Hybrid team leaders need to create trust, psychological safety & bring all voices to the table: Uber’s Smitha Subhas
Smitha Subhas, the Head of Human Resources for Uber’s Technology Group in India where she leads people practices for engineering and product teams that build innovative products and services for global markets across multiple domains, is passionate about driving a deep impact on all strategic people's elements of the transformational journey of a business. She also strives to create an enabling organisational culture where employees can thrive and bring their authentic selves to work.
In her career spanning over 16 years, Subhas has supported global teams in large-scale multinational organisations in HR business partnering roles and has built expertise in organisation design, change management, leadership, and talent development. She is also a design thinking practitioner. Before joining Uber, she has been with global technology organisations such as Dell, Wipro, and most recently with Cisco as the Chief of Staff for the Vice President of APJC human resources.
In an interaction with People Matters, Subhas talks about her approach to hybrid work, aspects of leadership or management that have become most important with a distributed team, and leadership styles that work best in the hybrid work model.
Here are some excerpts.
Have you found your own leadership style changing with hybrid work, and how?
My own leadership style has become more focused on being dynamic and agile to be able to adapt quickly to the needs of the team and that of the organisation at large.
Most importantly, my leadership has evolved to keep those we serve at the heart of our people initiatives.
At Uber, one of our core values is ‘Build with Heart’, which is about putting ourselves in the shoes of who we connect with and believing that our care drives us to perfect our craft.
How has your approach to hybrid work changed since the original 'great WFH experiment'?
Hybrid work has emerged as a culmination of the pre-pandemic work-from-home ‘option’ to work-from-home ‘requirement’ over the past couple of years. It has given us a holistic view of both ‘at office’ and ‘remote’ working.
Uber’s work philosophy has been rooted in employee feedback and that’s what is happening across our offices to adopt a flexible approach while providing choice and empowerment.
This includes flexibility when it comes to choosing an office location to work from, or a choice to work remotely. We also strive to offer flexibility at the office where managers and leaders have the freedom to provide direction on the in-person frequency, cadence, and collaboration with their teams and stakeholders.
What aspects of leadership or management have become the most important with a distributed team?
There is less complexity when employees are all working remotely or when all are at the physical office but in distributed teams, there is a need to be more thoughtful to create an inclusive work environment.
For this, the aspects of management that have become most important are for hybrid teams to make the best of the moments together to build strong bonds, innovate, and create alignment. There is a need to listen and connect frequently to remain agile as a company.
Uber has moved to a continuous listening model with employee surveys; we organise All Hands (town halls) at regular intervals, seek timely feedback, and have quarterly Impact check-ins.
What leadership styles do you think work best in the hybrid model?
Based on personal experience, the following leadership styles seem to work best:
Transformational leadership - This requires leaders to influence, inspire, ideate, and execute transformative ways for sustenance and growth. The ability to respond to swift external changes, transition to a new way of collaborating internally, or create followership with employees in a hybrid model requires transformational direction and approach.
Participative leadership - To allow teams the independence and empowerment to define and drive their work helps. It is a new normal for all and hence this leadership model allows for a diverse pooling of ideas on what could best work. It also creates a powerful meaning of work for all and instills ownership.
If your C-team is distributed, has that changed the way you collaborate?
For a global organisation such as Uber, the C-team has always been distributed across multiple geographies and time zones so it was always a familiar way of working. From an infrastructure point of view, there has not been much change since the tools of collaboration have helped make the transition smooth.
The change has been more from a cultural perspective - people aspects around employee wellbeing, and proactively sensing the pulse on the ground have found a center stage in C-Team discussions and ways to collaborate.
We recently launched the ‘U-Care’ initiative for our employees in partnership with leading lifestyle and integrative health coach Luke Coutinho or a holistic corporate wellness programme and the Leadership team role-modeled the focus on health by sponsoring and being champions of the programme and sharing their own experiences and journeys.
Tell us about some of the benefits and/or disadvantages you've observed in the hybrid or remote model post-pandemic.
The pandemic allowed the world to test-case the impact of WFH and remote working on business delivery.
The Hybrid working model is seeing the following benefits:
- Gave greater confidence in productivity irrespective of work location
- Greater autonomy for employees to choose where and when they do their best work
- Renewed focus on mental health and wellbeing
- Saving on several infrastructure costs
- Allowed for better collaboration, building work relationships & innovation
- Employee choice - given the flexibility to manage work schedule/location
- Potential burnout if we are not thoughtful about defined closures to work timings
- Missing the in-person connect and team building in a remote setup.
- Managing the uncertainty around the rise and fall of the waves of Covid.
What are some of the more thought-provoking decisions you've had to make around hybrid work? For yourself/your team personally and for the organisation at large?
For the organisation at large,
With the opening of offices in a hybrid model, one of the more thought-provoking decisions was helping employees re-navigate to the office from a 2-year set WFH pattern. We understood that the needs and situations of each employee would be unique, so we wanted to provide the needed flexibility and adequate time.
This built confidence while providing safety both in terms of policies and structures, and also enabled teams to start planning the right cadence of bringing their teams together and use this period to set team norms, understand team sentiment and see what works best for the team.
When driving large-scale people initiatives, we had to ensure that employees enjoy the same great experience and culture irrespective of location.
An example of this was when we launched a two-day event, ‘Springboard’, which focused on careers and development for our employees in tech teams. It was a hybrid event through a virtual platform and live sessions where employees could experience the events live in the office while giving an interactive experience through our virtual platforms.
Personally, balancing the priorities and defining the boundaries more consciously in the WFH and hybrid work set-up at the start was a learning process.
As an HR leader, it was about identifying the most optimal way of being connected with the team and organisation in this new normal. There were several learnings and unlearning as we were supporting teams through the ambiguity of the new reality. By focussing on controllable, prioritising what was important for positive people outcomes, and ensuring timely communication - we made good progress.
What skills do you think are most useful for leaders and managers heading a distributed team?
I believe the ability to interpret ambiguity and simplify cause and actions for the team is a key skill needed in any leader.
It’s crucial that leaders possess empathy towards their team members, and that they are adaptable to accept and leverage different working styles and shape their team and organisation culture.
Leaders must strive to create trust and psychological safety within their teams and ensure they bring all voices to the table, including those expressing a contrary point of view.
Lastly, effective communication is a non-negotiable in any leader, for them to be able to manage stakeholders and ensure synergy between business goals and those of individuals within teams.