I think the “hybrid meeting” shift is here to stay, meaning we will much more frequently spend time in collaboration that will be combinations of synchronous and a-synchronous; both physically proximate and virtual.
William J.T. Strahan, Executive Vice President, Human Resources, Comcast Cable leads the Human Resources function for Comcast Cable. He has responsibility for all aspects of Human Resources including talent, compensation, benefits, learning, employee, and labor relations.
Bill has been involved in various aspects of Human Resources work for over 35 years. He began his career with over a decade of work at Macy’s Department Stores and Riggs National Bank. The second decade of Bill’s work included practicing law in Washington, D.C. in the area of Compensation and Benefits – mostly in the context of mergers and acquisitions and in initial public offerings. For nine years, Bill was a consultant and manager at Mercer HR Consulting.
Bill holds a B.A. in Religion from Villanova University; and a Juris Doctorate from the George Mason University School of Law. He is an Active Member of the Virginia State Bar.
Bill serves as chair of the board of Philadelphia Works, an organization that connects employers to a skilled workforce and helps individuals develop the skills needed to thrive in the workplace, and chair of the board of the Emma Bowen Foundation, a leader in promoting young people of color for careers in media and technology.
Here are the excerpts from the interview.
The future of work, shrouded in uncertainty with a flurry of changes and a cloud of digital innovations, appears to be completely different. How do you see the current scenario?
Changes in the way individuals, teams, and markets operate have been occurring for a while - so I don’t think of it as “completely different”. Elements of these changes – robotics, optical recognition, machine learning – are really extensions of automation that have been incorporating into work for decades, providing more data than legacy automation and a different type of output, that is, fewer simple comparisons and more sophisticated analyses like sentiment, facial recognition, and autonomous machines. More digital systems mean that workers are spending less time passing information back and forth, less time with simple analysis, and less time doing the administrative activity. What is actually different is the speed of the change, which has accelerated dramatically, especially because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Additionally, and this is critical, as more workers will be using the output of these digital products to then do new, very sophisticated, creative, and very human work, as opposed to just using the digital tools within the legacy structure of old jobs.
With COVID-19 triggering a monumental shift in how and where work gets done and it seems, the workplace is set to see a massive overhaul. What are the top two trends that will have significant impacts for businesses globally?
I think the “hybrid meeting” shift is here to stay, meaning we will much more frequently spend time in collaboration that will be combinations of synchronous and a-synchronous; both physically proximate and virtual. This is important not just for making collaboration more efficient relative to travel expense, but it will bring a higher level of inclusiveness. Fresh faces and voices are more likely to be included. The use of digital tools will continue to be a necessity. The second one is what COVID-19 could not change, but did highlight - there are millions of people whose workplace is out in the community – in customers’ homes or places of business, in natural resource areas, movie studios, on city streets, and in hospitals, schools, and retail. These people are NOT working on Zoom or Microsoft Teams and have not shifted to a virtual environment. The trend is a renewed respect and appreciation for “frontline” workers and the need to safeguard them and the people they engage with. Our company expanded the capacity of the internet in our markets to accommodate the increase in demand from people working and learning from home, and we have journalists out in harm’s way telling the story of the day. We understand that we need to be even more focused on them and caring for them in a separate way than those who are able to work safely from their homes.
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Is remote work here to stay? Can it help in creating a more sustainable future of work?
Remote work is going to continue but not evenly. To the extent that someone is a true individual contributor or working transactions, especially if they are working across chat, phone, or computers, I think we will see an increase in the number of people working primarily remotely. My belief, though, is people working on collaborative, creative or development teams will want to find themselves back together in the workplace even if it is for sprints of a few days, weeks, or even longer workshops and events. The powerful effect of body language and social cues that steer great team design work is not yet able to be captured in two-dimensional, two sense, virtual conferencing.
What should be the top imperatives for leaders in the new reality of COVID-19 to address the enormous short and long-term goals?
One is to try to reinforce the need for facts and a reliance on expertise. With COVID-19, we have seen examples of genius: CO-V generic mapping leading to the rapid development of vaccines, even optimizing the mRNA platform, but also the power of gossip, rumor, and speculation to resist science and solid policy. Leaders need to appreciate that the tension we see in the media is present in the workforce. Taking care of how we inform and engage our teammates so we can maintain and grow the trust that workers have in leadership is critical to do anything big and complex. Secondly, a renewed focus on holistic wellness could not be any more timely or important. At Comcast, we focus on four elements of wellness simultaneously – physical, emotional, career, and financial. Stress and impairment from any of these always aggregate as stress or provide limitations on people’s best work. Overall wellness should be a top strategy for every HR team globally.
Has COVID-19 crisis transformed the role of HR? How can HR take the lead in helping their businesses accelerate continued performance?
In shorthand and maybe too simplistically, I think that we will see a gradual merging together of the functions of the COO and the CHRO. I believe that the best HR functions, those that are most relevant, will see themselves as enablers of managing the achievement of the strategic plan through people. During COVID-19, I have seen many HR leaders integrating into newly formed cross-functional teams. These teams had to build new protocols for how work was done that cared for the wellness of teammates and customers, but at the end of the day had to get goods and services “out the door”. Setting HR policy in a pandemic is tantamount to setting customer interaction policy. The future great HR leaders will have had the experience of thinking, designing, and executing in this bi-lateral way, differently than when I was coming up in the profession in the 80s and 90s. Further, the economics of labor has had the most interesting competition with capital and non-human investment ever. We can see the acceleration of digital capability in the economy through more financial capital being invested in digital tools and automation, both to keep humans safe (employee and customer) and also to make the operation more effective and efficient. HR must think more like a general manager in this kind of environment to build and execute an appropriate talent plan that complements these investments to best achieve business goals.
Do you think the pandemic has offered an opportunity to get social inequalities, diversity, and inclusion right, now that the pandemic has elevated disparities and gaps?
I think that the pandemic gave us an opportunity to try and get social inequalities, diversity, and inclusion right. I want to be precise about those words. My sense is that in 2020, in the United States, and then rolling through to Europe, and many other countries, the murder of George Floyd was such a catalyst for many reasons. The sad, shameful fact is that the murder of black men and women and violence against people of color is hardly new. What was different with Mr. Floyd was that the raw emotion, the anger, and the tools of mass voice through the digital tools all came together. From a workforce perspective, I think that society and business were optimized for confronting our anger, our fears, and our ignorance, all enhanced by virtual conferencing. We have the advantage of seeing one another, hearing each other’s voice, but with just enough objectivity and distance that old social pretexts could be overcome by honesty and real human connection. The experience of my company providing both connectivity and storytelling through all of this unrest and uncertainty will be a career-defining point of pride for me.
Do you think organizations are shifting the needle on productivity management and performance assessment amid this uncertainty?
I think it cuts both ways. Initially, organizations adapted very quickly, and teams and workers were incredibly creative in meeting the needs of customers and clients – everything from healthcare workers – obviously, to restaurant teams pivoting to takeout and grocery, the scale-up of logistics businesses, even our own call center agents. We pivoted thousands of our employees to work from home so they could continue to serve millions of our customers across the US. Our first priority was ensuring that they had a safe environment to work in while performance management followed after. As we become more used to the environment, I believe that organizations are getting more clarity on real output and real contributions.
What's your take on how organizations can instill a continuous feedback culture and have clarity between assessment and development?
There are three simple things: first, senior leaders have to make themselves available in authentic and approachable ways. They need to answer questions from teams and be open with the context for their goals and objectives for the team. Second, real work has to go into the manufacturing of data to measure work. It is worth the effort to be sure that some portion of every project’s, or standing process’ resources be devoted to measure of progress. Data builds clarity. Third, understand that feedback has to be on-going in order for it to become authentic and free – like exercising any other capability, the more it occurs, the better we become at it. Feedback is not a skill that a leader learns; feedback is an element of a healthy relationship between two unique people. The two have to practice it together – the more it is dialogue and not monologue, the better the relationship.
Read more such stories from the February 2021 issue of our e-magazine on 'Shifting Paradigms in Performance Management'