Ian Minchell is the Chief Human Resources Officer at Sohonet, a private network company based in Hollywood and London. Sohonet supports major studios like Disney, MGM, and Universal with a file storage distribution and collaboration network that allows them to make movies. Thanks to tools like Sohonet’s, movie-making hasn’t come to a complete halt during the pandemic—and neither has Ian’s team. We sat down with him to talk all things work-from-home and return-to-office, from what to do with unused vacation days, to performance reviews, to what happens when you send flower seeds to every employee!
Hibob: What work-from-home policies are you planning on implementing as you get back to the office? How will these differ from your pre-pandemic policies?
Ian Minchell: We surveyed our community to understand what the current environment was like for people, what we need to do differently, and what we need to do better. As we plan to return to the office, people have given us feedback that they quite enjoy this more flexible dynamic.
We were a bit old-fashioned in that we’ve tended to be a “work-from-office” type organization. But we flipped our view dramatically, and when we do go back, we’re not going to mandate a return to the office for people who want to work more flexibly, be it because of childcare, location, or just lifestyle. We will be much more accommodating.
We’ll also be more flexible with our benefit structure. We have traditional benefits, including vacation, a 401K or pension, etc. But no one is taking vacation and people are asking what we are doing about that. Do we buy it back? Do we let people exchange it for other things? I think [the pandemic] is shifting our paradigm. When we return, it will be a different return to work, with different policies around work flexibility, benefit structures, and how we actually do work. It’s been a mini-revolution in its own right, and I’m excited about that.
Hibob: Are you planning to do anything to motivate employees to come back to the office?
IM: When we surveyed employees, 30% wanted to come back. Their social life revolved around the office, so I don’t think we will need to motivate those people. Our challenge is that we can’t have them all back at the same time while managing social distancing and creating a safe environment. We’ll need to balance between the people who need to be there—because we do have people who need to be in the office—but also accommodate those who want to return. It’s an exercise in engaging with people and understanding, almost person-by-person, what everyone needs.
Hibob: What remote social initiatives have you implemented to create stronger connections?
IM: When lockdown started we sent everybody some flower seeds and said: whether you live in a flat or a condo or a house or whatever, find yourself a pot, put the seeds in, and let’s see how these seeds grow while we’re in lockdown. It’s amazing! Some people have incredibly green thumbs and their plants are beautiful now. Others do not have green thumbs and some of the disaster plants are even better and funnier to look at than the pretty ones. That was something we did for just a little fun.
Ultimately, what you do depends on the culture in your organization. You need to do something that fits with the rhythm of your business. Not everything we do will suit others. But do something.
Hibob: You mentioned that you previously had a traditional culture around working from the office. How can you handle a more traditional leader, like a CEO who thinks all 60+ employees at the company should be back in the office as soon as possible?
IM: That’s a tough one. A CEO with a particular mindset will dictate the organization’s culture. I think it’s our job within the HR community to educate, engage, and demonstrate that this particular period has actually been beneficial to the organization from productivity, connectivity, and engagement perspectives.
Hibob’s COVID-19 survey helped us do that, and we adapted it to fit our needs. Getting out there and surveying how people feel and what their thoughts are can add weight to an argument that, in fact, we don’t all have to come back to the office immediately.
I suggest working with the CEO, the CFO, and other parts of the organization to understand what is going well that we should continue to do, what needs to be changed and how, and what to stop doing. You can use surveys and metrics to show that productivity hasn’t been impacted. You can frame this as “when we return, let’s take this opportunity for a new adventure for the organization.”
Hibob: Will you conduct performance reviews anytime soon?
IM: We do not subscribe to an annual performance review. I think they’re useless (sorry to everyone who loves them). We work with OKR (Objectives and Key Results) on a quarterly basis. It’s a top-down, bottom-up process, and we’re continuing with that.
Employees set four or five key objectives that they want to achieve in a quarter. We have 1:1 meetings every other week across the business. It doesn’t matter who you are, you have a 1:1 with your manager. At the end of the quarter, we do a quarterly review. This both is and is not a performance tool. It’s more about what we need to do in our jobs to deliver against the business’s quarterly and annual objectives. Against what we need to do for the customer, our brand, and our product.