Former BlackRock HR Exec Jeff Smith Shares Strategies for Building Teams in a Modern Work Environment

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The role of a human resources executive has never been more essential or more complex. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, employee expectations have shifted dramatically, forcing companies to rethink how they attract, retain, and manage top talent. The remote work revolution, the increasing emphasis on purpose and culture, and evolving attitudes around work-life balance have all upended traditional approaches to team building. Former BlackRock HR head Jeff Smith sees this as setting the stage for HR professionals to take the lead in driving organizational change.

“Everyone has to figure out their roles while also dealing with and respecting each other’s personalities, opinions, and how they do things,” says Smith. “It can be hard and many teams fail because of egos, politics, and attitudes that don’t connect with what the goal is for a group or organization.

“I like trying to play the role of helping to bring out the best in others, to bring people together, and to help make a team, a team.”

To thrive in this new landscape, HR leaders must master a new set of skills, from revamping the interview process to creating a workplace environment that fosters open communication and a sense of shared mission. Get it right, says Smith, and human resources executives can build high-performing, engaged teams that drive organizational results. Get it wrong — and they risk losing the best people to the competition.

Jeff Smith on HR’s Hiring Process

The pandemic changed how enterprises evaluate and select candidates. In many cases, the old model of in-person interviews and résumé reviews is giving way to a more dynamic, skills-based approach, and remote interviews are often now the norm.

Interviewers may want to see how candidates think on their feet, how they collaborate, and how they’d fare in the actual role, not just how well they can recite their past experience. That means moving beyond the standard Q&A and digging deeper into a candidate’s motivations and values in addition to their technical chops.

“I think an interview should not be a performance either way. The more both parties can assess the fit, the better for the long term,” Smith shares. “I try to be conversational and create a flow and comfort. I want people to feel comfortable. You’re not trying to trick anyone.”

He emphasizes curiosity and a willingness to learn as the most important qualities to look for in an interviewee.

“I just think being curious leads you to understand your environment better, to understand people better, to try to find solutions to issues that maybe aren’t standard or aren’t the easiest. I think it leads to change.”

The Remote Work Equation

The mass shift to remote and hybrid work models has further complicated the team-building equation. HR leaders must now find ways to foster connection, collaboration, and a sense of shared purpose, even when team members are physically dispersed.

Companies are rethinking everything from meeting cadence to how they celebrate wins and milestones. Simply funneling old in-office practices into a virtual environment doesn’t work. At the same time, there are valuable in-person interactions that firms may want to preserve for the sake of effective collaboration and communication.

For example, a hybrid workplace could include required in-person days for full-team meetings mixed with remote options, regular one-on-one check-ins, and fun virtual social events that help remote workers feel engaged and part of the team.

Business leaders should be transparent about goals, progress, and decision-making when giving employees more autonomy to manage their own time and workflows, says Smith.

While he agrees that “flexibility is important,” he sees value in in-person work that’s hard to replicate in a fully remote work environment.

“Ideally, managers and organizations can be outcome-focused more than place-focused in terms of where work is done,” he says. “But one of the outcomes CEOs and leaders want in a company is the culture they’re trying to create, and many believe, as do I, that culture is easier to create in person to a certain degree.

“It’s easier to have random moments of learning or mentoring or coaching or ideation and innovation if people are walking the halls and interacting with each other.”

Purpose, Culture, and Retention

Of course, remote work is just one piece of the puzzle. To build truly effective teams, HR leaders must also grapple with the interconnectivity of a consistent sense of purpose and well-being among employees with productivity and retention.

Talented people today want to feel a deep connection to the company’s mission and values. They want to know that their work has meaning and that they’re part of something bigger than themselves.

That means going beyond standard perks and benefits to focus on cultivating a workplace culture rooted in collaboration, empathy, and a shared sense of accomplishment. It also requires a sharp focus on employee mental health, work-life balance, and professional development, all of which have taken on greater urgency in the post-pandemic landscape.

If a company wants to attract and retain the best people, it has to create an environment where they can thrive holistically, not just do their jobs well.

Underpinning all these efforts is a commitment to open, honest communication, not just from leadership to employees, but in all directions.

People need to feel empowered to share ideas, ask questions, and give constructive feedback without fear of judgment or repercussions.

That might mean regular Q&A sessions with executives, anonymous suggestion boxes, or even 360-degree feedback processes that give employees a voice. The key is to create multiple channels for two-way dialogue and make it clear that all perspectives are welcome.

“One-on-one meetings are critical to provide a forum for people to express their views and to feel a part of the organization,” says Smith. “If someone does not have 30 minutes for one of the employees per week, maybe they should not be leading them.”

The New Playbook for Team Building

The old playbook for team building is out of date. In today’s employee-first landscape, HR leaders need a new set of strategies and tools to attract, retain, and develop top talent.

That means rethinking the hiring process, adapting to remote and hybrid work, fostering a strong sense of purpose and culture, and prioritizing open communication at all levels. Get these elements right, and you’ll build teams that are engaged, empowered, and primed to drive your business forward.

“It’s a huge advantage to have the best talent motivated and incentivized to make decisions for the company in a way they would about themselves,” says Smith. “That’s how you build teams that actually care.”

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