Podcast Ep25: “Inclusive Return-to-Work Strategies” TRANSCRIPT

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Rada Yovovich: Hi, everybody! Welcome to the August installment of our monthly live stream series. The Darkest Horse, your host for today, is a minority and women owned next gen diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility consulting firm based out of what is colonially known as Chicago. We are obsessed with helping the workforce, organizations, communities, really, explore the intersections of radical inclusion, the future of work, emerging technology, and health wellbeing and human potential. And this month, we’re going to spend some time talking about return to work strategies and how do we make them inclusive, trauma informed; recognizing that we’re returning to in-person work in some ways, some folks aren’t, in this post COVID, although we’re really still mid COVID. All of this is just a flowing, and shifting, constant change. Today’s conversation, We’re going to have a really interesting discussion of how do you do that in a way that’s affirming of lots of different folks across various identities, and perspectives, and needs, and worldviews.

We’ve got a couple of awesome guests here. We’ve got our Darkest Horse collaborator, Maya; and Suzi, who is one of our very beloved client, fam, OGs in the crew. So, what we’re going to do, is we’re going to have a conversation. It’s going to be red table talky. We’ll start with our version of introductions, how the Darkest Horse likes to do that. We’ll just transition into a few questions and prompts, but really we’re going to let the conversation flow. Yeah, really excited for this conversation. 

So, I am excited to introduce our guests today. Here at The Darkest Horse, we do not do our intros by talking about our credentials and our titles, the way that so many folks do. Instead, we like to say that, we like to tell you who we are without telling you what we do. So I’ll actually model this. I’ll kick it off. My name is Rada Yovovich . I use she, her pronouns. I’m coming to you, today from the unceded territories of the council of three fires, which is colonially known as Chicago, and identify as a queer, cis, white, mostly able-bodied, I’m actually hearing impaired, woman who has been raised and educated in the U.S.

We like to share those identities because recognizing those things are a big part of understanding how we see the world, how we move through the world, how we are perceived by the world and therefore the voice that we’re coming into the conversation with. 

I’m a white woman in my thirties with long black hair wearing a black top and a green sweater. I’m sitting in a room that has brown walls and there’s some art in there, behind me. 

So next, I’d love to invite Maya to go ahead and introduce yourself. 

Maya Toussaint: Thank you so much. I’m so excited to have this chat with you both. So, my name is Maya Toussaint. I go by the pronouns she, her. The Kanyen’kehà:ka nation is recognized as the custodians of the lands and waters on which I’m located today. Tiohtià:ke, better known as Montreal in Quebec, Canada, is historically known as a gathering place for many first nations. I identify as a black, cis, queer, able-bodied woman born and raised in Canada, of Caribbean born parents from Trinidad. I am a black woman. I’m 40, I’m told I look 25, and I have light pink Afro with a shaved side, huge green and brown glasses, and I’m sitting in my home office surrounded by abstract art and a cat condo. My shirt is an African print with whimsical flowy sleeves.

 Suzi, I kick it off to you.

Suzi Lilley: All right. Thank you, Maya. I’m Susie. My pronouns are she, her. Today, I learned some of the history of where I’m sat today, which is in the colonial name Chicago, via Rada’s description. I am very excited to go away and learn far more about that and the history of where I am today and how it came to be. So, I identify as a white, cis, het, able-bodied woman. I am, as you can probably tell, originally from the United Kingdom. I moved to Chicago in the U.S two and a half years ago. So, very excited to be here. 

For those of you who are visually impaired, I’m in my mid thirties, as I say, a white woman. I’m blonde. I’m wearing my hair up in a very messy bun. I have a nose ring, light pink rimmed glasses. I’m wearing a white top and I’m calling you from my bedroom, so behind me is my bed and a lamp for those of you who can see that. So, thank you. 

Rada Yovovich: Beautiful, beautiful. Thank you, both. I always am just so thankful for folks that just jump in the flow, with the disruptive and sometimes thought provoking ways that we do things here. So, really appreciate y’all doing that and sharing. So, the first question that we like to ask is, just: How are you showing up today, for this conversation? I mean, both what does this conversation about returning to work bring up for you and how are you noticing yourself feeling about having this conversation? So, really anything that you want to share about how you’re arriving is welcome. I can, yeah, invite Suzi to kick us off.

Suzi Lilley: Sure. So, this is definitely very timely. It’s very much on the top of our minds, as we think about this from a business perspective. But, the thing that was really interesting and stood out for me, was that when we started this conversation in our own business and we started using the language that the CDC had provided and what you’re seeing in relevant information and guidance out there, is “return-to-work.” Our people, really, sort of, came forward to say: “Hey, wait a minute. I have been working. Can we call this return-to-office?” And, it was a really important acknowledgement for us to say: “actually, return to work is somewhat implying that for the last year and a half folks haven’t been working, and whilst we acknowledge that it’s definitely not been our usual circumstances as to how we’ve shown up at work; this has been, definitely, a period of time where folks have still continued to deliver, our business is still growing, we’re still thriving. We’re lucky enough to be in that position, but as we think about these strategies and how we apply this thoughtfully and appropriately, this was a really big thing that stood out for us. So, hearing our people say that, has really helped us to think about how we talk about this and really position that as very much returning to the office. I think that’s been a pivotal moment for us, in listening to our people and hearing about the respect for that, and that experience that we’ve just all been going through, collectively as an organization.

Rada Yovovich: Yeah, I love that, thank you. Maya, I’m just gonna go ahead, and over to you.

Maya Toussaint: Yeah, thanks. It’s really interesting, what Suzi says. On my side, I work for an organization where we are absolutely not going back to an office. The company has decided we are now 100% remote, digital by design, and so our headquarters is the internet. Which is pretty cool, but for someone like me, who’s an extra- extrovert, or I sometimes call myself an outrovert, I’m just, kinda like: “What do you mean I can’t touch someone’s arm when we make tea together?” So, the back to office is non-existent and it’s creating a lot of feelings for me. I’m pretty much, kind of, up and down on this. I see the value of it. I see the benefits to the greater work population, on having that flexibility. But, I’m feeling very tired. You know, you ask how we’re feeling, I’m exhausted and I’m not physically doing anything. So, I’m noticing that just kind of sitting in the same spot, having wonderful conversations, but not being able to, kind of, fill my energy tank with humans, which is what I need; has been pretty difficult.

It’s been difficult. 

Rada Yovovich: Yeah, yeah. I super appreciate that. I think one of the things that I want to underline in that, is I’ve been very frustrated by some of the narratives about, really, this entire process, the entire pandemic, the lockdown, the working remotely, the re-emerging into the world, the old, normal, the new normal, like all of these pieces. It’s like every step, I’ve been feeling a lot of dissonance with a lot of how people are talking about it. I think that one of the pieces that I hear in what you’re saying, Maya, is that we’re not feeling just one way, right? There’s not just one way to feel about this stuff. So, acting like anybody has a clear solution, or clear needs, or clear ideals, or whatever, even that assumption, I think if I’m inviting, how do we think about this; That’s a big piece for me, trying to release that expectation that there will be clarity. So, I think I’m curious about double clicking on that and inviting a little bit more of that ambiguity in. I think I’ll specifically agree, Maya, with your point about extroversion. I also identify as, like, 3000% extrovert and despite that there are a bunch of ways that I don’t want to go back to the in-person stuff, the way that we used to. There’s so many ways that I actually have found this work to be more supportive. I mean, I definitely agree with you, that I want more human to human interaction and contact and stuff. But, yeah, it just is cutting both ways.

I’m curious, I’ll invite you, Suzi, maybe to share some of that complexity. I think I would be very interested in your personal perspective of what you’re feeling about that, but also sort of what you’re seeing in the organization, as you’re thinking about this next phase. 

Suzi Lilley: Yeah, sure. I think it’s definitely one of those things where the office being cut off personally to me, I’m probably quite similar to you both, in that I fill my energy cup with people, and interaction, and social interactions, so having all of it cut off at once was quite severe in terms of how it felt processing that. I think the instant reaction is: I want it back, and as soon as I can have it back, I’m going to go out all the time, and I’m going to go to the office every day. And, I think as soon as we made the office available to our employees, which was back in June, I felt this, and I think we saw it in our people in terms of the use of the office, nobody’s going. I think the reality is once it’s been opened again, I’m sat here being, like: “ok, well I really wanted that.” But, now I’m actually like: “now I’ve got to put real clothes on, got to actually wash my hair.,” and, actually, as much as I want that human interaction with our folks, it’s like what has now become your routine of how you get up, how you deliver, how you go to work, has all got to shift again. It’s almost like I wasn’t ready for it. And, there’s also so much uncertainty still of, am I putting myself at risk or the people at risk by leaving my house and doing these things every day, and what’s the right amount of time to do these things, and what’s the right way to approach this. I don’t think I’m alone in experiencing those questions and feeling those feelings. Because, we’re seeing that from an organizational point of view, that having the office open, which everybody kind of said: “Hey, go and use it,” hasn’t happened because I think we’re still in a state of flux and experiencing that all over again, as a version of: “okay, so now, what’s my routine and how is that changing?” And, I think it’s interesting, particularly for those who are parents, who are going through this process and thinking: “well, I still kind of have to be around at these times and, actually, as much as I want to be there, the flexibility, this affords me in the other areas of my life. I kind of don’t want to give them up and how do I manage and balance all of that?” So, I think this whole experience is coming back around again, almost in another way as we start to navigate kind of what does normal look like now and how do I put that back into my life in a way that feels comfortable to me, with so many uncertainties that surround it? 

Rada Yovovich: Yeah, yeah. I want to underline a couple of things before I pivot to you, Maya. It’s almost like I’m seeing three layers. There’s the layer of the actual, how do we work and what is the future version of that, that really blends what we’ve learned about different types of work, and what works for different folks, and how do we keep that flexibility? That’s almost like an end state. Then, there’s the second layer of the actual change aspect, right? The change and uncertainty. There are a lot of ways that even the shift, even if it’s shifting to something awesome and perfect, that’s still a process. We still have to pay specific attention, not just to designing the solution, but to getting there. I think there’s a third part that’s only starting to peak out in what we’re talking about, but that I think is really important, which is the emotional state that we find ourselves in and the uniqueness of this moment, which I think is also another piece that, maybe, we get to in a second. But, about this pretending that we’re okay and we’re ready, when we’re really still in it in a lot of ways and even in the ways that we’re not in it, we’re still recovering. Then that’s when we say, trauma informed, right, that’s where that piece starts showing up. So yeah, I’m holding those three layers.

Maya, I’m curious, I think when we look at those from your perspective, I would love to hear a little bit more about the story and why it makes sense to go digital only. What that does mean in terms of both the solution piece, the change piece, where maybe it is a little bit less jarring, and then we can shift into that trauma piece, like where are we at and how are we caring for ourselves? 

Maya Toussaint: So, I work at a large tech company. We’re looking to hire over 2000 engineers this year. So 2021, 2021 engineers, cutesy hiring. The benefit of a 100% remote company is that we can now hire anywhere in the world. So, there’s no longer that attachment to the Montreal office and the Toronto office. It’s funny, ‘cause I’m the only Montrealer on my large team, because before you did need to be near the Ottawa and Toronto offices for the type of work we do with the universities, we do in Ontario. Now, we just hired someone from Africa and it’s pretty beautiful to see, in terms of how it can open up a pipeline for diversity. So, there’s a lot of good there, that’s in terms of the mindset. I wasn’t in the rooms with leadership. But, it feels like it’s a: “let’s take an intelligent risk, let’s try something new, and let’s go all in,” this is my interpretation of what was decided. They, pretty early in the pandemic, like early last spring/summer, were one of the first to say, “we’re going digital.” They called it out, and then it was more firmed up when I joined the company a few months ago. But, in terms of the changed management, it was, kind of, a statement and I do think that it has its benefits of, my perception, take it or leave it: I’m sure they know that there’s going to be some folks who love the idea, some who don’t, people we hire are arguably going to be more open to it than the folks who joined earlier, specifically for the office culture. That’s something I was hoping to get. That’s what I thrive on. Then, unfortunately, it’s like, “oh, I’m never going to get to go back to the office.” 

But, in terms of trauma, I think a lot of the things that are coming up for folks are: “I was used to this way, I want to have the option to go back to that and there is no option.” Or, trauma of, “you know, we need to remember that we’re working remotely during a pandemic. We’re not doing remote work,” there is a difference. I keep trying to remind myself that every day, ‘cause I’m just like: “I can’t live like this, I can’t live like this, like how can I continue to just be in this box all day?” Then, there’s not many things to do at night, because delta variant, like there’s always something. Whereas if this were normal, I could probably pop out and have lunch with a friend, I can go do a Cinq-à-Sept as we say, you know, a happy hour in Montreal, but those things aren’t available. So, the tools that we normally have to feel good have been taken away, have been messed with, have been changed. I know for me, that’s the trauma that comes up, that’s the negative feelings that come up. I don’t have the tools that I used to have for my self care. So, I’m, again, really trying to work through that. Talking with friends who are working through that, and everybody has a different self care package, has a different trauma package, has a different change management package. So, how do you even adapt to everyone? I don’t think you can, you can try. But, I feel like that’d be wonderful, but I can’t picture it. 

Rada Yovovich: Yeah. 

Maya Toussaint: I don’t know.

Rada Yovovich: Yeah. Oh, there’s so much in there. I think this is where this piece of, we’re not just at a nine to five, right, that our five to nine also exists and comes in with us. That’s, like, the core of so much of this inclusion work, is recognizing that we don’t just leave whatever exists outside the work space when we enter the workspace, especially when it’s the same space, right? Suzi’s literally in her bedroom, right? And, that context matters and that it recalls back, this question of does work meet every need, right? Like, people try and get a job that is their everything. It’s almost like a monogamous relationship where it’s like, you have to meet every need that I have, because I am committed to you. That becomes especially true when other options, like your happy hours, like your social interactions are, sort of, stripped away. I think, you know, I’ll add in these layers of a life-threatening disease that is highly contagious. I think we all, at least, are one to two degrees away from, certainly, somebody who’s gotten COVID, but many of us, from someone who’s died of COVID, right? Also, that other people have died during this time and a lot of those months were in times when we couldn’t do the grieving practices that are part of many traditions and part of our human need to gather, and recognize, and celebrate, commemorate, grieve in community; and really, I mean, do everything in community. You know, what it means to be in community. So, I think that I hear also specifically what you’re saying, Maya, of, like, there is no solution. I don’t know how we’re going to make a solution. I want to click there and spend a little time, not trying to necessarily say here’s the solution, but be a little bit curious on that. I think Suzi, you’ve talked about how you all are thinking about this, and I think there’s a lot of wisdom in it, so I’d love to pass it to you. 

Suzi Lilley: Yeah. So I think, certainly, as we’ve started to think about: well, what is our strategy for this? How do we support our people, to continue to be their best selves at work and in turn produce their best work? That’s ultimately our philosophy around how we try to think about running our organization, across all facets. So, I think as we’ve started to look at this, I think the one thing we’ve held onto, which you really hit on there, Rada, was that this experience has been traumatic in itself and that we have all in some way been touched by the experience of being in this pandemic, directly or indirectly. And that comes with it, additional facets of what we’ve elevated to the forefront of our business strategy. So, things like mental wellbeing and wellness, are we equipped to support our people psychologically to be safe in our organization, or to have access to tools, support them where they are experiencing periods of loss, anxiousness, depression, et cetera. These things have been extremely heightened, as we know, across the world in terms of our collective human experience of this pandemic. It’s really important. You know, we started a presentation the other day that said “post pandemic plan” and someone had gone in and edited it and crossed out “post” It was like, “we are still in this. Like, still very much feeling the effects of this and living in this period of uncertainty.” I think what came from our collective thoughts, as we look to see what are other businesses doing? What are our competitors doing? What are our clients doing? We have really, sort of, thought: nobody really knows the answer here. We are all taking a risk. I think Maya, you talked about it as: this is an intelligent risk for our business, because this is how our business operates and what we do. And, the business that I represent and work for, is a marketing agency, and a significant amount of what we do, and our philosophy is about making the world a more personal place. So, as we think about how do we do that for our people, how do we do that for our clients, and for their customers? A significant amount of what we do does require in-person collaboration, creative, and innovative thought. So, finding ways to do that has been an experience about bringing this future of work into, actually , right now, here. How do we do that, maintain the quality of what we do for our clients, but also how do we ensure that the people that we hire and the people that we are, essentially, responsible for in our organization, have the best opportunity to do that in a way that makes them feel good about their performance, about their career progression, and what they’re delivering. So, now we’ve started to put it together. We want to enable choice and flexibility to continue as much as we can realistically control. And, because collaboration is so key, we don’t want to create a remote only setting, but it spurred conversation about what is the office for now? What do we actually utilize the office space for? Versus it being, you come to the office to work, what is that space for and how do we create a space that generates purpose? And therefore, what you come in for is not just: “I come in to do my nine to five.” So, that’s really where we’re at in the conversation and I’d love to say we’ve cracked it and we’ve really come up with what this plan is. But, for now it’s open to use as you will, in a safely managed way with relevant restrictions and guidelines for health and safety. But, how we’re thinking about it moving forward, is really what does that office space represent, if we are going to work in a hybrid model.

I think that’s really exciting. It’s daunting, because we don’t know when, and is anyone doing it right? But, we’re in this space of let’s test and fail and let’s see what can come from this. So, I think that’s a bit of a sum of where we’ve got to over the last few months, in terms of all of these conversations, as a business and what it represents to us.

Rada Yovovich: Yeah. I love that so much. You are singing a beautiful song, that the darkest horse loves to sing; which is thinking about these things as design thinking challenges. What I heard you do, is ask a really compelling, ‘how might we,’ question of: how might we reimagine what the actual purpose of this space is, rather than trying to achieve the same objectives that we used to have? This is a big piece that I’m actually excited about, the way that not just the pandemic, but also racial awakening, and social consciousness, and awareness of trauma, and awareness of community, and stuff like that has led us to say: “I think maybe the old way was kind of garbage. Like, I think, maybe, we don’t want to be striving for how things used to be, because it wasn’t really even working for the most privileged folks,” right? It wasn’t even good for the folks at the top, and it certainly wasn’t great for everybody else. So, I really like this invitation to say: “well, let’s actually get back to the why behind, and what’s important about that, and what’s important about space, and how do we actually think about that, as a work community specific and unique to our community.

I also hear this emergent piece, right? This recognition that maybe what’s true today, won’t be true tomorrow. How do we actually build that into the strategy as well? So, you know, put in my usual plug for Adrienne Maree Brown’s “Emergent Strategy,” really showing up to it in that way. I think the other piece that I want to throw in, that I actually saw, Sonya Renee Taylor posted a video, just today, about being in New Zealand, where she lives, and really feeling like her government cares about her, through the way that they’re dealing with COVID, and contact tracing, and stuff like that. It was really very moving. This morning as I was thinking about this event, I was like, that’s another piece. Like, I really want to invite: how do we make sure that it’s really clear to our communities that we care about them, right? That, Before anything else, their health, their wellbeing, is prioritized and is centered in our decision making and making that really transparent.

Suzi Lilley: That is, really, where we’ve seen over the last year and a half, how it’s coming through now, is like the emerging priority of skills and how empathy, and leading with empathy, building and designing your business with empathy has become, really, critical. It’s not a soft skill. It is a core skill of how businesses need to operate and work moving forward. Not just about, for your people. But, it’s about how you continue to grow and be successful. You know, how we attract and hire talent, how we compete in our market, is going to be down to some of these decisions that we make right now and making them with an empathy and trauma informed approach is only going to help us move that further, faster, forward. So, I think that was just the other piece that was a bit of a like: “yep, that’s so important for us right now.” And, I think we’re seeing it spill out in other spaces. 

Rada Yovovich: Yeah, a hundred percent, yeah. I know, Maya, that you were nodding emphatically. And, I also know that y’all are doing some really interesting stuff with your physical space and really rethinking that. So, I’d love to hear about that and whatever else came up for you, and all that. 

Maya Toussaint: Yeah. No, a lot of good stuff came up. You know, we’ve talked about finding the right solutions and what’s the right thing to do. I think we need to, maybe, frame what does the solution mean, and what does right mean, and for who? Because, maybe, finding the right solution just means, for the most people. Cause we’re not gonna find it for everybody. And, when you were talking about feeling like your government cares, feeling like your company cares: I could say personally that if I feel like my company, my parents, my anyone, insert relationship, is doing; what they’re doing and leading with empathy, there’s more room for mistakes. I’m okay if we stumble on the way to the solution, because I feel cared for, I feel nurtured. So, there’s more flexibility on my part to be open to the different solutions that come up. Yes, I wanted it to say that. And, in terms of flexibility and what we’re doing in terms of the space right now, so we have offices all over the world and we’re just hanging on to a handful of them, a few of them, and we just launched last week, or two weeks ago, the New York office is now more like a shared workspace. It allows for our customers to go in, if they need help. It allows for  anyone to go in, if they want to get photographs taken, if they want to have a shared workspace. So, there is some thoughtfulness around what the space is being used for. And, to piggyback on something you said, Suzi, were when we do get together, they will be quite intentional. So, there’s been a lot of conversation around what that will look like and it will exist, it’s just that it’s not going to be the classic: go to the office, hot desk. We don’t have that at all, but we will have these intentional moments where, as smaller teams/larger teams, we get together, and in the old days, or the before days, what we would call an offsite. It would be like that, but really intentional, several days, likely, and things like that. And, I cannot wait for those moments, ’cause again, I think we’ve established what I need. But, for some folks, they probably won’t be interested, ‘Cause you’re going to have the flip side, which is: “well, three days away, that’s a lot of planning, I have kids, how am I going to do this?” There’s a lot involved around that. But, for the most part, for most of the year, you no longer have the commute that was affecting, maybe, childcare. So, there’s a balance to be had. I don’t know what it looks like. But again, going back to what is a solution or what is the right thing? I think it depends on how we’re framing that and who is it right for. You know? 

Rada Yovovich: Yeah. That was one of the things that I wanted to underline too, is this question: do we do it for the most people? Again, as we’re thinking about this as a design challenge, you think about who is the user we’re designing for, Right? What do we believe to be true about that user and how many user personas are we actually designing for? Because, I might argue that instead of designing for the one that we have the most of, I would be designing through an equity lens, right? Who actually needs the most, or how do we actually orient more resources toward folks who have less resources? But, I think that’s part of this question and I think, especially, ever since the pandemic started, we’ve been saying: “oh my gosh, the future of work came early. You know, we knew it was coming eventually, and here we are.” Hearing you, Maya, talk about this world of talent that you can now recruit from because you’ve committed to digital only; we’re starting to see the real consequences and the real extra challenges in that, right? Thinking about, like: “well, what does pay equity look like when we’re talking about different roles in a universal market and how we value different types of talents, and skills, and locations, and stuff like that.” And, all of the other inclusion oriented pieces of, like: “okay, now you have a lot of different types of people collaborating, presumably across language, across identities, across worldviews, across experience, and that all becomes really complex,” you know? 

I know, Suzi, we didn’t really talk about this piece extensively, so I’m putting a little bit on the spot and something that I don’t know that you are necessarily responsible for: but, I’m curious; I mean, you all are an international firm, right? I’m curious how that’s playing into this for you all. You know, whether you’re creating, like, a north America strategy and having them be fairly independent, or how the different geographies are connecting. I’d be really curious to hear about that. 

Suzi Lilley: Yeah, it’s been very interesting because we have a huge part of our business, which is based in Asia, where actually they’ve been back in the office. Their back to normal, in some respects, for a significant amount of time, longer than we all have in the other parts of the world. So, for them, we’re also learning from that experience and what tactics that have been put in place, to be able to manage that safely. And, how did that happen? But, I think what’s been really interesting, and the feedback we’ve had from our people, is whether you have been part of the international cohort, and on global, calls, or global collaboration meetings, et cetera. But, also whether you have not been in the head office in the location. So, for example: in the U S we have folks in California, some folks in Nashville, but they are very few compared to those of us who are based in Chicago. Some of the feedback that we’ve heard from across the regionsm and across where we’re located, is people feel more connected than they ever had done before, because of this unified experience of everyone needing to be remote. I think there was something really interesting in that. It was like, not everything we’ve taken away from this is bad. Some of this is really great and what can we hold on to, to replicate and continue to be part of how we operate as an organization, inclusively? I think this other piece, which I referenced, the experience of the working parent and how this has enabled a very different way of life. I’m not saying that’s been all good. There’s definitely been an experience of getting used to that, having children at home and the stress and pressure of what that means. But, as children are returning to school, it’s giving folks a bit more flexibility to say: “well, between the hours of eight and 10, I’m not going to be available, but I’m going to be working these hours,” and actually having an opportunity to manage your day and your life around that, in a way that everybody has had to do that. It’s no longer unique to just one situation. [It] has given a different perspective on, what does flexible working look like and how do we continue to take the big wins on what’s working for us now into the future of how we operate as an organization moving forward. I think that’s been really interesting to learn, but also interesting to consider how it’s playing out in different locations for different people. So, what we’re looking to do, to really answer your question about doing that on an international scale, is to think about: what’s our global vision and north star for how we want to operate and how do we ensure that there is local nuance to ensure that, that is respectful of different cultures, and different experiences in those countries, and ensuring that the people who come together to create that strategy are respective of those different countries and experiences. Really thinking about, what does a diversely inclusive group of people building a solution look like? How do we make sure those voices are represented before we just go ahead and do something? I think that speaks to the idea and learnings that we’ve taken from you all, of coming in to help us think about these things in this way, of who’s not in the room, whose needs are not being serviced by the solution, and really considering what that means and what working from the office means for different identity groups of the people we have in our organization. So, that’s been a very real time, practical, application of this work that we have done to think and design our business inclusively. We’ve still got work to do. We’re not getting it right every time. But, it is that moment of: “wait a minute: who’s not in the room, whose viewpoint is not considered here, as we build for a global business?”

Rada Yovovich: Awesome, awesome. Yeah, for folks who aren’t from the marketing store, we’ve done a bunch of work with the team around inclusion, equity, all of this stuff, and it’s just so fun to hear y’all practicing it and really living by it! It’s, really, exactly what we hope for! 

I think one of the pieces that I’ll also invite in here, that has also been super alive lately, is fatigue. Again, not saying that I know, you know, anyone really knows, the answer on this. But, there’s this other tension of: “we want to show up in this caring way. We want to hear the voices. We want to invite people in. We want to bring people together,” and everybody is exhausted. I mean everybody, to your earlier points, we didn’t really pause. Right? There’s been some of this rhetoric around everybody taking a big pause during the pandemic. The three of us, at least, all the folks I’m talking to are like: “who exactly is paused? Because, I feel like I’ve just had a weighted jacket added, and I’m still going through the same sprints.” So, I think that there is this exhaustion and disengagement that comes from that. Then this question of: “okay, so this is where, again, this trauma informed piece starts coming in here.” What does support actually look like? Does it look like giving a whole lot of space, and saying: “yeah, we know you’re tired, so we’re not going to bother you. We’re going to let you keep riding along at your own pace. Or, is it saying we’re going to try really hard to create ways of working, opportunities, events, resources, et cetera, to try and bring you back in? Because, we know having a home and having a community can be nourishing.” Yeah. So, I’m just super curious about that. I’m not asking you all to have expertise on what everybody’s feeling, but I’m just curious about what you’ve seen and how you’re moving with that.

I’ll invite Maya to chime in first.

Maya Toussaint: Yes, I love that question. I’m listening, and then like: “oh, the space. Yes. I definitely have needed the space.” Then it got to a point where I felt I had too much space and I found myself very sad that no one was checking on me, whether that’s colleagues, the business, HR. This is, let’s say last year, at a previous employer. That space was really deafening and ultimately led to me leaving, because I didn’t feel supported in any shape or form. Then, on the flip side, where I am now: there are so many resources and I do feel like I have access. But, a lot of it is on me to access those resources, which makes sense, we do have to own a lot of it. But, I would love some, sort of, mix of encouraging folks to be a little bit more comfortable with the discomfort. What I mean by that is, when people ask me how I’m doing, I tell them the truth and I’ve had a few people tell me: “it’s funny how you never say, ‘yeah, I’m fine.’ You never say that.” I’m like: “yeah, ’cause I’m not, I’m not fine. I’m something more or less than that.” You know, we have stand-ups at work, but they’re digital stand-ups, so just like:” what are you working on today?” I’ll just, kind of, like: “I need to hydrate. I hope you guys are okay.” I’m giving more information around the emotions than just about the tasks. So, for me, and for the folks that I’ve talked to, some sort of combination of allowing you to ask for the space, allowing you to feel comfortable enough to say “I need a mental health day,” A space where you feel like you can just say “I’m not feeling productive.” But, then on the flip side: “you know what? We’ve got a little gathering scheduled where we’re all just going to play a stupid game online on Thursday at three,” giving me access to participate. That’s what I find works for me. It goes back to what we’ve been talking about, in terms of having choice, which I feel is ultimately what a lot of us just want. I just want the opportunity to choose things, to choose to be this way today, to choose to show up this way today, is what I feel could work for a lot of folks. 

Rada Yovovich: Yeah.

Suzi Lilley: Yeah, I love that. I think it’s definitely been tricky to balance this part of my role, in the people team: you’re very much seen as guardians of those sorts of processes, or policies, structures, to be able to support people and engage people on a different level to check in. Obviously, checking in is a huge priority over the last year and a half. But, I think balancing that with, what is your inclusion strategy and how does that go across everything you do. Versus, being something separate. Kind of, weaving it in. It’s almost given us a heightened opportunity to prioritize doing that and position this as part of our business strategy and how we do things. I think there’s some really interesting stats we’ve been hitting our leaders with, to get that buy in for why this is important. I think most recently, there was an article that had trends of the future of the hybrid work world. It said something like: in the last year and a half, one in six people have cried with a colleague at work. And, I think: “yup. Hands up. That’s me, maybe more than once.” I think: “what does that say to us?” It says that, by inviting work into our space, which we didn’t truly invite out of choice: the frustration, the pandemic fatigue, the check-in fatigue, the survey fatigue, all of that contributes to this heightened sense of anxiety. I think we’ve seen that so much. Again, and research is saying: significantly higher numbers of people leveraging employee assistance programs and leveraging remote therapy work. So, I think where you balance that from a work perspective is, it is our duty of care to check in on our people, both from a physical and mental wellness perspective. They have to be equated to the same level of importance, if we truly prioritize bringing your best self to do your best work. I think we won’t always get it right and I think we err on the side of over checking in, versus giving too much space. Because, what we’ve noticed is, that has been a requirement from our people, and they will be vocal when they say this is too much. There is that school of thought to say: “Hey, can we just get back to talking about work? Because, why are we still talking about all this inclusion stuff and mental wellbeing? You know, I’m fine. I want to keep doing my work.” But, actually, the people who need it the most, to know it’s there, that for me is why we’ve taken the steer of: “no, we think it needs to be visibly/vocally here and to provide you with access to that in a way that could be anonymous, that could be coming forward in person, and it could be going through a certain channel that’s totally impartial to us.” As you say, Maya, giving you the choice to go and say: “I need access to it. How do I feel comfortable accessing that support?” That’s been a priority for us. It has been something that I think we’ve definitely erred on overdoing, but has resulted in the feedback from our people, which is: “I feel like this business truly cares about how I am and how I’m showing up. That makes me feel like I want to continue showing up, because even though I’m tired, even though I feel burnt out, although my workload hasn’t really increased; I just feel like that from this experience, I feel like I want to keep doing it, here, with these people.” That’s the one win we take away from that, right? You know?

Rada Yovovich: Yeah, I love that. I’m reflecting, and I’m hearing, and I’m noticing how critical it is for me, now that I have at least one meeting a day in which we have a genuine check-in. It’s not the topic of the meeting, but it’s how the meeting starts. It’s not just saying: “how are you?” And I say: “oh, I’m tired, or I’m, you know, whatever.” But, it’s a moment of pause where I actually take a breath and I notice how my body feels and I notice how energetically I’m showing up to the meeting. Sometimes with the really tactical, clean cut, project management type stuff, at least this is how my brain works, it’s fine. But, when there’s more creative work, especially if we’re doing anything with identity, if we’re doing anything that has any opportunity to be sensitive, starting those meetings with; somebody at the marketing store used to call it our mood meter, we used to just say: “here’s where I’m at. Here’s how I’m showing up.” You know, and that helps us understand what pace to go, what might be happening during the meeting that’s not actually about the meeting. I actually really like what you said, Suzi, about sometimes you just want to say: “you know, I kind of don’t want to do this right now.” My personal share, I’ll say that my dog is currently in surgery. I dropped her off this morning, and one of my best friends messaged me and was like: ‘how are you feeling?” And I was like: “you know, I’m actually pretty committed right now to not feeling about it.” And, he was like: “I’m here to support you and not feeling about it right now. Would you like some pizza?” You know, or something like that.

Maya Toussaint: Good Friend

Rada Yovovich: Yeah, and sometimes that’s exactly right. You know, I don’t want to be doing pizza instead of feelings for everything, everyday, all the time. But sometimes that is the right answer. I think you’re right, Suzi, that having a habit around checking in is what makes that possible, makes that space for you to actually say: “you know, I do feel like sharing this.” Or, “Nope, I’m actually all set.”

Suzi Lilley: Yeah. But, it also goes to being able to manage back to our leaders and our business, goals and ambitions, to say: these things aren’t going to get done.” Because, people are actively telling us: “I do not have headspace to make this happen.” They can’t run this fast and we might need to go slower. I think that’s been a real point of realization for us. We’ve also been going through an integration piece of work, or a merger, which is significant and there’s a huge amount of brain power required to make that possible. We found ourselves in meetings going: “okay, we’ve now got to switch from tactics to strategy,” on the same call. Looking in this two D way, usually your triggers for going into strategy are: you’re sitting in a room, there’s some flip charts. Do you know what I mean? You’re, kind of, here now, just trying to turn it on. It’s really hard and it’s really hard to get your brain moving, especially when there are so many things happening around you and you’re experiencing all these things. I think what we’ve noticed, for our people particularly, it’s that they can’t go that fast at the moment. We’ve got to think about: how do we prioritize, to maximize and get the best out of our people, without completely burning them out. So, I think we talked about this, as being the biggest change management project we’ve ever experienced, right? But, this in itself has got to be treated in that way. 

Maya Toussaint: Yeah. That makes me think of a conversation I had a few weeks ago, Suzi, with some friends, just talking about performance reviews and performance evaluations. I shared personally on my Facebook, I was like: “you know, expecting your employees to be at the level, either you know them to be at, or the level they were at when you hired them, or what have you right now, and not leaving room for all the million things that are happening right now, is frustrating or potentially thoughtless. I’m not saying that someone who usually gets ‘exceeds expectations’ should continue to get that status. But, there should be more thoughtfulness around how we have conversations, around: “hey, maybe you missed a deadline. I’m aware that there is a pandemic, all the drama happening in the world.” There’s the politics, the BIPOC community with this, and there’s so many things that are affecting how productive we are. I have never, in my entire life, felt so unproductive, and I’m someone who thrives on my work. I love feeling like the go-to person and like, “oh, let me ask Maya, she’ll get to it.” I am not feeling like that and it’s beyond bothering me. That’s a whole other hour for us to chat about. But, I’m just kinda like, I want to be able to talk about the context in which I’m working right now; doesn’t allow for my best work, even if I’m trying to give that to you. So, I do think we as managers/leaders need to be more thoughtful around that piece as well, in this coming back to the office, coming back to work, whatever you want to call it, just the next performance reviews. Let me frame the conversation with: “I noticed you’re doing so well at this, even during all these things,” and just framing it differently. As opposed to: “here are the four things you didn’t do.” That doesn’t help anybody. you know?

Rada Yovovich: Yeah, yeah. The word ‘grace,’ is one that has been coming up a lot. How do we give grace, right? How do we make space for that? One of the questions that came in is a little bit more tactical, and it’s: “what’s one thing that wasn’t done, right or not a good strategy, and what’s one thing you saw that you really liked and felt like that was a good step?” It could be repeating things you’ve already named, but I think this is pointing to, a little bit more of, a specific action, kind of thing, that has landed well.

Suzi Lilley: You know, I think the one thing that we saw that landed really well, was not dictating the amount of time anyone has to spend in the office, when we reopen. So, we’ve reopened on a purely hybrid model, which says: you can come in as you please, or not. I think why that was a good move for us, is we saw that among our competitors that wasn’t happening and those folks were looking to leave those organizations, because they felt that their organization wasn’t listening to the experience that gone through; and actually: “I’m not ready for you to enforce or mandate for me to be in the office three days a week.” So for us, when we saw that happening around us, we were like: “okay, that was a good thing. We did good there. That was a good idea. We’ve definitely considered that in the right way.” You know, and I think, one thing that we haven’t done, or maybe we haven’t quite got to yet, is really thinking about how we do this in a way that brings our organization together more. I think we’ve not quite cracked how to bring the culture piece into what it means now, being more remote. That’s the piece where we are learning and figuring out, still. How do we hold onto who we are and our identity as a business, as a culture, when we no longer physically are seeing each other and we’ve created a hybrid working model? That’s where the sticky part of this is right now. We’re not quite sure how we’re doing that and haven’t quite cracked it using our remote tools, just yet. So, I’d say there are probably are too big for me. 

Rada Yovovich: Yeah. I love that. Thank you. 

Maya Toussaint: Thanks Suzi. I’m with you on that. I think what doesn’t work, or what I’ve seen not work, is rigidity around anything. Literally, whether it’s your policies, how you’re approaching your team meetings; like you said, the back to the office. Or, in our case, maybe,  it’s the time in which you log in. Rigidity around anything right now, I just feel doesn’t make sense. I quite literally am thinking of that, even on a personal level. My expectations of my friends, none of this can be rigid, because we’re all handling this differently. I am not a morning person. I try to not have anything going on before 10. I tell people that in interviews, you know? If you need me at eight, it’s going to be rough. I’ll do it when needed. But, the last two weeks I’ve been getting up before the entire team. So, they’re checking in, ’cause they’re like: “are you okay? I noticed you’re up early. Are you having trouble sleeping?” There’s a thoughtfulness there and why they’re asking. So, long story short, just any rigidity or not being able to be flexible on anything. So, that, I think, is totally problematic right now.

Rada Yovovich: Yes. Awesome. That is a beautiful last thought, for us to leave it on. So, thank you both so much. Thank you to the folks listening live, the recording, everything. But, really: Suzi, Maya, thank you so much for being a part of this. Really, really thankful to have you two in [the] family, our community. For the rest of you, this live stream will be available on YouTube, if you want to watch the video. I have a follow-up article with not just some highlights, but also additional resources. So, some other good folks that are sharing ideas about: how do we bring collaboration in person, back into the swing of things. We would love it if you shared any of this stuff. Share it with your team, share it with your friends, share it with your colleagues, with collaborators, anybody that you think would appreciate the conversation. So, if you want to follow The Darkest Horse on social media, we are @TDHcast, on Twitter and Instagram. We’re on LinkedIn, we’re also on Facebook. we’re around. I think Instagram is probably the number one place for us. Suzi and Maya, if you are interested in sharing any contact information, if folks want to follow up with you; whether that’s social media, or email, or whatever, I would love to invite either of you, if you want to share anything.

Suzi Lilley: Yeah. Definitely catch me on LinkedIn. it’s Suzi Lilley, my full name. So, do go ahead, follow me, do whatever you need. Yeah, absolutely reach out there. I’m always happy to entertain any form of conversation, in any format. So, please do reach out. 

Maya Toussaint: Same here, LinkedIn. I’m the only Maya Toussaint, as far as I know, on LinkedIn; which is impressive. So, that’s where I’m at. 

Rada Yovovich: Awesome. And, we’ll include all that in the show notes as well. As always send us questions, comments, feedback, anything like that to The Darkest Horse at hello@thedarkerstores.com.

Thank you all for being in community with us. We’d love to hear from you any thoughts, reactions, questions. Otherwise, we’ll hope to see you at next month’s session, that will be really focused on: how do we design withm, rather than designed for. So, what does it mean to be designing/creating solutions in community instead of from a, kind of, savior perspective? So, [it] should be a really exciting conversation. Yeah, look forward to seeing you all then. 

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This content was a collaborative effort across the TDH team