In 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic drove employees out of offices to work from home. While employees had to adapt to the new normal, the role of leadership was pivotal in creatively handling the evolving landscape to stay connected with employees. They were compelled to find unique and engaging ways to keep the workforce motivated and productive, thus creating a strong employee value proposition.
In an interview with People Matters, Amy Hsuan, Vice President of People and Strategy at San Francisco-based product analytics software company, Mixpanel, talks about how the function of work has changed in people’s lives during the pandemic and how that will change this generation’s relationship to work, as well as challenges faced by talent leaders in present times and what can leaders do to stay ahead of hiring in the remote work curve.
Hsuan not only directs the organization’s corporate strategy but oversees the end-to-end employee experience from recruitment to learning and development to diversity, inclusion and belonging.
Following are some excerpts
What are the top two work trends that you feel would define the future of work this year?
I believe the top two future of work trends in 2022 will be what I call “Power through Choice” and “The Whole Self.”
We are still very much at the beginning stages of realizing the different ways work can be done. “Power through Choice” is about continuing that exploration. During the pandemic, it was very clear that work could be more productive if done from home. But that was the catch - you had to be at home because, for many people, there were restrictions that prevented them from venturing outside. We saw an increase in productivity because there were few other outlets for people outside of work during the most restrictive times of Covid.
Now, as restrictions begin to loosen, people want choice more than ever and employers who force their people back to the office will be met with resistance. People just don’t want to be told they have to work a certain way anymore.
I believe as we begin to live with Covid, people will not only want to work from home, but they will want to work from wherever and whenever. We will see a trend toward very flexible work arrangements with people working while they are traveling or in different time zones.
“The Whole Self” is about recognizing that employees are more than just workers, they are people with lives, causes they care about, challenges that they carry with them, and identities beyond work from 9-to-5.
During Covid, work was also a social outlet and a place to vent and connect with people experiencing a similarly unifying and unprecedented event. Many people talked to their co-workers and met them in Zoom rooms far more often than they connected to anyone outside. People want to continue this relationship with work where they can bring their whole selves to work, knowing that their employer cares about them, their mental health, the causes they are passionate about, etc. They want supporting work environments that provide balance across all the aspects of their lives.
What is key to leading hybrid teams effectively?
The most critical part of leading hybrid teams is recognizing that hybrid doesn’t mean that you have to provide dual experiences for every part of the employee experience. In some ways, that muddles the employee experience and creates inequity. Culture is defined as “shared moments” - people experiencing the same thing at the same time.
At Mixpanel, our philosophy is “Employee Choice First,” meaning we are neither remote nor in-person; our people can choose where they do their best work on a daily basis, whether it be in one of our physical offices, at home, or at a coffee shop.
We recognize that the best way to get a certain type of work done changes based on individual preference and the type of work. There are some days when collaborating on a critical strategy is best done in-person. There are other days when heads-down, focused work is best done at home with no distractions. We want to enable every Mixpaneler to do their best work in the way that is most productive for them and their team.
We are early adopters in the notion of being “multi-modal,” meaning we wanted to be intentional about what type of work is best done in-person or virtual. “Hybrid” connotes that employees can be in-person and virtual at the same time.
At Mixpanel, we are working to identify certain interactions as being better if they are always virtual or always in-person to ensure equitability in the employee experience no matter where you live.
How has the function of work changed for people during the pandemic? How will it change this generation’s relationship to work?
An individual’s relationship with work changed dramatically over the pandemic. Without the ability to meet friends and family, work largely replaced that social dimension and also emerged as a place where people sought emotional support.
I think given that larger role in employees’ lives, people have also become much more attuned to working for companies who have a mission that resonates with them. We’ve also seen employees who might have lost loved ones during Covid now wanting to switch careers or jobs out of a desire to find more personal meaning and out of the realization that life is fragile.
I believe we are at the precipice of a very fundamental and generational change in the role of work in someone’s life. It’s no longer about just about compensation and perks and work life balance; I believe people are looking for meaning and the ability to make an impact, as well as companies that genuinely care about their wellbeing, mental health, and more.
What are the top challenges faced by talent leaders in present times?
I believe the top challenge faced by talent leaders is solving for diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I).
It’s a critically important topic that will impact the future of work and the future of economies and it’s clear that the public sector and the typical social systems will not solve this for the world. The private sector has to step in and be the driver of change. It’s also a critical lever in the talent war. People don’t just work for companies anymore. They work with teams, they work with people that they connect with, from bonds with.
What do you think are the main reasons corporations are failing to reap dividends of DE&I initiatives?
Many companies have not yielded outcomes in DE&I because they aren’t focused on the root drivers of the problem. Sometimes, there are programs and initiatives that you can easily implement that give the facade of inclusivity. I sometimes call this “food, flags and fun” - meaning it’s all very superficial.
In order to drive true outcomes in DE&I, you have to spend the time diagnosing the challenges and have targeted strategies to address them. You cannot solve a lack of diverse representation in a company with more happy hours. You cannot solve a lack of inclusive management with a guest speaker. And fundamentally, you can’t be aligned on a DE&I strategy if people don’t have a common understanding of what diversity is.
Those are foundational problems to solve that require orchestrating the right interactions, development programs, hiring goals and most importantly, executive buy-in to drive the required change.
The biggest battle to be won in DE&I, in my mind, comes down to change management.
When you take a structured approach to change management, you need to start with understanding what people’s mindsets are and then build the case for change first. I think many companies miss this important step because they assume that either everyone is on the same page about diversity or that they can’t change people’s minds about it to bring alignment to what the goals are.
Why is intersection of strategy and people a critical lever for managing change?
Before I was a people person, I was a strategy person. So strategy is deeply embedded in how I approach problems at every level. As a strategy person, you come to understand that the most important and powerful lever companies and businesses have are their people. It is the biggest expense and investment area of any company and it goes way beyond payroll.
How you approach change management is often what defines a successful strategy from an unsuccessful one.
Most strategies fail because companies fail to realize that successful strategy execution often comes down to changing the way people think about their market, their opportunity, and changing the way they approach their jobs and their roles. It requires an understanding of cultural transformation which involves mindset change and behavior change.
That’s especially true in an era in which the pace of innovation is increasing and that is requiring people to adapt to change at a more rapid pace than before. That rapid pace of innovation also forces companies to reevaluate their strategies on a more frequent basis.
A deep understanding of people aids what I do on the strategy side. From the other angle, understanding strategy has a very direct line to what and how I think about my priorities on the people side.
Understanding what are the markets, opportunities, technology investments enables me to take a long term view of what are the capabilities we need on the people side, how does that translate to our learning and development program, how does that define the culture we want to build and the identity we want to have.
Some of the core elements of driving a strong culture come down to consistency. It is the nature of human beings operating within a culture to have a common language, a common understanding and be able to tie the strategic direction of the company with what it feels like to be an employee day to day.