MIT Sloan Management Review’s Work/22 virtual symposium convened a roster of great thinkers to share their insights into the challenges leaders will face in the year ahead. Among them was Doug Palladini, global brand president at Vans, who discussed how the future of work is playing out at the global sports lifestyle brand and how the company adapted to better support employees throughout the pandemic.
Like a lot of companies, Vans has had to be flexible with its workforce during the pandemic. “These changes are permanent,” said Palladini. “We’re not going back.” Listening to the employee base, “what we’re hearing very loud and clear is they need more flexibility in their lives. People are really enjoying taking their kids to school, being home at lunch, being able to exercise when they feel like it, and still doing a great job at work.”
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Flexibility at work has been served well by asynchronous communication. That was always important for Vans, which operates in 100 countries, but it established itself as the chosen collaboration method during the pandemic. “I’m not paid to promote Slack, but I’m a big fan,” said Palladini. “The mentality of the meeting as this default, central way that business gets done is very old-school and needs to go away.” Face-to-face meetings, he said, will now happen only when there’s a clear strategic reason to get people together.
His company has lost something by being run through videoconference and written notes, though. Palladini said that before COVID-19, the company’s in-person culture was palpable and effusive. Everyone could feel the energy. “When you’re on Zoom, you cannot,” he said. “It’s not the same thing.” The feeling of separation from the company culture, he said, has been the biggest loss.
Some actions help bridge the gap. Palladini said that leaders have “made it a practice to never begin a conversation without making it personal” — they recognize the human moment before diving in. And cultural training, which used to be done at the home office in California, is done today through what Palladini called “microclimates”: local versions of cultural immersions in Kuala Lumpur, Montreal, Shanghai, and other international bases.
The company has made a big commitment over the past year to become more inclusive. It has published goals to increase diversity, from the athletes it works with to the full-time staff members it hires.