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Mark Stout is Corporate Vice President, Global Human Resources. In this role, Stout is one of Nissan’s top global HR leaders and oversees all aspects of Nissan’s regional HR operations outside of Japan, Global HR business partners, and global talent management and development.
Stout began his career at Nissan in 1989 as an HR representative at the company’s vehicle assembly plant in Smyrna, Tennessee. He has held a number of domestic and global HR positions of increasing responsibility. Stout attended Middle Tennessee State University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in public administration and economics.
Here are the excerpts of the interview.
Do you think the worst part of this crisis (pandemic) appears to be behind us? How do you see the current scenario?
There have been signs of progress over the last several months with the pandemic. The surge in cases appears to be slowing and there is greater access to the COVID-19 vaccine. And, while the pandemic may not be completely behind us, the recovery phase has begun in many parts of the world.
From a business perspective, the sign of progress is seeing the rollout of return to the office. At Nissan, like several other companies, returning to work has required significant changes that will affect our workforce for the future. First, for example, we have enhanced several of our manufacturing and non-manufacturing workplace policies to help ensure the safety and welfare of employees. Second, the pandemic has challenged the traditional ways of working, which I believe Nissan and other organizations are leveraging for some needed updates and changes. Unfortunately, the pandemic had to happen for us to realize some positive work practices for the long-term, supporting a more flexible, agile, and open approach.
Overall, recovery from the pandemic is unpredictable given we haven’t previously experienced anything like COVID-19 (personally or professionally). Every country is in a different phase of recovery – the U.S. and Europe are showing consistent progress, but there are still pockets of concern in other countries. That said, a full recovery, globally, will take some time for communities and businesses. Nissan will continue to do what we can to support the well-being of employees and society to help flatten the curve.
Remote or hybrid work is here to stay, as many experts say, but some major corporations are rallying to get employees back in the office. How do you see this?
One of the many things that we’ve learned in the pandemic is that balance is key. Different organizations, different teams, and different employees have different needs. There is not a one-size-fits-all approach.
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For instance, look at Nissan, an organization that has two employee populations globally – one that is non-manufacturing staff primarily working in an office setting and the other is employees in our manufacturing plants or parts distribution centers (PDC). Both groups have different job requirements. Employees at the plants and PDCs have a very important role in the business and due to the nature of their work. The virtual office isn’t available to them. They’ve been resilient and committed to working during the pandemic to assemble vehicles for our customers and deliver parts to dealers, respectively.
For non-manufacturing employees, a flexible hybrid model in most locations is a solid approach as employees return to the office – it helps to ease the transition back. This approach also allows individuals to meet face-to-face and encourages collaboration, team building, and brainstorming. Hybrid is a good first start and then we can begin evaluating how the process is working and determine where we need to make improvements going forward.
Finally, flexible hybrid work also shows employees that companies care about their ability to juggle commitments and responsibilities outside of work, which helps to attract and retain talent.
As leaders prepare their workforce for a future that is flexible and hybrid, how should they cultivate a culture that motivates employees to give their best?
I see three key ways to cultivate a culture that motivates employees:
- Ensure that you have clear guidelines and expectations from the company. Leaders should reduce ambiguity by providing clear and transparent guidelines (with flexibility) that are well managed with effective governance. Additionally, and critical, is to ensure that the highest level of health and safety standards are met, in accordance with proper health agency guidelines.
- Communicate. Communicate. Communicate. More than ever, we should enhance communication to employees to explain the company’s direction and expectations and alignment to the business. That can be done one-to-one during face-to-face or virtual discussions, staff meetings, town halls, or other employee engagement sessions. Another critical part of communication is motivating the workforce and recognizing employees for the work being done.
- Try to remove (and reduce) complexity and enhance systems support. Make sure that you streamline processes as much as possible and get the work done without a lot of bureaucracy. And, by all means, ensure that your systems and technology can support the work. If you don’t have proper systems and technology, leaders must work to improve it to allow employees to get work done without roadblocks.
What traits will distinguish highly successful companies in the transition to the post-pandemic workplace?
A few necessary behaviors and traits come to mind when considering how companies can successfully transition the workplace post-pandemic. For starters, top management has to be very clear on what are the strategic plans and priorities for the workplace and what they want to accomplish. Leaders must listen to employees at all levels, evaluate best practices, and provide clear direction. Then, and this is very key, they must ensure that this direction is ultimately articulated very well, both internally and externally.
Agility is also key for companies to respond quickly and streamline decision-making. This all helps to better meet the demands of the market and the customer.
Speaking of the customer, their expectations have been changing and this was accelerated during the pandemic. We’re seeing an increase in technology and people spending more time online, especially to make purchases. That’s one of the reasons that Nissan doubled down on our approach to Always think of the Customer. We advanced our eCommerce strategy, in multiple regions around the globe, to give customers another channel to complete the car buying process digitally.
All companies – no matter the size – must continue listening to their employees and customers. Those organizations that can quickly adapt will be the most successful post-pandemic.
The pandemic has taught us that we don't need to be sitting at an office desk for long hours to be productive. But work from home has its own downsides. How do you see this equation pan out in the post-pandemic days?
Again, it comes back to balance. As we have evaluated and begun implementing our return to work plans at some locations for our office employees, we want to ensure that clear guideline and plans are in place, and create an environment of “flexibility and focus” as we work together to meet the challenges and demands of the business. Again, as I stated, it is not one-size-fits-all. The new world of work “is here” and our approach is to keep an open mind.
Also, it’s not only about flexibility. It’s important for managers to remain empathetic and understanding towards their teams as we move to a recovery period. The pandemic has affected all of our families, so people leaders must have an employee-first mindset to offer support for what individuals may be managing personally outside of work.
One of the best ways to demonstrate compassion is through personal interactions. When the teams are ready, leaders should find ways to safely get them together, based on local health and safety guidelines, for meaningful engagement. At the beginning of the return to work phase, I realize that in-person meetings may not happen as frequently as we’d like. However, it’s something that I believe companies will build on to encourage the connections that are difficult to maintain virtually.
Promoting connection has been a priority for Nissan during the pandemic and we will continue to focus on this post-pandemic. Something that we’ve done for our frontline manufacturing and PDC employees, whose jobs require them to come into work, is give managers the tools and resources to stay in close communication with their teams. A part of that connection and communication with this specific employee population are regular touchpoints to acknowledge and recognize their contributions to the business. We are doing this through new vehicle milestones and the start of production recognition events that are (safely) happening around the world at some of our locations in Japan, India, and the U.S., among other countries. Recognizing employees makes a difference and companies must take the time to show them that they’re valued, especially those frontline workers.
In the end, it’s not only about having strong health and safety practices but strong engagement as well. We’re all looking at this process, together, with fresh eyes as it happens, so we don’t have to have the post-pandemic equation solved right now.
As experts say, the role of HR leaders has changed amid all the chaos. How do you see the role of talent leaders evolve in 2021 and beyond?
I see five areas for evolving the role of talent leaders in the future.
- Enhance the focus on business results and challenges. Ensure that HR has human capital and employee engagement/experience strategies that positively support and impact the business results.
- Ensure that HR enhances their skills and competencies for the future. HR digital, HR technology, business acumen, change management, employee engagement, and experience are key when considering the evolution of skills of talent leaders.
- Organizational planning. HR professionals have to work with business leaders and advise them on organizational strategies to support “fit for purpose” – whether that’s a hybrid or streamlined model. I call this fit-for-purpose organizational planning.
- Talent. You have to build the bench, retain the bench and ensure you have the diversity of leadership among teams.
- Investing in the resilience of the workforce. The last year has brought a lot of change. Frontline employees have remained committed to physically showing up every day to do their jobs as they try to keep themselves and their loved ones safe. And, office workers have been working from home, which has its own challenges. We have all survived a lot, so I believe that it’s important for HR professionals to work with teams to provide the support mechanisms needed to enhance the resilience of the workforce.
What are the top challenges facing organizations globally today amid this transition? Can organizations commit to long-term policies?
The pandemic has been a challenging period, so without question organizations are experiencing some of the residual effects (or challenges) as we transition into a recovery phase. There are many challenges, but some key areas that come to mind are:
- Technology is rapidly changing and industries must respond. The workforce has to maintain a transformational mindset and be very nimble and open to change in order to remain sustainable and keep up with the evolution of the digital world.
- Commodity costs are escalating and this is a significant challenge that is being seen in several areas of business. Managing those cost structures quickly, effectively and with agility is going to be critical during this period.
- We’ve had culture shifts because of the pandemic and what’s happening in societies all over the world. The global culture transformation is important and affecting businesses, so companies have to be able to lead through the challenges that come with this change.
- Environment, Society, and Government (ESG) complexities vary around the world. Companies are required to have the right leaders and teams in place to make sure that there is a deep understanding of ESG (in-market) to better exist and thrive based on the regional ESG expectations and demands. Also, all within a strong commitment to ethics and compliance.
- Overcoming any challenges related to Diversity and Inclusion is critical as companies must continue making this area a significant part of the business strategy going forward.
- A continued top priority will be the health, safety, and welfare of the workforce. We are seeing progress around the world of people returning to their daily lives, whether that is working or having dinner with friends and family. However, there are still big challenges. Organizations must remain diligent in their efforts to maintain a safe environment for all employees.
In terms of establishing long-term policies and plans, organizations don’t have a choice. In fact, I believe that organizations also need short-and-mid-term plans that ladder up to support the long-term vision.
If I speak to our business, we must have a long-term plan in place given Nissan’s goal to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. And within that goal, we’ve set another milestone to have a fully electric vehicle portfolio by the early 2030s in our key markets. With this in mind, we have to develop the strategy and complete the due diligence as we march toward our carbon neutrality and electrification objectives. Yes, we will make adjustments along the way. However, we have to commit to staying focused on the long-term plan because that’s what will be good for the business and key stakeholders like employees, shareholders, dealers, suppliers, and customers.
The biggest question for executive leadership today at many companies is envisioning the future of work post-pandemic. How are you reimagining the future of work at Nissan?
That’s the question that many business leaders and HR professionals are trying to answer, not just at Nissan but at other companies as well.
For us, the future is about listening to and engaging the workforce and reinforcing our employee value proposition (for non-manufacturing, manufacturing, and PDC teams) through career development, reward and recognition, and flexible work.
The other piece of our future has nothing to do with the pandemic’s effect on our work environment. It’s more about the work that we do versus how we work. I’m specifically talking about our electrification strategy. Electric vehicles are the future of the automotive industry, and Nissan is committed to delivering the excitement and benefits of electrified vehicles to our customers as we journey together toward a more connected, sustainable, and resilient world.
This strategy requires us to approach talent development and reskilling of the workforce differently, and it requires us to update old legacy systems so that employees have the hardware and software to do their jobs. These are all important pieces of Nissan’s future that will allow us to enhance our brand and deliver the vehicles and technologies that bring the most value to customers.
Through it all, we are optimistic about the future of work. The pandemic has forced us to address some traditional ways of working and thinking. At Nissan, we will continue learning from the past, seek to be nimble and flexible in the future, and embrace this return to the work transition period and what it means for different markets around the world. In the end, employees are a company’s most important asset. Nissan has committed to have a people-first mentality and remain flexible and connected to help teams make a smooth and, most importantly, safe transition back into the office.