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- Ephraim Freed, employee experience leader; Customer Success Manager at Workplace by Facebook
In just over five years since DWG’s Digital Workplace Impact podcast first launched, the world has grappled with a pandemic, seen fantastic technological advancements and experienced a new era of hybrid working. Through all of this, there has been an acceleration in the humanization of work.
For this milestone 100th episode, host Nancy Goebel chats once again with one of our very first podcast guests, employee experience leader, Ephraim Freed. Together, they re-visit the theme of that first episode, Bring yourself to work: how and why individuality is set to thrive in the workplace, moving on to explore employee experience today, what’s changed and how individuality can still thrive in an ever-changing world of work.
Today, flexibility in work is top of mind and hybrid working has created the opportunity for greater diversity, equity and inclusion. Leading-edge thinking from five years ago is now the ‘every day’ for many, with increasing opportunities to bring your true self to work. And, if we look to tomorrow, what can we learn from the fundamentals and past experiences to help us to further develop employee-centric digital workplaces for the future?
Sit back for a highly entertaining conversation that takes a look at what’s new, what’s through and at what could be needed next in the essential digital workplace.
[00:00:09.910] – Ephraim Freed
I like the idea of defaulting to remote and then finding great reasons to come together in person. And I actually remember Paul Miller for ages was saying that the in-person time is sacred time. That’s a special time and we should value it and make really good use of it. And I think that rings so true today. I think that being able to be in person with other people working, seeing them, being able to just walk up to somebody’s desk and ask them a question, run into somebody in the kitchen, or being able to be in a room together for 8 hours in a retreat, that’s all sacred and special.
[00:00:47.510] – Nancy Goebel
Today I have the distinct honour and privilege of sitting down with the Ephraim Freed or Fry, as most people know him these days to record the 100th episode of Digital Workplace Impact. Why Ephraim and why now? Well, we originally planned to sit down with both Ephraim and Jessie Hunt, who were our very first studio guests when we launched Digital Workplace Impact some five plus years ago. Sadly, Jessie’s off nursing a cold and couldn’t join us today without a voice. But for those who know a Ephraim well, you will appreciate that he has a big personality and some big thoughts, and the combination enabled him to fill the space in Jessie’s absence. We hope she’ll be back on her feet soon, and we’ll look forward to catching up with her another time. But in thinking about episode one, you have to ground where we were at the time. Of course, Paul Miller was the host debuting the podcast. Ephraim was the internal communications manager at Riot Games, and Jesse was the digital learning lead at Adobe. Nowadays, Ephraim is advising large clients at Meta. And if you have yet to meet Ephraim, he’s a great blend.
[00:02:06.310] – Nancy Goebel
He’s part communicator, community builder, digital strategist and employee experience leader. And initially our plan was to revisit the theme from episode one, which was bring yourself to work. How and why individuality is set to thrive in the workplace. As one would expect in conversation with Ephraim, it evolved into something bigger than a ‘that was then, this is now’ conversation. In fact, it turned out to be an exploration of employee experience, in particular helping individuals and individuality thrive in an ever changing world of work. Join me now along with Ephraim for episode 100 of Digital Workplace Impact. Happy listening.
[00:02:56.670] – Nancy Goebel
Ephraim. I can’t believe that this marks the hundredth episode of Digital Workplace Impact. And for those who may be newer to our listening base, I think it’s important to say that you were part of the very first episode that launched close to five and a half years ago now. And of course, you were joined by another wonderful person. Can you remember who that was once upon a time?
[00:03:31.330] – Ephraim Freed
What you mean Paul Miller?
[00:03:36.850] – Nancy Goebel
Paul Miller, of course, who’s the CEO and founder of Digital Workplace Group. And was anyone else in the studio with you at the time?
[00:03:45.160] – Ephraim Freed
Well, I remember Jessie. Jessie was absolutely amazing and I remember listening to her and just absolutely loving what she had to say about her experience of work and bring yourself to work back then.
[00:04:01.530] – Nancy Goebel
And so of course the world has changed in so many ways. Way back then you were in a practitioner role, as was Jesse. And of course Jesse was heading up digital learning at Adobe back then and you were an internal communications manager at Riot Games. So I have to start the conversation by saying what appealed to you to step into a podcast studio at that time?
[00:04:31.840] – Ephraim Freed
First of all, I love what Digital Workplace Group does around bringing practitioners together, bringing out the authentic voices of people who are spending their everyday working within the digital workplace space and the employee experience. So I’ve always loved that. And I think that the podcast just seemed like a brilliant natural evolution of that that brought real honest conversations into really kind of an intimate and ‘on the go’ format that I really loved. You know, having worked with Paul and the rest of the Digital Workplace team back then for a while and seeing the content they created, I knew that this was something that I wanted to be a part.
[00:05:11.640] – Nancy Goebel
Of course I have to roll the clock forward now and say why come back now?
[00:05:15.930] – Ephraim Freed
Oh my gosh. Well first of all, because I can’t believe that this is going to be the 100th episode of the podcast. I remember when this podcast was twinkle in someone’s eye and I also love the idea of reflecting back to see what has changed and what has stayed the same from five years ago.
[00:05:35.850] – Nancy Goebel
Yeah, for sure. And so just for those who may not be familiar with the theme from that very first episode, it was entitled ‘Bring yourself to work: how and why individuality is set to thrive in the workplace’ nowadays you spend so much time talking to people across our industry. Share with me some of your initial thoughts about where things were five plus years ago versus where they are for you now. In terms of thinking about that all important question.
[00:06:12.230] – Ephraim Freed
In some ways, I’d say that the idea of bringing yourself and your whole self to work five years ago was maybe popular but not totally mainstream. I wouldn’t say that every company was necessarily talking about it. And I think that along with so many other things, the pandemic has shifted that a lot. I think it has accelerated the humanisation of work in some ways. And I think that in a world where you get to see your co-workers in literal and figurative new lights, where you get to see them working from home, you get to see the background of their home, you get to see the artwork on their walls, the guitars, the children. All of a sudden we have a much more intimate view for those of us who are kind of working from home and on Zooms every day, a much more intimate view of the people we work with. And I think that that is one thing that has led to kind of the mainstreaming of this idea of bringing yourself to work. And then the other one is that just in this pandemic environment, people have been burnt out, they’ve struggled, companies have been trying to retain people.
[00:07:23.070] – Ephraim Freed
And part of what that means is creating an environment where everybody can be themselves and can show up as the best version of themselves and can be appreciated for who they are. And so I think that we’re actually in a place where the idea of bringing yourself to work and being your individual whole self at work and being appreciated for that. I think that’s mainstream much more so than it used to be. And I think that’s an absolutely beautiful thing, even though it came at a bit of a cost.
[00:07:56.000] – Nancy Goebel
I couldn’t agree more. I look at the last couple of years much more as pandemic working than hybrid working per se, because so many groups of people, especially knowledge workers, were pushed into working from home full time. Certainly there were people working in plants and driving trucks, and the whole cadre of essential workers for whom the level of intensity and focus on being present and in a physical workplace continued just the same. But with all of the other considerations that went along with pandemic working. But now, of course, we have so many organizations talking about and planning for return to office in some fashion, in whole or in part. And it felt to me like this was the perfect time to bring this theme back as part of the 100th episode, because in a lot of ways we’ve seen organizations that were face based cultures that really had to rethink what it meant to be a leader in the organization. And there was a level of authenticity that you picked up on and level of work and life coming together in very tangible ways. And as organizations do, bring larger numbers of people back into a physical workplace, while others may continue working remotely or in co-working spaces on a frequent basis, if not full time, you start to have multiple worlds coming back into play.
[00:09:41.330] – Nancy Goebel
And the challenge there is for us not to go back to some of the old habits around face time that existed once before. And so I guess my question for you would be, what do you think digital workplace leaders need to be thinking about and planning for in helping preserve the foundation of individuality that we’ve seen with both individuals and the wider cadre of leaders, because that progress that we’ve made will get challenged as more advanced hybrid working starts to bed into organizations.
[00:10:28.280] – Ephraim Freed
Well, that’s a big question and I love hearing you go through your thoughts there at Nancy. I guess the first thing is that I like the idea of defaulting to remote and then finding great reasons to come together in person. And I actually remember Paul Miller for ages was saying that the in person time is sacred time. That’s a special time, and we should value it and make really good use of it. And I think that rings so true today. I think that being able to be in person with other people working, seeing them, being able to just walk up to somebody’s desk and ask them a question, run into somebody in the kitchen, or being able to be in a room together for 8 hours in a retreat, that’s all sacred and special. And hopefully we don’t take that for granted anymore. In terms of digital workplace leaders and bringing yourself to work. There are a couple of things. First, I think is that everything needs to default to digital first and then accommodating in person. I think that when we plan meetings now, we always have to plan for digital first, assume that people are joining from multiple far away places, and then also maybe in a room somewhere.
[00:11:55.740] – Ephraim Freed
And what does it look like to plan for that from both technology stack perspective and a ways of working perspective. So digital workplace leaders need to think about that. And it’s not just the technology, but it’s the ways of working. The expectations, even things as simple as making sure that you share materials for a meeting in advance because not everybody will be there. And giving everybody who’s not there in the room the opportunity to understand what the topic is and what the big questions are for a meeting helps everybody participate in a more inclusive way. That’s one little example. But when you expand that a bit to kind of bringing yourself to work and being an individual at work, what’s really been fascinating is that in companies that have had the right digital platforms to keep people connected during the pandemic, we’ve seen some really interesting trends. I remember reading about research that said that people who are transgender actually felt more safe at work and more included when working remotely. And I think that speaks to the fact that sometimes when you’re representing yourself digitally, you feel more in control of how people see you, of how you’re able to present yourself and maybe less under the microscope of other people.
[00:13:16.480] – Ephraim Freed
And so actually, in some ways, moving to a digital first and remote way of working has helped some people feel more included. And that’s something that we need to keep in mind. And I think that from a digital workplace leader perspective, we need to think about how do we build inclusive digital experiences, inclusive of people with different abilities, different backgrounds, different ways of working. I like to remind people that when it comes to inclusion, even including people who are introverts and extroverts, making sure that when we plan meetings, we operate them in such a way that both introverts and extroverts get to play significant roles. So I think that digital workplace leaders are actually in a really powerful position right now around inclusivity and providing an environment where everybody can show up as their best selves and they have an opportunity to fill the place where that happens.
[00:14:14.070] – Nancy Goebel
I think that’s a very wise way of thinking about it. I almost see digital workplace leaders as becoming change leaders first, because in addition to helping create an inclusive environment, there’s also a level of thinking about the level of digital dexterity that’s required to navigate this territory next. And so you talked a little bit about the importance of things like agenda setting ahead of time, and that helps set the scene for both the introverts and the extroverts to do whatever upfront thinking they need to or just react to the conversation on the fly, but bring others who may be critical to the conversation into the mix if they should need to do so. But there’s a level of skill that also needs to be built up as part of moving into a more advanced set of hybrid working scenarios. I think it’s one of those things. If you look back at where we were 5 10 15 years ago in the digital workplace arena, a larger proportion of a digital workplace leader’s day was about the technology. And now there’s a heavier balance starting to come into the fold in terms of thinking about the diversity, equity and inclusion elements, thinking about cultural transformation, thinking about innovation, and of course, to bring it back to my initial comment, figuring out how to support and enable that digital dexterity.
[00:16:10.770] – Ephraim Freed
[00:16:13.630] – Nancy Goebel
Ephraim. I guess one of the things that I think is always important to do is to reflect on your history, to start to think about where you need to go in the future. And so thinking back, how is what we’re seeing now different from where things were five years ago when you, Paul and Jessie chatted?
[00:16:38.930] – Ephraim Freed
I assume that over the past two years, people have said what I’m about to say, but what Paul Miller had been saying for a decade before the pandemic became kind of the guidebook or Bible for people in the pandemic. So five years ago, companies were chugging along without thinking too much about hybrid work, employee flexibility and things like that. And today, flexibility for every possible job is top of mind for people. Today, the idea of being able to work from anywhere in the world effectively, that’s something that virtually every company is trying to master, whereas five years ago it was only leaving in more innovative companies that were thinking in that way. So I think that’s one of the biggest changes I’ve seen. And literally, Nancy, the second people had to start working from home instead of in the office back in 2020, I started just thinking about how Paul Miller had been preaching this idea of can your people work effectively from anywhere? Does your digital workplace enable that. So I think that that’s one of the biggest changes is that five years ago, most companies were so rooted in their office culture and ways of working that they weren’t trying to enable flexibility.
[00:17:59.990] – Ephraim Freed
And today most companies are trying to enable flexibility so that people can come into the office and also don’t have to come in every day that they do come in when it makes sense. So I think that’s one of the biggest changes. Another one of the biggest changes is that companies see that culture is incredibly important. They see that caring for people in an empathetic way is really important. And leaders have seen that communicating frequently and showing up in authentic and vulnerable way, those things are incredibly important as well. And that creating an environment where everybody can do that is important. So from a digital workplace perspective, that means that creating community spaces where people can show up and connect with each other is really important. Creating a digital environment where people feel like their personal, real self can be reflected is really important. Even things like having skin tone emojis when you’re reacting to content within a work environment. Right. That’s important. If you think about the future of work, designing technology that works for people with a lot of different abilities and backgrounds, that’s important. And so I think that the fact that now every digital workplace leader and every company has to think about being yourself, inclusivity and flexibility.
[00:19:31.250] – Ephraim Freed
That’s just a massive change from five years ago where it seemed like that was the leading edge. And now that’s the norm.
[00:19:38.930] – Nancy Goebel
And if you had to reach a bit more deeply into your crystal ball because you gave us a few hints about what you think is in store for the future, what’s the wider blanket that you would cast out there about what’s in store next for the world of work generally? And then for the digital workplace industry, in direct response to that.
[00:20:01.310] – Ephraim Freed
Oh, boy. This is a tough one. In some ways. I’m actually going to be a little bit of a pessimist here and say that there’s a lot of great new technology on the horizon and a lot of new technology that companies are getting into today. When you think about virtual reality and the Metaverse and NFTs and blockchain and a lot of these other things, artificial intelligence, quantum computing, there’s so much cool technology out there. And digital workplace leaders, and I’ll say employee experience leaders still and perhaps even more so, need to go back to the basics of what has actually made digital workplaces and intranets work well for a long time. So the future of work and the future of digital workplace leadership and implementation is actually going to look a lot like the past. There will be new technologies. We have to apply some of the best practices, like effective cross-functional collaboration. So if your IT team and your HR team and your communications and facilities and legal teams are working together really well. Then they can implement a great employee onboarding programme or they’ll be able to build a new kind of Metaverse experience for employees in an effective and employee-centric way.
[00:21:34.100] – Ephraim Freed
But if you don’t have that level of cross-functional collaboration and shared vision and purpose, then you’re not going to be able to deliver a really great employee experience and digital workplace experience. Similarly, a lot of companies still don’t have a really strong employee-facing user experience design capability. If you think about HR teams, a well trained and user experience design, not necessarily. It teams, not really communications teams, facilities teams, not really. And so digital workplace leaders need to think about how do we build that muscle of employee design – designing for employees, understanding employees. I think that’s going to be really, absolutely critically important. When we think about the future of work. I think you’ll see the leaders who built these great cross-functional cultures and who have built employee centricity into this culture, taking great advantage of new technology and building really great employee experiences and digital workplaces. And then you’ll see the companies that haven’t built their capabilities or those cultures really struggling and being the laggards in all of this.
[00:22:49.890] – Nancy Goebel
I have to say, it’s really interesting to hear that you’ve talked about the future as being one where we really need to think about the fundamentals and some really key ways for digital workplace leaders and their teams. And I have to tell you, when we started planning our next DWG member meeting, which is happening in New York in June, it is wrapped around our 20th anniversary, and we were pausing to think about what have we seen over the last two decades in the history of DWG and what our members are asking us about now and how are they preparing for the future. And you may remember from standing up and facilitating some of our meetings once upon a time that there were some core things that were constantly up on the board in terms of priorities and challenges. And those things included things like ensuring that people had purpose in what they were doing, that they could speak to the impact that they were achieving. So the whole measurement space, how to prioritise things when you don’t have endless resources in front of you, time, money or otherwise. And so that’s where governance comes into play or team structures come into play and all the rest.
[00:24:17.100] – Nancy Goebel
And during the pandemic, of course, there are lots of changes that were mobilised very quickly to allow people to work from home. But now we’ve got this focus on fundamentals coming right back into the picture in terms of helping to re-architect member organization strategy and roadmap. We’re helping them now put the governance in place that they didn’t have time to put in place before. And so having that strong set of foundational elements, as you’ve pointed out, doesn’t go away. If anything, as the portfolio becomes more mature and complex, those things actually are much more important.
[00:25:01.310] – Ephraim Freed
Absolutely. And it’s so interesting to hear you talk about that and to hear you reflect back on 20 years of working with all of these large organizations to understand their digital workplace needs. And this point, Nancy, has just, it’s really stuck with me recently that if we don’t get the fundamentals right, which are not about a specific technology, but really more about how we approach employee experience and how we approach working together, if we don’t get those fundamentals right, it doesn’t matter what the new technology is. And as an example, I remember when a bunch of different technologies have come into play over the past two decades that I’ve been working this space, and each time there’s hype around something, the hype dissipates. But then some companies who have great muscles around understanding employee needs take advantage of new technology. And so if you think about chatbots, I remember when chatbots were just the biggest thing and everybody was talking about them, but it was the companies that could look at that new technology and say, how do we understand how this could fit into our employees’ experience? What are our employees’ needs where a tool like this could actually be helpful?
[00:26:20.280] – Ephraim Freed
How do we test this and iterate and get employee feedback on it to see what’s working and what’s not? And the companies that were able to do that, were able to deliver chat box that provided a lot of value to employees. Right. And that’s just one simple example that comes to mind around kind of new technology and the hype. The one thing I’ll say is that first companies need to get really good at that governance that you talked about. And the next thing, and if I kind of had a magic wand, I would say this. Every company should get good at gathering employee feedback in effective and structured ways and making it just a habit. So if you want to launch a new intranet homepage, for example. Right, gathering data and getting employee feedback on what they’re using, what makes most sense, what is the language that makes sense to them? What kind of tools are they using most every day? Just a basic level of employee feedback so that you can kill any assumptions you have by gathering data. That habit. If every company had that habit, they would save so much time and money and energy because they’d end up delivering exactly what employees need instead of stuff that maybe the IT department thinks is important or HR thinks is important, or whatever it might be.
[00:27:45.000] – Ephraim Freed
So getting back to fundamentals, I think is going to be so important.
[00:27:49.060] – Nancy Goebel
You’ve shared some really important grounding points for the future. And I think it takes the empathy factor that you were talking about to a whole new level in terms of not only what gets delivered from the point of view of the digital workplace. But I’ll take it a step further and say that if you really want to drive adoption and penetration and get to the impact that your business case was built around, extend those learnings into the language that you use to talk about those capabilities with your employees. Use their language to help them understand what’s in it for them, as well as how to put these capabilities to use.
[00:28:44.500] – Ephraim Freed
I love that, Nancy. And it reminds me of saying that I like to say around digital workplace employee experience, internal communications, which is to do it the way that Abe Lincoln would have done it – of the people, for the people and by the people.
[00:29:03.150] – Nancy Goebel
That’s such a nice way to put it and to tie that historical connection into relevance. That’s timeless. So, Ephraim, we’re nearly at the end of our time together. Of course, I have to ask you, is there a question you are hoping I’d ask and didn’t?
[00:29:23.150] – Ephraim Freed
Well, Nancy, that’s quite the question. I think that you’re one of the best question-askers I know. So I don’t think there are any big questions that I was expecting or hoping for.
[00:29:37.620] – Nancy Goebel
So we can turn to a final thought as we cap off this conversation.
[00:29:44.260] – Ephraim Freed
Well, you know, Nancy, in thinking about kind of the conversation that we’ve had, things that we’ve covered and what the next chapter of the digital workplace and employee experience looks like, I think that really the big question or the piece of advice or the thought to leave with folks is how are you listening to your employees? How are you gathering feedback? How are you making sure that with each new piece of technology you’re rolling out, you’re understanding how it resonates and rooting it in what your employees need? There’s this saying alike, that listening is an act of love. And so I think the big question for me is how are you listening to your employees and to their needs for the digital workplace and their experience at work? And how are you responding to that? And I think that if a lot of us working in the digital workplace and employee experience realm and really all leaders just think about that, how are we listening better and maybe listening with more structure and specific ways to help us take action, then I think we’ll be in a really good place to take advantage of the new next chapter of work.
[00:31:08.970] – Nancy Goebel
Some great parting words to get us all thinking about the future of work. And of course, a conversation like this is just such a great way to mark the hundredth episode. And I’m just so excited that you were able to break away from what I know is a very busy schedule, both work and life, to share some thoughts with all of us, to be part of this virtual celebration of our 100th episode. And of course, I know we’ll count on you to come back and share your thoughts again as we move into the next 100 episodes and I just couldn’t be more delighted to have had this time with you, Ephraim. Thank you so much for coming back into the studio.
[00:32:06.570] – Ephraim Freed
Nancy it is an absolute treat to chat with you and I absolutely miss it and really greatly appreciate the opportunity, and I hope you can tell the whole team at the Digital Workplace group that I say Hi and I miss them.
[00:32:23.970] – Nancy Goebel
Digital Workplace Impact is brought to you by the Digital Workplace Group. DWG is a strategic partner covering all aspects of the evolving digital workplace industry not only through membership, but also benchmarking and boutique consulting services. For more information, visit digitalworkplacegroup.com.
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