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TecHRseries Interview with Sarah McEneaney, Digital Talent Leader at PwC

There is now an increased need for business leaders to be more empathetic opines Sarah McEneaney as she shares her thoughts on the post Covid-19 work culture and employee experience in this interview. Catch the complete QnA:

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Tell us a little about yourself Sarah, how has a typical day at work evolved over the last few months given the new challenges that have arisen due to the Covid-19 pandemic?

As a Partner and the Digital Talent Leader for PwC across the US and Mexico, I’m responsible for enabling success across all talent elements of PwC’s digital transformation priorities.

As a firm, we believe in the power of employee experience as the key to future-proofing organizations at scale, I’m passionate about amplifying business potential by combining talent with technology, skills and tools — and permission for employees to reimagine work.

Organizational diversity and inclusion are critical to how I operate, and I’m driven to level the opportunity field for people of all genders and those from underestimated populations. Everyone in business can strengthen a growth mindset. One way I look to invest in myself as such is through improv training, which I study at one of Chicago’s famous theatres.

I stay close to evolving practices around the future of work and developments in emerging technologies. I’m especially focused on trends in the use of data through People Analytics and EdTech, including digital learning solutions.

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How did you / the team at PwC enable a seamless work from home structure that could also boost employee motivation and productivity while reducing the stress going around because of the pandemic (its effects are still at large after all!)

Working in a distributed fashion is nothing new for PwC. Our people have long been dispersed on teams that aren’t co-located and sit across our offices, client sites, other countries, and the like. PwC has been on a multi-year journey to augment digitally-enabled work arrangements. While we didn’t do this in anticipation of a crisis, but rather to continue to invest in our people experience, we’re seeing dividends now because of it.

Our people have adopted the digital skills and mindset that allow them to work in this distributed manner, wherever and however it best suits them, their teams and their clients. This has allowed us to transition relatively seamlessly to the current reality of fully working away from our offices and our clients’ offices during COVID-19. This is a great example of the importance of a digitally fit workforce. Having a strong infrastructure prepared and digitally-enabled work arrangements have allowed our people to seamlessly pivot and continue serving client needs with minimal interruption, all things considered.

From engagement team tasks, to regular client connections, to new business pitches, our work is still getting done — just in this virtual way. Our culture has long been one built on trust and flexibility, and we were able to pivot quickly to adjust to this evolving climate. Of course, our people are also dealing with a range of other changes due to the pandemic; shifting child care situations, homeschool expectations, elder care, keeping families physically safe from the spread of the virus–these are all things that aren’t typical for the average worker to juggle. We have been tremendously focused on the mental health elements of the world we are all navigating, ensuring our benefits, policies and flexibility allow for PwCers to balance their personal priorities as well.

In what ways do you think the post-Covid-19 workplace would look like, what are some of the top factors that HR heads will need to prioritize on?

The post-COVID workplace will likely be significantly evolved from the pre-COVID experience. It is likely that things will look very different depending on the organization and sector, including how much makes sense to continue to handle in a predominantly distributed model. Both the employer and the employee will be focused more than ever on health. This of course includes mental health and flexibility in the way we do our jobs.

There is an increased need for business leaders to listen, to understand, and to be empathetic. They can continue to encourage employees to provide a bigger glimpse into their whole selves, families, home lives, etc. Executives now fully understand the imperative for a “digitally fit” workforce and different ways of working that can enable better flexibility and productivity while lowering costs.

We can expect many businesses to also re-evaluate their real estate footprints and everyday ways of working. The need for as much office space may no longer be deemed as crucial–or at least its use in the same way as before given the likely need for prolonged distancing and wellness checks on-site.

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A lot of companies froze their hiring process during this time while several others opted for a virtual hiring option, what are your top tips for new entrants into the tech marketplace or in general for younger job seekers looking to navigate a job market in uncertain times?

New entrants are surely finding themselves in a truly unique position by entering the workforce in a virtual capacity. Many companies are using a transformed “onboarding” process in the short-term, where new joiners will be learning the ropes of their new position without in-person guidance or mentorship.

It’s important to ask questions and take the initiative to quickly get a sense of the company culture. You won’t have a manager to observe, predict challenges you are facing and provide in-person coaching, so you should be extra diligent about sharing your questions, concerns, ideas, tasks and accomplishments.

Additionally, use this as an opportunity to up your digital game. Working across multiple locations–as it always has–can present its own unique challenges, but don’t lose sight of the fact that your priorities in your new role are the same, regardless of whether you are virtual or in-person. This is your chance to learn new digital skills that could help “future-proof” your career by enhancing your technical knowledge and capabilities. PwC is offering its Digital Fitness App to all, and it’s a great way for anyone to boost their knowledge in topics that help shape behaviors, mindsets, relationships and where they may want to think about acquiring or advancing digital skills.

Most importantly, be human. Embrace what working in a distributed manner entails. And, if you were there before, push yourselves and your team to go further. Be open and honest with your teammates about your situation. For many, this may be a new experience, don’t let technology stifle your authenticity and personality.

What are the top upskilling needs for today’s workforce according to you, given the changing work models and changing times?

Skills like comfort with change, influencing without authority, and data-driven storytelling are among the most sought-after skills in executive searches of the last few years. Contrary to popular belief, so-called “soft skills” have become more — not less — needed to be effective leaders in our increasingly technology-infused world of today. At PwC, in addition to the hot digital skills like robotics, data analysis and AI, we are focused on these human-centered skills, including design, to ensure users are at the heart of all we do.

Employees must possess an openness and willingness to learn. In order to be ready to take on more challenging work and new opportunities, it’s important that we learn and grow. The most important soft skills are the ones that focus on continuous learning and development — skills that help to make you, and the people around you, better. It’s especially important to recognize that while advanced technical skills can take you far, soft skills like adaptability, collaboration, leadership, and communication can lift your entire team or organization.

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What collaboration tools would you advise teams to use, to boost productivity especially during these uncertain times due to the global pandemic and as work from home starts becoming the new normal for more industries.

It is unbelievably important for teams to have reliable, easy-to-use collaboration apps. Virtual collaboration and conferencing tools help employees maintain a human connection and feel engaged. With that being said, options are important, as some employees prefer to communicate using more real-time tools, whereas others are still defaulting to email/phone.

We have found that well-being apps can aid distributed workforces in carving out time to detach for a quick meditation or other forms of renewal. Leaders should encourage this and ask people to be open about using them. Employees need to feel empowered to truly take the time they need for all forms of wellness: mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual.

A central communications platform is important for large organizations to keep employees informed and enable transparency and multi-direction communication between leaders and employees. Webcasts, online hubs, and internal communities are just a few examples of two way communication channels that enable regular and reliable communication, while humanizing your leaders all at the same time.

PwC US focuses on audit and assurance, tax and consulting services. It is a member of the global PwC network, which has firms in 158 countries with a workforce of more than 250,000 people. The PwC network serves approximately 86% of the Global and US Fortune 500 in either audit or non-audit capacities.

Sarah is a partner and digital talent leader at PwC.