Mursion – The Unintended Impact of Remote Work on Critical Communication with Mark Atkinson
On today’s show, we have Mark Atkinson here from Mursion. We have a topic that I’ve been wanting to talk about for a long time, the unintended impact of remote work on critical communication. Intended, unintended, foreseen and unforeseen.
We talk about how Mursion helps teach people how to have difficult conversations through simulation. Or, as Mark calls it, “to sort of get the jiggles out of those really challenging conversations that we often get wrong because emotion gets in front of our brain.”
Listening time: 32 minutes
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Ladies and gentlemen, this is William Tincup. And you’re listening to the RecruitingDaily podcast. Today we have Mark on from Mursion. And we’re gonna be talking about actually a topic that I’ve been wanting to talk about for a long time. So I’m really glad that we’re actually doing this particular show, the unintended impact of remote work on critical communication. So kind of intended unintended, foreseen, unforeseen. We’re going to kind of dabble around all of those things, and I can’t wait to get into it. So, Mark, would you do me and the audience a favor, and introduce both yourself and introduce Mursion?
Sure. Mark Atkinson. I’m the CEO and co-founder of Mursion. Mursion is a place where people come to practice difficult conversations that they have at work. We use an interesting blend of virtual reality technology, artificial intelligence, and live human actors to in a sense, allow people to engage in a sort of virtual roleplay to, to get as I like to say, to sort of get the jiggles out of those really challenging conversations that we often get wrong because emotion gets in front of our brain and/or any training we’ve had about how to de-escalate conflict, how to how to listen, really intent attentively.
And maybe just something that we all learn from, we were in the sandbox and forgot some days afterward, which is just how to take turns. Around ideas and thoughts and conversation. And so we do that for many of the Fortune 500 companies, we do it in healthcare, we do it in education, and we learn a lot and find our learners benefit tremendously from it. So thank you very much for having me.
Well, this is just gonna be a fun bit. And then the pronunciation of the company name is Mursion, like, immersion.
Correct. And that’s exactly where it comes from.
Okay, so what have we, what do we learn, I guess, go back a year from now or a year from now, because it was March 13 or so, and, “Tag, you’re it! We all have to now work remotely.” What did we learn kind of in the initial parts of COVID and remote work about communication?
I think the first thing we discovered was that it was going to take a lot more proactive, work on the part of managers to establish routines that we’re going to replace the things the kinds of communication that happened informally in the office, or as the sort of around the proverbial water cooler, where people often could voice concerns about things that were happening at work or gain information about new policies and procedures.
And one of the first things to have happened when we all went remote, is that those informal conversations went dark. And, and, and it manifests itself pretty quickly, in some formal breakdowns that companies have reported to us in the survey that we conducted. So for example, employee reviews right now every employee wants to kind of know where they stand in the workplace. And when we surveyed over 450 employees and 200 managers, we found that only 35% of managers had reported that they had conducted an employee review during this last year of COVID. So you and 70% of employees and more than half of the managers told us that we spoke with that they were sort of actively avoiding having difficult conversations during a period of time.
You know, they should probably be. It’s me, it’s common sense, right? So but probably right at the beginning of COVID it was, you know, like, like people would ask me about HR and recruiting all the time. Especially like what’s going on with practitioners?
I’m like, A, they don’t know what’s going on, you know, because the company doesn’t know what’s going on. So they, you know, it’s watershed down, right. So they don’t know what’s going on, then starting to kind of piece together how work gets done in this new reality. And then third, they were hit where because of the recession, they were hit with doing a lot of riffs and then layoffs, so it kind of went to a pyramid of chaos.
Starting to figure out like, okay, work still has to get done. How do we do that? And then oh, now, now, we have to go through some difficult conversations, you know, in terms of furloughs and layoffs. What, what types? Because oh. Let me get back to the performance thing, because you mentioned something that I find fascinating. It would have probably been a good thing to do more reviews last year, or more frequently than less. But what do you see now, now that we’re a year removed from it, but we’re still in it? What do you think the role of reviews should be in 2021?
So it’s a really good question. I do think, there it’s a, there are two aspects to reviews that we’re seeing as critically important. The first is just a candid check-in and how people are doing. I mean, before, I’m giving you constructive feedback on how to continue to work professionally. You think everybody goes a little COVID crazy in isolation. I mean, I, you know, you’re sitting on Zoom for eight to 10 hours a day, you’re trying to juggle your kids, your spouse, you know, your own needs, your parents and you’ve got your boss scheduling you back to back, to back to back, on yet another Zoom call. And I think people go a little COVID crazy, to be honest with you.
And part of building a culture is demonstrating empathy for your colleagues and certainly for your direct reports. So I think the first part of that check-in is, tell me really how you’re doing and how I can support you as you’re going through this unique experience that the whole world is experiencing together. And then I think a second part of it is to bring the colleague or supervisor acting as a bridge to the communication and network that employ, the employee is losing through virtual work. And what I mean by that is, you know, you wander around the office. Again, to get back to my sort of metaphorical watercooler explanation. You do stumble into other people, you hear about what’s going on in other parts of the organization, you go out and have a beer after work.
You, you do the things by which you formulate culture. And in a remote setting. Culture building is an intentional activity that managers have to actively facilitate because the informal going out for a beer isn’t going to happen and the watercooler is gone. And so helping brands like do you know, what’s going on in the product side of the organization? Do you know what the evening shift is doing? Do you know what people are doing on this other project? Is there anything I can share with you that would give you a better perspective on what’s going on in the organization? That’s not happening. And I think a huge part of the role of the manager in this work from home context is bridging information and making connections for people that aren’t naturally happening at work.
Do you think now more than ever, is a time to talk and to have conversations around personal life? Right? So there’s work conversations and performance-related conversations and how they’ll do their job, but become bridging over into health and wellness, mental health, wellbeing. Any of those things. Do you think that the companies should take a more active role or, you know, a proactive role in having conversations with remote employees?
I think we did, I will say. I mean, we tried very hard. We, we’re a bigger company now but when COVID hit a year ago, we were a pretty small company still. And we did two things. We tried to create very frequent check-ins with people. And then we set up a kind of almost an extra benefit fund as sort of you asked, you know, we’ll ask no questions, if you or your family is struggling in ways that nobody could have predicted.
Within our means, we have set aside a little fund to get you a little bit of extra help. And, um, and I think that the, and we did that because at the end of the day, all organizations are, ours included are only as good as the culture and as you know the Drucker saying, right ‘culture beats strategy every day of the week.’ Your organization is only as successful and competitive as your culture is strong. And and and you do have to do, though, I mean, you do have to do those kinds of things.
Now, every company has different means in terms of what they can do. But I think employees appreciate the spirit of it as much as anything. So I think it is really important. And I think there are boundaries to prying into people’s personal life, but showing that you care, asking how people are doing, checking in, I think, is critically important.
I love that. The onus on we’ve talked about in the company side, what’s what do you coach for the employee side? For the, for them to communicate as well. So that, you know, we have two active groups of people communicating with one another? Like what’s, what’s their responsibility in this?
Well, one of the. I mean, so let’s take the area that is highly relevant to what a lot of organizations are focused on right now, which is around diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace. And we are experiencing real profound societal change in the expectations of fairness at work. And so, for employees, I go back to my, it’s about speaking up appropriately in the moment when colleagues or superiors are engaged in behavior or practices that are inappropriate, that reveal, even inadvertently a kind of bias towards gender or race, or ethnicity.
And, and so, you know, the term microaggression has been given for this type of behavior. But we’ve all seen it, it’s that off-color remark that somebody makes, thinking they’re being funny or amusing, or that that’s just the cultural norm. And those, you don’t change that culture, unless you as an employee are prepared to speak up and correct it. In a respectful, polite, ideally, and not politicized sort of way. But you do take it on and say, we stand, that’s not here at Mursion. That’s not what we believe, is the way we treat our colleagues. That’s not the way we talk about women. That’s not the way we address people of color.
There are other ways that we conduct these conversations here and employees need it in the same way children do as you raise them to stand up for their friends in the sandbox. Adults need to stand up for their colleagues on the factory floor and in the boardroom.
So 100 years ago, I read a book on fierce conversations. And it was really, it was really cool, because it was basically kind of a model of how to have difficult conversations, right? How does Mursion look at kind of the types of conversations? Do you all have kind of not a methodology but do you have a nomenclature for the different types of conversations?
We tend to build. So we build our simulations around our employer’s view of the way these conversations take place. And so they will focus on allyship, for example, or they will do, they’ll build on Glenn Singleton’s model that he calls courageous conversations, which I think is a little bit analogous to your fierce conversations, for example, where, you know, you stand up or you’ve sort of heard Ray Dalio write about this as sort of a very blunt direct culture that exists. And so we don’t make a point of view about the way to do it. What we do is we work with the folks that lead these organizations and help design the experiences that where those conversations are necessary so that an employee or a manager can come into the simulator, be literally thrown into the experience exactly the way it would happen at work, and be challenged to behave the way that the culture of that organization calls for. And our goal is to get you to experience the emotional stress that you feel at work, which often causes you to trigger your own bias or to or intolerance that might come up. It’s, we all, anybody who’s raised kids knows this, right? Kids have a way of pushing your buttons when they want to, sort of co-workers, and you got to learn how to kind of control yourself in those moments.
So let’s dig into simulations for a moment, because I know I know folks will find that fascinating. Is that is that like, is that managers? Is it? Is it? Can it be simulation-based? Can it be for everyone? And when I’m thinking about it, can it be for the employees themselves to learn their part in a simulation? I’d like their, go through it themselves? Or do you see this more as a leadership management tool?
No. And I actually think it’s, it’s very appropriate for employees, because it, you know, as they say, it takes two to tango, like if that whole feedback conversation that I said at the top of the conversation about reviews? Well, you know, as it turns out, the research on getting feedback shows that the best way to make feedback happen well, is for the employee to actually ask for it. Right, you know, and so so what you want is, what’s the appropriate way to ask for feedback in such a way that you’re going to refeed, you’re going to receive the most useful feedback to yourself to grow professionally. So the manager has to learn how to give it the right way. But the employee has to learn how to ask for it. And that’s hard to do. And just like asking for a raise is challenging, asking for feedback is tough sometimes. So you’re absolutely right, that it’s relevant for both sides.
Do you see, at a point, do you see this working in talent acquisition for recruiters and hiring managers and candidates where they kind of have a pre-interview or pre-simulation just kind of, so that everyone kind of has better or better outcomes in their interviews?
We do it that way now. We have folks, we have, we do it in tenure decisions. So you’ve got a high state, I mean, any place where there’s been, let’s say, you know, bad practice, and unconscious bias has been in academia around tenure decisions that have always happened behind closed doors, where the propensity to gossip is high, right. And now, you know, we want to promote diversity and inclusion in all rounds. And in that realm, sort of practicing the conversation beforehand is critically important. We do it for interviewing as well, not just for the interviewer, but for the interviewee. For, for folks that have not come up through the ranks in such a way that they’ve had, done a lot of interviewing. For them to practice how they come across. People that entering the workforce, for the first time. People that are going from incarceration to the workforce. People that have something about their story that’s hard to tell, that they want an employer to understand to be empathetic to. You want to practice those conversations beforehand. And even in the C suite, we work with a Fortune 100 company that where executives are nervous about a restructuring that’s coming and have to interview for positions in other parts of the organization and haven’t had an interview in eight years, you know, that kind of situation. And they use the simulator all the time.
Love that. So, there’s a lot of discussion in HR, in business in general about a return to work, kind of a hybrid model, where remote work, flexible work, are kind of woven into the, we’ve proven ourselves that we can actually do some of these jobs, if done most of these jobs remotely. How does, how does Mursion look at hybrid work? You know, again, we’re still in COVID. So you know, we are talking a little bit about the future. But how do you look at kind of these hybrid models and what people are talking about?
So we’re based in San Francisco. All of tech has gone to the model you’re describing for the most part here. If you look at Facebook, Google, Salesforce, they’re all telling folks, take your time, don’t come back. We even see in rec, you know, in the recruiting of engineers, you go into LinkedIn, and you find a great engineer that you want to recruit and you ask them, would you be able to come in for meetings? And they tell you well, actually, you know, I’ve moved to Texas, even though it says I’m at Google in San Francisco. I’m out. You know, I took the opportunity to go remote. So the whole, the whole nature of collaboration has changed. And so that we actually simulate conversations that happen in Zoom. Like we, you know, we let people practice what it’s like to do this in a remote setting, as well, as you know, around the table in the office. And I think that model is here today. I mean, our study revealed that 41% of employees and 45% of managers want to want to continue in a mix of at home and at work and over almost half of the people that we surveyed of employees and managers said they want to work fully at home. I mean, with that you sort of do the simple math, there is a distinct minority, I mean less than 20% are saying they would, they’re excited to come back to the office full time. So I think your point is spot on. In fact, today’s New York Times has a huge piece, it features Spotify and Salesforce in New York saying remote work is here to stay and Manhattan may never be the same. I have a feeling that’s true of downtown San Francisco too.
Yeah, if I had three kids under the age of five, I’d probably be in a rush to get back to the office. Yeah, exactly. I mean, some of this is going to be dependent on on on some of those types of things. You know, because there’s been a lot of stress at home with, especially, you know, if you have kids. But even if you don’t, you know, if you if you’re not, you know, you’ve if you’ve been accustomed to commuting, and then and then working at a place for a number of hours and coming home. You know, now you’ve you know, not leaving the home. I think you said it earlier, I think we’re all a little stir crazy Cabin Feverish. I think, I think the opposite is going to be true once COVID is over. Like people, like people that are haven’t eaten out, are going to eat out for like six months in a row, just
I actually, I refer to it, it’s going to be like in San Francisco, it’s going to be the Summer of Love all over again. Mountain Golden Gate Park and they’re not going back home ever.
Yeah, I read, I think it was an Atlantic article about it’s gonna be like the roaring 20s. People are gonna want to go out and do all that stuff that they haven’t been able to do. So a couple of things, back to remote work as it is right now with critical conversation, communications, and how we do that, how we do that in the future, how we do that now. But as a how you how Mursion helps people practice, which I love. What are some of the things that you’re seeing other types of conversations that we need to practice as it just relates to remote work? Like, what do we need to eat? Or what’s right around the corner that you think that okay, this is coming, or that advice that you would give leaders about, okay, they, your team needs to practice this, you know, just because this is going to be the new normal.
So I, I think we saw in the, we’ve seen over the last several years, three sort of simultaneous waves building momentum to land on our shore, and they have all now roughly landed at the same time. And this is what people will be talking about. Wave one, I would argue, began in the pay equity work that started in Occupy Wall Street. And that, that fundamentally, the, the generation coming into the workforce now expects to see some form of pay equity across the board.
The second wave is a gender wave that was was made manifest in the #metoo movement that is just intolerant of any of the kind of shenanigans, the Madmen era, if you will, of the workplace. Like that is just not acceptable, and, and cannot be the case, even in industries that tolerated it for a long time.
And lastly, and perhaps most poignantly, I think you’ve seen now beginning with the protests around George Floyd and other sorts of racially motivated crimes, complete intolerance of inequitable treatment based on race and ethnicity and, and so those three things give workers a lot to talk about. And, and they don’t just want a language in the workplace, they want to see it in, who’s in what roles, what type of authority are they given? What kind of voice do they have about decisions? And when that voice is not being honored there’s something to talk about.
And, um, I think we see it in companies we work with. I mean, I’ll give a shout-out to one, where we work with T Mobile and T Mobile has made a huge effort around branding itself that if you come into a T Mobile store, you’re not being treated like a data plan. You’re being treated like a human being and that organization spends a huge amount of time investing in the training of all of its employees to walk that walk. And they do simulations all the time to get that, right. So, you know, that’s there’s a lot to talk about. A lot of people walk into those stores. So, um, you know, I think you’re gonna find those three waves being the topic of conversation for some time to come.
I love that. Three things, just towards we wrap. One is, I want to dig into a little bit more around diversity, inclusion. Diversity, inclusion, belonging, equity and equality. So how do you simulate that? And how do your clients push you to simulate, you know, some of the harder parts of that, you know? And, and again, you can kind of break that out in a lot of different ways. But how do you, how are your clients pushing you to create simulations that are really kind of pushing the boundaries of those things?
We, let’s just say that there’s no shortage of raw material. Unfortunately. So they bring to us real cases of things that they have seen happen. Everything, you know, from the Starbucks cafe, where, you know, there’s been an incident in a shop or somebody has politely as somebody to take, put on their mask, and then just berated by the angry customer for being asked to put their mask on during COVID. To, you know, the academic room where someone makes a snide remark about the female professor, who’s coming up for tenure decision. To the off-color comments of the manager in the team meeting about promoting the woman of color. Who’s too, quote, aggressive, you know, in his interactions with her, those kinds of things are happening every day across America. And, and we recreate them in simulation to give employees and managers the opportunity to do the right thing in practice. So that when it happens on the job, they do the right thing also.
I love that. I mean it’s teaching, it’s in simulations, this is just a wonderful part of simulations, it’s teaching in a different way. It’s like throwing you into a situation, a scenario, simulation saying, okay. You know, it’s a safe environment, like you can mess this up, and then learn from it. And then the next time when it actually happens for real, you have live ammunition. Then you’ll be able, you’ll be more apt to respond appropriately. I love that.
Second question is, what are, what types of conversation are the hardest to kind of teach or simulate? You know, the most difficult that you’ve seen in some of those, you know, obviously, so a lot of it is customer and client-driven. What have y’all seen so far? where you’re like whew? Okay, I mean, I know, we can build a simulation around that, you know, but what’s been the most challenging and again, types?
So I think the hardest conversations are the ones that you’re asked to do, where you have been a victim of behavior that is being replayed in the simulation. Oh, I, you know, we have worked in some ways if you think about organizations, we do a simulation for one organization, where the employee, the scenario is that an employee is late for work, because he’s a young Black man, and he was pulled over by a police officer, and harassed for no reason and kept waiting forever while he was threatened with being taken downtown.
And this young Black man was racing to make a meeting and presumably pulled over for no reason other than the fact that he was a young Black man behind the wheel. A situation that we all know happens far too often in the United States. When you, when you go through that simulation, as a young Black man, that can be tough. And when you go through that simulation as the mother of a young Black man that can be. And because it is reminding you of an unfortunate aspect of what it’s like to be a young Black man or the mother of one in the United States of America right now.
And so there are definitely things like that, which are challenging for folks. And we do those in a deft way. We ask people, if they want to pause, we give them a safe out. But and, but there certainly are things like that, that can be challenging to do.
God I can see it. My mind’s racing with all kinds of, you know, like on sexual harassment, you know, on all sides, right. So the victim side, but also the perpetrator side. Then, you know, an older guy recognizing all the failures, or all the things that they did young in their career, and kind of having to, you know, and that’s not to make them the victim, but just to just that reckoning of like, of mistakes that you’ve made. And, you know, there are so many cool ways, again, you know, to go through a safe situation like that, and to learn from it. I just love that. The last thing as we as we go out, Mark, what else should we know about Mursion?
Um, I think that, that we are entering an era where these human skills are going to differentiate the people who are most successful in their careers. And the thing you should know about Mursion is that these human skills are not innate. They are learnable, like everything else, and they just require practice. And I highly encourage people to practice them because it’s not only good for their career, it’s good for their adult relationships outside of work, it’s good for their parenting skills, it is a way to create a more equitable and fair world.
I love it. Brother, this was wonderful. I wanted to talk about this for a while. Thank you so much for coming on the podcast. And I just love what y’all do. So thank you so much.
William, thank you so much for such good questions and for the podcast.
Awesome. And for everyone that listens to the RecruitingDaily podcast: until next time.
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.