DWX keynote speaker Lisa Lee and senior managing editor Siobhan Fagan

6 Takeaways From the Summer 2022 Digital Workplace Experience

August 08, 2022 Digital Workplace
Mike Prokopeak
By Mike Prokopeak

In a digital world, it's the human touch that often makes all the difference. At work, that might be as simple as asking someone what they want from their job or what goals they have for their career.

It's a simple step, but one that many managers neglect to take, said Lisa Lee, vice president of global culture and belonging at DoorDash, in conversation with Reworked senior managing editor Siobhan Fagan during the opening keynote address at the Digital Workplace Experience event, hosted by Reworked from Aug. 3 –Aug. 4 online.

“So often we put people on a career path and we forget to ask, what are they looking for and what are they looking to gain from the experience,” Lee said.

That's a critical error in times that require organizations to be increasingly versatile, flexible and adaptable. One lesson from the pandemic is that people are the key to unlocking the value of the enterprise in disruptive times. Technology can be a game changer for companies looking to thrive through this period. It can fuel employee productivity and capability in new ways. But without guidance from people — and without buy-in from them — it’s nothing more than an expensive line item in the budget.

The summer Digital Workplace Experience event, built around the theme "Resilience and Agility in Disruptive Times," brought together more than 1,800 attendees to attend a dozen sessions, including keynotes, workshops and panel discussion featuring workplace leaders from DoorDash, JPMorgan Chase and Aya Healthcare, among others.

The next event in the yearlong series of virtual conferences, themed "Succeeding in the Era of the Intelligent Workplace," takes place Oct. 12 – Oct. 13, 2022.

Learning and Development Plays a Vital Role

In her keynote, DoorDash's Lee shared more about how employee learning and development plays a critical role in building resilience and agility. She honed in on diversity, equity and inclusion as a key area of focus.

“The goal is while the company is going through this big change in learning to be more aware, learning to be more empathetic and compassionate, those underrepresented employees, who are all reporting to somebody — most likely male, straight, white — those employees are getting the support that they need in order to manage up,” Lee said.

She offered three specific ways employee learning and development can support DEI goals:

  1. DEI 101: an entry-level course to give everyone a shared framework and language to have conversations which might feel to high risk to some.
  2. A separate development initiative focused on underrepresented talent: What can you offer them to help them level up, such as mentoring, sponsorship and classroom-based learning?
  3. Build in content that is not specifically focused on DEI within the existing learning curriculum. For example, train managers on how biases work so they can recognize potential areas where it might creep into the workplace.

However a company chooses to approach the issue, the employee experience should be front and center in the approach. Even with the best intentions, employees who aren't able to access learning, don't have enough time to engage in development opportunities, or don't see it supported by executives and the company at large will struggle to engage in it.

“What is the learning culture within your own company because you have to do the thing that will be received really well," Lee said. "We’ve had to really think through and design the curriculum in a way that takes into account the very demanding jobs that people have and be able to express what would be the additional value [they] will gain by taking part.”

Related Article: Transparency is Key to Making Employee Development More Equitable

The Tech Stack Is Key, But Lead With Behavior Change

On that topic of engagement in learning opportunities, technology can play a critical role.

Starting with the learning management system decades ago, enterprise learning technology has experienced a series of boom cycles, leading to innovations like on-demand e-learning, recommendation-driven learning experience platforms, micro-learning and AI-enabled coaching apps and systems that tailor development opportunities to the individual needs of learners.

Employees have access to courses, content and support that previous generations in the workplace couldn't imagine. But technology, as powerful as it may be, is not the magic solution to corporations' employee skills challenges. 

Organizations that lead with technology fail, said Dani Johnson, co-founder and principal analyst at RedThread Research, in a panel discussion titled "Employee Development Is in the Details."

Johnson's recommendation for organizations that are grappling with the wealth of choices in the learning technology stack is to focus on the type of learning behaviors the organization wants to encourage. From there, they can narrow down and find the technology that will best serve those behaviors. 

That requires organizations to embrace an experimental mindset as they approach ongoing disruption in their industries, a topic she wrote about for Reworked in May 2022.

Related Article: Now Is the Time to Redesign the Future of Work

How to Make Effective Managers for Disruptive Times

Not many managers can say they've had a similar career path to Julie Zhou, but they can find insights from her experience regardless.

Zhou was the first intern hired by Facebook in its early days as a college-focused social networking app. After getting hired by the company full time, she soon found herself strapped onto the rocket ship as the Menlo Park, Calif.-based company grew to become one of the largest tech firms in the world.

Zhou, who had no prior experience as a manager, found herself in the position of managing a fast growing team. Looking for ideas, she turned to the business bookshelf but found most of the bestsellers were written by CEOs and consultants and didn't meet her needs as a new, young manager. So she set out to collect her own experiences and wrote "The Making of a Manager."

She shared insights from the book in her opening keynote on day two of the Digital Workplace Experience event. Managers have three levers they can pull to focus their efforts in the organization, Zhou said. They are:

  1. People: Coaching, building trust and helping others achieve their aspirations and goals.
  2. Process: How people work together, manage differences and the systems and models for that.
  3. Purpose: Defining and communicating what the team is coming together to do.

A good manager will have a multiplicative effect, Zhou said, pointing to hiring and coaching as two key areas where they can see their efforts magnified.

"What did I do that allowed the team to have greater impact?" Zhou suggested as a good framing question for managers. To see whether or not managers are getting results from their efforts, she recommended tracking hiring targets and team member performance to see if they're growing in their roles.

Asking for feedback is key as well. Do team members understand the company's purpose? Are their goals and objectives clear? The core ingredient, Zhou said, is trust.

"You have to care for people, recognize humanity and see each other as people, not just as roles," she said.

Focus on Connection and Team Collaboration to Build Resilience

During times of turbulence and uncertainty, one of the most important things for companies to do is to create clarity around things that are certain. That was the message from a panel discussion of three experts titled "Creating a Resilient Organization."

What should companies create clarity around? Corporate values and how you conduct business. It's important to narrow down strategic focus into a set of specific behaviors needed to achieve that. Focusing on what the panel called MITs, or most important things, allows employees to exhale and know what they need to do in disruptive times.

"Operationalizing prioritization is the hardest thing to do, but the most important," said Larry McAlister, an HR and talent management executive whose work history includes stints at NetApp, Equinix, Applied Materials and Philips Electronics.

Karin Hurt, CEO of leadership development firm Let's Grow Leaders, argued that one key way to do that, and build resilience in the process, is to focus on equipping team members with the skills to help each other.

"Because in a distributed environment where you’ve got a lot of people hybrid or remote, if all the connection depends on the manager that’s an incredible amount of pressure," she said.

Encourage Teams and Leaders to Work Collaboratively

Encouraging people to work more collaboratively and giving them skills, techniques and tools to do that well can make a big difference in team resilience, Hurt continued. That's not to absolve managers and leaders of responsibility, however, a point that management author Beverly Kaye was quick to make.

"I think now employees are saying ’I will not work for a jerk,'" Kaye said.

Even amidst the challenges of the Great Resignation, employees will stay at a company if they work for a leader who cares about relationships and makes the individual employee feel that commitment, she said.

"People will stay if they work for a leader concentrated on their growth and people will stay if the culture is one where they themselves thrive,” Kaye said. “None of this is new, so dammit, do it!"

Related Article: When the Workforce and the Jerkforce Collide

Grappling With Employee Burnout

Developing resilience and agility for disruptive times can only be successful if companies grapple with one of the fundamental problems in the workforce today: employee burnout.

Burnout is fundamentally a workplace problem, said April Hansen, a nurse and now group president of workforce solutions at healthcare staffing firm Aya Healthcare. In her closing keynote address, Hansen shared lessons learned from the frontlines of the largest deployment of healthcare workers in US history following the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Once again, employee feedback is critical to identifying problems within the organization and developing solutions to those problems. Stress is not applied evenly across the organization, Hansen said, so it's important to find out which areas of a company are experiencing and absorbing the largest amounts of stress.

"Reaching out to people and asking for candid feedback on how their workload is impacting them is key to understand where the operational stress of the company is heavy," she said. 

Oftentimes, it's bad policies and processes that are making people miserable. Leaders can quickly and relatively easily make a change by getting rid of bad ones. 

"Feedback is a gift," Hansen said. "Every action that you’re going to take is going to have an effect on someone else … If you aren’t out there actively seeking feedback and asking the good, the bad, the ugly, you’re missing out.”

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