Jay Smith, CIO & Head of Innovation, TracFone Wireless, Inc.

Jay Smith is a commercial and operations pro with a relentless focus on quality and execution. An intellectual blend of technology and business with a reputation for dismantling functional silos to produce seamless operational processes, innovative solutions and profitable technology products & services, Jay continues to develop a career as a results-driven and transformation-minded leader. Jay possesses a deep understanding of how collaboration and strategic execution drive success. His experience at the executive level has honed the maturity and change leadership required for successful growth in the most difficult corporate environments.

Whether you realize it or not, the landscape of corporate America has just changed. The effects of COVID19 on how we approach work, gatherings and collaboration will be felt for years, maybe decades, after we tame the virus.  How leaders respond to and enable the work from home shift over the next few weeks and months will affect their corporate culture and ability to serve customers into the foreseeable future. This shift has the potential to literally define if a company is around in 2021. So how do we ensure the transition is healthy and successful? Our recent transition has been wildly successful – in our most recent employee survey we found 61% of our employees’ report being more collaborative and productive then before the transition. I believe there are 3 key behaviors behind our success.

Don’t Underestimate the Power of “Together”

In the weeks before the COVID19 shelter in place orders, I sat across from my peers and listened to them express the worry I felt too – How would employees react to a sudden change in technology and environment? Would they stay as productive as they were before the transition? Would the pandemic be too distracting? Would our evolving cultural transition wither and cool? Would we find ourselves scrambling to find the resources we needed to carry on day to day operations? These weren’t loud worries.  In general, we trust and respects our employee base – but this sudden transition was jarring, especially considering so much culture is based on human relationships and face to face meetings. We were unsure what the reaction would be from employees, therefore unsure how we should show up as a leadership team.

But our fears were unfounded.  Because we have been so diligently transitioning to the cloud, we were able to get every single employee transitioned to work from home, regardless of their current technology set up or experience with remote work, in two weeks. And because it all happened at once, together we learned how to use our collaboration tools. Doing something new together is the great equalizer. The executive team worked from home so rarely we were definitely at a disadvantage in regard to our personal knowledge of how to use our work from home tools. We had to learn quickly and along the way we demonstrated and modeled what we hoped the transition would look like.  We rallied around changing our leadership behaviors and prioritized employee engagement. We embraced the once a day stand up, the art of rapid communication and checking in to our employees’ wellbeing. Guided by our obsession with our customers first, and our employees’ well-being at a close second – we were able to change quickly by embracing the concept of togetherness.  We changed our general working culture, virtually overnight.

Over Communicate

When I ask myself how we were able to pull it off so seamlessly I keep coming back a quite simple concept: Communication. Before COVID our corporate communication cycle was sporadic and event driven. Although our Agile transition created pockets of daily standups, it was far from a generally accepted practice.

I knew we had to step up my communication game. Immediately I embraced the act of daily formal communication and we started publishing a daily digest. I began a once a week video address. As we shared support and work from home tips – we encouraged our managers to embrace daily stand ups as a way to keep in touch. We deployed departmental digests to keep groups up to date with things like project and transformation status. Our Executive team embraced the idea of an open invitation, weekly virtual “coffee” hosted by a rotating set of executive leaders. I began encouraging engagement and play in a new way – hosting weekly internal and external games, challenges and photo contests to keep our employees engaged. For the first time we actively asked people to over communicate and modeled it ourselves. The level of collaboration and networking that has fruited from that effort is explosive and amazing. 96% of our employees feel confident in our ability to lead, 93% say their direct manager is fully supporting them and 96% find the more robust communication cycle helpful. By no stretch of my wildest imagination did I think that our engagement and productivity would go UP as a result of transitioning to home as a team.

Engage in Employee Well-Being Like Never Before

You may have noticed the impressive statistics about our employee base. How and why do I know these numbers?  As a result of COVID, I have significantly evolved my thinking about employee engagement. We shifted from asking employees about how we could improve twice a year in our Employee NPS – to checking once a month on how people feel. Using a ‘Sunny to Stormy’ Likert scale we have been asking employees about their general well-being vs. asking if they approve of us as a company. This sounds like a subtle change – but has elicited a whole new level of detail from our employee base – and shifted both the way we think about employees and also how they perceive we think about them. By untethering our query from our company, we have created the opportunity for employees to talk about their whole selves. This reframing has allowed employees to share more transparently than they felt they could before.  This new measurement lets us figure out when we need to lean in interpersonally to our employees and transitions us as leaders from a defensive position to an enabling position. The simple shift has created an unprecedented level of trust between employees and leaders –and we feel ourselves growing closer as a group. Working remotely has let us blossom more trust amongst our employee base, which in returns, translates to high employee well-being.

Small but effective changes have come together to create an exciting new environment. We are collaborating and innovating like never before. We recently hosted our first company-wide hackathon, which was hosted virtually and was put together in less than 10 days. We are actively discussing how we capitalize in this new and exciting paradigm and are generally feeling a sense of optimism in the face our current shelter in place order. I hope you can take this information and help your teams evolve even closer while we are asked to socially distance.

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