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Ricoh's HR chief considers the future and the hybrid workplace

Donna Venable, executive vice president of HR at Ricoh U.S., is considering how the pandemic is reshaping the idea of a hybrid workplace, and how it affects recruiting.

Like many of her peers dealing with a pandemic, Donna Venable, executive vice president of HR and deputy general manager of shared services at Ricoh North America, had to make a fast pivot in March 2020 to remote work. She is now planning the post-pandemic hybrid workplace. In an interview, Venable explains how she sees the future taking shape.

Ricoh, an information management and digital services firm based in Exton, Pa., employs about 15,000 in the U.S. About a third of the employees were in offices when COVID-19 prompted the shift to remote work. The balance of the company's employees work at customer sites, such as hospitals, transportation firms and other essential services, or at the firm's facilities, such as warehouses.

Venable discussed her experience and hybrid workplace plans in an interview. Responses were edited for clarity and length.

What happened once the workplace shifted to remote in March 2020? 

Donna Venable: We had some flexible work arrangements that people had taken advantage of, but we have never gone, or thought about going, 100% virtual. We had very good technology to support us. We recently implemented Office 365. From Friday the 13th to Monday the 16th, we went virtual.

Donna Venable, Ricoh North AmericaDonna Venable

You had a flexible work policy in place before the pandemic. Did employees take advantage of it, or was the inclination to go to the office? 

Venable: It was probably a little bit of both. We definitely had some people that liked that one or two days a week to work from home. But the culture was definitely to come in [to the office]. We had created that new world of work -- an open, highly collaborative work environment. It was very open. You could see from one end of the floor to the other. People like to engage with each other. While we did have some level of flexibility, and people embraced that, the culture was to come in and engage and collaborate. 

In May 2020, just over two months after firms switched to remote, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said the pandemic is changing everything. He predicts that about half of Facebook's employees will be working remote full time or hybrid in the years to come. What was your thinking at this time? 

Venable: This was the first global pandemic in our lifetimes. The world had become so global with travel that the risks were going to be there. And so we said, we need to think about what we can look like in the future. And three months in, we started to see that the productivity was still there. All those myths that said "we can't have people working from home because we're not going to be able to connect, and we're not going to be able to count on them," we didn't see it. Our productivity was great. People were dedicated to helping our customers through this. We started, probably right around that time, and soon after, to think about what our return to work was going to look like and what we could consider from an overall talent perspective going forward. 

Was there a concern about future pandemics? 

Venable: When the COVID variants started to appear, that's when we began to consider it. This is not a once-and-done pandemic/vaccine cycle. We have a COVID task force made up of cross-functional team members that is constantly talking to other organizations and monitoring the CDC, the World Health Organization and departments of health. They were very much trying to stay on top of it. 

Post-pandemic, how do you imagine your office will work? 

Venable: We're looking at what we call the new world of work 2.0 -- the digital workplace that can be done anywhere, virtually. We don't have it fully defined yet. But we do believe that it will be hybrid. We do not believe it will be 100% office-based nor 100% virtual. Hybrid is probably the right model for us. We still see value in bringing people together to collaborate to solve challenges or to innovate together.

Have you worked out a plan for your hybrid workers?

Venable: It's not final yet. It won't be 100% one way or the other [work from home vs. work in the office]. It will be some combination. And it will be more flexible in general than the one day a week or two days a week [working from home]. 

Will employees stick with the hybrid workplace option, or as time goes on, will there be a natural pullback to the office? 

Venable: Now that we're a year into this situation, we have folks who want to come back. And maybe as the schools are all fully back, that, too, will help. But I would be surprised if people did not want to have some level of flexibility because they've now seen that they can be as productive.

Some firms are fully supportive of hybrid workplace arrangements but aren't so sure about full-time remote work. Where do you stand on that issue? 

Venable: It's a business decision. Not long before the pandemic struck, we had decided to take a particular support services team in Georgia and move it to 100% remote, and that's a 400-person group. But we felt that it was a great move from a business perspective, and quite frankly, a talent perspective. I don't know that we're ready in any way to say it's [full-time remote] for us across the board. I think it's going to continue for us to be a decision based on the business needs.

The hybrid workplace opens up the opportunity to tap into talent.
Donna VenableExecutive vice president of HR, Ricoh North America

Does the hybrid office change how you recruit? 

Venable: I think the hybrid workplace opens up the opportunity to tap into talent. I think it allows people to look at their commute and say, "OK, if I only have to do this [two or three] days a week, then I'm interested in that."

Does this mean that somebody living an hour away from an office, who might not have taken a Monday through Friday job, might now be in your circle of potential recruits?

Venable: Exactly, yes. 

Some firms are downsizing their office space. Do you have any plans here? 

Venable: Our plan is to downsize somewhat because as we look at this hybrid environment, we think there is an opportunity to look at the space we have. We may want to have more collaboration space and fewer hoteling stations because people will be coming in and engaging. We are working through a design. We do think there's an opportunity for us to impact our real estate.

Some firms want to return to the pre-pandemic office, with employees mainly in the office. What do you think of that?

Venable: I would say in the short run, that may be a mistake for them. Because now you have people who are very comfortable [with remote work]. I think an employer who says come back 100% is probably recognizing that there are folks who may not be interested in joining them because they're requiring that.

Does it give you an advantage in recruiting? 

Venable: We would be at a disadvantage if we weren't open to having some level of flexibility.

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