Erica Denner
Chief People Officer Challenger Follow

On today’s episode of the RecruitingDaily Podcast, William Tincup speaks to Erica from Challenger about how employers are asking the wrong questions about returning to work.

Some Conversation Highlights:

We realize that there’s a difference between the interaction part of work and the work when you’re doing independent work when it comes to returning to work. When we look at intentional interaction, for us, that looks like we have a purpose and there’s value to when we’re getting together. And that can be something as casual as a happy hour. It doesn’t necessarily have to be something always work focused, but what we learned is that people were actually more engaged when they knew that the activity was going to be valuable and the in-person interaction was going to be valuable. So for us it’s been very successful and we’ve had good feedback about it. And it’s not to say that of course it wouldn’t change at some point or reevaluate, but I think it’s interesting because what I’ve been reading a lot or these topics have come up in the news and we’ve all seen them pretty much nonstop, is that I think a lot of companies are approaching it as a geography problem, not a productivity problem for returning to work.

That’s where it’s interesting is there’s such a focus on physicality and geography that I think what’s actually getting lost is why don’t people want to come back? Well, maybe it’s because they’re in an open office and it’s really distracting. Or there’s also people that are introverted that don’t love being in an office environment. So I think the questions have been interesting, especially from the larger companies, that the assumption is a very traditional model of returning to work in which the physicalness of your job, which used to be the case when we were in factories and doing things that were very physical, is current today. And it just isn’t in my mind because of how we work.

Tune in for the full conversation.

Listening time: 29 minutes

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Announcer (00:00):

This is RecruitingDaily’s Recruiting Live podcast where we look at the strategies behind the world’s best talent acquisition teams. We talk recruiting, sourcing, and talent acquisition. Each week we take one over complicated topic and break it down so that your three year old can understand it. Make sense? Are you ready to take your game to the next level? You’re at the right spot. You’re now entering the mind of a hustler. Here’s your host, William Tincup.

 

William Tincup (00:34):

Ladies and gentlemen, it’s William Tincup and you are listening to the Recruiting Daily Podcast. Today we have Erica on from Challenger and our topic today is employers are asking the wrong questions about return to work. So I can’t wait to talk to Erica about it. Erica, would you do us a favor and introduce yourself and Challenger?

 

Erica Denner (00:54):

Sure. My name’s Erica Denner. I’m the Chief People Officer for Challenger and Challenger is the global leader in training, technology and consulting to win today’s complex sales. So we have employees all over the globe and we are working in a hybrid first work environment, so I’m excited to talk about this topic today.

 

William Tincup (01:12):

Awesome. So tell us about hybrid first. What is it? I’ve got this in my head on spectrum, far into the spectrum, Tesla, everyone has to go back to the office every day. And then Airbnb, we don’t own offices. Everyone’s remote. And then everything in the middle is up for grabs and different depending on who you talk to and all that stuff. When you say hybrid first, for you all, what does that mean?

 

Erica Denner (01:42):

Yeah, so for us it was really taking a look at what we were trying to accomplish in our company, both strategically and our employee experience. We started asking the questions, where are people most productive? Are we seeing any gaps anywhere? Do we feel like our performance is where it should be? We started evaluating and what we found is similar to I think where a lot of companies are in this middle space is that we don’t really find a one size fits all approach. Some people like being in the office several days to every day of the week and there’s some people who say, “Unless you make me, I’m never going to step foot in the office again.”

(02:18)
What we decided to do is we are mostly, I would say remote, but we have hubs. We’re headquartered in Arlington, Virginia and we do have an office there. We had that office pre pandemic, so that had already been existing. And then our other two hubs are in Chicago and London and we work out of co-working spaces there. So we have dedicated space, but it’s a lot smaller. People typically aren’t in those spaces as often unless their internet goes out or there’s a meeting that’s happening. So the kind of term that we started using for us and how we kind of view hybrid first is intentional interaction. What we found is regardless of if people were sitting in an office or remote, is that people wanted to have interactions that had value and impact and not just coexisting and sitting next to each other. I don’t know when you’ve been in an office last, but a lot of times it’s people with their headphones on so they’re sitting next to each other, but they all have their AirPods in.

(03:16)
We realize that there’s a difference between the interaction part of work and the work when you’re doing independent work. When we look at intentional interaction, for us, that looks like we have a purpose and there’s value to when we’re getting together. And that can be something as casual as a happy hour. It doesn’t necessarily have to be something always work focused, but what we learned is that people were actually more engaged when they knew that the activity was going to be valuable and the in-person interaction was going to be valuable. So for us it’s been very successful and we’ve had good feedback about it. And it’s not to say that of course it wouldn’t change at some point or reevaluate, but I think it’s interesting because what I’ve been reading a lot or these topics have come up in the news and we’ve all seen them pretty much nonstop, is that I think a lot of companies are approaching it as a geography problem, not a productivity problem.

(04:12)
That’s where it’s interesting is there’s such a focus on physicality and geography that I think what’s actually getting lost is why don’t people want to come back? Well, maybe it’s because they’re in an open office and it’s really distracting. Or there’s also people that are introverted that don’t love being in an office environment. So I think the questions have been interesting, especially from the larger companies, that the assumption is a very traditional model of work in which the physicalness of your job, which used to be the case when we were in factories and doing things that were very physical, is current today. And it just isn’t in my mind because of how we work.

 

William Tincup (04:52):

I love this phrase intentional interaction. I love this and I will definitely use this elsewhere, so just FYI.

 

Erica Denner (05:01):

Take it, take it, take it.

 

William Tincup (05:03):

I might trademark it, so just don’t be surprised.

 

Erica Denner (05:06):

[inaudible 00:05:08].

 

William Tincup (05:07):

One of the things I wanted to ask about, especially with as it relates to intentional interaction, is around soft skills because it is something I’ve heard about people that are pushing a return to work. I absolutely agree that it’s done either out of command and control, I want to see you work, see you in the office. That could be something various like that. But it also could be this is the way it was in 2019 and we want to go back to the way it was, hearkening back to I don’t think it was great then. All right, so hearkening back to that and getting the team back together. But I love the way that you’ve said, “Okay, there’s times in which if you’re intentional, again, it could be about business, it could be about getting together socially, et cetera, but intentional about the interaction.”

(06:01)
This idea around soft skills is actually something I’ve heard a lot of CEOs talk about. The reason they want people back in the office is for some of these things, but they’ve wrapped it around soft skills like brainstorming and collaboration and some of the stuff that you can do on Zoom or a conference technology. But it’s better to be in a room. For them, I guess it’s better to be in the room. So what’s your take? Intentional interaction, totally get it and love it, but what do you think the tethering or if there is any tethering to soft skills and soft skills development?

 

Erica Denner (06:44):

Yeah. I think it’s a great point and where I really see this having the most impact is the newest entrance into the workforce. I think a lot of us have worked in offices and we might be overlooking the fact that we learned a lot from osmosis in early career. I do think when I look at the spectrum of people in the stages of careers, the new entrants, it’s kind of to be seen. How does it affect soft skills? I think in my mind, I actually think it’s interesting because if you think of soft skills, think of a new intro to the workforce digital native probably beyond living on technology, that to me actually I have a lot of people who are further in their career who don’t have what I would call the soft skills for tech etiquette or how do you effectively coordinate a remote meeting?

(07:37)
I think when I hear you say soft skills, I think it’s the in person soft skills. I do agree that the interactions in person, I just don’t think that the way that the workforce is going, that sitting in an office with people on their headphones is going to get you to that place. But having those interactions with value, yes, I do think those are important. I think there is also an element that we look at with teams with psychological safety is you can develop psychological safety virtually. Certainly the research has shown, and I’m sure there’s going to be a explosion of research on this, this was pre pandemic that I looked at this research. But the research has shown that in-person interaction is really still the best for building some of that psychological safety, which we know turns into productive and effective teams.

(08:27)
That’s where I think we have to look to managers and team leaders and department heads of understanding who their team is and what work they’re doing and helping to structure those intentional interactions around that. So if you have a team of really young people, and I’ll give you a good example in our company, like entry level sales folks that we call SDS or BDAs. We know that it actually does help them be together. So they’re actually together in intentional interactions more than in an experienced salesperson. That’s where I think that it becomes a little bit more curated in how you approach the work based on who your team is made up of. If your team is all mid to late career, they kind of understand everything, they know etiquette, they have soft skills, you may not need to get together as much or you may not need to create as many intentional interactions.

(09:19)
But I do think it’ll be interesting. I was at our co-working space probably, gosh this was three or four months ago, and there was a group of very young employees, they were thrilled to be in an office. One of the employees, it was for a different company, it wasn’t our company, but he was so excited. He packed his lunch, he said, “I brought my allergy medicine.” I mean they were so excited because they’d never experienced it. So I guess if you have a team of really young workers, it may make sense to have more of those interactions.

 

William Tincup (09:51):

I read research just a couple months ago about college grads and the stat was like 86% of them want to go to an office. For all the reasons that you stated. It’s like we forget, especially as you get older, you forget that that’s where you built a lot of your social network, a lot of your friends and people that you would go out and all of that stuff. I mean that’s actually how you built that. Good and bad, but how you built that. So I think there’s something to be said, and again if you talk to somebody, not to generalize, but in the forties and fifties there might be a reluctance because they’ve got kids, they’ve got all this other stuff. They just see the word commute and want to vomit. And it’s like they don’t want to go to the office not because of the work, but because they don’t see it as their place to thrive.

(10:50)
I think what the way that you solved it, the algebra, the way that you’ve solved it is really, really nice in terms of okay, where do you thrive? Fantastic. That’s great. Good. We’re going to have these moments, these carefully curated, I believe the way you phrased it, is these moments where we’re intentionally getting together and having some interaction. Who decides that? So when you were talking about the SDRs, it makes sense, first of all, check. And also just being in a box and being learning from one another, what’s working, what’s not working, that type of stuff. I can see that being super successful. But when we talk about these moments of these intentional interactions, who’s deciding that? Who’s making that decision?

 

Erica Denner (11:42):

I’ll say obviously our leadership team has input of the general philosophy, but we look to the leaders and the managers of those teams, and I think this is where some of the big companies, they are afraid to give up some of that control to leaders and managers. Those are the people who are in the day to day who know what the work looks like and know what they need. So we try to, and I know it’s a cheesy word, but we try to empower our leaders of what does it look like for you to have intentional interaction? What does your team structure look like? Are they mid-career, early career? We just have a lot of conversations. We’re probably on a little bit of the smaller side. It may be a little bit easier for us in a larger company, but I think that’s where a lot of these big companies are just skipping that all together. They’re just like, “Here we go, this is the easiest or this is the most “control” that we can have.”

(12:35)
I just had a conversation with a sales leader today saying, “Okay, I think we might need to be in a little bit more for intentional interactions with… We’re seeing maybe a gap here. We need to improve a little bit here.” So it’s really a constant conversation of what do you need from your team to be successful? What do they need to be successful? And then they pretty much have the latitude to curate those interactions as they want. Now with that said, we certainly have some overlay of the company thing. So in September, for example, we’ll have the whole company together for a company meeting. We do little events when we go to the different hubs. So we do have some larger things, but in terms of the who makes it on the day to day for their teams, it’s the leaders and their managers. My response back to some of the companies that are not sure if they want to relinquish that control, I would say, “Well, then you might want to question how you’re coaching and managing managers.”

 

William Tincup (13:35):

You’re going to relinquish that control whether or not you like it or not. Control is a figment of your imagination. It’s interesting, and I don’t know if I’ve got the phraseology right, but you’ve got kind of a relentless pursuit of productivity and satisfaction and happiness. You know what I mean? It’s not just productivity because that’s important to then make sure that, okay, where are the gaps? As you’ve mentioned a couple times. Where are we missing? So we constantly are monitoring where we’re missing so that we can calibrate, is kind of a neat word to play with there, calibration. But it’s not just about productivity, at least as I’m hearing it. It’s also about their happiness or their satisfaction or where they get their best work done, et cetera. Which if I’ve got that right, is an immense flexibility.

 

Erica Denner (14:31):

Yes. And I think that is… Unless you’re in an industry, and I will say there’s some industry caveats. Again, when you look at interactions, probably creative would make sense to be in person more. Or if you’re in an industry where there’s really strict time zone control. We’re lucky in that we don’t necessarily have them. I would say we are very clear and, again, with our managers and our leaders and our employees that you know do the work and that’s best for you as long as you have aligned with your team on that’s how you do your work best. For example, what I found and we started keeping track during once the pandemic started is that people were logging on earlier and logging off later because they didn’t have a commute. Well we did some math and realized people, they were adding about eight hours a day by not having a commute. And we weren’t asking for that. People were doing it.

(15:28)
So we actually took the initiative and we said we are going to have… And some companies you’ve probably heard of been doing this. We have summer Fridays and Flex Fridays. No internal meetings. Every now and then, there’s [inaudible 00:15:40]. Generally no internal meetings. I got a lot of questions like, “Oh, aren’t you afraid that employees aren’t being productive?”

 

William Tincup (15:46):

No.

 

Erica Denner (15:47):

They’re working what they need to get done and they’re working. Honestly, I want to reward efficiency. If you get everything done, I don’t care if you want to log off.

 

William Tincup (15:55):

It does beg the question, and I won’t do the really inappropriate [inaudible 00:16:01] part of this joke, but if you don’t trust your employees, why are they employed?

 

Erica Denner (16:07):

Right. That’s exactly right.

 

William Tincup (16:10):

So on some level, not to say you blame somebody, but it’s at one point if you really just don’t trust somebody that much, then why are they there outside of just a body in a chair, et cetera. This is going to sound jaded, but I love the way that you framed up the geography. People that are in this area. Okay, that makes sense. I think some of it also comes down to pay, this location based pay. I don’t think comp has answers. I don’t think any of us have answers about how do we pay people in terms of, okay, you’re working in Montana and you’re working in San Francisco. You’re both doing the exact same job, director of demand generation, doing the exact same job, exact same experience, et cetera. We’re going to pay you different because of where you live. So now there’s all kinds of models of, “Okay, we’re going to decrease this pay or we’re going to keep it the same.”

(17:21)
The other end of the spectrum is like, okay, it doesn’t really matter, we’ll take the higher end. If you’re living in Montana, well you just make more money. We’ll take cost of living out of the equation. Which is fascinating and also terrifying at the same time. But the jaded part of me thinks that there was an over investment in office space.

 

Erica Denner (17:45):

Oh, a hundred percent.

 

William Tincup (17:48):

With long contracts, the leases, if you will. And the CFO, I’m just going to blame that person just for giggles, is looking down literally at the balance sheet and looking at this large expenditure and they’re not getting anything from the large expenditure. That’s the jaded side of me. Do you see the [inaudible 00:18:13]?

 

Erica Denner (18:13):

Yeah, it’s so funny. I’m sitting here looking at the Chicago skyline and I think about that all the time because I see the Boeing building. Boeing just left Chicago. I sit here and I look at all these buildings. Yes, I do think that there is a justification, especially for larger companies. Larger companies that have such real estate investments. I understand it. I guess my thought on that is it’s already generally a sunk cost. So do you want to put good money after bad by then also jeopardizing your talent, also jeopardizing the workforce and your productivity. So we kind of view it as… And look, we look at our space too now. We have in Chicago and London more co-working spaces, so those are more flexible. But we do look at our office space. I mean our view is, yeah, is it fairly MD right now? Yes. But it’s a cost that we have and we don’t necessarily see the value in forcing everybody to come back just to justify costs that we’re going to have regardless.

(19:17)
But I do agree that that is part of this push is… And it’s just so ingrained in how we think as Americans that we work. It’s just the office is such a… It is hard to separate the office from work for a lot of people. I think that there’s some fundamental assumptions that go into that that just probably aren’t accurate anymore. But that it’s just part of the culture and the norm of how these companies are working that it’s just difficult to separate.

 

William Tincup (19:46):

I’ll go again jaded because that’s my temperament. I think a lot of this comes out of manufacturing the industrial revolution, World War II, command and control. A lot of white male dominated culture, if you will, is I got to see you work in order to believe that you’re working. I think as that ages out, and again because of Covid, it sped up a lot of these other things. One of the, I guess silver linings of Covid is we’ve learned you can do a lot of these jobs. Again, knowledge worker jobs. You can do a lot of this work from anywhere in the world. You don’t have to unless you want to. Again, now it’s like the power of the employee. It’s like where do you want to do this work? If you want to come in the office a couple days a week or come in a couple days a month, whatever. Where do you do your best work?

(20:44)
But I think a lot of this is, as those folks age out, as those leaders age out, I think new models. And I think again because of Covid, it’s sped a lot of this stuff up. But I’ll tell you, you’ve given larger companies an out and I’m not calling you on it, of course, but I think it could be a cop out for them. Well, it’s a larger company, it’s more complex, it’s difficult, blah blah blah, blah, blah. I think it comes down to, as you said, intentionality. Is this a part of your culture? Is this a part of who you want to be? It doesn’t matter if you have 80,000 employees.

 

Erica Denner (21:26):

Right. Well, and I will say to your point about who’s in the high leadership positions right now, is if you look back to when those individuals, mostly white men, were starting their jobs, it was sort of predicated on the fact that there was another person at home.

 

William Tincup (21:45):

Yeah. Oh, a hundred percent.

 

Erica Denner (21:48):

[inaudible 00:21:48]. So we look at the shift from X to millennial and next will be Z is that household looks really different.

 

William Tincup (21:55):

A hundred percent. It should.

 

Erica Denner (21:56):

The assumption that somebody is at home doing all of the other tasks while you get to work a 40 hour week in a physical location is not necessarily obviously the norm anymore. But I think that, like you said, it is the intentionality and it’s so ingrained in some of the assumptions that are made about the workforce is why can’t you be here for 40 hours? Or why do you need that flexibility? And there’s a missing link there of it. It’s very different and a lot of two income families and working and activities. And there’s just so much more I think, or at least it seems that is happening with both parties and there isn’t somebody kind of taking care of that, which was some of the assumptions of those individuals. And I’ve also read a lot about, I don’t know if you’ve seen the access inclusion equity part of remote work.

(22:52)
I’ve read some really fascinating opinion pieces of, thank goodness I don’t have to go in the office because I don’t get all these microaggressions. And it’s just a really interesting thing that unfortunately didn’t pop to my mind right away, but I’ve seen a lot more come up. And it’s something that I just thought, gosh, I didn’t even think of it from that angle. A lot of people are saying I love it because I can don’t have to worry about spending energy on some of that as part of my day. Unfortunate, but I think it’s a reality.

 

William Tincup (23:20):

And you’ve opened up the aperture. Again, this is one of the beauties for knowledge workers. You’ve opened up the aperture of you can work anywhere in the world, which means now again, not everyone has the internet. So there are some areas that we have to work on, but you can work with somebody in Paris. There’s some time zone stuff to work out. But other than that, if they have a skill set and you have the desire for that skill set, there’s really nothing in the way. I mean you can get them paid, you can get benefits, you can do all that stuff now. I think one of the things as we tighten up or end this part is when we talk about asking the wrong questions. I think they’re also not doing the math in terms of forcing people to work a certain way and the cost of attraction, retention and training.

 

Erica Denner (24:16):

Yeah. I’m telling you. If there’s one thing that I could do, have a magic wand, it would be a budget line item for disengagement and the cost of that.

 

William Tincup (24:24):

Nice.

 

Erica Denner (24:24):

And it is something that it is so difficult, especially to… I’ve actually been lucky I’ve worked for some really great CFOs, so I haven’t struggled as much, but there is such a struggle in a cost that doesn’t show up on a budget. And it’s like a lot of talent leaders and people leaders, we know it, we feel it, we can tell you, but it is really difficult and there’s some ways you can do it, but you can’t really get to the true number of it. That is one thing, if I had a magic wand, I think would just change the entire conversation because it adds something concrete to I think is one of the biggest forces in the workplace that just gets ignored in terms of engagement, disengagement, productivity. Hopefully we can catch up to that, I think just as an industry.

(25:18)
But that is something that I think is overlooked and it is detrimental and leaders don’t realize it until it’s too late. They can’t see it until they’re not meeting their strategic objectives and then they can’t find employees and they can’t get their company to be successful. That’s a long time coming and it’s just a lot of leaders can’t wrap their head around what that actually costs a business.

 

William Tincup (25:47):

Again, being dark. It’s not just that we can’t. I’m not sure they want to do that math. Not that they’re lazy. It’s just they have a model in mind of how work should be, and it’s almost like you do it this way or do it somewhere else. Which again, when there’s a surplus of talent, this perception of a faucet, you just turn on the faucet and talent shows up. The interesting thing about millennials and gen Z for me is they’re unwilling. General statements for both generations. They’re unwilling to work like that.

 

Erica Denner (26:32):

Guess what? They’re becoming leaders really quick.

 

William Tincup (26:35):

Yeah. Which is great because they’re also helping shape what will come after that, which is fantastic. And more flexibility. I remember my mom talking about flexibility with the IRS when she worked for the IRS in the seventies. And it’s like, this isn’t a new concept. We’ve been talking about flexibility, but because of Covid, we were forced into this really super flexible… Worked fast and super flexible environment, hyper flexible environment, and thank goodness for it.

 

Erica Denner (27:09):

Right. I think that that’s one of the things that I don’t hear talked about as much. And I’ll be very curious if there’s research that comes out in the years that come on this is that it’s not just about productivity. I think there’s a piece of resilience in having to… Look how quickly everybody was able to adapt to the change of remote work. Yet when we make little change in the workforce, everybody says, “Oh, it’s a change. It’s a change.” You know why it was adapted so quickly? Because there was a huge business need.

 

William Tincup (27:43):

That’s right.

 

Erica Denner (27:44):

And there was rationale. I think that was a great example of if you are looking at the business need, there’s urgency to it and you can make that change. Look how quickly our workforce entirely changed for the next 15 to 20 years. I mean, it’s nothing like we looked [inaudible 00:28:04].

 

William Tincup (28:03):

And that’s large companies as well. That was Google, that was Apple, that was Walmart, that was Amazon. They made those switches as well. So it’s almost like the desire, do you want to change? In the future of work, do you actually want to change the way that you work that fits kind of more employee and candidate driven environment? I think the people that win are those that say yeah.

 

Erica Denner (28:30):

Right.

 

William Tincup (28:31):

This has been fantastic. I know you got to get onto your next thing, but Erica, thank you so much for your time and thank you for coming on the podcast.

 

Erica Denner (28:38):

Oh, thank you so much. I enjoyed our conversation and have a great rest of the day.

 

William Tincup (28:41):

You too. Thanks everyone listening to the RecruitingDaily podcast. Until next time.

 

Announcer (28:46):

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Authors
William Tincup

William is the President & Editor-at-Large of RecruitingDaily. At the intersection of HR and technology, he’s a writer, speaker, advisor, consultant, investor, storyteller & teacher. He's been writing about HR and Recruiting related issues for longer than he cares to disclose. William serves on the Board of Advisors / Board of Directors for 20+ HR technology startups. William is a graduate of the University of Alabama at Birmingham with a BA in Art History. He also earned an MA in American Indian Studies from the University of Arizona and an MBA from Case Western Reserve University.


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