You may have glanced at some of the countless articles about “return to work plans” and “navigating the post-COVID office” with lofty declarations about how white collar work will never be the same. Yes, knowledge worker jobs have undoubtedly gone through a major social experiment, but the most interesting thing to me is whether companies are going to accept the challenge of transformation or just tweak around the margins. But in order to meaningfully change, they need to know HOW to do it. Personally, I see this transformation as required. It’s not just for the benefit of morale, but as existential to business goals, hiring, retention, loyalty, DEI goals and making a company that works for all caregivers.
To celebrate the relaunch of the Double Shift member community, I interviewed Erin Grau, who I’ve admired since I first interviewed her in 2017 about her advocacy around changing the family leave policy at the NYTimes. Erin is now COO of Charter, a media and research insights company that aims to transform every workplace. Erin is a working-within-the-system person in the best possible way, with lots of practical ideas and a long track record of actual results. While this conversation is more aimed at white collar and corporate workplaces, I am definitely thinking about ways to tell more stories around transforming other kinds of jobs in future newsletters.
Here are 8 edited and condensed takeaways from my conversation with Erin.
1. Understand What Hybrid Work Actually Is
Erin Grau: “All the data that I’ve seen suggests that hybrid work is the best model for organizations. The first thing is that we need to get people to understand what hybrid work is and how to actually get the benefits of it. There are a lot of ways to do hybrid. What's happening is people are saying, ‘we're hybrid!’ but then they say, okay, that means, ‘nine to five on these days.’ That’s not hybrid. Hybrid is hybrid along both time and location. It's about the greatest flexibility. So companies need to figure out what work needs to be synchronous and what can be asynchronous and what you're gonna use the office for.
There are several studies that have found remote and hybrid workers have the highest engagement scores. They're the most productive. They have a greater ability to focus. They have lower stress and anxiety and lower burnout.
2. Don’t Get Hung Up On the Details
Erin Grau: “In my experience, logistics are just the easiest part. It's easy to say ‘work in-person X number of days.’ It's harder (but much more important) to develop a philosophy around hybrid work and definitions around it. Hybrid work means that you have some amount of time in an office. So you get the strengths of traditional co-location like the collaboration, the connections, the learning and development, and the training. Onboarding into a company or a project is usually much easier in person. There isn’t technology yet to replace in-person connections. And you also get the benefits of remote work, which allows for greater flexibility which is something we specifically know, women, employees of color and caregivers are really looking for.”
3. Use the Office as a Tool
Erin Grau: “The office used to be a place to get work done. And now it's a tool to get work done. How are you gonna use that tool? Derek Thompson of the Atlantic calls it using the office for ‘soft work.’ So how are you building connections? How are you socializing and networking and how are managers promoting that?
Most knowledge workers have proved that they can actually do their work from anywhere with a laptop and good Wi-Fi. But the reality is, when you are a parent, it can be nice to go somewhere to do focus work. Right now, I have my two kids at home, and I'm competing with Wi-Fi with my kids. They're in the other room. My door's locked, but there's a chance one of them comes in and asks for goldfish soon.
We also have to do a lot of thinking about what an office should look like. A Harvard Business School professor has found the open plans that a lot of offices had are actually worse for getting work done. Some companies are thinking through flipping the model so that the open spaces in the office are for meetings and the closed ones are for focus work."
4. Define What “Culture” Means
Erin Grau: “We hear a lot from leadership that people have to come back to an office “for the culture.” People use that word all the time and we ask them to define it. “What do you mean by ‘culture?’” A lot of times they don’t really have an answer. Culture just doesn't live in an office. How you handle promotions and celebrations doesn't have to just be in an office. But what you are going to do in those moments is really, really important. And then “culture” really is about thinking through “What the connections look like and how do you create those connections?” It's true that weak ties have really atrophied. But you don't need a physical water cooler to build them back up.”
5. Compensate Your ERG Leads
Erin Grau: “A lot of Employee Resource Groups are run by volunteers and the work is in addition to someone’s ‘regular’ job. I love what some companies like Twitter are doing, which is incentivizing ERG leaders to take on the roles through compensating them, and also recognizing that work in performance reviews, management opportunities, and learning and development opportunities. I also like the idea of rewarding individual contributors. Good ERGs contribute to retention and engagement scores, which is a huge win for a company.”
6. Understand the Strategic Value of ERGs
Erin Grau: “I've seen a lot of companies that have ERGs with a big budget, but will spend the money buying swag and having happy hours. I think it's great, but it's also a little bit of a distraction. I think some of the money should go to becoming more of an advocacy arm or a policy maker within a company, that’s really what organizations need. They need more people very constructively and strategically outlining what their affinity group or their organization needs, and then creating a strategy and roadmap around that. People should think about it like how you run any other area of the business.”
7. Have Team Norms
Erin Grau: “This is such a great moment to re-onboard around what working in a team looks like right now.
There are things like team level agreements that are great to flesh out and really articulate. For example, if I have caregiving obligations throughout the day for myself or for someone in my home, how am I sharing that with the team? And one idea, a thing that we do at Charter, is we have five global status updates in Slack that everyone uses. We changed one permanently to “Caregiving” and it's a heart. If you are picking up a kid or taking care of yourself or even watching Netflix, that's what you need to do to get through the day, you can signal to the company, “I'm taking care of myself or caring for someone else.”
8. Fight Proximity and Caregiver Bias
Erin Grau: “I’m thinking about the Reshma Saujani article, ‘No One Wants to Go Back to an Office As Much As a White Man.’ Empirically we know that caregivers, mothers, women, and employees of color want more flexibility. The 9 to 5 didn't work for so many people. It didn't work for mothers before the pandemic and still does not work.
"A study from Stanford found employees were randomly assigned to be in the office or to be remote. The employees that were remote were actually 13% more productive. But they were promoted half as often."
But this topic is really fraught right now. I think what's happening at a lot of companies is they're saying “Flexibility is here to stay!” But they're not shoring up their internal practices. And by that, I mean, things like setting a floor AND a ceiling. If everyone has to come in two days a week, but the entire leadership comes in five days a week, that sends a message. And then they're not addressing things like proximity bias. There’s a famous study by a Stanford professor named Nick Bloom, where employees were randomly assigned to be in the office or to be remote. The employees that were remote were actually 13% more productive. And on top of it, they gave more of their time to the company because they gave most of their commute up, which a lot of us are doing. But they were promoted half as often. So we know that if you do not shore up those internal practices, that's what is going to happen. And that group of people who are less likely to be promoted are most likely to be people who are choosing this flexibility and needing the flexibility, which are women, employees of color, and caregivers. If you don't address that, then what you 're going to see is more women either leaving the workforce altogether or their careers stalling, even more than they have during the pandemic.”
Additional Resources on this I recommend:
Paid Leave, We Can Do Better (Double Shift Podcast featuring Erin)
Building a Movement for Paid Leave (Double Shift Podcast featuring listeners who were inspired by Erin’s work to make their own workplace changes)
Sign up for Charter’s Newsletter, an excellent resource on the future of work.
Designing Equitable and Effective Workplaces for a "Corona-normal" Future of Work, by Brigid Schulte at The Better Life Lab at New America
Join The Chamber of Mothers, a collective movement to focus America's priorities on mothers' rights, of which Erin is also a co-founder.
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