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Valuable Hybrid Work Advice from Tracy Layney, CHRO of Levis Strauss & Co.

David Hassell
David Hassell, CEO of 15Five

What’s your hybrid work strategy? How do you plan to ensure accountability, high performance, equity, and the physical, mental, and emotional health of your people?

In this episode of the HR Superstars Podcast, Shane and I interview Tracy Layney, CHRO of Levi Strauss & Co. who discusses their hybrid work strategy and why they implemented their “Manager Reset” program to lead with empathy.

According to Tracy, it’s all about managers being in a personal relationship with every direct report to know what is happening for each person at any given time. Because being in a better relationship with your team makes you a better leader.

Vision, goals, and accountability are important, but this level of conversation is as important if not more so. 

Every manager should be able to say, “I know what’s happening with every member of my team right now, and I also know the dynamic of the team collectively.”

We need to give managers a more advanced skillset, so that they know how to have conversations, navigate these waters, and know what’s working and what isn’t in order to achieve goals. 

A hybrid work model focusing on flexibility and connection

What follows is a transcribed and edited portion of the HR Superstars Podcast, Episode 20, Valuable Remote Work Lessons to Implement Permanently:

David: This whole idea of hybrid work, we really want this to be all about employee choice. If you work really well at home, great! Spend most of your time working at home. But there are going to be times you need to be in person to collaborate. If you love working in an office, that’s great too! We’re going to have collaborative spaces for you.

How much are you thinking about leaning into that mode of employee choice vs dictating the way that things need to go?

Tracy: We are really trying not to be prescriptive. I think I’ve spent a long many months now as all my peers in HR have, thinking about this new way of working. Thinking about the nuts and bolts of how do you implement a hybrid work model, which most companies have chosen to do. 

And so, as I’ve watched other companies talk about this, my observation is that companies who are still being very prescriptive, even if it’s in a hybrid environment, they got a lot of pushback from employees. Because they’re saying, “Well, you’re sort of giving me some flexibility, but you’re still prescribing how that’s gonna work in my life.” Which to me is a bit inconsistent. 

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At Levi Strauss and Co., we’re definitely not going to overly prescribe this. We’re going to create basically some guidelines and a framework that people can operate in. The two biggest components of the framework are flexibility and connection. Flexibility to manage your work and your life, and connection which isn’t always the default to physical, but it’s about intention. How do you create a culture of both physical time together, and time apart, and time around the globe, etc.?  

So those are the kind of the two headline tenets if you will, and then our sub headers are things around getting managers’ heads around the role that they play. We also really want to make sure we’re being equitable and fair. We’re going to learn as we go and this is going to evolve. 

Shane: How much of this is the responsibility of you and the People Operations team, in designing these hybrid work guidelines, and trial and error and coming up with global policy and universal cultural dynamics? And how much is the responsibility of the individual manager?

As we know the bulk of a person’s experience inside of a company is going to be influenced by your direct manager. How do you work with your managers in implementing these things? How much freedom of choice do they have to guide their own team as they see fit? 

Tracy: As I’ve really thought about the work of the last year, and as we consider the future of work, I’ve come to learn that everything depends on the managers. In general corporations—and I’m not speaking explicitly about Levi’s—underserve that. The direct manager, is the biggest factor in employee engagement or attrition. 

So what we’re responsible for in HR, and along with the executive leadership team who’ve been my partners on this journey… they have basically said, “Okay, here’s the framework. Here’s the tenets, here’s the guidelines, and they can’t actually be overruled.”

Manager development to lead with empathy

Tracy (cont’d): One of the things that we did last year in the middle of the pandemic that we’re pulling into this work, we did what’s called a “Manager Reset”. We understood that Chip Bergh, our CEO, and I could say all the right things: tell people to take time away, tell people to turn off their phones or their computers, we implemented extra days off and meeting free days. But at the end of the day, it all comes down to the manager’s relationship with the employee.

The manager reset training, which every manager did throughout the company, was about leading with empathy. The entire thing was about leading with empathy.  Because sometimes during the pandemic you were kind of okay, and everyone was okay. And then the next month, someone was sick with COVID, or your kid was melting down because they’d been on Zoom school for three months at that point. And you know, we’ve all had it. I think we all have a shared common understanding of that period of time.

So the headline of leading with empathy for me is all about understanding anyone’s specific need at any given time. I don’t think we’ve ever taught managers really, how to be in personal relationship with somebody to the point that they know what’s happening for that person, right? I think generally, manager training is about setting clear vision, goals, and accountability and there’s nothing wrong with that training. That’s good. And unfortunately, even that doesn’t always happen. But how do I know what’s going on with Shane, what’s going on with David, what do they need at this moment from me? That’s not one size fits all.

Shane: And then I think to myself, “Oh, somebody is interested in knowing what’s going on for me.  Somebody’s tracking me.”

Tracy: Exactly. And so our manager reset program, was really about  how to have that level of conversation. Now, as we’re shifting into hybrid work, I think that’s even more important, right? Resisting the temptation to go back to the old way.

For example, we have a team meeting on Tuesday morning and everyone has to be there. You have to tell me if you’re not, and I need an excuse. I need a note from your doctor, or whatever kind of bureaucracy we put on this, as opposed to just saying, “I actually know right now, what’s happening with every member of my team. I also know the dynamics of the team collectively.” 

That is another level of manager development that includes how to navigate that and how to know if things are working or not working, and how are we achieving our goals? Again, this doesn’t take away the need for accountability. It’s a more advanced manager skill set. And I think grounding and empathy and really important.

Then the organization needs to back that up. We make sure all of our programs are also empathetic. To give a few examples, we have paid leave at LS&Co,  which I know for lots of companies doesn’t sound groundbreaking, but it’s extremely unusual in retail to have paid leave for store employees. We’re now advocating in Washington DC and with other retailers directly to say you really should go do this and here’s why it makes smart sense for you as a company.

We also extended bereavement leave which for most companies is three days. That’s insane. When you think of about it, who’s lost a person they love and only get three days off? That doesn’t make any sense. So we offer two week as a baseline and then people can add PTO if they need more time. 

The question we ask is, “How do we show up as a company with empathy, even as we train individuals to lead with empathy?”

Tracy Layney is SVP and Chief Human Resources Officer at Levi Strauss & Co. (LS&Co), where she’s responsible for their people strategy on a global scale, including talent management and acquisition, employee engagement, and diversity, equity & inclusion. She recently served on the Board of HR People & Strategy, the executive network of the Society for Human Resource Management. Tracy also has a life-long love of dance, theater and art, and is passionate about travel, visiting destinations near and far with her husband and son.