Matt Thomas is an innovative Human Resources and executive leader based in Western Australia. In this episode he reflects on navigating the challenges throughout the past 15+ months including the biggest key learnings from an HR perspective. Matt highlights the importance of workforce resilience and agility in times of change and how mindset shifts are needed to adapt moving forward.
He shares with us his passion for the employee experience and why it should be a strategic focus for organizations. He breaks down the changing workforce dynamics when shifting to flexible work practices and choosing a model that is supportive from an employee and business perspective. Transformational change and building a high performing culture in this new world of work are also topics of discussion.
Connect with Matt on LinkedIn or Twitter @mattpetemax. For more insightful conversations, visit www.talentexperiencepodcast.com. We hope you enjoy this episode of the Talent Experience podcast!
John Hollon 00:26
Hello, I'm John Hollon and welcome to TalentX, the talent experience podcast. Today's guest is Matt Thomas. Matt is a senior human resource executive with more than 20 years of generalist HR experience, leading teams in the delivery of transformational change, people strategy, building high performing leadership teams and culture, HR digital transformations, and building leading edge employee experiences. For the past eight years, Matt held the position of GM of People and Culture at Racing and Wagering Western Australia, transforming the people space from a traditional operation to a innovative and strategic one and he's currently consulting other companies to help them achieve similar success.
In addition, Matt currently chairs the Future Now board which is the largest training council in Western Australia, responsible for the creative leisure and technology industries. He's also a regular guest speaker at Curtin University for HR and MBA students, as well as an HR disrupter at HR think tanks. Matt also says that he's pretty passionate about giving back to profession that has done so much for him. So for the past four years, he's mentored the half dozen mentees through the Australian Human Resources Institute Mentoring Program. Matt, you are busy, that's a lot. How are you doing?
Matt Thomas 01:52
I'm pretty good thanks John. Yes, this is definitely an enriching time I've had over the last, especially last 10 years.
John Hollon 02:00
I bet. You know, I've worked with a great many human resource professionals and I've written a lot about the ebb and flow of HR practices but I've never really had a guest with the HR background you have on a TalentX podcast, so this is a wonderful opportunity to get some well needed perspective.
Matt Thomas 02:17
Fantastic. Thanks, John.
John Hollon 02:19
So let's get started. I hate to always inject the global pandemic and lockdown into a discussion, but it's the defining event of the century so far, and perhaps in our lifetimes. So let me ask you, what do you think are the most important things HR has learned over the past 15 months? And what is important for us moving ahead, both for HR and for the organizations we work with?
Matt Thomas 02:42
Yeah, look, it's still such a relevant topic for most organizations the pandemic and how they experienced it. In Australia, we're very fortunate, in the sense of we weren't too impacted. But recently, we were just put on a three day lockdown ourselves because of a quarantine breach. So it just shows you just how relevant and how long lasting it's still going to be a factor, I suppose within organizations. I think, for us as an organization, the last 15 months was pretty telling on many fronts, we had as a business ourselves had actually been going through quite a bit of change through privatization. As we know, most organizations are going through some sort of disruption and I think COVID just added another level of complexity for us.
What I'd say the key learnings for me from an HR perspective was very much around the resilience of the workforce. The ability to actually be agile and nimble and be able to take on the challenges that were actually presented at the time in a fairly confronting space for a lot of people was quite...what would I say? It was quite eye opening for our perspective, because we had already been through quite a lot of change. And I think one of the things that was really quite poignant for me was actually around the type of mindsets that actually were needed to actually navigate through that time. We talk a lot about skills that actually was started to evolve over that 15 or over that period of time but I think what was more telling was the mindsets that actually need to change to actually adapt to a fairly new environment where maybe what got you to where you got to now wasn't going to get you where you need to moving forward.
I think, from an HR perspective, I think the ability for us to actually make sure we were engaging with the key stakeholders and leaders in the business was really important to actually support them because the reality is that we know when you go through change like this people are impacted in very different ways. So one size fits all didn't necessarily work. And I think it was also about knowing the fact that you didn't have all the answers. You were very reliant on people's feedback and to be actually authentic about actually saying we don't have all the answers, we need you to help us guide us through this process was one of the key things that we learned very quickly, that actually helped support our strategy moving forward.
I think the power of communication was pretty important, it's always that polarizing topic, not enough, too much, not the right format, the right way. I think we took the approach that communication was very critical. So I'd rather go hard and be told we gave too much then necessarily not enough in that particular time, because of all the challenges. But I think whenever there is adversity, there's always great learnings and lessons for organizations. And I'm sure you'd agree John, you shouldn't have to go through that process in the first place to have those learnings but the fact is, we did, and it was out of our control and it was very important for us to learn from that as well.
I think moving forward, what we've probably learned from HR and organization perspective is that flexible work practices and employee well being are no longer a nice to have for an organization, they are critical. And they are critical in a sense of how they enable businesses to be able to navigate these times where it requires a different focus in a different direction. I think we were one of those organizations that wanted to really push into the flexible work process/practices before, but there wasn't engagement at the top and it basically, stymied I suppose the ability to be able to do it. And obviously, like many organizations we had no choice and we actually saw the benefits, which I always kind of deep down, knew would be the case. But the reality is, is that it took that actual moment for us to actually achieve that.
John Hollon 06:31
It's funny, you talk about mindset. One of the things that really surprised me a little bit, although this happens when people are sort of up against a wall, and don't have maybe all the options they would like. But the mindset about remote work so dramatically changed here in the States, especially and my senses, most of the English speaking world it changed. Where my experience was companies were pushing back against that. The change they'd made in letting people do it was incremental and then suddenly when, hey, we are going to need to have our workforce working remotely in part or the whole group of them. Suddenly, companies and organizations dramatically changed and suddenly their mindset changed. So I was surprised by that. I'm not sure if that's what you experienced in Australia, certainly, that's what we experienced up here in the States.
Matt Thomas 07:33
Absolutely, and I think it's interesting how that evolved from that initial start of having to change your workforce dynamic, to going from no people or everyone in the office to noone in the office. Except we had certain roles where they actually had to stay in the office. So it was a very challenging time, they felt like they were being disadvantaged, not being treated the same way, because it was such a focus on those that actually were not working in the office. So you had to kind of balance that and understand the impact of that.
But I think where we got to towards the end of it was that we always said that as long as people were in the office at least two days a week, we weren't concerned about if they wanted to spend four days in a week that was fine, as long as there's a minimum of two days in the office. And it became really interesting to see how organizations navigated that, because there's a lot of organizations that said, you can work from home the whole time, and we lost people to different organizations for that. But that wouldn't be a model that necessary at that stage in our business would actually be supportive of what we needed to from a business perspective. So it's very much a you have to actually, it's not something you can set in stone in concrete, it has to be something that evolves through the time.
John Hollon 08:42
Matt, we were talking about this earlier but I noticed on your LinkedIn profile that you talk about things like transformational change and building a high performance culture. Are those things even more important today as we try to navigate this new world of work?
Matt Thomas 08:59
Absolutely John, I think if you think about business success and business performance, there's a direct correlation to an organizational culture and obviously the people that drive it. Without people typically businesses don't perform. And when you think about the disruptive nature I suppose of the world that we've been in, and the impact it has had on a lot of organizations in regards to that sort of survival mode that they've had to sit in, while they've waited to navigate through whatever challenges they've had that COVID had presented. I think most organizations that are still around are now having to shift very quickly from that survival mode into almost the growth mindset, or growth mode.
And so a high performing culture is obviously an enabler of that even more so. You need people that effectively are very clear and what the business objectives are, the strategic direction, and how they can actually contribute and work towards that. But at the same time it's about making sure they've got all the sorts of peripheral stuff like tools to do their job, that they had the opportunity to feel like they work in a culture where there is innovation and it is okay to take risks, and recognizef for effort. To me, that's kind of some of the sort of key requirements of a high performing culture. I think, the high performing culture may look very different in today's world, though. Different areas of focus. If you think about what COVID's brought on about the enabling a workforce remotely so high performance culture might have a different correlation.
But either way, if an organizations having to actually go from a survival to a growth mindset, it absolutely requires transformation and that's where that transformation piece definitely comes in. I almost think, in today's world, what got you to where you are now is not necessarily going to get you to where you need moving forward. And that's why it's really important that that transformational piece works as well, in line with a high performing culture. I use the synergy of the these days when you start looking at new tech, for instance, what's new today probably in a month's time is going to be obsolete. So how do you actually keep that continuous loop of actually assessing things that are actually going to add value to whether it's about efficiencies, it's around experiences, whether it's to do with your customers, I think businesses will only succeed when they continually find ways of adapting because there's new technology, new ways of working, new mindsets.
John Hollon 11:24
Do you think it's hard for HR to sort of step to the forefront, and take that role to sort of help drive the change? Because you don't know how things are in your world but here in the States, I've dealt a lot with HR people, and they very much are very rule based. Got to have the rules, got to follow the rules, its compliance, all of these things and a lot of the stuff that we're talking about here, kind of have to get made up on the fly, which I don't think, at least from the HR people I know up here is particularly their strong suit. So what's your take on that?
Matt Thomas 12:05
Yeah, look I don't think we're any different over here in Australia, there's always a view that HR is the police and we tend to hide behind policies and rules. And my views always been those rules and policies are there as a framework, as a boundary and generally, most of the time we create the policies, so we can always rechange them to some degree. But it's about not hiding behind them. Sometimes they are absolutely critical in protecting risk and organizational reputational brand etc.
But I think HR plays a significant role in not necessarily us driving, because where I've seen success really cut through is when you actually enable others. And I'm almost like the HR is the puppet master, if I use that sort of reference, in a sense that we're enabling others to drive the change. Because when leadership or employees drive the change that you're looking for, nine times out of 10, it was more likely to be adopted and embraced within the organization, as opposed to HR telling you that this is what you should do, because it's the right thing to do. And I think that was probably one of the lessons again, or learnings as part of this whole change over last 15 months, we had it pretty good. I sat on the executives so I had a say at the table, we had a pretty good reputation around the value that we add. I think it just probably reinforced the value even more in regards to the whole experience of COVID and for us even privatization in the sense of the value that we can bring in enabling rather than doing, I think, is the key thing.
John Hollon 13:33
That's a really important point that sometimes the value that HR brings, is appreciated the most when you have a crisis like we all had. And HR has to step up and I think a lot of times, the human resource function doesn't get a lot of credit for all the things that they do, because they're behind the scenes a lot. And here's one where they had to really, really step up and out in the public eye and be seen for Hey, what are you going to do to help keep our business working and together and moving ahead, even if all the people aren't in the same place?
Matt Thomas 14:09
Absolutely. Yep, absolutely.
John Hollon 14:11
Hey, let's talk about something else that may have changed in the past year - employee experience. It seems like a lot of organizations have finally woken up to the fact that they need to do a lot more with and for their workers. Things like helping them to reskill or retrain so they can be more flexible and agile and useful to the business. It's great that this is finally happening, but a bit sad that it took a huge global shake up to do it. What's your perspective about that?
Matt Thomas 14:44
Yeah, I agree in the sense that, again, sometimes adversity provides learning opportunities and the reality is, it's actually opened up a door or opened the eyes up to an area that actually I think one of the most critical things in organizations moving forward. As you've already read, and mentioned John, I'm pretty passionate about the employee experience, I think.
John Hollon 15:03
I can tell.
Matt Thomas 15:05
I think I was talking about employee experience back in the last FuelX conference in Sydney in 2019 and I think we'd taken a pretty big shift, because the focus has always been on employee engagement. And for me, employee experience drives engagement. So we took a considerable shift around how we looked at it and the things that we did was more around experience not trying to focus on the engagement. So I think, for me, employee experience has definitely become more of a relevant and aware topic, or function that needs to be explored in organizations. For us of our three strategic pillars, one of the strategic pillars was employee experience, that's how critical it was for us in the organization. But it means many things to people and I think that was part of the journey that we learned.
And for me, I always also put into the fact that candidate experience is just as important as employee experience. They're actually intricately linked, employee experience talks about the impact and all the sorts of things that sit underneath that from an employee experience but you're also in a world of talent, all of this talent, and trying to attract key talent. The candidate experience is also an opportunity where you drive the same experience before they even consider you as an employer. So when I think about employee experience, it's very much everything from people having a voice around it within their team, it's about having the skill of being able to identify the skills which they may not even realize they have and how they actually want to develop that, it's that career path and perspective, it's creating environments where they feel inclusive and can be their true self. And it's all the other practical things around the work set up, now you throw remote in. So obviously, it's a different sort of concept here that you have to consider.
But I think, I know definitely from our experience when we were actually getting high scores in employee experience, we could see the, I suppose, the benefits, not just from an engagement perspective, but also from a performance and productivity perspective, and also directly correlated to our customer experience, as well. So I think it's absolutely opened the eyes to a lot of organizations, but there's the risk that people will see that as a tokenistic approach. And it's really important to understand that if you're going in with a very tokenistic approach, you'll be caught out pretty quickly, because employees want to see authenticity when they're dealing with their employer in regards to the experience that they create for them in the workplace.
John Hollon 17:28
Well, and that's something else I believe, came front and center, that authenticity piece during the lockdown. Companies had to really sort of be straight with their employees about what's going to happen, how your job is going to be? Can you do this? And that? How difficult is it for HR to manage remote employees? I've got to think it's a pretty big challenge. Some people will take to it real well, and you can trust them and let them run. Others don't work so well in that environment yet you had to make a quick fix here in many, many cases, how is that gone? What's your take on that?
Matt Thomas 18:12
There's definitely been some learnings in it. And I think before COVID came in and we did the remote working, a lot of people thought remote working is awesome, I'd love to do that. But then when reality kicked in, and they actually had to do that on a day to day basis for a period of time, it was a very different view of it afterwards. So it's what you don't know, you don't know, sometimes, people found out that as well.
The biggest issue from working from home is around trust. And fortunately or unfortunately, sometimes your leaders will drive that expectation or not drive that expectation, so how do you get in front of the leaders to say, we weren't an organization that wanted to be able to measure exactly the outputs that we're doing, we had to find other ways of being able to make sure that they were still delivering and feel they still had access to all the things they did in a workplace. But it is a difficult mindset shift. And it can go to the extreme, what we almost found is then people when restrictions really died off was, well, why can't we work from home every day of the week? So there's a fine line between it being trying to be as a benefit and supporting, to then becoming an entitlement. And so navigating that expectation to some degree, was really important. Hence why we said two days in the office was more than reasonable.
I'm a fairly social person. So my challenge was very much around, I found it really challenging to do remote workshops, because I like to be in a room. And it wasn't that you couldn't do that and it wasn't able to, but it was just the fact that it had a different feel to it. So I think sometimes it's around we have to be very clear about what are the means that we needed in the office for and what days and so we rallied around that and the rest was more flexible. So I think it's really about creating environments that best support the team in what they have to deliver and their particular, I suppose behavioral fit I suppose of a team, because each team's different and unique in different ways and how they have to work.
John Hollon 20:09
Well and two days in the office, it strikes me is a good thing for another reason that is culture. I mean, how do you hold together the culture of the organization, if so many people are working at home all the time? Because what gets lost and this is the thing that I missed the most was the kind of ad hoc conversations you have in an office environment where you're getting a cup of coffee and you bump into a person. Or somebody sticks their head in your office or your cube and asks you about one thing, and you end up having a whole different conversation, because you got on to something else. Those things don't happen nearly as seamlessly in a remote environment, so having people in the office a couple of days a week, I think is good, because it helps keep your culture intact.
Matt Thomas 21:00
Absolutely, and I don't have an answer for the cultural question unless you do, John. But I think what I would say is that yeah, that connection piece, that social connection piece is important to human beings, genuinely in most cases. And I think what you then lost in some cases with not the workforce being the office you had to find different ways of creating it remotely and there are ways of doing it. Did it keep the same sort of markers if you're in the office, not necessarily but if the way the business was heading, that there was going to be this mix, you had to find a way that worked for you at the end of the day. And for us, typically, you're talking about the watercooler conversations you have in the corridor, that was one way that we would pick up very quickly around engagement feedback or some of the hotspots of feedback. So again, we had to find different ways of being able to do that in a way that wasn't about face to face interaction.
John Hollon 21:53
Well, we are rapidly running out of time here, this always happens we get going talking and we could talk for a long time and we have a very short amount of time to hit. So let me ask you one more thing. Here at the TalentX Podcast, we wholeheartedly believe everyone should have a job that they love and they're passionate about. So Matt, what do you love about what you do?
Matt Thomas 22:17
Well, I must admit, I do love the the opportunity to be in a leadership role because it is a privilege. I don't see that anything less and being able to actually work with people where you can have a direct impact on their aspirations, their career even their personally & professionally is definitely been something that I've really cherished over my fairly long career. I think it's also very fortunate that I work in an industry that has given me so much and so many lessons about myself, so tying in HR and people and also having leading teams is definitely something that I'm very grateful for, but also something that I really am passionate about because being able to see the potential in people and actually getting to see it realized I think is something that not many people get the opportunity to do in their careers.
John Hollon 23:03
Matt, thank you for spending a little time with us today. It's great to talk to such a great HR pro like yourself, and to get your perspective. We really appreciate you being here.
Matt Thomas 23:14
Thanks so much, John I really appreciate the opportunity.
John Hollon 23:17
So for the Fuel50 TalentX Podcast, this is John Hollon, thanks again for listening.