Our panel guests joining Joe and Jason this week’s episode are Marc Weedon, Steve Hunt, and Richard Phelps

Season 2: Episode 14 – The Future of Work and the Pandemic Panel Debate (Part 1)

Jason West: Welcome to the Underscore Transformation podcast. My name’s Jason West.

Joe Ales: My name’s Joe Ales.

Jason West: And together, we’re the founders of Underscore.

This week’s episode is the first in a bonus min-series that focuses on the future of work and the impact that Coronavirus has had on organisations already dealing with some seismic changes in the workplace. Now, given that these changes primarily affect people and business transformation, is at its core, a fundamentally human endeavour, we’ll be talking to a number of HR professionals who’ve been on the frontline of their organisation’s response to the pandemic.

This week, and next, we’re joined by three special guests: Marc Weedon, who’s the International HR Director at Zuora; Steve Hunt, who’s Head of Talent Acquisition at Citi; and Richard Phelps, a Management Consultant and Co-Founder of the Human Times news service.

The focus of our discussion this week was on the rapid disruption and change bought about by the pandemic, and their organisation’s response over the past few months. There’s some really great practical advice and real world experience in this week’s episode isn’t there Joe?

Joes Ales: Absolutely, there is. In fact, there was so much content that we had to split the discussion into two podcasts. In this week’s episode, Jason, we’re dealing with the immediate changes to working practices and our guests’ initial response. Next week, we’ll be focusing a lot more on the medium to long-term impact of the changes made over the last few months.

Jason West: Perfect. So, we’ve got three experts HR professionals lined up to talk to you today, who’ve got first-hand experience of dealing with rapid change. So, let’s hand over to them now to introduce themselves and we’ll get started with the conversation.

Marc Weedon: My name is Marc Weedon. I’m an HR director at Zuora. We are a US based technology company, so we power those organisations which provide subscription-based services to their customers. In my role, it’s a generalist HR role  across the whole HR spectrum. And most of my role was looking after the non-U.S. territories across EMEA and Asia Pacific, outside of the US. As you mentioned, I also founded and chair the International HR Forum, which is a home to around 210 HR directors within international remits. I dread to think how long ago that was, I think it was 13 or 14 years ago.

Jason West: Welcome, and thanks Marc. Next up, we have Steve Hunt, who heads up Talent Acquisition at Citi Bank in a EMEA.

Steve Hunt: Thanks, Jason. So I work for Citi, the Global Financial Services provider, supporting institutions, governments, corporations, as well as consumers operating all over the world. I’m the EMEA Head of Talent Acquisition. So we’re hiring around 10,000 people on an annual basis into to 54 different countries, leading a team of just under 200 across the region. Prior to my time at Citi I had a position at an e-commerce provider very similar to the Amazon price. Before that I was in the Middle East running Global Records. And prior to that, with the Thales Group for a number of years, building out a total acquisition model from the U.K. and to other countries and before I joined the the corporate side, I was 11 years as an executive search consultant.

Jason West: Thanks for that, Steve. And again, thanks very much for joining today. And then finally, we’re delighted to be joined by Richard Phelps and Richard, serial entrepreneur and co-founder of The Human Times.

Richard Phelps: Thanks, Jason. Yeah, I’m Co-Founder and owner of the Human Times. Human Times is a daily digital newsletter that we send out to many thousands of H.R. professionals globally. We have four editions, Middle East and North America, UK, Europe and Scandinavia. It’s free of charge for anyone who would like to subscribe to that. My background is basically as a management consultant, I worked for Towers Watson, then start my own business in People Analytics and sold it to PwC. Good to be here today.

Jason West: Thanks, Richard. We’re talking about the future of work and it’s been a hot topic well before 2020. And it’s a broad headline that covers a wide range of stories and ideas from automation and A.I. through flexible project based working in the gig economy, to utopian, or perhaps dystopian, visions of a potentially a new social contract that includes universal basic income to address potential mass underemployment caused by all that A.I. that we’re where we’re going to be faced with. So perhaps, Mark, if we start with you in your industry, has Corona virus simply accelerated some inevitable change in that kind of bringing forward the future of work? Or is it present presented something more like an existential threat?

Marc Weedon: Well, just looking at Zuora, where we’re in the very fortunate position of being a cloud based company. And so we have recurring revenues. So, we’ve got a predicted, fairly predictable revenue stream. And we’ve got money in the bank. So we had before we floated in April 2018, but three rounds of funding and a fairly healthy bank balance and in the flotation of New York Stock Exchange gave us a little bit more. It hasn’t been a threat to our existence in the same way it has been to other organisations, particularly those in the leisure hospitality sectors, for example, where I know it’s had a massive impact. But if you if you do two things at a broader level, you’re not wanting to limit the terrible impact that COVID has had. There has been a seismic political, economic and social disruption caused by the pandemic. And what I’m seeing, even within Zuora, which is you’re quite insulated compared to other businesses, but certainly through my network as well, is what we’re seeing is there’s been more change in the world of work in the last three months than, say, over the past three decades, I’d suggest. And again, even though we’ve been really fortunate from a stability perspective at Zuora, we’re still dealing with stuff that we’ve never had to deal with before. You’re having to do with a pandemic and all that entails in terms of pivoting from an office based culture before to one, which is 100 percent remote, more or less overnight. Yeah, that a lot of stress on the organisation. But you know, that that the great news is we’re still here, we’re still fighting. It’s had a big impact on us in terms of how we deal with business continuity, employee engagement, all the impact around that. So, yeah, it’s been a busy time, yes.

Jason West: Thanks for that Marc. Steve, from a different angle Citi is obviously a vast organisation. How is it how has it affected life in Citi?

Steve Hunt: I think it’s fairly nuanced depending on the starting point. I think as a completely global organisation, obviously we’re used to working with lots of international stakeholders remotely. So, I think that you have a lot of credit in the bank if you start from that point. I think the challenge has been, as it’s evolved, it’s been about how can we continue to serve clients? How can we continue to successfully operate and get 190,000 people working remotely? So obviously logistical technology challenges, people challenges… But once we got over that crisis period, it was then “how do we operate more effectively in this mode and how do we then think about the future?” And there’s so many issues because particularly from a people perspective. Because you have that cultural credit from having people who have worked together for a long time, and as a global organisation with a lot of tenure that really helps because you built up a lot of those relationships over time.  Now three months into it you think we’ve got thousands of people who have joined the organisation that have never been into an office.  We’re now facing a completely different set of challenges than we were just two months ago, particularly when you think about things like cross-border working. You’ve got people who, because of the pandemic, are working in one location but actually are employed in another location. So that really drives a lot of discussions around location strategy and obviously talent. So many, many challenges but obviously nuanced as the time has passed.

Jason West: Well, yeah. Yeah. And then at the other end of the scale, I guess, Richard, the Human Times is about the same age as Underscore about four years old, I think. So, it would be great to get your perspective from the Human Times perspective. But also what you’re seeing in the broader industry is you see guys process a huge amount of news around people and human resources.

Richard Phelps: Operationally, from our perspective, it’s been quite positive because we have been forced to become much more digital. And we’re not necessarily forcing, but people are becoming more independent and resilient around the digitalization of work. So, you know, it’s actually been quite positive. Also, we basically deliver on news remotely through the internet. And it’s been very good for our business. We found that in terms of our subscribers, they’ve shot up. And we’ve just launched a new product called The World of Work, which is the largest media intelligence database in the world. And we’re getting a lot of interest in that. So, from our perspective, it’s been frankly quite positive. And the negatives, I guess, are the same for everyone, is a we’re on zoom calls a huge amount of time. And it’s you know, it’s getting used to the new the new environment, it’s not so much going to use to it now, it’s become more normal.

But I think more broadly, when we’re looking at the whole news piece, clearly in terms of the future of work, I mean, everything’s sped up. You know, we’ve had to do this operational work, or organisations have, they’ve send thousands and thousands of people work from home over two or three days notice. Organisations are basically now looking I think more towards more what next? I mean, people have been working at home for two or three months and I think there are some real questions now about how do we manage ourselves through the recession? I think it’s relatively easy in terms of getting massive change in a crisis. But we’re going to now start to face the new normal of more people working remotely. How do you foster engagement? There are advantages as well, there are many pros and cons, but it opens many questions.

Jason West: We’ll get onto the kind of what comes next piece but before we do as we focus on those kind of those early stages of the crisis, the survival stage with the kind of the key challenges that faced HR functions and how well set up were they to respond as quickly as they had to respond to the demand?

Marc Weedon: I’ve found it quite interesting and challenging, in the sense that although the pandemic was slowly creeping beyond Beijing, and we’re a global organisation, we’ve actually got an office of about 130 people in Beijing, so we probably got an early heads up that something was afoot. And so, we were trying to do things within the business that other businesses haven’t quite cottoned on, particularly around closing offices early on etc. The initial challenge from an HR perspective was frankly getting some leaders to acknowledge that there was an issue which we have actually had to respond to. Particularly in those regional sales offices we have, where there’s still customer meetings going on, there are deals, which had to be closed, negotiations, training or that sort of thing going down. And I’m kind of saying, “actually, you know, it’s it’s coming our way. There’s cases increasing in Milan and Madrid, etc.” So, the initial challenge for me was getting to leaders to acknowledge actually we do have to do something here. And then once that tipping point had been passed, it’s then around working with the leaders to ensure that there’s business continuity. Making sure that with that there’s minimal disruption to the business. We’ve still got a pipeline to build. We’ve still got deals to close, etc. So, so making sure that we, we were able to close the offices but maintain our productivity became the next challenge. And around all of that then leads to how you actually engage with your teams at a time when it’s new to everybody. It was very much unchartered waters. And yet you’re basically going across this unchartered ocean, navigating blind to a certain degree. And so the final challenge to us was kind of wrapping our arms around this to ensure that week we had a globally consistent approach as to how we respond to the crisis as it hit different parts of our organisation is at different times and in different ways. And to that end, we’ve kind of created a global initiative called the COVID Crisis Team. So, we created that team within the initial remit to own office closures, business continuity, scenario planning, engagement, internal comms, customer engagement, all that sort of thing. And, you know, to be fair, if we look back at what we’ve achieved over the previous three months, it’s actually been a phenomenal amount. Once we got out of the, you know, the initial over the initial hump of, yes, we got a problem, we need to respond to it, let’s put our arms around it, then it’s started work pretty well. But I have to agree that there were initial challenges faced by HR.

Jason West: Yeah. And with these, did you have kind of emergency plans in place that you could draw on or was this very much dealing with the crisis as it unfolded?

Marc Weedon: We have business continuity plans for certain scenarios anyway. And so most of them do involve, for example, if we lose our I.T. infrastructure or if we lose access to a particular office, et cetera, but they’re quite local. They’re quite event driven. So we had to deal with developing a new set of scenarios which was based around somebody wandering into the office who tests positive for COVID. So we hadn’t had we hadn’t had a pandemic, a pandemic flavour to our business continuity plans. We had to very quickly got to adapt to that. And the scenario plans were all built around, you know, if I’d been in contact with somebody you suspect is getting COVID, or if tested positive to COVID, or I get myself, if I turn up to the office, what’s the scenario there in the office? So you got about to trace people have been in close contact with this person. At what point do we decide to take a decision that we’re going to close the office? And in the end, we just took the view. It’s not going to get any better. Very quickly. So we’re just going to shut all our offices down any way. So, yeah, that kind of we did two weeks worth of scenario planning and very quickly decided let’s not bother with the scenarios, so let’s just close the offices down. So we’re very quick before most companies actually to close our offices down. That happened early March, I think it was.

Jason West: How often were you meeting as a group, this kind of core crisis management group that you pulled together?

Marc Weedon: Three days a week and we still do. Yeah.

Joe Ales: In terms of HR’s ability to respond to it because you guys or the HR team would have, like everybody else, had to have operated remotely. Did you have any challenges around infrastructure in systems, tools, processes that actually gave you a bit of a headache in having to do all of this work remotely?

Marc Weedon: We found that we are particularly geared up to work remotely, actually, so we have a very good I.T. infrastructure. The only area where we had problems was in our India office. So, we have 200 people in Chennai. And you know that there’s cultural, personal and technology issues at play, that because a lot of people share homes with family members, the broadband is not great, etc. So the connectivity was an initial issue. That, again, because we had this crisis element to the COVID team in place, we very quickly put in orders for, I think we ordered about 100 data cards, for example. Those people who had dodgy broadband connection, they were able to get sent data cards. The actual disruption to the business when we actually did shut the office down, was absolutely minimal.

[Intermission: You’re listening to the Underscore Transformation Podcast. If you’d like a few more tools in your crisis management kitbag, why not visit underscore-group.com/cmrtoolkit to hone your crisis management skills and lead your organisation through recovery.]

Jason West: And Steve, from a Citi perspective, you’re shipping thousands of people into major financial centres each day and you’ve got high frequency trading that requires systems has been being managed locally. It sounds like probably quite a challenge. How was it for you?

Steve Hunt: Well actually quite similar to how Marc was describing. Obviously, the organisation is very well prepared from a disaster recovery perspective to move critical functions to second sites and as well is set up to work remotely. I think the biggest challenge from an infrastructure perspective was you don’t expect to have to get the entire organisation working remotely within the space of a couple of months. As Marc was describing it’s very similar in terms of phasing, our Asia colleagues were living with this from January onwards and then it started to hit in Europe in February. I think once it became a global situation, the dynamics changed because we had to get more or less the entire organisation working remotely and there are certain roles that obviously site critical. I think what we found over time is that there were less site dependent positions than we thought, and we could get more and more teams working productively quicker than we thought we could.  So, I think we learned a lot as we had to react. It throws up different issues at different points. I was talking about the individuals, I think it is very, very personal from an employee perspective. I think a lot of leaders might be people have children and well set up to work at home. If you think about some of those metropolitan centres where you’re hiring lost people in their twenties for example, they might be living in houses with two or three other people and they might not be well set up to work.  So, we had lots of situations where people just didn’t have the equipment, so we had to respond to you to get people that equipment, either reimburse when they bought it, and then obviously to have a more consistent way of buying that equipment through the company and it being delivered to them. So, multiple things to think about as the crisis unfolded.

Jason West: I think it’s something you’ve all alluded to, but we’ve had overnight changes to working practices, with just suddenly everyone’s remote working that can work. So how has that changed, how people are managed in this just this short term?

Steve Hunt: I think it very much depends on culture, I think obviously certain positions measurement of performance is very, very clear and therefore you know if you have those type of metrics and data that make those type of roles very, very easy to measure, then I think people are a lot more comfortable with that. I think because we have a full range of roles and levels and locations, there are so many dimensions to how you manage people, so I think I think that culture is the critical thing. I think it is something that we’re still adapting to and obviously culture and manager capability at all levels is something that we really focused on. We’ve particularly focused on the learning and development aspect, so really focusing on resilient leadership and how we provide examples to managers of how to tackle particular situations.  That’s actually been a daily exercise that we’ve done.

Equally, the communication to employees is really, really key. Marc talked about crisis management that was something we had daily to begin with, but now it’s down to two times a week.  But a number of town halls from an HR perspective, we started doing those weekly, now moved back to every two weeks. Our CEO conducted town halls on a bi-weekly basis, equally in each country leaders have done that so I think that that communications strategies is very, very critical.  Again it’s changed overtime if you think that in the beginning people were very, very concerned, obviously from a personal perspective, so some of those questions to start with were how quickly we were closing offices and getting people set up to work from home. And then it comes onto “what’s this going to mean for me, was this going to mean for my future?” And obviously a lot of nervousness around that, particularly as governments started to put in different intervention measures, so at different points of how the crisis unfolded, I think you had to respond very differently from a people perspective.

Joe Ales: Steve, you mentioned earlier the challenge of integrating a thousand new hires virtually. How has that been managed and is that something, have the results of that surprised you? Did you think it would have been possible prior to the pandemic to have integrated that number of new people into an organisation in a way in which you’ve done?

Steve Hunt: Yeah, I think definitely a lot of people have been surprised at how well we’ve been able to do it. We’re primarily an office-based company. Just from my personal perspective, I could go into London four days a week and certain days not have meetings with anyone in London and just have VCs with multiple people in different locations. But I do think that credit, that cultural credit and having built those relationships, if you then go remote, even though a lot your work is already remote, it’s much, much easier. I think the first challenge was, from a technical perspective, how can we remote on board, so once we’d solved the process and the technology issues, it was then “OK, how do we settle people into the company?” Onboarding is something we focus on in terms of assimilation anyway, both from a let’s get people understanding how to use our systems and get them compliant, but how you embed them in the teams is something we’re still working on. I think that comes back to my point around manager capability, I don’t think managers are naturally set up to be able to do that. So that communication of how you do check-ins with your teams for example. I had the opposite concern, as a leader of a team across number of countries, which was it’s great that we’re doing all this leadership communication because that caters for the big ticket items. But actually it’s very, very personal depending on your individual circumstances. I got certain people in my team that were living on their own and therefore may not see anyone for weeks.  I think it really depends on the individual.  So making sure that people at the manager level with teams of let’s say 2 to 10 people were having really regular check in with all their staff, but particularly those that are joined and never been to an office was really, really critical to make sure that those people could culturally embed in the organisation. But it’s something where we’re still learning, we’re putting in new programmes to support that. I think we’re getting to that point now where we’re three or four months in and that’s starting to bite a little bit, it’s becoming more normal environment and how do you cater for an environment like that?  I think everyone is challenged by that.

Joe Ales: And have you noticed any sort of impact on time to productivity of those individuals that have been onboarded it remotely or has it been largely the same?

Steve Hunt: I think it does depend on function of course. I can say from my own perspective that we have this saying that “it’s not business as usual but we’re operating as usual” and we are fully operational. Over the last three months, we’ve hired thousands and thousands of people around the world. We’ve proved that it’s possible, the next challenge is how do we maintain it in an environment where certain places will go back, but won’t be at full capacity in particular offices, in other countries, they won’t be going back.  So, you’re going to get a very mixed pattern as we go through these next few phases.

Jason West: Marc has that been your experience? Does that ring true for you?

Marc Weedon: In terms of the cultural impact? Yeah. You know, assuming that at its base level culture’s around how you do stuff, then as a result of the, more or less, overnight changes which were made, we had to do a lot of changes to a lot of our processes. And so, you know, a lot of the ones which know Steve just talked to, we had to go 100% virtual. So hiring, onboarding, development. I’d say that they’ve been the most impacted ones. It’s led us to consider how effective we were in the first place in these particular areas. Has time to productivity been impacted? Probably because we were very large before on the onboarding side in particular around and bootcamps in the US. So new hires to our development team or sales organisation or global services, etc. They went to the US for two or three weeks’ worth of training in one go. And all of a sudden that’s fallen away. So now we’ve had to develop remote content and remote workshops. So that knowledge, which you have for three weeks, [00:29:30.00] eight hours a day, you can’t possibly hope to to have that over, over Zoom. We’ve had to reimagine how we do it. And it’s been a good process because you really get to think what is the core of what we’re trying to disseminate here? So with a lot of the fluff, I guess I want to say.

The key thing here is, is whatever you’re doing in terms of. Looking at how COVID’s impacted certain aspects of your cultural or the way you do things is, you know, it has two things. So one is you’ve got to put employees at the centre of what you do. So when you’re considering any transition, the first question should be what is the employee experience going to be and that should be the anchor point for any subsequent discussion around it and what you eventually roll out. The second thing for me is, although 99% of the companies are kind of in new territory here with all the remote stuff. There are businesses out there, which are already been doing this. And so, learning from them is a good thing as well. There’s companies like GitHub, for example. There’s GitLab as well. Yeah. They make their… They’re a hundred percent remote and they’ve got on their Web site how they do it. GitLab has got their remote working manifesto. And for those of you who are struggling with this in terms of impact on culture and how you the virtual environment, it’s well worth read. It’s not particularly long, but it nails the situation perfectly because it talks to how you manage a distributed rather than a centralised organisation. The flexible working regime which you put in place, rather, working the set work hours, recording knowledge sharing rather than relying on hearsay and verbal explanations, importance of documenting process, transparency around your communications. The focus on results rather than hours worked, the importance of comms or that sort of thing. There’s a lot of good information out there already from companies who are in the situation already pre-COVID.

Jason West: There’s been a lot of reports in the news. And I’m sure we’ve all experienced a degree of this ourselves. Is that there’s been this increase in mental health issues over the past few months? A lot of these issues arrive at the door of HR. Richard, from your perspective, looking at this from a Human Times and looking at these kind of articles and things out there. Have you seen kind of any interesting patterns in this and any examples maybe of good practice? How people are responding?

Richard Phelps: Jason, before I do that, I just like to just maybe add a few points to the previous points around the cultural changes. I think that from a broader perspective, it’s fascinating because what has had to happen over such a short period of time has been totally transformational. You know, getting thousands of thousand people to just suddenly work at home, it’s meant that the employer has had to… from an employer employee perspective… has had to trust employees an awful lot more, which I think has been quite difficult. You know, it’s not something employers are used to. There’s been, I think, an awful lot more required from the employer in terms of trusting staff to work from home remotely. There has I think this has raised the issue. Going back to what Marc was saying, I mean, the remote working world is now here and it gives us a lot more flexibility. And a lot of organisations are now trying to work out, well, you know, we got to face the fact that employees will not necessarily want to come back into the office all the time as part of their, as you say, a lot of other organisations who’ve just fully moved to remote. It may well be, for example, that employees want to come into the office for two or three days a week. And this is kind of helping organisations understand that people actually can be as productive, if not more productive, working from home. So that all needs to be thought through. And, you know, I guess from a recruitment perspective, as well, going back to Steve’s point, you can probably hire people now much more broadly in terms of locations than ever before. More organisations can. The idea that you have to people have to hire people within a country for a role it’s probably less of an issue now than it ever, ever was.

I think the whole employer employee relationship is going to change. There’s going to be more questions around how that how that really develops into the future from where we are now. There’s a lot of things that, you know, were accepted in the past may not now be true. We may well be that people actually can work more productively at home and in the office. Being in the office, you know, is not as necessary as people thought it was. Yes, you’re going to miss things like maybe innovations actually being with people. But a lot of that could potentially be done over Zooms and Teams, so I think there is a challenge for leadership to think about this in terms of, well, how do we how does this play out from now? What have we learned? And obviously, more importantly how does it impact our customers and how we deliver better propositions and solutions to our customers specifically, for example? I guess the question now is: when do you need to have a physical meeting? When do you not need to have a physical meeting? Or what is the advantage of meeting someone now physically as opposed to remotely? Because there’s big impacts on those decisions. There is a cost in terms of relationships, in terms of sales. But I think HR teams need to start thinking that through. I think it is not. It does raise huge, but we know huge immediate issues really for organisations, especially as we’re now going to be moving into a recession. The V-shaped recovery may happen. I hope it does happen. But if you look at what the IMF etc are talking we’re going to be going into a difficult period.

Jason West: We’re going to pause the conversation there for now, and will pick it up again next week. Joe, what stood out for you?

Joe Ales: It’s a fascinating discussion. It’s obviously been ground-breaking for many HR professionals out there. It’s been really interesting to see how HR have stepped up to the challenge and taken a leadership role and influencing peers to make the right calls. And under incredible amounts of pressure, unlike anything they’ve ever experienced before.

Jason West: I thought it was interesting – sorry to cut you off – but Marc was talking about the need to persuade senior leaders, having to say “this is happening, you need to get on board with this” and meeting some of that resistance at that level.

Joe Ales: Yes, absolutely. And you can see that there are boards now that are given time to HR functions to provide that guidance and advice, dealing with that chaos that so many organisations have found themselves in. And on the practical level, how Citi have dealt with the challenges of onboarding 1000 new hires remotely, that is really fascinating. I think if you were to ask the question even 12 months ago, whether organisations would see that as a feasible option, I’m sure 100% of organisations would consider it possible but very unlikely. But to onboard that number of people remotely is an incredible achievement for an HR function.

Jason West: Absolutely. And I really like Marc’s point about GitLab’s manifesto. I’ve taken a look and it’s really well worth a read. We’ve included a link in the show notes because it’s definitely worth a look. And, likewise, if you’d like to get in touch with any of members of the podcast today, you can find a link to their LinkedIn profiles on the show notes too, so have a look there.

It would be great if you could hit “subscribe” so you don’t miss out on the second part of the discussion, where we’ll be talking about engagement, employee experience, and what the office is going to be like post-COVID – hopefully there will be a post-COVID. And some practical advice on surviving the world of Zoom meetings. If you’ve enjoyed this episode, please leave a review and share it with your colleagues.

Thank you for listening, we look forward to catching up with Steve, Marc, and Richard again next week.