The Mix Tape | The Secret’s in the Mix: Part 3 – Engaging a Remote Workforce

With remote work taking over the international workforce, how does a company stay connected? Managing and engaging with a geographically diverse team happens every day at Mix Talent, so Valerie sits down with Todd Radloff, Head of Client Solutions and Delivery, as well as Patty Adams, Head of HR Consulting, to discuss Mix's approach and other helpful strategies for other organizations learning how to navigate remote teams.

Transcription

Group:

Welcome to The Mix Tape.

Valerie McCandlish:

I’m Valerie and welcome back to another episode of The Mix Tape mini-series. In today’s episode, we will be talking about remote teams and how to maintain the culture in a workforce that is geographically diverse.

At Mix Talent, about 60% of our team is located in the Columbus, Ohio area, and the other 40% is located across the country with one teammate in England. Since our start, we have made it a priority to ensure that no matter an employee’s location, they feel connected to the team as a whole, and as we grew from 17 employees when I started to now 113, that same priority remains.

So today I’m joined by two Mix leaders, Patty Adams, Head of HR Consulting, and Todd Radloff, Head of Client Solutions and Delivery, to dive into this topic and discuss some strategies that might be helpful to other organizations learning how to navigate remote teams. Patty, Todd, welcome back.

Todd Radloff:

Thanks, Val. Great to be hear.

Patty Adams:

Thanks Val. Good to be back.

Valerie McCandlish:

So when Mix was just getting started, our leadership made it a part of our business strategy to hire the best people no matter their zip code. Now of course, that landscape changed broadly after the COVID-19 pandemic. Todd, I remember when you reached out to me on LinkedIn many years ago, many like four, to tell me about an opportunity at Mix that I thought sounded a little too good to be true, to be honest. What do you think are some strategies organizations can do to ensure that this is a positive experience, to feel connected to their organizations if they are remote or if they are local to their company’s office?

Todd Radloff:

Yeah. It’s a good question Val. And I think for Mix, we were kind of in some ways put in that spot due to the growth that we had. So we had traditionally hired a lot of people out of our Columbus office, but then had the need to develop a particular subject matter expertise that forced us to think about that strategy as we wanted to continue to grow and also listen to our customers from that perspective.

So we really had hesitations. I was like, how do we make this all work? And I think that’s something that a lot of organizations go through is how can you have the connectedness of a group while they’re not in the office with you? And so that’s something that we had thought really just because we were forced to do due the growth factor, and we had hesitations on how do you keep them engaged? How do you evolve your hiring process to make sure that you’re hiring the right people for the organization? How would it affect the retention percentage? So those are all things that were kind of going through our minds before we were making that decision, but it’s been one of the best things that we’ve kind of did because then COVID hit and then companies really started to face that question overall because the whole world landscape was changing. Patty, what are your kind of thoughts on that?

Patty Adams:

Yeah. Todd, speaking as one of that 40% that’s remote and not based in Columbus, I think one thing that struck me when I joined the organization, and that was right in the middle of COVID, was how intentional Mix was about not letting zip code be an artificial barrier to finding the right talent, and I’ve been impressed with the purposeful focus on how to keep people engaged even though they’re not directly in the Columbus office. So even though world events, the pandemic kind of put us in a situation where we didn’t have a choice, there was this intentional effort on behalf of Mix to find the right talent without those artificial boundaries. And I think culturally, the foundation was there before the pandemic even hit that enabled Mix to not just survive but thrive as some of those challenges started to develop as a result of being forced into remote work.

Todd Radloff:

That’s a great point Patty, because we hear that a lot with, both internally and with customers, that the culture that they had prior to was impactful on their retention during that time because a lot more came out to empathy, authenticity, that they were looking for organizations that could help them get through those times. So I think that’s something that got highlighted or emphasized even more within the past two to three years, and as we talk about today, why companies still have to make sure that they have a strategy that works for them because I think that’s the other part. It’s hard to copy what one company does. You have to make sure you’re authentic to what your approach is as an organization that can support it as it goes forward. If you’re putting these things in place but you don’t have a support tools to do that, it actually will be more of a detriment to organizations

Patty Adams:

Could not agree more, Todd. I think you hit on a really important point, that being the fact that this has to be part of the business strategy, and when I think about joining Mix, there is an intentional effort to have people close to where our clients are. We are fortunate to have a lot of clients in Columbus, but we have a lot of clients across the United States, so having people strategically positioned was part and parcel to supporting the business strategy that Mix was focused on and ensuring that there’s availability and ability of the team to meet our clients where they’re at, to show up in person. And I think that that alignment with the business strategy, how that people strategy was very intentional, is all part of the puzzle as well.

And I think, when you look at Mackenzie just did a report. They came out and said that 58% of US job holders can work remotely some or all of the time. Of that percentage, 87% opt for remote work. So when you think about some of the tactics that Mix has employed, Todd, I think especially you managing such a large remote team, what were some of the early indications of success for managing remotely that we still have in place today?

Todd Radloff:

Yeah, that’s a great question Patty, and I think we learned a lot. I think the main thing that organizations or individuals have to do is how do you go about finding the right people for a particular situation? So I think internally at Mix, one thing that we really focused on, we use the assessment thanks to our assessment team and we match that with our Mix OS. So we really thought as we look for people across the United States, they still have to match what our foundation is, and that’s with the Mix OS. And so through that interview process and vetting individuals, having those discussions about who Mix is and really owning who you are I feel is important because candidates, they see right through it, and if you’re looking for people that are going to be there long-term, it’s good to have those crucial conversations and say this is how we are. It’s not a right or wrong, but it’s just more of this is what we believe in. And I think the more authentic we were in the interview process when we were reaching out to individuals, we’ve found people that had that alignment to our organization, and that’s helped us out tremendously with not only hiring the right talent but also the right people with the behaviors that we’re hoping to have within the organization. So I think that was a piece.

I think the other piece is the training. We do an exceptional amount of training within our organization, so it’s not just your team that’s on those calls. It’s cross-functional, and so they have a chance to interact with people outside of their teams which kind of enhances and gets to know individuals outside of maybe their core teams. And that’s always been a big part of the feedback that we get is just making sure that they can know other people within the organization so they don’t feel like they’re just in this box, that they don’t have a greater community, especially for the people that are in that fully-remote situations. So I think those are a couple ideas, but Patty, you’re obviously one of those individuals that’s in the fully-remote capacity. So what have been the things for you that have helped you feel connected to the organization?

Patty Adams:

Yeah, I think that word connected is a really important point to stress because it’s that connectedness, it’s building that connective tissue. Helping people feel part of a community in the workplace is one of the key things that drives engagement in organizations, and we hear it all the time from our clients. How long can we stay remote? Should we stay remote? Do we have to require people to relocate? How should we be thinking about this? So I think the fact that we have experience in our own organization really positions us well to help people think about it.

A couple of things you touched on that were really meaningful to me in terms of feeling a part of the Mix community, even though I’m in the Chicago-land area. So the fact that Mix relied on the selection process on assessments, and not assessments in terms of are we going to hire you or not, but assessments in terms of how can we equip our managers and our team to make sure that as you come on board here, you have what you need, from a leadership perspective, a style perspective, to help you feel part of this Mix community? That’s huge.

I also think there’s a new term that’s floating around now and it’s phigital. So that phigital environment, which is a mix of physical and digital presence in the workplace, and again, Mix having tools employed for that social interaction like Slack, the intentional focus on sharing positive stories. We have channels that focus on everything from pets of Mix to celebrating each other’s success. That is huge in terms of, and I’m sitting in my office, my home office versus when I’m spending time in Columbus, I don’t feel like I’m missing a beat and I’m getting to know people at a very personal level even though we’re not having those hallway conversations every day. What are your thoughts?

Todd Radloff:

No, you bring up a good one. Slack is something that for our internal communication, it just feels authentic and I think you can feel people’s comfort levels sharing personal stories. We had a gentleman in our organization whose son had had an exceptional sports year and you could tell he shared some of those heartfelt stories, and it’s not just to a specific team. It’s to the organization, and then the amount of outpouring support congratulating him on that success. That part it, it only happens if everyone kind of buys into it and is able to be open. So I think you can see a lot of personality on it because you can do images and things like that, so there’s humor. You mentioned the kudos part. I think that has been a really important part that we’ve always seen.

I think the other part, it starts from the outset and that’s the onboarding experience. We talk to people within our teams and we have asked for the past really three years, what could we have done different? What worked well to really make sure that we’re being thoughtful about what those first two weeks look like? Because that’s their segue into the organization, and if that’s bumpy, usually that sets the long-term roadmap, and we’ve seen some statistics surrounding that. So I think being thoughtful about your onboarding experience. We have a sheet that has everyone’s mixes, kind of gives us a sense of their personality with photos, so you can see their face. If they’re on a Zoom, there’s at least a chance to associate who is this. So really being thoughtful about what that onboarding looks like for not just our organization but for any. How do you make sure that they feel like after two weeks, I am so happy I joined this organization? That’s the feeling we’re going for and that a company should try too.

I think the other part is we have a care team that really is very thoughtful about the community, so we’ll do community outreach exercises. We’ll do internal as far as how do we have a chance to collaborate with the teams to create that, you kind of mentioned, the kind of fabric or stitching together of connectivity. And so that’s been a tremendous success, and I think the team, the first year was a couple people, and now there’s like eight or nine on the team.

Valerie McCandlish:

This year, I think we have about 12 people on it. It just grows a little bit. I joined the first year and have inserted myself as an evergreen member of the care team because I just love it so much. But exactly to your point, it’s because I think people, when they enjoy where they work, they look forward to being able to take part in other aspects that they can get involved with a little bit more. So if you’re providing ways to get involved with your team more, with your community, with making it fun where you are, then it makes it just a little bit more worthwhile in your time there.

Todd Radloff:

And I think by having people on this team, they come from all the different teams within the organizations or groups, so you have a lot of cross-functional conversations and learn a lot about a day in a life for them or what they view as things that we could do to inspire the team. I feel like that’s been a big part, Patty.

And I think the last part is just the employee engagement. So the training as an organization or we’re very mindful if we’re in Chicago, Patty, hey, we’re going to be in town, let’s grab a lunch. Or are you going to be in Philadelphia? Try to grab some of the team for a happy hour. So at any point that we can, we want to get that in-person piece, one because it’s, we enjoy people within our organization, but others, it makes them feel important that you’re taking that time and you’re making that effort to see them and see how they’re doing. That’s been a lot of messages that have come back. It’s just like, what’s the level of effort? A teammate, a manager, a peer, anything really makes to see each other has been very fruitful to see, and not just again within Mix but within other organizations. They can tell what the level of effort is that people go through to care about what’s happening in their lives, not just at work, but on the personal side.

Valerie McCandlish:

And I think back to when we were talking about hiring the best people, regardless of where they are, when you get to go be in the same area as them, you look forward to seeing that team. You’re like, wow, I can’t wait to go see Patty or Patty’s in town. There’s an immediate hug happening because we’re so excited to have you here, and that goes the same for every single one of our employees because by not limiting ourselves to just who is here in Columbus, we’ve been able to just bring on incredible people to our team.

Patty Adams:

Yeah, which adds to the whole diversity aspect of it as well, which is another important consideration and great outcome of being more flexible in terms of where the work gets done. And you guys are talking about, I think a really important point. These are the ties that bind and as we’ve been discussing, social connections drive that employee engagement, and there’s a reason that engagement surveys ask questions like I have a friend at work or my manager cares about me as a person.

And I think the challenge now with managing remote employees is that leaders have to build that connective tissue that enables remote employees to have meaningful relationships in the workplace without necessarily seeing that person every day. So I want to get back to this point about data to inform the hiring and onboarding process through assessments and how those assessments, what we’ve used at Mix, kind of equips managers with information about what this new employee needs, not just to survive but thrive in the workplace. So Todd, can you talk a little bit about how the founders of the organization really wanted to make sure that assessments provided that information for leaders and how you’ve seen that unfold in terms of driving engagement at Mix?

Todd Radloff:

Yeah. I think the biggest part is just making sure there was alignment. I think that’s a really big part is just the communication within organization is to have alignment on why are we doing this. Because you want to be able to have the conversations and be authentic, but also know what’s the why? Because I think if a person or an employee doesn’t know what is the purpose of what we’re doing, a lot of questions start to come out, a lot of frustrations too.

So I think really understanding for each organization, why did you do that? What’s the behavior? What’s the reasoning? So that way the correct conversations could be had, whether it’s in a team environment or a one-on-one, to be able to have those conversations, and then help that understanding and bridge that gap on, well this is why who we are and this is why we’re doing what we believe in. And I think that part clarifies a lot of the unknowns because that’s what we hear in the market is like, well, they’re telling us they want us to come in five days a week, but there’s really not an explanation. It’s a black or white situation.

So I think Patty, we had talked a little bit about just in our catch-up conversations that companies right now are really struggling with the fully remote or even the hybrid situations. And we have customers that have grade-A spaces, whether it’s in San Francisco or Boston, with long-term commitments and they are really trying to understand how can they make this work while still retaining the people, having the development and maintaining the culture to do so.

So I think this is at the forefront. We were a little bit, our growth forced us to have some of these conversations earlier, but now I would say every road trip that we go on from a business development perspective or on-sites with customers, this is the maintaining questions that everyone is having right now and that they’re thinking about. So to that point, Patty, what do you think customers need to think about when thinking about their strategy, when it comes to whether it’s the fully remote or even the hybrid, questions that they need to ask themselves or be thinking about as they make those decisions?

Patty Adams:

Yeah, I think you hit on a key point. Strategy. Be intentional. Think about how your talent decisions support your business strategy, especially in early stage in emerging organizations. If the strategy is to kind of flip that house, we don’t expect that we’re going to have to have a manufacturing facility. Maybe our business strategy means we’re outsourcing or we rely heavily on collaboration and partnerships versus doing a lot of things in-house. All of that should help inform how they’re thinking about headquarter locations, helping remote people versus requiring everybody to be in the office. Now that’s easier for early stage and emerging organizations versus established organizations.

But I think if there are three things that I would challenge leaders to think about, it includes, number one, it’s acceptance time. Let’s accept the fact that hybrid and remote work is here to stay. It’s not a temporary fad that’s going to go away, so plan for it. To your point, Todd, make it part of your strategy. Be intentional. Think about how it affects your budget. Think about how it affects your manager training, because the skills to connect with people remotely, we’re still managing. We’re still doing those same things, it’s just how we’re doing it looks different. So that’s one key thing. I think the other is beware of proximity bias or how the people right in front of me may get more attention, may get more of my time, more my consideration. Even when it comes to things like merit or feedback, be really careful about those biases.

And on the flip side of that is taking efforts to ensure that people who have to be on-site, your manufacturing team, your lab team, that they don’t feel slighted because they don’t have those opportunities to work at home. So think of how you can be a little bit more flexible with them, relying on your managers maybe to be half day on a Friday during the summertime if they can’t work at home or your start and stop times can flex. So there are a lot of options there. And I think the third thing, and I’ve heard a lot of this undertone, especially as you and Val were talking about your experiences as long-timers at Mix, is that importance of empathy and compassion. In a virtual world, it’s absolutely critical because leaders, managers have to compensate somehow for that lack of in-person contact that’s experienced by remote workers, and a lot of what you’ve shared today really helps give some tactics and strategies for leaders and managers to think about in terms of building that sense of community.

Todd Radloff:

Those are really great points, Patty. It’s something that’s not going away and a lot more data’s going to come out on what’s working or what’s not. I think some of the takeaways that I had was along with create a strategy is create your own strategy. In our industry, there’s a lot of copycat behaviors and you just highlighted different things about what stage are they as an organization, what specific nature is the work. If you’re in a manufacturing or labs, you have to be there. So I think it’s being very intentional in thinking about your own organization. You should be able to listen to the insights from other organizations, but you really want to build something that’s going to work for you. It’s going to create that long-term longevity and retention and allow people that fit the culture you’re looking for. It’s not always for everyone, so you have to be yourself.

The onboarding and just the interview process I feel like is another way that companies, as they think through that strategy. The interview process is so important to see if they are remote, you mentioned the assessments, but if they’re mentioning they need to see people all the time, probably not a great fit for a fully-remote situation. So you have to make sure that the interviews align with the behaviors and culture and strategy that you’ve just put forward.

And then I think the last is just seek feedback on ways that you can improve it as an organization. Those are things that we’ve done that over the last couple years and I feel like once you stop trying to improve or get the feedback, especially in this very highly kind of volatile situation, it’s tough. So you have to get some feedback so you can continue to adapt.

And then when you do that, we’ve heard from customers the flip side, which is all the benefits. You have the ability to diversify from an experience standpoint. You can get subject matter expertise, or if you’re looking for an oncology candidate or Duchenne or something like that where it’s very specific, they now have reached outside of when they had to go in-person to be able to seek that experience. And so one of the surprises is for us, we’ve won best places to work for the last four years. This year was actually our highest scoring as a company and we’re in that environment. And I think a lot of that has to do with the open discussions about why do we believe in the hybrid? It is important to still come in, but also have the flexibility, not the rigidity around exactly how that works, and then the connectivity to the remote team. So it is definitely possible to even grow and enhance your culture. I just think it gets into a lot of the things that you just mentioned as far as the plan of action and strategy.

Valerie McCandlish:

Well, I think I can speak for just about everybody here and say that with Patty and Todd, the two of you, we’ve got just incredible brain power, incredible leadership, and you’ve given some really great suggestions for organizations that all I think similarly have this question on how do we successfully build a company, build a culture, what goes into that? And I think you’ve given some great tips on how to do that. And I think especially what you said Todd, about making it your own. That ultimately is what makes it special for your own organization.

And as leaders are taking some of this information and maybe taking a little bit of a call to action, I think it’s also important to remember that it does come down to everybody. It’s not just coming from your leadership on we’ve built this strategy. Now it’s magically all going to happen. It all comes down to everybody that you work with. It falls on a little bit of everybody’s shoulders to think on that strategy, to live that strategy, to live those values, and that’s what makes your company grow and build and be what ultimately is your own amazing place to be.

So I think with what you’ve shared, we’re going to be able to help some people who might be struggling with this question and ultimately maybe set off a few first steps for folks. I think it’s also cool that it’s seemingly come a little bit natural to us here at Mix, even though it’s probably been a lot of really hard work, and this is something that we’ve done since before I started, since I’m sure where you have worked previously, Todd and Patty, those are things that have been important to you. But coming together, we take these bits and pieces of what has done well at other organizations, what you’ve seen done well, maybe what you haven’t seen done so well and you’re able to form it into what’s special, what’s important to you to be a successful place to work.

So I think all of this is just really good takeaways for folks as they are maybe in a position themselves where we were four or five years ago. So thank you both Patty and Todd for being with us. I just love listening to you guys and spending time with you. This has been amazing. And for our listeners, if you haven’t caught them already, we have two other episodes from our Mix leadership on how to build a great culture and some important topics under that umbrella, and we’ve got just one more after this one that we hope you tune in for. And with that, thanks for being in the mix. We’ll see you next week.

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