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I talked to 220 employees in 38 days. This is what I learned about vulnerability and trust

The chief people officer at Ceros says she didn’t call every employee to discuss responsibilities or goals, she just wanted to listen and learn.

I talked to 220 employees in 38 days. This is what I learned about vulnerability and trust
[Photo: Oscar Keys/Unsplash]

It was late March when I realized I had some phone calls to make. Two hundred-twenty of them, to be exact, and not all of them would be easy.

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The idea came up right after our entire staff transitioned to working from home. Our CEO, Simon Berg, mentioned it almost as an aside: “Hey, maybe you should set up a Zoom call to check in with everyone, you know, see how they’re adjusting?” I said yes without a second thought. I was sure our people were going through all kinds of emotions and we had an opportunity to check in and offer some support. I decided to schedule a Zoom with each employee by the end of the quarter.

I’d joined Ceros as chief people officer a few months earlier, so this was as much for me as it was for our people. It would give me a chance to get to know every one of them, whether they wanted me to or not.

There was no agenda for the calls. These were not performance reviews, there were no conflicts to resolve, no change in responsibilities to work through. I wasn’t checking to see if they were being productive or managing their workload. I was just seeing how they were doing. It was just, let me be human, let me be empathetic, let me be supportive. And that’s how I approached each of the 220 conversations. To me, this was an opportunity to connect with employees on a level I never could have in the office. And it’s one that I never would have had if it weren’t for this pandemic. Here’s what I learned about communication, trust, and working from home in the age of a global health crisis.

Reassurance is in high demand

Early on, I realized most people were at least a little anxious. I realized that it was wrong to assume that everyone in the company had understood the message we’d tried so hard to communicate during the shift to remote work. We went so far as to pledge to do everything we could to not lay anyone off during the pandemic, but there’s always room for misinterpretation or reading between the lines. I realized that people needed to hear that they still had jobs, especially at the beginning. It was a lot of me reassuring people, telling them that as long as you’re productive and you have Wi-Fi, you still had a job.

After that, the conversations evolved, to include anything and everything that’s gone on at work or in the world—from fears about the coronavirus or frustrations with their roommates to social justice, Black Lives Matter, and what steps the company is taking on inclusivity and diversity among our ranks. It was a rare opportunity to get to know everyone beyond titles and team and direct reports.

Trust exercise

It sounds counterintuitive, but a Zoom call can be more intimate than a meeting in the office. It’s just the two of you, for one, and there are no distractions, except when my dog would start barking uncontrollably. Also, you’re seeing people at a home, so you’re seeing roommates making coffee in the background, or siblings and parents. I saw people in their childhood bedrooms with their walls painted pink. That helped to bring down the barriers and have a real, honest conversation. And they were real, sometimes raw, vulnerable conversations, which showed me how important it is to connect like this and why the process generates trust and connections.

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That happened on one call—with someone that I really had no relationship with other than a quick hello in the hallway—even if I didn’t know it at the time. It was a relatively comfortable call; the individual didn’t open up too much and seemed to be doing okay. It was positive but unremarkable. But then a week later the person reached out. “You know,” the person said, “I have something that I’m struggling with. And I want your opinion.” And I don’t think that would have transpired if it wasn’t for this initial connection that kind of drew us together.

The kids are all right but nothing is certain

Every person I spoke to was uncertain about the future and still adjusting to a new reality. Many of them were figuring out how to work from home in cramped New York apartments or juggling parenting with working. Others were adjusting to being back in their childhood homes under mom and dad’s roof again. Some said they missed the connection and energy of the office environment, but almost all of them were surprised at how productive and collaborative working from home had been. A lot of them are also grappling with whether or not they want to stay in New York when they don’t have to come to a physical office on a daily basis. They’re wrapping their heads around big decisions and all the emotion that comes with them. And a lot of them just have questions about how to deal with it all.

Lately, especially with some of the younger people, the conversations are more personal. They’re about living arrangements and roommates and how to talk to their landlords. A lot of times, I kind of feel like mom, you know? We have such a young staff, and I felt comfortable enough with a lot of them to kind of, you know, go there—carefully, very carefully—and to remember my place as an adviser and not a parent. So those meetings, the ones I probably wouldn’t have had if it weren’t for COVID-19, offered a comfortable space, and sometimes we used the time to talk about roles and expectations and their place within the organization, but usually, it was just me listening and understanding what someone was navigating personally.

I just finished my last call on the last day of the quarter. Two-hundred and twenty calls I never knew I needed to make. I’m a little sad now that they’re over. I’ll miss talking to all the good humans on the other side of the computer screen. But I’ll always be grateful for that small gesture we made. And while it was grueling sometimes—just scheduling 220 additional calls in eight weeks was a chore—I’ve decided to find a way to keep them going, but at a different cadence. Because as a CPO, I’m always looking for ways to connect, to build trust and connection with every employee, and those connections we created during quarantine are worth building upon long after things return to some sense of normal. Whatever that normal turns out to be.


Jennifer Schwalb is the chief people officer at Ceros.

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