Crafting the Future of Work: Nellie Hayat, Density

This interview with Nellie Hayat, Workplace Innovation Leader at Density, dives into the evolving landscape of the modern workplace. Nellie discusses the concept of Workplace Engagement and the future of work, highlighting its increasing importance in the post-pandemic world. She also explores the shift in metrics used to gauge the success of workplace policies and the need for cross-team collaboration to design engaging experiences. The interview also touches on the challenges of cultivating a unified culture in a distributed workforce and the role of social interactions in fostering connections. Finally, Nellie concludes by offering advice on enhancing workplace engagement and overall employee experience.

Can you tell us your title and describe your role in a few sentences?

My current title is Workplace Innovation Leader. We've seen everyone change their titles over the last two years to add words like “new ways of working”, “employee experience,” “employee engagement,” “office as-a-destination,” and “employee journey.” I think that we will soon come back to something more true and simple. Employee experience & engagement for instance encompass all the different verticals: where it happens (office or remote), how it happens (new ways of working), when it happens (9 to 5 or non-linear work schedule), and how we build it (the teams designing the employee journey).

What do you think about when I say Workplace Engagement? It's quite a new term and I'm not sure what people really think about it.

I think it's a very interesting question, because it goes back to the core purpose of employee and workplace experience.

For a very long time, the purpose was to provide a space where people could come and work. Basic. Then we graduated to “we want to create a safer environment and an environment where people can thrive”. Today we've realized the office is like a yoga studio or a restaurant: we need to compete for people’s attendance, attraction, and commitment. That's what we call engagement. We want people to engage with the space that we designed, so I think that “Workplace Engagement” defines the transition we've been in since the pandemic. It is still very new but engagement will become the new KPI. We are going to move away from just counting how many people come every day and look at when people come? Are they engaged? What do they like/dislike? Are they coming back? Why are they back? Those are metrics that we're currently missing.

How do you think the metrics and indicators used to measure the success of a workplace policy differ from the pre-pandemic world?

I think the shift to hybrid and remote work during the pandemic has given more meaning to workplace and real estate leaders. We used to think that our mission was to design offices, I used to say that my job is to design offices - but I was wrong. The purpose of my job was to create spaces where people could feel happy, safe and productive in order to deliver the best work of their life. So the pandemic was an eye-opening moment; I am not designing spaces any longer. I am allowing people to find the resources that they need to do their best work. The resources today include: the space options, the community, and the technology.

If we’re saying this job is to design experiences and not buildings or places - how do you collaborate with other teams when it comes to employee experience to drive more engagement?

To better design the employee journey, we need to look at the experiences they have online, at the office, at home, at an offsite, and beyond. Our purpose is to design an environment for people to thrive, so we can’t focus on only one specific environment; designing experiences applies everywhere.

Therefore I think we are going to see new teams emerging to cater to this job description, and I hope they will have more power to strategize on what is in the experience and how to get the engagement that we are planning for. For now, they're probably going to report to the people, the workplace or the events team. But ideally, they will take the lead and be the one to strategize over the future.

How do you think we should build culture between and beyond walls today? Because everyone is distributed, it's very difficult to build and scale culture across the world.

It's hard to scale a program when it's fractionated under so many different teams: some initiatives only talk about the culture in the office and then you have the people looking at the remote workers, so they try to build a culture for remote teams... People are in buckets, and they don't feel part of the same company because they have a different experience whether they work from home or at the office. We used to say that people are going to feel left behind or they're going to feel like second class citizens. I disagree. I think people can have different experiences. People can have an experience as a remote worker and people can have an experience as an office worker within the same company. No one would say, I'm more or less, or It's better or worse–it's just different.

But, that's not what is going to build a cohesive culture across your workforce. Once you have the employee experience team take over who will look at the experience as a whole and not where it happens, then people would feel like they belong no matter where they choose to work from or live. 

What is the role of social interaction in building social ties in the strategies of companies today? How do you think they should use events to promote connections?

Let’s look at a tool like Donut on slack. It is pretty amazing because it allows employees to meet new people inside the company and expand their network. Or a tool like Café is so valuable because it allows people to keep up with their team and friends inside the company and also never miss an event. 

In a global and distributed work environment, it is difficult for people to feel connection and belonging. And it will not happen at all if no team is in charge of creating the infrastructure (with events or tools like Café) to enable these spontaneous encounters. This team is The Employee Experience team and once empowered to build a strategy, they will drive and reinforce the culture at every touchpoint with all employees.

What would you say are the toughest challenges most companies have faced during and since the pandemic?

The first one that is obvious to me is that there's emotional anxiety. A lot of leaders, especially in tech companies, stepped in at the beginning of the pandemic and showed heart and compassion. They sent people home and gave a lot of time off so that employees could care for loved ones. It came from a place of heart and a compassionate message: “we're all in this together, we need to save each other and we’re here for you guys".

Now, there is this disconnect of coming from a caring place to the current message “guys, I still care for you but I'm going to force you into the office". That's where there's anxiety because there's a misalignment, the messaging is not clear, and the resistance from the employees has caused a counter reaction of authority. Employees realize now that they appreciate certain perks of working from home that they don't want to give back.

But hopefully this is how we'll move from a top-down leadership to more what we call a constellation - where there's a public space where we can have conversations and try things and find a rhythm together. I think startups are best positioned for this because they're a smaller team, there's more commitment and also more interpersonal relationships that allow people to say “I trust you, let's try".

In big organizations we lost that trust a little bit, so there's more resistance. I want startups to lead the way and show how trust allows people to negotiate and renegotiate different settings among themselves and see what works. They’re the ones who are going to adopt new tools faster and tell us what should actually be in this new way of working that we've been building up for the last three years. We're reaching the end of the climax of all the questions and going to “Okay, this is how it works".

What is your advice to anyone who is trying to increase workplace engagement or the overall experience? What would you begin with?

It's a beautiful question because I'm trying to see how a workplace leader can create a clean state for themselves when actually their state is not clear at all. It's all fractionated (remote vs office vs hybrid), and there's background story and drama. I think we're going to have to understand all aspects of the life of an employee within an organization and where they could engage with us. But we also need to remember that we ask so much from employees; they also have a scope of work that they need to deliver. So when we're asking them to come to the office, engage, come to the social events and be part of an ERG - they're like, “You’re giving me a list of extra things to do while I already have so much work”.

This is why there's a lot of conflict for employees, for individuals when they're being invited to the office or forced to be in the office: you may have some reaction like “you asked me to report to my manager and work on product or engineer, but you also want me to be a social animal. And I'm not being paid to be a social animal right now.” Also, employees are not retributed, they don't get any retribution for being a good citizen inside the company. I think that's going to be one of the new metrics of engagement. People are going to be rewarded in different ways (payment, performance, rewards) for being good citizens and social animals (example with Salesforce RTO incentive).

It's going to be clearer to them how they should divide their time between delivering their work and engaging with company culture. That's a big piece that we're missing so far because no manager or team can do it themselves.

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Timothée Bourcier

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