking about Victoria during the lockdown, three kids trying to homeschool – aren’t there potentially big challenges in terms of health and well-being for these people that are potentially working remotely?
Ingrid [00:18:46] Sure, I think we’ve seen that in the last 14 months particularly in those circumstances where it’s not just a case of working at home but I’m working at home and there’s additional challenge that comes with that because of homeschooling.
And we have responded to that by recognising it for a start, opening up far more conversations about those challenges and talking a lot more around people’s mental health and how they’re coping, putting in place support for the individuals both at the collective and individual level and even practical things like providing, particularly when there’s homeschooling, where people are like, I literally cannot do my job and homeschool my kids. So giving them temporary relief in that regard.
I think longer-term people’s decisions around remote working and choosing to be 100% remote, I do think we have work to do in – how do we ensure that they’re set up and feeling connected and belonging and so forth? And what is our organisational leadership role to play there?
James [00:19:58] So you think we’ll get there as a result of this being really an iterative process and learning as we go?
Ingrid [00:20:03] Yes, absolutely.
James [00:20:05] Ingrid, another insight from the Microsoft report that we’ve been talking about, looked at how connections at work have shifted in a year. So while our close knit works seem to be getting stronger – our immediate team – our distant networks have taken a bit of a dip. So the Australian portion of that data showed that one in three Australians experienced a decrease in connections with co-workers, compared to 40% globally. If this trend was to continue, what do you think the long-term impacts would be?
Ingrid [00:20:32] I think it comes back to the point I said before about – we’re missing those extended, more impromptu or more intentional ways that we’re bringing people outside of our intact teams into conversations that help us in terms of our brainstorming and our innovation and breakthrough ideas.
I think your question was about long-term and I think the fact we’re conscious of this and the risk means that we will be intentional around – how do we now think about hybrid? How do we ensure that we continue to bring in that diversity? How do we ensure that we believe that we’re still driving innovation in the organisation?
So, again, I keep coming back to – we’re still learning. And so I think the good news is that we’re reflecting on lessons of the last 14 months and now is our opportunity to respond to that and get ahead of it.
And the last thing I’d say to is that in Australia, and I didn’t mention this earlier, but what is for me working in a multinational is, as a country, we may not realise it, but we’re sort of shining the way in terms of how this can work because we’ve been fortunate to be able to return to the office perhaps earlier than other countries.
And so we’re already seeing that some of this sentiment is not as pronounced in Australia as it is in other parts of the world, which I think is a reflection of the fact that people are gradually returning into those engagements with their extended teams.
James [00:22:02] So we may indeed still be the lucky country.
Ingrid [00:22:06] I think we are in this case, yes.
James [00:22:08] Moving for a second to talk about the younger element of the workforce and how they might be impacted. When you’re early in your career, it’s really important to network and make connections in order to advance. What do you think the impact of hybrid working will have for these younger people?
Ingrid [00:22:26] We certainly saw this in the report that you mentioned, that certainly 47% of Gen X indicated concerns with workload, exhaustion, connection. So it is recognising that there is a generational feedback there. And I think some of it is that they’re new to the work experience. And it’s been compounded by the fact that they haven’t been able to form those connections.
And I think even more so when we think, when I think back to when I started my work experience, that the social side was also very important, probably more so than now. But, you know, that connection – it was both the professional and social connection.
I would also say it’s been connected for anyone that started in a new role in a new organisation and hasn’t been in a position to have those informal catch ups.
I think there’s an opportunity there for us, again, to be very intentional, and the fact that we’re learning this and that we’re hearing this feedback. How does that inspire us to think differently about building that community and getting that community together and understanding where is the opportunity for us to ensure that our Gen X’s or, sorry, that’s me, our Gen Z’s.
James [00:23:39] The millennials?
Ingrid [00:23:41] I don’t know. Gen X, I’ve lost track, but it’s ensuring that their need for community and connection – that we can fulfill that. It is also a generation that has grown up with technology. And so in that sense, connecting with others through technology is second nature. So I think it’s – how do we learn and ensure that we’re providing technology in a way that they want to engage with, that builds that community and connection?
James [00:24:12] You may have kind of already answered the next question I was going to ask and with partly with your response and I wanted to get your views on whether there are any particular skills or competencies that we need to be mindful of or looking for in developing leaders, new leaders who can thrive in this hybrid environment. Any different skill sets or competencies from the workforce, say, a year or two years ago?
Ingrid [00:24:36] I think this has been a fascinating, I call it a living experiment, in terms of what we’ve learnt, and when I talk about my own profession, I talk about bringing the human back in human resources. And I’m not saying it wasn’t there, that’s very unkind to myself and the rest of the organisation. But it’s very pronounced, I think, that deep care that we’ve seen through leaders and that real connection with teams will continue.
We’ve seen the difference that their care makes in terms of supporting teams and extending that personal connection. So I think we know that does make a difference in terms of engagement and sense of belonging.
I think the opportunity for all of us as leaders to test ourselves around trust and empowerment, that’s what – hybrid will not work if there is not that trust and empowerment. So how leaders are redefining their own way of leading so that they are giving a strong sense of empowerment, you work in a way, I will give you choice, I will give you flexibility, I trust you to do that. My role is to be clear on the expectations, the deliverables that I need from you, but how you do that in context of our values, I really am empowering and trusting you. So I think that will be key.
I also think role modeling – I mentioned this earlier. We’re all learning. We’re listening. We’re hearing. We’re seeing. We’re feeling how people are managing in a hybrid world. So how do we as leaders, and I personally do this as my own challenge, is how am I role modeling good habits with my team?
How my showing up, prioritisation, is key – we heard a lot over the last 15 months, it’s too much, too many meetings, too much stuff going on, being really crisp with what’s important, what matters most more so than ever before.
Inclusion is really important, back to proximity bias and the fact that we know people will be in different locations, working in different ways. How do I ensure that I’m being inclusive of every single member of the team?
And then I just think there’s a great opportunity in expanding our thinking, we’re back to things like talent and where talent gets located, how do I think about that now? Do I have a more Australia-wide outlook? Do I have a global outlook? So I think there are opportunities for leaders there to really bust some of what has been traditional thinking in saying – what is the opportunity here in context of hybrid working?
James [00:27:17] I love it. You’ve basically given me a shopping list on how to put the human into HR So enabling trust, empowerment, role modeling, the importance of setting priorities and inclusion, I think the last one was challenging mindset.
Onto the next question, one of the things we’ve asked every guest in the series is whether they have an interesting case study to share. In this case, we’re looking for a novel approach to managing hybrid workforces that you’ve come across that you believe works well. We’ve already talked a bit about what you’re doing or what you have done at Microsoft, anything to add?
Ingrid [00:27:53] So in context of our learnings and listening over the last 15 months, what has been most pronounced, I would say, is people feeling like there’s too much, there’s too many meetings, they’re back-to-back, there’s too much going on.
And so listening to this, there are many things that we’re looking at in how we think differently around how we’re guiding our teams and where they’re spending their time. But one thing that seems to be getting real traction is the four-hour-back challenge, and that is intentionally for every manager to be working with their teams around how do we create an additional four hours in your week by taking meetings out.
And what is really interesting when you probe, because I’ve been doing this with my team, is how often people just, their Outlook Calendar tells them there’s a meeting, so they just go. Whereas when you bring intentionality to say, we want you to take four hours out of your calendar to create space for focus time, or it could be so I can do things that I haven’t got around to doing, that you see that often we go to meetings because we’re invited rather than saying, why am I there? Am I giving value? Am I getting value? As I look across who’s attending, there are five of my colleagues – any one of us could have represented, in my case, the HR function. So I think the symbolism of there being a consciousness around giving four hours back has driven conversations around – what are these meetings? Why are we going and how do we move from this notion of FOMO? I don’t want to miss out on this meeting to actually JOMO, in that – this joy, I’m getting four hours back in my week.
James [00:29:47] Did you just make that up or is that a thing?
Ingrid [00:29:49] No, you haven’t heard of FOMO or JOMO?
James [00:29:52] I had a FOMO but not a JOMO, behind the times. Ingrid, finally, is there any other advice you’d like to give our listeners about future or emerging challenges that HR should keep on their radar around how to best manage hybrid workforces?
Ingrid [00:30:05] I just think this is really exciting. I’ve been working in HR for more years than I care to count. And this is our time, I believe. I feel like organisations have never needed us more than what they need now. And the fact that we are in a position to define a new way or the future way of working, I hope, for all of us as HR professionals, that we are inspired by that, acknowledging there is challenge, acknowledging this could be hard but it’s worth it. And I think keeping an eye and being really clear on why we are inspiring this, and keeping anchoring ourselves on the why, challenging with the why nots and the opportunity, therefore, and the way in which we can expand our thinking on so many fronts, I just want my HR peers to be really excited by it, even with the challenge that comes with it.
James [00:31:07] Well, Ingrid, I’m excited as well. Thanks so much for a fascinating and insightful discussion.
Ingrid [00:31:14] My pleasure. Thank you.
[OUTRO] Thanks for listening to HR in the driver’s seat, a LeasePlan podcast. If you enjoyed today’s episode, please rate and review on your chosen platform. We’d love to hear from you. For more helpful insights from LeasePlan on elevating your employee benefit program, visit drivinginsights.com.au. We look forward to you joining us for our next episode.