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Hitting HR high notes through flexibility

 

Sony Music’s Senior VP of People Experience on how collaboration and creativity thrive under flexible conditions

Words by Liam Soutar

 

Maria Neve

Senior VP of People Experience

Few HR issues have arisen in the past few months, to which flexible working hasn’t been at least a partial solution.

We begin this new year with memories of significant disruption still fresh in the mind. It was only last month that rail workers staged the latest in a long line of strikes over pay and working conditions – industrial action which hit those relying on public transport for both business and pleasure.

In the summer, a record heatwave sparked conversations about allowing staff to start work earlier or later to avoid travelling in dangerously high temperatures.

There’s also been an increasing realisation this year that some employees are more productive if they clock in hours earlier or later than colleagues – which has created more opportunities (or headaches, whichever way you look at it) for HR to lead a happier workforce.

And to top it all off, landmark legislation, the Flexible Working Bill, has now enshrined in law the right for any worker to request flexible working from day one of their employment. Of course, employers can still say no to any flexible working requests, but the fact that there is now a legal impetus surrounding flexible work proves it’s no longer a ‘nice to have’, but rather a must-have for many employees.

At Sony Music Entertainment, flexibility is at the core of ensuring its creative workforce thrives.

As Maria Neve, Sony Music’s Senior Vice President of People Experience (or PX, as the firm styles it) in the Americas, explains exclusively to myGrapevine magazine, flexibility is at the heart of both creativity and collaboration.

 

Maria Neve

Senior VP of People Experience

 
 

Flexibility is going to be central to an organisation’s success, both now and in the future

 

Creativity is ‘fuelled by different experiences’

“We are continuously designing and co-creating (flexibility) with our leaders and employees,” she says.

“Creativity and collaboration are at the heart of our culture, the work we do and our workplace approach, and flexibility is at the heart of both of those. Our company is made up of a diverse mix of employees in hundreds of different types of roles ranging from A&Rs (Artist & Repertoire), marketing professionals, and promoters; through to data analysts, finance and legal professionals and more. As such, our aim is to be as flexible as possible with the different working styles brought to the company, to ensure collaboration and creativity thrives.

“We know creativity is fuelled by different minds, experiences and being in different spaces. We’ve seen the power when people are together in-person, and how social connection is fuelled by that. We also know that high performance cultures are built with flexibility, empowerment and trust. People want more autonomy and flexibility to have moments to focus or be in a space that matches their values and the way they work best.

“We work to balance those individual needs with the needs of the team and business. That requires everyone to be flexible and is something we are continuing to learn to build our new rhythm.”

As Neve explains, the company has built an approach known as Hybrid with Flexibility that has been led by listening to their people, thinking about the needs of the artists/creators and adapting to the needs of the business.

Within that, Sony has created flexible frameworks for each business to use based on its unique needs.

Some roles are fully remote and some primarily in-office, but most roles take a hybrid approach, according to Neve, who goes on: “We are continuing to listen, pivot and build out what the future of flexibility for Sony Music looks and feels like as we know it is complex, nuanced and evolving.

“Flexibility looks different for everyone and so we have to be thoughtful about how we create and measure the positive impact on business performance. Whilst we continue to observe and pilot new approaches to workplace flexibility and team collaboration, we know this is a journey and will continue to evolve.

“How we re-train our leaders to lead in a new way, enable employees to think about team, as well as individual needs, and leverage technology to redesign work and make it more innovative, engaging and cost effective will be some of the key pillars, I believe, to enabling a flexible and high performing culture.”

About Maria and her role

My role is Senior Vice President of People eXperience (PX) for Sony Music Entertainment’s Americas region, which covers the US, Canada and Latin America and Iberia. I essentially take a macro strategic view across the region to ensure we’re supporting all segments of the employee journey by enabling our people, building the right capabilities and cultivating our unique culture where the people and the business thrive.

I’ve been with SME for almost two years now, and I can say that what I am most proud of is the team and the human and flexible approach we took to navigating the pandemic, ever-evolving social challenges and holding the mirror to all the things we need to shift to truly be a people centric culture, in action not just in words.

Flexibility looks different for everyone and so we have to be thoughtful about how we create and measure the positive impact on business performance

 
 

Highlights

“The PX (People Experience) team introduced a Hybrid with Flexibility Manager Guide to help managers have conversations around what flexibility looked like for the team, the business and the individual. We also introduced a Team Charter template for managers to use with their teams to re-design together how they work effectively, what new methods of communication and ways of working need to be refined or introduced, and how they will measure the impact and goals needed to drive team and business results.

“Our company doubled down on the ever-growing focus of wellbeing and what that means to different folks, including our employees and our artists. Our Artists Forward and Artist Assistance initiatives are first of their kind strategic efforts to ensure we are providing comprehensive support to our talent in all aspects of their careers – and we are executing that same approach for our employees. We are centering mental health by offering access to a diverse range of resources, meditation sessions and mental health first aid training for managers and the PX team. I am also proud of how we are evolving the PX team and piloting a new partner model with employees and leaders in some of our regions across the Americas, that enable greater connection and impact, as we co-create what flexibility and the employee experience looks and feels like moving forward.”

Overcoming the hurdles of hybrid

Naturally, with any change there are challenges, and HR has endured almost three years of unprecedented upheaval. However, with those challenges come new areas to learn and explore.

The biggest challenge Neve and her team see, and are still working through, is defining and creating what the new culture and workplace will look like, and how they make sure it centers on collaboration and creativity, enables high performance, and creates a safe environment where everyone feels like they belong, through designing inclusive experiences.

This requires not only developing more social, inclusive and empathy-led skills, but also leveraging great technology platforms and developing deeper digital skills and knowledge across every level of the company.

Neve says: “Using digital collaboration tools and goal/project tracking tools, integrated into team ways of working, is one idea that could help improve hybrid working across a team. As an example, we recently ran a PX Americas Team Hybrid Summit and the technology we used greatly helped this experience, as well as intentionally designing the experience to be inclusive of the folks who were remote.

“Sending materials we used in advance to them, intentionally making space in the conversation for remote folks to join in the conversation, using chat as a tool to share, virtual whiteboards to develop ideas and ensuring cameras on so people could see and connect with everyone are some of the practices we integrated.

“The second is learning new skills to work, lead and thrive in the current and future environment. We are working through these by listening, observing and trying different approaches to see what creates the best impact. Building new leadership capabilities to help our leaders hone and develop new skills to lead, navigate and adjust in this uncertain and ever-changing environment. Helping folks move from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset is probably going to be our biggest asset to support further shifts needed.”

Top facts about Sony Music Entertainment

  • CEO: Rob Stringer (2017-present)
  • Staff headcount: c.1700 (majority work for SBG although there are colleagues working for UK&I and International)
  • HQ: New York City, with further offices in over 40 countries around the world.
  • About Sony Music’s HR:
  • The firm rebranded its HR department to People Experience (PX) in June 2022.
  • Andrew Davis, Sony Music’s Executive Vice President and Global Chief People Experience Officer, said the company’s mission was to “create the most people-centric company in the entertainment industry - where we continue to innovate, create, grow, and win together. Our goal is that everyone at Sony Music will notice the difference - and feel even more engaged and included so they can unleash their full potential.”
 
 

What I am most proud of is the flexible approach we took to navigating the pandemic, ever-evolving social challenges and holding the mirror to all the things we need to shift to truly be a people centric culture

 

‘Hybrid fuels high performance’

Corporate behemoths like Sony Music rely on consistently high performance to remain at the top of their game, and this level of performance requires one key thing - buy-in from employees. But how do you build a high-performance culture when your people are in different places?

“High performance starts with creating the environment in which people, teams, and (in turn) results thrive,” answers Neve.

“The bedrock of that environment is a culture built off psychological safety, purpose, autonomy, a sense of belonging and care for wellbeing. It’s human and emotion centered first. When I feel good, I perform better, when I feel valued and trusted, I go further for people, work and teams. This means, no matter where employees are, leaders have a responsibility to listen, connect, feedback, adjust and flow between the needs of individuals, as well as the team, if they want to build a high-performance culture.

“We believe that high performance cultures have teams that collaborate and rise through challenges together. They work towards and are measured by, shared and aligned strategic goals that drive innovation and growth. There is a focus for creativity, continuous improvement and taking risks. People are trusted and trust their leaders and healthy, collaborative team dynamics are enabled by inclusive leaders that communicate clearly, motivate, trust and empower.

“Our strategy is to start with holding the mirror to ourselves in the People team and in turn our leaders. To prioritise the development of any behaviors and skills that are needed from our current leaders, to measure the impact and progress and to hire and reward folks that demonstrate these behaviors.”

 

Flexibility is central to success

The past few years have forced HR leaders to adapt to an environment that’s been changing quicker than at any other time in recent history, and it’s clear that by nailing down the fundamentals of flexible working, Sony Music is ensuring it’s in the best possible place, if and when any more global challenges rear their head in the near future.

Rounding out the interview, Neve offers up a prediction of how flexibility will impact the workplace in the near future, concluding: “I see huge opportunities for people in our industry to drive the development of workplaces where people and businesses thrive.

“In the near future, businesses will widen talent pools with candidates they would never have attracted before due to location or inclusion barriers. At Sony Music for example, we’ve seen this through our US Internship Program. After adopting a hybrid model, we immediately increased our access to talent in different locations and demographics, leading to a marked increase of interns from a Black, Asian, Latin, or Indigenous heritage, compared 2019 when the program was onsite only.

“I see the office space becoming much more of a space to connect, create and collaborate. I see technology and human connection intermingled to help make better decisions and improve efficiencies. I see greater impact and decisions around diversity, equity and inclusion, opportunities to redesign a more inclusive culture where difference is seen and valued, and innovation can come to life more effectively. I see people learning critical skills of empathy, social connection, creative thinking, digital fluency, whilst also blending their health, family/personal life and career. I see us adapting again to whatever changes comes next, as one thing is certain, we are at the beginning of a new era of work.

“Flexibility is only one part of it, yet it is going to be central to an organisation’s success, both now and in the future."

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