Article: COVID-19 caused people & businesses to pause to reimagine what really matters: Geana Barbosa of Asana

Leadership

COVID-19 caused people & businesses to pause to reimagine what really matters: Geana Barbosa of Asana

The best companies globally put employees first and the pandemic has only reinforced this as a winning formula, says Geana Barbosa, the Head of Southeast Asia at Asana, in an interaction with People Matters.
COVID-19 caused people & businesses to pause to reimagine what really matters: Geana Barbosa of Asana

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COVID-19 has changed the world for good. It has resurfaced the gaps and inequalities that we have ignored for far too long. The crisis has shone a spotlight on DE&I, the rising skills gaps, the importance of purposeful transformations, the culture of innovation, and more. But on the other side, some corporations and top leaders are trying to put the genie back in the bottle. They say, the archetype of how business is done stays the same and so is the leadership style. The truth is, there is a clear lack of synergy across corporations and governments when it comes to leveraging this moment as an opportunity and fix broken links. This is important because the future depends on a lot of unknowns. 

To find answers to all this, we have Geana Barbosa who is the Head of Southeast Asia at Asana, a leading work management platform. Prior to Asana, Geana has held several senior sales and management roles at leading global companies including LinkedIn, Euromonitor International, Evalueserve, and Unilever.

Here are the excerpts of the interview.

How do we decode the larger picture of the new world of work today and recalibrate our path forward?

I don’t believe there is a new big picture. COVID-19 has allowed us to look at our world more deeply and purposefully. As human beings, our needs remain the same. However, the need for psychological and social well-being just became more evident. The disruption of this crisis caused people and businesses to pause, reevaluate priorities and reassess what really matters, and what is needed to live and do business well. Recalibrating our path forward calls for a focus on awareness, intentionality, and clarity. 

COVID-19 has taken a heavy toll on me. I have lost my family members, neighbours, and close friends. It has been almost two years since I met my family. The pandemic has definitely been challenging, to say the least. From a business perspective, I saw a major restructuring in place. In my previous organisation, I saw several team members being laid-off and their lives changed in a split second. All this gave me a new perspective and a refreshed outlook on how I prioritise what to care about. On the other hand, conversations I have with colleagues at work, family members, and even friends became deeper. For me, the way forward is about being self-aware, aware of others, designing life and business with intention, and being very clear on what is important and what is not. Five years from now, if we catch ourselves again asking “should I look after my loved one or accept this 10 PM meeting?” I am sure we will have learned a lot from the time we are living now to enlighten the response to that question. 

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You are passionate about the unknown and the future depends on a lot of unknowns. How do you see the implications of those COVID-19-led unknowns in the context of the world of work?

Flexibility and compassion are key. Since I started leading Asana in Southeast Asia in March 2021, we’ve been in a mix of WFH, hybrid, and back to WFH. All these changes have occurred in a window of four months and all our employees have obviously struggled to maintain work-life balance.

Given the changing time, you just cannot demand your team to be in their peak performance. We need to support and empower them. Our Anatomy of Work Index 2021 revealed that workers in Singapore are more likely to experience imposter syndrome, with nearly three-quarters (74%) experiencing it in the last year. As a newly onboarded leader during this period, I am sure imposter syndrome held me back in the last few months along with many of my teammates. 

On the other hand, I know we’ve had the luxury to be onboarded in a forward-looking organisation. We aspire to build an environment where we can all be real and approach every situation with heartitude; one of our core values at Asana stands for making space to express our feelings and having empathy for each other. That is a big implication of the unknowns of COVID-19. Tough conversations require flexibility and compassion not only from employers but also from employees. 

Do you see a synergy in terms of how the best companies are rallying to lead their organisations out of the crisis? How do you characterize the patterns?

The world’s best companies are putting employees first. When employees come first, customers are also taken care of well automatically, and that is a winning formula. At Asana, we aspire to reject false trade-offs. Therefore, we believe we can continue our impressive growth trajectory while taking care of our employees. Here are some measures that are top of mind for me:

  • Commitment to our unlimited PTO policy, mental health, and sabbatical programme
  • Supporting managers with guidelines on how to manage distributed teams
  • Addressing imposter syndrome and burnout, and identifying signals for employees that are potentially at risk of these

I love these initiatives. They address both ICs and also support managers on how to respond to the changing times more effectively and compassionately. At the same time, the leadership community needs to lead by example. Although we have an unlimited PTO policy, I can recognize that I need to get better at this myself. If your team sees you following a strong pattern of rest, they will also feel inspired to do so.

For the post-pandemic world, do you think the archetype of a successful leader will have to be reimagined? Is there something called 'Good Leadership' that seemed to have emerged during this pandemic?

All leaders needed to adapt during this crisis. I am naturally very present. If you speak with my teams, they would probably say that is a key strength in my leadership style. In the distributed workforce scenario with individuals facing their own battles balancing conflicting personal and professional priorities, a present manager isn’t necessarily something they always need. I quickly realized that I needed to balance when to jump in and when to give space.  

At Asana, we're looking for ways to reduce distractions. Giving space and respecting quiet times are important for us. At the end of the day, I believe good leadership will still follow the principle of understanding individuals in their individuality rather than applying a formula for all. 

What aspects of the new ways of working should we unleash for the long-term? What’s your best bet on the future of work arrangement? Office, home, or anywhere? Will the new workplace be as flexible as we hoped for?

The best formula will be the one that aligns with your values and business needs. At Asana, when we share our best practices with our customers, we always emphasize the importance of the following:

  • Setting intentions aligned with values and business needs 
  • Prioritize a model that best enables collaboration, inclusion, and personal and professional growth
  • In our case that translates to an office-centric hybrid model with synchronized focus time in the form of two days WFH.

What’s the best thing that you have learned on tackling corporate challenges vis-à-vis workers challenges? With so much stress and fear, workers managed to stay productive when life has been turned upside down.

Our Head of Diversity and Inclusion, Sonja Gittens Ottley, shared some compelling advice with our team that has stuck with me. She highlighted that leaders need to be brave and empathetic enough to ask people what they need while modeling to express their own needs. We cannot assume what people need. We need to ask them. 

As organisations, leaders, and individuals struggle to make sense of this new normal, what are the missing links?

A more sustainable and productive way of working is needed. And it was needed even before COVID-19. Our Anatomy of Work Index 2021 highlighted that although employees have invested more hours into work, the impact has reduced with 26% of deadlines being missed per week on average. 

When I was onboarded at Asana, a new way of working and a new way of managing were introduced to me. The power of not needing to spend time on emails, having clarity on my priorities and the priorities of my teams, plus the enablement of asynchronous collaboration opened my eyes to a new era. 

Prior to Asana, I was used to having a four-hour block on Thursdays each week to prepare business updates. Now I can use that time on strategic thinking, team engagement, and customer value prioritization. So, I feel more productive and more fulfilled. Enabling that same experience across the board is a big win. 

I recently witnessed one of our clients saying that when he feels ‘languishing’ he goes to Asana and checks his accomplishments of the day. That reaffirms to him that despite these weird times, he keeps accomplishing a lot. That is a win for him, for his leadership, and his company. I would love to see more companies realizing this reality and empowering employees for success. This success is dependent on an aligned vision of awareness, intentionality, and clarity, and to enable it, work management remains key.

 

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Topics: Leadership, #HybridWorkplace

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