Happier Human Beings are Better Employees

BlackHägen Design’s Philip Remedios highlights specific points from his upcoming IME South session detailing best practices for hybrid R&D teams in a post-COVID world.

Susan Shepard

May 24, 2024

14 Min Read
Philip Remedios, CEO & director of design and development at BlackHägen Design
Image courtesy of BlackHägen Design

People have always realized that a work/life balance is important, but Millennial and Gen Z employees aren’t settling for anything less, it seems. Now that the genie is out of the bottle after COVID-19 forced us into devising new ways of doing business, both employers and employees are realizing how effective remote and hybrid positions can be in achieving the best of both worlds. 

“As our population matures and the baby boomers retire, the Millennials and the Gen Zs become the mainstream workforce,” said Philip Remedios, CEO & director of design and development at BlackHägen Design, in an interview with MD+DI. “If you want to take care of this demographic, you've got to embrace the idea of hybrid or remote operation in a way that that's going to work for your corporation.”

He stressed that flexibility and balance between work and personal life allows people to be happier. “And happier human beings are better employees,” he said. He encouraged companies and managers to continually evaluate new technologies and tools to make their employees’ lives better, in ways that are specific to job requirements. “If we don’t do that, we will get left behind,” he said.

Remedios and Renee Bailey, senior manager of human factors engineering and instructional design at BlackHägen Design, will be speaking on this topic at MD&M South in “Navigating Change Management: Best Practices for Hybrid R&D Teams in our Post-COVID World.” The following is a preview of what he and Bailey will cover in their session.

Can you give the readers a little background on what hybrid and remote R&D operational management teams are, how they came about, and what they look like now?

Remedios: As we become more of a global community, the concept of having co-workers halfway around the world becomes realistic, other than time zone differences and so forth. It's become quite common, at least for my company and within my own frame of mind, that you could be dealing with a team that are located in five different regions around the world at the same time. Maybe the toughest challenge is merely to find the right time to communicate as a team!

I also want to preface that I represent a consulting environment. If you look at the fundamental difference between corporate and consulting environments in terms of the workforce and the people working in those organizations, corporations have traditionally been very centralized. You work in a big building, and you've got hundreds of co-workers on multiple floors or whatever it might be. That describes a centralized community.

Consultants are on the outside already, so they're already decentralized. So, a consultant or a consulting group must look at itself in terms of how we operate as part of this centralized team. We are already one step closer to a decentralized or a hybrid operation because we are working for those corporations in a remote sense. This client-consultant paradigm therefore establishes that of the employer-employee with hybrid teams.

And then of course, we must look at what has happened to the world community over the last three or four years. COVID-19, like it or not, forced everybody to work remotely from their homes, even when the tools weren't completely there to do it efficiently. We all had to hunker down and figure out how to do it. I've never seen such an acceleration of workforce decentralization like that first year of COVID-19 conditions where everybody had to make it work. That's what really set the pace on this decentralization theme, and that has not really slowed down much. Parents of young families and aging parents have had a taste of this and understandably demand that industry adopt this new mindset to create a win-win workplace.

In our presentation we will talk about some of the research that's been done about what has happened to work forces in the last four or five years and what have been the trends over the last couple of years from this massively decentralized COVID-driven condition to where we are today.

All of these recent influencers play a role in terms of how well the system works and what sort of a person you are, what type of work do you do. But certainly, COVID-19 has forced this slow-moving decentralization practice onto the forefront, and I don't think it's ever going to go away.

Do you think that Millennial or Gen Z employees are more comfortable with remote or hybrid jobs because they don't know any different?

Remedios: I think they don't want to know any different! Certainly, they know it's a better quality of life for them. You can go to work in your pajamas five minutes after you get up.

Whether or not they're actually doing a better job, I think that's an area that I don't think we've got a good handle on — how to encourage remote hybrid workers to want to do a good job. I think incentivization has always been something that management should practice, but I think the incentivization has to be taken to the next level with remote teams, and some of the things that we can look at is evolving from a micromanagement type mentality to a results-driven benchmark.

I don't care if it takes you five hours or 50 hours to get something done. I'm going to rate you on the quality of your deliverables — are you on time and is it of sufficiently high quality? I think if we sort of look at a quality-driven model it might make that whole concept of “leave you to it. I will judge your performance based on what you deliver for your overhead cost.” In return, remote workers need to understand that they are ultimately accountable for their on-the-job performance.

What are some of the advantages that hybrid and remote teams have in the area of recruitment and talent acquisition?

Remedios: You've got your pick of anyone anywhere in the world to do a job that you have an opening for. Provided you can afford them and they're available and they can work with whatever communication and logistics are needed for the job, you’ve got a better pick of people rather than the old days of "gosh I’ve got a 20 mile radius of who I can find and I'll find the best person that I can find locally, unless I want to relocate them at significant expense and time.” And then of course not knowing if after you’ve relocated them, how are they going to perform?

Another thing to consider is it's a simpler recruitment exercise because you're not relocating people and having to talk them into leaving their environment and kids coming out of school and things like that. It’s therefore an easier decision to be made as a result.

Now, I will say on the flip side that because it's easier to recruit, it’s also easy for others to recruit them from you too. So, retention is the flip side of that of that paradigm as well. It goes both ways.

But certainly, from a recruitment and acquisition standpoint, remote or hybrid type models give you a lot more opportunities.

What are some of the challenges of human resources decentralization?

Remedios: Obviously communication. Let's face it, we have communication problems even when you sit in the same office space. It gets more difficult when you don't see each other face to face.

The challenge will be in how we create ways to communicate using software, tools, and more robust methodologies to ensure that you tick all the boxes in how you communicate with your co-workers or with your supervisors.

I think those are all things that are in flux right now and I'm not familiar with any new technologies that enhance communication at the lowest level. Spreadsheets, checklists, even AI, can help us with our ability to communicate more effortlessly, protocols that remind us to download certain data and information at certain times. But I think we're still in the relative infancy of how we can use technology to improve our communication as human beings to one another.

Another thing I think is not easy is, and this happens within my organization on a regular basis, when you don't see each other every day, it's not easy to understand some of the qualitative things of what's going on in your coworker's world. Are they stressed out over something, are they currently overworked and they're running ragged? You can't necessarily see that when you’re remote or hybrid and it can create friction when someone is pinging them quite innocently and there's backlash because suddenly this person's tipped over the edge.

I don't know a good way at this point of how you can maintain those nuances of interpersonal sensitivity and understanding when you are physically remote from your co-workers. I think that's an area that perhaps over the next decade or so as this becomes more prolific, it will be interesting to see what type of new tools that we can come up with that help us understand what's going on in our co-workers lives at a glance on a digital dashboard. 

And then I think the other thing too, is when people are working together, especially small teams on a site in a shoulder-to-shoulder environment, you build teams, you build relationships, you build friendships. Something is left out of the mix, even if you want to say nice things to each other over the screen, it's not the same thing as face-to-face relationships and if you can't build that sense of loyalty with your co-workers and in those teams, how does that affect the longevity of those teams?

People these days are moving around more because they can get recruited from all over the world. I've seen statistics that show that the average person doesn't stick around at a job for more than two years and perhaps it's less than that right now. We talked about the recent Great Resignation and it's hard to be efficient as an organization when your work force has such a rapid turnover. That'll catch up with us if we don't find a way around this restlessness.

Can you talk about some evolving business and program management methodologies?

Remedios: I'm going to talk in context of my business in research and development, even though it's narrowly focused. These teams do different things. For example, industrial design is very much a creative job, it's very much intangible. “Is this thing beautiful to look at, is it beautiful to hold?” How do you know something is beautiful to hold unless you're actually holding it?

You can't do that remotely. Those types of teams really need to be more in a centralized-type environment or perhaps a hybrid environment where they can go away, do something, come back, put their stuff together and see how good it is, agree on what changes have to be made, then go into their corners and upgrade.

Conversely, a software engineer or someone who is developing two-dimensional graphics can present almost everything on screen. The protocols that allow these people to thrive are entirely different from the protocols that require group gatherings and co-creation. I think you can't have a working protocol that's one size fits all for your entire organization. You have to fine-tune them based on what people do in their day-to-day jobs.

Adaptable protocols are something that we live with every day. I allow some of my staff to spend more time on their own than others. And this is a little bit difficult for employees traditionally. If I give this person a remote day off, I have to give everybody a remote day off. I think you have to throw those principles away and say, such-and-such does better on their own three or four days a week because they don't have distractions. These other people have to be together three to four days a week because they have to work together. We have to sort of tear away the fact that there are differences that create the synergies, that make a group do a good job. And I think we've got to be more customized in the way we manage those teams. In the end, some employees do better on their own without distractions, while others need to collaborate and build on each other’s input in real time.

The other thing I want to say about work methodologies relates to program management. Traditional program management workflow is what we call a waterfall process. Its phase driven. You do a whole chunk of work for a period of time, you review it, approve it, and then you go to the next level. That requires more long-term management of tasks, which is more challenging with remote teams.

I think when you are hybrid and remote, parsing out work in smaller increments just makes sense. Software developers have long practiced what's called an Agile methodology, a series of rapid sprints. If you can come up with little modular tasks, then that person can go away and do that task and come back with that deliverable and say, “I'm done, let's bless this module and I'll go and do the next module.”

These shorter periods of work allow supervisors to be able to automatically look at the quality of the work. Is it on time? Is it of good quality? Is it all encompassing? Is it meeting my expectations? Yes, then let's go to the next task. Whether it's done on a daily basis or on a weekly basis or whatever it is, you can see how an agile-type program management process lends itself better to teams who are not together day to day.

You use specialists only when you need them. And when you don't need them, you don't pay for them. They don't sit around with nothing to do, bored out of their minds and wanting to go somewhere else. The idea then is applied to that of a hybrid environment, full-time employees and consultants co-existing and cooperating interdependently in a unified workforce, depending on what's going on and what you need done. The key is in how to deploy tasks, and how and how often to receive the deliverables. The truly modern program manager will be worth their weight in gold!

Who should attend your session?

Remedios: Everybody that works in office teams. From executives and business owners to managers and supervisors at the mid-level to employees and certainly to consultants. The idea of an agile workforce can only be maximized when you consider that it's not just about full-time employees. It's also about using consultants in a way that can enhance the quality and flexibility of your workforce.

What would you like your attendees to take away from your session?

Remedios: I think more than anything else, our presentation is meant to be heard by both employers and employees. We can't build a wall between the two, because that doesn't work.

I want employers to hear and internalize and agree that we are in a changing environment. If we want to be more effective employers, we have to accept that the traditional structure of employment has been evolving over time. If you want to do well in the remainder of the 21st century, you have to embrace the fact that employees now demand work/life balance. They demand that you be sensitive to their quality of life, to things that are personally important to them, because the very best employees won't come and work for you unless you show that you are sensitized to those things.  

At least philosophically the concept is if you can make your employees believe that you have their best interests in mind, they will work better for you. And all of these things can come back and be rewarding, but you've got to embrace them, and you've got to figure out how to do it. You've got to push past your comfort levels, evolve from the ways you've done things successfully in the past.

Then conversely, for their part, employees need to also put their business hats on and realize that this whole situation of hybrid or remote operations can only work if they get their work done and take pride in their ability to effectively self-manage. Maybe then we can achieve a true win-win... isn’t that what we all want?

Philip Remedios and his co-speaker Renee Bailey will present “Navigating Change Management: Best Practices for Hybrid R&D Teams in our Post-Covid World,” on Tuesday, June 4, from 11:00 to 11:45 am, in the MedTech Theater at IME South.

About the Author(s)

Susan Shepard

Susan Shepard is a freelance contributor to Design News and MD+DI.

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