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Do the tools shape the workplace behaviors, or does the existing workplace environment dictate the tools? And how does the hybrid working model influence the two? People Matters asked June Chui, HR Director, Asia Pacific & Japan, at data storage solutions firm Pure Storage, for her take on how digitalization has affected corporate culture.
Pure Storage has had a hybrid working model in place since long before COVID-19 and was even carrying out virtual recruitment years ago. Drawing on that long experience, here's what Chui said about today's intersection of technology and workplace culture.
On the elements of workplace culture that are the most important for the hybrid model to work:
In my view, three things are important for remote or hybrid work to be effective: trust, clarity on goals and deliverables, and a culture that embraces technology. When it comes to managing remote teams, a hybrid model can potentially be more challenging than a fully remote environment. It’s a level playing field when everyone is remote. However, unconscious biases may come into play during performance evaluations when there is a mix of employees who have more face time with managers in the office, compared to those who continue to work remotely.
Being aware of such biases, setting clear goals and encouraging constant communication can help to build trust amongst teams and empower employees to thrive, regardless of their location or time zone.
Do you find it more likely that today's digital tools are shaping workplace culture, or that the existing culture is influencing the way the tools are used?
I would say they both influence each other and are interdependent. We naturally bring some of our offline habits into an online setting. But as we become more reliant on digital tools to communicate, they will also affect the way we interact with our colleagues.
For example, before the pandemic, some in Asia were more hesitant to turn on their webcam without prompting. But today, most are comfortable to be on a video call. Workplace digital technologies have also crept into our non-work life. Parts of our personal lives which we could distinctly separate from work in the past are melded together. We sometimes get to meet and laugh about the child or pet that joins the meeting unexpectedly. This lets us get to know our colleagues a little better, but also adds on to the pressure of being “always on”.
These new habits will likely continue after the pandemic, even if most of us return to the office.
How much of a role do you see digital innovations playing in today's understanding of work dynamics and organizational culture?
As a broad term, digital innovations can refer to many different tools and technologies in the workplace. In that sense, they definitely play a significant role in shaping our understanding of work dynamics and organizational culture. No conversation about people and culture today can avoid discussing the impact of digital technologies.
Let’s take video conferencing as an example. At Pure Storage, we’ve been using Zoom as a communications platform even before the pandemic hit, so you can definitely see a difference between how our people use the tool then and now. The video conferencing functions have worked great for internal meetings. However, it’s also gotten to a point where we are using Zoom for everything, including for non-work social interactions.
For example, in the past, we might go for a drink or dinner with our colleagues after work. But with bars and restaurants closed in many parts of the world, some companies are organizing virtual happy hours through Zoom or Microsoft Teams. Because these virtual happy hours still take place in a corporate setting, they can feel a lot like work. Some might feel obligated to attend such events even though they might not want to, or are too tired after a long work day. This “over-zooming” phenomenon can have real consequences.
So the big question for team leaders is: how can we be savvier about the way we use technology, and go beyond surface level functions of existing tools to engage people more effectively in the long run?
On the recruitment front, we incorporated digital behavioural assessment tools in our recruitment process to help increase the probability of hiring the best fit for the role. These assessment tools guide us to look at candidates with the highest predictor of success such as generating the appropriate interview questions for interviewers to evaluate job fit.
Besides culture, how are these tools driving evolution in talent management strategies?
Digital tools were increasingly playing a more significant role in talent development even before the pandemic, but it has definitely evolved to keep pace. Take coaching and leadership development as an example. In the past, coaching usually meant one-on-one, intimate coffee sessions with an executive coach. The use of automated tools can prompt managers on which areas to focus on, depending on the issues that are selected. Today, there is more widespread acceptance of virtual coaching due to necessity, and this has opened up opportunities for less senior employees to be involved as it has become more scalable and cost-effective.
Leadership conferences also have had to adapt to a virtual environment. It is not a simple matter of just converting a physical program to a digital one, because global leadership conferences involve executives from all over the world from different geographies and time zones.
As a result, companies are now building fully immersive digital experiences from the ground up. At Pure Storage, for example, we launched a director-level development program called Leading at Pure designed to be virtual-first. We overcome the difference in time zones by taking turns to host night calls when it comes to “mainstage” content, and work within our time zones for what is conceptually regarded as “breakout” sessions.
How are people leaders collaborating with other organisational leaders to shape the use of digital tools and the resulting workplace interactions today?
In the early days of the pandemic, many organisations rushed to deploy digital tools without proper consideration for how they might be aligned with business strategy and goals. This can lead to apathy among management and employees. Without their buy-in, you might not get the returns you expected from your digital investment.
There has to be a strategic collaboration between people and business leaders when deciding which tools and platforms to adopt. It is important to align on the intention of rolling out any particular digital platform, and focus on how it will add to your organisation's competitive advantage.
Let’s take my previous example of “over-zooming”, for instance. As remote work became the norm at Pure Storage, we became more conscious of how a constant flow of communication can become excessive and a potential source of burnout. We received feedback that this increased interconnectivity could lead to individuals feeling inundated with correspondence, so we’re paying more attention to ensuring that we avoid putting each other in such a situation.
To mitigate Zoom-fatigue, some teams have adopted creative measures such as designated Zoom-free days, audio-only meetings or meetings while on outdoor walks.
We're currently seeing a much stronger emphasis on aspects such as mental wellness, leadership authenticity, and empathy in management. What role do you think digital tools play in driving or enabling these?
Digital tools do help to improve access to a variety of leadership and wellness resources, but I believe they need to be built on a strong foundation of people-to-people relationships.
Here at Pure Storage, for example, we’ve long had online health and wellness resources available on-demand for employees, including mental health. Usage of these platforms have certainly grown over the past eighteen months, as our people deal with the impact of the pandemic.
But just having these virtual resources is not enough.
We need people to look out for each other, and we encourage our teams to create an environment where people can trust and support each other. The people you work with closest on a daily basis are the first line of defence against mental exhaustion and other related issues.
Similarly, our leaders and managers are coached to be able to instil a high level of trust with their teams through open communication and empathy. This is crucial to help our people identify issues like burn out early on and work towards a solution.