Taki Nkhumeleni is Director, Large Industries & Industrial Merchant(LIM) Program Director for Europe Industries at Air Liquide. Drawing on a management strategy that favors empowerment and flexibility, she implemented new ways of working that support employee engagement and respond to the needs and preferences of young talent.
What do your employees expect from companies today? Have young people’s expectations really changed significantly over the past few years?
Employees today expect companies to help them reach their full professional potential, but also to leave them time and energy for their personal lives. This means flexible and remote working, a trend that was accelerated during the Covid-19 pandemic. For young talent specifically, there has been a marked shift towards digital communication channels to enable better work. We are thus pursuing hybrid models and helping younger employees strike the right balance between digital and face-to-face working.
Do you think the remote working changes brought about by the pandemic will remain permanent?
One thing I and many others at Air Liquide appreciate is the new-found flexibility of choosing when and where to work, of being able to allocate time to different priorities more easily. I don’t see us returning to full five-day weeks in the office. But by the same token, enforced remote working during the pandemic taught us how important real-life connections are. In our team, we have now designated Thursday as our office day, while team members in other countries come in quarterly and travel as appropriate in between. For those times when we’re together in the office, we benefit from redesigned work spaces that prioritize collaboration and different types of activity.
In order for this hybrid model to work, what does Air Liquide as an employer need to provide?
There are two aspects here. Firstly, staff need access to the materials required for them to work from home. Lots of people spent 2020 at their kitchen table, so we’ve provided financial and material support to employees to help them set up a home office where they are comfortable.
The other important thing is employee wellbeing. As employers, we need to keep thinking about how to support and integrate our staff. We’ve set up dedicated phone lines with psychologists for employees looking to vent their feelings or restructure their ways of working.
For you as a manager, what are the most important elements in how you lead your staff?
There are three principles I try to follow. Firstly, communication and transparency. Here I draw from the experiences we had in 2020: we communicated our intentions (protecting employees and customers; upholding operations) and then communicated precise measures in a way that was honest about the challenges involved and showed that we trusted our staff.
Secondly, empowerment. This means both empowering your team members to make decisions, and trusting them to understand what we are working towards and why. It also means taking people along with you in your career progression. There’s a diversity aspect here, too. As a manager, are you opening doors to groups thus far under-represented? Whether that be gender, nationality, skills, disability or something else.
Thirdly, speed and simplicity. When change is required, it is always better to implement something that is good enough fast rather than waiting too long for something perfect. Then, you set to work on continuous improvement.