TFI Talent Talks Interview Series:
Facing Forward - The future of work in a post-COVID-19 world
In our sixth and final installment of the TFI Talent Talks interview series, we look to the future and consider how working through the pandemic has changed our perceptions of work, our workplace practices and our understanding of the possible. There are key lessons learned around speed, agility, innovation and the ability to pivot that organizations are keen to take forward with them into the next stage of work.
Matthew Smith, Senior Managing Director, Talent with Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan (Ontario Teachers’) joins us in a discussion on reimagining the future of work, and how organizations can use workplace trends accelerated by COVID-19, as enablers to create a more flexible and impactful work experience.
Julie Bryski (Senior Director, Talent Initiatives, Toronto Finance International): Welcome Matthew! To start us off, can you share with us what have you learned as Ontario Teachers’ has worked through the pandemic?
Matthew Smith (Senior Managing Director, Talent, Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan):
Our biggest learning is the importance of high-trust leadership and understanding individuality and the unique needs of every employee.
The world instantly changed, and we all had to quickly adapt to doing things in different ways. This created uncertainty for our employees in terms of what was expected of them and how they would be managed remotely. Our senior leaders’ authenticity and willingness to be vulnerable went a long way in building trust across the organization. While we never promised to have all the answers, employees felt comfortable coming forward to express their own concerns and ask questions.
Julie Bryski: How has working through the COVID-19 pandemic changed how we think about work and workplaces? What are the recent work trends that have been accelerated by the COVID-19 crisis?
Matthew Smith: The pandemic and global shutdown accelerated and amplified several trends that we've been seeing for a few years.
- Technology and hyper-connectivity: The use of technology to connect employees to each other and the need for flexible work options that enable employees to maintain their productivity, became a necessity during the pandemic.
- The whole person: There has been a real connection back to our whole person – meaning our physical, mental, social and emotional dimensions. Mental and physical wellness is a trend that we have seen for a long time, and COVID-19 has brought this to the forefront. Understanding the whole person, individual needs and work-life blend became really important.
- Meaning and purpose: COVID-19 has amplified the discussion of meaning and purpose in our work. This has been driven by the rise of the term "essential work."
When we reflect on what is essential, it enables us to reduce or even eliminate activities that may create bureaucracy, ineffectiveness or waste. This really resonated with our employees, because they were focusing on things that truly mattered. They were making a difference. They knew they were needed by others and they were having an impact.
As organizations get bigger, they often fall into practices that create drag or inefficiencies. The call to essential provided a new lens for us to think about not only our work, but how we work.
Julie Bryski: How can we enable a different and more compelling work experience by addressing these trends? What could different look like?
Matthew Smith: Our executive team realized early on that while we are working through a pandemic and the economic and financial uncertainties that brings, there are some silver linings. For example, COVID-19 has given us a unique opportunity to rethink our approach when it comes to how and where we work. While we won’t ever be a fully remote workforce, we now see the benefits of giving employees more flexibility between working from home and in the office and we are figuring out what this might look like for us in a post-COVID world. The pandemic has demonstrated the importance of family as well as taking care of our physical and mental health. These days, we have more time to connect with our spouses, children and our closest friends. This has been very meaningful for people and is an eye-opener for many who realize how little of it we may have had in the past – largely due to long commute times.
One of the things we're thinking about is the trade-off between increased flexibility and increased accountability. Increased flexibility doesn't mean we get less done. In fact, it can mean we get more done.
We want to have an unrelenting focus on performance impact and team and individual effectiveness. We are also re-imagining the time, place and methods of work, and are looking for new approaches and recipes to maximize both impact and effectiveness. We want to not only think about flexibility as a lever to attract great talent and drive employee engagement, but also to drive impact and productivity.
Julie Bryski: What would we need to focus on to make this work?Matthew Smith: If we de-couple the two ideas of increased flexibility and increased accountability, I believe the more difficult one will be the unrelenting focus on accountability and performance.
Flexibility has challenges that are we are already figuring out – the right technology, appropriate bandwidth, new physical spaces, managing time zones around the globe, etc. There’s good work being done to re-imagine the time, place and way we work.
Our best leaders realize that in this new world, we have to focus on outcomes rather than on behaviours.
Our leaders need to make a few shifts and go from operating with clear directions and narrow metrics to establishing a shared vision and an understanding of the outcomes needed, while making accountability clear.
To drive performance, leaders need to understand impact over effort. In an increasingly virtual world where we may have less interaction, but need to be even more connected, it's critical that we can share direct, candid and evidence-based feedback with employees, and never miss a coaching opportunity to highlight what was done exceptionally well, or where there are opportunities for improvement.
We want to emphasize individual critical thinking and courage, over excessive collaboration. Collaboration is incredibly important, but to move quickly and produce the results we need, people need to involve the stakeholders who are necessary – rather than collaborating with everyone.
Prioritizing progress over perfection is going to be very important in organizations. We have to get better at knowing when good, is good enough. We need to know when we must lean in and demand perfect results versus understanding when good is sufficient for the task. When we take everything from an 8.5 or 9 to a 10, that has a great cost on people's flexibility and their work-life balance.
We need to have the courage say no to things that aren't essential. It’s about playing your position, versus all hands on-deck, and everything rising up the chain for approvals.
Julie Bryski: You have described a system-level change in how we think about work. How will mindsets and belief systems need to change to be successful with this transformation?
Matthew Smith: I think this is going to be the biggest challenge for most organizations. The best way to create lasting change is to shape the mindset. With the right mindset, the skills and tools needed can be discovered or developed. We find that there is a broad range of leader mindsets related to flexible work.
We acknowledge that work is not going back to how it was pre-COVID. There is a range of beliefs that the best talent can produce more with more flexibility. Organizations that are not able to provide that flexibility may find it difficult to attract and retain the best talent. Employees who are self-motivated, empowered and accountable, will increasingly demand this type of environment. We also acknowledge that it’s not for every employee. There are different types of work in an organization and people have different personal and professional needs. Some roles are tied to producing a specific output on a regular basis. This may place limitations on where and when the work can take place.
We have an opportunity to test our preconceived notions around the time and place of work. It is unlikely that flexibility of time and place can be applied to an entire organization, so we may have a few different systems. We need to have an individualized employment approach for everybody.
We also need to gauge the extent to which leaders believe that improved mental, physical and social well-being increases the quality of decision-making, impact and outcomes. I believe that the best leaders understand that these are intricately connected. Addressing overall well-being is perhaps the biggest opportunity for individuals and organizations to achieve more of their goals.
Addressing overall well-being is perhaps the biggest opportunity for individuals and organizations to achieve more of their goals.
Another mindset that we need to consider is the extent to which leaders believe that most employees are self-motivated, seek autonomy, want to continually improve, and wish to have a purpose and an impact. We believe that by trusting talent and addressing individual needs, we enable employees to exceed the expectations and requirements of the role. A risk for organizations is to try to control the bottom quartile of an organization rather than capture and amplify the top. We need focus on how to further develop our top talent.
Lastly, we need to recognize that we are social beings and work is a social experience. For many people, work is their number one social experience. Most organizations are working hard to find ways to fill employees’ social needs with frequent virtual meetings, lunches or happy hours. We need to consider what we can do in the future of work to foster and evolve the social enterprise.
Julie Bryski: If you can put this into place as we go back to the workplace, what would success look like for Ontario Teachers’?
Matthew Smith: It's very interesting how you phrased that question. It begs the question, “what is the workplace?" which is at the heart of our discussion. This illustrates one of the ways that we will look at success. Have we changed our defaults of how we think about the time, place and method of working? Are we more open and focused on what's really required and the infinite combinations of ways that people are able to do their work?
We will measure the increase in trust – the extent to which leaders trust that their employees are accountable for outcomes, and that employees trust that their leaders will be reasonable around the daily mechanics of flexible work. To date, work has been very synchronous. Moving forward, work is going to become increasingly asynchronous and we will measure our ability to manage flexibility and outcomes.
We will measure success by our ability to attract the best talent, who feel they are performing at their best level in a more flexible environment.
Ultimately, success will be evident by moving the needle on our financial performance, customer satisfaction, employee engagement and other metrics like turnover, sick days, absenteeism and many other outcomes important to our stakeholders.
Once we find our stride, I believe that we can get exponentially more done while recognizing and responding to the needs of our employees. The pandemic has shown us that when we focus on what's essential versus the bricks and mortar of our workplaces, we can more effectively look after our whole self and be there for the people in our lives that are most important to us.
As Senior Managing Director, Talent at Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan, Matthew leads a team that is responsible to attract, retain and develop the talent required to remain one of the world's most respected investment firms. His mandate includes recruitment, succession planning, leadership development, inclusion and diversity, and learning.