Elon Musk, David Soloman and Sam Altman are three CEOs who have recently publicly spoken out against remote and hybrid work. Problems with communication, productivity, skills transfer and culture are some of the most common issues cited but does dragging people back to the office really make these things better? The advantages of hybrid and remote work are considerable, and there are undoubtedly other ways of addressing their challenges than ordering a mandatory return to the office.
My guest this week is Jen Fong, VP of People at Customer io. Customer io is a fully remote business with employees in 30 countries, and Jen offers some great insights on embracing the advantages of remote while dealing with its challenges.
In the interview, we discuss:
• Current talent market challenges
• Why remote work is so vital to Customer io
• Innovation and global talent pools
• Autonomy and trust
• Dealing with the challenges of remote work
• How do you build community and connection?
• The importance of tools
• Being intentional about meeting in person
• Creating opportunities for people to connect socially
• Building a people-first culture that aligns with company goals
• Ensuring you have the right skills for the future with strategic workforce planning
• Attracting diverse skillsets
• The impact of AI on skills development and recruiting
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Matt Alder (1m 21s):
Hi there. This is Matt Alder. Welcome to Episode 523 of the Recruiting Future podcast. Elon Musk, David Soloman, and Sam Altman are just three of the CEOs who’ve recently spoken out publicly against remote and hybrid work. Problems with communication, productivity, skills transfer, and culture are some of the most common issues cited, but does dragging people back to the office really make these things better? The advantages of hybrid and remote work are considerable, and there are certainly other ways of addressing their challenges rather than ordering a mandatory return to the office.
Matt Alder (2m 3s):
My guest this week is Jen Fong, VP of People at Customer Io. Customer Io is a fully remote business with employees in 30 countries. Jen offers some great insights on how to embrace the advantages of remote while dealing with its challenges. Hi, Jen, and welcome to the podcast.
Jen Fong (2m 24s):
Hi there. I’m so happy to join with you today.
Matt Alder (2m 26s):
An absolute pleasure to have you on the show. Please, could you just introduce yourself and tell a real what you do?
Jen Fong (2m 32s):
Yeah, I’m Jen Fong and I am the VP of People at Customer Io. Customer Io is a customer engagement platform for tech savvy marketers who want more control and flexibility to craft and send data driven emails, push notifications, SMS, and in-app messages. We’re a global company that is fully remote across over 30 countries. I’m based outta the Bay Area in California. I’ve worked in HR for about 15 years and primarily in tech. My passion really lies in cultivating high performing teams and inclusive cultures.
Matt Alder (3m 10s):
Fantastic stuff. Now, before we get into what we’re gonna discuss, really interested to get your view on what’s happening in the market at the moment, particularly, working for a tech company as you do. There’s obviously a lot of narrative about layoffs and things like that. What else is going on? What are the challenges? What does the market look like for you?
Jen Fong (3m 31s):
You’re so right, Matt. There’s certainly a lot of chatter about layoffs in the tech sector. I think in 2023 alone, we’ve seen over 150,000 workers laid off from US-based tech companies. I really feel that organizations want to make smart choices with the talent that they bring in to stay ahead of the competition. A couple things really stand out to me. I think leaders are challenged with budgetary constraints where companies are opting to pause and decrease merit compensation adjustments to setting hiring easiest. I think this makes sense as many companies are weathering the economic downturn, but there is a lot of pressure on leaders to do more with less and make these tough calls.
Jen Fong (4m 24s):
I think it’s not just looking at headcount, right? It’s also focusing on spend optimization, taking a closer look at vendor utilization, consolidating tools if you need to, finding opportunities for cost savings. I think that that is something that really stands out to me. Then lastly, I think another observation to point out is that while, while we are seeing this influx of people coming into the talent pool with recent layoffs, some companies will still continue to be challenged in competing in their local markets. To me, I think companies are trying to diversify, how do we get work done?
Jen Fong (5m 7s):
Whether that’s automation, having partnerships, flex talent like freelancers and just expanding their talent to global markets.
Matt Alder (5m 20s):
Absolutely. It is very interesting times and as you say, it’s driving a lot of kind of different thinking and innovation. Your organization is a basically a remote first company. I suppose one of the other things that’s going on is this big debate with lots of very high profile employers dragging their employees back to the office, sometimes very much against their will. Obviously, you are still staying very much a remote business. Why is Remote work so important to you and to the broader team?
Jen Fong (5m 55s):
I love that question, Matt. I think while we are seeing companies launch return to office mandates, like you mentioned. You have Amazon, Twitter, Apple, you name it. I think that you’re right. There’s been a lot of pushback from employees, especially in tech. For Customer Io, we really believe that Remote work offers many benefits to both employees and the organization as a whole. I think one of the reasons why remote work is an advantage for employers is the ability to tap into a much larger talent pool. We know that there’s this war on talent, there’s consistently challenges in being able to bring in talent, but I think by embracing a globally distributed workforce, employers really have access to a wide range of candidates with diverse backgrounds and experiences.
Jen Fong (6m 50s):
For us, this has really enabled us to build more inclusive and diverse teams. As we’ve seen in research, this has really shown to improve innovation and decision making in the workplace. When we don’t have these geographic barriers and they’re no longer a constraint, I think employers are really able to attract and hire the best talent regardless of their physical location. I would say, secondly, remote work really empowers our employees when it comes to having the freedom to design their workday and manage your time independently.
Jen Fong (7m 31s):
Our culture is very much grounded on autonomy and trust, trust in their abilities, trust in their judgment. We essentially wanna treat you like a grownup, right? When you couple that with flexibility to better integrate your professional responsibilities with your personal commitments, I think Remote work improves overall wellbeing, reduces stress, and encourages a healthier and more sustainable work-life balance. We certainly see this as a key driver in our employee engagement. For many employees, as you mentioned, it’s a pretty tough pill to swallow to be required to return back to the office sometimes five days a week after working remotely for two years.
Jen Fong (8m 21s):
I think that this is why we’ve seen in the US the number of workers returning to the office has somewhat stalled. In this current talent market, flexibility, Autonomy are still highly sought after attributes for job seekers.
Matt Alder (8m 39s):
Absolutely. With all that said, obviously, Remote work does have its challenges as well. One of those is building that sense of community and connection when you’re not in the same building or meeting face-to-face regularly. How do you build community and connection across your business?
Jen Fong (8m 59s):
I think that it takes time, right? Having a Remote culture has its own set of challenges, from communication to collaboration, but I think companies can be successful with this approach if they take time to address issues through technology, establishing cultural norms, processes that really propel how do we collaborate effectively together? How do we get work done efficiently? I think for us, it’s taken years and years of trial and error to really build that muscle to be successful, working in a highly distributed company.
Jen Fong (9m 40s):
We’re still learning, but we believe this is the future work and we’re commited to this journey, and I think it is going be an ongoing challenge for many hybrid and Remote organizations because connection has such a big impact to employee engagement in a Remote environment. You probably experience this as well. It’s easy for people to get into that routine of hopping from one zoom meeting to another. It can just start to feel very transactional. That common proverbial water cooler, having those conversations that normally occur in office, they’re not happening as organically in Remote environments.
Jen Fong (10m 28s):
That can certainly make folks feel isolated. We know how important strong social connections at work play a huge role in employee wellbeing, productivity, that sense of belonging. I think that there was a recent Gallup study on the significance of having a best friend at work, right? And the in the data indicated that, you know, having this close connection at work is strongly linked to several business outcomes such as profitability, engagement, retention, and at Customer Io, this is something that we certainly prioritize.
Jen Fong (11m 8s):
We focus on three areas. Number one, deploying the tools that enable collaboration connection. Two, being intentional about how we leverage in-person meetups. Lastly, creating opportunities for employees to connect socially. The tool piece, I can’t overstate this. We need the right tools to get work done effectively. For us, we are a Slack heavy organization, so we’ve implemented and integrated engagement apps like Donut and Hey Taco to bring people together.
Jen Fong (11m 47s):
Donut is a great tool because it helps to coordinate virtual coffee chats in a randomized way. You get that opportunity to get to know more people outside of your working team. I think it’s also great if you’re looking for an automated way to encourage discussion through prompts, celebrate anniversaries, and birthdays, to peer learning. We’ve had a lot of success and high usage of this tool. Hey Taco, another great app and just a fun way for employees to engage in peer-to-peer recognitions. Employees will use this tool to hand out talk taco emojis on our Taco Slack channel, and these tacos can be cashed in for actual rewards or used to donate to charities.
Jen Fong (12m 38s):
I know what you’re thinking, Matt. Donuts and tacos. This company must have a lot of foodies and we do, but these are really simple tools, fun ways to build that social connection in a very seamless and flexible way. I would say the highlight to me in terms of being able to work remotely is that we have efficiencies and productivity, but we do see the value in incorporating in-person gatherings and events. That can vary from functional team meetups to bringing certain teams together like engineering and product to a sales kickoff.
Jen Fong (13m 22s):
I would say for me, one of my favorite meetups is our all company retreat. We really focus our time on aligning our teams to company goals, provide opportunity to work together on interesting problems, and of course, having that time to bond. I think shared experience is just so important to fostering that sense of community and building trust and rapport. We often hear from our employees how rewarding critical it’s to have these opportunities to work together in person. We know it’s such a privilege to be able to travel as a company and we definitely wanna make the best use of it when we come together.
Matt Alder (14m 6s):
Tell us a little bit more about how that really sort of builds and creates the culture of the organization and how the culture ties into the company’s overall goals.
Jen Fong (14m 18s):
Yeah, I think that’s an excellent question. It can really be somewhat of a constant tight rope balance as leaders decide, “Okay, what do we prioritize? What’s going to have the biggest impact to sustaining performance as our company grows?” I think that leaders can focus on a couple things. When it comes to driving towards company goals and metrics, I think it’s have a clear understanding of how their role ties back to the success of the team, the success of the company. It may start with aligning the company to a strategic planning or goal setting framework.
Jen Fong (15m 5s):
There there are definitely many out there like from KPIs, MBOs, OKRs, you name it, but with whichever framework is used, having clear communication and training on what is the overall company strategy, how team goals, individual goals are set, how progress is monitored. Even the cadence of how often we are meeting as organization to discuss how we’re performing against our goals can really drive that accountability and transparency for employees. I think for Customer Io, transparency is one of our core values.
Jen Fong (15m 46s):
We feel when we operate from this place of openness, we’re able to establish trust and foster that growth mindset culture. As much as we celebrate our success, we also wanna create a space where employees feel comfortable and speaking candidly about, “Hey, what didn’t go so well?” Share our failures, our lessons learned. I think that these are great things that need to be established to be able to get to what’s going to really change the company, what’s going to evolve us and move us forward. I think this also means providing the opportunity for employees to share feedback, right?
Jen Fong (16m 29s):
They wanna be a part of the conversation of how the culture evolves over time, have reflection point on our current state and where we aspire to be as a company. I think tapping into tools like an engagement survey has really helped us leverage these insights and build upon people programs, initiatives as we align these inputs to company strategy. At Customer Io, being clear on what’s being asked of employees, fostering transparency and feedback has really led to better problem solving, trust building, and employees feeling more connected to the company.
Jen Fong (17m 12s):
I think I would just add that employee expectations have certainly shifted during the pandemic and employees expect more from their employers to provide an employee experience that supports them as a whole person, not just segmented to a worker. I think for many employees, I think the personal and work life has blended together and I think it’s great that it’s created this opportunity to be more vulnerable with each other, to seek and provide support, to have more empathy for each other. I know for me, this had a very meaningful impact personally as a new parent with a pandemic baby that now is a pandemic toddler.
Jen Fong (18m 0s):
I felt like I could be more open about how challenging the return to work was or garner a lot of support from peers and leaders. One of my favorite channels at work is our parents channel because people will be so active in terms asking for advice, sharing pictures of children’s milestones, speaking candidly when the challenges of parenting are real and happening all the time. I think it’s definitely made me feel more connected to our community of caretakers. I think at the end of the day, employees wanna be treated as humans and have their fundamental needs met.
Jen Fong (18m 46s):
Employees are looking to their employers to build deeper connection, personal growth, get support on wellbeing, and have that shared purpose. I think as companies, design programs and experience, we really need to do this in a holistic way that accounts for the realities of the individual. I would add that with Colin, our CEO, he’s always cared about providing a consistent experience that encourages high performance and collaboration regardless of your manager, your time zone, your geographic location, and other factors.
Jen Fong (19m 28s):
I think he’s been a very strong voice and champion for creating a people first culture that delivers exceptional products to our customers. I think you’re balancing the company goals. You’re while fostering empathetic and dynamic culture. It’s going to require a nuance and strategic approach, but I think if you’re setting clear goals, championing transparency, supporting employees in a more human way, it can have such a positive effect on the work and really supports both the company’s success and employee satisfaction.
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Matt Alder (20m 38s):
Earlier in the conversation, we talked a little tiny bit about innovation in talent and talent acquisition and companies needing to think differently about skills that they have in their business and things like that. What strategies do you think employers need to implement to ensure they have the right skills in their businesses for the future?
Jen Fong (21m 4s):
Yeah, I think that there are a couple strategies that can help employers be proactive in skill development and preparing for their future needs. Starting off with strategic workforce planning, HR teams can partner with leaders to integrate regularly scheduled assessments of current and future workforce needs and really compare that to other data inputs such as skill inventory or skill audit of their current team members, understanding the overall team performance as well as development opportunities. I think it does involve analyzing the skills and competencies required to meet business goals as well as identifying the skill gaps and emerging needs.
Jen Fong (21m 52s):
When you align this with long-term business objectives, I think leaders can more readily identify skill requirements, ensure that they have the right talent in place. As I previously mentioned, the value in embracing a growth mindset, I think creating a culture of continuous learning and development is so key to staying ahead of the game in a rapidly changing world, right? In investing in upskilling or reskilling programs, providing stretch opportunities can really help employees acquire new skills, adapt to technological advancements, and stay relevant in their roles.
Jen Fong (22m 37s):
I think that this can be done in a number of ways from internal training, external coaching, online learning platforms, mentorships. There’s so much out there and a company can have great programs like Robust LMS and generous education reimbursement Perk, but I think this doesn’t matter unless you have managers that also play an active role in reinforcing the behaviors, like prioritizing development, sharing internal resources, and helping employees ensure that they have the time to invest in learning and training.
Jen Fong (23m 19s):
I think lastly, when it comes to Recruiting, focusing on strategies that attract diverse skillsets can help us tap into emerging talent pools and stay informed of the market conditions and what skills are trending. I think that technology and data can help Recruiting teams more readily identify and engage with potential candidates early on to establish those key relationships, but there are so many more ways to connect with talent now, whether that’s through your ATS, online job boards, social media, professional networks, it’s really enabling Recruiters to reach a wider pool of candidates.
Jen Fong (24m 4s):
Overall, I think ensuring that a business has the right skills for the future really requires us a combo of identifying future skill sets, assessing what’s the current state now, fostering a culture of learning, and building an effective pipeline. I think by taking a proactive approach to skills development, employers can really position their business for success.
Matt Alder (24m 31s):
Final question for you. Technology is a very, very big theme of all of the conversations that are going on in this space at the moment. How do you think something like AI is gonna impact on processes, resources, and communication in terms of what we do?
Jen Fong (24m 50s):
Matt, I absolutely love this topic. Technology can be so transformative for HR teams and I am so excited to see more teams leverage AI to work smarter, not harder. for our people team, I really encourage my team to experiment, test, lean in to finding ways to leverage technology in their day-to-day, to free up their time, eliminate low value tasks and increase their time to focus on more strategic initiatives. in the Recruiting space, technology can help so much in automating certain aspects of the hiring process, such as sourcing, reporting.
Jen Fong (25m 33s):
You can utilize AI to help generate job posting so you’re not just starting from scratch. I think it’s also making it easier for applicants to apply for jobs. There are so many of these AI power tools that are helping Recruiting teams automate a lot of the administrative tasks and improve the hiring experience for both candidates and hiring managers. I think that technology will also help teams make better business decisions, especially as we see more progress in AI power analytics tools. We at Customer Io get so much insight from diving into our employee engagement data to analyzing our turnover rates and other metrics.
Jen Fong (26m 22s):
I think that being able to have seat at a table means making better decisions that are driven by data. I think that there is the technology there that we should certainly leverage. One other area that I think is super interesting to see progress is the learning space. I think for training, there are several ways AI can help to personalize the learning experience for our employees. We all know that we may learn better in certain formats, the type of language to how the data is being presented.
Jen Fong (27m 5s):
I think that there’s a lot to come in this space. I know Coursera recently shared that they’ll be launching Coursera coach, which is a virtual coach powered by generative AI to provide lecture summaries, personalized feedback, really having like a tutor at hand, right? I think they’re also planning to launch an AI powered enhancement to their platform that can deliver customized training content, easier ways to build the curriculum as well, and really being able to focus in on individual employee needs, preferences, and learning styles.
Jen Fong (27m 45s):
Overall, I think AI is likely to play a increasingly important role in HR and Recruiting Future by automating routine tasks, being able to use data in a better way, and offering personalized training opportunities. I think AI has the potential to make HR teams more efficient and effective in supporting the workforce.
Matt Alder (28m 11s):
Jen, thank you very much for talking to me. My thanks to Jen. You can subscribe to this podcast in Apple Podcasts, on Spotify, or via your podcasting app of choice. Please also follow the show on Instagram. You can find us by searching for Recruiting Future. You can search all the past episodes at recruitingfuture.com. On that site, you can also subscribe to the mailing list, Recruiting Future Feast, and get the inside track about everything that’s coming up on the show. Thanks so much for listening. I’ll be back next time and I hope you’ll join me.