The pandemic has rocked everyone’s world, from the way we live, the way we socialize, to how we think about life itself. Many of us are still dealing with the horrors of lives lost, of which we can never truly recover. For most of us it has drastically changed the way we work, from the where to the how. And although it has been over three years now since the world shut down, the impact it has on our lives continues whether we are aware of it or not.
How Work Has Changed for Most
In the very beginning of the pandemic, the corporate world worked entirely from home. We utilized tools like Zoom and Slack like never before in order to keep the business going and stay connected to one another. Most companies had to either make cuts or furlough a chunk of their people. Some did so out of necessity to survive while others used it as the catalyst to “trim the fat.” The realization of having less people did not always equate to efficiency was a hard lesson learned, particularly if you cut too thin. The 9 to 5 quickly became the 7 to 10, working from the crack of dawn to late at night. The costly effect of burn out soon took hold resulting in regrettable churn. That, coupled with the YOLO (You Only Live Once) philosophy sweeping the workforce by storm, had countless companies losing great talent. We were no exception.
As time passed and the fear of Covid dissipated, most companies forced a hybrid model upon their employees. Some, particularly within the finance and legal sectors, reinstated pre-Covid norms demanding their people come in five days a week: a shock to their employees’ new way of life, no doubt!
How Undertone Charted Its’ Own Course
In such a competitive market, it is crucial to separate yourself from the rest of the pack. Although it was important to understand what our competitors were doing, we were not in the business of mimicking policies just because they were popular mandates from the big wigs who sat in ivory towers far removed from the pulse of their people. Unlike most companies in our space, we listened to our people carefully, empathized with their feelings, and most important, saw the writing on the wall. “Why do we need to go back to the office when we have been more successful these past few years at home than ever before?”, “Why force us to lower our quality of life by traveling into a dangerous city on an even more dangerous public transit system?”,
“We are so much more productive at home”, “We are saving so much money not having to commute,” “We moved to different states during the pandemic,” and so on and so on. All of these sentiments were true and could not be denied with a straight face. The veil had been lifted. The bottom line was we were more successful than we could ever have imagined, and our people were far happier.
It became clear to us very quickly that we couldn’t go back to business as usual. And if we were being truly honest with ourselves, there were some major advantages for the company as well. Significant savings in rent and pantry items could not be denied. Our footprint in one of the
most expensive cities in the world was shrinking. We were finding great talent everywhere in the country because we were no longer handcuffed to a certain geographical radius.
While all this sounded logical, we knew that eventually, people would want and need human interaction with their coworkers. We have always had such an incredible culture at Undertone and the last thing we wanted was to jeopardize that! We understood the risks: less human interaction leads to weaker relationships, which leads to higher attrition. There is also the issue of career development, particularly for the Gen Z population. Heck, the New York Times recently wrote an article based on a working paper from economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, the University of Iowa and Harvard, on how remote workers are likely to pay a hidden professional penalty. The paper basically claimed that while remote work does indeed foster higher productivity, it diminishes the amount of real time feedback, a crucial factor in career development. The theory is that younger people are less likely to learn, improve their skills or get promoted, and therefore, will be more likely to jump ship. This seems very reasonable and makes sense, right? But if this is truly a sound theory, why wasn’t it happening to us? Why were we seeing just the opposite? What was our secret sauce?
So, we asked ourselves how can we create something unique? We wanted to chart our own course and saw this as an excellent opportunity to be, to a degree, pioneers in this area. With that came the birth of our Unforced Hybrid Model; a Work from Anywhere policy that truly tapped into some of the most powerful of motivators: being heard and being valued. We understood how important intrinsic motivators are and used them as our compass. Whenever we introduce a policy or program, we always ask ourselves the following questions: “Will this program foster employee engagement and wellbeing? Will this enhance the employee’s feeling of purpose, of being respected and appreciated? Does the success of this policy rely on trusting our employees and do we have the courage to take that leap of faith?” For us, the answers were a resounding “yes!”
So, what does an Unforced Hybrid Model look like? Our policy allows employees to utilize the office as much or as little as they like. With our headquarters in New York City and shared office spaces around the country, employees can come and go as they please. Apart from the occasional mandatory meetings a few times a year, our employees have the invaluable flexibility of working in a way that works for them.
Don’t get me wrong, this was not a decision made free of reticence. It was never done before and with all new things, there is always an element of risk and gamble. Fortunately, this bet paid off, in fact, we hit the jackpot! Since we introduced this policy back in 2021, we have seen employee satisfaction, productivity and retention go up, climbing higher with each passing year.
The Secret Sauce
A good culture is important in any organization’s survival. A great culture is key in having an Unforced Hybrid Model work. I often hear “Wow, you are all so very close! How do you have such an amazing relationship with your team, especially not working in person with one another on a regular basis? What is your secret sauce?” “Honestly,” I reply with the fear of sounding too sappy, “it’s authentic love and respect for one another.” Nothing works without this critical
ingredient. You must truly care about your team. You must see and treat them as people, not as human resources. Hiring great talent results in building a work family that shares these values. Authenticity can be felt regardless of dimensionality. The best laughs or most heartfelt conversations have occurred on Zoom because the old saying is true: love has no bounds.
But like another great saying, sometimes love is not enough. To retain great talent, you
must develop great talent. Whenever possible, we conduct trainings in person as we find them most effective. We have a robust training program that offers both internal and external sales training, management training, interview training, soft skills training such as time & stress management training, in addition to our Tuition Reimbursement Program where employees can expense up to a certain amount for outside classes that will up their skills or just make them more well-rounded as individuals. We are big believers in giving an employee the ability and the tools to continue to grow, whether in or outside their current field. As a career path can be more of a lattice than a ladder, we encourage cross-pollination with our internal mobility program as well as our big investment in learning and development.
Another essential ingredient is feedback, providing it often and in real-time. Out of sight cannot be out of mind. That is unacceptable. We provide our managers with a minimum guideline of the social and behavioral expectations we have of them. There are so many touchpoints. From daily, to weekly, to monthly, to quarterly to yearly, managers develop a customized plan that best suits the needs of their teams. Some teams need more in person collaboration while others work best on their own; another example of how we don’t force fit a one size fits all approach.
It’s fascinating to see how people actually do come in on a regular basis, not because they have to but because they choose to. It’s purely psychological: if they were forced to come in, they would most likely do so begrudgingly. Some teams enjoy coming in 1-2 times a week while others prefer 3 times a week. Some teams will meet in person only on a quarterly basis due to distance or preference. And that’s ok too. It’s work that works for you. To ensure everyone meets on a company-wide basis, Undertone conducts a yearly offsite Summit where we all get together to strategize and socialize. This is an awesome venue to meet especially the new hires in a fun and relaxed environment.
If you were to speak to every single one of our new hires, they would all say our Work from Anywhere/Unforced Hybrid Policy was a major deciding factor in accepting our offer. When you hear a new sales executive say, “I told my spouse I can’t wait to make loads of money for Undertone because of how they treat their people,” it makes us proud and encourages us to continue on our path. This model, without a doubt, works. But only with the right attitude, the right people and the guts to trust in one another.