Optimizing for a new world of work with Shama Hyder

Jenna Stein

Shama Hyder has been dubbed a millennial social media mogul, and she frequently shares advice and guidance on connecting with rising younger generations. As such, our recent conversation with her delved into the practical implications of flexible work, and into the value of empathy when managing younger teams.

With work rapidly transforming in response to a global disruption, these trends have been accelerated. The importance of managing work remotely, and using empathy to detect invisible personal issues or productivity barriers, are now more important than ever.

In our Q&A on maximizing collaborative success for millennials and younger team members, especially within creative settings, Shama shared her perspective on what she’s been seeing, and what works for her.

Millennials are reshaping workplace dynamics, with an emphasis on collaboration

What are some of the biggest shifts you’ve noticed as millennials have come to account for a larger percentage of the workforce, be it in marketing or otherwise?

For many of us, with our parents and grandparents, they left work at the door. There were the work hours, and then the non-work hours. Today, we’re seeing so much of that blend together. 

Ask anybody in a professional setting, and chances are they get work emails when they’re off the clock. Yes, they may choose not to get notifications and so forth. But still, those lines between work and home blur so much, and because of this, work has to become a lot more flexible in terms of how you manage it and how you measure progress. So for example, my team at Zen Media, we’ve always been remote. Since the day I started the company, this is how it’s been. Funny story: when we first started, this was 12 years ago, I used to tell people we were remote. And people would say, what’s that mean? Or when we say we work out of the cloud, people would look up and say oh, where’s that?

These days, work just doesn’t stop when you leave a specific facility, or room in your house. Chances are, the work bleeds over and flexibility becomes key. So I think for the modern workforce, what that looks like is a lot more emphasis on collaboration across geographies and time zones. Our company works with clients in multiple time zones, and we have team members in multiple time zones.

A lot of millennials are coming into a marketing environment that is increasingly cross-functional and, as you mentioned, more distributed. What do you think is most effective for inspiring and empowering people from different departments, and locations, to gel together?

It really starts with having your goals well defined. The how something gets done, that really is a control issue and luckily, I don’t have that challenge. I don’t feel like I need to control how something gets done, or where something gets done, or even when something gets done. I think it really helps, when you’re collaborating across time zones and across departments, to stay flexible around a bigger goal that everybody’s on board with. And then to really empower the team to self-manage and figure out what works for each individual. Learn how everyone does their best work and then allow those pieces to come together.

It is a holistic approach in determining: What are the goals? What are you trying to accomplish? Everything else just really is a matter of preference.

What are the goals? What are you trying to accomplish? Everything else just really is a matter of preference.

So when we talk about millennials, we’re talking about digital natives and people who grew up with electronics and personal devices. Do you find that this alters or affects the way these individuals like to communicate and be productive at work? 

One thing that’s fascinating is that there’s so much crossover in how we communicate. So a conversation, for example, could start off face-to-face. And then it evolves into email and text, and voicemail. 

A conversation doesn’t necessarily take place on one platform. You may not finish a conversation in one setting, as it may carry over through other mediums and platforms. It’s an interesting dynamic but also creates managerial and coordination challenges, such as how do we keep records of these conversations and interactions when a project may start here and then move somewhere else?

Part of being empathetic means letting go

There’s been a lot of research and discussion around the heightened importance of empathy when engaging with millennials. Where do you see empathy fitting in when it comes to driving productivity and managing a younger team?

Empathy is critical across generations. It’s not just for millennials or baby boomers; I think empathy creates a better overall place to work no matter what. And it’s much more than just having an understanding of what someone else’s challenges might be. 

Part of it is you have to give up being a control freak. As leaders, we should really look at the big picture and ask ourselves, is this necessary? Or is this just politicking, or someone trying to make it seem like it has to be done this way because it’s the way they prefer? 

As leaders, we should really look at the big picture and ask ourselves, is this necessary? Or is this just politicking, or someone trying to make it seem like it has to be done this way because it’s the way they prefer? 

So within that empathy, you have to go a layer deeper and say not just “Do I understand how people prefer to work and what their challenges are?” but also, “Am I willing to let go of my own notions of how it should be done?”

The autonomy/direction balance is not one-size-fits-all

Millennials tend to express a preference for flexibility, contributing to the rise of remote work. As a manager, how do you strike the balance between giving your team the autonomy and independence they want, but also giving them the direction to make sure everything’s staying on track and on strategy?

Everyone’s different, and I don’t think you can treat everybody the same way. For example, in our team, the people who work a lot more autonomously don’t need much direction; in fact, too much direction can sidetrack them and make them feel like they can’t do their best work. Then there are other folks who need that direction and aren’t necessarily looking for autonomy. 

So I think this is a fallacy that lots of leaders, including myself in the past, have made where you think everybody works the way you like to work. I personally love a lot of autonomy, I like minimal direction, but I’ve found as a leader, that’s not true for everybody. So you really have to meet people where they are, and then make sure that person is the right fit for the role. If you have a role that requires a lot of autonomy, but the person doing it needs a lot of direction, that may not be a great fit. We really need to get rid of blanket approaches and, getting back to empathy, meet with people one-on-one to see how they work best.

Routines and best practices are being shaken up in a WFH world

The disruption of COVID-19 is compelling many teams to think differently about the way they get work done together. In your travels or experiences, are there any creative or innovative approaches to boosting productivity you’ve seen that have been striking or promising to you?

As I mentioned, I started Zen Media 12 years ago, and when we started, the idea of remote work wasn’t being embraced yet. “Well, how does it work if we can’t see you face to face?” and so forth. But today we’re moving beyond that out of necessity. For most people, they realize that as long as the work’s getting done, and deadlines are being met, and your bigger goals are being accomplished … You really don’t need all that rigid structure. 

A remote work culture also allows you to attract great talent. We’ve been very lucky to attract amazing talent because of that ability to work remotely, and by letting people set their own schedule and work in the way that’s best for them. 

That’s what’s really exciting for me in terms of innovation. It’s not necessarily a new tech or a new platform. It’s this bigger idea that we are now becoming a lot more open-minded about the future of work, and how it should look or feel.

As a manager you spend a lot of time motivating your team, but you also need to stay motivated yourself. At a time where you’re maybe feeling less productive, do you have any personal go-to techniques to get out of the rut?

Yeah, I walk away and I go play with my dog. The best tip I have for breaking out of a rut, when you feel like there’s a lull in productivity, is to step away from it because you cannot be productive when you’re not in a productive mindset. I think you have to be able to back away and say, “You know what, this isn’t happening right now.” And rather than trying to force it, take even a five to 10 minute break to go do something that completely changes your mindset. When you come back with a fresh slate, I think that makes a big difference.

Those moments where I’m like, “Oh man, what am I doing here?” and I find myself scrolling through something or going through all the messages in the inbox, I have to take a pause, then stop myself, and step away. 

I also think analog tools are great. I actually have an old-school pomodoro right on my desk. It’s analog, not digital. I wind it, I set it down, and it’s a visual reminder as time ticks in terms of the task I was focused on.

Find a strong grasp on where to focus your attention

Over the course of your career, have you developed any go-to time savers or efficiencies that help you cut out the time-sucks and accomplish more?

In my case, I’m very clear about what I need to get done during a given day. So it might be three things I absolutely have to get done, and then everything else revolves around that. Because work can expand. And, and I’m a creator, so I’m creating things all the time, right? I’m engaging in projects, we’re working with clients. And so when you’re a creator, your inbox is never empty, there’s always messages flowing. I think it’s very important to prioritize that freedom to let other things enter your workflow. 

And then, again, the analog method of having a pomodoro timer that I can actually see and hear right there on my desk helps me too, because I can carve out my tasks and say, okay, 25 minutes for this. 

Another tip that’s helped me tremendously is to assign things more time than I think they’ll take. And this is a really tough one for me personally. I have found that there’s almost no task in the world that takes five minutes. I’ve come to recognize that the minimum a task takes is really 15 minutes, because you’ve got to break from what you’re doing, shift focus, and then reset yourself on something else. I could be as simple as paying a bill online. It’s 15 minutes.

As we look at the 2020s, especially with respect to a crowd of millennial marketers, designers, or creators like yourself, what do you foresee being the biggest frontier for productivity here in the next decade that people are going to be talking about?

The key to productivity in the next decade isn’t going to come from a new technology or an innovative platform, not that there won’t be more innovations to help us manage our time better. I really think it will come down to mindset. I think the future belongs to those who can think mindfully about technology and cultivate what I consider tech mindfulness — the ability to decide when it’s appropriate to spend time scrolling, and when it’s appropriate to focus on something else. The greatest productivity hack really comes down to getting a strong grasp on one simple question: Where do I focus my attention?

I think the future belongs to those who can think mindfully about technology and cultivate what I consider tech mindfulness — the ability to decide when it’s appropriate to spend time scrolling, and when it’s appropriate to focus on something else. 

A new mindset for the new reality

Thank you, Shama for sharing your thoughts and insights, which are relevant as we forge ahead into a transformed world of work even faster than expected. Embracing the principles of productivity for millennial marketers will help business leaders adapt and thrive as flexible work and one-on-one management rise to the forefront.

For more tips on maximizing creative teamwork, check out our new interactive experience featuring Shama and many other forward-thinking pros: Empower better creative teamwork.

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