14 June 2022

Workplace Stories Season 5, Adventures in Hybrid Work: Is Mentoring The Key To Hybrid? w/WM’s Phil Rhodes

Dani Johnson
Co-Founder & Principal Analyst
Stacia Garr
Co-Founder & Principal Analyst

TL;DR

  • This is the fifth episode of our podcast: Adventures in Hybrid Work, Season 5 of Workplace Stories.
  • In this episode, Stacia Garr and Dani Johnson of RedThread Research and Chris Pirie of The Learning Futures Group meet at the frontline with Phil Rhodes, head of learning and leadership at WM (formerly Waste Management).
  • Phil explains how WM implemented Hybrid Work with their frontline workers, those that couldn’t just go home during the pandemic.
  • “One thing that was really instilled through our organization was, Let’s meet our employees at that point of need: they’re there, we can’t just shield ourselves and live kind of Remote from them, when that was the reality of most of our workforce.”
  • We took a lot of frontline jobs for granted before the pandemic—waste management especially.
  • Designated drivers, localization, mentoring, and a whole lot more.
  • You won’t learn to drive a truck in this episode, but you will learn the importance of presence, in being there for your employees, and how to be flexible while implementing Hybrid Work.
  • 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

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Guests

Phil Rhodes, Head of Learning & Leadership Development at WM, formerly known as Waste Management

DETAILS

In February last year, this week’s guest, Phil Rhodes, Head of Learning & Leadership Development at WM—which you may now better as Waste Management, the very helpful people who handled your garbage all the way through Lockdown—was not long in his post when his suggestion of a coaching program was met with the observation, “Phil, trash companies don’t do coaching.” Well, maybe they should all start, as the first rollout got a 96% approval rating with “life-changing” and “valuable” level ratings. And as you’ll discover on this episode, mentoring and coaching at multiple levels, for both truck driver and regional manager, emerged as a transformational tool for the company. Was it just a way to get through the pandemic, or perhaps the key way Hybrid can be made to land for everyone? We’ll make you listen to the episode to get the answer, but you’ll not hate us for that—along the way you’ll get so much great insight on everything from the history of Southern Africa to new ways of thinking about effective frontline worker support. Warning: No, they don’t train new folks how to drive the big vehicles online … at least. Tune in to find out more!

Resources

  • Phil is on LinkedIn is here; his company, which recently rebranded, is here.
  • All four of our previous Workplace Stories Seasons, along with relevant Show Notes, transcriptions, and links, is available here.

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

Great news: the Season’s culminating webinar has been scheduled—please go here to find out more and register, and see you on June 29!

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. And if you haven’t, we’d so love you to take our survey—there’s good stuff for you if you do!

TRANSCRIPT

Five Key Quotes:

I started composting in my community—I was the gardener, Farmer Phil in my kids’ preschool and elementary school, because I lived in urban Baltimore at the time and most kids don't know where their vegetables come from; they think they come from a plastic bag at the grocery store. So I’ve always been very connected to this space, so that organics play of the business being the largest in North America fits right into that.

The thing I think that was most challenging for us was we had the majority of our workforce that never went Hybrid or Remote. They had to show up, right? Collections need to occur, and our frontline employees—which are the ones really the interface for the company—had to continue working. One thing that was really instilled through our organization was, Let's meet our employees at that point of need: they’re there, we can't just shield ourselves and live kind of Remote from them, when that was the reality of most of our workforce. Then as we moved through this, we started designating are you Hybrid, Remote or in-person kind of at an office. And so really it shifted our culture to being, when you knew you had to be in-person, you're in-person, if you knew you needed to be Hybrid today, you need to stay Hybrid, and just being flexible through the whole process, and communicating that.

One of the things we did is we set a policy, but get it managed at the local area because everything was shifting among local jurisdictions. So we really left most of that down at that local area, because that's how you stay nimble to the pandemic, as well as just to the needs of the individuals.

During the pandemic, all training got localized and we created 500-plus designated driver trainers. So, these are actually mentors and so when you came on you were actually assigned to a mentor and you rode right along with them, and you did all your driving through observation. We soft reopened last July and began taking drivers back into the training center with social distancing; we now have fully opened, and we're actually increasing the capacity into the driver training center. We also have a simulator that simulates being in a truck and doing the collection so not only are you out on the course and learning through our driver trainers, you're actually in a simulator and that just gave us more capacity to run people through the course work that they do on a daily basis for that week during training. We’re really leveraging, the designated driver mentor program which our existing experienced drivers to onboard folks.

There’s been a theme through my work over the last couple of years of an urgent need to put sort of humanity back into learning: given that everything sort of pivoted to digital, there was a real hunger for the people side of things. And what I’ve heard you said today, like reinforcing cohort programs and giving people mentors, access to coaches—these are the ways of getting humanity back into learning when it has to be done digitally for the most part: that was really, really interesting.

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.

Chris Pirie:

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.

Dani Johnson, RedThread Research:

In this episode we talk to Phil Rhodes, Head of Learning & Leadership Development at WM, formerly known as Waste Management. We were particularly interested in talking to Phil because he leads learning and development in an organization with a large frontline employee population, and these are the workers that couldn't just go home or work from home during the pandemic. He explains how WM’s bent toward Hybrid Work before the pandemic made this transition slightly easier, as they figured out how to modify work and employee development during the pandemic; he also touches on how some of the lessons learned during that time have shaped the way that WM views work moving forward.

Phil also shares how employee development needed to change during the pandemic: WM went from training all new frontline employees face-to-face in special training facilities over a few weeks to, instead, implementing a mentorship program, one where new employees wrote along with experienced employees, shadowing and learning on the job.

Finally, Phil also speaks to the importance of the idea of presence; he shares his own experiences in working directly in the facilities, and how that gave him perspective as he made decisions that affect the lives of employees. Even as some of the work in development methods of the pandemic will be carried forward in WM, he emphasizes the importance of presence in putting people-first in building relationships.

Please join us—it should be a fabulous episode!

Hey Phil, welcome to Workplace Stories, and thank you so much for your time and for sharing some of your insights with our audience today.

Phil Rhodes, Head of Learning & Leadership Development, WM:

Great. Thanks Dani, I’m looking forward to our time together.

Dani Johnson, RedThread Research:

We are going to start with some rapid introduction questions to you and your role and how you relate to the Season's topic on Hybrid Work, and then we'll dive deeper and discuss your perspectives and share some of your insights with the RedThread community. So really briefly, can you give us a quick overview of WM’s mission and purpose?

Phil Rhodes, Head of Learning & Leadership Development, WM:

So we are the largest recycling organics company in North America, as well as waste collection—so, trash. We have the largest fleet—I think most people don't know that—in North America, they think of some of the other large, you know, trucking companies, but we are the largest fleet—I think what really separates WM, and we go by WM now, we were rebranded two months ago, trying to just kind of get out of just being a waste company into a more future focus, is we are one of the leaders in the industry and environmental services in sustainability. Which is exciting, and that's what brought me to WM, right—because that's just a personal passion of mine and, as I was looking at my career and, as you go through your career and you start to have more opportunities, or at least perceived opportunities and choice I guess it's more in your head perception. I was like, you know what; I want to be choiceful of where I work, and that was one of the things that attracted me. So that's the space we live in–largest in our industry, we're about 52,000 employees across every state outside of Montana, as well as Canada, as well as India.

Dani Johnson, RedThread Research:

Wow, very interesting: actually, we were walking our child and our dog the other day and came across one of your bins so I was like, “Oh, I know these guys.”

Phil Rhodes, Head of Learning & Leadership Development, WM:

Yeah, we're everywhere—I know it's so funny my kids said the same thing when I started, first of all, like where are you going to work and then it's like they're everywhere, Dad!

Dani Johnson, RedThread Research:

So, we would love to understand a little bit about yourself: you mentioned that you have a connection to the mission of WM, and I know you have some interesting experiences earlier in your life?

Phil Rhodes, Head of Learning & Leadership Development, WM:

Sure, I don't know how far back I went getting to that point when we first talked, but I actually started right out of college as a Peace Corps volunteer. I served in southern Africa, a small country, called Lesotho; I was a farmer, I guess I'd say home gardener, really working on improving the nutrition or actually decreasing the infant mortality rate of under five year-olds through the growing of vegetables and the preserving and cooking of them.

So I have lived overseas a good portion of my 20s; I lived in Africa, I lived in developing countries and I think early on, you know, I was kind of a hippie at heart, I was all into composting and things like that, but it also made me realize if you've traveled or lived overseas, especially in a more underdeveloped country with no plumbing, no trash collection, none of that, it's glaring. And so it was amazing coming full circle then through my corporate career to then be back at a company that's so back to that alignment, because it was something I was so passionate about. Unrelated, but I started composting in my community, I was the gardener, Farmer Phil in my kids preschool and elementary school, because I lived in urban Baltimore at the time, most kids don't know where their vegetables come from—they think they come from a plastic bag at the grocery store. So I’ve always been very connected in this space, so that organics play of the business being the largest in North America kind of fits right in that.

And then if you put it into today's topic: in the Peace Corps, if you know about the Peace Corps it’s a hands-on experiential learning environment, some of the best learning. I had a minor in French—I lived in Luxembourg for a year, took French all through college and High School—in three months with the Peace Corp, I learned Lesotho better than I knew after six years of formal learning because it was all experiential. Came out of that experience and started working at the headquarters of Peace Corps and I then became an Outward Bund instructor: Outward Bound has the same experiential learning model and that's what drew me into this space of learning. And I had an opportunity, through my master's program at American University in organization development, through a classmate to join an OD team in corporate America at Bell Atlantic at the time, who became Verizon through a merger with Nynex.

I started as a trainer, started in the experiential learning space and now, as the Head of Learning and Leadership Development for WM, I still lead with that hands-on, experiential learning is the best way adults learn, and it has been tried and true and proven and so it's just so interesting to see my career where it started to where I’m able to influence programs across kind of enterprise and across large companies.

Dani Johnson, RedThread Research:

That's really cool. I spent some time doing volunteer work as well, and yeah—those first two months on the ground with nobody else speaking the language you learn it very, very, quickly!

Stacia Garr, RedThread Research:

I’m so jealous, because I did my undergraduate thesis, because I did an honors thesis, on South Africa, and my Masters on Southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe and the UDI, so there's like very few people I ever come across in my world that have the Southern African focus—so that's amazing!

Phil Rhodes, Head of Learning & Leadership Development, WM:

So, Stacia, crazy, so my last name is Rhodes, right: Cecil Rhodes founded Rhodesia, so when I crossed the border, so this was in the late 80s early 90s so apartheid was unraveling, Nelson Mandela was being released, Zimbabwe had just been formed as a country coming out of Rhodesia, I actually got stopped and pulled aside at the border, because anyone with the last name of ‘Rhodes’ is just considered to be a dependent of Cecil and not allowed in the country. Fortunately, I am not from that lineage.

Stacia Garr, RedThread Research:

That’s amazing!

Phil Rhodes, Head of Learning & Leadership Development, WM:

So not many people know that Zimbabwe used to be called Rhodesia.

Stacia Garr, RedThread Research:

Yeah well, one one day we're gonna have to sit with a drink and talk about that, because that's the period I studied was like the late 80s, through the mid 90s so i'd love to hear more. Anyway, let's get back to it.

Dani Johnson, RedThread Research:

So Phil, I mean you talk a little bit about experiential learning and, obviously, you know, you have a large frontline contingent within WM: we would love to understand kind of what the most challenging aspect of your work is?

Phil Rhodes, Head of Learning & Leadership Development, WM:

I think it's just remembering and designing and deploying programs at that point of need, meeting learners at their point of need.

So we have our largest, as you said, workforce, is frontline. So drivers, helpers, sorters in our recycling facilities, right—that’s like a good 60% of our workforce. That workforce is coming to us from all different backgrounds, right: education backgrounds, ethnicity, religion, many first time American citizens—so just always remembering, and it's a challenge that we need to meet them at their point of need, not the other way around.

I view that as the greatest opportunity and that’s why I wake up in the morning, because just based on what you heard in my background I enjoy having to create programs with that mind to the employee—not the employee having to adapt to us.

Chris Pirie, The Learning Futures Group:

Let's talk a little bit about context. This Season is about Hybrid Work, and I think the really fascinating opportunity in talking to you is you've had Hybrid Work all through the pandemic and that some of your frontline workers, a big portion of your population, were hands-on at work or through these tough two years. I assume a part of your population wasn’t, and were able to sort of work in a Remote way. So, we like to start all of these conversations by asking people, what is your personal—and, probably, by extension, your workforce’s—experience of Hybrid Work, particularly through the last few years?

Phil Rhodes, Head of Learning & Leadership Development, WM:

Sure, so let me tell my personal story and then I’ll talk broader, because I think it has impacted our policies, as well as just how we've corporately, as a culture, handled the last few years.

I personally have been working Hybrid for most of my career, to be honest. I fortunately live on the East Coast, where you can jump on a train and get to any large North American or East Coast city, and I’ve worked in New York City, Philadelphia, and Washington, DC. And so I was very accustomed—as I jokingly said when this all kind of occurred, I was built for this—in the sense of I’ve been, you know, kind of working out of my laptop for a long time.

The thing I think that was most challenging for us was we had the majority of our workforce that never went Hybrid or Remote. They had to show up, right? Collections need to occur, and we were able to shift dispatcher and a lot of the support staff, but our frontline employees, which are the ones really the interface for the company, had to continue working. So we had to work with them to create a safe environment, as well as show them, as well as our leaders, that we were going to work with them. So, even though we were, I would say, Remote or Hybrid when I did go to an office, I went to an office that that was a landfill, or was a hauling site, and worked out of those locations when I could, because most times they're in at three, four or 5am and then they're out. So being there outdoors—safe environment right—I could learn, they could see me. as I think there's a lot of strength that comes just through actions and then I’d work out of a local hauling site, if needed, or come back home.

So one of the things that were really instilled through our organization was, Let's meet our employees at that point of need. They're there, so we can't just shield ourselves and live kind of Remote from them when that was the reality of most of our workforce. Then, as we moved through this, we started designating are you Hybrid, Remote or in-person kind of at an office. And we've been flexible, right; I think one of the things we wanted to come out we're an operations company, we execute really well, we wanted to designate you and keep you there. Yet I think the shift in hiring and the opportunity to retain folks, as well as hire folks—we needed to be flexible. And so really it shifted our culture to being, when you knew you had to be in-person you're in-person if you knew you needed to be Hybrid today, did you need to stay Hybrid, did you stay Remote and just being flexible through the whole process and communicating that.

Stacia Garr, RedThread Research:

I think that that flexibility is an amazing thing to talk about, but such a hard thing to execute. So, can you talk to us a little bit about how you all actually brought that to life, maybe starting with the leadership, and how you talked about how you needed to adjust and then communicating that out to the organization?

Phil Rhodes, Head of Learning & Leadership Development, WM:

Sure, so our CEO, Jim Fish, communicated through the whole pandemic. And communicated as a person, right—he’s a father, he's a husband, he spoke personally, as well as from a business perspective. Yet one of the things he, and I’d say our senior team did, is they became humans. I think the pandemic forced us all to become more human as leaders, and that was modeled really well. And I think if you look at many of the programs we started around mental health, connecting, allowing voices to be heard within different affinity groups, different represented groups, Hybrid groups, Remote groups, in-person—once again, this was an enormous shift for our company. We are an execution-oriented company, and people are getting up at three in the morning, so you are committed, and we now have to understand and be more flexible with people to meet them while adhering to our safety-first culture and accountability. But we really, I would say double down on our commitments and values of being a people-first company and people-first-means you listen, right, and you create the opportunity to be heard.

Stacia Garr, RedThread Research:

So can you talk a little bit about those specific responses? Because part of what we like to do on the podcast is to give folks a sense of a roadmap to follow—you know, like what are some of the practices and policies and decisions that you all made when it came to actually changing those policies. So you mentioned, like some people would say you know I’m Remote now or I’m Hybrid now and should that continue. So what does that actually look like?

Phil Rhodes, Head of Learning & Leadership Development, WM:

The policy came out, and we need to designate, we need to just understand what the needs are. I think, where the shift came—and I think you probably heard this, I think there's a generational shift that occurred too—and the generation that's been in the workplace, that was used to being in-person and that's culture was built by being in-person, had struggled because that got taken away.

So, for someone like me, who's been working in this Hybrid environment, I always say I joined this company during the pandemic. One of the first things I did was I created a PowerPoint of Who's Phil, with lots of pictures and my leadership style and my assessments, and I every time I met I showed a PowerPoint “This is Phil,” to create that lack of human void. One of the things we did is we set a policy, but then we let it get managed at the local area—we call them market areas here—because everything was shifting among states right, amongst local jurisdictions. So we set the we are going to designate amongst the areas but we really left most of that down at that local area, because that's how you stay nimble and to the pandemic, as well as just to the needs of the individuals.

So we had a policy, but I think the policy was managed locally and then we had another policy—we just shift back to we were opening our offices come January, we were supposed to be opening in October right it's full-time. January we actually got to it, and then we landed on Tuesday, and Wednesday are our collaboration days, so please come those days right. So instead of coming in with you must be here these days, or who must be full time was, these are collaboration days. And I was just at headquarters last week the office is hopping, because there is this want to be have that human connection to collaborate. So we led with the Tuesday, Wednesday collaboration days, and I would not be surprised if Thursday became a collaboration days for those who want to be there, but it wasn't a policy you needed to. It was a policy of we believe in collaboration and these are the days and allow the individuals and the teams to lead that.

The other thing that's so impressive is leading with the positive and the opportunity, not the expectation or mandate or a policy as they used to be called, right of ‘this must be done.’ In this space, we have to be so fluid and meeting the needs and being agile and nimble. And the old mandate of this must happen—that’s not going to happen just based on what happened through the pandemic and all the state and the local regulations.

Dani Johnson, RedThread Research:

How did you change the mindsets, particularly of your managers who are enforcing that or yeah enforcing that culture of, this isn't a mandate, this is, we need to all be in it together to fix this?

Phil Rhodes, Head of Learning & Leadership Development, WM:

So interesting, Dani: when I arrived, the number one mandate was a frontline leadership development program. If you think of a frontline leader, so a leader of these hourly frontline employees, that's one of the more difficult jobs. Because you're getting all these policies, you're getting all these this is how the businesses run, compresses down to the leader, who then has to swivel around literally and now talk to employees around why—everyone wants to know the why, if you could just explain why we're doing this.

Most people can follow literally but imagine doing that down to a frontline in the pandemic. So we invested last year, put almost roughly 1000 frontline leaders to a six-month investment in them. It was all virtual, we had never done a fully virtual launch. We brought in producers—if I go back to kind of the learning side so learning you usually have a facilitator, we actually brought in producers to help manage the technology, so the producer or the facilitator could be your leadership. And we went through it was a six-month program investing in them, and the first one was how to build trust—that's number one going to change, then, how do you, you know classic coaching feedback development, DEI?

We invested heavily, we got another 1800 going through the program this year. And one of the other things, we did to really support them was we provided digital coaching, so it’s the democratization of coaching. So if you think about in the past we provided coaches to executives; now we're providing it to those frontline employees so by their desktop or their phone, and you may have heard about this, we allow or brought support to a frontline leader in that moment of need. And so the coaching was built to correspond to what was being taught from a skill competency or capability, but we also realize, you know, what that old rigid doesn't work if you're having a tough conversation with an employee, and want to get on with a certified coach—you should be doing that when you need it, not when the program dictates it.

And we’d never done anything like that if someone told me on my team, Phil, you know Phil trash collection companies don't do coaching. So we were like is this going to land, is this going to work? It got a 96% approval rating. And the approval was either ‘life-changing’ or ‘valuable’ of 96% of the participants. On average, they average 2.6 coaching sessions per month, right, and through that, we began assessing at the beginning for placement, with a coach and then throughout the program, a new kind of insights to how are you feeling as a belonging, are you feeling healthy—just new behavioral indices that we know drive engagement which ultimately drives retention, for the leader themselves and then for the team reporting as a leader.

One of the things we did is we invested in our leaders. And I think there's symbolic investment and then there's the actual investing to someone’s skillsets. And what was amazing, Dani, is that if you go on LinkedIn, you will see proud certificate frontline leaders, proud of themselves for getting through the program at a really difficult time, and thankful for the opportunity. And when you talk about belonging and how belonging really drives our ability to get up in the morning and go to work and do difficult work, that was something we really indexed on to through this is that investment in our leaders.

Stacia Garr, RedThread Research:

That’s amazing. The other thing that seems inherent in that is also the trust that you were putting in those leaders—you talked about that being something that you were trying to teach the leaders themselves, but you were trusting in them that they could handle the difficulty of the pandemic plus this learning opportunity and trust that they were going to be leading and use this information, effectively and making that investment in them. And so I imagine that was a big deal for them as well?

Phil Rhodes, Head of Learning & Leadership Development, WM:

It was, and the other thing I mentioned is that producer role: so the producer role, also is a six-month program, where you had one kind of virtual instructor-led course per month, but you also had touch points every week and that producer role managed that you add a social connection of a cohort group that you went through the learning with, and they had what we were calling like homework assignments that will just dribble in through this social kind of gathering site. They were things like TED talks and articles and just things relevant to what's going on today, and if you think about that last year when we launched earlier in the year it was nothing more relevant than people struggling to come back to work, working mothers struggling with daycare, people dealing with loss. And so we were able to even though that may have not been around kind of the content of trust, when you're talking about building trust, if you can relate to someone right—and not at a work level, at a ‘I hear you and I understand the difficulty'—we found people came to work because they felt, supported through all of those myriads of changes that were happening.

So creating that social network outside of that instructor-led environment so that learning happened at the point of need—that’s what allowed us to do that.

Chris Pirie, The Learning Futures Group:

I’ve got a quick question, maybe, to round out this section of WM during the pandemic: what was your experience in terms of retention? We've seen so much churn and movement in the job market, and, again, you have this extraordinary sort of almost bifurcated workforce of you know office-bound people and frontline workers and must have gone through extraordinary challenges, through the pandemic: are you able to share how things went in terms of retention and employment inflow and outflow of workers?

Phil Rhodes, Head of Learning & Leadership Development, WM:

So in our areas that were most critical we actually started a retention initiative. And it actually started with a heat map, beginning to isolate through data exactly what you're talking about, Chris—where we were losing, and why.

And we highlighted those we call it the heat map and we gave a percentage if you reached the threshold of loss right of losing employ you became hot, red. Then we swarm that, and we didn’t swarm it with outside corporate resources coming in to fix it. We swarmed it with the local leadership team getting resources to help them shift it. And we really took it down to the individual level because that's what was happening.

So we definitely experienced that we have turned the corner, and I think a lot of it has to do with the investments, we made early on, but I’d say, one of the things going back to what Dani said, we're an operations excellence company. We're logistics so put that superpower to work and so when we looked at retention we really isolated it down through the business to the market areas so we could get the support there. And what was interesting, having sat on many of the roundtables, is it was kind of a boomerang—there was an opportunity right, and you know you get your CDL, we think of our drivers, you get your CDL certification, and you can actually move to other companies, right: but what we're beginning to see is employees coming back. Because there are some incredible, it's a good culture it's a people-first culture—we just launched last year a Guild benefit that's first started to all employees could either finished their High School or go to College and now it's been extended to all family members of employees. So if you think about if you're a parent and you've got kids in that Middle School, High School—what an investment and what a relief to get that financial burden taken off you and there were other things we did. So Chris to your point, yes, we experienced, we're actually through the curve and now we're actually seeing. The return of some of our employees and or new employees and we're looking at really innovative programs to bring new talent into the company, but we isolated it right down to the markets through that retention work.

Chris Pirie, The Learning Futures Group:

I love this sort of data-driven approach, and then what I'm sort of learning here is all this frontline work, it's local, it's hyper-local, in terms of the execution and connection with people. Yeah, interesting.

Should we should we talk a little bit about the culture? You mentioned this a couple of times at WM and obviously the culture of organizations was greatly tested over the last few years: what are the culture pillars at WM, and how did they help you or how were they stressed during the pandemic?

Phil Rhodes, Head of Learning & Leadership Development, WM:

So we really have a people-first culture—it’s actually spoken, we’re people-first, which is, once again, unique in this kind of industry. And it's really based off our commitments and values, and so those are at the forefront of everything we do and what we talk about—so we just had our first live Town Hall meeting last month, earlier this month actually: Jim starts and the senior leadership team starts talking from a commitment and values. And so I think one of the things that really assisted us, and almost helped us stay buoyant, was that people-first kind of culture—and you've heard me talk about it, kind of allude to it through our policies, but it really was around the people.

The other thing that we were able to do through this is expand and work with the organization and the employees on the commitments and values, but also really focus on what we call inclusion, equity and diversity, and really embed that within the organization. We're a very diverse organization, especially at our frontline, and our frontline leaders are diverse and represented, and then, allowing and ensuring, as we went through the pandemic, our different audiences, different populations were hit differently, based on either location and or ethnicity or access into health, we were able once again to what you said, Chris, just localize it right back down to that people-first at that local area.

Chris Pirie, The Learning Futures Group:

You mentioned earlier in this conversation actually the importance of safety. These people are working around machinery and they're working in public, so I think that must be a big focus of your training as well? Obviously, pandemic was a threat to everybody's safety—how did that play out for you?

Phil Rhodes, Head of Learning & Leadership Development, WM:

So it’s interesting, yeah: safety got broader through the pandemic, really. So we did keep that at the forefront, so it was people-first safety, there were required mask mandates that went to your local area, but it wasn't around a mandate it was more about our people’s first safety culture.

So interesting, Chris—when I was just in Houston last week, the head of our safety, environmental health and safety is reimagining the safety function, revisioning it, looking at the role of safety. And where the dramatic shift has come is to get out of—and not that we were there—but we want to shift out of an ownership, a co-ownership, as opposed to a compliance space. So one of the things as we all work through the pandemic, we got to that point where it became a compliance space, not an environmental, health, or safety space. And see, we are re-indexing back into that space, for all of our safety protocols, not just that. So, once again, I just think it's an opportunity to see how to stay nimble and kind of read the audience and read what's happening in our environment—and that's something I think happened that became this discourse, and let's just take that discourse out right, because this is about people-first and safety.

Dani Johnson, RedThread Research:

You talked during our pre-call, Phil, about how you trained people needed to shift during the pandemic—obviously you couldn't have people in a classroom for six weeks or whatever. We really want to know as a group, how you teach people how to drive a truck Remotely 🙂

Phil Rhodes, Head of Learning & Leadership Development, WM:

One, that never happened—but I do want to start looking into VR, virtual reality, and an opportunity there. So one we did not ever shift that, because back to safety.

We have two training centers that our drivers come to. During the pandemic, we closed those, and all training got localized and we created 500-plus designated driver trainers. So, these are actually mentors and so, when you came on you were actually assigned to a mentor right, and you rode right along with them, and you did all your driving through observation and then through with that we had developed an app for their on-the-job training and we just leverage that.

So, we leveraged the people and we then soft reopened last July and began taking drivers back into the training center with social distancing. We now have fully opened and we're actually increasing the capacity into the driver training center. One of the things we're able to do during that, because of capacity we have so many as we actually have a simulator that simulates being in a truck and doing the collection—it’s actually called a side rear loader. So, not only are you out on the course and learning through our driver trainers, you're actually in a simulator too and that just gave us more capacity to run people through the course work that they do on a daily basis for that week during training. We really leverage, once again, the designated driver mentor program which our existing experienced drivers to onboard folks.

Dani Johnson, RedThread Research:

How has that experience of learning through the pandemic changed how you're going to do things moving forward?

Phil Rhodes, Head of Learning & Leadership Development, WM:

We are re-looking at everything. Because everything's about the experience, because that's what we learned—what that personal experience was for you is what your reality was, so we’re re-looking at everything. We are not stopping the designated driver program, because that mentor is critical, but what we're looking at is how can we formalize it a little bit, and take something that was learned at the different areas, because we just flipped it on overnight.

You know, one of the things I think is important and I always use the word ‘decomplexify,’ which I know is not a real word but—

Dani Johnson, RedThread Research:

Simplify.

Phil Rhodes, Head of Learning & Leadership Development, WM:

Certainly. What we don't want to do is just go back to the way it was; let’s take what we learned. Let's look to the future, leverage what we harness here. So we're in the space of really doing that—not so much in the front-line leader, we really index there well—but looking at that onboarding experience for our driver’s, technicians, sorters, etc.

Dani Johnson, RedThread Research:

I think it's really interesting. We're wrapping up some research on learning methods and which learning methods are the most effective, and whatever: we saw a really interesting trend during the pandemic that a lot of organizations are going to learning methods that connect people—connect people back to the organization, connect people to each other. And I’m getting the sense that a lot of the things that you have sort of switched to during the pandemic and the things that you're looking at moving forward really focus on that connection piece: the driver mentors and the focus on the front-line manager training and those types of things seem to focus on that connection. Is that on purpose, or is it because of the times that's just kind of where you defaulted to?

Phil Rhodes, Head of Learning & Leadership Development, WM:

So, in my perspective, as a learning leader, the model there's a 70/20/10 model, where like 10% in-person instructor-led 20% within your social group 70% application: I believe the pandemic forced us to really index in that space which, from a learning perspective that is how adult learners learn best.

So, in my mind it just accelerated it, and it took the conversation out, is that what we want, no I want to be in-person, no I want to be in a classroom, we couldn't do it. So now it allowed the opportunity to start creating learning at that 70% and 20%, which is real application, and then that learning from each other, cohort. So you're right, the cohort classes, and the leadership program, the mentor programs through our designated driver.

I would say, it did not shift it much, it just accelerated it. And we had to do that through many of our virtual, we do many roles outside of drivers and technicians is done virtually. And what we did is we augmented it with those producer roles to take the technology glitches, which happened all the time, out and allow us to focus on that learning from the facilitator.

Chris Pirie, The Learning Futures Group:

There’s been a theme through my work over the last couple of years of an urgent need to put sort of humanity back into learning: given that everything sort of pivoted to digital, there was a real hunger for the people side of things. And what I’ve heard you said today, like reinforcing cohort programs and giving people mentors, access to coaches—these are the ways of getting humanity back into learning when it has to be done digitally for the most part—that was really, really interesting.

Phil Rhodes, Head of Learning & Leadership Development, WM:

Chris, one thing I’ve started saying, you know remember back you would hear like soft skills and hard skills soft skills being anything like leadership. Guess what during the pandemic got us through it? The soft skills—that humanity, that checking in how are you doing.

There were lots of emotional moments connecting with people and those empathetic soft skill moments were the hardest moments, but we indexed on the soft skills which are the hard skills now. And I think it's so interesting that early in my career, you would never say soft skill and you just never talk about them, we didn't always you know train or deliver to them; those were the glue that held us together so absolutely that humanity piece, and making that part of the connection and making those the focus point on how you connect and build trust.

Stacia Garr, RedThread Research:

I’d also observe that it reflects a shift in thinking about the investment, right? We've been thinking about efficiency, and that's been a lot of the drive towards whether it's online learning or self-paced learning, or whatever. And I know that some of the learning you've talked about today had that, but I think this focus on connection and person to person is representing a shift in how we think about the investment we need to make and learning—because that is a bigger investment, but ultimately, as we think about, as you said, what we need to do to drive engagement and retention; we know that that's what we need, and so organizations are making that investment now.

Phil Rhodes, Head of Learning & Leadership Development, WM:

Just this year we're making a $2 million investment in our frontline leaders, through that humanity—the coaching, the connections, through creating videos, self-generated videos of the leaders demonstrating it.

So, to your point, the investment has been correlated back to those retention heat map conversations—they pay for themselves, instantly, within a month. You're paying it back out if you have a strong leader and your retention goes down 1%, 2% there's a correlated return on investment, which we've already calculated. So, once again, it just takes that conversation out and it's about how can we do it better, not, should we be doing it?

Stacia Garr, RedThread Research:

Right, yeah, absolutely.

I would love to move us on into as we think about this next phase, this Hybrid Work phase. What are some of the key lessons as you reflect on the pandemic? I know we've talked about a lot of them, but what are those key lessons that you're taking forward into this next phase of Hybrid Work?

Phil Rhodes, Head of Learning & Leadership Development, WM:

One of them is this connection—how do we maintain the connection. And so I partner closely with our head of culture and social engagement, and we are launching lots of opportunities for connection points. One of them’s through learning circles and our DE&I space; another is we do roundtables for leaders to connect with employees, but also affinity groups based on the many we have. I think one of the lessons we've learned was to keep that people-first culture and create the connection points at the local level, as well as across the company.

So that was number one. Two is just being nimble and agile and adjusting to the needs of the employees, not the other way around, and then the other thing that we have been focused on is—and Chris kind of really caught on to it—is how do you localize? When you are a company of our size, across North America and India, how do we create that local connection and not lose it to that corporate identity? Because those are the commitments, so we have our strong commitments values but they're all kept local, and how do we continue to expand that. So those are some of the things.

And then the other thing I would say from a learning perspective, is we've shown virtual works—it can work right, and so how can we now fold back in in-person learning, when appropriate, but also leverage the power of the virtual space and doing that back through the connections and that human touch.

Stacia Garr, RedThread Research:

Absolutely. And then, as you think about kind of building on that as a learning leader yourself, have your priorities shifted? I know you just mentioned virtual, but are there any other priorities that you're thinking about differently than maybe even just six or nine months ago?

Phil Rhodes, Head of Learning & Leadership Development, WM:

One of the areas I’m really focused on right now, I mentioned, through our digital coaching capability now, to get placed with the right coach we do an assessment. And it's really around these anchor behaviors built off our leadership competencies and we rolled those out last year, the competencies. I’ve always thought in learning we you know we always talk about KPI and return on investment analysis and I’ve done many of them, but I always felt like it was like putting a square peg into a round hole.

Dani Johnson, RedThread Research:

Speaking my language, Phil 🙂

Phil Rhodes, Head of Learning & Leadership Development, WM:

Because we're talking people here—so we're talking retention, we're talking performance, we're talking promotions. And we can correlate it, but what we've been able to do now is bring these behavioral baseline—and we got those through last year's data—and I started to mention those around belonging, around stress, around do you feel heard, do you feel like you have an opportunity to grow?

And those are behaviors we're now measuring and we sell through the frontline leadership program, anywhere from a 9 to a 22% increase just in that six-month program, and those behaviors quarterly into engagement, which is the rounding impact on retention. And so one of the things, Stacia, that we're looking at is how do we reframe the conversation from a learning space with the organization and the leaders, because one of the things I found is the leaders in this company understood it. They understand belonging; whoever talked about belonging 3 years ago? But now we all get it, right?

Stacia Garr, RedThread Research:

Yeah.

Phil Rhodes, Head of Learning & Leadership Development, WM:

We understand it, so it's an opportunity to start bringing in new metrics that we can correlate to the KPI performance metrics, but in a different light. That’s one of the things we're looking at is, how do we shift the conversation because those metrics are metrics that matter to that individual in that point of need, who's going through a difficult time, right, or needs the support of the company or their manager, or who can lean in and help others to mentoring and other opportunities.

So I would say that one of the biggest shifts I’m seeing are opportunities.

Stacia Garr, RedThread Research:

Great—and that ties in well, because, I’m always the data and metrics questioner here on the podcast, and so that was going to be my next question! But it sounds like these new metrics around belonging or inclusion or some of these other factors are really. How you're thinking about measuring the effectiveness of the different opportunities that you've rolled out and the different new initiatives that you've been taking on?

Phil Rhodes, Head of Learning & Leadership Development, WM:

It is, and correlating that into the business metrics. There is a correlation, so it's a causal effect and beginning to place those down as a dashboard so we're not just focusing on the KPIs for business performance but that's where we want to have the impact, but going way upstream and then beginning to show the causal impact downstream.

So yeah, we’re really connecting those two pieces and really building that framework so that we can elevate it so when we have the next hurricane that hits an area that puts stress on our business, or anything else that might be happening locally within the environment that we just need to react to.

Stacia Garr, RedThread Research:

And I love that you know you're moving away from smile sheets—and not that they're not still important, you still mentioned them—but still this more meaningful impact. I think an impact that businesses can more get their heads around business leaders can.

Dani Johnson, RedThread Research:

So Phil, we want you to look into your crystal ball: what do you think we're going to be doing in five years that we're not necessarily doing right now?

Phil Rhodes, Head of Learning & Leadership Development, WM:

I think…digital. We've all been on this digital journey, and it's been very focused on the customer but I think there's going to be, and you're hearing that in some of the things we're doing here at WM, of how we bring digital to the employee experience to elevate it.

There’s lots of opportunity there, I think we've talked about the digital coaching, but if we talk about digital mentoring, digital career development, we spoke about the guild offering we have here where we’re. And it’s digital, right, it's all done virtually, so I think in five years we're going to be harnessing that for our employees as much as we had been investing into our customer experience.

So that's one opportunity. The other is I believe how culture is going to differentiate. And I think we've all spoken about it, but it really was a differentiator through the pandemic and creating opportunities to activate on the real cultural elements of a company to differentiate it in hyper-competitive markets. The other for us is looking—if you think about our core business in waste collection, looking around the corner into the sustainability; so, if I think about WM, that is going to be the future of really integrating that in a holistic business framework to allow our partners to be able to rely on us at a much broader swath of space than we've been participating in in the past.

Dani Johnson, RedThread Research:

Well I kind of want to live in that future, so I hope all of those things happen.

What advice would you give to people just starting to think through Hybrid, or people that are struggling with Hybrid and how they're going to handle it in the future?

Phil Rhodes, Head of Learning & Leadership Development, WM:

I think you need to define it and you need to define it well, first. Then it is not a data collection process; it is actually a process where you look at not only the needs of the business, but the needs of the individual, and really challenge ourselves to be as flexible as possible.

Taking in both of those data points; I think, in the past, we did not really talk to the employee about their needs, and we're at a place right now where no one wants to lose a talented committed employee so we're having to have different conversations. So one of the things that's a lesson learned is going being fluid and being agile, to the needs of the individuals, the needs of the business.

And then even as we're working out of Remote into Hybrid, being flexible and what that means. You heard us talk about our collaboration days and the needs of the business but meeting those with the needs of the individual, so I think that's one. Ensuring your policies don't drive, because I think we all experience, where we put out a policy and no one followed it, because it changed or it just wasn't real, so I think that all mindset of drive with policies is no longer going to be how are you going to succeed.

Dani Johnson, RedThread Research:

I like this a lot, and the word that keeps on coming to mind as you've been talking, Phil, is this idea of self-awareness—not just self-awareness for the individual, but self-awareness for the organization, like how are we aware of how we impact others and how others impact us, and how do we make it work for both of us? I really love that idea.

One more question for you. This is a question we ask everybody we call it the Purpose question, and that question is, Why do you personally do the work that you do?

Phil Rhodes, Head of Learning & Leadership Development, WM:

It goes back to my story around experiential learning and really having experienced that coming out of the United States education system.

So that's one, but the other thing I learned early—and I really learned this through my travel and my Peace Corps experience—people are people all over the world, and we all have some core needs and wants. And one of them, I truly believe, is everyone wants to come in and do a good day's work. Most people want to come in and feel… you know, as a father, I want to go home and be able to tell my kids I’m proud of what I did, whatever that is.

And I really believe that to be true, and it's allowing people the opportunity to experience that at work, vecause I believe people want that, and many times we get in the way of them being able to do that. And so when you allow that to happen, and I think you know, mothers, fathers, siblings, friends, your parents, what do we all ask: how’s work? How's work? How do we create an opportunity at work to allow people to really give their best and feel proud, so they can come back the next day, and do it?

For me that's always been something—and I think it comes a lot from my experience overseas—that I’ve always kept with me and why I’m in my role now and keeps me, you know jazzed up and excited.

Dani Johnson, RedThread Research:

Thank you Phil, so much for your time, and for sharing some of the insights that you've learned, both at WM and throughout your career—it’s been just a pleasure to talk to you; you’ve brought forth a couple of things that we haven't talked about in other episodes, and it's been really enlightening.

Phil Rhodes, Head of Learning & Leadership Development, WM:

Well, thank you. You know, I don't often get the opportunity to reflect like this, so great questions, and I just appreciate the opportunity, so thank you so much.

Chris Pirie, The Learning Futures Group:

I want to say thanks to you and your team for taking out the trash. It’s made me really reflect on those things that we just take for granted are hard things and people did amazing work, so thanks for that.

Phil Rhodes, Head of Learning & Leadership Development, WM:

Yeah yeah.

Stacia Garr, RedThread Research:

WM is our trash, actually, and today’s trash day, so I heard them during the middle of our call 🙂

But I just remember actually speaking with some of the guys during the pandemic, and how hard it was. So thank you.

Phil Rhodes, Head of Learning & Leadership Development, WM:

Oh well, thank you, you know those little moments like that really make a difference, so 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, of 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 that we’d love to get to know you a bit better, so to that end we’d like to invite our listeners to head over to redthreadresearch.com/hello-wps 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’s all about.

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.

Thanks for listening!

Dani Johnson

Dani is Co-founder and Principal Analyst for RedThread Research. She has spent the majority of her career writing about, conducting research in, and consulting on human capital practices and technology. Her ideas can be found in publications such as Wall Street Journal, CLO Magazine, HR Magazine, and Employment Relations. Dani holds an MBA and an MS and BS in Mechanical Engineering from BYU.

Stacia Garr
Co-Founder & Principal Analyst

Stacia is a Co-founder and Principal Analyst for RedThread Research and focuses on employee engagement/experience, leadership, DE&I, people analytics, and HR technology. A frequent speaker and writer, her work has been featured in Fortune, Forbes, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal as well as in numerous HR trade publications. She has been listed as a Top 100 influencer in HR Technology and in D&I. Stacia has an MBA from the University of California, Berkeley, and a master’s degree from the London School of Economics.

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