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Q&A with Sarah Sladek: Structures 2020 Virtual Event

Friday, May 1, 2020

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On April 7 SEI hosted Structures 2020 Virtual Event in response to our annual event being canceled due to the pandemic. The event consisted of three recorded presentations each followed by a live Q&A with the presenters. The Q&A went well but there were, to be expected, many questions that because of time constraints the presenters were unable to respond to. All of the presenters have graciously answered the leftover questions for SEI to share.

The first presenter was Sarah Sladek, CEO of  XYZ University. She presented "Generations@Work". Below are the questions she was unable to answer during the live Q&A. 

Do you think remote access is the way of the future? (Especially now that engineering has become so computer-based).   

Absolutely! Organizations have experimented with remote work environments for more than two decades now. However, despite having the tools readily available, many have resisted transitioning to remote work environments, citing the value and importance of in-person meetings and in-office work requirements. Now the pandemic has catapulted everyone into a remote-only world. This experience has forced us to value the in-person experiences, but it's also teaching us how to work in a remote environment which is reliant entirely on trust, flexibility, and technology. This will undoubtedly influence our work environments and expectations. From here on out, remote and in-person work environments will -- at a minimum -- co-exist. It's highly possible more organizations will move to remote-only work environments in an effort to maintain flexibility, connection to family, do more work globally, and cut down on overhead costs. It's highly possible the money once spent on huge office spaces and travel for in-person work and meetings will be reduced and redirected towards workforce development, professional development, employee benefits, and healthcare, or community/global causes. 

How do we help people manage their stress and learn to adapt to change? What skills can we teach?   

Teamwork and collaboration have been proven to solve many challenges. When people can collectively share ideas, solve problems, and have fun, it's been proven that productivity goes up, innovation increases, morale improves, and change is more likely to happen. In a team environment people feel a sense of purpose and belonging. They feel important, inspired, and engaged. It's when employees feel like they are 'on an island', working independently and figuring things out for themselves that they become stressed and disengaged. But research also shows that people either don't know how to work collaboratively or believe their leaders don't foster an environment conducive to teamwork. A very simple way to start fostering teamwork is to encourage employees to connect with someone on the team they don't know especially well or work with very often for a virtual lunch. Continue this process. Another option is to bring a group of people together to brainstorm solutions to a current problem, then collectively implement the solution. It doesn't have to be overly complicated. Finding ways to simply spend time together as a team will work wonders. 

How do we get past stereotypes and collaborate better?   

Stereotypes exist when empathy doesn't. When we struggle to put ourselves into someone else's shoes or view a situation from someone else's unique perspective, we jump to conclusions and make assumptions. Stereotypes thrive in homogenous environments. When a large group of people -- especially the decision-makers -- have similar backgrounds, interests, and opinions, the workplace becomes an echo chamber and it becomes very difficult to welcome new ideas and new people. When this happens, it doesn't take long for the workplace to become a toxic environment. This is why collaboration and cognitive diversity are so incredibly important. As I suggested in the answer above, start by finding ways to foster relationships with one another. Put aside job titles and roles and treat each other equally, as a team. Have lunch with people on your team. Encourage people to share a short video message about themselves. Team people up to play a game together or compete in a fun contest. Solve a problem together. Simply put, you can't truly understand the people on your team -- or engage them -- without being in a relationship with them. Simply put, everyone wants the same thing. Everyone wants to feel valued, respected, informed and appreciated. Everyone wants to feel like they belong on your team. 

How does the Gen Z desire for more face-to-face interactions go along with their desire for more remote work and telework capable jobs?   

Technology is a staple for Millennials and Generation Z. They have never known life without it and struggle to imagine life without it. Any job or experience they have, they expect technology to be a part of it. Our research indicates that Generation Z -- currently in their teens and early 20s -- prefer face-to-face communication, which often surprises people. This isn't to say they don't want to use technology. It is to say this generation seeks stability. Gen Z has come of age during the most disruptive decade in history. Raised in the shadow of September 11 and the Great Recession, they have felt pressured to plan for their futures at a very young age. Some would describe them as a generation of 'young adults', never enjoying a typical childhood or teen experience. Rather, they have been raised worrying about debt, being able to afford college, and find jobs. They have felt pressured to get good grades or excel at extra-curricular activities, thinking this was critical to their future success and well-being. They were life-planning from a very young age: excel at school or sports, get a scholarship, attend a good college, get a great job, and achieve financial security. In more ways than one, Gen Z has been raised to compete. As a result, they are already the most anxious and depressed generation in history. When you consider all of this influence, their preference for face-to-face communication makes complete sense. Gen Z craves positivity, guidance, and support. They want to feel secure in their relationships and jobs. Relationship-building -- in any work environment -- will be of absolute importance to them.

How to make people accept the part that changes are good and they should try going along with it? (People usually tend to run away from it and end up falling in depression and develop anxiety issues).   

Our brains love to resist change. Change is confronted by our pre-frontal cortex which is initially very responsive to the idea, but the cortex has a limited capacity and quickly burns out. Furthermore, it's scientifically proven that change becomes more difficult the older we get. Our brains develop pathways and we can quite literally get stuck in a rut, trying to socially conserve and preserve what we know. The only antidote is collaboration. When we're working in community with others, we're considerably less likely to fear change. I have studied the traits common among high-performing organizations and the executives of these organizations foster collaboration continuously. Collaboration isn't only evident in how they manage their teams, the executives surround themselves with people who serve as their mentors, think tanks, and collaborators. They are constantly in dialogue with others, committed to learning, listening, serving, and innovating with them. Change is a constant in our world, and it's been accelerating during the past few decades. Working alone in this fast-changing, disruptive environment isn't a healthy or sustainable option. We need one another now more than ever. 

How can we prevent that technological development becomes a serious threat for projects confidentiality?   

This isn't a question I'm well-equipped to answer, as I'm neither an authority on technology or intellectual property. Here's what I do know about our shifting workforce, though. We must build systems based on trust, and we must accept that confidentiality isn't the competitive advantage it used to be. A few years ago a Gen Z teenager was frustrated with the fact that prosthetic arms cost as much as $80,000. He knew someone who needed a prosthetic arm and was struggling to afford it. He vowed to create the solution. This teenager masterminded the technology to create a superior product for far less, costing just $5,000. Not only that, but he open-sourced his technology to any and all medical device companies that wanted to access it! In this pandemic we're seeing organizations collaborate and develop for the greater good, as well. For the first time in history, all the scientists all over the world are working to find a cure to Covid-19. I think how we approach business is changing. We're going to see more open-sourcing and collaboration for the benefit of solving problems on a massive scale.

Are worldwide millennials prepared to tackle a crisis?   

When Baby Boomers came of age, the older generations actively prepared them for leadership roles and public service positions. Many of our government leaders in the U.S. today were in some type of office by the time they were 30. Today, we see few young people running for office or moving into leadership roles. The proverbial baton wasn't passed to the Millennials in the same way it was passed to Boomers. Rather, Millennials were raised to believe a good education was the answer to financial security, and many pursued advanced degrees. However, the Great Recession prolonged Boomer retirements and delayed the Millennial generation's entry into the workforce. This experience, combined with skyrocketing student debt, caused this generation to become the most debt-ridden in history. I think Millennials are fired up. They're tired of taking a backseat. They want an opportunity to lead, prosper, and influence change. This passion could make them very effective leaders, but by and large, they haven't been trained to lead, nor have they had the opportunity. Consider that the oldest Millennials turn 39 this year. They are rapidly approaching middle age and many are still waiting in the wings, unable to move up or out.  

How can previous generations adapt better to collaborative teams, and what can we do as millennials to help them achieve it effectively?   

Influence what you can. You might not be able to influence company-wide change or change the minds of leaders, but I'd still encourage you to practice collaboration. Ask someone to be your mentor for a few months, then ask someone else, and so on. Invite different people to provide feedback on a project you're working on. Invite different groups to gather for a virtual lunch or book club. Invest in fostering relationships inside and outside of the company, increasing your skillset and network throughout the process. Sooner or later, your colleagues will notice what you're doing and mimic it or at least talk about it. Sometimes the best way to inspire organization-wide change is through a grassroots movement. If you can't convince others through words, do it through your actions.

Watch Structures 2020 Virtual Event