17 May 2022

Workplace Stories Season 5, Adventures in Hybrid Work: Doubling Down On Trust w/Uber's RJ Milnor

Heather Gilmartin Adams
Research Lead

TL;DR

  • This is the third episode of our podcast: Adventures in Hybrid Work, Season 5 of Workplace Stories.
  • In this episode, Stacia Garr of RedThread Research and Chris Pirie of The Learning Futures Group take a ride through Hybrid Work with RJ Milnor, Global Head of People Analytics and Chief People Data Officer at Uber.
  • RJ talks about Uber’s continuous listening strategy, intentionality, trust, and, of course, Hybrid Work.
  • “We often miss being more intentional about how and what type of work we do in these settings … like really understanding why am I using this face-to-face time or why am I being in the office versus other things that you might not need to be in the office for.”
  • Well, we were right. Here’s that word again: intentionality. Maybe it’s a Hybrid Work theme …
  • We’ve got some continuous listening, continuous responding, passive listening – and it’s all done through data.
  • Learn some clues from RJ about unlocking today’s Hybrid Work puzzle box. Here’s a hint: get conscious listening … and then get intentional.
  • If you like this episode, leave a rating and a review for our podcast.
  • A special thanks to our sponsors, Class and Perceptyx, for their support of this season!

Listen

Listen to my podcast

Guests

RJ Milnor, Head of People Analytics, Uber

DETAILS

If there’s one word that sums up this week’s episode, it’s conscious listening. Yes, that’s two words. But it’s actually the on-ramp to the word we mean and the word that is fast emerging as the theme of Season 5 of Workplace Stories as it evolves: intentionality. That’s because our guest RJ Milnor, Global Head of People Analytics and Chief People Data Officer at Uber, says it was conscious listening and thinking by him and his team—about WHY his company was asking people to work for them as opposed to where—that helped him craft a working Hybrid Work policy that works. Which, of course, is also another way of describing being intentional about RTO. We love RJ’s deep-thinking approach to these big questions, his commitment to listening to the people he’s trying to help, his rigor around tools and data, and his willingness to experiment and flex. And we think you will too—plus get some clues about how to merge onto the road of unlocking today’s Hybrid Work puzzle box. Hint: get conscious listening … and then get intentional.

Resources

  • RJ is on LinkedIn here, and what his employer, Uber, sees as its mission, which is important for the conversation, is here.
  • Checking out RJ and Rob Cross’s interesting September 2021 Harvard Business Review piece, Collaboration Overload is Sinking Productivity, would be useful pre-reading for this episode.
  • All four of our previous Workplace Stories Seasons, along with relevant Show Notes, transcriptions, and links, are available here. Mentioned in the episode is the conversation we had with Rob Cross in our Inclusion Season: check that out here.
  • And if you haven’t, we’d so love you to take our survey—there’s good stuff for you if you do!

Partner

Find out more about our Workplace Stories podcast helpmate and facilitator Chris Pirie and his work here.

Season Sponsors

If you have the time, please pay our sponsors the courtesy of checking out their websites. For ‘Adventures in Hybrid Work,’ we are delighted to announce these are Class and Perceptyx. Class is a live, virtual Learning platform that supports face-to-face Learning at scale, enabling employees to learn with and from each other in context-rich, active Learning experiences. With collaboration, engagement and reporting tools, Class reinvents virtual Learning to drive outcomes that are meaningful to employees and create business impact: learn more at class.com. Today, designing and delivering exceptional employee experience is a business imperative. Perceptyx can help you get a clear picture of your employee experience with a continuous listening and people analytics platform aligned to your specific business goals. Discover why more than 600 enterprise customers and 30% of the Fortune 100 trust Perceptyx to capture timely employee feedback supported by insights and prescriptive actions for every level of the organization; learn more at perceptyx.com.

Webinar

We will share details about the culminating webinar where we’ll debate what we’ve learned with high-level representatives from our two Season 5 valued partners nearer the time.

Finally, if you like what you hear, please follow Workplace Stories by RedThread Research on your podcast hub of choice—and it wouldn't hurt to give us a 5-star review and share a favorite episode with a friend to get more of the Workplace Stories we think matter put there.

You’ll have heard the special message from Stacia at the very end of the episode about the podcast listener survey we’re doing and our special giveaways around it. The link you will need to fill out the short questionnaire and get some RedThread goodness back is here. Thanks—and good luck!

TRANSCRIPT

Five Key Quotes:

We said in the opening episode of this Season that, for me, that is the word of 2022—’intentionality.’ So it's not surprising this is coming out.

To make this work, you're going to have to still say, "Well, actually, we believe the data." It's not just about those anecdotal interactions, because otherwise what's the value in the continuous listening: if you don't let go of that mindset, that anecdotal interactions tell you what you need to know about what's happening with people, then there’s no value in the continuous listening.

Uber, as well as anybody who's going on this journey and who is using continuous listening strategies, will have to, as we go into the office, truly finally let go of the idea that if we just talked to people face-to-face, we're going to get all the information we need.

It goes without saying, managers play a huge role in making this happen and building a culture where Hybrid works. They’re absolutely key to creating the conditions for their teams to do great work, no matter where those teams sit, whether they're in the office or working from home. And that means that employees need to see their managers living and modeling what it means to work in a Hybrid environment, and making that culture shift that we were talking about earlier.

Trust, and being able to really get out there on the scale of trust, and trust people more that may feel comfortable initially. And then wherever I land with this is again believing in doing the right thing—Do the right thing for the business and our employees, and use that as a guiding principle. Those are the things that I think may have always been there for managers, they can be even more so, as we come back to the office and start this new approach to Hybrid Work.

You are listening to Workplace Stories, a podcast by RedThread Research about the near future of work: this is Season Five, ‘Adventures In Hybrid Work.’

Stacia Garr, RedThread Research:

I'm Stacia Garr, co-founder and principal analyst at RedThread.

Dani Johnson, RedThread Research:

And I'm Dani Johnson, co-founder and principal analyst at RedThread.

Speaker 4:

And I'm Chris Pirie, CEO of The Learning Futures Group.

We are very grateful to the teams at Class and Perceptyx for their sponsorship on this episode and Season of Workplace Stories. Class is a live virtual Learning platform that supports face-to-face Learning at scale, enabling employees to learn with and from each other in context-rich, active Learning experiences. With collaboration, engagement and reporting tools, Class reinvents virtual Learning to drive outcomes that are meaningful to employees and create business impact: learn more at class.com.

Today, designing and delivering exceptional employee experience is a business imperative. Perceptyx can help you get a clear picture of your employee experience with a continuous listening and people analytics platform aligned to your specific business goals. Discover why more than 600 enterprise customers and 30% of the Fortune 100 trust Perceptyx to capture timely employee feedback supported by insights, prescriptive actions for every level of the organization. Learn more at perceptyx.com/workplacestories—that's P E R C E P T Y X.com/workplacestories.

Stacia Garr, RedThread Research:

Welcome to Workplace Stories. Our conversation today is with RJ Milnor, head of people analytics at Uber. From beginning his career as an investment banker to doing HR research at the Corporate Executive Board, which happens to be where we first met, to leading people analytics and multiple fortune 50 companies, RJ brings a deeply analytical, thoughtful and practical approach to his work.

In our conversation today, RJ talks about Uber’s continuous listening strategy, developed during the pandemic, which formed the bedrock of his organization's response to the dramatic shift to remote work, and now to the new phase of Hybrid Work. We discuss how collaboration habits changed during the pandemic, but productivity didn't necessarily improve and the systems and processes Uber's used to fix the situation. And this was all underpinned by data.

We then discuss how this continuous listening foundation during the pandemic helped Uber prepare for Hybrid Work. As a result of its experience, Uber quickly realized that the question of Hybrid Work was not only where they needed to work, but much more, How do we need to work?

RJ Milnor, Head of People Analytics, Uber:

But what I think we often miss is being more intentional about how and what type of work we do in these settings—for instance, what types of work benefit more from face-to-face interactions, and what types of work can be done just fine remotely. Then giving our employees the information to make the data to make more informed choices about where and how they work to be most productive.

So it's not just coming into the office to be in the office. It's coming into the office to do the types of work that really benefit from being in the office, if it's ideation work, if its work that requires spanning across multiple teams, if it's bonding work so it’s about bonding networks, where it's really important to build trust with the team or across teams… like really understanding why am I using this face-to-face time or why am I being in the office versus other things that you might not need to be in the office for. That might be part of someone's someone's work over a week.

Stacia Garr, RedThread Research:

Throughout this conversation, we discuss how Uber’s principles have guided the organization in making decisions about Hybrid Work. We also cover the EIB culture change and how to support managers in this next period. Finally, we touch on how Uber will be measuring the effectiveness of Hybrid Work over time.

As you will hear, RJ is a deep thinker about the intersection of human capital practices, data and business results and his insights are ones that many of us can apply in our own work.
Join us for this thought-provoking conversation.

Stacia Garr, RedThread Research:

RJ, welcome to Workplace Stories: I am so excited to have you here! Some folks may not know, but we worked together a very long time ago, and it's been amazing to watch the success of your career and the work that you're doing, and I'm so excited to have a chance to share it with our audience, so thank you again for joining us.

RJ Milnor, Head of People Analytics, Uber:

It is great to be here, and great to see you again, Stacia. Thanks for having me.

Stacia Garr, RedThread Research:

Absolutely. So we're going to start off with a rapid introduction of you, your role, and how you relate to this Season's topic on Hybrid Work; we’re then going to dive a bit deeper and discuss your perspectives and share your insights with our Community. So can you give us a quick overview of Uber's mission and purpose?

RJ Milnor, Head of People Analytics, Uber:

Absolutely. So at Uber, we reimagine the way the world moves for the better. And our purpose is to help people go anywhere and get anything and earn their way in the process. So for me, personally, I think, the mission means a couple of things: first is the impact that we have on people's daily lives. You have the ability to go anywhere at a moment's notice with the push of a button, get anything from a meal to consumer goods, but it's also the impact we have on the entire community, so making transportation more accessible and Greener through our climate change initiatives, and also more opportunities for work and earning through globe, and that is a very meaningful mission and something fun to be a part of.

Stacia Garr, RedThread Research:

Well tell us a bit about yourself and your title and how you describe the work that you do.

RJ Milnor, Head of People Analytics, Uber:

I am the Global Head of People Analytics at Uber. And so what that means is that I've got the real privilege to be able to support a team that helps empower leaders and employees to make more evidence-based decisions.

And we do that by unlocking the value of people data, and when we think about why we do that—what's the mission behind it—it's to help our business and employees thrive. We feel that, by unlocking those actionable insights inside the people data we can help employees have more meaning in their work, be more productive and healthy in the work they do, but also enable the business to have more impact. So, when you think about the team at Uber People Analytics, it's composed of product managers, researchers, data scientists, and analysts, serving all of our global businesses, our corporate functions, our people function. And they're all driving towards this aim of helping our employees and our business thrive by unlocking that people data. That means you're digging into these insights, managing our people data infrastructure, handling people data privacy and security, all those things.

Stacia Garr, RedThread Research:

Wonderful. So RJ, you mentioned that you get to work with really a broad range of folks at Uber and that's one of the exciting things about the work that you do. Can you tell us, how did you get to this point of running People Analytics at Uber?

RJ Milnor, Head of People Analytics, Uber:

Like many people in People Analytics, it's a pretty circuitous path, and that journey was part of the fun. I actually started my career as an investment banker. Going back to the early 2000s I was an investment banker in New York, and one of the things that we were studying at the time was, is there a way to quantify leadership bench strength? Can we look at the leadership bench in a company, and understand how the quality of that leadership bench might impact the profitability or total shareholder return of that organization, and was that the tightest of fit between that leadership team and the business model?

And as a person who's trained in Economics and Finance and a banker, I became fascinated by that linkage between how changes in our talent management strategies and how we think about work can have a real impact on how the business runs and the impact of that business. And that opened up my eyes to a world of what human resources could be and the impact that People Analytics had on that.

That took me from investment banking to a company called Corporate Executive Board, which is where we met; I was involved with the research there around those types of things, the quantitative side of leadership and culture and high potentials and engagement. I spent a lot of my time actually traveling around the world to speak with different HR teams and leadership teams about the research that CEB was doing, and how it fit with their own HR programs. I really had the privilege of learning about great practices in Human Resources. And that took me to the practitioner side, so going from the consulting piece and the research piece to really doing it on the field, and I've been able to lead People Analytics and workforce planning teams at several large Fortune 500 companies, but also beyond the product development side as well, so designing and selling People Analytics software and products, and that has brought me to where I am today.

Stacia Garr, RedThread Research:

What an amazing journey. And yeah, CEB—I hear you talking about those studies, and they're foundational; it’s so interesting how many HR executives still harken back to that hypo study or that engagement study.

RJ Milnor, Head of People Analytics, Uber:

I look back at those all the time, and even the model on engagement.

Stacia Garr, RedThread Research:

Oh, all the time.

RJ Milnor, Head of People Analytics, Uber:

Structural equation model 🙂

Stacia Garr, RedThread Research:

Yeah, so that's some of the cool stuff of the work you do; what's the most challenging aspect of the work you do?

RJ Milnor, Head of People Analytics, Uber:

Stacia, that's such a great question and you know, there are certainly technical aspects of the work that are challenging and always changing and we can get up to speed on that, but I have to say that the most challenging aspect of the work is communication.

I think that becomes both more important and more challenging as you take on more senior roles or larger roles in an organization, but asking the right questions and truly listening to others, building advocacy and building out across teams and then driving the decision, that's probably the most important, and also the most challenging, part of my work. But it's what leads to the right analysis, it's what leads to great products and ultimately business impact.

Chris Pirie, The Learning Futures Group:

Good answer. So the Season that we're doing is about Hybrid Work and return-to-the-office and how the opportunities that gives us and the risk it creates and the challenges it creates. We've been starting our interviews with everyone, asking them what their personal experience is with Hybrid and remote working. So, how would you answer that question, RJ?

RJ Milnor, Head of People Analytics, Uber:

That's interesting: coming out of the pandemic and return-to-office, you know, we have this tendency to think of Hybrid Work as something that is brand new, but we've been doing it for a very long time. My personal experience, I've been working like this, either Hybrid or fully remote, for the better part of my career.

And when I think about my personal experience with Hybrid Work, a few things come to mind. First is understanding the great flexibility that's afforded by working from home, whether it's either in a Hybrid or remote context; there’s tremendous flexibility to be able to do work at the time and in the place that it needs to be done and the person needs to do it. That's an incredibly valuable thing, and we hear that from our employees as well, the value they place on flexibility.

But as I reflect on it personally, it's also how isolating that type of work can be. So when you're calling into a meeting where others are in person, that can be a very difficult communications barrier—going back to our last point about communications. And I think the last thing that I'll reflect on my own personal experience is the value of being in the office. Working from home and Hybrid Work offers tremendous flexibility that is valuable, but there is a concrete value—at least in my own opinion—of being in the office. Working this way over the better part of years or so, made me much more intentional about how I spend my time when I'm in the office: what I do, who I spend time with, how much time I spend to make the most valuable use of my time.

Chris Pirie, The Learning Futures Group:

Yeah, great. This word ‘intentional’ is definitely thematic for the Season. What was different during the pandemic for people who work at Uber, including yourself? A terrible disruptive force, of course, not something that we ever want to go through again—but how has it driven your thinking around how we change the world of work?

RJ Milnor, Head of People Analytics, Uber:

I think the pandemic was different, and so the experience that we had working from home or working remotely certainly felt different than before.

I was thinking about it; I think it may have been because of the duration—that prolonged absence of any face-to-face interaction that we had. One of the things that we experienced was it was really hard to maintain informal connections, and we found our perceptions of informal connections declining a little bit during that time; when you think of the banter, the informal connections that you have in an in-person environment—when we start to lose those, it makes it really difficult to maintain high levels of trust.

The other thing that we miss out on are the serendipitous interactions, so those moments bumping into somebody in an elevator and having a conversation or the water-cooler moments. Those just become really difficult to replicate and it's where new relationships start sometimes; it's where ideas blossom, there’s a real value in those things. I think it's one of those things that's a little bit different this time with working from home in the pandemic.

Chris Pirie, The Learning Futures Group:

Do you think that will inform what we're going to do next? What RTO plans, for example?

RJ Milnor, Head of People Analytics, Uber:

I think it does, because it informs the balance. So that idea of Hybrid Work, of being in the office and working from home, or even for people that are working fully remotely, having opportunities to come back into the office, experience the culture that's inside the office and the connection that's inside the office. I think that experience of being disconnected from those face-to-face interactions, the serendipitous moments, does make us more intentional about the value of being face-to-face.

Chris Pirie, The Learning Futures Group:

Got it. Let's hope so!

Stacia Garr, RedThread Research:

Yeah, it's interesting. I've also worked remotely for a long time, and I felt like it was kind of funny; it was like everyone went from whatever their lives were to being remote. It was almost like an intense feeling of like now everybody has a different level of accessibility and all sorts of things—it was a fascinating experiment.

Let's talk a little bit about how that played out for your team. And specifically, we're interested in understanding how you will change how you're listening to employees during the pandemic, and I know you have an updated continuous listening strategy. Can you talk a bit about that?

RJ Milnor, Head of People Analytics, Uber:

So it's interesting, Stacia, that you mentioned how everybody went from one mode of working to another, and it happened in an instant. If you rewind the dial back to February 2020, most of our employees worked in the office, worked predominantly in the office, so when the pandemic first started, we had about 90% of our employees go from working primarily in the office to totally working from home—there’s a total change in their work location.

So when we think about employee listening—we've been doing employee listening for some time, typically in annual or semiannual surveys—I think that was the impetus for us to think about listening differently, because we really had to understand what employees were going through.

So, shortly after the pandemic started, I'm thinking this is late March, early April, 2020, we did a survey very quickly—I think we put together, we designed and implemented the survey in less than five business days—to understand how employees were doing, their sense of well-being and, importantly, what we can do to help.

And that yielded some very important insights that we actually took action on, but it also helped us understand that we actually needed something on an ongoing basis to fill the gaps, beyond just that survey—something that could help employees tell us what they need when they needed it, and it would also give leaders and process owners a way to respond in a more timely way.

And so that was, in a lot of ways, the catalyst or that moment, that pushed us to a more continuous mode of employee listening. When I think continuous listening, in my mind, I really mean continuous response. It's not sufficient to just ask employees how they're feeling or what they need; there needs to be a mechanism to respond to that, and respond to that timely. And that's how we built our approach; when we think of continuous listening, it's an integrated approach that combines both active and passive listening and I'll explain that in a second, but what I mean by that is it allows us to hear from employees, to bring data together, and then get it back to the people that need that information to make a change.

Let me break those two pieces apart a little bit, because of the way we're looking at it. I mentioned earlier that we traditionally had annual or semi-annual surveys. Well, the active, that is in many ways, active listening. It's the surveys that we're all familiar with; they go out to employees, we bring them back and turn them into dashboards or analysis, or whatever it might be. We wanted to supplement that survey-based approach, that active-based approach, with more fluid or continuous ways of hearing from employees throughout the year.

Again, a lot can happen in six months, so we wanted a more constant stream of information so that employees can tell us what they need when they need it. We still have these tent-post types of surveys, surveys that happen semi-annually to all employees mainly focused on culture and engagement, but supplementing that with what we think of as lifecycle surveys—so surveys that go to employees during a specific moment that matters in their career journey. So it could be, while they're onboarding, or it could be when they're candidate, before they join Uber; that gives us great information about what they might need or what they're experiencing at a specific time. And then we supplement that with monthly surveys that go out to a representative sample of employees. So we're getting this constant feed of information about employees and their sentiment that we can take action on.

There's the other component that I mentioned called the passive listening side. And what I mean by that is that we're collecting aggregated, de-identified data that shows how people are working. So this could be things like meeting volume, collaboration time, data like that. Now, important to note that it's not personal data, this is all de-identified and aggregate data, and so it's showing us trends and patterns. But when you take those trends and patterns can be informative by themselves. When you combine them with the sentiment data, you have very rich, actionable information.

Chris Pirie, The Learning Futures Group:

And can you give us an example, without violating any corporate confidentiality?

RJ Milnor, Head of People Analytics, Uber:

Absolutely. In fact, one of the insights that we got shortly after the pandemic was in terms of how people were collaborating. I mentioned that we were starting to see the perceptions of informal connections going sideways or down very slightly. And that comes from the sentiment side, so people were sometimes struggling to feel that same level of connection that they did when they were in the office, having those water-cooler moments and serendipitous interactions.

But interestingly, the levels of collaboration were actually increasing. So after people started working from home, we saw collaboration hours, for instance, both within groups and between departments, increase. When we dug deeper into this, we're realizing we're having more meetings with more people for more of the day. So, very specifically, our time in meetings post-pandemic went up by about 30% or so. The number of meetings went up by roughly 40%, and we're also adding larger meetings, so the number of people inside those meetings increased by about 45%. So, we're seeing the shift in how people were collaborating, how they were meeting, and more meetings, more of the time.

At the same time, we also started measuring productivity, and we measured it in a couple of ways. First, we looked at business measures and productivity, of which there are many, and we looked at self-reported measures of productivity, so asking employees, "How productive do you feel?"

A couple of important insights came out of that. One was that self-reported measures of productivity correlated very, very strongly with business measures of productivity. So if you actually asked employees how productive they think they are, they're a pretty good measure of that.

Stacia Garr, RedThread Research:

For once, we've got a good self-measure! 🙂

RJ Milnor, Head of People Analytics, Uber:

A good self measure! So we can use that as a proxy for employee productivity. The second is that we found a very strong, almost linear, relationship between employee productivity or self-reported measures of productivity and focus time. And what I mean by focus time is two or more hours of uninterrupted time you can dedicate to a project or task. And as we brought all this together, what we started to see was that employees were in more meetings for more time with more people—and as they were doing that, they're actually cannibalizing time from focus time, what was actually driving productivity.

That was one of the things we started to really focus on: how do we get more of a balance between the meetings and the focus time that can help them be productive?

Stacia Garr, RedThread Research:

And what did you all do with that insight? Because that sounds like, to some extent, the Holy Grail of some of the research that we would have done. But then, how do those insights actually lead you to rethink how work was being done?

RJ Milnor, Head of People Analytics, Uber:

If you think about the kind of cycle that can create—and especially when we're in a remote or work-from-home environment—for some, a bit of a vicious circle can start, where we want to be productive, most of us want to be productive, and we see going into a meeting or having meetings and collaborating through meetings as a way to be productive, because we're being involved in the work and getting more work done.

What we started to notice was a risk of having this cycle where we lean more into the meetings and lean more into the meetings to be more productive. At the same time, what we end up sacrificing is the focus time that helps us be productive. And then not feeling as productive, we double down on meetings, and lose even more focus time and so how do you break that vicious circle?

The way is being much more intentional—going way back to that word we mentioned earlier: being intentional about the purpose of meetings, how we collaborate, how to collaborate more effectively, and also focus time: it’s actually one of the things how we were rethinking work, combining that information with enablement.

Actually, Rob Cross and I wrote about this in an article in HBR last year called "Collaboration Overload is Sinking Productivity." One of the ways we started to tackle this in late 2020 and early 2021 is through a couple of experiments that tested information and enablement in a two-pronged approach. So I'll walk you through that experiment at a high level, but for some groups in the test we provided them information only—in this case, the linkage between productivity and focus time. And we asked them to try to carve out more focus time with that information, and we found that was mildly effective at increasing focus time. Not wildly, but it was mildly.

Stacia Garr, RedThread Research:

Right: you have heightened understanding, and so you try to do something.

RJ Milnor, Head of People Analytics, Uber:

Exactly, exactly. For other groups, we enabled them to take more direct action, but we didn't give them the information behind it. And so we launched an application that would help them rearrange their calendars to build more focus time inside their weeks, so de-fragment their calendars and move meetings around to help hit a target level focus time. And that was much more effective—but the most effective model is actually combining both those things together.

So we told people why it was important, then gave them the tool to be able to do it, and we saw much better uptake, and also much better results.

Chris Pirie, The Learning Futures Group:

Does this apply to managers as well as individual contributors —did you do any segmentation that way? I think about managers perhaps needing to spend more time working through others a little bit, rather than just doing sort of productivity output themselves?

RJ Milnor, Head of People Analytics, Uber:

We did see it apply to both, but the levels of focus time are much lower for managers and even lower than that for enterprise leaders. And we can see that across organizations; we certainly saw that internally as well, so that linkage is similar. I think it would benefit from more segmentation, so digging deeper into all those groups, but we did see a very similar relationship. The amount of focus time actually demonstrated by those groups is meaningfully different—individual contributors tend to have much more on average, if you look at managers, it's less, if you look enterprise leaders, it's much, much less.

Chris Pirie, The Learning Futures Group:

Amen to that 🙂

Stacia Garr, RedThread Research:

I'll mention for folks who are listening that we did an episode with Rob Cross where he talked about some of this collaboration overload in the ‘Integrating Inclusion’ Season. And one of my favorite quotes from that season was he talked about how collaboration feels great until it doesn't. I think I said to him, "Well it's kind of like a drug, right? You get high, you get high and then you crash, and it's a mess." 🙂

But what I love about your story, RJ, is that when we were talking to Rob, he had some ideas and examples, but yours is very clear—like this is how you actually take that insight of what happens with collaboration and do something about it that drives meaningful change.

RJ Milnor, Head of People Analytics, Uber:

Absolutely. It’s such a great question, Chris, about is this different for managers or leaders, because so much of the work that we do is supporting and enabling, right? So if I look at a given day of mine, for instance, it's mostly meetings, and it's mostly kind of helping other people get work done or taking barriers out of their way, or making connections to help people get work done inside the org.

And so it can be really tempting to say, "Well, you know, I don't need that focus time," and it may be true you don't need as much as an individual contributor does; that’s a true statement. But sometimes I think we get lulled into the misperception that we don't need any. For so many organizations, leaders are still player-coaches, right, so they still have a degree of being an individual contributor or a degree of being a player. And we get so focused on the collaboration piece, and maybe you can think about our role as that we don't have the time either to do the dedicated work, or even just to sit back and reflect.

Chris Pirie, The Learning Futures Group:

Reflect, yeah.

RJ Milnor, Head of People Analytics, Uber:

Having that dedicated focus time really does benefit people at the manager level or the enterprise leader level.

Stacia Garr, RedThread Research:

You know, it strikes me as you're saying that, RJ, that some of the folks that we look up to as visionary leaders are those who very clearly and conscientiously, intentionally, carve out time to read. So we see like Bill Gates publishing his list of books, and other leaders such as him talking about how you need to have that time to take in, conscientiously take in, new ideas and insights, and then to reflect on those and how those will impact your business. And I think that this is going to be just another flavor of that.

Chris Pirie, The Learning Futures Group:

What I like about this experiment is the combination of mindset, like explaining or giving the technique to people, and tools. I like that those two went together.

Perhaps we can talk a little bit about, kind of, what's next at Uber and return-to-office and how some of the insights that you've uncovered in your listening strategy and what you've learned through this last couple of years is informing your approach on the return-to-office, the RTO phase. What’s the policy, what are you thinking on this?

RJ Milnor, Head of People Analytics, Uber:

It's a great question, I think it's on the top of everyone's mind right now as we're thinking about hopefully moving to an endemic phase with COVID-19.

I'd break it up into two pieces. One is starting with core principles: what are the core principles of the company and the core cultural attributes that you want to optimize for? For us, the core principles for this were balancing safety, flexibility, and connection. And so we wanted employees to work in a way that's most productive for them while also maximizing business outcomes. And we started our approach to return-to-office with those core principles in mind, and that led us to a guiding philosophy of employee choice.

Chris Pirie, The Learning Futures Group:
Can I ask a question at this point: did those principles resonate with your sort of organizational philosophy and values from before, or were they new—something specifically that you're applying to this phase?

RJ Milnor, Head of People Analytics, Uber:

I think they really do, and so, when you think about flexibility and choice, those are part of our core values. And also it goes back to, Stacia, the question you asked at the very beginning of our conversation, which is what's Uber's mission? And our mission in so many ways is movement, right? It’s movement and mobility, and so when you think about allowing people to be flexible and mobile, that did resonate.

But when we thought about safety first and foremost, flexibility, connection, and the new employee choice, what also brought about very clearly was, if it's employee choice, we really need to build this based upon employee feedback, and what do employees want and what do employees need. And so that became central to our approach to return-to-office, and if you think about employee choice is at the heart of that work philosophy, then continuous listening becomes a really important tool to help guide that approach.

Stacia Garr, RedThread Research:

And I think what's interesting is that connects very strongly to the experience of the pandemic, right? So, it would feel, I would think, odd to go from having listened so carefully and responding and thinking through, how do you redesign work, and all this stuff to then like, "Okay we're just in the office three days a week or four days a week or whatever, and hope you like it."

I think that there's a cultural and then a need to reflect on the immediate past that organizations have to go through. What's the new trajectory that we've been on? Because return-to-office isn't going to just be ‘return to the old trajectory that we were on two-plus years ago.’

RJ Milnor, Head of People Analytics, Uber:

And that's a great point, and I think it's for many organizations—us included—it will likely be iterative. You mentioned a grand experiment earlier, this is a big experiment, and we will test and learn and iterate as we go through.

Some of the things that we learned from employees through the process of listening all through 2020 and 2021 and continue to listen, was that a strong majority of employees preferred Hybrid Work—but importantly, they valued flexibility in how they worked, that combination of work from home and come into the office.

And I think, very importantly, as we looked across different functions and geographies is that our employees didn't think about this in a monolithic way. So, just like the three of us probably have different wants and needs and desires about how to work, so do our employees. You look across functions or groups, not all employees want or need the same thing, which also doubles down on the importance of flexibility and building employee choice as a core tenant of return-to-office approach.

And so the way that we kind of landed is that we trust our employees to do the right thing, and we want to give them the freedom to choose where they work to be the most productive. There are four key elements to how we want to do that. And the first is—and they all tie around flexibility—but the first is providing flexibility in the office location where they might choose to work—giving employees the opportunity to work from any of our different large offices, where we may have a business operation.

The second is when they're in that office, the flexibility of the office. So you mentioned a set number of days; it’s totally fine to say we want people in the office this day so they can collaborate in a meaningful, intentional way, but the way that we want to approach it is by giving employees choice about how often are they in the office and for us, it's about half of the time. So I might go into the office three days this week and work from home two days, and then next week I might be in the five office five days, but the following week, I might work from home for five days, and so having more of that flexibility.

Then certainly the flexibility to work remotely. So there are some jobs that are well suited to work remotely; there's some people that would just prefer to work remotely, and that works for them. And then, also the flexibility to just work from anywhere for four weeks, just cross boundaries and that works for some people and it's very valuable. So that's our return-to-office approach, in a nutshell.

Chris Pirie, The Learning Futures Group:

In the prep call you mentioned, instead of a sort of specific policy, you approached RTO with a very important question. Can you talk more specifically about how you answered the question, which I think was, “How do we need to work?”

RJ Milnor, Head of People Analytics, Uber:

Yeah, that's a great point, Chris. I think a lot of it goes back to core principles, as I mentioned earlier, of flexibility and productivity. And so our focus has been helping people understand how and where work can be done most effectively. And if you think about the collective discussion we're all having around Hybrid Work and return-to-office, there's been good conversation about roles—roles that are in office versus remote roles and I think there's truth to that. There's also been a productive conversation around how we design work. So can we design work for those that work remotely, or design work for the office?

But what I think we often miss is being more intentional about how and what type of work we do in these settings. And that's actually what I meant by that point. So, for instance, what types of work benefit more from face-to-face interactions, and what types of work can be done just fine remotely.

Going back to that experiment, Stacia, we were talking about in terms of information and enablement: giving our employees the information to make and the data to make more informed choices about where and how they work to be most productive.

So it's not just coming into the office to be in the office. It's coming into the office to do the types of work that really benefit from being in the office. So if it's ideation work, if it's work that requires spanning across multiple teams, if it's work that's bonding work, building those bonding networks where it's really important to build trust with the team or across teams—going back to that word, that we've used many, many times in our conversation today of intention and intentionality. Really understanding why am I using this face-to-face time or why am I being in the office versus other things that you might not need to be in the office for. That might be part of someone's work over a week.

Stacia Garr, RedThread Research:

Again, intentionality. I think we said in the opening episode of this Season that, for me, that is the word of 2022, is intentionality, so it's not surprising this is coming out.

And I want to talk a little bit about how you brought that to life. So you mentioned earlier, this cool tool that you use to help people rethink their schedules; what are some of the other processes and systems you've been using to take that thoughtfulness, that intentionality about how you do work, and make it reality?

RJ Milnor, Head of People Analytics, Uber:

I think a part of it is about balancing the processes that we have in place—so basically how you get work done—with the systems and the tech that enable those processes. And so, some of this is about change management, and one way that we can affect the change that we're trying to see is through the systems that enable them.

There are two examples that come to mind in regard to collaboration overload specifically. One is focus time, so we dig into that one; we know that focus time is related to employee productivity. So from a process perspective, we're encouraging folks to add more focus time on their calendars when possible. From a systems perspective, implementing this tool that actually helps them do that—so it's de-fragmenting calendars, rescheduling meetings to accommodate a set level of focus time.

So there's the process side, and there's a system side. From a meetings perspective, you can think of the process being kind of the meeting structure or format. From our research—actually from very recent work—it appears that larger, recurring meetings are less productive, on average, and then there can be hygiene issues and meetings; so, for instance, not having a clear purpose for the meeting or clear objectives or roles and responsibilities. So those are process issues you might want to iron out.

How we use systems to affect change in those processes: well, for example, we might employ nudges, help folks consider whether a meeting is too large, or too long, or whether it has the right kinds of objectives in place. So we're trying to balance those two things—understanding where there's an opportunity for process improvement, and then a system that we can use to improve that.

Stacia Garr, RedThread Research:

You know, RJ, that I am very focused on the DEIB topic, and I think in many ways DEIB is part of the system and the processes and all the rest, which is why it makes me think of that. Can you talk to us about how, in this intentional redesign of work, you're looking for ways to improve DEIB?

RJ Milnor, Head of People Analytics, Uber:

So we have an extremely strong relationship with our D&I group at Uber, and that's one of the most rewarding partnerships over the past several years.

I think there are more obvious and maybe less obvious or more nuanced ways that we're thinking about this and the opportunity it provides. The more obvious one is just the opportunity to hire more diverse talent, especially opening up to more remote work. As we embrace more remote work, it allows us to expand where we're hiring, and as we get past our legacy footprint or our office footprint, we can access talent markets that might be more diverse than our old talent markets, where we had large offices or large footprints.

So that's a great way to increase our representation and increase the diversity of our workforce. But there are more nuanced ways that might not be as obvious that we're seeing. For instance, one silver lining of the very rapid shift to work from home was that many people with disabilities experienced more inclusion than they may have ever felt before in the workplace.

Almost uniformly, people with disabilities felt a leveling of access and opportunity they hadn't felt before. and almost all physical offices aren't really designed for people with disabilities. So you take it out of the equation, we heard from so many folks that they can really thrive in their jobs. I think that's an opportunity for us as we return to the office is how do we take those lessons learned and build that in to our space design, build that into how we think about creating more inclusion for people with disabilities.

Similarly, I think many folks discovered an entirely new level of psychological safety when we all have to work from home. So, for example, racialized and gender-based micro-aggressions—these nearly disappeared: comments like hairstyles or clothing, challenges about work-life integration, like picking up the kids, which I certainly do my fair share amount now, it all but went away. And so the opportunity that we have as we return-to-office is how do we put up guardrails to prevent micro-aggressions as we return and work in a face-to-face environment.

Stacia Garr, RedThread Research:

Really interesting points and some data that came out, I want to say it's now six months old or so, but that was looking at people's preferences for where they would work when return-to-office actually happened, and then looked at it by ethnicity. And it was remarkable how divided it was by ethnicity—particularly by the Black population—just incredible preference for the remote-work environment, and the reasons were exactly what you said: a reduction in microaggressions and comments about things like hair or dress or the like. So that really resonates with some of the data I've seen out there.

Let's talk a little bit about culture change and this move to Hybrid Work, because that is definitely a big component of this, right? So can you talk about how you're approaching that?

RJ Milnor, Head of People Analytics, Uber:

This is a huge part of making return-to-office work. The way that we're looking at it is rooting our Hybrid Work plans, our work philosophy, in our values—having a really strong connection between our mission and values, our work philosophy, and our return-to-office approach, and making sure there's a strong ‘red thread’ through all of those things, if you'll forgive the pun 🙂

When I think about that, there's our values, there are probably four values that, at least to me, really resonate and are connected to our work philosophy and specifically our return-to-office approach.

They are, I'm just gonna rattle off our values, but build with heart; great minds don't think alike; do the right thing; and stand for safety. And I'll tell you a little bit about each one of those and how we built it in.

‘Build with heart.’ This is really as a company how we think about building products with care, but also with care for our fellow—

Chris Pirie, The Learning Futures Group:

Humans, right?

RJ Milnor, Head of People Analytics, Uber:

Humans! Our human-centric approach—but that is central to our return-to-office approach as well; we need to, by listening to our teams and during this very long journey we've all been on together, we've been able to shape our approach with our employees at the heart of what we do. It's built-in, based on their feedback.

Same thing with ‘Great minds don't think alike.’ We need to provide employees with the flexibility and choice that demonstrates that we, as a company, care about them doing their best work. And that might be unique to everyone; everyone might need to work a little bit differently, and so flexibility is at the core of that.

Stacia Garr, RedThread Research:

Sorry, I'm going to jump in here: what particularly strikes me with that one is the connection to continuous listening, right, because if you're not listening, you can't hear all those great minds and their differing perspectives and so, in some ways it really just reinforces the overall strategy you have.

RJ Milnor, Head of People Analytics, Uber:

Absolutely. And again, going back to what we were talking about earlier, that was one of the most important things we learned from continuous listening, going up to return-to-office. It was the difference at many different levels.

Similarly, I think I mentioned one of our values is ‘Do the right thing.’ We trust our employees to do the right thing, whether they need to be in person or not based on the outcomes that they're seeking. And then last that I mentioned ‘Stand for safety’—safety comes first clearly, and so we really have to build that into our approach as well, ensure that we are always doing everything we can to provide a safe environment as we look at this.

Going back to the question, clearly integrating our mission and values into the way that we're looking at work and then looking at the return-to-office approach: that’s how we're bridging that culture change.

Stacia Garr, RedThread Research:

As you think about what's happened across the last couple years in the change in approach you've had, what do you feel like Uber had to let go of to make all of this work?

RJ Milnor, Head of People Analytics, Uber:

That's a great question. I don't know that we've really had to let anything go, as much as we need to really be leaning in even more to something that's always been important. And that's trust; I mentioned a little bit earlier, but to make this work, we need to trust our employees to do the right thing and give them that freedom to work where they're the most productive.

And sometimes I think that means trusting people more than we may feel personally comfortable. It's really doubling down on trust. And I think, in the end, that's a very, very good thing, but from a manager and leadership behaviors and organizationally, it’s not something that we're letting go, but something where we're really doubling down on it. And when we think about employee choice being a central tenant of our approach, that's where we are really are focusing.

Stacia Garr, RedThread Research:

My counter to that, as I listened to you today, is that there might have been something that you did let go, and it balances, interestingly, with the trust comment—which is you went from this mindset of believing, whether this was explicit or not, but believing that through the bump-ins in the water cooler in the cafe or those conversations that that was enough information you're getting from employees to be able to make decisions, right, because Yeah, we ran our quarterly surveys or annual surveys, and we can make decisions because we see people all the time, right?

But in this last period, you had to say, you know, "No, we're not seeing those people." But now, I think, to make this work, you're going to have to still say, "Well, actually, we believe the data." It's not just about those anecdotal interactions, because otherwise what's the value in the continuous listening: if you if you don't let go of that mindset, that anecdotal interactions tell you what you need to know about what's happening with people, then there’s no value in the continuous listening.

So I think both potentially Uber, as well as anybody who's going on this journey and who is using continuous listening strategies, is going to have to let go as we go into the office, of truly finally letting go of the idea that if we just talked to people face-to-face, we're going to get all the information we need.

RJ Milnor, Head of People Analytics, Uber:

I think that's very fair. And then the anecdotal information or things like focus groups or empathy interviews, it provides such rich context, but that's usually the next step that often comes from continuous listening as we dive deep and get real context on this and understand the what, where, and how.

But continuous listening gives us the real-time sense of what's happening, the trends, and how would you react. That's a fair point.

Stacia Garr, RedThread Research:

As with any new change, we need to understand if it's working, right? And Hybrid Work is going to be fundamentally a new phase that we're going through. So I'd love to know, RJ, how you're all thinking about measuring the effectiveness of this Hybrid Work model, and how are you planning to monitor and adjust over time?

RJ Milnor, Head of People Analytics, Uber:

It's a great point about measurement. I mentioned earlier that this approach was based upon employee feedback, and so we're continuing to collect employees' feedback through that continuous listening approach and we're going to evaluate and adjust over time.

So the point in your question about adjusting is really important; we need to be able to sense how this is going for employees, how they're utilizing it, and then be able to adapt. We believe very strongly in testing and learning—it’s core to our culture—and so I would imagine that we will continue to iterate as we go, continuing to optimize for those three things that I mentioned earlier: Safety, Flexibility, and Connection.

Chris Pirie, The Learning Futures Group:

Let's talk a little bit, if we have time, about the role of managers, how you manage and lead people in a Hybrid environment. There's a few clues here and what we've talked about so far, trust and culture change; there's obviously a population that have joined companies in the pandemic who've never physically met their manager before. What are the different manager behaviors you expect to see in this next phase, and what are you doing to measure manager effectiveness in a Hybrid world?

RJ Milnor, Head of People Analytics, Uber:

It goes without saying, managers play a huge role in making this happen and building a culture where Hybrid works. They’re absolutely key to creating the conditions for their teams to do great work, no matter where those teams sit, whether they're in the office or working from home. And that means that employees need to see their managers living and modeling what it means to work in a Hybrid environment and making that culture shift that we were talking about earlier.

For us, and for me personally, I think there are five things that can be important for managers as we make that shift. The first is partnering with their team members to understand where they do their best work, and together making decisions that are right for the business and for the employee.

So really having those conversations, and it is about employee choice but it's also balancing choice with business outcomes, and that's going to be a core competency and core behavior for managers. The second—it’s a word we haven't talked about today, and I'm surprised it hasn't come up—but leading with empathy: understanding that the last two or more than two years have been really tough, and people are in different places. So it's important for managers and leaders to have pretty open lines of communication with their team members and be able to flex.

The third, I think, is inclusion. That is something we've talked about, but setting a strong example as a leader that ensures that everyone is visible and they're included, regardless of their location.

The fourth is something we've already talked about before which is trust, and being able to really get out there on the scale of trust, and trust people more that may feel comfortable initially. And then wherever I land with this is again believing in doing the right thing—Do the right thing for the business and our employees. and use that as a guiding principle.

Those are the things that I think they may have always been—

Chris Pirie, The Learning Futures Group:

Yes.

RJ Milnor, Head of People Analytics, Uber:

—for managers, they can be even more so, as we come back to the office and start this new approach to Hybrid Work.

Stacia Garr, RedThread Research:

RJ, you've done a wonderful job of summarizing, actually, some research we're about to release on Performance Management, where we find that the three things that mattered the most are the culture, the capability of managers, and connection.

And I think that's the key, right? That's the key.

RJ Milnor, Head of People Analytics, Uber:

Thanks for the preview. That is fantastic, I’m looking forward to the research!

Stacia Garr, RedThread Research:

Yeah, it's just a couple weeks, so maybe when this actually drops we will be ready.

I just want to turn to our final question that we ask every single guest on the podcast and that's what we call The Purpose Question, and it is: Why do you personally do the work that you do? And I'm fascinated for you, RJ, coming from an investment banker to where you are today.

RJ Milnor, Head of People Analytics, Uber:

Why I do the work that I do is because there's such an opportunity here to make a difference. It's rare for me to kind of see such an incredible opportunity to have an impact, both in the lives of our employees and in the operation of our businesses. We spend such a large portion of our lives at work, and Human Resources and specifically the insights that we create through people analytics—it’s got a tremendous potential to make that time meaningfully better.

Better for our employees in terms of their work being more productive like we talked about earlier, healthier from a wellbeing standpoint, frankly just more fun. But also it's got the potential to create impact for the business through improved results, and we've seen that demonstrated many times. And we can do that at scale, whether it's a company of 100 people or 1,000 or 10,000 or 100,000, I think scale is so key.

I think lastly, why this is such an important part of my own work, is that we don't have the answers yet. It's an incredibly complex space and people are complex, and there are continually new challenges. And for me that is absolutely exhilarating to wake up every morning to a job, where we don't have it all figured out, and it's continually changing and it moves fast and that's such a factor. And that is why I do what I do.

Chris Pirie, The Learning Futures Group:

Well, thank you so much for your time and the thought that you put into the conversation today, RJ. It was really great to meet you and wish you a lot of success through this RTO period and let's keep the humanity in work.

RJ Milnor, Head of People Analytics, Uber:

It's been an absolute pleasure. Thanks for the time today, Stacia and Chris.

[Stacia Garr, RedThread Research, and Chris Pirie, The Learning Futures Group:]

Thank you.

Chris Pirie, The Learning Futures Group:

Thanks everybody for listening to this episode of Workplace Stories. Dani and Stacia, how can listeners get more involved in the podcast and pf course with your incredible research work?

Dani Johnson, RedThread Research:

Well, they can follow Workplace Stories by RedThread Research on the podcast platform of your choice. And you can go to and rate this at podcast.com/workplacestories and leave us ratings and reviews.

Stacia Garr, RedThread Research:

You can also share this or your favorite episode with a colleague or a friend.

Dani Johnson, RedThread Research:

You can check out our website at redthreadresearch.com to follow all of our latest trends in people practices and sign up to participate in some of our research.

Chris Pirie, The Learning Futures Group:

Or Stacia, they could maybe…?

Stacia Garr, RedThread Research:

Sign up for our weekly newsletter at redthreadresearch.com/newsletter, and consider joining the RedThread community by joining our membership.

Dani Johnson, RedThread Research:

And lastly, we're on Twitter at redthreadre—that’s R E D T H R E A D R E, or look up RedThread research on LinkedIn and follow our work.

Stacia Garr, RedThread Research:

I’d just like to add for our listeners that we’d love to get to know you a bit better. To that end, we’d like to invite our listeners to head over to redthreadresearch.com/hello-wps – don’t worry about all that detail, it’s in the Show Notes — and tell us a little about yourselves!

There’s a short form that you can fill out in about a minute. As a thank you, the first 30 people who tell us about themselves will get a 7-day trial for a RedThread membership, so you can have a peek under the curtain of what RedThread Research.

And if you miss that cut off, no worries–we'll still gift you a copy of our Skills vs. Competencies report! So, please, go to redthreadresearch.com/hello-wps and tell us a bit about yourselves!

Chris Pirie, The Learning Futures Group:

And thanks so much for listening.

We are very grateful to the teams at Class and Perceptyx for their sponsorship on this episode and Season of Workplace Stories.

Workplace Stories is a production of RedThread Research and The Learning Futures Group.

Heather Gilmartin Adams

Heather is a senior consultant at RedThread Research. Trained in conflict resolution and organizational development, Heather has spent the past ten years in various capacities at organizational culture and mindset change consultancies as well as the U.S. Department of the Treasury. She holds a masters degree in international affairs from Columbia University and a bachelors degree in history from Princeton University. She has lived in Germany, China, Japan, and India and was, for one summer, a wrangler on a dude ranch in Colorado.

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