Hybrid Work Trailblazers

Ten years ago, Sacha Connor pioneered virtual work in the large corporation she worked for. Now Sacha works with business leaders making the transition to remote and hybrid work. When Sacha started her work experiment a decade ago, many of the tools we have now for connecting remotely didn’t exist. Gen Z guest Liana Hakobyan, on the other hand, was born into a digital world. Liana is part of a generation that is most comfortable in hybrid and remote work. She gives her take on how organizations can attract and retain future business leaders.

PODCAST | 20m
November 3, 2021
S4:Ep4

Executive summary

  • The newest generation of workers wants a hybrid work world that offers engagement, advancement and fulfillment.
  • The freedom to express ideas and develop new skills is more crucial than even a large salary to Gen Z workers.

Featured voices

Sacha Connor
Founder and CEO
Virtual Work Insider

Liana Hakobyan
YouTube Team Lead
10Web.io

Melanie Green (host):

Here’s a quick quiz:  Question: Which demographic group is most interested in hybrid work?  Answer: Hybrid work is popular across all demographics. But there’s a particular group that comes out on top. A recent Fieldwork by Citrix study found that 90% of Born Digital do not want to return to full-time office work"  Born Digital - Millennials & Gen Z - is made up of 18-40 year olds who grew up in an entirely digital world.  The youngest among them started their careers working remotely during the pandemic. For them - remote and hybrid work is the norm. They want employers to use technology to give them flexibility and choice in where and how they work. And they want to be given freedom and recognized for their performance. In other words, they want what a LOT of us want in this hybrid work world. I’m Melanie Green. This is Remote Works - Hybrid Survival Guide, an original podcast by Citrix. Today - building a hybrid work culture for everyone - including the next generation of business leaders. In a few minutes we’ll hear more about how that generation approaches work.  But first we’ll hear from a trailblazer who has built her entire career as one of the first team leaders in a large corporation to embrace hybrid work.

Sacha Connor:

After I had my first child Nevin, we were spending so much of that first year of her life, traveling back and forth from the San Francisco Bay area, where we were living to the Philadelphia area, where I'm from and my husband is from

Melanie Green (host):

That’s Sasha Connor, founder and CEO of Virtual Work Insider.  More than a decade ago, she was a remote work pioneer. She understands the appeal of hybrid work to those people who are coming into the workforce now. Sacha helps business leaders adapt their organizations to this new hybrid model. Back in the day for Sasha, working away from the office started out as a matter of the heart. She and her husband wanted their baby daughter to grow up around their families, not live thousands of miles away.

Sacha Connor:

And after that first year, my husband and I had a long conversation about what did we want long term? Did we want to live near the people that we loved? Or do we want to live near the careers that we loved? And I thought that that meant I had to make a choice until I had a bold idea, which was to ask to see if I could do my job, but do it from 3000 miles away.

Melanie Green (host):

Okay, think back to 2010. How many people did you know who were working remotely -- or even trying out hybrid work. Probably not many. Maybe even none. So for Sacha, who led a product innovation team, asking her boss if she could work remotely 3000 miles away from head office? That was a big ask.

 

A pioneer in hybrid work

 

 

Sacha Connor:

And he said, you can be an experiment. Let's see, let's see what this looks like for you to remain in your role and to see if you could do that from 3000 miles away and three times zones away.

 

 

Melanie Green (host):

And guess what? Sacha made it work.

 

Sacha Connor:

And so what started out as an experiment led to eight years of me leading large hybrid teams from my home office here in the Philly suburbs.

 

Melanie Green (host):

During those eight years, Sacha learned a lot as a remote team leader at a major consumer products company. She learned not just about the technology of remote work but something way more important: the people skills. She’s gone from early trailblazer, to sought-after thought leader in hybrid work. One of Sacha’s most important concepts is something she calls influencing across distance. 

Sphere of influence

Sacha Connor:

And I think it has to do with reframing, just thinking about coming into an office building and influencing people to actually thinking about how you need to influence across office sites, across time zones, across locations. So I know there's a lot of debate right now about do I need to come into the office in order to be there with my boss? I would say step back and actually think about your whole sphere of influence. It's not just about influencing that one person that might be in that one office. So this was an important skill, even before the pandemic. This was an important skill for anybody's career advancement to think about influencing across distance internally within teams and externally within your clients, your partners.

Melanie Green (host):

Sacha looks beyond the obvious aspects of your workplace environment. She knows that it’s important to connect and communicate with the whole team and that sometimes when you’re in an office, you might be biased to pay more attention to the person right beside you or the boss just down the hall. We all have patterns of behaviour and those patterns are affected by our built-in biases.

Unconscious bias

Sacha Connor:

You need to be aware of unconscious biases. So there are two unconscious biases that I think are really important to know about. So one is distance bias, which is our brain's natural tendency to put more importance on the people and things that are closer to us than those that are further away. And that is the bias that's going to raise its ugly head as more offices reopen and some people are coming into the office and are co-located and others remain fully remote or partially remote.

Melanie Green (host):

And it’s been happening. As some people return to the office for the full week, others remain fully or partially remote. So who subconsciously gets more of our attention? As business leaders, we have to be aware of this natural unconscious bias. It can cause us to favour people we see more often, and to ignore those who are toiling away in the background.  And there’s another trick our brains play on us:

Sacha Connor:

And the other unconscious bias to be aware of is recency bias. So that's our brain's natural tendency to put more importance on the people or things that we have heard from or seen most recently. So for example, if you're a manager and you have a team of five people, two of them might be really good at influencing you across distance and staying top of mind. And that unconscious bias might have you as a manager, actually think about those two people for new roles, new project work, going to them for input on something versus thinking about your whole team of five.

Values and culture

Melanie Green (host):

There’s so much going on when it comes to how we interact at work. Maybe one of the biggest hurdles in the shift to hybrid work is rethinking work culture. Sacha says we need to take a deep dive into our values as managers and as employees. The way forward is much more nuanced than just throwing together a Friday afternoon virtual happy hour. Leaders need to be more intentional, thinking about what behaviours they want to model and reinforce.

Sacha Connor:

And  that's where I see one of the biggest outages in teams and organizations right now. And so as a manager, start thinking about, have we developed some of those kind of foundational building blocks around have we created the team values that are important to us? Have we actually really listed those out? Have we also defined what the behaviors are that we’re expecting from our team members in order to ladder up to those values? And are we as leaders, are we actually role modeling them? Are we holding ourselves accountable to role modeling those values and behaviors and rewarding and recognizing others for those behaviors as well? And this back to the unconscious biases that we talked about before. How do you put into place some behaviors that actually help you to mitigate that distance bias to actually lean more toward what I talk about as location inclusion? How do we make sure that people are included regardless of where they live or work from?

Melanie Green (host):

When Sacha Connor led a large hybrid team spread out across the country, she needed to find ways to collaborate and make sure everyone was included and inclusive. They needed to gel as a team to create a new product for their company.

Sacha Connor:

So I was in Philadelphia. I had part of my team in the Oakland, California office. I had part of my team in Pleasanton, California office which was our technical center. And we had to create physical products across those distances.

Melanie Green (host):

Not only that, Sacha and her team had to collaborate with their manufacturing sites all over the U.S.

 

Spark Time as a hybrid work strategy

Sacha Connor:

So one of the things that I did with my team was something that we called Spark Time, which was a time that was put aside on our calendar twice a week. It was actually for two hours, twice a week. And so what that spark time allowed was a ritual where we all knew that we were expected to be available to grab each other virtually, pull each other into a video call, for example, to talk about problems, to help overcome problems that had poked up on a project, for example. So this idea of igniting some new ideas.  So this is where sometimes we would do virtual brainstorming for example. So there was intention behind it. We weren't  just allowing this to just happen organically. And it was an effective way for us to know when we could grab each other because there's so much time that's wasted trying to reach out to groups of people saying, Hey, when are you available? Can I grab you on this day? Can we, can we set up a meeting a couple of days from now?

Melanie Green (host):

One of the big reasons some advocate for being back in the office is to have opportunities for informal collaboration. But Sacha showed her colleagues that you don’t have to physically be side-by-side with someone to make this happen.

Sacha Connor:

The pandemic pushed everybody into a FROG or a fully remote organization. And so those skills are a little bit different because actually it's a little easier to be in a FROG  where you have an even playing field where everybody is working from their own office site, their home office. But as we move into hybrid - hybrid is harder. So those skills are even more important because it's so easy to backslide into not realizing that distance bias. It's easier to backslide into it being easier to interact with the people that are right in front of you. And so you do have to take a step back and think about going back to that whole ecosystem. Who do I need to influence? Who would I need to collaborate with, getting the best out of everyone, regardless of location and proximity? When it comes to networking, you should think about your close in networks and your extended networks. So close in networks -  meaning the teams and the people that you work with most often and your extended networks -  meaning people in other functions, divisions, teams at different levels that you might not actually interact with on a daily basis.

Melanie Green (host):

Hybrid work can actually provide an opportunity to address and overcome these unconscious biases that we all have. That’s a win.

Location inclusion

 

Sacha Connor

What excites me about it is that for the first time ever, something that I've been talking about for a long time, which is location inclusion, about being able to include people regardless of where they live or work, that this has actually become a part of the conversation around diversity, equity and inclusion. So this is great that we're thinking about how we give equal opportunity to people for roles and promotions, and project work and all of that. And I love that people are being given that added flexibility to figure out where they work best and how they work best. But what keeps me up at night about that is that when it gets into practice, that everyone will realize that hybrid is even harder. And that behaviors will start to backslide into behaviors that people had before this fully remote work experiment that we've had over the past 18 months. And it's really important for this to be something that's role modeled at the senior levels within organizations, in terms of that location inclusion, in terms of understanding distance bias, in terms of teaching people the skills to lead, collaborate, build culture, communicate across distance.

Melanie Green (host):

This is a core challenge of hybrid work -- and it’s a big one. What’s happening now will change the reality of our work lives forever. We need to be actively engaged to make it happen.

Sacha Connor:

And I'm worried that if some of the scaffolding is not put into place in terms of really being intentional about what are the behaviors that we're expecting from our employees and our leaders, what are the mindsets that we need to change within the organization? What are the skills that we need to provide? What are the technology tools that we need to have and to teach people how to use, if that is not put into place, that you're going to start to see some problems pop up. And I don't want to see the pendulum swing back to where then people are all recalled back into offices.

Melanie Green (host):

And here’s where it gets really interesting. This evolution in work - the change in culture and the tech we use is being driven not just by a desire for remote and hybrid work, but by Gen Z, many of whom have never worked any other way.

What business leaders can learn from Gen Z

Liana Hakobyan:

I want to dive deeper into how we work and how we can bring a really great talent and really great opportunities in the current working environment and change the working environment.  And experimentation is key for us. 

Melanie Green (host):

Liana Hakobyan lives in the Netherlands.  She works in marketing for a U.S. based company that hosts and builds websites. Before that, she ran a startup that connected students with their first jobs, based on the students’ personality and the culture of the company they were matched with. In 2019 Liana gave a TEDx talk about how Gen Z is revolutionizing the workplace.  Like Sacha, Liana is a trailblazer for her generation.

And she doesn’t pull any punches about what doesn’t work for her in a traditional work environment.

What Gen Z wants from work

Liana Hakobyan:

The freedom of expressing new ideas in big enterprises is a bit hierarchical. And that was  challenging for me. Then I decided to switch to the startup world where you can actually express yourself. I think the startup environment, they were really, really developed for gen Z people because we strive for diversity. We strive for mental growth. We strive for a company that gives us an opportunity to have work-life balance. We want to be integrated in an environment that we can express ourselves, we can generate new ideas and we will be mentored by others, but we also will have a great contribution.

Melanie Green (host):

That work-life balance that Liana wants often means hybrid or fully remote work, and using the right technology.

Liana Hakobyan:

To be honest I always wanted to work remotely, even when I started my work as an intern, because I wanted to travel and at the same time work and keep that kind of a balance. And the technology usage is like super, super powerful  And you need to understand how to use it in your personalized way, because every person is different and every person has its own working style. 

Melanie Green (host):

Liana has thought deeply about what she looks for in work. Here are a few things that are especially important to her in a hybrid work environment.  The first is the team.

Role of the team

Liana Hakobyan:

The team is really crucial with whom you're working, their mentality, their personalities, how they will approach your ideas. That's the most important part. The team actually creates the working environment for me. The  second thing is the growth opportunity and the company should be adapted to new technologies. So when you follow the new trends, how it goes, the new technological advancement usage is a key. And the third aspect is more into growth as an individual because in a company usually, you need to understand that you are an individual and you need to understand that you have your life and you want to strive there as well. You have your interests. You have your hobbies and company needs to take into account and provide maybe company perks.

Melanie Green (host):

Liana wants her employer to think about her as a whole person - with  interests and hobbies. Not just a worker. Something else Liana values in a job - especially in hybrid work - is strong communication between her and her boss. One thing she wants is the freedom to let her manager know where her strengths are in her work, and hone in on those skills.

Liana Hakobyan:

The second thing - the value that I want - is to receive feedback back from the company side , to understand whether what I'm doing is right from their perspective. The third point is more that I have one-on-one and interconnection sessions with a company representative and the company team lead because I'm working remotely and it's super hard sometimes to be connected with the company itself. You sometimes can feel that you are not connected with it because you are working remotely while they are in the office. The company should make you feel that you are still connected to their values, to their company culture even if you are working remotely.

Melanie Green (host):

Like Sacha, Liana says companies that nurture connections between colleagues will thrive in hybrid work.  So managers should elevate experience and connection sometimes even over compensation.

Salary isn’t everything

Liana Hakobyan:

So if a company is trying to attract us with a huge salary, it's not what actually we want. A salary is food. A salary is valuable, but the first point is having a really nice growth opportunity in a company. And that's what is really important.

Melanie Green (host):

For Liana, developing skills and having opportunities to grow are more important than a big salary. And for organizations everywhere that are adapting to this new generation of workers and a new way of working, Liana has another nugget of wisdom. 

Liana Hakobyan:

We don't want jobs. We want life experiences. And that's really true for me. We strive to keep our life work balance, and it's really important for us.  Diversity is our mantra. The growth mentality is what we really want and being in an equal level with the company representatives about being heard and expressing ourselves. Doing experimentations. It's what makes us Gen Z and we're going to change the working environment for the next 20 and 30 years.

Melanie Green (host):

Our working environment is changing. And it’s being driven not by habit and bias, but by new ideas. The reality is that the newest generation of workers wants what people like Sacha Connor have been working towards for years -- a hybrid work world that offers engagement, advancement and fulfillment. That’s a working world that I can get behind. You’ve been listening to Remote Works, Hybrid Survival Guide, an original podcast on Fieldwork by Citrix. Head to our show notes to find more on hybrid work from Sacha Connor and from Citrix. Subscribe and come back in two weeks. We’ll look at the Great Resignation - why it’s happening and what organizations can learn from it. That’s at Citrix dot com slash remote works.

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