Crafting the Future of Work: Sacha Connor, Virtual Work Insider

Meet Sacha Connor, CEO of Virtual Work Insider, and self-proclaimed location inclusion advocate. Sacha leveraged her personal experience as a remote work trailblazer in her own corporate experience to teach global teams at large to medium-sized enterprises to operate and thrive in remote and hybrid work environments. Not only does Sacha support people leaders, but also individual contributors in building the skills to be what she calls “Omni-Modal Leaders.” This means having the ability to effectively communicate, collaborate, innovate, influence, and build team culture, while fluidly and quickly transitioning between all different modes - from all co-located to hybrid to fully remote. We'll take a closer look at Sacha's approach to fostering inclusion, opinions on which metrics to keep track of, content recommendations, as well as challenges her clients are facing right now.

Can you explain what you do?

I’m the CEO of Virtual Work Insider. My company teaches hybrid and remote teams the skills to lead, communicate, collaborate, influence and build culture across distance.

What prompted you to get into this type of work?

I'm actually a marketer by trade, first working in advertising agencies in account management, and then I spent 14 years at the Clorox Company leading large marketing, sales and product innovation teams. I left Clorox over four years ago to start Virtual Work Insider.

My remote work story started in 2010. I'd worked for Clorox for 6 years when my husband and I had our first child. We lived in San Francisco, but our families are from the Philadelphia area, and we spent so much of that first year traveling from coast to coast. I had a bold idea: to ask if I could keep my job at Clorox, and do it from the opposite coast. Back in 2010, it was unheard of, especially with the type of role that I had: leading large new product innovation teams.

And that led to 8 years of me leading large hybrid and distributed teams from my home office in the Philly suburbs. I led brands worth over $250M and was the first fully remote member of the leadership team for a $1 billion business unit.  I realized that a lot of what I was learning how to do for myself was actually applicable to 95% of the Clorox employee base because everybody was working across distance to some degree. And I had this kind of ‘Aha moment’ of realizing I could make a difference by helping to teach these skills of collaborating, innovating and influencing across distance.

What types of companies are you working with? And what are the top three challenges they’re facing?

We work with medium to large enterprises across all types of industries, including Toyota, Under Armour, Sephora, Vanguard, Eventbrite Great River Energy, and Optum Healthcare. I understand the difficulties and the complexities of working in highly complex organizations with 1000s of employees and 100s of large, cross-functional teams working across multiple offices with different hybrid schedules.

From financial services to tech to healthcare, you’d think there would be some key differences in the challenges they face. But really, we see a similar challenge come up across all the clients: People leaders and individual contributors haven't yet been taught the skills to be what I call “Omni-Modal Leaders.” This means having the ability to effectively communicate, collaborate, innovate, influence, and build team culture, while fluidly and quickly transitioning between all different modes - from all co-located to hybrid to fully remote.

💡 For example, in the morning you might be fully remote leading a global team meeting from your home office, and then commute into an office for a small in-person meeting together and then jump into a hybrid meeting where you've got some people in the room with you and others joining remotely.

Switching between these modes is super hard, it's going to take time, practice, and upskilling. A lot of people aren't yet equipped with those skills.

What aspects of hybrid are your clients most challenged by or asked about most often?

Communication tool proliferation

Most teams haven’t taken the step to set clear expectations about how to communicate best within their team.  When to use Microsoft Teams? When to use email? What tool are we using to collaborate on documents?

One of our most popular workshop programs helps teams with creating a Hybrid Team Working Agreement, to set expectations on these communication norms, in addition to getting clear on meeting norms, and availability expectations - especially when working across time zones.

Meeting overload

When the pandemic hit, I knew that people were going to fall back on the two things that they knew how to do: scheduling meetings and sending emails. And now that most companies are moving into this hybrid environment, it's getting even more complex where people are still stuck in back to back meetings but now some people are commuting in and others who are remote that day are setting meetings for people during commute times.

People need help balancing synchronous and asynchronous communication, cutting down on meetings, and making sure that the meetings are location-inclusive and engaging. Also, we need to ensure that those synchronous touchpoints are thought of as opportunities to build culture, not just transactional moments.

Can you provide an example of being inclusive in hybrid meeting environments?

I've either led or participated in over 10,000 hours of hybrid meetings. Most of the time, I was in the location minority, often the only fully remote participant. Our bar has now been raised, so it’s important to make sure that all the voices in a room are heard, there’s a facilitation plan ahead of time, etc.

💡 Quick tip don't put all the the onus on the meeting facilitator. Designate a producer to put prompts into the chat and make sure that questions and comments from people joining virtually are equally heard.

In a lot of company cultures that were very HQ-focused pre-pandemic, I’m seeing a trend of reverting to pre-pandemic practices of hybrid meetings with large groups of people co-located in a conference room with others joining remotely. Most of these conference rooms are not set up for the remote people to really be able to read the room easily. Realistically, it’s better to have a completely virtual meeting if not everyone is present in the same room. That said, I know it's a huge cultural shift for a lot of senior leaders, especially if they’re in the building, they want to be sitting next to the other people in the building.

💡 Quick tip - If you have a group co-located in a conference room and are meeting with people located elsewhere, we teach the behavior to log into the meeting from your individual laptop in the room with your camera on. This will allow everyone equal access to the chat and reactions buttons and also allow everyone to have an equal “square” on screen.

How are you navigating the disparities in thinking between the “old guard” and those who want to reimagine work? What role does data play in that?

I see my role as a location inclusion advocate, thought leader and teacher to help people learn how to get work done across distance. I meet clients wherever they are, whatever distance means to them. Each company has to decide what their best workplace strategy is based on a lot of factors, like the type of work, employee needs, culture and values. These are really complex decisions.

I do try to help them understand how more flexibility is good and how they can achieve more flexibility through enabling these skill sets. I think that everybody's looking to make some progress and some change. It's just how fast does that change happen? And for many large to medium-sized enterprises that have been around for 100+ years, it's a lot of change.

In terms of metrics to track, employee engagement data can be used to track progress on goals, because engagement data has been linked to productivity, employee retention, profitability. For some clients I’ve provided suggestions on how to adjust the questions, or cut the data in employee engagement surveys to view it by location, hybrid schedule or remote skills and behaviors.

“At Clorox, I led the first ever virtual workforce ERG. Even though only 5% of employees at Clorox were fully remote at the time, they had the highest engagement scores across every single metric.”

What I don't suggest doing, but I hear this a lot is, putting too much emphasis on tracking badging into buildings. I understand looking at that as a metric of space utilization, it’s helpful to know whether to downsize or upsize, but that shouldn't be the metric to measure if the workforce strategy is working.

The best solution is freedom within a framework. So for example, take your company guidelines, and then allow some freedom at the functional or team level that clarify the norms. I think flexible hybrid is possible, but team working agreements must be clearly set.

What metrics do you recommend to measure how your clients' new work models are performing?

  • One of the things we do is an assessment before any learning and development, so we can track the hybrid mindsets, behaviors and skills over time.
  • As we see turnover of people in companies, people who are coming into the company must be up-skilled and trained on how to work within that hybrid environment there.
  • They need to evaluate if there is Distance bias in their people processes to create a more location-inclusive work environment. Also called proximity bias, it's our brain's natural tendency to put more importance on the people and things that are closer to us than those that are further away. And in order to create a truly location-inclusive culture, you need to consider: “How do I provide equal access to information? To people? To opportunities? Regardless of where people live or work from.”
"HQ office sites can't be that center of gravity anymore. Companies moving to this hybrid structure, need to really think about where distance bias might be baked into their processes and how to start mitigating that."

What resources do you recommend leaders start with to improve their ability to lead in virtual and hybrid work environments?

  • LinkedIn is a great place for content if you know where to look. In addition to following the content that I put out, some other key thought leaders are: Darren Murph, Kate Lister, Chase Warrington, Mika Cross, Nick Bloom
  • The Future Forum is a great source of research & data around time flexibility and location flexibility.
  • The Running Remote Community. In April there’s a conference in Portugal. They're really on the cutting edge of remote work and I like to see how to apply pieces of that to the enterprise space.

What does the purpose and vision for an "office" look like from your perspective in the next five years?

As someone who just had their 12-year remote-iversary, the word ‘office’ is so funny. I think of it as: wherever you're working from on any given day. For me, most days it's my home office, but it's also the airplane, a client location, coffee shops, coworking spaces.

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Danielle Farage

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