Episode 8: Hybrid working – what we can learn from a business with 10+ years experience

Let’s Talk Talent’s Podcast Episode 8. What can we learn from a remote first business, with other 10 years experience?

This month Claire Koryczan is joined by Wendy Christie from The Social Element. We discuss their approach to attracting and retaining talented people, as well as discussing their remote first approach, and how that ended up being a hybrid model far before the pandemic hit.

Find out more about how The Social Element approaches hybrid work and what you can learn from them as you implement hybrid across your business.

Scroll down for links, resources and the transcription of the podcast.

Links and resources we mentioned in the podcast:

The Social Element Website

Genuine Humans Podcast

Need support on HR projects that have been affected by hybrid working?

Transcript of this month’s episode

Jo Taylor 

Hi, and welcome to the Let’s Talk Talent podcast. We’re going to be sharing over a series of episodes, tips and techniques, bringing our friends and family to share their stories, their experience of working life today, because together we can create simply irresistible organisations. Happy listening.

Claire Koryczan 

Hello, everyone. I’m Claire Koryczan, Senior Partner at Let’s Talk Talent. And I would love to welcome you to the Let’s Talk Talent podcast. Because in today’s episode eight, we are going to be talking all about hybrid and remote working, and how we as HR professionals can help our leaders to embrace this on the road ahead. And I am very excited to share with you all that I’m joined by the lovely Wendy Christie, Chief People Officer of The Social Element who has 20 years of experience in managing remote teams. So is way ahead of most of us on this journey. At The Social Element, in Wendy’s role, she looks after company culture, staff engagement, human resources, recruitment and internal communications. Not only that, Wendy’s also co-host on the Genuine Human Connections podcast, with The Social Element CEO, the lovely Tamara Littleton, who’s also a friend of mine. And prior to joining The Social Element in 2008, Wendy led the social media team at AOL UK. And outside of work, mother of two Wendy is passionate about music, her pet, reading, spending time with family and friends, and singing in her local choir. Hello Wendy, welcome!

Wendy Christie 

Hi, Claire, thank you very much for that welcome. It’s quite strange to sit and listen to someone talking all about you like that.

Claire Koryczan 

Excellent. Well we’re delighted to have you today Wendy, and thank you so much for joining us. So I wanted to kick off today by referencing a recent article I’ve read by McKinsey, which had a rather provocative headline about the area that we’re talking about today, which I thought was absolutely spot on from what I’ve also been hearing in a lot of organisations. What they say is that they are urging leaders to get real about hybrid. And in this article, they talk a lot about that disconnect between employers wanting people to get back to work and in the office. But actually the employees not feeling that same urge. And in a lot of the coaching conversations we’ve been having at Let’s Talk Talent over the last few months, there’s definitely a feeling of that work/life balance being better for many in the current working from home situation, without that commute or office distractions, and many people feeling that they’re more productive and happy, working from home. So on that, I’m really interested to hear from you, Wendy, about The Social Element and its remote philosophy, because you’ve been working this way right from the very start. So tell us a bit about this.

Wendy Christie 

Thank you, Claire. At The Social Element, our mission is to help brands to build genuine human connections with their consumers on social. We spot trends by listening to what consumers are saying about those brands and use those insights to unearth the right opportunities to help those brands to creatively engage with their consumers. And when our CEO, who you mentioned before, Tamara, created the agency way back in 2002, the focus then was on protecting brands’ reputations through moderation. So, removing inappropriate or unsafe content posted by users. Tamara quickly realised that to do that kind of work, having everyone travel to an office every day simply wasn’t needed; it wasn’t necessary. And a lot of the work could be done from home. This meant that the agency wasn’t limited to a candidate pool who live in a particular radius of an office, for example. And it also opened up opportunities for people who might otherwise find it difficult to travel to an office. So it could be parents of young children, for example, or perhaps people with a disability. And it also means for our clients, we’ve got people based all over the world. So we’ve got that great mix of cultural knowledge that means our teams can be more representative of our clients’ consumer bases. Over time, it became clear that by being completely remote, we were cutting off another great candidate pool – so those people who needed a bit more in-person human contact. So we’ve ended up with this in-the-middle position, hybrid position. So we were having periodic face-to-face meetings and training, and we noticed that after those sessions, connections were much deeper after we’d spent face-to-face time together. So who knew that that would happen? So we opened an office in London where people could – if they wanted to – work from the office a few days a week, and this really helped extroverts: people who get their energy from other people. Or people in client-facing or creative roles, for example. So we ended up with that hybrid position. But then of course, along came COVID. So us, along with many, many other businesses were suddenly fully remote again.

Claire Koryczan 

Excellent. Thank you, Wendy. And I really like what you’re saying there around that idea of opening up the talent pool into a global place, but also the fact that that becomes very reflective of that cultural knowledge, and representing that globality in terms of those things. One of the areas that we’ve seen is this disconnect between leaders wanting everyone to come back in the office and the employees not necessarily feeling that same desire or urge to do so for a number of different reasons. What would you say, Wendy, is required of leadership to fully embrace working in this way? And how do you have those challenging conversations when you’ve got one view on one side and one view on the other?

Wendy Christie 

I think, to begin with, any leadership team working in this way has to have a really strong, shared, clear vision of the kind of culture they want to engender. That’s true for any business environment, really, whether it’s virtual, fully office or fully remote. Whatever you do, you’ll end up with some kind of company culture, it just might not be the one you want. You know, we’ve seen a real mixture, we’ve seen people who can’t wait to get back to the office – really gagging to get back to the office – and other people who are nervous about it. And we’ve tested the water with the odd in-person event over the past few weeks. And we’ve had people who haven’t wanted to use public transport, for example. And I think we have to understand that. We’ve all been through this pandemic in our own individual, very personal, ways. I think it’s just really important that leadership teams are compassionate and empathetic to those positions. And I think it’s far too early to force any position really, I don’t think we should be… I’m in Scotland, as you might know, so we haven’t had our “freedom day” yet. But of course, in England, everything is much more open now. But I think we can’t expect everyone to just feel safe and comfortable immediately. So at the moment, for us that conversation’s quite easy, because it’s always been a choice for people to travel to the office or not. And I think, increasingly, businesses are going to come up against that. And I think the days of “all office” are behind us now. And leadership teams are going to have to embrace that.

Claire Koryczan 

Yeah, I totally agree. And I really like that point that you made around the fact that understanding everyone’s experience, particularly over the last 18 months, is different.

Wendy Christie 

Yeah.

Claire Koryczan 

And how do you go about understanding that? Are there things that you do that make sure that you’re connecting with your teams regularly? What’s the sort of rhythm that is happening for you to be able to understand and to show that compassion and empathy?

Wendy Christie 

I think you’ve got to be clear that you really mean it – probably partly answering the previous question as well as this one. But I think, simply wanting that isn’t enough. You’ve got to really mean it. And you’ve got to work hard to achieve it. And I think going back before all this, you have to hire and train well. You have to make sure that the people you’re bringing in are completely on board with your values. And that is particularly important for your director and manager layers as well. Because simply wanting that environment isn’t enough: you have to create it. We’ve seen recently with a brand that I won’t name, but you might know who I’m talking about, where there were former employees who went public about a toxic work culture, and the brand’s leadership was super, super vocal about “we want this to be an amazing place to work, we want this to be the best place to work”. And I completely believe them. But I think it’s again being victims of their own international growth, and not putting the legwork into making sure that the local management were completely on board. So it’s sort of too late – if you weren’t in that position before now, where we’ve got this really important conversation about coming back into the office, it’s going to be a real challenge. So for us, it’s been about just really keeping close to our people. At the start of the pandemic, we were having daily briefings with Tamara, where anybody could come along and just talk about what they were experiencing. And we would see it going in waves and people experiencing things at different paces. Then that became almost too much, and people didn’t really want that any more. So we’ve dialled back that rhythm a little bit. We thought, right, we’ll try three times a week and then dropped to two times a week, and then it was weekly. But it’s about making sure that those conversations are happening regularly, that everybody is in touch with somebody. And I think it’s very easy to fall out of that rhythm where people are all over the world and you can’t see each other and it would be very easy to just assume that everyone is okay. So I think keeping those compassionate, empathetic conversations going is absolutely vital. In big groups, small groups, and individually.

Claire Koryczan 

I totally agree. And that’s also something that we’ve been doing at Let’s Talk Talent as well. It’s really interesting to hear you talk about that cadence and how that at the very beginning was daily and then moved into less over time, but keeping close. And I really like that point you made around: “you’ve got to mean it”. You can’t just be saying it. It’s about the actions and behaviours. And you also mentioned around hiring and training well, which becomes challenging when you’re not in a shared space, in a shared environment together. How do you manage that at The Social Element? How do you get the best out of working in this way, and bring people on that journey as early as possible?

Wendy Christie 

Getting that onboarding right is absolutely vital. Again, that’s in any workplace. But I think in virtual or hybrid, that onboarding process can be more overwhelming and more intense for people. And it’s about balance between providing enough information or not enough information, to providing too much information all at once, and bombarding people with loads of stuff to read and loads of stuff to set up. So that pace is really, really important. I mean, it’s very easy to rely on email and documents and all of that stuff – so not relying on that too heavily. There’s certainly a place for all of that, and a lot of it’s really important. But again, it’s about keeping those conversations going. Lots of video calls, lots of introductions, not expecting people to remember who everyone is. But again, that’s true for an in-person environment as well. But I think it takes a good six to nine months for someone to really settle in. And I think having those check-ins – and with somebody who maybe they don’t necessarily work that closely with as well – a ‘safe’ person they could talk to and say: “I know I’ve been told this, I can’t remember”. And so their onboarding is absolutely vital. And we think, even when we considered ourselves fully remote, we still did training and workshops in person, it did just help to deepen those connections. And of course, we’ve got some people who… not everybody is working near a lot of other people as well. So we would encourage, if people were travelling, let’s tell each other that we’re travelling, you know, maybe you’re coming to my area. So we had a budget set aside for people to just go out for coffee and lunch, and just – whether or not they worked in the same team or in the same department – just having those touch points was really, really important.

Claire Koryczan 

I love that. And also the point that you made around bringing people together for face-to-face training and workshops to deepen those connections, I think is so important. And that brings me I guess, to the point around trust, and how you create trust when you’re not in the same shared physical space and do the things that you would normally do in terms of social activity, informalities of conversation whilst you’re making a cup of tea, or walking down the corridor, etc. So, are there other things that you also do to help foster that place of psychological safety, build trust amongst team members to foster collaboration and effective ways of working when you’re not in the same place together?

Wendy Christie 

Yeah. And that’s a question that we’d sometimes get from potential clients – particularly early on in the remote working piece – they’d want to know: “how do you know that they’re where they’re supposed to be? And how do you know that they’re on my site, checking my content?” So again, it’s a mixture between what I was saying at the beginning between hiring well, and we use values-based interview questions, we make sure that everyone’s met by at least a couple of people. If there is the opportunity to interview in person location-wise, then we will do that. And if there’s the slightest doubt, then we wouldn’t bring them in. So, hire slowly, fire quickly, I think is what they say. So there’s that hiring piece as well, making sure that you’re very confident that the people you’re bringing in match your values. But also technology – of course, clients should feel comfortable that if we say that we have a team member in this country who is going to be on this site looking at their content, then we have to make sure that that happens. And we have to show that we can do that. So internet security is incredibly important to us and being really open with each other that that’s what we’re doing. Yes, we know where you’re logged in to when you’re on our systems – of course we do. And I think that actually gives people comfort? It’s protection for everyone.

Claire Koryczan 

Yes. And, on that, what have been the biggest obstacles that you’ve had to overcome? Has technology been an obstacle – what have you done to overcome those obstacles?

Wendy Christie 

For sure, because, you know, earlier when we started back in the noughties, technology just wasn’t as good as it is now. When I joined in 2008 we weren’t doing video calls because connections simply weren’t stable enough. That’s evolved, and all of that’s fantastic now. And the security technology that we’ve used has evolved over the years as well, and got better and better. And over time, we’ve worked with different security experts who help us with that stuff. So that technology has really really evolved and it just helps everyone feel more comfortable.

Claire Koryczan  

And so finally I would say: what’s the one piece of advice you can share, Wendy, with our HR community that can really help them – help their leaders embrace hybrid working, but also help with a successful hybrid working future ahead that we’re all going into?

Wendy Christie 

I think if I was limited to one, I would say: “if you think you’re communicating enough, double it, then you’re probably getting somewhere”. And it’s not just about the amount of communication, it’s about the methods of communication, using the different kinds of technology for different purposes. So, could be project management technology, such as monday.com. Or it could be Yammer, or Google Chat, or Slack or Zoom to help to build those more informal connections as well. So doing different things, photo competitions, cocktail-making, the ubiquitous Zoom quiz, there’s all stuff that we’ve done, and it’s just helped people to get to know each other in different ways on different platforms that might suit them as well. And I’m going to sneak another one in. And that’s one of the best things I think we’ve done is we hired a dedicated wellness coordinator. So somebody who anybody in the team can book a session with her to talk about what’s going on for them. Some of our teams can be exposed, for example, to quite difficult content, they might see pictures that they didn’t want to see or read people who are bullying other people in the course of their work. So having that expert there who can help them to build their own toolkit to deal with these situations has been a game changer for us, for sure.

Claire Koryczan 

Excellent. What great advice you just shared there, Wendy. Thank you so much – some of the key things I’ve taken out of what you’ve said, are around, first of all: communication, and how important that is – and to over-communicate: double what you’re currently doing. The importance of hiring well, and I really like your values-based interview questions approach. And I think that is such an important component in getting the right people on board and training them well, as well, on that onboarding process. And finally, the key one for me is around: “you’ve got to mean it when you say that you want to work in this way”. And so those actions speak louder than words. Brilliant. Thank you so much, Wendy. It’s been an absolute pleasure to talk to you this morning. Great insights, and great advice and experience. Thank you so much.

Wendy Christie 

Thank you, Claire. It’s been a pleasure. I love talking about this stuff. So thank you for giving me the opportunity.

Claire Koryczan 

Wonderful. Thanks so much.