September 23, 2021

B2B Leadership in a Hybrid World

Ahh, work from home. A concept that became a hashtag overnight as the pandemic shut down offices around the world, relegating entire teams to Zoom squares. Zoom squares that moved away from the area, that enjoyed skipping a long commute, and that were able to maintain high levels of productivity despite the limitations. Zoom squares that nevertheless missed the creative spark that comes from in-person meetings.

Now that things are opening up again, B2B businesses face a new challenge: figuring out what exactly their new policies will be when it comes to in-office versus remote work. In this episode, Khalid El Khatib of Stack Overflow, Ellina Shinnick of HUB International, and Mike Brannan of Centric Consulting share how their respective companies have adapted, offering heaps of insights into how to maintain a strong work culture, how to effectively communicate with hybrid teams, and what it means to be a great leader during these ever-changing times. Don’t miss it!

What You’ll Learn in This Episode

  • How 3 CMOs are leading their teams in a hybrid world
  • How to maintain a strong sense of culture while hybrid
  • Leadership best practices for managing hybrid teams

Renegade Thinkers Unite, Episode 259 on YouTube

Resources Mentioned

Time-Stamped Highlights

  • [0:00] Cold Open: This is Renegade Thinkers Live!
  • [1:30] Khalid El Khatib on Finding the Right Hybrid Balance
  • [9:53] Ellina Shinnick on Returning to the Office
  • [16:10] Mike Brannan on Centric’s Long History of Remote Work
  • [23:02] How to Approach Work Culture While Hybrid
  • [30:36] On CMO Huddles
  • [32:15] How to Lead Hybrid Teams Effectively
  • [41:05] How the Role of the Office Will Change
  • [44:45] Recruiting Talent in a Hybrid World
  • [49:39] Top CMO Tips for Leading a Hybrid Workforce

Transcript Highlights: Drew Neisser in conversation with Khalid El Khatib, Ellina Shinnick, and Mike Brannan

[0:00] Cold Open: This is Renegade Thinkers Live!

Drew Neisser: Hello, Renegade Thinkers! Today’s podcast episode comes from a live show we aired back in June with CMO Huddlers Khalid El Khatib of Stack Overflow, Ellina Shinnick of HUB International, and Mike Brannan of Centric Consulting. The entire show focused on the hybrid workplace and the hybrid world that we’re living in now. We’ve been living in it for 18 months, and as far as I can tell, it looks like it’s here to stay, which is going to be a challenge for every leader, when you have some employees in, some employees across the country, maybe even around the world.

This episode is a lesson in what it means to be a leader. Namely, to be deliberate and transparent and lead by example, and be flexible as the state of things change each and every day. And we know, as we talk about in my new book, Renegade Marketing: 12 Steps to Building Unbeatable B2B Brands, having your employees behind you is essential for success in marketing. Let’s get to the show; I know you’re going to enjoy it.

[1:30] Khalid El Khatib on Finding the Right Hybrid Balance

“I don't think that this has been a black and white shift to remote work. I think it's accelerated things that were already happening.” —@kmelkhat @StackOverflow Share on X

Drew Neisser: I’m your host Drew Neisser, live from my home studio in NYC.  In less than 18 months, the notion of work as location has been turned on its head. An April 2021 survey of remote workers by Flexjobs noted that 65% want to keep working from home, and 58% would look for a new job if forced to return to the office full time. Roughly 1/3rd named the hybrid model combining office and remote work as their preference.

So, if you take away one thing from this show, there will be no return to normalcy when it comes to desk workers. Where your employees work has changed perhaps forever and the implications for companies, leaders, and marketers are really colossal. Most likely it will change how you recruit, where you recruit from, how you lead, how you build culture, how you collaborate, and basically how you do business.

That’s a lot of change to deal with at once, which is why there’s no time like the present to figure this out. And to help you do just that, we have three savvy CMOs as guests today, starting first with Khalid El Khatib, who is the Senior Vice President of Marketing at Stack Overflow and star of Episode 181 of Renegade Thinkers Unite. Hey Khalid, how are you?

Khalid El Khatib: Hey, Drew. Good afternoon. Doing great. Thanks for having me.

Drew Neisser: Oh, it’s great. When you and I spoke back in 2020, this was right after the lockdown. You guys had already been through a little bit of this, but were you at all surprised at how so many companies were able to make work from home work for them?

Khalid El Khatib: No. I mean, yes and no, right? I think there were lots of things about 2020 that were surprising, and it’s tough to remember the conversation that we had in March because everything was sort of spiraling out of control at that moment. That said, you know, I think that humans are highly adaptable, and we’ve seen that play out over the last 18 months or so.

I don’t think that this has been a black and white shift to remote work. I think it’s accelerated things that were already happening. There were certain industries—consulting, for example, hoteling and hybrid work, especially on Fridays, was already happening. My company was 40, 50 percent remote prior to the pandemic. And I think if you had asked people in February of 2020, do you at least know someone who was working remote or has a hybrid situation? They would say yes. I don’t think the concept was inherently foreign to people and that muscle that was built up over the last year just sort of took a little bit of finessing.

Drew Neisser: You know, it’s funny as you’re talking about that—I think that’s true, but one of the things that I wondered about early on having not had a work from home… I mean, we had people that were all over the world working for Renegade. But I was still worried about collaboration, particularly when it came to creative. That was one of the great, wonderful surprises is that we figured it out. How has your thinking evolved? Because, you know, you were 40 or 50 percent then you must have gone 100 percent. How is it evolving now as most of this country, at least, is opening up?

Khalid El Khatib: Sure. Yeah. We continue to be 100 percent remote. And I think like most folks, we’ve seen people who were previously allocated to our New York office or to London, for example, move elsewhere. Whether that’s upstate New York or a city like Raleigh or Savannah, Georgia, where we’re seeing a lot of folks migrate.

We do plan on going back to a hybrid remote environment for those who want it starting in September and sort of increasing the options to go back into an office from there. That said, I think we don’t know what we don’t know.

If there’s one thing that I think companies have learned in over the last 18 months or so, it’s that—and I think it’s been compounded by this hyper-competitive hiring landscape that we’re in today. They need to listen to their employees.

We’re making a real concerted—I think we always have, long before I started at the company, there’s been a culture of collaboration and communication. But asking folks, “What do you want to do? What makes you comfortable and which environment are you most productive? And let’s go from there.”

Because we’ve seen, especially at some larger tech companies, where have cascaded a policy that’s turned out to be incredibly unpopular. Folks have not said, “I don’t like this, but I’ll do it.” They said, “I don’t like this, I’m leaving.” And then we’ve seen companies backtrack.

Drew Neisser: So, as I’m thinking about this, I’m wondering… You’ve now made it work for 100 percent remote. Why do you need to go back to the office? Why do you need any employees to do that?

Khalid El Khatib: Yeah, I mean, look, I think every company is different and so is every culture. And I think every team dynamic is different as well. I think the other thing that’s worth keeping in mind is, one of the reasons that remote work worked over the last 16 months or so is there was the shared experience of the pandemic or the collective trauma of the pandemic, however you want to think about it. And so, we were all going through the same thing.

That is no longer the case. Every region is experiencing the ongoing pandemic differently. Every company certainly as well. The other thing that I think is worth mentioning is that different teams are better at remote work than others. Oftentimes, a company will have a remote culture within the engineering team or a product team, and sales will often be in the office every day. They want to meet with customers. They have a highly collaborative culture.

SDRs is an even better example, where they tend to be younger. Sometimes they’re not as productive at home. They’re more likely to live with roommates, for example. And I think every company, through both data and anecdotal feedback, is going to have to figure out on their own which teams are best positioned for remote work and who should come back into the office. And you have to say what does productivity look like and how do we track it against these things.

Drew Neisser: Yeah, and I think it’s so interesting because you would think that all the salespeople would want to come back. You would think that they would be more productive in the office, that they would feed on it. But what are you going to do when you have a salesperson or an SDR who is a holdout?

You know, these are some questions that we really haven’t had a chance to wrestle with. And then the other thing that I just feel bad for, for so many folks that are just getting started in their companies—I mean, when I first moved to New York 100 years ago, the company was your social life. We went out all the time. I mean, JWT had a bar on the fourth floor called the Company Store. That was where you started your weekend. You know what’s going to happen when, particularly when these folks decide, “Well, I don’t want to commute. But now I don’t have a social life.”

Khalid El Khatib: Yeah, it’s a great question. And I’m probably too old to effectively answer it, but I do think it goes back to this notion of adaptability. Like you, I’m still in New York. I’m in Brooklyn. And from what I’ve seen over the last three weeks, this is the most social summer ever. It very much reminds me of when I moved to New York prior to social media, when we were all BBMing what we were going to do. Everyone is out.

I don’t anticipate that people will have a difficult time forming social bonds outside of work. I do think it’s a fair point that, you know, you don’t feel as close to your coworkers. I think it’s a double-edged sword, right? We both learned that sometimes having a bar in your advertising shop, which I did too, it’s not a good idea.

There may be some of that going away as an okay thing. But I do think that every company, even if you do elect to go fully remote moving forward, you have to plan for some sort of in-person meet-up, whether that’s team-specific or company-specific because there is work that needs to be done face-to-face.

[9:53] Ellina Shinnick on Returning to the Office

“The leadership team and the executive management team is listening to employees and is really adjusting to where the world is going, what our employees are saying.” —Ellina Shinnick @HUBInsurance Share on X

Drew Neisser: Let’s bring in Ellina Shinnick, who is the CMO of HUB International. Hi Ellina!

Ellina Shinnick: Hi Drew.

Drew Neisser: How are you? Where are you, first of all?

Ellina Shinnick: I’m well. Actually, I’m in Chicago and I’m in the office today for the very first time since March of 2020. There was a meeting and we felt comfortable meeting. We just formed a new team. Many people, probably 40 percent of the team was hired during the pandemic, and we had never met in person just but for being screens or tiles on the Zoom screen. It’s an interesting, interesting day to be having this conversation.

Drew Neisser: Oh, that’s amazing. And of course, it means that you have a nice high-speed connection, too. So, was there any trepidation? How many people were back and were you all in a conference room together, for example?

Ellina Shinnick: This was voluntary. You know, HUB is very thoughtful. First of all, just to take a step back, we’re in the U.S. and Canada and right now we will be opening offices for the majority of offices throughout the country on July 12 with a voluntary return to office approach through the summer, right through Labor Day weekend.

It’s very much enabling teams to slowly reintegrate into the office as they are comfortable, as they feel safe to do so. Anything that we’re doing this summer is completely voluntary and employees and teammates are just coming in only if they feel safe to do so. Following all of the safety protocols in the specific regions, in the office buildings, just being very cautious.

Drew Neisser: Interesting, but that’s earlier than I’ve heard. And of course, it’s voluntary. Well, it’ll be fascinating to see how many people start to show up. And let’s start with you. Do you see yourself going back into the office regularly?

Ellina Shinnick: I will be. I’m certainly not going to—likely not going to be in 100 percent. It’s going to be an evolution. But I will say, I was in today for the very first time. I had an opportunity to physically, in a safe way, reconnect with colleagues who I’ve worked with for a long time and who I’ve continued to work with very closely throughout the pandemic on Zoom.

So, in many ways, while we never skipped a beat, it was really wonderful to see them. It was really wonderful to meet some of the new teammates, like I said, that have joined during the pandemic that we’ve never met in person. It just kind of gave a jolt of energy and that’s why I think there’s this beauty in hybrid. There are absolutely critical periods of time when people are heads down and doing work, and they should be able to do that in a space—on my team anyhow—that is the best for them.

Whatever their quiet space is, their most productive space is. But, you know, just getting together and having that energy and seeing one another, I didn’t actually realize in many ways how much I missed it. Because we just adapted. To Khalid’s point—in the thick of COVID, we have to get work done, we have to make it work. And so you’re like, “This is great. This is all working.” And now you’re kind of backing it like, “Wow, I really missed the energy that you feel from seeing people.”

Drew Neisser: Yeah, and it’s funny, we had an outing with the Renegade team last week, and none of us have seen each other really since March 2020. And it was just great, and we had all been vaccinated and we all hugged it out. It was lovely. Because all of us are sort of reacquainting ourselves with all of our friends at all of our workmates, there is this moment.

I wonder again how it’ll be as we move forward. Is it just a question of, if we see each other every three months, we can sort of have that feeling of connection? Or is there going to be a competitive advantage by having your team back in the office working and seeing each other on a regular basis? I think this is this critical moment. With a big team like you have, I imagine you’re thinking about that. Can it really be on an individual-by-individual basis?

Ellina Shinnick: Maybe the answer is that it remains to be seen. The company is moving towards a hybrid model. What’s wonderful is that the leadership team and the executive management team are listening to employees and are really adjusting to where the world is going, what our employees are saying.

I don’t know that I have the answer today, and I don’t know that I’ll have the answer at the end of July. I’ve heard from my team that they want a hybrid model because there’s value in the flexibility. It’s what they’ve become accustomed to over the last 15 months. I completely understand that. There’s also value in being able to just be heads down and work in an environment that doesn’t have distractions and maybe that’s your home. But some people prefer to come into the office more often.

What that will look like in terms of competitive advantage, I think we’re going to have to work out those kinks. I think when people come back, kind of like what I felt today, and get reenergized, that will create a spark. Does that mean we have to do it every three months or on some other cadence? It’s almost probably a project-by-project basis as well.

[16:10] Mike Brannan on Centric’s Long History of Remote Work

“When you're remote, especially fully remote like we have been, it's really important to define your culture.” —@mbrannan @centric Share on X

Drew Neisser: Let’s bring in Mike Brannan, the VP of Technology and Marketing at Centric Consulting. Hi Mike.

Mike Brannan: Hi Drew.

Drew Neisser: Good to see you. And Centric has been a fully remote, or as you guys call it, a virtual company pretty much from the get-go, which again, puts you way ahead of the curve. You and I’ve talked with your boss, the CEO, who even wrote a book on the topic. Can you talk a little bit about the setup at Centric when it comes to remote work? I mean, this is just the way you’ve always done it, so give us a sense of that structure.

Mike Brannan: Correct, Drew. We’re a professional services firm so our consultants spend the vast majority of their time at client sites. From the very beginning, we’ve been a hybrid work model or a remote work model and we’ve focused on being digitally enabled from the very beginning. All of our core business processes, whether it’s filling out a timesheet or onboarding an employee or offboarding an employee, we’ve thought about that digitally from the very beginning. It starts with digitally enabling all your core business functions.

The other thing, about three years ago, we rolled out Teams, Microsoft Teams. And if you don’t use Teams, it’s a Slack-like project. We have a very good approach to various channels that empower our various operating groups, so Teams has been really, really key. It includes IM, email, calendaring, all that good stuff.

And then the last thing, and this is maybe a tad bit subtle is, when you’re remote, especially fully remote like we have been, it’s really important to define your culture. That can be a squishy thing, but it starts out at the top with your core values and who you are as a company and it gets all the way down to like, are you or are you not going to be okay with what seems like silly things like letting people move the laundry along or taking a call while they’re walking? Making sure as an organization you’re really aligned on that culture because it empowers how you operate and how you are and what’s okay and what’s not okay as a remote company,

Drew Neisser: The culture point is really a great one. And I want to get into that a little later on, so I will circle back to that because there are a couple of things that I want to talk about culture. Because we’ve got the culture that we need to retain employees, we’ve got the culture that we need to recruit employees, but we don’t have the physical office to do it, which is such a part of it. We’ll get back to that.

What’s interesting here is, in your model, the physical contact that your employees got was with a client. They were at least physically there, but they for the last year and a half have not even had that. They’ve had to learn to do that, and your customers have gotten used to that. Do you see and do your consultants imagine going back to physically being on-site? One because, again, it’s nice to see people. Or are they going to be in their cubbies at home?

Mike Brannan: That’s a great question. And the answer is kind of subtle, right? Because as a consulting company, if you don’t have your client needs paramount at the very top of whatever you’re doing, it’s going to be a problem. Some of our customers are okay with remaining remote.

Other customers have said, “Hey, we want your folks back into the office,” so what we are trying to do is going through literally all of our people and saying, “What’s your preference? What are you comfortable with? Are you okay with going back in?” And if they’re not, we’re trying to accommodate them to the greatest extent possible.

I will echo what the other CMOs on the call have said. We’re seeing our clients, greater than 50 percent are embracing some kind of hybrid model. If we have a consultant that doesn’t want to go back, we’re going to try to move them to another client, because, again, people are not saying, “I don’t want to go back, I’m okay with it.”

Our folks are saying, “If I can’t be remote if I choose to be, I’m going to quit and go elsewhere.” And that is what our customers are telling us as well. If we have a client that says, “Hey, we’re going fully back into the office and that’s the end of that,” we say, “Well, good luck with that, but I hope you’ve got a good recruiting function because you’re going to need it.”

Drew Neisser: Yeah. As an advisor to them, but also, it puts your company in an interesting situation because if you have a consultant that doesn’t want to go on-site and the customer wants you to go on-site, that’s when it’s going to really get interesting. Because you don’t want to lose the client.

Mike Brannan: Yeah. And we have some flexibility to move our people around. In a lot of cases, that’s possible. We’re probably in a special situation there. We can try to accommodate the employee. We have not yet come to a place we’re at loggerheads with an individual about, “I will not go back,” and we don’t have anywhere else to put them. We’ll see.

Drew Neisser: I remember in Larry’s book—Larry English is the CEO of Centric—he talked a lot about some of the things that you did to bring people together. Is some of that stuff that you used to do, are you starting to do those kinds of things?

Mike Brannan: Yeah, absolutely. Our tradition, our rhythm is to have three in-person meetings a year for the entire company. We’ll bring everybody together three times a year. That’s our standard way we’ve rolled. And our first in-person meeting is September. But then I would say, we as a company during the pandemic have been doing the same kinds of things most companies have been doing. Virtual happy hours, virtual games. Our teams, our various operating groups typically have weekly meetings where we vary the agenda from being completely serious about business topics to being completely light. Three truths and a lie and that kind of stuff.

Drew Neisser: The three in-person meetings, when I hear that, the first thing I want to know is, does everybody have to be vaccinated to be able to come?

Mike Brannan: For our company, no. We’re not mandating vaccinations. For our customers, we follow the customer’s guides. So, of course, if the customers say, “Hey, to come back onsite you need to be vaccinated,” we adopt their policies.

[23:02] How to Approach Work Culture While Hybrid

“Communication is so critical in the context of culture and the context of productivity in the context of trust.” —Ellina Shinnick @HUBInsurance Share on X

Drew Neisser: Let’s bring everybody back and let’s talk about this culture and what it means. There are a couple of aspects of this that are going through my mind that may or may not be actually the same topic.

One is this notion of, particularly at startups in the tech world, the office was such an important part. It was the hub where people came together to gather and you’d have your playthings, your ping pong tables and your bars or whatever. And that was part of the culture of getting people to connect and talk. That was part one.

And then part two of culture is sort of the values of the company and how you reinforce those when you don’t get to see physically the bosses and the other people exhibiting these things in real-time. And then sort of number three of this culture thing is, you’re no longer recruiting for culture fit, you’re recruiting for culture add.

I’ve really sort of thrown in wild cards that may or may not be on the same topic. But now we’re going to talk about this hybrid situation where we’re going to have some people in the office, some people at home. And I’m just curious if you guys have started to think about culture in the context of that mess I just threw out there… Help me. I know, Khalid, you will have thoughts on this.

Khalid El Khatib: Yeah, I do have thoughts. I think a couple of things especially come to mind. One, I think that values are super important. They should be rather aspirational, but you should always be able to ground what you’re doing in them. And I think one thing that has to shine through in your values, your communication style, and your culture is authenticity.

I think one of the really positive aspects of the last 18 months or so is that people were more vulnerable than they’ve ever been before in a work context. If they were struggling, they often said so. If they were dealing with personal issues, they were not afraid to air them out.

I think that I want that to continue to play out. And I think, you know, other macro things happened at the same time. Tough conversations around racial equity, non-optical allyship, and I’d hope for those to continue as well. I think that the authentic communication style, whether you’re fully in the office, remote, or hybrid, should be ingrained in everyone’s culture because it’s an expectation that especially younger workers will now have.

The other thing in terms of hiring people, I think that culture fit was always a sort of fake thing, a false flag. I think that I’m excited to see that go away. I think that it should always be called culture add and that we need to think much more holistically about who we’re bringing into the company and what they can bring to the table. I hope that we’re sort of democratizing opportunity by doing through what we’re going through now.

Drew Neisser: So, we can separate—and maybe, Ellina, you can weigh in on this. We can separate culture and things that we do to build culture from physical office. We’ve done that now for… Let’s go down that theme and talk about what does that mean and how do we reinforce that?

Ellina Shinnick: Sure. For me, and this is where I think hybrid is—you know, everything remains to be seen in many ways—but this is the value of hybrid and having that connectivity, because I do think there’s a place and time. And just going back to some of the things you said in the beginning of the show, Drew, especially for younger people. And whether that’s culture or just modeling behavior or any kind of training… With more intangible things, that’s where I think this hybrid model really starts to play itself out.

But, just decoupling some of the things we’re doing to promote fit, and I would say just the performance and connectivity… For example, we’ll be doing additional things all-around communication because as Khalid said, authenticity and the ability to communicate. One of the challenges in the virtual world—I mean, look, it’s a challenge when you’re in person, but it’s incredibly heightened—is communication and clarity and moving quickly and typing fast emails and just how that’s interpreted or text messages and how that could put things in a tailspin and so forth.

I’m really focused on bringing resources to my team, whether it’s improv classes, all-around radical candor, or just really being very deliberate about providing tools and creating virtual groups and sessions around communication and what is okay and how we can communicate with one another. Not to overlook simple things that derail day-to-day. That’s something that I think is really critical in order to continue to maintain this momentum, particularly as now we move into hybrid where everyone isn’t all remote all the time or all in the office.

Communication is so critical in the context of culture and the context of productivity in the context of trust. And so, we’re putting a lot of effort, I’m doing a lot with my team moving forward to really provide the tools for everyone. To level set how we’re talking to each other, how we’re interpreting things, and so forth. Because that to me is really critical in this next phase.

Drew Neisser: I’m just making a note to our producer, Melissa. I think we definitely need improv classes. To add that to our list. Mike, any thoughts on this area?

Mike Brannan: Yeah, it’s amazing, I think, how aligned we are. We’re living in parallel lives. As a remote company and as consultants, we have to have hard conversations with our customers all the time about scope and what we think about what you’re doing. So, for a very long time, all our employees have been given a book called Crucial Conversations. And if you don’t know that book, I’d recommend it. It’s good.

But as a result of the pandemic and about being fully virtual and not being able to get together—and like someone said about the social justice issues that came up this past year—we have been even more intentional about transparency because transparency builds trust. Especially if you have a remote team, you have to have trust and talk about the hard stuff that you really need to address to be better as an organization.

We’ve rolled out a concept that we called a “social covenant” and as an old married guy who has managed to stay married, I’ve had a lot of training on talking correctly on different conversations. I’ve had a lot of training from our church as well.

But we find some people aren’t equipped to have those difficult conversations, whether it’s about race or how you’re feeling or people’s objectivities or their bias. We’ve actually really leaned into this what we call a social covenant, and it’s an instruction book to have some of these difficult conversations around how you feel or bringing your whole self to work.

And the last point, I would echo, again, very important for your younger people on staff. They really want to have it all out on the table. They want to talk about everything.

Drew Neisser: Yeah, so many good points there that I’m taking notes rapidly.

[30:36] On CMO Huddles

On the value of @CMOHuddles: “That diligence conversation that can happen in 15 minutes would have taken me hours otherwise.” —@kmelkhat @StackOverflow Share on X

Drew Neisser: We’re going to sort of pivot a little bit, and if you all don’t mind, I’m going to just shamelessly plug CMO Huddles for a second. For those who have not heard of CMO Huddles, it was something we launched in 2020. It’s an invitation-only community that brings together an elite group of CMOs to share, care, and dare each other to greatness.

One CMO described a Huddle as a cross between an expert workshop and a therapy session, another noted: “I’ve yet to walk away from a huddle without a few great ideas that I can put into practice.” Khalid, Ellina, Mike, anything you want to add or share about your experience with CMO Huddles?

Mike Brannan: Always good. Always take something away. A lot of wisdom in the group.

Drew Neisser: A lot of wisdom.

Khalid El Khatib: Yeah, I think the one thing is that it’s sort of like a Gartner Analyst conversation when you’re like, “I have this problem, I know these four softwares or tools that fix it. What is your experience with each?” And that sort of diligence conversation that can happen in 15 minutes would have taken me hours otherwise.

Drew Neisser: Love that. Saving you hours. All right. Ellina, did you want to say?

Ellina Shinnick: Yeah, I just really appreciate the diversity of thought and the different industries, kind of echoing both what Mike and Khalid mentioned.

Drew Neisser: I love that—

Mike Brannan: One more point. It’s easy to connect with folks that comment on something that’s of particular interest to you. In more than one instance, I’ve been able to connect with the person via LinkedIn or the CMO Slack channel and said, “Hey, you said this about your content creation team. Could we have an offline chat about that?” Everybody is very generous with their time. I’ve learned a lot from other people.

Drew Neisser: That’s awesome.

[32:15] How to Lead Hybrid Teams Effectively

“You need to be aware of these quiet, remote voices and give them airtime and maybe go out of your way to build relationships with them.” —@mbrannan @centric Share on X

Drew Neisser: I’m imagining a scenario like this. I’m imagining a scenario where you’re in the office three times a week as a leader because your management has said you ought to be in the office at least three times a week.

You have certain members of your team that are there those three days. I’m imagining you’re walking into the coffee room and you’re having a casual conversation with them. You might even have lunch with them because you brought your lunch, and you’re going to talk about stuff in a way that you won’t talk with somebody on Slack or Teams or so forth.

That individual is undoubtedly going to have a competitive advantage. So, what are you going to do? How is this going to play out so that, for your fully remote workers who never come back in, how are you not going to show favoritism? Or does it matter?

Mike Brannan: I think that’s a great point, Drew. I think it does matter. I think you need to be very intentional as a leader in this instance. You need to be aware of these quiet, remote voices and give them airtime and maybe go out of your way to build relationships with them. Because you don’t want them to be marginalized. Be purposeful about sharing growth assignments with those remote workers. I don’t know if “bias” is the right word, but really be aware that you could very much become biased as a result of that in-person face time.

Ellina Shinnick: I would jump in and really echo that you have to be intentional and of course, that’s going to happen in the hybrid environment. You will see people; you will have lunch with them and talk about things. And while you can’t—and let’s say you’re talking about projects with multiple teams, I mean, you can’t send notes for every lunch conversation. I completely understand that’s unrealistic.

But I do really encourage my team as we start to figure out what hybrid means for us, if you are having a sideline conversation or if you did talk about things at lunch and there’s a small project team and two of you happen to be in the office, take the five minutes to send a note. Take the five minutes to send a quick text message. Take the two minutes to send something via Teams.

It doesn’t have to be a formal, laborious exercise, but to start to create this habit that you’re a team–some of us see each other, some of us are remote on certain days. But if you had some kind of “Aha” or really cool idea or the nugget of something, or just even a recap with critical next steps, you have to really take a step back and say, “What would make me feel comfortable when it’s my remote day?”

You would want your colleagues to fill you in. And again, I think just something informal and starting to create those small—I feel like everyone is using this term “stackable habits,” but like, 30-second recaps. Send the notes, send the Slack message, whatever it is. I think that goes a really long way to building your own habit and also creating inclusion.

And then, we’re really thoughtful. I’m really kind of deliberate about this with my team: On project teams, creating co-leadership with people who tend to be in the office and people who are in completely different parts of the country. Because I have a field marketing team, as many of the CMOs tuning in or in your group do.

Some people are here in the corporate office in Chicago, so our project teams that have co-chair opportunities, as much as possible, trying to create co-chairs that somebody is in Chicago, and somebody is in California. That creates an even playing field because automatically you’re bringing people together.

And then another great tip that I heard and that I’m starting to use more is: Give remote employees, especially when you’re in hybrid meetings and you have a number of people in the office joining from a conference room, be deliberate about asking those employees who are remote to actually lead the meeting, so you’re forced to really kind of not forget screens on the wall. The employees who are remote should be the leaders.

Again, it creates that level playing field and it sends a signal that it doesn’t matter where you’re physically sitting. We are one team, and everyone has an equal role and is equally important in the contribution. And just because three of you happen to be at home office today, that’s okay. The person whose day is remote is just as critical in this team meeting as any of you and they’re leading.

Drew Neisser: I love that. Stackable habits I hadn’t heard. And I love that. I’m gonna throw into the mix that we need to be thinking about FOMO fighting. This is part of your job description now. I just wanted to sort of shout out to Kalid, because we talked about that this week in a Huddle, that you have a policy that you could share about how you also keep it level when you have remote and people in the office. Can you just share that?

Khalid El Khatib: Sure. Yeah. So, prior to the pandemic, we’ve always been a remote-first company. If we ran a meeting and one person was remote, everyone operated as if they were remote. We would all do the meeting from Zoom and we would all have a square on the screen. That worked quite well.

I think another thing that’s worked well is having personal conversations with people who are remote. Building a repertoire with what they’re doing over the weekend or sending them a recipe that you worked on or something like that. Some of the small talk or coffee chat is not lost on them.

And then I think the final point—I think everyone made really extraordinary points and things that we’re thinking about. But the other—and this is a more macro point—we don’t know what we don’t know. This is an accelerating trend, and the world has changed more in the last year than it did in the last 10.

I think that what’s really important is marketing, the people team, and other components of leadership need to be super deliberate about what data we’re collecting and what that data means. And so, if we’re promoting people or giving comp increases to people who are in the office almost exclusively, we need to be transparent about that. If productivity is really high for sales reps who are in the office and really low for those who are remote or on field marketing teams, et cetera, we need to hire differently. I think that we just have to track everything and revisit on a very regular basis because everything now feels very hypothetical.

Drew Neisser: A lot of really good points, I just want to again put a punctuation point on it. I love the notion of tracking—and not to be big brother, but just to make sure that you’re being fair. That’s part one of this, right, that if you’re just promoting people who are in the office then you know you have a problem.

But if you see that your productivity is higher among people who are in the office, then that’s a whole other thing. And now, I know, Mike, you were going to say something on this topic.

Mike Brannan: Yeah, just a couple quick points. Ellina, you made me think of something. It feels a little profound to me, but I think our bias is to think that remote is bad. If you’re remote, that’s not as good as in office. But why do we think that way?

We could be empowering a lifestyle for a person that’s really important, whether they have challenging kids or they’re a caregiver. Like, why not just embrace it and say, “Hey, good for you. You’re remote. We’re going to do everything as a team to support what you need to do.” It’s simple but, who doesn’t want less traffic on the roads? Why aren’t we all like, “Go, go, go, remote workers!”

And then last thing. I think we also have to encourage our remote workers—you need to be smart about being remote. You need to show up when there’s in-person functions even if it’s hard. You need to come to your one-on-one meetings prepared and you need to build relationships. You need to be the person that’s using the back channel: “Hey, you said something interesting. Let’s talk about this.” You need to be smart about it as well as a remote worker.

Drew Neisser: Yeah. All great points. Why not? It’s funny, as I think about my personal experience, we have one employee at Renegade who’s worked for us for several years now who started as a digital nomad. I think my first conversation with him was when he was in Java or Krakatoa.

He’s since moved and has been living in Copenhagen this entire pandemic. Just absolutely one of our most cherished employees, and he’s had different jobs and it has never mattered. We see him maybe once a year, haven’t seen him a couple, so I think it’s a great point, Mike.

[41:05] How the Role of the Office Will Change

“It'll truly be the innovation, collaboration, or creativity hub that so many companies have aspired for their offices to be for so long.” —@kmelkhat @StackOverflow Share on X

Drew Neisser: Now, this is the point in time in the show where I always ask, what would Ben Franklin say? Thinking about how much many of us have enjoyed working from home—and kind of to your point, Mike, about why are we looking at remote work as bad? I thought this Franklin quote was perfect: “I acknowledge that solitude is an agreeable refreshment for a busy mind.”

And certainly, as I speak to you from my home studio in New York City, I totally feel sometimes that solitude that we have has been extraordinarily helpful. All right, let’s keep going and get to some things.

We’re guessing here, right? We don’t know exactly how this is going to go, but the role of the office is going to change. It’s going to change dramatically. The way we think about “office” is going to change. Do you have any thoughts on how you want it to change personally and what that’s going to mean for you as a marketing leader?

Khalid El Khatib: I mean, I would like for people to see the office as a positive place where things actually get done. If we’re saying that people are going to go back when they want to go back or when they need to have a meeting or a meetup or a collaboration session and that’s one or two days a week, then I hope that people don’t wake up in the morning and they dread going into an office.

It’ll truly be the innovation, collaboration, or creativity hub that so many companies have aspired for their offices to be for so long. Investing in slides and chic cafeterias and nap pods. I think if people go with true purpose, that’s the North Star to me.

Drew Neisser: Yeah, it’s funny, we heard from one company that was going to: “You can do whatever you want, but you only get an assigned desk if you’re in the office three days a week or more.” I thought that was an interesting approach. Again, to try to in some ways reward the person who comes more, which again, is an interesting perspective and goes back to what you were saying, Mike, is why are we even thinking about it that way? But other thoughts on the role, how the notion of office changes.

Mike Brannan: Franklin was a fascinating guy, right? Your life will be enriched by reading a biography about a guy like Franklin and really most historical figures. But that aside, the cat’s out of the bag on remote work, right? It’s possible. It’s doable. It can work. And we were forced on it. We were forced into it, but so many companies that we talk with are embracing a hybrid model.

Why not? Right? Who doesn’t like quality work? We have a lot of employees that have to do a lot of deep thought. They’re writing software, they’re writing code, and we have many employees that tell us, “Hey, I really get a lot done at work. I can be very productive. I can shut everything out and really roll with it.”

I think the smart money is really embracing the hybrid model and using that office time is great brainstorming time. Like, I know when we go into Centric facilities that we have—typically they’re at WeWork places—it’s about a big meeting, a big brainstorming session, a design session, and it’s terrifically fun. People like going in and doing that, but it’s also good to have the opposite where you’re heads down cranking out quality work.

[44:45] Recruiting Talent in a Hybrid World

“The people that will thrive and the people that I will be looking for are those that are flexible and adapt with whatever is required.” —Ellina Shinnick @HUBInsurance Share on X

Drew Neisser: So, one of the things that we’ve been talking a lot about in Huddles and I think it has to do with this topic which is, there is tremendous competition for top talent, particularly in marketing departments. Your marketing ops person is getting, your top content person is getting pitched all the time. What role, if any, does “office” at this point play in retention or recruiting? And how are you looking at it?

A lot of the conversation has been about, “We really don’t care about the office because I can recruit from anywhere now.” Just curious, as you think about it—in some ways, the notion of “office” has been somewhat restraining. And this has got to be liberating for you as you think about building a team anywhere in the world.

Ellina Shinnick: It’s a case-by-case basis, right? And it really depends on the people, kind of why we’re having this conversation at all. For some people, it’s a non-starter. If you’re not going to offer whatever they’re looking for in this chapter of their life after 15 months of the pandemic, then you may risk losing them. If they believe they can get more flexibility somewhere else.

But I think it’s finding the balance. There’s high competition for talent. There’s also a wealth of talent out there. It’s really just understanding your business needs, and can some people be truly 100 percent remote, or do they need to be more hybrid?

Then I also just look for people who are, of course, very talented, but just also flexible, I would say. If people want to be fully remote, that’s their personal choice, and they will find opportunities to do that. But why is that? Are they just completely inflexible for just general reasons? I think to me, hybrid, of course, this is the crux of the conversation. But the people that will thrive and the people that I will be looking for are those that are flexible and adapt with whatever is required. There’s just this combination of what’s driving these decisions.

Drew Neisser: Yeah. I just keep thinking about the Silicon Valley, all these companies that invested so much in office. The free lunch food there, the gyms, the running paths—all of these things that were meant to attract and retain. And now we take that off the shelf. In some ways, it’s leveled the playing field in that your physical structure has nothing to do with your employer brand, or it may not.

That puts so much onus on you, I think, the marketer in, “Okay, what is the virtual brand? What is the virtual company?” Because you don’t have the lunchroom and the treadmill necessarily that you’re selling. Do you think about that as we move forward in 2021 and 2022? That suddenly the role of marketing in some ways is probably more important. The role of brand is more important because there’s no physical!

Mike Brannan: Yeah, I think it’s really a both/and model, Drew. Like, if you think about the activities you do that are really enhanced by having physical space and office, you think of hierarchical tasks where you have senior people mentoring and taking care of more junior people.

Marketing specialist coordinators working with their copywriters and editors or their creative brand staff. Those people need that extra touch. There’s real power in being able to knock on someone’s door and say, “Hey, I’d really like to pick your brain about something.”

In the other instance, I think it’s a highly creative task. And you nailed it with brand. Our brand team, they love getting together and physically pressing the flesh and using the whiteboards to come up with the next brand campaign and the next brand idea.

I think you’ve got to be really intentional again about what you are trying to accomplish in a given day and when does it really make sense to pull people in? I think the slides and the toys and the ping pong tables and the foosball tables.

I think you might see that change as hours in the office are less of a requirement. And so, if you’re in the office 50 hours a week or 60 hours a week, do you really need those break times as much? As a virtual company, we have the foosball tables and the ping pong tables, but they don’t get used that much because people aren’t in there as much.

[49:39] Top CMO Tips for Leading a Hybrid Workforce

“Listen to employees, survey employees regularly and consistently as things continue to change. But also look at the data.” —@kmelkhat @StackOverflow Share on X

Drew Neisser: Well, we’re coming up to the end of the hour, and we do like to end on time. So, let’s come up with your final words of wisdom for your fellow CMOs on approaching the hybrid workforce. What should their top priorities be?

Khalid El Khatib: I think this is where feedback is super important, and not just anecdotally. I mean, listen to employees, survey employees regularly and consistently as things continue to change. But also look at the data. What’s happening to productivity as your policies evolve? Are you being fair? And transparent around both. Say, “We’re making this decision because here’s what we’re seeing in the data, and here’s what we’re hearing from you.”

And I think that’s where companies are going to win. It’s not just going to be about their hybrid strategy. It’s not going to be about the slide or the foosball table. It may not even be about the mission or the values. It’s going to be how authentically they communicate and how transparent they are with employees, especially as things continue to change.

Drew Neisser: Perfect. Ellina.

Ellina Shinnick: I would say, be okay not having all the answers or knowing that everything continues to change, and also be okay communicating that and what you may thought have worked in whatever “hybrid” means. We turned out to be pretty different after all.

I think, again, just being in this change mindset and looking at it as an opportunity. Really, especially in this hybrid model, particularly as we’re evolving and coming back and trying it out, communication is super critical, and arming your team with the resources and tools to know how to communicate, especially for your more junior people who are probably still learning and feeling their way out.

Drew Neisser: Perfect. Mike, wrap it up.

Mike Brannan: Work towards a flat organization. Let people have access and be okay with wasting a little time on a call because you are not going to have those shared car rides to the airport or the time where you’re walking to lunch to get to know people. You have to be okay to let some of that happen in your virtual meetings.

Drew Neisser: Man, this was such a meaty session. I’m so grateful for the three of you. You’re all great sports and really, thank you for summarizing this in such a great way. I mean, it seems like we heard you need to be deliberate about this. You need to be flexible. You need to have a plan and really be thinking about this as something different. Thank you, audience, for staying with us. Cue the music!

Show Credits

Renegade Thinkers Live is produced by Melissa Caffrey. Our intern is Sam White. Our botanical expert is Nicole Hernandez. For show notes and past episodes, please visit, home of quite possibly the savviest B2B marketing agency in New York City. I’m your host Drew Neisser and until next time, keep those Renegade Thinking Caps on and strong.