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The Role of Technology, Adaptability, and Equality in Hybrid Working

Gary Sorrentino

Gary Sorrentino

Global Deputy CIO at Zoom

Gary Sorrentino, Global Deputy CIO of Zoom

Throughout the pandemic CIOs and CISOs have had to focus on making sure their employees can work well from home. Now we’re starting to see companies reopen their office spaces and move to a hybrid working model. But what does this look like? And how can executives prepare? Quartz Network executive correspondent, Britt Erler, chats with Gary Sorrentino, Global Deputy CIO of Zoom video communications to get the answers to these questions. 

Gary shares his insight on:  

  • The role of the office in hybrid working
  • Establishing equality between environments
  • Radical adaptability

Quartz Network: Could you please share some information about your background and your role with Zoom.  

Gary Sorrentino: I’m actually retired. I retired from banking in 2019. I’ve been in technology for about 40 years. I’ve been a COO, a CFO, a CIO or CTO, and a CISO. I’ve been most of the C suites. My last 25 years have been in banking. I started my career in banking at UBS in the mid 90s, on to Credit Suisse, then Citi Group, 14 years with J.P. Morgan, and my last four years doing something called “Protect the Client.” When I retired in 2019, I met a person called Eric Yuan. And he said to me, “Why are you ready to retire?” Why don’t you come work for Zoom?” And four days after my retirement, I said, “Sure.” Right now, I’m the Global deputy CIO, for Zoom, focused on working with clients all over the world. And it’s probably been the most rewarding two years of my career. 

Quartz Network: Talk to us about the number one thing you believe executives should be considering as they plan for this new style of working 

Gary Sorrentino: I was talking to one of the consulting firms the other day, and they said 94% of all the conference rooms are still only audio enabled. Here’s what they should be thinking about. People have gone home and figured out a better way to work, we’ve been more productive, and we’ve invested in ourselves. And so now, they’ve gotten used to working in this environment. Now, they’re being recalled to the office in either a part-time or full-time fashion. When people return to the office, they’re going to expect better than when they left.  

So, imagine this. You’re 30 years old, you go to work, you’re in a conference room, and you find audio only. They really need to think about how do I make our office a showcase for technology? How do we make it so that when people come to work they want to be here?  

I think they need to think about this. In the first two weeks people are coming back to work, they’re thinking, “I miss people, I want a coffee, I want lunch, beers after work. I can’t wait.”  

But two weeks later, they’re thinking, “I have to commute an hour and a half, I have a $450 train pass, I have to waste an hour and a half in the morning and an hour and a half in the afternoon. I go to work, go to the office, and I find it’s not any better. I want to go back home.”  

So, I think what they really need to concern themselves with are two things: One, did we create the place that people want to come to work? And two, did we make it equal? A hybrid workforce is clearly the future. But is it equal? Regardless of where people are working from. And we know where everybody is right now. Right? They’re physically in one of two places. But we’re going to go back to cars and limos and Ubers and airport lounges and kiosks, and hotels. How do they make it equal so no one feels that they can’t be as collaborative and productive from their location? 

Quartz Network: What role do you see the office playing in this new hybrid work model? 

Gary Sorrentino: It used to be that we put in client centers. They were a little more high-tech than the conference rooms, but they were designed for a client interaction, a collaborative immersive experience when a client came to the office. We need to take that and extend it to the rest of the building. We need to make it so that we design our floors to be collaborative, immersive, productive. We need to make it so there is technology that people can’t have at home. There are things that have to go back to the workplace like client onboarding, employee onboarding, orientation, team building, and client interactions. Those things have to happen at work, at a building.  

What we need to do is figure out the purpose of the building. The purpose of the building got lost a long time ago. The purpose used to be to put people together to do similar tasks. Then it became to just bring everybody here because we didn’t know how to manage people. We know how to manage that they’re there, now we’ve got to change a little bit to manage what they do. We need to get back to where the building has a purpose. And the purpose is collaboration. The purpose is ideation. The purpose is human interaction. But we also need to decide what tasks have to happen in this physical building and what tasks don’t. And then we need to decide what a hybrid plan is. There is no one-size-fits-all.  

Some companies are going to come back to work completely. Some companies are on the other side of the fence where you can work from wherever you want 100% of the time. Some plans are remote or in-office 40% of the time. I think they’re going to have to deal with, “When is a certain person going to be here? And, am I going to be in that building on the same days as the people I need to interact with?”  

We used to have this whole philosophy where we’d call in and ask, “Hi, can I work from home today?” Pretty soon, it’s going to be, “Hi, can I work from the office today?”  

Quartz Network: How do you think companies can best prepare, and put models and practices in place for this new hybrid work model? 

Gary Sorrentino: I think they have to realize that there’s a human factor happening. I think the human wants to work where they want, when they want, and how they want. So, if that’s what my employees are telling me, then I need to accommodate, to let them work where they want, how they want, and when they want. We’re going to see this new term, “asynchronous working,” coming in place. Say I work for a West Coast company. Typically, my mornings are just East Coast. If I want to really deal with the West Coast for eight hours, it’s a little bit later. I might not come to work till 10 o’clock on the East Coast because my day is going to go longer. And that’s a form of asynchronous working. So, we have to figure out what technology supports how I want to work, where I want to work, and when I want to work.  

I think we have to consider that people are not going to want to come to work, go into a conference room with video and find they’re not equal. There are four people at home and they’re four boxes. They’re chatting through meeting chat. Or those at home think, I can’t hear what they’re whispering, and they can’t see what I’m chatting. So, companies are going to have to invest in technology that makes everyone equal.  

Think about this situation. You go to a conference room and you find you’re not equal. So, you do one of two things. One, you open up the laptop, and you join the call again. Two, you leave the conference room, go back to a desk, open up a laptop, and join the meeting because now you’re fully immersed. Pretty soon, people are going to think, there’s no one to the left of me, no one to the right of me, sounds like home. Why don’t I just pick up this laptop and go home? I think we really need to start investing in the employee, figuring out what the employee needs,  

Here’s another example. Fourteen months ago, when they sent me home, they gave me the standard 27-inch monitor and ADP, which worked horribly. So, I went out and bought a 36-inch curved, high-res monitor. Somewhere in the middle of the pandemic, the cost of monitors went down, so I bought a second one. Do I really want to go back to an office with the commute to go to a single, 27-inch monitor that will not allow me to multitask? So, people really need to start thinking about how to invest back in the employee? How do they make it so the employee goes, “Wow, that’s a great place. The technology they have there is better. I’m more productive, more immersed, and I’m getting the human factor.” 

And they’re going to have to start to build spaces that build up this collaboration. Huddle rooms were there. Now they have to figure out how to make them broader. Give them more capabilities.  

Quartz Network: As you said, you really want to get to know what your employees are looking for. How do you do that when everyone’s going to have different mindsets? 

Gary Sorrentino: I think it’s all about how we enable employees to be productive and collaborative. So yes, a 36-inch monitor might be out of the question. But at the end of the day, going back to what we had, is also out of the question. Upgrading infrastructure is table stakes. Allow employees flexibility. I think it’s about giving them the tools that make them productive. There’s a balance. Better than what you had, but maybe not quite as good as what you have today.  

We also need to focus on equality. Enable technology, like smart Gallery, which syncs multiple people in a room to single boxes, right? How are we showing people there’s equality? It has to be that it doesn’t matter whether I go to an office, I work from home, I work in the car, or I work from an airport kiosk, I’m equal. I’m equal in my contribution to the conversation, I can collaborate equally, and I get the same immersive feeling.  

I also think management needs to participate. If the managers all go into the office every single day, but they say it’s okay to be out of the office and work from anywhere, people are going to follow what their leaders do, not what they say. People do not want to feel that if they don’t go to the office, they won’t get that next promotion, won’t be in eyesight. That whole thing about talking to your boss in the conference room or talking to them over a cup of coffee or going out for a beer used to be very important. So, we have to figure out how to create that equality. That’ll come on through technology.  

I think the one blocker is, how do we recreate serendipitous moments? Zoom is looking at something called immersive scenes, which would make it so we don’t have to be a square in a Brady Bunch view. Why can’t it be me and you in a single screen with a pub background, not the Brady Bunch? And maybe figure out a way to connect me and you randomly, so we can have that quick three-minute catch up in between a sea of calls. 

Quartz Network: I agree with you. It does start with leadership trickling down. It starts with the leaders really showcasing how they’re going to move the company forward in that direction. 

Gary Sorrentino: I think we teach people how to do their job, but we don’t teach them how to collaborate. We need to teach people going forward and take this opportunity. We learned a lot about how to work together. But how do we teach people in a hybrid world? How do they stay collaborative? It’s not just tools, it’s also training. Let’s teach how to collaborate. Let’s teach more than your job function. It’s a combination of tools and training. 

Quartz Network: Do you think the companies who decide they’re going to have employees work remote 100% will eventually find that it’s not working and that they need to go back to a hybrid model? 

Gary Sorrentino: I think the word “radical flexibility” is needed. Don’t just pick a model and move forward. We’re dealing with a variable called humans, and they change. While we all fill out surveys and polls, I think it’s all going to change when the doors open. We might stick to our poll answer to stay at home, but then a couple of weeks later, we might say I think I want to go back into the office. Or, it might be the other way around. I might say I want to go back to the office, because my office is currently the couch, and I really need to get to a proper desk. So, I think the people who said they want to work full time back in a building, some of them are going to change their mind. I think the people who are at the other extreme are also going to change their mind. I think the people in the middle still haven’t made up their mind. So, do not think the solution you put in when you open the door is going to be the final solution.  

Quartz Network: How do you see Zoom playing a role in the future of this hybrid workforce? 

Gary Sorrentino: Zoom and its partners are now coming out with hardware, as well as software. You’ll see some of our partners are coming out with high-end devices to make experiences better regardless of who you are or where you are.  

We came up with something called a Virtual Receptionist. And it means that when you walk into a building, you don’t have to talk to a human. Now a lot of companies looked at that and said, “Yeah, but when I open the front door, it would be really good if there was, you know, a greeter in the front, and not a virtual receptionist.” So, they took that product, suggested moving it to the cafeteria, and making it a virtual help desk? So, when people go into the cafeteria, they walk up to this product, and it automatically connects them with a help desk person. So, people are actually taking some of the things that we’re doing and moving them into other places.  

Some of our vendors are coming out with something called bubbles. They’re creating an air bubble around a group of people, so you don’t get noise interference from other groups.  

What I’m seeing is a combination of software and hardware to make this experience better. How do we make these things cloud? How do we upgrade the conference rooms, the training rooms, the huddle rooms, executive offices, and, even the client centers? 

Quartz Network: Everyone is wondering, where do we go from here? Where do I start to plan for this? Any final pieces of advice that you have for leaders on where to begin? 

Gary Sorrentino: Listen to your employees. Talent is going to be very big. The world has changed. It’s no longer a case of who will hire me? It’s where I want to work. And I will look for companies that work in the manner that I want to work. So, you need to listen to your employees and have a lot of empathy. Employees coming back are not going to tolerate ineffective solutions. 

We need to be very cognizant of what the employees in our company want. It’s different by company and industry, but at the end of the day, this is the time to listen to our employees and have a lot of empathy for them. They’ve been put in a situation where we have to listen to them. And we must evolve. It only makes our company stronger. I know that’s what Zoom is doing. They’re listening to us. They’re working with us. They’re figuring out how we want to work in the future. I hope all companies are doing the same. 

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