Simon Longbottom, Vice President of Digital Media for Business at Adobe: Keeping Employees Engaged and Motivated Over the Long Term

As the global health crisis nears its one-year anniversary, a top priority for many executives and managers is determining effective ways to keep employees engaged and motivated over the long haul. A recent survey of more than 150 CIOs, CISOs and business technology executives conducted by HMG Strategy reveals that 73 percent of technology executives say they are focusing greater attention on employee engagement and motivation as a key focus area.

HMG Strategy recently spoke with Simon Longbottom, Vice President of Digital Media for Business at Adobe, to gain his insights on how business technology executives should be approaching employee engagement with a fresh lens.

HMG Strategy: Many CIOs are concerned about keeping employees engaged and motivated over the long-term as the global health crisis continues and amid other concerns facing employees (e.g., health, financial, emotional well-being, etc.). How do you see the current state of employee engagement?

Simon Longbottom: Employee engagement has always been a priority for Adobe. We’ve found that people thrive when they have meaningful work and opportunities to learn and grow — and they are at their best when they feel respected and included. Those values show up in who we hire, how we invest in their success, which behaviors we reward, and the physical spaces we create for teams. This formula has always worked for us. Adobe has been recognized as one of the best places to work for the past 20 years. And I can truly say it is the most creative, collaborative culture I’ve ever experienced.

But in March 2020, everything changed. Like a lot of tech companies, we moved to remote work with very little notice. We were suddenly at home full time and adjusting to a new reality — working harder than ever to accomplish the same tasks while juggling childcare, remote learning, and other responsibilities at home. Combined with the uncertainty and stress of living through a global health crisis, all of us are understandably exhausted.

The question now is, how can we take care of our people and make sure they can work at a pace that can be sustained long-term? This pandemic is a marathon, not a sprint — and we must challenge our old habits and assumptions about how people work best and what motivates them. It’s time to reframe employee engagement.

What are some recommendations you would offer to CIOs and technology executives to help strengthen employee engagement and motivation both near-term and longer-term? For instance, what are some of the steps that Adobe has taken in this regard?

SL: My advice is to stick to the fundamentals. Check in with individual team members frequently and do what you can to support them. Establish regular rhythms for your team to connect and keep them aligned to a single purpose. Focus on being a more succinct, effective communicator — don’t fall back on old habits. For example, why waste time on a formal presentation for an internal meeting? Instead, get straight to the point and save everyone (including yourself) some time and mental energy.

Above all, we need to acknowledge that employees are human and understand that “bringing your whole self to work” has taken on a whole new meaning. At Adobe, for example, we took several steps to help employees cope with the tough new reality we’re all facing. We announced global company days off to allow employees to rest and recuperate without returning to a mountain of emails and tasks. We gave people extra flexibility to work around childcare and school demands and helped them pay for school supplies. Our wellness benefits were extended to provide extra support for physical and mental health. There was a stipend to help employees set up their home offices — and I was glad to see many people buying standing desks to alleviate the aches and pains of sitting all day. We also simply shortened meetings, giving people time to take coffee breaks and walk outside for a few minutes.

All of these measures are helping us get through the pandemic, yet I also see them as valuable new lessons going forward — a way for us to support and protect the people who are central to Adobe’s success.

One of the aspects of the in-office experience that employees and managers both miss are opportunities for water cooler conversations, drop-bys and other casual meetings. Can you offer any suggestions for either replicating those experiences or creating other types of virtual experiences in which employees can bond with one another?

SL: Great question — we’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how to fill this gap. Chance encounters are often a source of innovative ideas that might not have surfaced otherwise. And it’s amazing how many casual, five-minute conversations end up solving problems on the spot, averting long email threads and hours of unnecessary meetings. So, while there’s no substitute for truly spontaneous in-person chats, we need to do our best to simulate them. That requires a bit of creativity.

At Adobe, we’ve tried different approaches to spark conversation, and we’re still experimenting to see what works best. For instance, we started scheduling informal coffee chats, bringing together three or four employees chosen at random to ensure we’re mixing things up. No agenda, no goals — just time to catch up on hobbies and TV shows. Some teams are bonding and boosting morale through shared cooking sessions, quizzes, or escape room-like activities. On my team, we sometimes simulate working together in the office by keeping a videoconferencing session open, sometimes chatting, sometimes working on our own projects together in silence.

It’s all about trying new things and getting creative to drive as much positive impact as possible.

Can you please point to how the employee experience with the tools and technologies they use can influence and help to strengthen employee engagement?

SL: The pandemic has shown us how crucial collaboration and communication tools are to employee engagement and business continuity. Fortunately, there are excellent technologies out there that have kept Adobe’s employees connected under circumstances that easily could have left us all feeling isolated. We use tools like Google Workspace, Microsoft Office 365, videoconferencing platforms like BlueJeans and Microsoft Teams, and messaging apps such as Slack. We also rely heavily on our own tools for digital workflows and collaboration — from Adobe Sign and Adobe Acrobat to Adobe Creative Cloud apps. Other companies are in the same boat, and we know because we’ve seen triple-digit growth in Adobe Sign and Adobe Scan — and downloads of Photoshop on iPad jumped 40% from March to May.

Tools aren’t everything, however. I would argue that the quality of conversation is far more important. No matter what medium you’re using — email, video, phone, or chat — take advantage of every opportunity to strengthen the bond you have with your team members. That means asking how people are doing at the start of every meeting and getting to know them on a personal level, from their family members to their cats and dogs, houseplants, and home-office décor. You soon realize that everyone has unique challenges and unique ways of coping with them — and that’s okay. At Adobe, having these conversations has brought us closer together.

Another additional challenge being cited by CIOs and technology executives is finding effective ways to convey a connected culture for all employees. What recommendations would you offer to help employees to feel connected with one another along with the organization’s mission?

SL: I am a big believer in Daniel Pink’s research on intrinsic motivation and the importance of building autonomy, mastery, and purpose into the workplace. In terms of creating a connected culture, it’s now more important than ever to be clear about your company’s purpose — how you’re different, how you help customers succeed, and how you serve your communities. A shared purpose keeps employees connected even when they can’t be in the same room together.

One way to help employees stay motivated is to focus on customer success. Customers are people, too (and they’re often our friends), so it can be quite rewarding to help them tackle the unique challenges this pandemic has created. We’re inspired by the tenacious customers who keep pushing forward under tough circumstances — Ben & Jerry’sSephora, and Duke University, to name a few.

Communication is also essential at all levels, and strong top-down leadership cannot be underestimated. At Adobe, our HR team has done a great job keeping employees informed and pointed in the same direction during the pandemic. Employees see how Adobe shows up day after day to help communities in need, offer matching donations to causes employees support, and take a stand on social issues. That helps all of us feel connected to a larger mission, lending meaning and perspective to the work we do every day.

As employees have been working remotely since March, many organizations have seen a boost in productivity. But one of the concerns about any improvements in productivity that are gained is that employees are then expected to fill the recaptured time by doing more work, which can be counter-productive to employee engagement. What are your thoughts on this?

SL: That’s a great question and a big challenge. It’s a mistake to think that employees can keep increasing their productivity indefinitely. In the short term, employees might be motivated to work longer hours, energized by new challenges and the desire to continuously improve. But we know from experience that it doesn’t last long. Exhaustion and burnout are on the rise, and we need to give people the chance to rest and recharge. Sometimes that means taking a holiday, but it also means building more time for socializing, team building, and physical exercise into the workday.

I strongly believe in the agile principle that employees should work at a pace they could sustain forever. As leaders, we need to check in with our team members on a regular basis and help them find a sustainable pace. It’s our job to remove roadblocks, reduce friction, and make work more enjoyable. That’s not an easy task, especially during a pandemic. But the alternative is to watch valuable employees lose motivation, disengage, and potentially leave the company.

Are there any additional insights you’d like to share?

SL: The COVID-19 pandemic has fundamentally changed how we work. At Adobe, employees have really stepped up under difficult circumstances, and we’ve seen how effective our teams can be even while working remotely. At the same time, we miss seeing each other in person and taking part in the collaboration, creativity, and community that are so central to Adobe’s culture. As this global health crisis comes to an end over the next year, we have an opportunity to redesign work — to combine the best of both worlds and make work better for people. That’s something to look forward to.