Renee Black is a Senior Consultant at EY, where she works in EY Tahi and in the Infrastructure Advisory team. She’s based in Britomart and comes to the office every day. Here, she talks about what drives her generation, what kind of workplace flexibility is best for her, and what an ideal office might look like.
We interviewed her as part of a series talking to five Auckland workers under 30 about their preferred working styles, the importance of wellness, and how they stay connected.
JEREMY HANSEN Would you like to start by introducing yourself Renee?
RENEE BLACK Kia ora, ko Renee tōku ingoa. No Ōpōtiki ahau. I te taha o tōku Pāpā, he uri tēnei no Whakatōhea rāua ko Te Whānau-a-Apanui hoki. I te taha o tōku Māmā, he uri tēnei no Ngāti Raukawa ki te Tonga rāua ko Ngāti Toa Rangatira hoki. My name's Renee. I was born in Ōpōtiki down on the East Coast. On my Pāpā's side I whakapapa to Ōpōtiki, to Whakatōhea and Te Whānau-ā-Apanui, and then on my Māmā’s side I whakapapa to the Wellington region: Ngāti Raukawa ki te Tonga and Ngāti Toa Rangatira. I’m the eldest of four — I have two younger sisters and a younger brother — and for me, whānau is the centre of everything, it drives what I do, both in mahi and outside of it. EY Tahi is where my heart is, and that because it’s about how we uplift our people and help them to reach their potential and really flourish. My mahi is focused around the Māori sector, it’s around engaging with Māori communities; it’s often being a conduit for their voice. I can capture that kōrero and frame it up in a way that makes sense to decision-makers and funders, to government, to private clients, and help guide their decision-making to deliver better outcomes at the community level.
JEREMY I'm being stereotypical here in some ways, but I had previously associated consulting firms like EY with striving individualists, but you’re saying your primary goal is to uplift your people. Do you think the organisation has shifted to meet your aspirations and provide the kind of work you find meaningful?
RENEE I would say it's happening in general. I think people in my age group are a lot more purpose-driven. There’s been a real shift from the idea of living to work to working to live. Part of that is you want to come to work and do things that you enjoy and feel like you are positively contributing. It's about how we deliver purposeful work as opposed to just turning up and making money for a corporation. Firms are starting to recognise that now. It's a slow process — we're asking to undo 20, 30, 40 years’ worth of embedded approaches and thinking in the corporate space, but I think it's starting to happen.
JEREMY You talked about working to live, and I don't doubt the sense of purpose you find in your work, but I also presume you still work pretty hard.
RENEE Yes. Everyone's working pretty hard. For my age range, it's being able to have autonomy about how you are working. There's been a really big shift around working flexible hours, having the ability to work from home, having the option to take your time back. And I think it's really important that companies enable that — staff retention is really important and if you can't offer that type of flexibility, then people look elsewhere.
JEREMY How much control do you really have though? I’m asking this because EY is in the business of offering advice to its clients, and often the timeframes for the delivery of that advice are set by clients. So how do you maintain a sense of autonomy and control over your workload when those external circumstances aren’t set by you?
RENEE I think someone told me in my very first week that when you're in the dips to really take the dips — we all have less busy periods between projects, and it’s really important to take that time to rest and relax because soon you'll be really, really busy again. In the end it all evens out. A lot of it is just about having the confidence to set the boundaries around what you need for wellbeing. At the end of the day, clients are always going to be there, and there are always going to be other people who can step in and support, and there's always going to be the opportunity to have the conversation with the client around shifting the deadline. I think we saw over Covid how clients were willing to shift and change based on things like wellbeing. So a lot of it is just open communication and recognising that if we keep people well, they'll deliver better work.
JEREMY Now that so much more flexibility is available to you, how do you like to arrange your working life?
RENEE I come to the office every day, which I think is pretty uncommon now. It's my preference because I like to work at work and I like to just keep home for home. It helps me, I guess, be able to really focus when I'm at work, but then be able to turn off that work brain when I'm not at work. I also really like my teams that I work with, so that's a big driver for me coming into the office every day — I like to see my team, I like to work with my team.
When you're at home, it's usually only you there and you don't get any of those quick conversations where you have a catch-up with someone; if you’re in the office and you've got a question you can just jump over and ask it. This is just my preference. Some people love working from home and find it way more productive; they have nobody else distracting them. For me, the office space is where I work and it's a signal to my brain that I'm shifting into the workday — and then when I leave it's a signal that I'm shifting out of it.
JEREMY Do you think your generation is better equipped to incorporate flexible work practices into your lives in a way that maintains a level of social engagement?
RENEE It's hard. I think it's something you have to proactively and constantly work at every day. And I think it's really easy to get into a space where that becomes really difficult. On previous projects that I've worked on, we've set weekly wellbeing check-ins, half an hour where everyone talks about how they're doing or what they did that week. I think having the space for those conversations makes a difference. The people I work with, we’re good at recognising when people don't seem to be doing well and proactively reaching out and having those conversations. If people primarily work from home because that is what enables them to work best that's totally fine, because there are always people who proactively reach out and just have catch-ups, not about work, but life generally. Having those types of conversations means you're not just seeing them as an employee or a colleague, you're seeing them as a person who has broader interests and broader things going on for them. It's easy to get sucked into talking about work all the time because we all work together, but there's always lots of things going on with people.
JEREMY Is this a shift in workplace behaviour, and is it your generation that is driving it?
RENEE I definitely think it's a shift that my generation is driving. I think for us there's more openness around things like mental health and where people are at emotionally. And I would say there's more perceptiveness — we want to take the time to connect and to understand where people are at and how we can support them. I would say corporates are still in an early learning period about all of this. But it’s clear that when people are well, they do good work. If they’re not well, then let's have that conversation and see how they can be supported. I've seen our leaders do that multiple times for people in the team. It’s good to see it happen, to see the actions and the differences they make for people.
JEREMY What is the purpose of an office, given that you could meet your colleagues anywhere in the city? Do you still want an organisation you’re working for to have one?
RENEE For me, yes, because I like to have that office space where I come do my work. I think it's just about enabling that flexibility for people. I know some businesses are moving towards requiring people to be in an office and I think my response to that is if people work from home and they're still just as productive and delivering work of a high standard, requiring them to come into the office isn't really helpful. And flexibility is what attracts people. One of my workmates said the other day that she came into the office and was happy about it because she had the choice to do so as opposed to being required to be here. I still appreciate the fact that if I didn't want to be in the office, I don't have to be. If I needed a day at home to reset or for whatever reason, then that option's available to me.
JEREMY What does an ideal office look like to you?
RENEE For me it really comes back to the people. It's great to have the office, the meeting rooms, the technology and all of that, but if you don't like the people that you're having to go to the office and engage with every day, then you're just not going to enjoy the environment as much. We like that our office is open-plan — nobody has any offices, and we're able to just catch up and chat and collaborate. Everyone wants more meeting rooms because there are so many of us trying to use them. But in general I think it works because we're super-collaborative.
JEREMY There is lots of research around now that suggests a variety of spaces is necessary in good office design — a balance of quiet workspaces and open, collaborative ones. Do you have quiet spaces to retreat to?
RENEE Probably not as many as some people would prefer. I think offices are often designed around your average worker, which is someone who is happy to collaborate and wants to sit and have a catch up. But there are so many different ways people work now, and there's so much value in having diversity of people, working styles, and thought processes. Some people choose to work from home because there’s not necessarily a space in the office that suits them, somewhere that’s a bit more quiet and they’re less likely to be interrupted. More spaces that adapt to the different ways that people like to work would be useful I think.
JEREMY What part does work play in your social life?
RENEE It's a lot to be honest. We spend so much of our lives at work that you do get really close to the people that you work with. Some of them are now my really close friends because I've worked with them for so long. So you get to know each other really well and when experience those peaks or the dips and you rely on each other for support.
JEREMY How do you and your cohort stay motivated in the face of what seem like pretty existential global challenges?
RENEE It's hard. But I think not everybody has to be on the front line at the same time. It's about sharing that load. When I have the energy to be at the front and leading that charge and having those challenging conversations, then I am. And when I don't have that energy, I communicate that and I let somebody else move into that space and carry that for a bit of time. Like I said, a lot of us are purpose-driven. So being able to deliver on that purpose is what gives us fulfillment. When I’m able to go out into my communities and hear what they want and need, and when I'm able to go back to those communities and say, this is the conversation that we had at the government level, these are the types of things that they're considering and implementing, it's a real privilege to have done that work and to have been able to support change.
And that feeling, I think, is the feeling that we all chase and that's why we keep showing up and pushing forward.
JEREMY So there's more optimism than despair.
RENEE There's definitely optimism. I don't watch the news because it often feels like it’s all bad news, but I think sometimes we forget that there are little bits of good all the time.
JEREMY Do you plan ahead, in the sense of having an ideal version of how your career is going to pan out? Or do you take things as they come, or a mixture of both?
RENEE I would say a mixture of both. People would definitely characterise me as a planner. But I think I also have to go with what I feel and listen to my gut. I don't think my generation sees a career as linear. I don't think people start a job as a graduate and expect that they'll be there for the next 20 or 30 years. It's not really common anymore, and there are so many opportunities to diversify the work you do. I think there's also a shift in how people are defining success. In the past, success might have been moving up until you're a partner or CEO or CFO. Now I think it's more, am I happy? Am I healthy? Do I have time to engage in things that I'm interested in and that I enjoy? Do I have time to see my whānau and see my friends? Am I able to uplift them and have really great experiences with them? I don't necessarily need to be a CEO to do that. Recently I saw something that said, "The people I love most get the worst of me." I think that's the situation that my generation is trying to avoid now. We want to have the time for the people we love most and the places we love most and we want to be able to dedicate the best parts of ourselves to them, because that's where that love and that care really sits. And so, it's about how to get that balance right I think.
There are five interviews in our This is how I want to work series. Our other interviewees are Monk Mackenzie Architectural Graduate Samuel Negash, Westpac Senior Customer Service Representative Siosiua Tukutukunga, Previously Unavailable Junior Brand Strategist Ria Sharma, and Anderson Lloyd Senior Solicitor Rachel Brown.
Photographs by Samantha Totty.