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In Five to Nine’s People Leader’s Series: Remote Edition, we highlight leaders who have pivoted into successfully motivating employees to do their best work and feel engaged while working from home during the pandemic. 

This week we’re sharing a conversation we had with Robert Hilliard, Office Operations Lead at ThoughtWorks. While Robert’s teams had developed a remote and in-office system for ThoughtWorks employees who are majority remote due to weekly travel as consultants, adjusting the entire office team to 100% remote work was still a learning experience. 

In this interview, we learn: 

  • The importance of balancing too little vs too much communication with your organization by balancing how that information is delivered.
  • How Robert has leaned on and supported grassroots groups to create and strengthen community during COVID19 
  • How openness to trial and error has been a key instrument to understanding how to best deliver what employees need during this time
  • We end the conversation with a question about Robert’s perspective on the future of remote work and what Robert’s WFH rituals look like. 

 For some laughs, at the end of the interview, check out Robert’s favorite meme/gif from the last few weeks and we totally identify!

Five to Nine: How have you transitioned from in-office to virtual and especially coordinating everyone across ThoughtWorks?

Robert: We’ve always had two systems to engage with our workforce. One was remote and one was in office, so it’s always been a balancing act running two systems. It’s a lot easier when you’re able to devote fully to one system and building that out. When COVID-19 hit we quickly shifted our focus solely on our remote system and building that out, but we’ve always had a strategy for how we engage with our employees remotely.

Five to Nine: Was that infrastructure built because you already had a good portion of your employees remote, given that a vast majority are consultants and traveled on a weekly basis?

Robert: Yes, we have 700+ employees in North America and most of them are traveling consultants. Depending on the various streams of work, the number of people traveling each week changes quite a bit. 

Five to Nine: Now that your consultants are working from home now, did that change your strategy around virtual events or virtual engagement and programming?

 Robert: It did, for a couple of reasons. First, everyone is working remotely, which wasn’t the case before. Many of our events were set up to run both in-office and virtually, so we needed to take a look at all of our events and see if they still work in a completely virtual setting. Second, with people not traveling we had more time to become available to do events and activities. We also realized that people would start to quickly miss the interactions they would get from being in the office. So, we had to look at ways to recreate that in a virtual setting.

We were also very mindful of information overload, especially during this crisis. We collaborated closely with leadership to make sure that we allowed space for each other to a). have the leadership provide important information on the state of the business b). for us to continue and provide content and activities that maintained a certain level of normalcy for ThoughtWorkers during this time. 

 However, with the combination of both of those, we had to scale back on a number of things that we were doing just because, by nature, people are fatigued processing everything that’s happening at work, but also their personal lives as well. People are not just connecting for work, they’re also connecting with loved ones with increased screen time so we want to be mindful of how much we’re putting out. 

 “People are not just connecting for work, they’re also connecting with loved ones with increased screen time so we want to be mindful of how much we’re putting out.”

With this in mind, we’ve explored other ways to get information and to engage with people. So we’ve amped up our internal podcast series to share information. We’ve definitely relied on our internal chat system for support groups. Someone previously created a mental health group to allow people to express their concerns, which now has more engagement than we’ve had before. Chat rooms are a great tool that gives our leaders a way to keep an ear on the ground for what people are concerned about so we can be proactive in addressing those concerns. My team will observe what people are chatting about in order to curate content and activities that cater to that concern.

Five to Nine: This is Mental Health Awareness Month, how do you all approach mental health support for your employees, I know you mentioned the group you facilitated, but how did you even start it? 

Robert: Well, we’ve found that grassroots group movements work really well for our community. We encourage folks to come together and form these groups so that it has a more holistic feel, and we’ve found that people are more likely to engage. We provide whatever tools they may need, and we say “Let us know how we can support you.”

Each office is unique in that their passions and areas of interest, especially in social settings, is different from office to office. Some people have been doing karaoke nights where other people get together and play a game or do a crossword together. So, these things are grassroots activities we continuously encourage and support. Our Office Operations team, made up of Office Managers and Receptionists, will regularly check in with folks who are trying to plan a social activity or a learning event to see if they need any support.

“Each office is unique in that their passions and areas of interest, especially in social settings, is different from office to office. Some people have been doing karaoke nights where other people get together and play a game or do a crossword together.”

Five to Nine: In regards to your team in general, how do you make sure that the work being done is impactful?  

Robert: It is definitely a learning opportunity for the Office Operations team to manage an office when you don’t have a physical office. The team has always been stewards of the office culture, which feeds into the overall company culture. We align ourselves with the values and make sure that we’re pushing content that supports the values of the organization. Which is really supporting amazing technologists. We have bi-weekly calls to assess the different activities that we’ve rolled out in order to gauge if it is working. If it’s not working, we think about how we need to adjust.  

For example, very early on started a Friday open call for the entire day, starting at 8:00 AM (EDT) and ending at 6:00 PM (PDT) to cover all of our offices. We would keep the call running all day so people could pop in and out. We didn’t get much engagement. After three weeks, we assessed and found that people really weren’t engaging. Instead, we decided to do a 30-minute midday office at 3:00 PM in the afternoon. That’s usually around the time when folks would have gathered in the kitchen at the office. This worked a lot better since it was a narrower timeframe and it was daily rather than just one day a week. Engagement still varies day-to-day, but the people who do show up really appreciate the opportunity to take a break from work and be social.

“[We] make sure that we’re pushing content that supports the values of the organization. Which is really supporting amazing technologists.”

Five to Nine: How are you creating the smaller groups? Is this through people signing up for slots?

 Robert: No, we assess it. For example, in New York, we had a big turnout which then split it into two smaller groups. In other offices, we have yet seen a big buildup of engagement, but we’ve seen a steady rotation of people that are engaged. It’s starting off with one and then assessing the needs as it continues to grow and the demand grows. If needed, you then split the sessions so that you continue the more intimate sessions. One of the most important things to success is that we’ve made sure the employees know that all things are trial, that we need to be flexible and make the shifts. 

To increase engagement, we encourage the workforce to engage our office managers regularly, not just by email, but also via chat groups for each of the offices. Each office manager is responsible for engaging the community and reminding folks of important information and also saying, “Hey, I would love to see you join the chat!”, so they are directly engaging with people and motivating people to hopefully connect. 

Five to Nine: Switching gears to your predictions for the future, do you think that widespread remote work is here to stay? 

Robert: Yeah, there are lots of questions surrounding what the office experience is going to be like in the future. I think we’re going to see an end to the open floor plan for office spaces. Organizations will be allowing more work from home. I think the challenge is for organizations to identify the opportunities to bring their collective workforce together for a sense of community. The investment that they’re making to an office is not a saving necessarily for the business, but the opportunity to invest in experiences that allow people to come together for community, connection, learning, and development.

Five to Nine: What is your personal favorite new work from home rituals? 

Robert: Being in this situation has allowed me to form new habits and form a solid morning routine. I’ve been slowing down and really investing in good habits that set me up for success for the day. Not checking emails all the time and making sure that I take care of personal needs before I jump onto the computer. I also remind myself to step away from the computer and do something else to give my mind a break. Working from home I’ve definitely become more mindful of self-care.

Five to Nine: What’s a funny gif popping up anything that you found funny?

Robert: A funny gif that someone sent through a chat from Death Becomes Her with Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn. This person was responding to a “how was your weekend?” question and could only sum it up in this way. 

dbh gif.gif


Until next time, that’s a wrap!

In the meantime, explore how Five to Nine enables people and program leaders to collaborate, manage, and evaluate the impact of their employee programs all in one platform. We have helped customers host thousands of live and virtual events through the Five to Nine platform and have tons of best practices up our sleeves. Schedule some time to chat here.