SINC’s Director of Content Annie Liljegren conducted this July 2021 interview, which has been edited for length and clarity.
Nate Arnold: We talk a lot about the productivity perspective; I think companies by and large are pleasantly surprised with the level of productivity. And then, we’ve been we’ve been dealing with that as almost a negative consequence—are people working too much? Are people not having that separation between work and personal life? We’ve seen burnout.
But one one thing that pleasantly surprised me, I think more than anything, was that even though we were remote there was a level of compassion and empathy, and relationship-building happening on a whole other level. There was a lot of understanding of people’s personal circumstances. We got to know people on calls a lot better because you were seeing their cats and dogs and kids, and laughing about it and accepting it. I found a rich relationship-building was happening with teams at the personal level.
When we went fully remote in the US, a lot of us kind of freaked out. My global teams reminded me they’ve been doing this the whole time; it wasn’t a big deal and we could still get a lot of work done virtually. That was a great observation.
Nate Arnold: I would say compute power, remote testing, performance testing—the simple things you expect to be routine. When GE closed the books the second quarter of 2020, that was the first time we did so fully remote. Without armies of teams in an office with workstations and contract teams, all hands on deck making sure we’re processing hundreds of thousands of transactions and millions and millions of dollars—a very open failure mode pool. That preparation and having systems in place to handle it was a great advantage for us and made the transition pretty seamless.
Nate Arnold: Well, we’ve been talking a lot about core competencies. We’ve been talking about what we value the most and what we want to cultivate. We’re finding the importance of a career path is that much more important, as well as the need to get specific about the skill sets that matter to us. Now that leadership are differentiated the fight for talent globally is aggressive.
Recently I was speaking with a young lady we have; she has a PhD and works outside the US. She has been very motivated within our team and very loyal to GE, even in the face of frequent external offers. So I was asking about that and really interrogating it. She said it came back to a couple core principles: the sense that there’s a genuine interest in her, that the leadership team cares about her, that there’s a focus on her development, and all of this consistently. And then there’s flexibility—an understanding of personal situations and allowing for a personal life. Those are three things that I meant [can get lost] by overcomplicating the thinking.
It’s easy to just step back and say there must be a fundamental problem, and there must be an easy fix here, and if I throw a pinball machine in the hallway that’s going to fix it. That’s just superficial. If you don’t have those core principles, and consistency, and some good training and leadership—even in your junior ranks, to model it—then that’s the problem.
Nate Arnold: That’s a good question. There’s an informality and an “ad hoc-ness” to the water cooler or the hallway. I think it can be replicated, there just has to be a lot of intentionality. Because, what I’ve found is this: my schedule is a complete disaster now more than ever. We do a lot of lean at GE and I try to follow some sense of lean standard work, but [my schedule] is a nightmare—no consistency. So how do you accommodate for those ad hoc sessions, because you do have to force it—I have to ping somebody and say Hey can you jump on video for a minute? But if you do allocate those times, I think that interaction is genuine.
And I think it can serve the same purpose, where someone feels really motivated. If it’s one-under-one, or one-under-one-under-one, I think those kinds of sessions are the things that motivate people. They realize the leadership team really does care what their opinion is and cares about what they think.
So it puts a little bit more on the leadership or the culture, to ensure you’re educating teams to be comfortable pinging folks. I consistently tell my teams: I hate email. Do not email. Do not email. Ping me, text me, message me—whatever. That’s a more personal interaction, it’s one-on-one, and I can quickly do it. I think the more we buy into messaging services and let email die, and focus on the threads of interactions and the one-on-ones, I think it’ll be there.
But, you know, I still really value at least periodic time. I’ve told my software engineering team we’re going to get together for big room planning sessions in the agile process—we’re going to find a way, once it’s appropriate. We’re going to do that again, and at least have those interactions, and then we can lean into the other remote ones as best we can.