[SPEAKER] Martha is Chief Business Anthropologist at ADP, where she helps design and create meaningful services, experiences, and products. Her approach both questions and contextualizes the social and cultural dynamics of technology. Martha understands technology as a cultural phenomenon and sees it as deeply embedded in the broader context of geography, social norms, language, physical space, and infrastructural capabilities. Martha shares insights about the people and the places where they make meaning with technology. Her expertise contributes to ADP’s ability to keep people at the center of innovation and design a better world at work.
[TORI DICKEY] Thank you, Martha Bird, for joining our Generation’s BRG podcast. We’re real excited to have you here today. My name is Tori Dickey. I am the Generation’s membership director on the National Board. And we look forward to having a terrific conversation today. Tell us a little bit about yourself and your career transition from academia to corporate ADP.
[MARTHA BIRD] Hi, Tori. Thanks so much for inviting me. I’ve been looking forward to this. Yeah, I’ve had a very interesting, I would say, a multiple set of careers. So I actually grew up in central New Hampshire, where for about 15 years, I ran a seventh-generation family farm. So I’m very aware of generations working together– both the benefits and the challenges. So I think that’s an interesting intersection with our interests.
But part of working as a farmer meant that I had winters kind of to myself. And it seemed to me that I should be doing something perhaps a little bit more productive given that there was nothing to do in the fields. And I was fortunate enough to receive a fellowship to Boston University where I was working then on my PhD in anthropology, not what the intention actually of teaching, although I think the track that was set up for me was probably more in that direction. But I was just really interested, as I still am today, in really understanding how people make meaning with the tools that they have, with the people that are around them, with the cultural spaces in which they exist. So that was sort of the start there.
And then once I received my PhD, I understood that there were other anthropologists like myself who had opted not to go into academics, and instead decided to pursue careers in industry. And at that time, which is about 20 years ago, the industry that was most attractive to us as a group was in technology. So long and short is I ended up moving to San Francisco. I worked in Silicon Valley for a number of years. And then I’ve moved my center of operation to London, where I worked for a good many years, basically there working in emerging markets, spending a lot of time in Russia, actually.
And then as way leads on the way in my life, I ended up moving back to the US and talking to Roberto Masiero who is my current manager. And he brought me in basically with the remit to bring some human wisdom to the digital tools that we built.
[TORI DICKEY] Very nice. Well, we are certainly lucky to have you. We’ve seen you out in a few different ADP corporate settings and definitely know that you bring quite a bit of value to our products and the direction which our technology will be going in the future.
[MARTHA BIRD] Yeah. I feel very privileged for the platform and the opportunity to actually kind of find some of these intersections between the human and the technical. And I think it’s– I feel very blessed to be able to do that.
[TORI DICKEY] Certainly. Let’s chat about COVID-19 and the impact across our different generations. What have you observed or recognized from our different generations?
[MARTHA BIRD] Well, on the outside, and not specifically about ADP, I’ve personally been really impressed by the shared social responsibility that I’ve observed across a number of generations. So on any given trip to the store, I see young and old and all those in between wearing some kind of mask I’ve also been deeply touched by the perseverance and grit of those elders who seem to be just getting on with it despite their physical challenges.
I wonder though how they’re keeping at home. Are they alone? Did they get enough human connection, which makes me think of a dear friend and mentor of mine who was 98? And he got to a point where he said he thought it made sense for him to hire a helper to come in to visit him a few times a week just to give him a good back scratch.
So human connection is critical. And those less fortunate enough to have access to technologies that enable us to connect, even if somewhat flat compared to the real thing, I think are very fortunate. And of course, some people, especially older folks, are taking to video conferencing out of necessity. So they are learning new ways of connecting while others, I’m afraid, are having a probably a deepening experience of isolation.
Of course, as people have been sheltering at home, there is the necessity for parents and children and perhaps grandparents to shelter together. And for those I’ve spoken to, it’s kind of a mixed bag of emotion. On the one hand, it’s a gift to spend time with family when you might otherwise be on the road commuting to work. You get to sit down with meals. You get to do family projects and just generally share time together.
However, there is also that feeling of, wow, this is a lot of additional effort to manage kids and work responsibilities and what other things may come up. And somewhere in the mix of emotion has been planted the seeds of work-life change where people have been forced to be a bit more transparent about their domestic life and responsibilities inherent in that life. So many of us have kept our professional personas really separate from our personal personas.
But for those of us fortunate enough to work from home, we’ve had to embrace a new kind of blending of the two. And I think the implications of this for the future of work are still really playing out. But I suspect we will see more opportunities for flexible work arrangements to emerge, like, where and how and when work gets done. And I’d love to see the idea of quality over quantity becoming really the true measure of professional success, as opposed to how many meetings one attends and how many hours one works.
[TORI DICKEY] Yes. And that’s a great point. I’m right there with you with regards to how we view productivity or how we view success as a shift. So what do you think about the new normal we keep hearing about? I mean, we’re all facing the unfamiliar routines, keeping more personal distance. What are your thoughts as it pertains to ADP and our culture?
[MARTHA BIRD] Yes. It’s interesting, Tori. I have been giving a lot of thought to this term, new normal. And personally, I feel like the term, emerging realities, is better because I believe it captures the multiple ways people are learning to adapt and evolve. It’s a dynamic term that implies change in movement, whereas I think a new normal feels, to me, a bit static, which is really the way culture works.
For, example, what might be new to one person is the same old thing for another. And similarly, what I might find normal might well seem out of the ordinary for another person. So it’s not really about a one size fits all. If we have learned anything I think over the past several months, it is that people experience life differently depending on many and varied factors like age, ethnicity, income, education, and access. So for me, I like emerging realities.
[TORI DICKEY] Very good. So is the handshake a thing of the past days and now considered taboo?
[MARTHA BIRD] I’m not sure I’d call it a taboo, but then again I’m an anthropologist. So my mind goes to the original meaning of the word which was related to like sort of supernatural forces that had the potential of doing evil. So to avoid taboos, we’re set up to get away from these dangers. So supernatural malevolent forces aside, if nothing else, those who follow I think the CDC and the WHO guidelines won’t be shaking hands anytime too soon.
Of course, two, many cultures don’t shake hands when greeting others. So for instance in Thailand, people put their hands at chest level and bow. And so in other places for religious reasons, some people don’t shake hands. Particularly, men don’t shake hands with women.
And then there’s also the thing about order, the order of shaking. And the pressure of the handshake can vary depending on the age of those gathering with deference to elders. But I think it seems safe to say, however, that for the near-term, handshakes will be avoided by many people. Whether these will become a thing of the past seems unlikely, given the hope that we’ll soon see a vaccine for COVID-19, and also the fact that the process of cultural behavior changes in very lengthy process.
[TORI DICKEY] So do you have any messaging or words of wisdom on how we can support our different generations in ADP through this change?
[MARTHA BIRD] Yeah. I think the main one that comes to my mind is to be kind to yourself. That’s first and foremost. And then understand that most people are experiencing a sense of anchorlessness and uncertainty. So it’s OK to feel vulnerable, and it’s even better to be honest about it.
And listen with intention and respect your teammates. So I think listening is a sign of attention-paying. It’s a form of reciprocity, an affirmation between a listener in a speaker and vice versa. I think it signals a partnership, a collaboration rather than a one-way conversation. So active listening, I think, builds more trusting relationships.
Think back on a time when you felt like you were truly heard. And then think back on a time when you felt ignored. How did you feel about that person? So is that person someone you’d respect as a leader?
There are few feelings more apt to generate withdrawal and apathy than the feeling that your opinions don’t matter. It really doesn’t mean that everyone needs to agree with your opinions, but it does mean that feeling dismissed will never engender respect.
[TORI DICKEY] Great message. And I appreciate your words of wisdom here for us today with the Generations BRG.
[MARTHA BIRD] Mm-hmm. Thank you.
[TORI DICKEY] Yeah. How about the shift to a remote work environment? Are there different ways that you see our leaders might approach performance, coaching, or mentoring, and the employee engagement we have here at ADP?
[MARTHA BIRD] Yeah. There’s a couple of practices that come immediately to my mind. So interestingly today, my team is welcoming a new intern. And then the team leader has organized a Webex welcome to the team call so that we have a chance to say, we’re glad you’re here. Now, that’s an entirely new experience, and I’ll be happy to report back how that goes.
But it’s a step in the right direction. Yes, is it as good as having a get-together around our shared table where we have lunch? Maybe not. But is it a signal that we really care that this person is actually showed up? I think it is. So that’s I think that’ll be interesting to see.
And on the lines of human touch, I think leaders should adopt an attitude of open and honest communication to encourage more human-centered, I think, working relationships. This goes to what I was just saying really about attentive listening. And I think it starts by carefully curating inclusive remote meetings where everyone has a voice. So set aside time at the beginning of meetings to share fears and concerns and invite open discussion.
Set aside time for regular and predictable one-on-ones, perhaps inviting the associate to walk and talk during the conversation. I actually find that really a nice practice because so often we’re just crouched over our laptops, and it just doesn’t feel particularly humane. And I always really feel like there’s a lot more flow of conversation when I’m able to sort of just have a natural walking about. So I think that’s one thing.
And then ask the teammate how they prefer to be mentored. And something that I know has been successful in other companies– and I’ve seen it with friends that I know– is to pair teammates across generations. So creating mentorship opportunities in both directions– I just think it’s hugely valuable.
And then I share this with your listenership because I think this was something that I found really exceptionally engaging– was, I had asked teammates to share a photo of themselves as very young children, and then to write a single sentence. What would you say to them now?
Not only did this open up an opportunity for shared fun; it also gave the team an opportunity to learn more about childhood in different cultures, and underscored the reality that, regardless of current age, we were all kids once. So it proved to be a really successful exercise in terms of team sharing, cross-cultural learning, and multi-generational understanding. And I really recommend it to your listeners.
[TORI DICKEY] I like that. I think we’ll go ahead and launch that. Maybe our virtual chapter can help facilitate some fun around doing just that I certainly have had a similar experience in bringing about 10 pictures to a workplace environment and found that it really helps us to shift into that human dimension, find a common bond, and identify areas of discussion to build on that relationship and/or mentorship. So great suggestion, Martha. I appreciate that.
[MARTHA BIRD] My pleasure.
[TORI DICKEY] So one last question for you as we wrap this up. How do you view history and tradition in ADP? For example, our locations will have potlucks or other activities such as chili cook-offs. Do you think that we’ll see these again anytime soon in our in our workplace?
[MARTHA BIRD] Yeah. I don’t think we’ve seen the end of in-person gatherings. Humans are dependent on connection, and we form communities around these interpersonal opportunities. So ADP has a strong history of putting people first and, I think, with a very solid focus on family, whether it’s for the associates or for clients. And as a company, ADP has a consistent track record, I think, of supporting the communities in which we live and prosper.
This makes sense really is to give back to those who allow us to prosper. So how we give back may change, but the act of doing so is ingrained in the values of the company, and I don’t see that changing. I see changing eventually a return to more of these sort of in in-person get-togethers.
[TORI DICKEY] Good. Well, we certainly look forward to that time coming sooner than later.
[MARTHA BIRD] Yeah. And in the meantime, share photos of yourself as young children.
[TORI DICKEY] Yeah. There you go. [LAUGHS] It’s a great second-best while we bridge the gap. All right, well, thank you so much, Martha, for your time today and participating with the Generations BRG, the GenCast. We do hope that you’ll be able to join in future events or activities that Generations hosts as well.
[MARTHA BIRD] Well, I’d really look forward to that, Tori. And thank you so much for inviting me. It was my great pleasure.
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