Corporate leaders say companies can get some of their best ideas by just listening to employees

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Synchrony, like most employers, in 2020 embraced a hybrid model that combined at-home and in-office work. 

In the years since, the financial services company has made big investments to support the shift in how Synchrony’s employees work. “The biggest area of experimentation for us is this new way of working,” said Synchrony president and CEO Brian Doubles, during a virtual conversation on Tuesday hosted by Fortune that was centered on workplace talent. “We’re failing all over the place, but we are having some success too.” 

One big debate that’s emerged at Synchrony is what work is better for in-person and what can be done remotely. Meetings work well when everyone is in person or when all are on video, but it can be clunky when half the team is split between a conference room and the computer screen. Training and development are better in person, said Doubles. 

It is a delicate dance that nearly all employers are learning to master. Most companies offer their teams flexibility to work from home at least a couple of days a week, with two to three days often the standard requirement for in-person work. But there is an anticipation that may soon change, as nearly two out of every three CEOs surveyed by accounting and consulting firm KPMG expect there will be a full return to office by 2026.

Such rigidness isn’t an element of the “Design Your Day” workplace framework established at Dow. The chemicals maker offers employees flexibility to build their day based on the expectations of their jobs, the needs of their work group, and what they have going on in their personal lives. There are also initiatives like “focus Friday,” where employees can block the day off from meetings to catch up on their work. 

But Dow has to be mindful that flexible work doesn’t create a two-class system. With more than 40% of the company’s 37,800 employees working in manufacturing sites, Dow has to explore flexible opportunities for those who have jobs that require them to be on-site, said Alveda Williams, Dow’s chief inclusion officer. 

“We are making sure our employees are successful both at work and at home,” said Williams.

The challenge may be greater at event production company Encore, whose very business is based on in-person experiences. Encore President and CEO Ben Erwin said one way to make a difference is for leaders to design training programs to accelerate careers. Employees today aren’t as patient as they used to be. 

“You’ve got a new generation of workforce coming into our organization and I think that’s where we see a lot of that experiment and learning,” said Erwin. 

“I think the relationship between companies and employees has just fundamentally changed,” said Doubles. “Employees are seeking out companies that listen to them, where they feel supported. Companies that create an environment where they can bring their best.”

Williams and Erwin have seen similar shifts in the mindset of employees. They are “rethinking their approach to work and what they want to get out of it,” said Williams. Erwin, meanwhile, said Encore is “involving them in decisions that touch a lot of different areas of our business.”

To sort through what employees are thinking about, Williams said, employee resource groups can be a real catalyst for change. “They represent the voice of the employees but also are a place of connection and community,” Williams said. “They are a platform for courageous conversations, and we’ve had to have a lot of those over the last few years.”

ERGs are also a great place to inspire change across the broader organization. Dow’s ACT—which stands for advocacy, community engagement, and talent pipeline—was a strategic framework that was developed in 2020 from the company’s African Affinity Network. It has invested millions to help address systemic racism and inequality. The women’s inclusion network, meanwhile, helped inform a global paid parental leave policy that’s now 16 weeks for all employees, regardless of whether they are the birthing parent. 

At Synchrony, in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd, Black employees told the company that more mental wellness coaches needed to reflect the diversity of the workforce to help with some challenges staff was experiencing at the time. Leadership at the company also started to talk more openly about wellness and their own use of a coach, helping eliminate the stigma some may have about utilizing those types of resources. 

“We get our best ideas from our employees, including our diversity networks,” said Doubles. 

Michael Bush, CEO of Great Place to Work, said listening to employees is vital to make a workplace successful. “It takes courage and vulnerability,” said Bush. 

Bush met Erwin at the height of the pandemic in Las Vegas, when Encore was faced with a near-death experience in the wake of shutdowns that badly bruised the live events industry. Being a young, new CEO, Erwin said he found himself thinking: Encore would one day be a great organization again, but what would it want to be as it rebuilt and recruited talent back into the business? 

“It was a really unique opportunity to say people are going to be front and center, we want this to be a place where everyone wants to invest their career, and we want this to be a core value for our next chapter,” said Erwin.

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