Find opportunities to capture employee feedback in the moment, not months after a situation has occurred. By capturing feedback in the moment, leaders can ask pointed questions about specific moments in time or experiences. If leaders have real-time insight into these experiences, they can address shortcomings and act quickly to improve the employee experience.
As a part of our series about the things you need to successfully work remotely, I had the pleasure of interviewing Gretchen Alarcon.
Gretchen has more than 20 years’ experience in product strategy for HR technology, including 15 years at Oracle where she led one of the most widely used HR software systems in the world. At ServiceNow, she brings a unique view of the challenges many organizations face as they reimagine the future of work.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. What is your “backstory”?
I’m the Vice President and General Manager of HR Service Delivery at ServiceNow, a cloud-based platform company that delivers digital workflows and unlocks productivity for employees and the enterprise. I have more than 20 years of experience in product strategy and worked at Oracle for more than 15 years before I joined ServiceNow. Because of my unique experience starting off in HR and working mainly for tech companies throughout my career, I like to say that I live at the intersection of people and technology. So much of what I do is interpreting tech for people.
I love spending time thinking about how we can create technology that helps solve the challenges people have, and that’s why I joined ServiceNow. I believe deeply in its mission to make work, work better for people, and am passionate about helping organizations solve the unique challenges faced in the new era of work.
I hold an MBA from the University of Michigan and a BA in American Studies from Stanford University.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
During the dot com craze, I was running HR at a startup. We wanted to build a culture that was inclusive and engaging for employees but had to find a way to balance many different and diverse personalities. I worked with the CEO on an employee buy-in program. Every month we gave employees an allowance — they couldn’t spend it on a personal gift but could use it to buy something they thought would contribute to the culture.
We saw employees buy everything from an espresso machine to lunches for coworkers to say thank you. Many contributed to charities in support of their colleagues. It was interesting to see what our employees valued and, because everyone played a role in creating a unique culture, they were more bought in.
While I understand that not every company can provide this type of perk, it taught me an important lesson that I carry with me as a manager: getting employees involved in a company and giving them a voice is important to building team culture and morale.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
In one of my first headcount planning cycles, my manager and I were going back and forth updating content on a spreadsheet as the numbers came in. Somewhere along the way, I accidently added an extra head count to marketing, and didn’t catch it before the final went to our GM. I got a thank you note from the VP of Marketing, and a note on my performance review about paying better attention to detail. During the review, my manager talked through the situation and how I can avoid these little mistakes moving forward. Twenty years later, I still remember this moment.
It taught me an important lesson about how, as a leader and coach, it’s so important to take the time to reframe little mistakes employees make as learning opportunities — put them into context, remind employees they are valued, and teach them how they can grow from the experience.
What advice would you give to other business leaders to help their employees thrive and avoid burnout?
At the beginning of the pandemic, we jumped right into crisis mode — rules went out the window and work shifted dramatically.
A lot of people are still in this crisis mode mindset where everything is urgent and important. This has only been exacerbated by the fact that, in many cases, where we work is also where we live. It’s time to take a step back and polish prioritization. Leaders and teams need to prioritize based on what will drive the most impact. For employees, it’s important to find meaningful projects that add business value while contributing to personal growth and happiness.
Ok, let’s jump to the core of our interview. Working remotely can be very different than working with a team that is in front of you. This provides a great opportunity, but it can also create unique challenges. To begin, can you articulate for our readers a few of the main benefits and opportunities of working remotely?
The business world shifted almost overnight at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, forcing companies to innovate quickly and reimagine work processes. This was a welcome change for employees. According to The Work Survey, a 9,000-respondent global survey, 87% of employees believe their companies have created new, better ways of working as a result of the pandemic.
Remote work challenged companies to do more with technology. Collaboration apps, productivity tools, and workflows took center stage and will continue to be critical to the employee experience. Companies have an opportunity to become even more employee-centric, finding efficient ways to listen to and upskill employees and drive collaboration — regardless of where employees do their work.
Additionally, access to talent has greatly expanded as many organizations have adopted some form of hybrid work. Companies that were once restricted to specific geographies may have more flexibility to hire talent with the right skills, regardless of where they physically live.
Can you articulate for our readers what the five main challenges are regarding working remotely?
1. Finding the right technology. The employee experience today has too much friction, and this has been accentuated by COVID-19 and the shift to remote work. The siloes have become more visible as we’ve been working remotely. The need to look at technology that centers on the employee, as opposed to the functional department is a shift in thinking that needs to happen.
2. Establishing and maintaining a team culture. It can be hard to maintain culture when everyone is working in a remote setting, but it’s essential. According to ServiceNow’s 2021 Employee Experience Imperative study, 42% of employees say losing in-person interactions will erode their ability to contribute at work and 53% want to be in an office and see people face to face. Managers who are used to having informal “drive-by” check-ins and regular happy hours with teams will need to find new ways to create these human interactions.
3. Understanding how employees are feeling. If organizations can understand how employees are feeling and get feedback on a consistent basis, in real-time, they can act on employees’ needs more quickly and effectively. But often, employee survey and listening tools collect feedback after the fact and are disconnected from the employees’ day –to-day experiences.
4. Facilitating ongoing, targeted learning opportunities. According to a recent study, 31% of global employees believe the pandemic has reduced opportunities for growth, and a solid majority of executives agree that online options for training programs are still not available.
5. Supporting managers remotely. Managers have a lot on their plate. In addition to task management and their own set of deliverables, they are also responsible for the career development of their direct reports and keeping a pulse on employee wellbeing.
Based on your experience, what can one do to address or redress each of those challenges? Can you give a story or example for each?
1. Employees need the right tools to be successful. Technology should enhance productivity by eliminating mundane, manual tasks. For example, an employee shouldn’t have to sift through multiple pages and send multiple emails to find out information about the company’s vacation or personal leave policy. Technology should make it easy for employees to find the information they need without jumping from tool to tool.
2. Managers should find new, creative ways to secure buy-in and engagement from employees. I do this by playing to the unique strengths and interests of my team. Little things, like having an employee run a weekly meeting, allowing employees to set up happy hours, and finding ways to collaborate on projects, can empower employees to stay involved, engaged, and contribute to the team’s success and morale. For example, I just asked two new team members to work together on a project to improve go-to-market processes. It is a great opportunity for them to get to know each other, collaborate, and make an immediate impact on the organization, while also giving them greater visibility across the broader team.
3. Find opportunities to capture employee feedback in the moment, not months after a situation has occurred. By capturing feedback in the moment, leaders can ask pointed questions about specific moments in time or experiences. If leaders have real-time insight into these experiences, they can address shortcomings and act quickly to improve the employee experience.
4. Deliver learning opportunities using AI to deliver relevant, recommended materials based on employees’ interests. If that technology isn’t available, ask and listen to what employees are most interested in, what they want to learn, and find opportunities for them inside the organization.
5. Managers are responsible for keeping track of their own deadlines and responsibilities, while ensuring their direct reports are also successful. But often, managers have little time and resources to create the necessary plans that set their team up for success. Leaders need to make this process simple for managers. Provide managers with the tools they need to aid in the success of their employees. Set up plan templates, questions to ask, a timeline of when to check in with employees, and make sure leadership has access and insight into this process. Listen to managers’ needs, too. Understand what managers need to contribute to their own success.
Do you have any suggestions specifically for people who work at home? What are a few ways to be most productive when you work at home?
Set boundaries, build a routine, and maintain a work-life balance that works for you. This is something we’ve heard for years — but it’s never been more important than now, when, in many cases, where we work is also where we live. It can be hard to create boundaries, so finding — and sticking to — a routine that works for you is critical. The people who have worked from home for years are successful because they’ve figured out a schedule that allows them to be productive and balanced.
Consistently seek and provide feedback… and overcommunicate. If you’re a manager, engage with your direct reports regularly and be aware of any changes in morale. If you do have to give feedback, do it in-the-moment, not weeks or months after the fact. When you’re working in a remote setting, you miss out on in-person opportunities like grabbing lunch with colleagues you bump into in the hallway, so finding new ways to build relationships and foster growth is critical to team success and morale.
Help your employees grow. If you are a manager, a large part of your job is building a team. As you think about feedback, communication, and goal setting, think about how you’re setting up your employees for long-term growth. Remote work may mean more coaching and counselling, but it may also mean changing up how you assign specific projects. Managers should create customized plans for each employee’s growth path, providing them with resources to help employees be successful, and it’s important to make sure that these plans help an employee feel like they are progressing in their career. Finally, don’t forget to be there for your team in the moments that matter, like onboarding, a promotion, or an unexpected life event.
Can you share any suggestions for teams who are used to working together on location but are forced to work remotely due to the pandemic? Are there potential obstacles one should avoid with a team that is just getting used to working remotely?
Use technology to collaborate and communicate effectively but be thoughtful about the channels you’re using and recognize if conversations are getting lost in translation. It may be hard to read tone and sentiment in a virtual setting, so teams need to know when it’s time to pick up the phone and discuss feedback or project deliverables live.
Beyond technology, teams need to overcommunicate about everything. Discuss and align on tasks, deadlines, responsibilities, and wellbeing to ensure the team is marching towards the same set of goals and contributing to overall success.
Also, think about what norms apply to the remote situation, and be intentional in defining them. Will people be “always-on”? What are the working hours when an immediate reply is needed/expected? Are you expected to have cameras on? Always?
Finally, make time for the social element of work. For people who are used to working in person with their teams, that is a big adjustment. It takes more planning, but be open to trying new ideas for collaboration, and encourage team members to suggest ideas. On our team, we did an online gift exchange for the holidays and had a lot of fun trying a new tool and having a social event.
What do you suggest can be done to create an empowering work culture and team culture with a team that is remote and not physically together?
First and foremost, companies need to ace onboarding for new hires. Onboarding is often a new hire’s first interaction with a company and its culture and is increasingly being done virtually. Especially in a remote setting, it’s important that new hires have the resources they need to be successful from day one. Eliminate friction with tools that bring together all of the departments and tasks involved in onboarding a new employee — from signing up for benefits, to choosing and setting up technology, to finance and facilities requests. Extend this by creating continual learning opportunities for employees beyond their first 30 days. Everything from matching a new employee with a professional mentor to sharing resources about the company and setting up virtual happy hours can contribute to team culture and success.
These tips can and should extend beyond the new hire experience to support even the most seasoned employees. Provide employees at every level with tools and resources they need to continue to grow and learn. Now more than ever, it’s important that employees feel supported at every stage of their professional journey, and especially in moments that matter.
Recognize that in a remote environment, it may be harder to see an employee is struggling. Be more deliberate about providing learning and orienting employees to new projects or processes. And, whenever possible, encourage small group collaboration.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
Education has always been formative for me — blame my grandparents, three of them were teachers. But with the rise in education costs and the recognition of different learning styles, the traditional path through high school and college doesn’t always work. For many of us, job changes or new career interests lead us to think about going back to school or getting new accreditations, but where does that fit into adult life?
I think there is a huge opportunity to create new ways for people to access learning through different media or at different points in their lives. I would love to see an education system that supports targeted learning at lower costs to enable people to pursue their next career dreams.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“There is a vitality, a life force, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique, and if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium; and be lost.” — Martha Graham
This may not be the most obvious quote when you think about the work I do. But I have spent a lot of time in my career being the “only one” — the only woman in the room, the only non-technical person in the engineering meeting. This quote has always spoken to me because it reminds me that I have something unique to bring to every encounter, and it’s up to me to take the opportunity and express my point of view.
How can our readers further follow your work online?