When Trina Hoefling first began consulting, back in the 1980s, she purchased a post office box to blur the fact that she had a home-based business. This was long before Slack, Google Hangouts, and Zoom made virtual teams not only efficient and functional, but rather commonplace.
The location Hoefling wanted to disguise was — and remains — key. From her home office in the high country of Colorado, her most common companions are a herd of 30 deer, and the eagles that occasionally fight in her front yard. “I love being out here with nature,” says Hoefling. “It’s easy, when you’re as serious as I am, to get burned out. Having my feet on the earth and watching nature do what it does is very grounding for me.”
As one of the early champions of the virtual workplace, Hoefling clearly practices what she preaches — building trust in virtual relationships, managing mobile teams and mastering remote leadership. And those skills also come in handy in her other career, as an online educator.
“I started a remote consulting practice, and here I am 34 years later, and I haven’t had a ‘real job’,” she laughs. “It just grew and grew.” Her secret? “Building relationships is the core skill,” she says. “It’s about online connections.”
I love this quote on your site: “In an era when Big Data ‘knows’ employees better than we know ourselves, being authentically connected to people and the organization makes all the difference.” Can you expand on that?
First of all, I believe it. I’ve seen it happen over and over again in the real world.
My more on-point answer would be that if you study the results and the motivations behind employee engagement and disengagement, whether it’s co-located or virtual, the key differentiator is the manager and the team. It’s the people.
Tech is the enabler, but people are the key.
Your company, The Smart Workplace, is about the modern mobile workforce. How does Human Resources differ in this environment?
The tech that HR uses to be effective has changed. HR information systems have moved into big data. That piece is a vast opportunity for HR to really step up to the strategic table. It’s not just, Hey, we’re here to take care of the people. It’s, Here’s data, and when we do this for our people, it’s a real differentiator in the marketplace.
There are always going to be the standard HR responsibilities, strategic organizational development and strategic people development. But people are realizing, in HR and in the C-suite, that there’s more to it now.
By “stepping up” I’m really referencing the strategic voice of HR, what we focus on as a baseline principle in our HR program. In too many HR departments, HR executes on strategy for the C-Suite, but they aren’t sitting at the strategy table, influencing and informing executives about the integral role of people and their development to the organization’s core competency and promise.
When I speak with HR leaders at the conferences I attend, many are quite tactical, missing the opportunity to be deeply relevant to the business strategy.
Human Resource Information System (HRIS) and Big Data metrics offer HR the opportunity to track more than amounts and counts (turnover and retention, for example). It enables HR to do many things in terms of developing more strategic relevance and more robust workforce planning, leveraging and facilitating social network activity within the organization, and more easily matching talent, skill, and desires to job opportunities.
What are some of the skills needed in a mobile or distributed work environment?
In a virtual, high-performance team model, all of your behavior falls into one of three categories.
One, how do you develop the team? It’s developing the team roles, being really clear around purpose and mission and governance. And also, what’s our taxonomy of collaboration? How much do we need each other to get our team work done? Most of the time, parts of the work is individual, so it’s like parallel processing. We’re doing our part and it comes together at some point. That’s cooperation, collaboration. Moving up the taxonomy of collaboration, it becomes more interactive. We cannot get this work done without each other, no one has all the pieces to do this right. We care about the outcome and have a connection to the same goal. And how we are responsible to each other? What is the decision making-process?
The second set, how do we support each other, stay on track, feel connected and aligned and get the job done? Support includes providing access to resources, people and tools to help the team members do their work better.
Third, how do we deliver results? It doesn’t matter how well your team supports each other if you’re not paying for yourself. Delivering results is also a feedback loop to ensure strategic contribution for the team and it’s validating and motivating for the team. We want to be part of a success story, and delivering good results is a success story.
In doing that virtually, you have to add in digital competency. Can we find each other’s work? How do we share documents?
What one piece of advice do you always give to people starting out in HR?
You need to learn to think systemically, especially because HR does a lot of interventions. So, what are implications or consequences? You need to think longer-term. What I’ve noticed with HR students and leadership folks, if they’ve come up through HR, they have their blinders on. They’ve not stepped back and looked at the systemic piece.
Another piece is pragmatic: Learn to write well. So much of our communication is written — we write so much more than we say. I will sometimes spend 45 minutes on a 10-sentence email — because it needs to be right.
You have to be a strong communicator to thrive in the mobile workplace. It’s written and spoken, but I think the writing is so, so, so important. If you’re not a strong writer, use Grammarly. I used Grammarly every day and I was a high school English teacher!
What are you teaching next?
HRM 530: Learning & Development is a new class for me — and it’s always been a soft spot. I came out of education and I’ve always stayed in education, even in my corporate career. There’s always been a training component to any large scale intervention I’ve done. I value L&D, it’s a grounded way to execute change. And it’s fun to work with students around such a practical part of the employee experience.
Online education seems to fit right in your wheelhouse. What do you love most about teaching?
I am a strategist and systemic thinker who enjoys helping people be more fulfilled, peaceful, and effective at work and in the world. Teaching at the graduate level is the right level for me because I get to have those thoughtful conversations with learners in online discussions and our live sessions. I listen and engage to broaden people’s perspectives and capabilities in order to elevate their impact and ability to work well with others. When students tell me they are taking course assignments to their jobs and applying them, my heart soars to know my teaching is being transferred by skilled professionals because the learning assignments were relevant and useful.
Trina Hoefling teaches HRM 500: Human Resource Strategy & HRM 530: Learning & Development for USC’s Online MS in Human Resource Management program.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.