S03 E07: How to Balance Productivity and Flexibility in a Hybrid Work Setup – an HR Policy Maker’s Perspective

In the seventh episode of this season of CultureClub X, we have with us Diane Sanford, Former – Chief People Officer – On The Border Mexican Grill & Cantina, who discusses the importance of balancing productivity and flexibility in a hybrid work environment.

About Diane –

Diane is a seasoned HR leader with over 25 years of experience in the restaurant industry.

She has a proven track record in providing ​​strategic leadership for employee relations, talent acquisition, retention and L&D teams.

Prior to “On The Border Mexican Grill & Cantina”, she had worked with some famous restaurant chains like – Texas Land & Cattle/Lone Star SteakHouse, Chili’s Grill & Bar and Brinker International.

She is a notable alumni of Dallas college and Mt. San Antonio College. She is also a PHR, SHRM-CP certified HR leader.

Here’s a gist of what Diane’s speaks about in this video:

  • Importance of establishing true connections in the remote-hybrid work environment and the need for employees and leaders to explore ways to re-establish the personal connection over visual mediums has increased many folds.
  • The need for HR leaders to understand what’s important for their workforce, be it remote or in-office and to close the gap between lack of clarity and right direction. The foundation one needs to have to solve for this is having a good company culture and bottom-up feedback in place.
  • Understanding how people digest information today is very different than it was five years ago and how it can help us explore more dimensions to the learning and development segment for the employees. Thus the role of customization in L&D efforts in accordance with the needs of every individual employee is essential.
  • Why is it essential for leaders to ensure that their teams are actually talking to other teams and getting their buy in the things organically, and also make sure they have enough flexibility & autonomy in their work, so they feel engaged and be more productive.

Catch all this and more with Shelley Smith in Episode 7 of Season 3 of CultureClub X.

Transcript –

Nicole – Hello everyone and welcome to the latest episode of CultureClub X powered by CultureMonkey. I’m your host Nicole Patrick. CultureMonkey is a complete employee engagement platform that helps people leaders to measure and improve their workplace culture.

In this 7th episode of CultureClub, we have with us Diane Sanford, Chief People Officer at On The Border Mexican Grill and Cantina. She’s a seasoned HR leader with over 25 years of experience in the restaurant industry. Diane has a proven track record in providing strategic leadership for employee relations, talent acquisition, retention, and L & D teams.

Nicole – Prior to On The Border Mexican Grill and Cantina, she had worked with some famous restaurant chains like Texas Land and Cattle, Lone Star Steakhouse, Chili’s Grill & Bar, and Brinker International.

She is a notable alumni of Dallas College and Mt. San Antonio College She is also a PHRSHRM CP certified HR Leader.

Diane welcome again to CultureClub’s video Cast on Impact of Remote Hybrid Work Culture on the Modern Workforce.

Diane- Thank you so much, Nicole. It is a pleasure to be with you today to talk about this, such an important, relevant topic for today.

Nicole – Definitely. So before we begin, please tell us a little bit more about yourself and your organization.

Diane –  Sure. Well, I’ve been in the hospitality industry for over 25 years. That’s where the bulk of my HR experience comes from. And On The Border Restaurant is in 26 States. We have over 150 locations, so a diverse workforce, over 5000 people, and we sell margaritas and tacos and we try to have fun with that.

Nicole – Amazing. Well, that’s very cool. We’re very impressed with all the different places you’ve worked with, and it sounds also like a very fun place to work.

Diane – Restaurant industry can be very fun.

Nicole – Yes, definitely. Well, with that, let’s get started. In view of the pandemic, what do you think are the challenges faced by people leaders when it comes to company culture?

Diane –  With organizations switching to hybrid work culture, I think true connection is the biggest challenge.

And key component of office culture is the atmosphere. It’s seeing each other, it’s being connected. And in a hybrid or remote environment, those things happen very differently. So humans have to relearn how they connect with each other, how they build relationships.

Diane – Before COVID, there was this body of work that talked about people needing a sense of belonging post pandemic, like, it’s over, right? We’re pretending it’s over. Today, that need to belong and be a part of something is even more prevalent and more important. So I really think finding a way for people to truly feel connected to each other and to their employer, I think that’s the biggest challenge today.

Nicole – I totally agree. All that you want as a person is to feel that connection. And now that we’re in a place that we just can’t do that and that we haven’t been able to do for such a long time in your workplace to be able to find a way to include that when we’re still on the computer. We’re not always face to face.

It is a challenge and it’s so important to kind of figure out that hurdle and get over it completely.

Diane – Whole rhythm of work has changed. Exactly

Nicole – How do you think HR leaders can solve the misalignment between in office and remote employees in a hybrid work setup?

Diane – I think the important thing there is to not try to solve it in a vacuum. I think they need to talk to their employees and find out what is working and what isn’t working for them in whatever their current environment is. Remote and hybrid mean different things depending on the company that you work for.

But HR leaders need to understand what’s important to their workforce and then try to close the gap between what’s currently happening, how they’re currently approaching work today, and what they’re hearing from their workforce. The foundation of that is really culture, and that’s something that has to be managed.

Diane – You have one whether you manage it or not, and if you manage it, it’s your friend and it helps you. It helps your business. So doing an analysis of what’s working today, what isn’t, and does the current environment reflect your culture in a positive way? And if not, then you need to do some problem solving. But I think it’s an iterative process.

I don’t think HR people can come up with the magic solution all by themselves.

There needs to be that feedback from the people who are impacted, and then all leaders need to really embrace whatever the outcome is to make the environment better.

Nicole –  Definitely. In doing this video cast, I speak with a lot of people leaders, and one of the topics that always comes up is that it’s not just the HR leaders who are going to be able to magically fix things.

They’re able to shepherd you and maybe make it something that’s on people’s minds more than it would be if they’re just doing their everyday job.

But it’s so important that everybody is invested in the culture and everybody (A) watches out for each other and makes sure that they’re kind of in this culture together. But (B) that leaders, whether it be a very high up CEO or just any sort of manager, make sure that within their own little micro environments, they keep that going and kind of pass the torch to everyone else.

Diane – Totally. And it can’t be. I think the biggest bank companies make with regard to culture is putting it all on the HR Department and keeping it separate from how the business runs. It has to be integrated so it becomes part of who they are and how they work, and then it’s everybody’s responsibility.

Nicole –  Exactly. Yeah, I agree. And at the end of the day, if you have a better workplace culture, your employers are going to enjoy working more, they’re going to work harder, and it’s like a well-oiled machine.

Everything will work better. Culture is almost that oil. That’s kind of keeping the emotions, keeping the wheels moving.

Diane – Absolutely. You get more discretionary effort from people who are engaged in an environment that gives them momentum. Then if you don’t have that totally.

Nicole – From your perspective, what is the modernization required in the area of learning and development that would help organizations cater to the growing needs of their workforce?

Diane – In a hybrid work setup, I think businesses need to take a page from society and really lean into digital platforms. How much time every day is spent on Snapchat, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok?

There are equivalent platforms out there for employee communication and really leaning into that, whether it’s a modified version of a learning management system where you can funnel videos and other face to face communication on demand so that people can go and pull the information when they need it.

Diane – So I think really leveraging technology, if we’re not already doing that, leaning into that more. And then from a learning and development perspective, understanding how people digest information today is very different than it was five years ago. We need short videos, short, high impact, one topic videos blended with other ways to deliver content.

So you really have to be respectful of the current environment, how people learn, and how they want to get information. And I think the last piece of that is you have to understand the rhythm of the work, the rhythm of your workplace so that you’re not trying to deliver content when people either can’t be receptive to it or it’s bumping up against another big initiative where they really don’t have the head space to absorb that data.

So I just think there has to be some common sense element and some recognition that we’re in 2022. Not 1995.

Nicole –  Totally, And it’s not a one size fits all model for all these.

Diane – Exactly.

Nicole –  That makes complete sense. That’s also where, for example, at CultureMonkey, we approach this from the  technology side of things. Not only HR people leaders, but also managers who just want to keep the pulse of their employees in a day to day setting and use that to improve culture and workplace culture.

I think that philosophy and that approach that CultureMonkey employs is just the engagement piece, asking for feedback, getting perspective is so important, and CultureMonkey plays a big role in that. So it’s really an important place that you guys play.

Diane – Yeah.

Nicole – What role do you think lack of collaboration, flexibility, and freedom plays in people leaving an organization in a hybrid workplace setup? How do you think people leaders can solve this issue from your perspective?

Diane – I think that was an issue before we had a name for a hybrid workplace. I think today it’s even more important. Right? If you’re in a hybrid workplace, to me, it sounds like you have a little bit of flexibility, but again, that’s important in all environments.

So I think going back to what I said a few minutes ago, leaders need to understand their workforce, what’s important to them, and make sure that they’re addressing those things.

Diane – Those attributes were important, pre-pandemic and pre-hybrid workforce being labeled that way. And I think workers and leaders need to understand what’s happening in their workplace and then make sure they’re being responsive to what their folks need. People want that sense of belonging regardless.

So being purposeful about, hey, how are we working before? Were we too inflexible before? Well, now is an even more important time to build in flexibility. If we had flexibility before and we had met the person to collaborate, what’s the alternative? What’s the new version of that? People are having happy hours virtually. They’re having coffee and lunch and brown bag lunches virtually.

Diane – So if that’s where you’re at today, don’t assume that people like to be alone at home. Put some structure in place that creates those opportunities for connections.

As a leader, make sure that your teams are actually talking to other teams and getting their buy in the things that used to happen organically. When people walk around the office and they have hallway conversations and things, problems that solve in five minutes in the hallway, it takes a little bit more effort today, and it’s the leader’s responsibility to make sure that  happens.

Diane – So I think the lack of those things played an important role before, and I think today is equally as important. It’s harder to make it happen today. Yeah. You kind of have to become a little bit more creative and make sure that you’re really putting the effort in there that you didn’t.

Whether you should or shouldn’t, you didn’t have to put in any as much effort before. Well, when I can stand up and walk down the hall and see, I didn’t really have to think about that.

I could get a cup of coffee and swing by your office today.

Diane – I have to make sure you’re available. Is our Internet working? Do we have time to connect?

So it’s much more of a production now to do all those things, but it’s critically important.

Yeah. It’s so funny because my friends tell me what they’re doing with their work and how. It’s different with hybrid work and just the new topics of conversation that we have today.

And there are some really fun things that companies are doing. Like my one friend works at a company, and each month they send her different box with fun topics in it and fun little games and things.

And she gets together with her team and then with other teams once a month, and they just play these games, and she actually looks forward to it. Something that’s fun for her, you know, I love that. Yeah.

Nicole –  Companies I’ve seen have their people take a picture in their work uniform, which is typically like a nice shirt and pajama bottoms or something, and then they like that. You do have to make it fun. And I think that’s a key component. Leaning into how things are today and accepting okay, we got to do things a little differently.

How can people leaders balance the need of their employees to work on their own terms while maintaining great company culture? And how do you think HR policy making can play a role in solving this?

Diane – Wow, those are good questions. Again, this is going to be a running theme for me. I think it’s so important to stay connected to your workforce. And my organizations have all been multi-state, multi-unit. So figuring out how to connect to people who weren’t in the same room as I am sort of second nature.

And so some of those things have become I’ll reach out regularly via email or text or schedule a phone call just to stay connected in my calendar. So I’m consistent with it so I can build relationships with people in Maine or Colorado or Florida.

Diane – So I think finding a system for staying connected, whether that’s leveraging CultureMonkey platform or you do pulse surveys or in our learning management system, we have a question of the day and it’s silly.

Do you like football or baseball? Do you like chocolate chip cookies or peanut butter? Just a way to stay connected. I think doing regular round tables or focus groups, whether that’s in person or virtually or a combination.

Diane – And then I think HR leaders are in a unique position to advocate on behalf of their employees with other senior leaders. And so in terms of practices and policies, making sure that I’m staying current with what other companies in the local area are doing for their employees or in the service industry, how are companies addressing that need for flexibility when you have essential workers or frontline workers that can’t work remotely?

So I think HR leaders need to speak up and bring data to the senior leadership team about, hey, this is really important. This can differentiate us from a business and culture perspective. We can attract and retain our key talent if we do these things.

A lot of times it’s really hard to show a business ROI or show the benefit of a strong culture or a flexible environment. The data is there and you have to go find it and then present that to advocate for your employees.

Diane – And I think we’re not going to be able to policy our way towards flexibility because it truly has to be a mindset that’s embraced from other leaders in the organization.

So I can’t write a policy that said, hey, we’re going to be flexible if my marketing leader or my IT leader doesn’t embrace that. So it’s really got to be a state of mind and a condition of how the work is done. And I think HR people are in a unique position to advocate and champion for that.

Nicole – I think it’s critical that they do it, actually, definitely. And having everyone take that responsibility on together, coming together, like you said, being together, communicating.

It’s interesting to hear also with essential workers and how that plays into things, especially in restaurants. So many of those people are essential workers. It’s an interesting topic that really every single day is just evolving, and we’re kind of navigating through it. It absolutely is.

Diane – And the hardest thing about the current state is there’s no precedent, really, for us as a generation of what to do or how to do it. And that’s why I keep going back to you have to stay connected to your workforce, and if you can’t give them everything they’re asking for, then you need to communicate in a really transparent and authentic way so they understand the why and the push in the pull, and that helps you get their buy in.

Once people understand the reality of the framework you’re operating in, people are reasonable. They just like to know what’s what. And I think we owe that to them, honestly.

Diane – Hopefully, in a way, all of this will be for something, and at the end of the pandemic will come out having a more transparent workplace and having a workplace where people are a lot happier and businesses do better because of that.

Nicole – I think so too.

Diane – For the first time ever, the whole paradigm has shifted around how people work and what people want from work and what they’re going to tolerate, what they’re going to put up with. For the first time ever, the way we work is shifting, and it’s coming from the workforce, not from their company. And I think that is blowing some people’s minds.

They want everything to be the way that it was, but we’ll just make everybody come back to the office in five days. Well, good luck.

People don’t want to do that anymore. So I think the companies that understand that lean into listening and creating a great environment for those people, those are the companies that are going to win in the next five to ten years.

Nicole – I completely agree totally. How do you think leaders can address burnout and attrition issues in the hybrid work environment, and how can technology solve that problem from your perspective?

Diane – Zoom burnout! Not to call out that particular organization. That’s a real thing.

Zoom fatigue. And I just read an article this morning about how looking at yourself on Zoom creates self-esteem issues. And so I think leaders can be cognizant of how many virtual meetings we’re planning and how long we’re asking people to sit down in front of their computers and be on in the normal rhythm of a work day in an office.

You get up, you walk around, you go get a refreshment, you go talk to some colleagues.

So there’s some natural movement that happens and you’re not stuck to your desk all day long.

Diane – And I think the mistake that a lot of companies make is that we would just schedule meetings every hour on the hour because everyone was exhausted by Tuesday.

And so I think paying attention and not doing that is a really important thing in a high woodwork environment. Respecting my Friday afternoon. Right.

Don’t schedule a meeting at 04:00 on a Friday afternoon. Understand that people might want to wrap up their work and then ease into their weekend with their family, assuming the work week for that company is Monday to Friday.

Diane – But be respectful of what the natural rhythm is of what people want to do. Don’t be that boss that schedules a meeting at 4:30 on Friday afternoon. That’s rude, but I think some other things burnout in general is a real issue. And a lot of companies have begun at the end of 2020, a lot of people were figuring this out, providing mental health and wellness benefits, whether that’s virtually whether it’s yoga virtually or it’s providing an app, there are a lot of apps out there that allow people to connect virtually with counselors if they need it.

Diane – So those types of mental health and wellness benefits need to be incorporated into what we offer people because we’ve got to normalize self care. And so I think paying attention to how people work and when they work is important. But I also understand that you have people that work for you and they have all kinds of demands on them.

So acknowledging that and normalizing talking about those things and providing services to help them with their lives, I think that’s critical going forward.

Nicole – Yeah. We’re in an interesting time now that mental health is no longer something that’s sort of taboo in the workplace and that you don’t really want to talk about and that employees might not feel that comfortable about talking about.

So we’re in a place that mental health is now in everything in our lives, whether it be you’re scrolling on Instagram and you’re reading about it, it’s something that finally is good to talk about and encouraged to talk about. So businesses need to hop on there and make it normalized in the workplace.

Diane – Absolutely. It’s so important for people to feel seen and validated. Right? And to know that I’m cared about in a broader way than just the work that I provide. I think any company that doesn’t do that is going to be extinct really soon.

It’s all about that community and fostering the community, keeping the community going. Absolutely. More important than ever today.

Nicole – This question I’m excited to hear your answer for your viewpoint on remote hybrid work setup is not something the service industry can adapt to easily due to the nature of human to human roles. How do you see this trend for this industry?

Diane – That’s a tough one. I think they see healthcare workers, restaurant workers, retail, they see corporate office employees working from home. And it’s really hard for them because they’re trying to balance the same life challenges. They’re trying to homeschool their kids, or they have things outside of work that are important to them and necessary for them to get attention.

So you have to examine what you can do within your environment. And a lot of restaurant companies have quality of life statements that they craft and put together. And it involves looking at the amount of hours and the number of days a week that you ask your managers to work and making sure that they get two days off in a row or they’re not working more than 12 hours. Ten or 12 hours a day. Right.

Diane – Sometimes you have managers that work open to close because of staffing issues, doing early interventions and really actively problem solving with them to make sure if that happens, it doesn’t happen for a very long time. It’s so important. I can never give you a virtual dining experience, but I can at least look at my workforce. And maybe it’s hiring four people to work shorter shifts versus just having two people to work longer shifts.

So you have to be creative within the environment that your business is in. And being open to doing things differently is, I think, the most important thing. And the biggest obstacle when I talk to other leaders in my organization and others, we’ve never done that before. Okay. Well, we need to think differently today.

Diane – So I think that I can’t give you a remote employee experience necessarily, but I can look at this type of work and try to build in as much flexibility as I can so that it’s a differentiated experience, maybe from another restaurant company, I’m sure.

Also, a lot of face to face employees, their lives have changed, obviously, just as much as ours have, meaning that their kids might not be able to be in school for the same amount of hours. They might not be able to take their kids to daycare or do the same things that they could have to kind of put other responsibilities in other boxes.

So that flexibility really is. And that freedom is so important to make sure that you have for your employees.

Diane – Yeah, it totally is. And understanding who is suffering the most. A lot of working moms or single parents are struggling the most because they don’t necessarily have that support system. And so the pandemic impacted minorities differently.

And so understanding what your employees are up against helps you help them. And again, it goes back to how you got to stay connected to the team.

Diane – And if they’re in the workplace, then you as a leader, you better go visit that restaurant, you better go visit that retail establishment or that manufacturing plant, and you better be out there, too.

Seeing you be at the moment with them is so important. And it does so much for their morale and your credibility, too.

Nicole – Yes. Again, going back to that community and the responsibility for the community. Correct? Exactly. There’s definitely some real world themes that we spoke about.

Diane, I really enjoyed hearing your take on a topic that’s the talk of the town amongst the HR fraternity.

Managing remote hybrid employees and catering to their diverse needs is one of the major themes that’s ticking in the minds of people leaders across the globe at the moment and with a rapid rate of technology adoption, people leaders need to adopt frequent listening to every voice of their employees with the help of technology.

Nicole – This is where a platform like CultureMonkey steps in and saves the day for people leaders.

CultureMonkey’s employee engagement platform seamlessly enables HR leaders and managers to listen to their employees needs, analyze their feedback and act on them in real time.

So log on to www.culturemonkey.io today and see how we can help you improve your company culture. That being said, thank you so much Diane for your time.

This was so much fun to chat with you and such an enriching experience. I’m sure viewers at home will agree.

Diane – Well, thank you so much Nicole. It’s been a pleasure really chatting with you and getting to know you a little bit. I appreciate the invitation. Thank you.

Nicole – So before we finish, please let our viewers at home know how they can reach out to you in case they want to have a quick chat or share some thoughts with you.

Diane – Sure I’m available on LinkedIn through their messaging platform or they can email me directly.

My email is djs5637@gmail.com any questions that I can helped them answer I’d be more than happy to.

Nicole – Great. Well, that’s all we have for you viewers in this episode of CultureClub powered by CultureMonkey.

Until next time, this is your host Nicole signing off.