Agility and the workforce: Breaking down silos and building people up

Everyone talks about workforce agility. WD-40’s Global Talent Director shares how to build a more agile workforce with project-based work.

Agility and the workforce: Breaking down silos and building people up

Workforce agility can mean many things to people. Whether it’s the ability to switch roles, work cross-functionally across teams and time zones, and break down silos and seek new projects, organizations must have an agile-first mindset if they want to succeed in this new world of work.

Rachelle Snook, the Global Talent Director from WD-40 — yes, that ubiquitous garage staple that can seemingly do everything — is a fan and proponent of all of the above.

WD-40 has been all hands on deck for a while now, tapping into employee insights from around the world, especially in critical times like handling supply chains during the pandemic. Snook says it’s their unique perspective on working cross-functionally on a project basis that makes it all come together.

“I’m a big believer in pivoting,” Snook said. “If something’s not working, and we’ve got a passion in a different area, let’s go for it and empower our people to do that.”

Learn more from Snook about the best practices to make any workforce more agile, especially when it comes to project-based work and enhancing internal mobility. (Ed note: Quotes have been edited for length and clarity.)

How to break down silos and move toward project-based work

“What’s constrained us in the past is the idea that our people, our resources, and our time are finite — and they are. But if we are encouraging ourselves to think with an infinite mindset and be open to the idea that solutions can come from anywhere, you don’t necessarily just have to keep that within your team, within your country. …It’s essential in our new way of working because we know our people — our future leaders — they don’t want to be constrained by boundaries, geographies, or even an office.”

Whether it’s siloed data, teams, or functions, the new world of work demands a more liquid approach.

Teams and their work should no longer be limited to geographical or functional silos, and job families shouldn’t sit in hierarchies or be hampered by location. As Snook says, “Solutions can come from anywhere.” To be agile and competitive, boundaries must be blurred and broken down. 

WD-40 put its plans into action during the pandemic. Snook’s workforce was faced with accelerating e-commerce. It had to make faster decisions to keep supply chains working online. 

“We were bringing teams together in what we called squads,” Snook says. “They span about six different languages, four or five different countries, but it was changing and evolving so quickly, we didn’t want to wait for that quarterly meeting. …No, we brought them together on a monthly basis to share best practices, data, and insights with one another on what was working so that they could be more agile. 

“By decentralizing those decisions and inviting those peer groups together, we created great outcomes, wonderful solutions, and we could respond really quickly to the business needs.”

A new work style requires a new structure and system: Project-based work

“It’s another one of these ways that we can break down our territories, that we can share information because quite often we tend to hoard it as a people, right? The more information you have, the more power that you have, the more control, and the more rewards that you get. 

“But we are reversing that, thinking the more that we can share and involve others, we can raise the overall boat. And it just gives our tribe more opportunity to celebrate together because we are only as strong as our individual parts, but working together.”

Bringing the right people together at the right time on a per-project basis is the future of work. (In fact, we already wrote about building a liquid workforce).

“We truly believe that our culture is our advantage and that if we don’t continue to nurture it and celebrate it, we will lose that edge,” Snook said. “We have really high engagement, 91 percent employee engagement globally. I think it speaks to the power of the values and of our tribal culture.”

With the average WD-40 employee’s tenure lasting 9.5 years on a global scale, this workforce strategy is paying off.

The mindset of a constantly evolving workforce is also a way to nurture and support emerging leaders. The idea is to find new ways to explore talent and how and when they engage with them. 

“Our leaders are more focused on what needs to get done rather than the where or the how, and our work from anywhere philosophy is enabling them to do that,” Snook says. 

This flexibility is also great for those who have significant responsibilities outside work. Snook says that 78 percent of their workforce are caregivers, and the way they structure work needs to fit their lives, or they risk losing them to the competition. 

WD-40 also stresses the importance of teaching and learning, making it the No. 1 responsibility of their leaders and coaches.

“If we don’t continually evolve and learn and teach and create that space for our people to grow then we are shortsighted,” Snook said. “We lack the ability to be future-focused. So it’s built into our quarterly performance reviews. Our coaches are evaluated on their ability to develop their people and to prepare them for the next role. It’s a focus on bench-building and growing our organization so that we can be sustainable.”

HR’s role in this new agile world of work

“We have a philosophy at WD-40. We don’t go where we’re not invited. So HR is not going to be banging down the door saying, ‘Hey, we want to talk with you about being a more agile organization.’ No, we are creating and asking the questions. What can we do?” 

A project-based, agile workforce of the future doesn’t just appear. It takes dedication, time, communication, and work to make it happen.

Snook says that testing is a big part of the process. Encourage people to start with smaller projects and then point to areas of success — like the aforementioned global digital squads.

It’s OK to change course if things aren’t working out, too, and always integrate your people into the feedback process. WD-40 is a big proponent of reverse mentoring. 

“We’re finding more and more as they let go,” Snook said. “They’re getting the result as long as they’re clear on the front end about what needs to happen and allowing and empowering our people to get the work done.”

So what happens when the project is done?

“By allowing our people to work on projects, either in their functional area or outside their traditional geographies, they’re creating opportunities for themselves, so they’re now on the radar for that next role or lateral move within our organization,” Snook said. 

She says in North America alone, 60 percent of their internal positions are from promotion.

“We’ve got people going from marketing to human resources. We’ve got folks going from innovation to sales. They’re becoming more well-rounded tribe members so that they have a bigger picture and expectation of the whole organization.”

Focusing on skills and competencies builds your bench in many ways. By moving people to the places where they can innovate the most, groups are more likely to try new things and learn, and surprising new results surface.

It also instills trust in your people.

A project-based system gives people the power to create opportunities and increase visibility with other teams throughout an entire organization.

This is the way that most people will expect to work in the future. Projects are posted internally, and people respond and build their own careers.

This makes your organization more attractive for people just starting out or innovators looking for a new challenge. Project-based work opens the door to career growth and even delivers future leaders for succession planning.

This conversation with Rachelle Snook came from our podcast The New Talent Code, practical insights for empowering change agents in HR. 

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