Thursday's Power Breakfast panel at the Embassy Club. See our full gallery on Facebook.Photo by Duane Tinkey

Since the onset of the pandemic business leaders have had countless conversations about how remote and flexible work arrangements were affecting their corporate cultures. Many business leaders have taken stock of how temporary workplace changes due to the public health crisis have affected their long-term view on issues such as worker safety, retention, equity and more. At Thursday’s Power Breakfast, we talked about organizational culture as it relates to all these challenges and opportunities. 

Panelists included:
Kellie Gottner - chief human resources and client experience officer, Connectify HR
Claudia Schabel - president and CEO, Schabel Solutions
Paul Schlueter - president, Flynn Wright
Stephen Smith - vice president of people analytics, Reworc

Here’s some of what we heard in the discussion.

Equity first
When implementing hybrid work policies, it’s crucial that you do so through a lens of equity. Not everyone has the same needs, so it’s important to operationalize equities by making work arrangements that make sense for certain groups of people depending on both job responsibilities and demographic data, Schabel said. She cited a McKinsey study that found that traditionally underrepresented groups such as nonbinary and LGBTQ employees and those with disabilities have demonstrated a stronger preference for hybrid work. No two people have the same exact needs, so you cannot lump everyone together with the same metrics. Schabel gave the examples of visibility and proximity bias as it relates to gender. A woman may not come into the office as much because she has to juggle caregiving responsibilities at home, therefore it’s important to not pass her up for opportunities or promotions simply because you don’t see her every day at the office. Just because you don’t see someone in the hallway at the office every day doesn’t mean they’re not fully committed, Schabel said. “Help your leadership team understand that the way they look at performance today has to be different from the way you looked at performance two, three years ago.” – Emily Kestel

Avoiding common missteps
An audience member asked the panel to describe work policy missteps that they have seen companies make that others should avoid doing. Smith said that when he started working at a large, local company several years ago, he was given the book “Who Moved My Cheese?,” a book published in 1998 about dealing with change in your life and work. “The only mistake to me is that poor little guy that just sits there and says ‘I’m going to sit here until the cheese comes back,’” Smith said. “That’s a losing strategy; it’s not going to work in the long-term. … [Companies] that demand that that cheese comes back to them in the same way [it left] are going to fail. …” Schabel added that organizations need to develop new ways of holding meetings that include a group of people and the office and others who are working remotely. “Many people who don’t do well, are running their meetings as if everyone is in the room,” she said. “It’s very difficult to get true engagement in those meetings.” Some meeting participants can’t hear conversations for a variety of reasons, she said. Ideas shared by people in the office sometimes get more attention than those from people who are working remotely. “You need to really pay attention because that cuts into engagement or a sense of belonging,” she said. – Kathy Bolten

Do companies really need a headquarters?
Company leaders take pride in being open to hiring people who live in other locations and  allowing them to remain there and work remotely, Schabel said. Still, she said, the leaders “want to make the headquarters their main office. This is a moment to really analyze your strategy of growth, the future of work and to understand ‘Do you really need a headquarters?’ Or, can you have multiple offices and part ways with this idea that there is one main office, in one city and it turns out to be in Des Moines, Iowa where you may not be finding the talent that you’re looking for.” – Kathy Bolten

Building culture across the table
Schlueter talked about the importance of building workplace culture across the table, and how Flynn Wright is transparent in the hiring process and in working with employees. He also said it’s important for leaders to lead by example. “It’s important to be in the trenches with them, to work peer to peer with them,” he said. Schlueter said it’s important to be transparent about what’s important to an organization and the purpose it serves. “Within that we have a lot of shifting strategies on flexibility. I think you have to maintain a sense of being flexible, but it always has to be built around, is that flexibility serving the core of our organization?” Schlueter said it’s not a question of people feeling like they have to be in the office as much as not wanting to miss an opportunity to collaborate with co-workers across the table. “There’s a lot of research going on that shows some really great things about career development and employee development working remotely versus what happens when people are in very close proximity to one another.” – Michael Crumb

What HR needs from leadership
Schlueter and Smith had a friendly exchange over what human resource leaders need from company officials and employees. Schlueter said HR needs consistency and a clear vision. There needs to be a focus on why a decision is made, he said. “You can’t be making a decision one month and then the next month having read a bunch of articles say, now I think we need to go down this way,” Schlueter said. “You need to have a focus on why you’re making a decision and wrap it around that core.” Being able to foster fairness and equity depends on the decision-making cycles of leadership, Schlueter said. Smith said it was the only time he would ever challenge Schlueter, drawing laughs from those in attendance. Smith said consistency can sometimes look like confirmation bias. “I’m OK with you changing your mind, but too often we dig our heels into something we don’t fully understand yet and stick to it no matter what happens.” He said it’s important to be open to being wrong and to change, and to “empower your people to help you see those things.” He said it’s important to continually challenge our own biases. “We need to be able to be courageous enough to change your mind and support our teams on the evolving strategy.” Schlueter responded, saying he agreed. “Change your mind, don’t change your core.” – Michael Crumb

Finding workable strategies
Asked to describe strategies that are working well for their organizations, Gottner said that seeking feedback from your employees goes a long way toward building connections with them. “I think you create that connection with employees when you ask for their feedback and what’s important to them,” she said. “So that’s one of the things that I’ve seen work well as businesses are getting ready to go back to the office — asking the right questions. [One question is] ‘What are you looking for?’ Because everybody is going to be different, and it’s not going to be one strategy for everybody, not even within your department or within your team.” Smith described an effective approach as “freedom within a framework,” along with “using a carrot, not a stick” to get people to come back to the office. Schlueter chimed in that first understanding how your people are working is important in recognizing how particular employees work best in different environments. “Those are difficult answers to get out if you ask them directly,” he cautioned. “But there are tools and resources out there to elicit the right feedback and help you see the framework you need for your particular team.” — Joe Gardyasz

Focusing the questions
So how can employers zero in on the types of questions they should be asking workers? Smith said that the study of 5,500 employees that his firm surveyed for the Workforce Trends and Occupancy Study released in March found that flexibility is a key element for workers. “When we asked people, ‘Hey, when you're not in the office, what do you most miss?’ it's not watercooler talk — as a matter of fact, that distracts me. What I miss most are the social interactions. Then we say, ‘All right, well, when you are in the office, what are you most fearful of?’ By far, the answer is: ‘I'm afraid that if I go back to the office for whatever rollout plan we have, I'm going to lose the flexibility to be human again.’ So no matter what our [back-to-office] plans are — we'll talk about this later, I'm sure — these things usually come down to actions, not just words, but communication and incentives really matter. If you’re coming back to the office, you’re not going to lose your life — you're not gonna lose all the flexibility you felt that you gained.” — Joe Gardyasz