Insights.

Reimagining workplace wellbeing

We were pleased to recently welcome around 30 executives into Sonder HQ to discuss the topic of rethinking workplace wellbeing – an important topic on the minds of all people leaders, given the high percentage of mental health concerns but low percentage of EAP uptake.
The room of attendees represented a wealth of knowledge and experience – including that of our panel members: Sarah Derry (Senior VP, Talent and Culture, Pacific, Accor); Brian Long (GM, Safety, Health and Wellbeing, Woolworths); Simone Shugg (Chief People Officer, Nearmap); and Alexia Houston (Head of Insurance and Risk, Clayton Utz).
The facilitator for the session was our Sonder CCO and Co-Founder, Christopher Marr.

Quotes from the panellists

Some of our favourite quotes from the session were:

  • Sarah Derry: “I used to talk about employee experience. [Now] I talk about human experience.”
  • Brian Long: “When you start the day, you ask yourself three simple questions:

    (1) How can I care deeply?

    (2) How can I listen and learn?

    (3) How can I do the right thing?”

  • Simone Shugg: “As we entered COVID, it showed to us that our traditional EAP providers no longer cut the mustard – because we actually more than ever needed the data and insights from those very partnerships and we weren’t able to access them.”
  • Alexia Houston: “It’s a better day your way – it’s about setting that up and giving you the control to do it the way you want.”

Event video

We invite you to watch our full event video and/or express your interest for our future events here.

Transcript

Amy Dobbin:

Before we begin, we’d like to take a moment to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet today, and pay our respects to their elders, past and present.

So, today we’re really excited to have brought together an expert panel that Chris Marr, our co-founder, will shortly introduce.

But firstly, a bit of background on why we’re here, and why we’ve chosen to bring together a select group, and a diverse group, to come together, in person, which is still quite novel in this environment.

Here at Sonder, we’re fortunate to have the opportunity to work with leading organisations reshaping employee care around the country. But there’s something unique about what each of you, here today, are doing, and how you’ve managed to adapt your own workforces over the past two years, in particular.

We know that employers are expected to do more than ever for their employees, and we know that the lines between personal and professional lives are, frankly, blurred in a way we haven’t ever seen. But what we also know, is that a lot of the formal programs for workplace wellbeing still actually aren’t getting the take-up.

Today’s forum is really about you sharing insights, what’s worrying you, how you are adapting to the challenges, and improving your workplace wellbeing. We’ll kick off with some targeted insights from the panel, but [we’re] really keen to open that up, share in a really trusted group. It won’t be livestreamed, but it will be recorded.

I really encourage you to share, network amongst industry peers, and [we] appreciate you taking the time to join us. With that, I’ll pass over to Chris Marr, our co-founder, to kick off the discussion.

Chris Marr:

Thank you Amy, and again, thanks to everyone for joining us here today. We’re joined by an extraordinary group of people who we are really proud to sit alongside today.

Firstly, Sarah Derry. Sarah is the Senior Vice President of Talent and Culture at Accor Group, the hotel group. And, of course, recently was awarded HR Director of the year, which, in this company, speaks to particular relevance. Alongside a terrific team at Accor, Sarah’s led through a tumultuous period which has been impacted very heavily in the tourism and hospitality sector. Sarah, we’re really looking forward to your insights.

Alexia Houston from Clayton Utz, is the Head of Insurance and Risk, and we’re looking forward to understanding how that title particularly pertains to how you lead wellbeing frameworks within the context of professional services. High performance organisations are law firms, as a subset of the professional services industry at large. My other co-founder, alongside Peter Burnheim, is Craig Cowdrey, who is actually [an] alumnus from Clayton Utz. And he asked me to call it a “bastion of high performance”, so we’re looking forward to understanding that, Alexia.

We’ve got Simone Shugg from Nearmap – the Chief People Officer of Nearmap, which is an ASX technology company that’s revolutionising the way we use mapping to support a whole bunch of different, and really insightful, and important projects. I think, without stealing your thunder of course, Simone, I understand that just today, or perhaps this week, the revenues from the United States business have exceeded that in Australia. So, it’s a really exciting time leading an organisation across multiple geographies. Really excited to hear how you’re contending with those things.

And of course, Brian Long from Woolworths Group. Brian is the General Manager of Safety, Health and Wellbeing.

I think it’s interesting when you think about these people leaders we’ve got alongside [us], all with different titles, but all looking at the wellbeing frameworks within their organisations from a unique perspective.

Brian, sitting on the forefront of managing a hugely complex supply chain, during one of the most significant challenges that we faced in modern history, and being at the coalface of feeding the nation, keeping our bottoms very clean with toilet paper, and all the rest. But on a serious note, a huge challenge. Largely because so much of the organisation is front-facing, but it extends into the far reaches of the Australian population. And Brian, we’re really looking forward to your insights.

I thought we might get started with a little story as is typical for me. Some months ago. Sarah, to start with you. I reached out after having been connected to Simon – your CEO, Simon McGrath – and he said, “well you need to speak to Sarah. This is really a matter for Sarah”. And Sarah wouldn’t take a meeting with me until I had read this masterpiece called, Heartist, and what Accor has done. And, I’m pleased to say that Sarah is one of the architects of this terrific wellbeing philosophy, Heartist. It’s a philosophy about wellbeing, which we’re going to hear from you about, please Sarah. Importantly, it’s got two front covers, one cover speaks to Heartist as it applies to the internal culture of the organisation, and the other cover invites you to look at it from a customer’s perspective.

Hugely complex landscaping you’ve dealt with over the past few months, particularly, Sarah, and your team. A largely casual workforce, hugely diverse backgrounds. Can you tell us about wellbeing, what it means for you, what it means for Heartist?

Sarah Derry:

Yes. Absolutely! Maybe if I start with Heartist. Heartist is a combination of two words, heart and artist, and you put them together, and you get Heartist, which is now trademarked to Accor. It’s a principle, it’s a philosophy, about human connection and the importance of that on a really deep level. It’s based in science, so there’s scientific journals that are referenced, case studies that are referenced, and so on. It’s not just a philosophy of making you feel good. It’s actually understanding everything, like around oxytocin, and human kindness and generosity. And the studies that are linked to that, and how that makes people, the psychological safety aspects, and things like that.

There are four principles of Heartist, and I won’t talk to all four of them. One of them is that every person has a story. Another is, people crave belonging. And another, is that people hate to be wrong. So, there [are] some of the things we think about. It’s really about being your true authentic self, and bringing that to work. When you do that, when you bring your whole person to work, then it fulfills you on a personal, and professional level.

I often say, when I think about what’s happened to our industry – hospitality, travel, and tourism – for the last two years, if you didn’t have a strong culture going into it, it would have been very difficult to survive. You couldn’t create one in the middle of all that.

If I go back to last year, just to set the scene a little bit. We had Heartist with an incredibly strong culture around that. It was deeply about wellbeing, diversity, inclusion, all of those really important elements. We had about 21,000 employees across the Pacific, the area I’m responsible for, and by April that was reduced to about 7,000. And, if you imagine the timeframe we’re talking [about], only a four week period. Things like letting every single casual go. People who’d worked with us for less than six months, just terminated. There were shocking decisions for the survival of our company, and our industry. When that happened, we really had to face, “how are we going to look after people and care for them through this?”, because, even though we did let casuals go, and people on contracts, we wanted to keep looking after them.

We were incredibly blessed with a couple of things. Our global company, the shareholders gave part of their dividend from the prior year, 74 million euros, to set up a Heartist fund for us globally. That meant, we’ve given out grants of well over five million Australian dollars to our team in Fiji, Hawaii, French Polynesia, New Zealand, and Australia, who are in severe hardship. That in itself speaks to the Heartist culture, of who we are, and what we’re about. That was a real gift.

But we had these people who were still connected to Accor. It wasn’t just about giving them financial assistance, and supporting them through that. We ran a whole range of wellbeing programs. The biggest thing was staying connected with people. Picking up the phone, calling people, having virtual meetings, all of those different things were just so important over the last two years. And I think that will continue for us. The stress that our teams have been under, the financial stress, the physical stress, then everything just pivoted, all the time.

If I can just take this example. I remember one weekend, we were debating whether we’d go into the quarantine business. We’re in the hospitality business. We don’t lock people in rooms and don’t speak to them, and not clean their rooms! We were debating it, and our team should get a higher rate. But we made the decision to do it. We were the largest provider of quarantine in Australia and New Zealand.

But the teams were terrified, scared going into that. We sent our head of risk in, and did risk assessments, and we ran lots of training for them, and gave them the support that they needed. Well beyond EAP, many of them had individual coaching sessions. Not just the leaders in the business, but all – even our frontline team members. We got a team of executive coaches that would go into the quarantine hotels, and work one-on-one with people.

That was just one example. Then flip to the other side of it – on the other end of quarantine – they’ve dealt with it, they’ve got secure income coming in for two years. When the rest of the industry has fallen apart. And now we’ve just taken it all away. So it’s the reverse again. Heartist was really a big part of quarantine.

There’s so many examples I could give you about the teams. They just run with it. So you create the idea and the philosophy, and you train them on it. But they just take it way beyond where I could ever imagine. Quarantine was a great example of that. The way they cared for people, who were having birthdays and missing weddings. They did incredible things. They had opera concerts in the middle of the forecourt of the hotel that people could watch. It’s incredible! I’m so, so proud of the team, and what they’ve done. They just wrap their arms around each other. They’ve been running hamper drives, dropping groceries at people’s houses, all over the Pacific region. They genuinely came together as a team.

It’s been a really terrible period of time for us, as an industry, but it’s given us a great deal of hope as well. And we now know, after the last lockdown, that I truly believe recovery was always going to be on the way. The world was not ending, and that is how it will be going forward. So, that’s been the last few years.

Chris Marr:

You’ve squeezed a lot in there. Sarah, when you think about some of the lessons you’ve learned as a leader through this period, particularly as it relates to wellbeing, are there some major call-outs that you can share with us there, please?

Sarah Derry:

I’m actually a qualified executive coach as well. So, for me, it’s actually going back to being a leader, and reentering the coaching space with people. For me, it was a reminder of that, because sometimes you can just get on that treadmill and you keep going, but, coaching starts with the principle that the other person has the answer, and your job is to ask great questions, and to listen. It was even more important to listen to people, and really deeply listen, and allow them the space to talk. So, that was a really important reminder, and a good lesson that we should all operate at a higher level with our conversations, our teams, our peers, and operate in that coaching mindset. That was a really big one.

The other one is gratitude. Just being grateful, even in the darkest moments. The most difficult decisions, I could look at my team and just think, they were just the greatest team, and I was so proud of them. I could always find something and just be grateful. And now we’re starting to see people coming back into the business, and that’s the other thing too, it’s the gratitude.

I used to talk about employee experience. I don’t talk about that anymore. I talk about human experience. And that’s what I’ve learned out of it – that we need these financial elements that need to be considered with our team. There’s the psychological safety, there’s physical safety, there’s all of those things. So for me, it’s not just employee experience anymore, I want to take it to a higher level.

Chris Marr:

Fantastic! Thank you so much.

Now you spoke about Heartist and having science at its core, and I know, Simone, that you’ve spoken publicly about, using data, and perhaps insights, to tackle important issues like gender equality in the workplace. Turning data and insights into the wellbeing frameworks that we’re talking about now, are there any thoughts that you could share with us about how data and insights can be used to leverage a better outcome for wellbeing and safety?

Simone Shugg:

The number one learning for me was that, as we entered COVID, and this is not a planted question by the way, it showed to us, that providers like our traditional EAP providers, no longer cut the mustard. Because, we actually, more than ever, needed the data and insights from those very partnerships, and we weren’t able to access them.

So, we were flying a little bit blind, as were many organisations in the first six months, on what was the problem we’re trying to solve here, because there were so many problems. As everyone’s saying, on a daily basis, there’s so much from a risk, from an operations, from a revenue [perspective] that we’re all facing as we hit COVID, it was very evident to us. As we’re a very data-driven organisation, I can’t go into any executive meetings with what I used to do, which is a lot of gut instinct, which has got a big role to play, but I always need to support it with data.

That’s actually one of the reasons we’ve been looking and partnering with Sonder, is because we need to build more data and insights, particularly around wellbeing. Currently, what we had to do instead, and I’ve ended up having to pull resources from various parts of the business to try and create dashboards. To enable [creation of] dashboards that are being updated on a monthly basis so that we can track. One of the greatest challenges we’ve got at the moment is actually trying to work out what the biggest problem is to solve.

You can get a lot of early indicators through some of the data and insights. We do a quarterly engagement survey, we track turnover data, and we’re pulling all of that together. Having platforms that can actually [analyse]. I don’t need to have teams developing the actual data, I can actually get the team analysing the data and early interventions. I think there’s a great opportunity. We collect data, – it’s very, very manual and it’s often looking backward. It’s hard to then predict the future. We’re always looking at what the problem was, three months ago, six months ago versus what’s coming up down the track.

In the current environment, what keeps me up at night is that the world has forever changed. The role of a leader has changed. I don’t think any of us know where the world of work, ways of working, what other problems that we’re going to be seeing in six to twelve months, with really dispersed workforces, with the angst over vaxxed and non-vaxxed. With the feelings of safety, impact of people who are at home, relationship breakdowns because they’re going to kill each other living at home. All of these things that blur between home and work and society. A lot of us are flying a little bit blind. All of us in this room have the best intentions for our organisations. I think we all wanted [the best], but it’s hard to know what we need to focus on, and how will we know when we achieve what we need to achieve.

Chris Marr:

Well, Simone, you’re a leader in a technology business, an ASX 200 technology business. Data sits at the core of what you do on a day-to-day basis, so it’s not surprising that you look at the problem set that we’re all here to discuss, and look at it from a data point of view. One of the things that we are trying to move toward is lead indicators. What are the things that are going to suggest an outcome so you can take those early intervention pathways? Historically, it’s like stated preference and revealed preference data. How do you tie a thread between those two things in the context of your technology experience?

Simone Shugg:

Well, it’s been because of data, there’s almost too much of it. So we’re at the moment, really, like a lot of companies, the great resignation, it’s coming. As I said, half our workforce is in the U.S., we’ve seen it there. Australia in terms of everything in COVID and everything we’re six months behind the rest of the world. So we’ve started really looking at what’s happening in the U.S. and then driving our indicators here.

So we are looking back but we also go, okay, on those key areas particularly around turnover, the biggest challenge we’ve got a lot of, there’s a lot of concern over mental health and burnout in our organisation, and we don’t have lead indicators on that at the moment. But we do have a lot of leads, because we are trying, to your point, to marry together, but we’re actually focusing more on turnover, because at the moment in terms of, “how can we get some lead indicators to help inform our decisions on top talent at the moment”?

Chris Marr:

Thanks Simone. About 18 months ago, this business, Sonder, fell on pretty tough times. We had about 90 per cent of our market was with the universities, and we all know how that ended very quickly. One of the first phone calls I had in the aftermath was with Brad Banducci, the CEO of Woolworths, and then very quickly landed in a room with Brian Long. Now, Brian is the General Manager of Safety, Health and Wellbeing of Woolworths Group so he’s looking after about one per cent of the Australian population, about 250,000 people, so a mighty, mighty task.

I think when you and I met, mate, it was about two weeks into the job, and so induction of fire perhaps, but if we, it’s I think from the comfort of sitting here now, and is that little Italian cola we’re having? It’s all pretty, pretty amazing now, but if we cast our mind back to 18 months ago, with very different times, there was no chance there was Italian cola on the shelves because there was [a] supply chain that was massively undercooked.

Across the world of course, we had people being stabbed in stores to get extra rolls of toilet paper, [and] although I don’t think that was a common occurrence, it did happen. There [were] huge levels of staff abuse for frontline workers, and of course Woolworths is at the coalface of much of this, hugely, I think naively, I looked at Woolworths as the storefront. At least initially and then of course, as soon as you put your mind to it, and you understand that the huge machinery that operates that business from supply chain, logistics, and the corporate, and I mean, it’s just a hugely complex base.

Brian, you’ve got a diverse workforce, perhaps the most diverse workforce. It exists in all far corners of the country, and in fact in nine countries around the world. How do you deal with the complexities that you have in your workforce? The niche requirements that exist across? And how do you tie that all together to generate the outstanding products that you do at Woolworths?

Brian Long:

Thanks for these questions. Yeah, I mean that’s probably the question we ask ourselves continually is, “how do we do justice to the scale of the challenge versus the purpose and aspiration that the organisation has?”, and we’ve tried, and indeed the board put out there many times and I think it, not to oversimplify this, but fundamentally, our north star is very much about being purposeful and about focusing on core values. And this happened before my time but, it’s a fantastic set of core values because they are amazingly simplistic but fundamentally impactful and meaningful for so many people.

So when you are faced with some of the complexities that you’ve highlighted and you look at some of the challenges that we’ve all had to lead in over the last few years, when you start the day, you ask yourself three simple questions which [are], “how can I care deeply?”, “how can I listen and learn?”, [and] “how can I do the right thing?”, and you superimpose that in your leadership decision-making process. That will pretty much guide you to navigate your way through a lot of the complexity.

And so I think a lot of the times, yes, there are frameworks, yes, there are procedures, yes, there are things that people can leverage, but when you deep down get to the human spirit and human connection, then you frame up some of these challenges through some of these very, very simple yet usually impactful statements of intent, it serves you well.

And so my reflection would be, Brad really instilled that in the leadership team, and many teams across the business. And when it was probably challenging where there would have been a commercial imperative to manage something but then there was also the purpose piece for the other side of the fence, almost every time we went to purpose, and we asked those three simple questions. If we were doing the right thing with our people, “what would caring feel like?”, “what would listening and learning need to look like?”, and “what does the right thing need to feel like for teams for customers?”.

And, so I think the biggest achievement through COVID for years has been, yes – we’ve gotten the food to people’s homes, yes – we’ve ensured that the customer experience has been unparalleled. But I think fundamentally we’ve stayed true to that purpose and to the core values, and I think it’s stood the organisation in great stead for the future. So, that would be my response – it’s related to purpose and core values.

Chris Marr:

And Brian, I’m conscious not to make this about you, but you’re studying a PhD at the moment, in a related field, would you…

Brian Long:

Just because I was not busy.

Chris Marr:

Would you care to tell us just a little bit about that, and your hypothesis as it relates to this short discussion?

Brian Long:

Okay. A few people have touched on it this morning, so, this afternoon I should say, look, I think fundamentally because the world is changing, has changed probably forever, there is a series of institutional forces that are playing out, both in terms of the social ones, but also the industrial and commercial ones that fundamentally are affecting everybody. So, I guess my hypothesis is that to be able to build resilient capacities in the organisations that we all work within, we have to be always on, and always attune to what’s happening around us and the external things that happen. We’ll just continue to influence people and arguably because of social media and all the connections that people are building. We can’t live in a bunker anymore, ‘cos the world affects us and it’s affecting us by the second.

And so, if an organisation isn’t constantly looking and perceiving what those things are, how those things can impact their people, then fundamentally [they’re at] their own risk of not being able to dynamically respond and continue with those adaptive capacities that people need to be able to deal with all these difficulties. So, yeah that’s the theory. I’m very early on in the exploratory piece but yeah I do think the future of organisational structure is on how do you build resilient capacities which are dynamic enough such that if it’s not COVID, it would be climate change. If it’s not climate change, it’ll be a change in government or it’ll be a major socio-economic shift or a global [change], China will do something, [or] whatever the case may be.

So, if organisations aren’t attuned to that and dynamic enough to move with that then I think it’s the people that are going to get the impact, which is completely the wrong thing but that’s what will happen. People will be affected by those macro things. So, being, I guess, attune to that is going to be critical.

Chris Marr:

Thanks Brian. And we’re talking about affecting people and Alexia you lead at Clayton Utz, which I think I described, courtesy of Craig, is a bastion of high performance.

Alexia Houston:

I’m stealing that.

Chris Marr:

But on a serious note, I mean you’ve got a lot of young people that are probably, really [have a] huge thirst for expertise from knowledge, from mentorship, from the partners, and if you think about a law firm just as a subset of broad professional services, this is a pretty significant challenge, particularly when you’ve got huge – for the last two years at least – you’ve got people working from home, probably not getting that professional experience that we might otherwise hope for. How are you seeing that affect your team, and of course, the experience that you’re getting as a result of this?

Alexia Houston:

Yeah for sure. Before COVID, we would have said that we had an incredibly flexible workforce. We had 65 – our former flex manager’s sitting in the audience – we would have said that we had 65 per cent of people who had flexible working arrangements and that meant that we were really well placed for COVID. But having a percentage, or a very large percentage, of people that can work flexibly is very different to suddenly having 100 per cent of people having to work from home, and that brings with it different challenges.

And I think one of the things that we’ve really realised is that the experience that you have working from home or working flexibly, varies significantly if you’re the person in a sharehouse in Surry Hills, where there’s three of you working around a kitchen table to perhaps if you’ve debunked to your beach house in the Northern Beaches, where you’ve got the experience of people during COVID being very different.

Imagine you’re a new grad starting at the firm. I think a week into COVID, we had 90 new grads start. Instead of having this wonderful experience that they would usually have, where they all come to Sydney to do orientation, they meet everybody, they’re doing fun things, and going on boats and cocktail parties and meeting everybody, the other bit’s more important than meeting everybody and the work induction…

Chris Marr:

Is this what lawyers do? Makes sense.

Alexia Houston:

No. Until all of a sudden they were doing an induction five days sitting at home, watching it on a screen. That’s different. And that connection that you have as an employee. We talk about Clayton Utz as having pride in the brand – we’re proud to work at the firm. There’s that connection to the firm, the connection to your team, and the connection to the client.

So, those young graduates have had a very different experience, where [as] a people business, you learn from those around you, observing the partner on the phone, listening to what they’ve done. And some of that has really been difficult for those people coming through. So we’ve really had to focus on what we can do to make sure people still have that connection.

And it was really – we’ve just finished a large engagement survey – and one of the things that, well, three things that I took out of it, which were really positive for us, [were]: firstly, the number of people who said they still felt connected to the firm during the last two years and that was really high, there was a real sense of connection – the same my team was 100 per cent. And then the other two that were really important to us is that people felt that through this period that their partners and leaders cared about their mental health and wellbeing – that was very high. And the other one which I thought was amazing, was that their colleagues and co-workers cared.

And so, the work that we’d done in trying to keep that team connection, that, really concentrating on supportive leadership, and leaders listening and caring towards what happened, that’s what I’d go with – where we are.

Chris Marr:

And Alexia, Simone touched on the great resignation, which we’ve seen coming out in newspapers and the like, and of course more broadly it’s called a ‘war for talents’. So, if you think about some of the newest staff that are having their formative experiences, do you think you’re building – not just you, but in professional services at large – is it possible to build that and inculcate that sense of culture and belonging within an organisation? Or do you think that working from home means that’s a little bit more tenuous and we’re going to see a little bit more movement between between professional services firms?

Alexia Houston:

I think you can create it, but I think it’s more difficult to do so. It’s, you’ve got to work harder. You’ve got to be more conscious of those inclusive meetings, particularly when you’ve got hybrid meetings. I mean one of the wonderful things here today is that we’re all in the room together. It’s always difficult when you’re doing these things and you’ve got half virtual and half in the room and you get a very different experience. I think you need to have a stronger sense of brand and values to get that sense of connection. So, if that’s very strong, I think it can be done. It is, there is, certainly a war for talent and if you know any lawyers there’s some great jobs going on.

Chris Marr:

Steady, steady, steady.

Alexia Houston:

There’s certainly, we’re seeing that from people moving, but also, we’ve had, we would usually bring a lot of talent in from overseas which hasn’t happened.

We see that our young lawyers care not just about, it’s not about salary, it’s about the quality of the work. It’s about the team that they’re working for. It’s that connection – so you’ve got to deliver on those promises.

We’ve just had a heap of summer classes start, and I presented to them earlier in the week, well last week, about risk management. I ran into one of our summer clerks afterwards and it was really lovely. It was like, “oh you gave that presentation. That was really great.” I asked him how he’d found his first day properly working as a summer clerk and he was like, “Oh my God, it’s exceeded all my expectations! It’s better than the marketing.” I thought that was just really…

Chris Marr:

So, I’m just picturing suits!

Alexia Houston:

They’re better dressed.

Chris Marr:

Yeah, indeed. Thank you so much.

Now it’d be remiss to not open up to the room here and get any of your own thoughts or insights. So, please be open to sharing some of those. But please we’d love to make the panel available for any of your questions. So, I’d love to have a starter.

Question from the audience. [Softly spoken.]

Simone Shugg:

The great resignation, you mean? Well, we’ve actually re-coined it, and no one’s allowed to use this because we’re actually about to start marketing it as Nearmap’s idea. We’re actually calling it “the great opportunity”. Because I actually think that if organisations are listening to their people, and pivoting, and being flexible, and looking out for where the world’s going, this is actually, a great opportunity. And particularly around flexibility, and listening to your workforce, and going, “okay, what makes sense here, because we’ve actually gone out there, we’ve waited, we don’t need to set the pace here.” I think a lot of organisations want to be the first to go out and put positions out. We don’t need to be on anything. We’re going, when we’ve got things that are known. Let’s give certainty, but also, we don’t know all the answers, because everything’s changing so much.

But we have gone out now and said, if you don’t ever want to come back into the office, you don’t need to come back into the office, but we’re going to put all our energy into giving great reasons to bring you into the office. But we’ve gone out there and said, we’re not. So we’re trying to give certainty, but we’re also going, we know the world has changed, and every bit of data, every survey we do, most people do not want to come back in full time and they don’t want to be told – well you can come in two days a week but it’s Wednesday and Thursday because that’s when I’m in and/or your manager.

And yeah, for us, we’re going to call it “the great opportunity”. We think it means that we can start tapping [into] the war of talent. We can start actually attracting people. But then, we’ve got to be very clear on what we need. What’s going to differentiate us in the market? what do people care about? And actually make sure that we’re going out there and really selling our brand.

Sarah Derry:

Yeah, if I can add something. Hospitality, travel and tourism has historically been a very traditional business, very hierarchical. There’s a general manager, then there’s your chief concierge – it’s very hierarchical, a very traditional business.

We actually didn’t have 65 per cent of our workforce all set up for flexible working. The day when I first started, I got one remote worker, looking after our Victorian region, based out of Sydney. That’s how far behind we were, and that’s not just us, I would say, that’s everyone. This meant we leapt forward, some organisations are saying, ten years. I’d say, our industry, 20 to 25 years minimum. We’ve leapt forward into how we thought, literally the same thing.

We have a lot of professionals as well in our organisation. We’ve got lawyers, we’ve got architects, we’ve got designers, marketing. Fundamentally, out of those 21,000 people, frontline workers, concierge, and room attendants. We came up with a philosophy, similar to what you’re talking about, and our philosophy was, and we’ve coined it – Work Your Way.

As soon as there was an opportunity to come back to the office, last year in the hotels, we just said, “there’s no rules, we are not going to say you have to be there on these days, and if you prefer to work, housekeeping’s a great example right?. Everyone started at seven am in the morning, and finished at three o’clock in the afternoon. The three o’clock shift would come in and work until 11. Well that’s gone”. If you prefer to come in at ten, and work until five, that’s also okay by us.

Work Your Way is different things, for different people. In the hotel environment, or when we operate the Qantas lounges, our job is to know your story. “What’s your story? What does it mean to you? Is it that you have an elderly parent that you care for? Is it that you like surfing?” That’s why we’ve got a big office on the Gold Coast, and you want to go and surf in the morning, and then come and work late in the evening. Well, that’s actually the beauty of hospitality.

For us, I’m really excited about it. We didn’t apply rules. It took a lot to get it over the line. Our CEO, he wanted everyone to come back together, and see everyone. We did a lot of surveying, collected the data; data, insights, action. As soon as I could show, through that surveying of our teams, that they did not want to operate in the way we had. One of the big comments in our quotes all the time is, “you treated us like adults, don’t stop doing that now”.

It’s all about trust around what we do. I think we have just pivoted too. Come and work in our industry because it’s so amazing. You can be a law student, and come and work with us. You can be someone who’s more mature, and you want to travel around the world, and you can come and work with us, and do all sorts of things.

So, it’s what I call, meeting people where they’re at. It’s the philosophy, at the end of the day if your organisation has a deep purpose that’s what people want. The reason people are leaving organisations [is they] don’t feel connected, they don’t feel a deep sense of purpose, and at the end of the day, they’re an opportunity. I accept that I’ve not been with Accor my whole career. I think that makes you a better executive. I think, let people go, and allow them to come back. Those are the sort of things we’ve got to embrace, so that’s what we’ve been doing.

Brian Long:

I think the three things that come to mind would be, one, we’ve absolutely responded to what COVID has generated – the need for more flexibility, policy shifts, and a series of things that have been introduced to enable that. There are of course challenges in a frontline context, where you simply can’t do that, because people physically have to be there.

Which then takes us to the other two parts of this, which would be, I think, and arguably for me are the more important. This one would be, what COVID has done, it’s actually uncovered deep-seated things that were always there. So, when I think about that, I specifically think about the work environment. And then I actually think about work itself, in the construct of work. From a work environment perspective, it’s clearly shown that people want a more collaborative space. The opportunity to engage and be collaborative. So, we’re actually reexamining the whole notion of the office – spaces and desks – what it needs to look like, because that’s what people are telling us.

The third one, which is, without question – the hardest one to fix, and that is, what is it about work and the work culture and the work environment that I’m involved in, that COVID has shone a light on. Well, it’s probably just made you question whether, “I’m being bullied. I’ve never really thought about it, but now that I’m at home and I like being with my family, I’m not sure I’m going to put up with that anymore.” Or, “22-hour days? Really? Like, do I really have to do that?” So, I think what it’s doing is, it’s giving people the opportunity to reflect on what truly matters in their life, and as a consequence, look at work and what is working life? And if work is being a behemoth, and making it difficult for people, then it’s going to make people vote with their feet.

So, what you can’t do is have this massive purpose and all these great values, and tell people you care, and you love them. And their first experience of it is, “oh, hang on a minute, I just spent 22 hours, working, or did [and] I’ve done that for six days, solid.” Well, of course, they’re going to resign. And so would I.

So, I think that the challenge or the opportunity with this is to take the data that’s coming back from these surveys, and say, use the great resignation as, it is the great opportunity, to Simone’s point, to say, “What is it about it, than we can do, to make this better?”.

Alexia Houston:

And, [we’re] a law firm, we obviously have a lot of lawyers, one of the greatest things that I saw out of COVID, we also employ a lot of wait staff, people who work in our office services team, our facilities team, and the like. And one of the things that we said at the very beginning of COVID is that we needed to, while we had shut offices, we needed to keep all of these people employed and in jobs and create that loyalty. We had to live [our values], we say we care, so, “how are we going to demonstrate that?”. And one of the very practical things that we did is, we set up, we became ‘Clayton Utz Uber Eats’. It was called “CU Food For You”. So, all of those people that had been employed as our wait staff, we started a food delivery service so, as an employee, you could order food. The Clayton Utz people would be in there cooking in the kitchens. And so it supported people working from home because they didn’t have to grocery shop and they didn’t have to cook for their kids. But it meant that we kept this whole workforce employed and engaged and hopefully we’ve shown some value and loyalty, and hopefully [we’ll] get the same in return.

Simone Shugg:

I think, actually, that’s important. A lot of the intel out of Europe, it’s, people are looking and going, “how was I treated?” [and] “what did I say and not just how was I treated but how [were] my peers treated?”,[and] “what did I see?”. Because, to your point, culture is what you do, not what you say. So, people are going, “okay, I respect this company, I’m going to stay put.”

Chris Marr:

Thank you. And great question – promoting great discussion. Anyone else like to make a point, offer an insight or a direct question?

Question from the audience

I have a question.

Chris Marr:

Oh, hold for you. Second one please. Well, he’s our CFO so it’s probably going to be probably some sort of, I don’t know, money-related [question].

Question from the audience

So, one of the things, I think, is a risk we’re grappling with, is what I’m calling “workplace creep” – where you’ve gone from working, even if you did a 14-hour day, you only did eight hours of work. Now, everyone’s doing 14 hours of work and you’ve had it for 18 months and everyone’s very useful and it’s become, I think, there’s a lot of anxiety around that being the new normal. And now I can’t leave my computer to go to the toilet for two minutes because I come back and I’ve missed 50 emails. So I just wanted to give you – quite a complex group, how are you thinking about that, and is it an issue for you?

Sarah Derry:

Yeah. I might start that off. Just, the funnier, the thing that I find now, I’m sure you find the same, you’re in your virtual meeting and if you’re one minute past the [start], you are late. I always get on the meeting and, let’s be honest, if we all turned up today for a meeting and it’s okay if everyone’s coming in and settling, and I think we have to keep reminding ourselves of those things.

That’s one thing we do in the organisation – is make sure that we talk about those things and have those rules. Interestingly, our head office is in Paris, so a lot of our executives, and not even our executives, our leaders are on calls very late at night and things like that. So, it is actually quite real for us. So, we’ve taken a responsibility to actually track that. So, we track the additional hours that people are working and we make sure, and there’s a requirement that they take time off the next day, or within at least 72 hours, and things like that. So we have to be really serious about that. So, last night I was on a call at 11 o’clock, and I’m not the only one in the organisation where that’s happening.

So, for us it’s taking responsibility for it and it’s having really genuine conversations, reminding people that this virtual world, what it was like when we used to get together, and we go to work and just things like the whole “work your way” philosophy. We say to our teams, we want to hear stories of what you’re doing so if you want to, take a couple of hours in the morning and walk your dog or whatever it is, tell us about that and we talk about those things a lot.

Our CEO, he – when I first started, said he’d never work from home. He just couldn’t do it. I can almost not get him out.

Chris Marr:

He’s got seven children though, doesn’t he?

Sarah Derry:

Yes, he does. Nine. Nine. There’s nine.

Chris Marr:

There’s a reason for everything.

Sarah Derry:

But, yeah. So, he set himself up elsewhere. So, and funnily enough, our legal team, who sit next to me, they were really against anyone in the legal department working from home, historically. Now, they’re the ones I’m never getting back. So, we, you’ve got to keep your sense of humour as well, but I do think we’ve got to take responsibility. We track it and we check in on people and we do things like that. So, that’s just some insights from us.

Alexia Houston:

As a fellow risk person, absolutely, that’s something that’s front of mind for us. I think there’s certainly been. What we’re hearing from people is, “I can’t get that break between my personal life and my work life. I don’t know when it ends. I get up in the morning and I start working”, and there aren’t those natural breaks.

So, we spent a lot of time talking to people about how to get those breaks in their day and what are some of those practical things that they could do. And also, very much encouraging that there is an end to the day. What that might look like, is up to you. We say, it’s a better day your way, and so if you work better in the morning, or whatever it might be, well that’s fine. Some people do enjoy [different things]. They might want to have a break in the middle [of the day] to go pick up kids. All of those things. It’s about setting that up and giving you the control to do it the way you want. And, there is part of it, it’s got to work for you and it’s got to work for your team, and it’s got to work for the clients. So, it’s about having those discussions, so that everybody understands that.

We do monitor very closely the working hours that people are doing, particularly junior lawyers and graduates. We have to do that. I’ve strong beliefs that the habits that you start as a graduate are the ones that you will continue. There’s a lot of emphasis that’s put on there. It’s also a personal wellbeing aspect to that, but there’s also a general risk and quality of work thing that comes out as well. We’re very conscious of, and really need to put in very direct specific strategies, to help people with that.

Simone Shugg:

To be honest, we pivoted in April this year. All our focus and investment on development moved to how to support leaders to manage burnout. It’s different – when you’re going into the office most days, and you’re interacting and you’re eyeballing someone, you can pick up cues on when something’s not right. It’s very, very difficult when you’re having online interactions with people, and leaders weren’t equipped with it.

We used to do a lot of coaching. We have had an EAP in place that provides support for people dealing with stress and anxiety. Through COVID, the role of leader has become even more important. It’s not a natural thing for most leaders, particularly in Tech. It’s the most uncomfortable thing for them. We ended up partnering, and, I’ll be very honest, we had a hard lesson. The U.S. is six months ahead of us, so the U.S. has been in lockdown. We’ve got one of our head offices in Salt Lake City – it’s freezing there six months of the year. No, I’m not kidding. Snow!

We had one of our executives, and it was a real “watch out”. He was in, what we call, “the bunker”. He used to have his office in his cellar. He didn’t see the sun for about six months. He subsequently left the organisation, because he just broke. He was working from the U.S. to here. He was doing 15-hour days. We’ve got very aggressive targets to hit, and we just had to get on with it. We’re all very stoic – you dig deep. He literally burnt out, and subsequently he left the organisation. He wouldn’t mind me saying that.

As a consequence of that, we’ve invested. We’ve partnered with an external psychologist, Mark Butler. He ran programs for every employee; five sessions on how to manage and pick yourself up through burnout, and your family. Then also, for leaders.

I, myself, then burnt out! On a Wednesday, I felt if I had to deal with one more male, one more middle-aged man this week, I’m going to throw myself off my balcony! So, I called my CEO in the morning and said “I’m going to end up doing something. I’m going to scream at someone. I can’t go on. I’m not coming in for the next three days because I’m honestly broken.”

I then did a vlog the next week, once I’d regained my sanity, to the whole company saying, “I’ve just literally broken”. If I’m feeling like that and I’m in a position where I can speak up because that’s the type of person I am. But not everyone can do that. If I’m feeling it, I guarantee, there’s 20, 30, 40 per cent of you feeling that. That triggered a lot of internal… because everyone’s like, “thank God. If you feel okay saying it, I can.”

We implemented, for the next four months, a new day every month, where that was a day where every individual could just go, “I’m not coming in today”. And it’s not annual leave. I started targeting – and actually started doing a bit of analytics, around how long people were online in Zoom. To start going, “where are the hotspots through the organisation where this is not normal?”, and, actually having direct conversations to go, “You are not coming in tomorrow. You’re just going to go for a walk, [and] have some fresh air.” Because burnout is a huge issue at the moment across all organisations.

Chris Marr:

Brian this speaks to your PhD.

Brian Long:

Absolutely. Clinical burnout, I think, is the new frontier. The specificity of language will be critical, because lots of people talk about mental health or wellbeing. But, we’ve got to get a bit more granular on what are some of the impacts, “what are the major impacts?”, particularly, in an executive core, because of this perceived notion of, “bulletproof”.

And, I think, burnout is going to become a massive challenge – not just in Australia, but globally. Understanding what you can do then, in the context of some of those structural things, which a lot of people have spoken about. To answer your question, I think that’s going to be the unlock. We’ve got to get people thinking [about] wellbeing in that context, and not less, but as well as, thinking about it in the context of response, care, etc. A lot of it’s about structural – completely reevaluating the way we imagine work, because it’s work that’s creating the issue. It’s a perfect storm when it’s work plus a pandemic, and then you get lots of work/talent shortage. All these things combined, will be driving these options.

Chris Marr:

Ryan, I said he’s a CFO – but he’s not just a CFO. Ryan…he’s got an exceptional product mind. Amongst his achievements, separate to the finance world, is leading the development of the AFL app, alongside Telstra. And, was part of the founding team of the Giants, the AFL team – who is second only to the Sydney Swans!

Ryan, why don’t you take us away for the final one?

Question from the audience (Ryan Kaveney)

Brian, you touched on some of this, as the other answers have. How did your view of where your work life ends and your personal life starts change dramatically as a result of COVID? And, what is that line that you see, as executive leaders in your business, for how you look after your people? Because, as I’ve said, we do get different answers geographically – based on where our teams are – internationally, locally, and what they do. How [have] your own views changed on that, if they have it all? And what do you see as the future of that over the next six months?

Sarah Derry:

On a personal level, before I had this job with Accor, I had my own business for ten years, and I had a team that was all remote. They were often young, or women, returning to the workforce and wanted flexibility. And, it wasn’t offered. I’d been operating that way for ten years.

When I came back into a typical corporate role, it was back to more ‘normal’ hours, and meetings, and things like that. For me, it was interesting. My husband said to me at the time, “Gosh, she just slipped right back into that.” When I got to the corporate workplace, long hours, and meetings, and planes, and everything else.

Equally, the same happened for me when COVID happened. I was able to easily slip back into that way of operating.

You are right. This is a revolution that we’re in – around work and the way the world works. I think we have more of a responsibility to talk about it. I think, to Simone’s point, this idea of hero leadership – that’s gone. We’re all people, we’re all humans and we’ve got to share and learn. And that’s actually the new frontier of leadership – is doing those sorts of things.

I really applaud you for doing that as well with the organisation – that’s wonderful. On a personal level, I love the flexibility. I have the ability to locate myself anywhere and work and keep doing that. And, I just want people to set their own rules around how they want to work and live. And, my job is to enable that in our organisation and find a way to make that work.

In our industry, people have often served us. That’s been the history of our industry. I truly believe that it is now our responsibility to serve others – our employees – and that’s what has shifted. I’m really deeply committed to that, and that is what I’m wanting to do every day. There’s a lot of traditional, a lot of ‘gentlemen’, who’ve been working in the industry a long time. It is a battle, but it’s something I’m really committed to. On a personal level, I love it. I want to make sure everyone in the organisation has opportunity, no matter what your job is, whether you’re a chef, whether you’re an architect, whatever your role is.

Chris Marr:

We want to leave a few minutes for us to mingle and enjoy each other’s company, so would you join me in thanking this terrific panel. Really appreciate your insights. I think the operative things that came out for me, at the most fundamental level, was just authentic leadership. So much of what was said today, in varying forms, whether it was about values, or ‘heartist’ and the philosophy of how we put our people first. But ultimately, it comes down, very simply, to authentic leadership.

Brian – you spoke really clearly of values, and using them to help us navigate through the really complex environment we’re all living in. If we can use values, and really subscribe to them, not just at a ‘masthead level’ – where we put them on the website and there it shall remain – but we have to inculcate this, and really use it as a way that we drive action.

Please join me in thanking this wonderful group.

And to a final note of thanks. The period that we’ve enjoyed over the past two years, or thereabouts, has been largely, the people on the front face of this, have been the frontline workers – in varying realms – whether that’s in the medical field, or it’s in the professional services fields, or frontline at Woolworth’s – getting us fed and making sure the trolleys are full.

We’re represented today, in Sonder, by a terrific team of nurses and psychologists and doctors that are sitting just a couple of panes of glass away. So, please join with me, as representative of the first-line workers, in thanking those people.

Want to learn more?

To read the full Sonder-PwC Australia report, Rethinking workplace mental health and wellbeing, please click here.

For more information about how Sonder can help you rethink your workplace support, we invite you to contact us here.


About Sonder

Sonder is a leading Australian wellbeing and safety company accredited by the Australian Council on Healthcare Standards (ACHS). Our solution is a technology-driven platform supported by 24/7 safety, medical, and mental health experts. This is backed up by a physical responder network that can be onsite quickly for complex scenarios, plus a capability to deliver unique and timely data insights which drive meaningful business decisions.

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