The Fall of Office Ping Pong Tables

From yoga classes to gourmet meals to waterfalls, pre-pandemic offices were built so employees never really wanted to leave. Company culture was a side effect of tangible office perks and connecting with colleagues was as easy as turning a swivel chair around to join the latest office discussion. Now, connecting with colleagues is only possible through a screen, and in-office benefits are a thing of the distant past (it's not like a company can ship a ping pong table to their employees' houses). So how do you build a culture when everyone in the office is apart?

PODCAST | 25m
December 2, 2020
S2:Ep4

Executive summary

  • Meet company leaders that are rethinking what company culture means for a remote workforce
  • Hear from experts for their thoughts on building a technology strategy with employee experience at the center

Melanie Green (host):

My name is Melanie Green.  You’re listening to Remote Works, an original podcast by Citrix. You’ve seen the headlines. Companies are giving up leases and sending people home. Not just for a few months, but for good.

Hope Bear:

When that actually happened, team members were a little bit sad about the building. We all went back in one by one; we got our belongings and we brought it out and there was a mourning process.

Melanie Green (host):

Meet Hope Bear.  She’s the Chief People Officer with A Weber in Pennsylvania. That’s an email marketing software company just outside Philadelphia. 

Hope Bear:

We used a beautiful building that was completely open. It was very inviting.

Melanie Green (host):

When they set up their headquarters, AWeber was one of the first companies to bring the Silicon-Valley style campus vibe to the east coast. 

Hope Bear: We had an open meeting rooms. We also had the ability to host happy hours in there. We invited the community in a lot to do wellness fairs for us. We also had the opportunity to have a lot of fitness types of things there. So we had Zoomba classes in there and we also had yoga classes in there.

Melanie Green (host):

A Weber had created the office environment that employee dreams are made of. It had all the perks. And I mean all the perks.  Two slides.  An in-office waterfall.  A 20-foot green biowall.

Hope Bear:

And one of the most popular benefits that we had within that building was we had a full kitchen with three gourmet chefs. So every day we had gourmet meals. There was always a sandwich, an entree, a soup of the day, a salad of the day, and then a full deli bar and sandwich bar.  Pretty much anything you wanted, you could get. And that was at no cost to the team.

Melanie Green (host):

Sounds pretty sweet. and I’m sure you know where this is going -- the pandemic hit and everyone began working remotely. But then A Weber decided to do something radical, something that was a total 180 from a big investment in their office environment. They decided to shut down the physical office. For good.

Hope Bear:

So I would say that making the decision was probably the hardest part of it. So when the leadership team made that decision to go fully remote, there was a decision to do it in a way where the team felt supported. So our CEO actually had the conversation with the entire team at one time and basically went through the why's, as to why we were going to be remote first and what the opportunities would be, and how much he believed in our abilities to continually meet the needs of our customers in this way.

Melanie Green (host):

Yes, okay. That sounds reasonable enough. But losing the chef? That’s gotta hurt.

Hope Bear:

I would say that I do miss it but I miss the people more. Because the building was a structure and I've always been very clear to say to teams, wherever I have been, that the building doesn't define the relationships. The relationships define the culture.

Chris Voce:

It's tremendously difficult when you think about the weight on Hope and others shoulders, they're trying to navigate a lot of things,

Melanie Green (host):

Meet Chris Voce who is part of Citrix’s strategic advisory practice.

Chris Voce:

I'm a customer engagement strategist, and I help lead the advisory practice within the Citrix team.

Melanie Green (host):

So what does that mean?

Chris Voce:

I work directly with leaders inside and outside of IT with our customers to support them with strategy and in their transformations as they're looking to operationalize employee experience.

Melanie Green (host): How do you even define employee experience?

Chris Voce:

It’s the sum of an employee’s perceptions of their experiences working within an organization.

Melanie Green (host):

Chris, what shapes employee experience?

Chris Voce:

You can put them into three basic buckets. We think about the cultural space, the technology space and the physical space that employees are part of. When you think about those three things, they have a lot of influence and help shape that employee experience.

Melanie Green (host):

So that’s good news for Hope Bear. When she looks at the experience her employees will have, losing the amazing office environment may not be a deal breaker. In fact, it might not be that important at all.

Chris Voce:

We spend a lot of time thinking about extrinsic things like perks and ukulele lessons and cooking classes and online drinks, but really where the attention has to be is ‘How can I help this person accomplish what they need to do? How do I help them find that kind of personal progress, amidst so much disruption in their lives?’

Melanie Green (host):

What is important is much less tangible. Recent Gallup research found that the strongest motivators for employee engagement had nothing to do with the funky office space but much more about how the employee is treated and how they were valued. Engaged employees felt clear about their roles, they had the opportunity to thrive and develop, enjoyed strong coworker relationships and felt a common sense of purpose. Employees need to know that they are part of the team -- not just with slogans and cheerleading, but by connecting with them as people.

Chris Voce:

We did a quantitative study survey looking at organizations that were advanced in delivering employee experience, versus those that were not as far along in their maturity path. The thing that set the advanced organizations apart is they were embarking in a set of empathy-driven activities. So when you compare the advanced organizations to the rest of the pack, they were far more likely to be doing things like employee journey mapping exercises, applying design thinking. Iterative processes to improving employee experience. They were taking a deeper look at the application and device experience of employees. Overall, they were thinking more and more about the daily journeys. Maybe the most important thing is that there's a pivot, often we think about employee experience, we think about things like bonuses, perks, those fun things around the office. There's a great body of research that says, Hey, when we're looking to help foster employee engagement, those things are - it’s not that they’re not important. You know, there's a reason why you and I go to work every day. Pay is part of it. But it's not the most important thing. That most important thing is somebody's ability to find progress in their work. It's that personal progress. You're thinking about, okay, how can I help advance my work force towards what it is that they're trying to accomplish. That does a lot of great things.

Melanie Green (host):

At A Weber, that careful attention to their employee experience was top of mind as Hope prepared her team to leave the office behind.

Melanie Green (host): So you make the decision to go fully remote. Then what happens?

Hope Bear:

And then it was really about taking the practices that we had in place and adapting them slightly. And now it became more of, encouraging team members to communicate publicly, to make sure that we were being very open with we were saying, document everything so that

team members had the opportunity to look at that information at any particular point in time, whether they were in a meeting or not. And then also giving individuals more confidence to contribute in that open forum because sometimes team members can be fearful of doing that, right? It's easier to have a one-on-one conversation than it is to put your ideas out in front of 30 people at a time.

Melanie Green (host):

You might be surprised to find out what the employees had to say about the closing of the office environment.

Hope Bear:

Unanimously what the team said was is that they were so thankful that we, as a team had decided very early on that we were not going to go back to the office, and we were going to really become a remote first company and really emphasize us getting better in that area because it just alleviated so much stress from their every day. So whether it was, how am I going to take care of my parents or how am I going to take care of my children? Or I myself might be suffering from a lot of anxiety because I just don't want to go back. I'm not ready to go back. And what if the company tells me I have to go back? It was just so touching to read those comments and to understand how we as a leadership team just made it so much easier for our team overall, because sometimes it's easy to make a business decision and not necessarily understand how it impacts the team, but this was just another way in the team reaching back out and saying, ‘Thank you. It was great that we made that decision’.

Melanie Green (host):

So chalk up another win for remote work. But why was A Weber so successful? Chris Voce and his team have been studying what companies need to do in order to make a shift away from the office. And at the top of the list -

Chris Voce:

The number one thing absolutely is listening. It's a hard skill for companies.   I was talking with somebody responsible for employee technology and they asked like, ‘Hey, how's it going so far? He says, it's great, no complaints. We're monitoring all the usual channels taking a look at the number of support requests coming in, no more than the norm’ and he's just like, ‘so you're doing great. So have you done any kind of survey, what are your listening posts to make that kind of determination?’ And he said, ‘We haven't done that’. The problem is, is that oftentimes people that are struggling might not be filing a support ticket or something like that. Those are your silent sufferers. And it's a term that a colleague used that I really liked a lot because it's so visual in terms of, you know, people are struggling and a lot of its invisible unless you ask.

Melanie Green (host):

That’s a powerful image: the silent sufferers. They could be afraid. Or shy.  Or just don’t know what to say. During A Weber’s transition to remote work, Hope Bear had a pretty good idea about what her employees might be going through because she was going through it too.

Hope Bear:

It was difficult on a couple of perspectives, I would say. Individually, as an individual team member, I had just as many fears as everybody else within the team. And I went into the change, really taking the position that it's really important that I show myself being vulnerable, just like everybody else, because I don't have all the answers. I really made an effort to touch base with as many team members as I possibly could one-on-one to walk them through that transition and to let them know that if they were having individual issues where they could go and seek help because I thought that the biggest struggle is having somebody be out there and feel as though they were alone because not all of our team members are living with others. Not all of our team members have the same family setups. All of us have different stressors. We all process things very, very differently. So there was no one-size-fits-all solution that needed to be put into place. It was really about being accessible, being understanding, being able to listen and also being able to empathize with what individuals are feeling and also help them get past that.

 

Melanie Green (host):

When your team is working remotely, there’s no water cooler or lunchroom to connect with each other. You need to be able to reach out person to person, sometimes just to make sure everyone’s okay. I asked Chris Voce about that side of the employee experience.

Melanie Green (host): How important is that wellness component when you consider the employee experience or workplace culture?

Chris Voce:

It's critical. And it's a place where you really need to do a lot of listening.  I'm a husband with a wife, and two kids at home. Sometimes leadership might be of age where they have families. And so the assumption is, people have families, I'm going to focus on thinking about people and kids when in fact you have 20-somethings in your workforce who might live alone. It might be a struggle to find time or place or space to get things done. It all goes back to listening to find out what might be going on and then making sure that people are equipped to act upon that.

Melanie Green (host):

Hope and her team did a lot of listening.  And that meant providing emotional and personal support when needed.  But it also meant understanding the nuts and bolts needs of remote work.

Melanie Green (host):

What about employees maybe not having space in the home or access to the same sort of wifi. Has that been an issue and how are you navigating that?

Hope Bear:

We're really trying to remove as many barriers as we possibly can. So when we made the decision to go to remote first, we also made a decision through research to have an internet stipend so on a monthly basis our team members get money for internet to ensure that they have proper wifi so that they can stay connected and be successful. We also ensure that our team members had all the right equipment. So we provide the equipment for them if they don't have it. So we made sure that they all had the proper desks and chairs and everybody gets the computers and things of that sort as well. So, it was really to make it as seamless as possible for them.

Melanie Green (host):

Everything AWeber does is based on the changing needs of the employees. Chris Voce says a big part of meeting that need is through technology.

Chris Voce:

With regard to technology, I think there are really five different principles to think about. Is it effective, easy, flexible, reliable, and secure? So effective, can employees accomplish what they're looking to get done every day? Like clinical researchers finding the data that they need, or sales people for building a customer presentation, can they find the data they're looking for? Finding information is critical. So in other words, ease.  Do they have to take more time and effort than they should? Is it flexible? Do employees have the flexibility and autonomy say to use the devices that they want, where they want, when they want, in order to get work done?

Melanie Green (host):

Hear those questions? That’s empathy in action. Using empathy, Chris and his team put themselves in the shoes of the remote worker and try to figure out what they need to thrive.

Chris Voce:

We've done these tastes of design thinking bootcamp exercises, where it's meant to help train and introduce organizations to concepts around empathy and better understanding. The goal of the exercise was, teach them about the method. And the exercise was actually helping reimagine the remote workspace for an individual. And so you kind of run through a process with a partner during it. It's always a lot of fun cause it's a big eye opener for employees. There was a pretty powerful outcome. One of the individuals, her spouse reached out to the leader of the IT organization afterwards and said, I saw you going through this incredible exercise and we talked about creating that ideal workspace. The person's spouse had said at home, you know, we have a child with special needs. And so, oftentimes my wife is in a position where she's trying to care for a child or even help her use the bathroom and something like a tablet can make a big difference for us because it would give her that kind of flexibility at home. Those are the kinds of things that we might miss. That was probably one of the most powerful examples of empathy that I came across.  It was a total unexpected outcome of the exercise, but I think helps drive the point just how important understanding the different situations that people are facing outside of the office.

Melanie Green (host):

So there are the one-on-one connections -- powered by the listening skills and empathy of a really good HR team.  And there is the technology - tailoring it to the needs of every individual in the company. But to build a strong remote work culture, you need to build a strong community. How did A Weber replace the community-building role of their brick-and-mortar office? One word: pickles.

Hope Bear:

Once we had the basics of how we were going to work, then we really started to focus on how we can continue to have those social gatherings virtually. So we've had, you know, cooking with, I could say, so we've had team members do a lunch recipe. We've had a team member teach us how to pickle. We've had other academy programs where team members use their passions to actually educate the team on a specific topic. I had one team member do an entire session on how to make an electric bike. We've also done virtual happy hours. We've had Quizzo nights. We had a comedian come virtually and do a comedy show for us, which was great as well. So it's really about getting the whole team involved as to how we can do things differently.

Melanie Green (host):

It all sounds impressive. But what about that office with the chef and the great food, and the happy hours in the common areas? Doesn’t anyone miss the social aspect of that groovy office environment? Well, it turns out that a lot of people actually prefer getting together remotely.

Hope Bear:

We are a 24-seven operation. So when we were in the building, it would have been hard for let’s say an individual to leave the building and then come back to the building at eight o'clock for a social event. Whereas now you can log on virtually and you don't have any drive time. So it's funny that we might not be in the same place at the same time as we were previously, but we actually have different ways of communicating. And if you highlight them, they're actually more effective than they were previously.

Melanie Green (host):

So you might assume that a chef and a cool office space will attract great employees - and that might be true. But to keep those employees, you need to be able to listen and empathize. And then create a working environment that will best meet their personal and professional needs. A Weber discovered that what’s best for their employees is working remotely. Hey, I wonder if that chef delivers? Thanks for listening. Next time, we take a look at remote work and security.  Important lessons from an 81-million-dollar cyber heist. Remote Works is an original podcast by Citrix. Subscribe and come back in two weeks. That’s at citrix.com slash remote works.

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