With over a year of the pandemic behind us, and an unknown future with the new variant, a topic we consistently see come up is returning to work and what the future of work will hold.
The discussion seems so focused on the business side and not on the human side.
Who is making these decisions and have they considered how it will impact the most important asset in business? The people.
If you have ever met today’s guest, you’d never have to question whether there is a human behind the decisions being made and you can guarantee that people are her number one concern.
Hi, this is Audrea Fink, here with my co-hosts, Reischea Canidate-Kapasouris and Julie Holton. We are your Think Tank of Three.
Today’s guest is Katje Chiller and we are talking about the future of work, work-life balance in a pandemic, returning to the office, and the importance of looking at work expectations through the lens of equity.
Katje and I worked together previously and when the discussion of returning to work and what that new business normal might look like, I was dying to hear from her. She’s always had a human first approach to HR, which I think makes her exceptional in her career.
We like a human first approach here on Think Tank of Three. Katje is the senior HR director at AKQA and leads the HR function for the Americas. AKQA is an international design and innovation agency. She has more than 16 years of experience in human resources and has worked in several different professional service industries from banking to legal, to healthcare and advertising.
Katje has a degree in psychology and studio art from Ithaca College and has certifications from SPHR and SHRM-SCP. We’d be remiss in an episode about connecting the professional and personal, not to mention that Katje lives with her wife and two beautiful babies, two COVID kitties, and a brand new puppy in addition to a sweet older dog.
You all need to know that in addition to that, she gives the world’s best hugs. If there was an Olympic sport for that, she would win the gold. Katje, thank you so much for joining us today.
Thank you for having me. Audrea, I was so excited to hear from you and to know that you were spending time digging in here. I can’t tell you how much time I have spent myself. It’s truly a passion and such an exciting time to be in HR.
I’ve spent the last year daily in conversations within my agency and out among my peers to really understand what the future of our work looks like for everybody. Really talk about this working model. I’m excited to be here with you.
I really want to talk about returning to normal from a business perspective because I don’t think that’s a thing. There is no return to normal. I’m curious about your thoughts on what the new normal will look like for business, especially when it comes to work-life balance and that debate about going back to the office or not.
I totally agree with you. I think we are a lot closer to the new normal than most people realize. The days of 100% of our employees returning to a Monday through Friday in-person experience are behind us. Already pre-pandemic, we were trending towards a world of burnout where this model didn’t work for us with the amount of work that needed to get done.
However, the pandemic really sped up that process and provided us the opportunity to make this large seismic shift. I think we’ll continue to work in a hybrid capacity focusing very much on the work product though. I think the shifts between industries are there and those that need to be coming in a little bit more regularly, I still think they’re going to have a version of hybrid. Some days in the office, some at home.
Meeting our employees and our colleagues face to face is going to become more purposeful and less obligatory. If there are individuals coming in to do work that they could be doing at home, I think that’s just going to shift.
I think the great resignation that we are currently in, or great reshuffle, whichever you want to call it, is a large driver for our businesses. They’re going to have to lean into this flexibility to be competitive. Companies are going to have to step up and step into being much more employee experience-driven.
Absolutely. On the TV show that I record, we just did in a segment on this where we’re talking about how to be competitive, especially when it comes to recruitment and retention. It’s fact, flat up fact, that more employees say that they like working remote, or at least like having the flexibility for some remote work and some in-person work.
For those organizations that are still holding out and they’re so set on keeping people in an office, why do you think they’re so set on that? Is it culture? Is it just because it’s the way things have always been? Is there something generational happening? Or is there something else at play here?
I think there’s a few things. I think first there is a cohort of people who are excited to go back to the office and have some hybrid. I think there’s still the wanting to go back to that bustling office where everybody’s in. That’s not going to exist any longer. I do think that larger conversation, it’s a fear-based conversation. Especially in professional services, I get it.
So much of our business is successful in large part to relationship. Relationship is built with face to face contact. It’s easier, it’s more organic. It’s easier to maintain. We must now in this new space have more of an intentional upkeep of relationship. We’ll have to be very clear on the care and feeding of employees in a whole new way because we don’t have the luxury of those casual passings in the hallways.
What must be factored in these fear-based conversations, however, is the care and feeding of the heart of our product, which is our people. Employees have now had over a year where they can throw in laundry at lunch. Where they have the cable guy coming during the morning meeting. They can be home around when kids are home from school.
This has provided a level of work-life balance, which has been so valuable and so desperately needed. Also, working from home has provided a new ability of concentration for folks who are especially work working in those open floor plants who just can’t get in maybe a large piece of work out the door with everybody stopping by.
I wonder though, whether there’s going to be a whole new skillset that people need to learn when it comes to work-life balance. You mentioned, it’s amazing to be able to throw in that load of laundry and now you can actually get a couple loads of laundry done during the day while also working. It sounds really great in theory.
As someone who worked from home before the pandemic, I actually run a virtual agency. We like to joke now that we perfected, whatever, imperfected the model before it was cool to do so. I can tell you, it also becomes a very gray area of balance because if I wasn’t getting household tasks done, while also running my business, while also meeting with clients… It created almost more pressure.
Now, I suddenly had to do one more thing really well. This is a skillset that you don’t learn in college. In fact, you don’t really learn it anywhere. If we already struggled with work-life balance before the pandemic, and now everything’s really blurred, I think some people might do really well with it, but there are others of us who might not.
What do you think about that? Is that something that employers need to take into account?
Absolutely. I think you’ve hit Julie exactly where I have been, for quite a while. I think I was stuck in this work. This spring, I spent a few weeks doing focus groups through our agency. Really understanding how we want to be innovative in this hybrid experience moving forward. It was all almost shocking how very different the needs of everybody was.
Exactly what you mean, some people are going to flourish this and are going to know exactly how to pick up electronically and keep foster those relationships forward. Others are going to really struggle and need those days in the office and need a structure that is different from that hybrid experience. We’re looking at some north stars and saying, “This is what we want for our employees and build the experience around the employees.”
Build the experience that works for the specific working style. I think some of that too is skill building. Helping people understand how to do these things. I just finished bringing 60 managers through a manager training series on hybrid work and ow to actually do management of employees through this experience.
The rudimentary things, running meetings while some people are in the office and some people are at home. There’s some building blocks we need to put in place.
There are some people who don’t function well with that working from home situation. My husband, similar to Julie, he was virtual before virtual was the thing. He used to joke, “You people are pathetic. You can’t seem to figure it out.” There are individual who it is hard for them that when they would go to the office, they were able to focus because there is a focus aspect.
When you’re at home, working from home, like you said, that load of laundry, those other things that are in your life that you now find yourself multitasking and trying to do while you’re working. There is something to be set about certain mindset or certain personalities where that working from home might actually be a really, really difficult thing if for no other reason than they are struggling with focusing on work.
Let’s talk about the other aspect, the culture aspect of things. That new normal continuing to build out your culture when we’re missing those moments. “Let’s grab lunch together. Let’s go grab a Starbucks.” Gathering around for the birthday cake, grabbing a quick drink after work.
How do companies now, if they’re trying to do the hybrid model, how do they try to make all that mesh? We do make friends at the office, but if you’re not at the office anymore, are you really making those relationships?
That culture and building those relationships is key. We need to figure out a way to do it. I would say, not in the same way, but yes we absolutely are, and we need to provide that space to do it. I am talking to my managers about the importance of bringing their teams together for purposeful moments.
What is the work culmination? Where are you coming to a place in the project that it would be really valuable to bring individuals together to either feed back through something or have a moment of celebration together? Both of those are just as important as the other.
Having those in-person connection moments and are still going to matter in this new hybrid working model.
One company that I know has embraced this hybrid model is Zillow. They have affinity channels. If you are really into gardening, or you really into dog photos, or you’re really into diversity and inclusion, or really into whatever floats your boat. They have these channels where you can go and participate in Slack conversations, in virtual get-togethers.
It’s a way to build the culture outside of just your team and a way to build those relationships throughout the organization. They have regular meetings with their team where they don’t talk about work. They get together and they spend 30 minutes just, “How’s it going? How was your weekend? What’s going on?” Then the meeting ends and they go back to work.
It’s not even like beginning of like, “Let’s do the fluffy feel good and then shift to business.” We’re only here for the relationship building. I think there’s companies out that are figuring it out. I think companies just need to be willing to test and to try and to talk to their employees, and then to listen to their employees in order to get to what they had or at least similar to what they had.
Safely bring back the office party.
When I say that we are looking to north stars, one of our north stars that I’m really messaging out to our people is that we are an innovative company, this is our moment to be innovative in people. We are trying things on in beta and we are graceful in the learnings because some will succeed and some will fail.
Slack channels, we got into that 300 miles an hour, got into that. Every Slack channel you could imagine. Then we realized that the amount of input people were getting was actually quite intense. Then we dialed that back and had a few, just very few purposeful ones that we really put energy in. It wasn’t as broad for interests.
We do a Monday morning meditation where we just open up a channel and put on a meditation. We ask everyone what word are we feeling today? Somebody will drop out a word. We’ll do a meditation, get everybody on together. We do yoga three times a week, where again, we have a yoga instructor that just opens up a channel and leads a yoga class.
Whoever’s there wants to jump in. It’s that how can we get creative in this moment? We’re a creative agency. How can we look to see what options are there and let’s try some things out. I think when you’re in that mode, that builds relationship and that build is a place of testing together, and that builds that trusting space that I think we’re missing in the office.
One thing that we tend to all get on our soapbox about around here, being that this is a podcast by women for women and working to empower women, is believe it or not this issue of equity for women. But not even just for women.
One thing that is so important as companies decide whether to return to the office or have a hybrid model or full remote model, at the end of the day, we know that more women, more minorities, disadvantaged communities, they are the ones that are often negatively impacted by going back to the office. If they were ever even able to leave frankly.
How do companies need to be thinking about something as big as equity? How do we need to take this into consideration when we’re looking at what to expect from employees? Several months into the pandemic, we knew that women were leaving the workforce in droves.
Women for a multitude of reasons have left the workforce. Perhaps we’ve been set back as much as 20 years or more. How do we begin addressing these issues? From your perspective, do companies have a respons ability to address some of these issues?
I love that you are asking this question. Thank you for asking this question. Please continue to ask this question. I think the only way we as a larger society are going to figure out how to do this best is to never stop asking it. I think that absolutely employers have a responsibility in this moment to be driving this work and be a strong player of moving diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging forward.
It’s going to mean a lot of unlearning for some leaders, but overall, and for all of us and not just leaders, but it’s going to take a lot of active listening. I think also in this moment, when we are look looking at our women who have overall been set back years, how we help them succeed is going to look very different for each one of them.
I think being again, employee experience-driven and standing at that place of valuing the voice, it’s going to be really important that we take action on it.
Some of these issues are really systemic. The pandemic in the way that it rolled out, in the way in which women and disadvantaged communities were being pulled out of the workforce. I’m going to say pulled out because I think that’s what it was. It really comes down to those who benefited from being in the office are the ones who want to go back.
When I were at a previous firm, they wanted people to return to the office. What they weren’t thinking about was that the people who were going to be required to come in had to commute further because they couldn’t afford to live in the downtown core. They were the people who didn’t have their parking paid for.
The people at the top who were making the decisions made more money, they also had their parking paid for. They also had the benefit of being the decision makers who could say yes or no They didn’t need their job the same way some of the lower level employees needed. This impacts women, minorities and disenfranchised communities more because of that systemic power.
I don’t think that it is necessarily just those people who are suffering. I think as a whole, suffering as anyone who isn’t in a position of power, doesn’t have the money and isn’t able to drive their own fricking car because even though they can afford to pay for their own parking, it’s given to them for free. Sorry for the soapbox.
How can we break down some of that power structure from a business perspective? If you’re in a organization that it can’t afford to pay everybody’s parking, how do you then level the playing field if it’s not creating work from home programs? How do you even address this issue when it’s so systemic and so power and money-based?
I absolutely agree with you. I think it is such a beast of an issue that’s going to take a long time to really get on the other end of it. I think that we have to be understanding the drivers and understanding what drivers are going to make a difference. I think one powerful movement, the work that’s going on within our diverse equity, inclusion, and belonging realm over the last year, I think that momentum holds.
I think that momentum is a driver to getting good talent in the door and needs to be a driver that is spoken to about leadership. That this isn’t only what you should do, this is the decision that will help you attract and retain the right type of people to be able to drive our business forward. It’s a driver that helps our leaders understand that they need to get on board.
They don’t know how to, what do I need to do? All of a sudden they’re open and active listening for the details that need to be changed. You need to pay for nobody’s parking or everybody’s parking. You need to do this, you need to do this. Then when we start being able to just break those down one at a time, we are making progress.
Speaking of attracting talent, it seems like right now is really the time to understand not only from a retention standpoint, but from a recruiting standpoint, how do you bring in diverse talent? We have this great resignation, great reshuffle, great middle finger to your employer situation happening right now.
How does a company approach that talent and attract them? Especially, if their previous reputation before the pandemic was maybe like butts in seat, eight to five Monday through Friday. How do you make that shift in recruiting? What should companies be thinking about?
I think in this very moment talent acquisition and leaders need to be locked up and leaders need to be listening to what they’re hearing. I’ve been very close to this function and I can tell you right now the second question being asked by candidates is how much is the position as what is the expectations about my working situation? Am I working from home? What is the flexibility being driven there?
Again, it goes back to that conversation of do you want to be competitive? If you want to be competitive, great, you want to be competitive and successful, here are the things we need to do. Companies also need to be investing in infrastructure that’s going to not only attract, but retain that talent.
Unless we have an area that’s going to give somebody a sense of belonging, people aren’t going to stick around. That belonging looks like not only saying, “You can work from home two days a week.” If you’re working from home one of those days a week and you maybe calling into a call where there are three people there in the office, how have you set up your infrastructure that person will feel as much of the conversation as anybody else in that room?
One of the largest pieces that came out of the focus groups for me was that somebody was talking, she is somebody that was not usually the individual giving ideas. She has flourished in this time. She’s one of those people that this system really works well for. It’s because when she’s in a brainstorm, she has the same real estate as everybody else on that screen, there is not one person holding the marker in front of the room. Typically, whoever’s holding that marker is usually a white male.
How are we going to take the learnings of that and set up a structure moving forward that is going to allow us to hire those individuals in and make them feel heard, and make them feel as part of the team due to what we’ve gone through this last year.
You know what’s so interesting about this whole time period is a lot of individuals took some time to think about their lives. We had this very real health threat. We continue to have this very real health threat. When your health is threatened, when your employment is threatened, when your world as you know it is threatened, it causes you to do some thinking, some internalizing on is this the life I want to be living? Is this the life I want?
If not, what is it going to take to be living the life I want? I think that now is the time that we’re seeing companies forced into, if they haven’t already, forced at doing the same introspection, where now they have to look at their organizations. Whether it’s the infrastructure, whether it’s the culture that they have previously created for their employees, and look at all of this and say, “Is this, one, who we want to be in the world? Also, two, are we what our employees want us to be?”
As we talk about the great resignation or the great reshuffling, we have to back up a step and say, “Why are employees leaving in the first place? Are they leaving because we’re not offering them whatever it is that they’re looking for?”
As we hear all these rumblings on social media, for example, I know here in Michigan where I am, we’ve got a lot of retailers and restaurants looking for good workers and so many other industries. We’ve got tech industries. We’ve got information technology industries, very large here in this Michigan, looking for workers. We hear about, well, almost some of those superficial, not superficial, I don’t want to say that pay is superficial, it’s not. Pay is very important, but looking at some of the benefits and what we afford to our employees is really key in this conversation as well.
I think that companies have to look at are the things we’re doing for our people enough? For some that answer is no. There’s going to be a decision there on the future of these organizations, if they can’t attract and retain the workers they need in order to be a successful company.
Do you see that from an HR perspective? What are your thoughts on that? Am I just on my own soapbox?
I totally agree with you. I think that companies are going through an introspective rebirth, so to speak. They’re understanding they need to be employee-focused. I’m not sure they know how to do that yet as a whole. There is a secret sauce that is there for people who are already doing it well, that has figured out culture.
Ultimately, people want to know if they’ve had this moment there’s a variety of individuals who are saying, “This isn’t for me.” But there’s a variety of individuals that are saying, “This could be for me, if I can make it work in my life.” Figuring out how to make that company, understand the tweaks that need to be made in order to make the individual feel like they can be successful at work and at home is going to be the crucial piece of figuring out.
How are you going to help this individual see their path, your future, where they can be successful at both?
From hearing what you’re saying and trying to set up the situation of the employee being able to recognize the ability to be successful, there are some companies that just don’t have the ability to offer this hybrid option. Not all companies can do that. That’s a very popular thing right now, as well it should be because we’re proving that it can be very successful.
It offers people the ability to maybe actually be a happier, longer longevity employee, because they’ve got this option that just didn’t exist before. What happens when you’re that company that can’t offer that? What does that company to do or consider in trying to retain, gain, get an employee when one of the things they can’t offer is this new, wonderful hybrid option?
I think I have a few thoughts on that. I think also, the number one thing employers need to do you is listen to their people. They need to do some stay interviews. They need to understand what are the pain points they’re solving for. From my perspective, they should explore backup childcare. Backup childcare not just you get three days a week a year. What is an option you can provide?
I think they need to look at commuting. They need to understand what is the commute individuals are doing and what are they asking. Down to the details of if they have somebody coming in five days a week, what’s the monthly options? Really tease some of it out with individuals.
What we have not been good at in the past is the asking and the listening. You have leaders who are so quick to drive forward without taking that pause. Right now, more than anything, that pause is essential.
Sounds like you just said, “Communicate, people.” What? Communicate? It means actually letting someone participate in the conversation instead of just making a decision because I think it fits.
100%. It’s fascinating how truly uncomfortable that is for folks sometimes. It is a place where people need to step back and get a little vulnerable. Real communication is getting a little vulnerable, and that is hard. That is really hard too.
If you’re scared of the answer, then even more reason to be asking the question, because what you don’t know could be hurting you.
You also could find believe it or not, but you’re spending money in areas that you don’t need to spend money on. I remember at one point working for an employer that was putting all sorts of money and time and resources into creating these a certain type of events for their team, and the team didn’t even like it. You can take that budget and redirect it elsewhere.
It’s amazing what you learn when you stop and you listen. I love that idea.
Also, there’s a lot of strength in standing up in front of your people and saying, “I don’t know yet, but I’m in this journey with you.” I think it shows human. It shows that the intention. “Let’s center around some intentions and walk forward together and see where we land. I don’t know where that’s going to be, but we’ll get there.”
When we talk about equity, we talk about building some equity in this hybrid model, how it affects different groups but are there issues with inequity when you have a hybrid model? There are roles where you have to be at work. The janitor can’t work remotely where I used to work the copy room could not work remotely.
There’s a certain element of privilege that comes with just being able to work remotely. How do you balance taking care of the janitor? The copy room, which is vital, absolutely required, with roles where you’re like, “Yeah, I can work in my PJs and I can also do my laundry.” There’s an imbalance even in just that space. How do you balance that?
Think it’s a great question. I don’t think we’ve figured it out yet. I think it sits with making some agreements with your business as to what you’re going to do for those individuals who need to be in the office. I also think it sits with understanding how we’re working and what those actually digging into the job descriptions and see where you think that line is, it may be a lot further back. And the people that you think need to be in-person in actuality, there’s a great piece of their job they could do from your home.
It’s doing the detailed look into again, I think the way we’re going to figure this out is be looking person by person, job by job, role by role, and stepping into the weeds, making a decision. Stepping back, looking at the greater piece into the weeds, stepping back and doing that dance to see where we sit. We are forging together in a place that we don’t know, and that’s okay.
The other piece that I think is incredibly important for us to keep on our radar is there’s the inequity of those are going to be working from home versus the people who are going to be coming in more. Making sure they’re not favoring somebody over somebody else because they see them more. Proximity bias is a thing and is a thing we need to be training and need to be talking about.
The way we get to a space of being as equitable as possible is to be talking about these things. Have everybody understand these are there. If they’re top of mind and we are all thinking about them, then it will help us build the right habits around it.
Communication is key once again, to brings it right back to if you’re having the conversations that you need to be having, if you are discussing what’s happening. What’s going on with your productivity? Why does this work for you? Why does this not work for you? If you’re asking those questions and getting that feedback, then you’re going to make better choices.
Moving along into what Julie was saying about the fear though of not necessarily wanting that answer, what’s the saying, “Ignorance is bliss.” You’re just happy-go-lucky going along and everybody’s like cussing you out behind your back because you’re not addressing their needs as employees.
Communication is Reischea’s number two favorite PSA behind number one, which is everybody needs therapy.
Everybody needs therapy. Communication is key.
We’re seeing mental health come up a lot in discussions about jobs and return to work. I know that I personally took, oh gosh, I think at the time of this recording getting six months leave from a job where I left position specifically because I was burnt out. Mental health was a huge issue.
How should or could organizations be looking at, in this new normal, how do you know how to help take care of mental health. Companies have not historically been amazing at health in general. Part of that is our healthcare system is a hot mess, but now, mental health is even more important to this conversation than it’s ever been.
How do you see that playing out? How does equity play into that? How does the new normal play into that?
I think it goes into that larger conversation of building out an employee experience-driven culture. You need to talk about it. You need to build programs around it. As leaders, we owe it to our employees to be vulnerable and be in it.
I had a baby during this pandemic and the months following that I would have Sebastian on my lap. There were times that I needed to breastfeed, I would just tilt the camera up and I would have him there with me and be running a meeting while he was with me.
I’ve had women call me who are crying and don’t know me and say, “I just saw you on this meeting. I saw your son on your lap and I need to talk to you.” That connection was made because I was vulnerable.
It was a little scary the first time I was like, “I’m going to do it.” I definitely, as a leader at an all company meeting, I was scared and I did it and I was so grateful I was vulnerable in that moment. It takes us stepping out and being vulnerable individuals with our employees to build that place where mental health can be talked about and thought about.
It needs to be forefront of people’s mind because it is a essential part of our employees health overall. How we will retain them because they feel like they can be safe in our space.
It’s such an important part of the conversation to focus on mental health, because what better way can we show that we value our employees and to focus on their overall well-being. Mental health, of course, is such a huge part of that. This has been such an incredible conversation. Thank you for sharing your thoughts as a human, as an HR expert, as a mom.
No doubt you’re doing incredible things for, for your company, for your family, by sharing your own vulnerability. Thank you so much for coming on the Think Tank of Three, before we go, we do have a few more, we have three actually, rapid fire questions for you. We are collecting advice so we ask the same three questions from all of our guests. Are you ready?
I’m ready for you.
Number one, is there a lesson that you’ve recently learned that you wish you would’ve learned earlier in your career?
Yes, there is power in the pause. There is power to sit back and wait on something. I’m very excitable and eager to satisfy, and get into something. Sometimes you just need to sit back and understand where you sit before you answer.
Taking a deep breath, I like it.
From lessons that you’ve learned, what advice would you offer to any career woman?
Surround yourself with strong supportive women. Life is too short to linger on anything but that.
Hear, hear find your tribe. In today’s professional setting, what do you think the most important skill is for a woman to learn?
Communication skills is key. Especially, as we’re going forward, this is everything. Over-communicate until you think that you’ve told the message, and then you probably are almost there.
Reischea is over there doing her touchdown dance, communication.
Therapy and communication. Therapy and communication.
Those are by the way, the answer to all questions you ask her, how’s your day today? Therapy and communication.
Amen. I feel like we would be friends.
I communicated today and I’m on my way to therapy.
Katje, thank you so much. Thank you so much for coming on here and talking to us about this. Tell us how our audience can connect with you. If there are women out there who either want to ask questions about AKQA or have questions about how do I help my company with this?
Oh my God, absolutely. I’m literally obsessed with this topic, please reach out. You can find me on LinkedIn and Instagram @Katjechiller. You can come see all my family and kids and many, many animals. Come find me.
Thank you so much for are joining us today. That’s all for this episode of Think Tank of Three.
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