Flexible Work: A New Way Forward

Women engineers have been job sharing, working part time, and negotiating flexible hours for decades, though not necessarily as a matter of course or as a readily available option. Now, COVID has made flexwork cool — and as many cheering employees agree, widely accessible.

By Sandra Guy, SWE Contributor

Marisol Sarabia, who danced as a ballerina with the San Francisco Ballet in her teens, is performing perhaps her greatest balancing act as a transmission line engineer, a mom to a newborn and a toddler, and co-owner with her sister of a successful dance studio.

As she puts it, “Being on my toes gives me a lot of energy.”

Sarabia, a civil structural engineer, juggled her busy schedule for seven years prior to the COVID pandemic by working part time at Leidos Engineering, where she came into the office Mondays through Wednesdays and occasionally on Fridays. She started remote work during COVID and plans to transition to full-time employment soon.

Leidos, which employs 43,000 globally, got its start 53 years ago when founder J. Robert Beyster, Ph.D., started Science Applications International, later known as SAIC. The company, which was employee-owned and built on a culture of entrepreneurship, transitioned to a publicly traded corporation in 2006. In 2013, SAIC separated into two public companies — Leidos and SAIC. Today, Leidos offers its employees a stock purchase plan that includes a 10% discount when they buy company stock.

Marisol Sarabia is a transmission line engineer who worked part time at Leidos Engineering for seven years prior to the COVID pandemic. She is also a mom to a newborn and a toddler, and co-owner with her sister of a successful dance studio in Chicago. Credit: Samir Abraham, shotswithSamir.com

Drawing from a wealth of experiences

Sarabia credits her experience running MaZi Dance Fitness Centre studios with helping her solve problems as a transmission line engineer. The dance studio’s name represents her and her sister’s first names, Marisol and Ziba [Lennox], and the siblings’ homage to their mother, Rosaura Sarabia, who owned a day care for 15 years.

“It’s easy to get distracted when working from home,” said Sarabia, mom to a 1-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son. “As a business owner for 13 years, you realize that you can’t get distracted and that all the decisions fall back on you.”

The sisters had to pivot quickly when COVID hit to transition the way they offered and taught their energy-filled, music-driven classes like Zi-Cardio, Ballerina Fight Club, and Ballerina Bum Bootcamp.

“Thinking ahead is really important,” said Sarabia, who credits her father, a designer and fabricator, with showing her how materials such as stainless steel could be used for various structural purposes. “We found a way in one week for our [dance studio] members to sign into the website and stream the classes on demand or take them ‘live.’”

“[Entrepreneurship] means having to solve whatever problems come up,” Sarabia said. “It made the challenge exciting for me and helped me focus some of my anxiety during COVID.”

Sarabia made the best of her remote work during COVID, which she described as “a shock to the system,” as her level of COVID anxiety skyrocketed. She struggled to keep her newborn and toddler safe while living in a condo in a 38-story building near downtown Chicago. The family had no choice but to take the elevator. Both children — too young to be vaccinated — got COVID. So she and her husband moved close to her in-laws near Boston to wait out the pandemic.

Renee Cole, a design-for-Six-Sigma master black belt instructor, has job-shared with her at-work partner, Mary Clor, for 14 years — in what’s believed to be the longest-running job-share at Stellantis (formerly the PSA Group and Fiat Chrysler).

“When I became pregnant with my now-15-year-old daughter, I was running a main shop — one of our manufacturing centers,” Cole said. “My husband and I thought we’d be able to balance our rising careers. We quickly realized that, with his travel schedule and hours, we couldn’t do that.”

Cole’s husband’s career has taken him to a chief architect’s position at a major bank after he had earlier worked for a consulting startup and in senior computing roles at HP.

Cole, who earned a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering and has an MBA, kept insisting that she would return to work full time. But she realized that she enjoyed coaching her daughter’s sports teams and being active in her daughter’s school activities. “I feel fortunate that I have a best friend who’s CEO of a credit union and who works 90 hours a week and friends who are full-time moms,” she said.

She said she appreciated the focus she achieved with job-sharing, as well as the responsibility of preserving the benefit for others. “We know that we can balance everything out, so it lets us concentrate on doing an extra great job,” Cole said. “We are the face of a job-share. The more managers who are pleased with how it works, the more willing they are to promote it. We need to make sure it’s perceived well.”

Job-shares aren’t just for entry-level workers.

Kelly Brown, Stellantis’ director of North America performance excellence, said employees at every level, including managers, find that they can grow in their careers with a job-share partner.

Brown, who holds a bachelor’s degree in bioengineering and a master’s in ergonomics, oversees Stellantis’ groups within the Product Development organization, such as prototype build and engineering, process, tools and digitalization, capital assets, real estate, and maintenance.

She and her husband have taken turns prioritizing career time. “I wanted to be with the kids when they were younger,” said Brown, who worked part time for a year after she had her daughter, now 19, and for six months after she had her second child, now 16. “As they got older, like around the ages of 8 and 11, my husband wanted to do more coaching for their sports teams, so he worked fewer hours.”

Brown credited a “very compassionate and empathetic” director who worked with her while she started her family. She conceded that nearly 20 years ago, the male-dominated industry made it more difficult to talk with a supervisor about having a baby and arranging a baby-friendly work schedule.

Michelle P. Bell, P.E., is a transmission line engineering manager for Leidos Engineering.
Renee Cole, shown here with her husband, Jim, and daughter, is a design-for-Six-Sigma master black belt instructor who has job-shared with her at-work partner for 14 years at Stellantis. It is believed to be the longest-running job-share at the company.

“[My director at the time] recognized that he was going to lose me totally if he wouldn’t accommodate my circumstances and that he would have to replace me, versus knowing my contributions,” she said. “He helped me prioritize important activities to accomplish.”

That was then, when job-shares worked by word-of-mouth and after negotiations with a supervisor, along with a manager’s approval. Today, SWE at Stellantis and Working Parent Network business resource groups promote job-sharing, and employees can search a Stellantis database to request and find job-share partners.

Prior to the COVID pandemic, Stellantis’ engineering department allowed two working days a month from home. Now, of the 7,000 U.S.-based employees in the product development department, 15% work fully on-site; 35% spend half of their work time on-site; and the remaining 50% spend 30% or less of their time on-site and do most of their work remotely.

“Every woman has to find the right balance for her family,” Brown said. “You can find it in engineering somewhere.”

That’s what Sarabia is doing now, as her work increasingly focuses on training newly graduated and early-career-stage engineers nationwide.

“I enjoy developing and mentoring engineers, teaching them the basics, and leading them on to more complicated designs,” she said. “They learn to think for themselves and be valuable to the team.”

Sarabia reports to Transmission Line Engineering Manager Michelle P. Bell, P.E., who described the culture in the Chicago office as “a real team environment.”

“There’s no ego in my group,” Bell said. “We have fun. We work hard without overworking.”

Bell, a native of Chicago’s South Side who earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in civil engineering from Indiana Tech and the University of Illinois Chicago, respectively, said Leidos has a history of letting employees work in different modes because the field — in her case, high-voltage power lines — is so specialized.

“It’s a learn-on-the-job type of experience,” said Bell, who works full time — in the office Mondays through Thursdays and from home on Fridays. “If you can find someone with that experience, that person doesn’t have to work in the office.”

Kelly Brown, second from left, director of North America performance excellence for Stellantis, and her husband, Danny, far right, enjoy time with their two children.

Following COVID, companies implement flex options

After the COVID pandemic forced companies to adopt at-home and other flexible work arrangements, many now crow about their flexwork benefits.

Recently, SWE Magazine contacted members of SWE’s Corporate Partnership Council (CPC) seeking information and experiences regarding flexible work. Please see the sidebar, “SWE’s CPC Members Introduce New Ways of Work.”

“As a working mother, I have benefited greatly from [Dow’s] emphasis on a work-life balance as well as the flexible working arrangements they allow,” wrote a production engineer at the company’s Michigan operations.

Variations of that message were repeated over and over, as individual employees of CPC companies offered their personal experience as evidence of policies that worked.

For example, yet another woman engineer offered to share her experiences with Boston Scientific Corp.’s flexwork and sabbatical opportunities, while Cash Engineering’s team expressed its excitement with their workplace experiences.

Such enthusiasm reflected employers’ efforts to keep their workers happy during stress-induced COVID lockdowns and the COVID-inspired “Great Resignation,” in which workers quit their jobs at near-record levels to search for better opportunities or to spend more time with family or to pursue long-held yearnings to study, exercise, or otherwise feel free.

Some companies have responded by redesigning their in-office work spaces with employees’ comfort top of mind. Trends include stylish sofas, poufs, and tables; chic co-working spaces usually seen in high-end hotels; and a “phygital” approach to workplace design that blends digital and physical needs, such as planters with live plants, wall art, and wall tiles that absorb sound, tables with power and USB plug-in outlets, and sculptural shelves and room dividers.

A notable exception is electric-vehicle maker Tesla. CEO Elon Musk sent out two emails ordering everyone back to a main office in Tulsa, Oklahoma, 40 hours a week, various news media reported in early June.

“If you don’t show up [for 40 hours a week], we will assume you have resigned,” Musk said in one of the emails, first reported by Electrek and also obtained by CNBC.

Other companies trumpet their new worker benefits without explaining that the corporations, too, reap rewards. For example, Goldman Sachs, the investment bank known for its aggressive work culture, on May 1 started offering its partners and managing directors unlimited vacation.

The catch? Unlike the previous fixed-days vacation schedule, Goldman Sachs no longer has to pay those employees for vacation days they choose not to take.

Companies can also save on salary expenses by hiring remote workers who live in rural areas with a lower cost of living, then adjusting their baseline salaries to reflect the less-expensive area.

And employers may decline to cover the expenses of a coworking office, where workers pay to enjoy amenities such as a coffee bar, printing services, conference rooms, and fitness classes in the same building.

In fact, some employees have started suing their employers for refusing to cover their at-home work expenses such as office supplies, telephone and internet fees, and extra energy to heat or cool their homes, according to an analysis of more than a dozen such lawsuits by the Los Angeles Times. Some estimates put at-home expenses since the pandemic’s start as high as $5,000 for each worker, though the LA Times reporting covered a wide variety of industries and sectors.

It’s also important to be aware that employers track employees’ productivity, engagement, and corporate online activity, and often schedule in-person work team meetings that employees are expected to attend at the office.

Microsoft’s lead engineer, Aleš Holeček, corporate vice president of the Office Experience Organization Engineering team, wrote in an online company blog that “across Microsoft, we are tracking the number of times engineers submitted changes to the computer code the company uses — a proxy for productivity.”

The company’s measurement of completed pull requests by week offered what Holeček called “a good indicator of whether we’re maintaining our developer velocity.”

“Across work items, commits, and pull requests, we’re not seeing any declines,” he wrote. “If anything has changed, it’s a shift in activity during the day, with activity starting earlier and finishing later, and with lower ‘peaks’ in the middle of the day.”

Software tools played a key role in monitoring remote work and in creating a sense of community, Holeček wrote.

“We have found that maintaining a collaborative and productive culture, empowering [developers] with remote-friendly tools, and watching the numbers to ensure we stay productive are all effective ways to help our engineering team move to remote work,” he wrote.

Other research shows the opposite, however: that remote work has started unraveling employees’ sense of collaboration and degrading their productivity. A University of Chicago study (https://bit.ly/3xvSFiF) revealed that remote workers — and particularly those who are parents — put in longer hours with fewer results, and that workers lost important person-to-person time with their managers.

Kirsten Sargent, P.E., C.Eng, is a roadway civil engineer for Jacobs Engineering.
Rashi Tiwari, Ph.D., associate technical services and development director in North America for Dow’s Packaging and Specialty Plastics division, with her daughter and husband, Kaustav Sinha.
Muta Mashack, J.D., is program manager of diversity, equity, and inclusion at Tenable.

Pros, cons, and tips for the human side of remote work

Yet some professionals said they’ve leveraged their time at home during COVID to realize deep-seated desires they had never considered before.

Muta N. Mashack, J.D., earned a law degree from Rutgers, his undergrad alma mater, while he worked full time in a high-energy Manhattan office. He took the subway to work every day and held fast to what he had learned in college: Work hard and move up the corporate ladder.

COVID changed all that.

Mashack and his wife, Mahurrinah, moved two years ago to Atlanta for its warm climate and lower cost of living — and became parents to a 1-year-old daughter. Mashack quit his job with the New York-based beauty and cosmetics company to find more family-friendly work and to focus on his passion for diversity. He found the answer in his current job, as program manager of diversity, equity, and inclusion at Tenable, a 1,200-employee cybersecurity company headquartered in Columbia, Maryland.

“Most of the employees choose where they work,” he said, estimating that 95% work from home.

He said he now happily works more productively from home, watches his daughter, gets the laundry done, and saves money and commute exhaustion.

“There’s no business justification for being in the office 100% of the time,” Mashack said.

Tenable has benefited by hiring more workers from outside of its Maryland home base, he said.

The company also introduced Summer Fridays. Its offices will be closed every Friday from August until Labor Day.

Mashack’s experience mirrors research findings. Ninety-four percent of knowledge workers surveyed want flexible hours, compared with 79% who want location flexibility, according to an April 2022 report by Future Forum, a consortium that Slack Technologies Inc. launched two years ago “to help companies make the transformations necessary to thrive in the new economy” (https://bit.ly/3HdgGOX).

“The Future Forum is dedicated to the concept that companies need to make a comprehensive shift in how they operate,” Slack announced at the launch.

And 72% of workers who weren’t happy with their level of flexibility — whether time or location — were likely to seek a new opportunity in the next year, the report showed.

Kirsten Sargent, P.E., C.Eng, says she found it “a bit tedious” to work from home as a senior engineer during the COVID lockdown, including times when her online connection got glitchy, though it certainly made her cat, Sea Monkey, a happy camper.

Now she comes into the Denver office of Jacobs Engineering, where she works as a roadway civil engineer, once a week.

“Having a change in location once a week keeps my mental health up, as does seeing and interacting with people,” said Sargent, the daughter of a mechanical engineer mother and a petroleum engineer father. She holds bachelor’s degrees in civil engineering and in fine arts and interior design.

Sargent can work from home because she primarily focuses on CAD design and assistant project management tasks, but her employer is hosting “Transportation Wednesdays” to encourage her team to meet in the office.

“People have figured out how to be more efficient using the different platforms of communication,” Sargent said, making it easier to ask a quick question with an instant message or hold a team meeting with videoconferencing.

Sargent transferred out of the U.K. in August 2021, where she had worked when the pandemic first hit, after living through three lockdowns in Leeds. The first lockdown in March 2020, which lasted about three months, allowed people only essential travel to places such as the drugstore and the grocery store and urged they work from home. As late as May 2021, groups of up to 30 could meet outdoors, but only up to six could meet together indoors.

“It very much felt isolating,” said Sargent, who moved back home to the United States to be closer to her family and because of the continued uncertainty about travel and COVID restrictions.

Though Sargent enjoys rock climbing, some downtime with her cat, and not making a 30- to 60-minute commute each way to the office five days a week, she’s looking forward to returning to the office as many as two times a week.

“We don’t need to be in the office five days a week,” she said. “We have proven we can collaborate online and make the projects work.”

SWE’s CPC Members Introduce New Ways of Work

SWE’s Corporate Partnership Council members have discovered that many of their salaried employees want to work where and when they choose — and the employers are stepping up their worker benefits and technological innovations to make that happen.

Southern California Gas, for example, introduced not only hybrid work opportunities, but also new employee resource groups, pet insurance, exercise and wellness initiatives, and backup child and elder care programs. Schneider Electric now offers a recharge break that lets employees “bank” time for a future sabbatical, and a buy-up PTO (paid time off), which lets employees prospectively “buy up” additional PTO beyond what they’d otherwise receive.

The trends reflect the CPC’s role to share best practices; address recruitment, retention, and advancement issues; and partner with SWE on diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging initiatives.

Seven CPC members who answered an informal SWE questionnaire revealed their strategies to deal with the unprecedented workplace changes.

CUMMINS INC.

Cummins has had policies for reduced hours, family leave, and extended leave for many years, but the pandemic heightened the focus on three newly created work options: on-site, off-site, and hybrid.

The company did not provide information on how many of its 60,000 employees globally, including 10,000 employed in technical functions, are working in hybrid or off-site situations. In the United States, however, 30% to 35% of its technical-work employees returned to a Cummins office at some point during their workweek in May. Those classified as off-site or hybrid workers talk with their managers and work teams to determine how often they may visit Cummins’ sites.

Cummins’ Viva Insights data and employee Pulse surveys show increased productivity and relatively high levels of employee satisfaction among technical-work employees. Cummins is also looking at how it can enhance the work experience of hourly on-site employees, such as those who do production or test cells work.

GENERAL MOTORS

General Motors introduced “Work Appropriately” in early 2021 to its roughly 68,000 salaried workers worldwide. Among GM’s 45,000 full-time salaried employees in the U.S., roughly 85% to 90% now work in a remote or hybrid role. The automaker also recruits new and top talent who want to work remotely as part of its goal to achieve a more diverse workforce.

GM had hired 7,000 new salaried workers as of May 2022 alone, said spokeswoman Maria Raynal, as it works to transition from an internal combustion engine automaker to an electric vehicle software company by 2035. The new hires included technical workers in GM’s engineering, strategy and innovation, digital, and IT departments, Raynal said.

JACOBS

Jacobs had offered flexwork for about five years, including roles with reduced hours and part-time positions, and counted 3% of its 56,000 global workforce as fully remote or teleworkers prior to the COVID pandemic. It now tracks that 26% of its global employees work on-site — they’re required to be at the work location — and 71% work hybrid, with the flexibility to work in the office, at home, or elsewhere.

As Jacobs transitioned during the pandemic, it adopted Microsoft Teams so employees could collaborate more easily. And it created an online app, Jacobs Now, that employees use to access everyday work tools from their phones or other mobile devices. The company continues to seek workplace diversity by leveraging virtual career fairs and hiring events for early career and experienced professional talent.

The company has attracted about 340,000 social media followers since mid-March 2020, and has seen more employees promoting Jacobs’ culture, projects, job opportunities, and workplace initiatives on social platforms.

KLEINFELDER

Though Kleinfelder allowed flexible work schedules, including remote and hybrid work, prior to the pandemic, most of the company’s 3,000 employees in Australia, Canada, and the U.S. worked in an office, a lab, in the field, or in other traditional roles.

Now, roughly one-third of the employees work either fully remotely or on a hybrid schedule, though this may change as the company continues to repopulate its offices. The decision to remain hybrid or remote is unique to each employee and their supervisor.

To further support and engage staff, the company has established an organizational-wide mentoring program that allows staff to sign up as either a mentee or a mentor to facilitate skill-building and career advancement.

The company has also noticed that employees more frequently seek out and correspond with colleagues across the organization through virtual tools such as Microsoft Teams. Leadership believes that this has led to robust innovation accomplishments and critical information sharing to help achieve client and project successes.

SCHNEIDER ELECTRIC

Schneider employs more than 128,000 people across the world, including 17,000 in the U.S. Today, 76% of the employees across North America have the flexibility to modify their work arrangements when needed.

The company’s flexible work choices include:

  • Voluntary part time for three- or six-month periods
  • A recharge break that lets employees “bank” time for a future sabbatical
  • Buy-up PTO, which lets employees prospectively buy, during the annual open enrollment period before the beginning of each plan year, additional PTO beyond what they’d otherwise receive
  • Hybrid ways of working
  • Backup child, pet, and elder care that provides employees a free premium membership at Care.com, along with five days of subsidized backup care from a vetted provider
  • Virtual health care
  • Home-office furniture benefit package

With a goal of intentional flexibility — since it’s good for both employees and for the business — Schneider provides:

  • A dedicated global leadership development program for women
  • A gender-balanced development program
  • Pay equity policies
  • Unconscious bias training for managers
  • Diversified recruiting
  • Employee resource networks

The company’s recent internal surveys showed:

  • 5% of employees are saving for a future paid leave of absence (the so-called recharge break).
  • 5,073 employees received a home-office furniture package.
  • Schneider achieved single-digit attrition, even during the pandemic.

SIEMENS

Siemens AG, which employs 350,000 worldwide, including 40,000 in the U.S., has offered remote work options in some cases for more than 10 years, but the German industrial conglomerate expanded its workers’ options during COVID to include:

  • Hybrid work options
  • New policies on vacations/sabbaticals, including a flexible vacation policy. The new vacation policy means employees get no accrued vacation payout when they leave the company.
  • Exploring new ways to address work/life integration

One example of the changes involves Siemens’ Digital Industries, an automation and digitization-focused business. Digital Industries’ U.S. workforce of 1,450 now comprises about 47% of employees who work from home, with a large portion of the remainder working from the office two to three days a week and from home the rest of the week. As a result, the business has seen a decrease in travel expenses, commuter expenses, and office supply use.

The result, however, challenged how the company approached employee engagement. So Siemens closed an office in Norcross, Georgia, and created a collaboration and innovation space nearby with enhanced work spaces. It plans to do the same in Detroit and anticipates further such changes.

The company also instituted a “Growth Talks” model to replace yearly employee reviews. Employees now meet with their managers regularly to review smaller, more consistent, achievable goals throughout the year. The change lets managers approve immediate bonuses, pay raises, and other awards at any time after a review.

SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA GAS CO.

More than half of the Southern California Gas Co.’s 8,000 employees have the opportunity to work in a hybrid environment, compared with none prior to COVID. The majority work a blended schedule, while a select few are fully remote. The remainder are in field-based or other roles where remote work is not an option.

The Los Angeles-based utility says the blended work model optimizes workers’ ability to focus on work at home and collaborate in the office. It also has helped propel other conversations around performance management; diversity, equity, and inclusion; and employee well-being.

The utility launched new employee resource groups (ERGs), including the women-focused RISE (recognizing the importance of strength and empowerment). ERGs are voluntary, employee-led groups composed of workers who identify with shared characteristics, such as those related to race, gender, national origin, sexual orientation, or background/experience, along with their allies.

SoCalGas also started new leave policies to help employees and their families throughout COVID. And the wellness team initiated new ways of caring for employees holistically, including an employee assistance program with robust mental health services and a modern application. The utility also offers a subsidy through ClassPass, live virtual yoga, HIIT (high-intensity interval training), and Qigong classes weekly, in addition to partnerships with Weight Watchers and Omada for those interested in pursuing a fitness or weight loss journey.

Families are supported through backup child and elder care programs, and employees’ furry friends get the support they need with a new pet insurance program through Nationwide.

SoCalGas also fosters financial wellness by providing employees access to a program through Ayco Financial to help improve education surrounding finances and planning for the future.

How do leaders and managers pull it off?

Such expectations of flexibility pose a conundrum for company executives, who worry about workers’ ability to be creative while staying remote, according to a December 2021 report from Northeastern University (https://bit.ly/3zrXriJ).

They also worry about how continued remote work will affect their company’s culture and loyalty.

Sarabia, the ballerina mom engineer, said that as a mentor and trainer, she has learned to be patient with herself while working remotely. “Be objective, and factual,” she said. “Is the work getting done? Are expectations being met? Set expectations before the work starts, and be proactive if those expectations are not being met. Take advantage of Zoom chats to help maintain and build the camaraderie.”

A manager at Dow says one of her biggest challenges as employees continue to work part time from home is to make sure that the younger talent gets the hands-on experience they need to learn and to grow. And experienced talent needs continued challenges to grow, too.

“We’re an R&D [research-and-development] function,” said Rashi Tiwari, Ph.D., associate technical services and development director in North America for Dow’s Packaging and Specialty Plastics division.

“We have to be in the lab to test things out. You can’t do that virtually only,” Dr. Tiwari said. “And I want to make sure the talent gets the learning that is needed for their growth and development.”

Most of Dr. Tiwari’s 27-member work team comes into the office at least twice a week under Dow’s post-COVID Design Your Day program.

“I go to work two or three times a week, and I can change the days that I need to be at work [under the Design Your Day program],” said Dr. Tiwari. A SWE member for more than 14 years, Dr. Tiwari was recognized by SWE in 2016 as an Emerging Leader and received the Patent Recognition Award for four patents in 2021. She earned an undergraduate degree in her native India in instrumentation and control, followed by a master’s and Ph.D. in mechanical engineering, both from the University of Nevada-Reno, where she served as president of the SWE collegiate section.

“If I know I’ll be in virtual meetings most of the day, I’ll take those meetings from home,” said Dr. Tiwari, who scaled back her work travel schedule during COVID. She and her husband, Kaustav Sinha, Ph.D., who is also an engineer and the director of strategic partnership at Chevron, traveled frequently prior to the COVID epidemic.

“I have missed my daughter’s recital [due to the travel],” Dr. Tiwari said. “But I make it a point to attend what’s important for her. The first priority is the happiness of all family members and how we get there.”

“It was clear during the pandemic that giving people that kind of flexibility brings back a higher impact at the end of the day,” she said.

But it also means that Dr. Tiwari has her hands full serving as a mentor, overseeing up-and-comers on her team, and handling explosive growth in the product categories she oversees.

She directs market segments such as industrial and consumer packaging and food and specialty packaging and sustainability. These include plastic film such as stretch film, trash can liners, and flexible food packaging.

Some of these products saw a big demand boost as stay-at-home families during and after COVID started buying in bulk goods such as toilet paper, kitchen trash bags, and cases of bottled water.

Dr. Tiwari said she has handled the skyrocketing product demand by being a “firm believer in continuous feedback.”

“It’s important to empower your people, but with empowering comes responsibility,” said Dr. Tiwari, who discovered her gift for engineering when she grew up helping her dad work on his vintage cars, and at times repair them when they broke down at a traffic light (not by choice, she pointed out). “And they need to own it. I need to hold my team responsible. And in return, they hold me accountable.”

“I make sure that my employees identify specific learnings as part of their goals,” she said. “What do you want to learn in your job? How do you want to learn it? How do you know that you were effective in learning it?”

As a mentor, Dr. Tiwari said she wants to see “concrete, specific examples” of how her team is working effectively.

She’s observing the good and the bad of fulfilling her ideals in a hybrid environment. “Either zero or 100 percent is not the answer,” she said. “It’s somewhere in the middle. People need to figure out what that is.”

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