Let’s Get Real Episode 1: The Flexible Workplace

Discussions on the Workplace and Corporate Real Estate Podcast

Written by Sandra Panara, Director of Workspace Insights

Some of the highlights of the show include:

  • Definitions of flexible work
  • Flexible hours, asynchronous working
  • Employment standards and making changes
  • How do you decide who can or can’t flex work?
  • Who gets to make the decision about flexible work?

If you liked today’s show, check out more episodes of the Let’s Get Real Podcast! This podcast is available on iTunes, Spotify and Google Podcasts.


Hey everyone, welcome to Let’s Get Real with Sandra and Friends, a workplace consortium podcast brought to you by Relogix. I’m excited to be sharing conversational musings about current events and how we envision the ever-changing world of work.

I’m Sandra Panara, director of Workplace Insights at Relogix. With 25 years of hands-on experience, I help value engineer global workplace portfolios and employee experiences by aligning workplace analytics with corporate real estate needs.

I’m joined today by Judy Holcomb-Williams, a certified Change Practitioner with progressive leadership experience in driving valuable, transformative change by strengthening people, process and performance and developing an approach for ongoing workplace reinvention that is more resilient to all types of disruptions.

I’m also joined by Chris Diming. Chris has a PHD in social anthropology. His interest is in how people form, negotiate, and mobilize interpersonal relationships, which is enabling him to apply those anthropological methods to emerging new ways of working.

If you have any questions or comments or any suggestions for future podcasts, please drop me a line at [email protected].

Alright, hey Judy, hey Chris, welcome.

Hey Sandra, thanks for inviting me.

Hi Sandra, thanks for inviting us. Really looking forward to it.

Yeah, very excited about having an opportunity to talk about the future of work and thinking about what the workplace will look like 2021 and beyond. Lots of good conversation, on social media and with organizations that we’ve been talking to, about how to plan for the future of work as we think about the workforce, the workplace, and really, what’s the significance going to be longer term in terms of productivity, performance, and all these factors.

I’m very excited about having the opportunity to chat with you guys and get your thoughts on where you think things are going and the types of conversations that you’re having with your audience around similar topics.

When we think about the role of the workplace and where technology enablement helps companies transition in that regard, we’ve heard a lot lately about the whole idea of working from home, work from anywhere, flexibility. There seems to be a lot of terms out there that I think it’s causing a little bit of confusion.

When people speak about remote work, for example, are they really talking about remote work? Or they talking about work from anywhere? You know, we all know what’s happening: companies are thinking about what their return-to-work strategy is going to be. We’ve talked in the past about the challenges that many organizations have faced in terms of determining you know who can work flexibly, who can’t, and how those decisions are being made.

But before we get into that, let’s talk a little bit about what does being flexible mean to organizations. Because I think there’s different definitions of that out there, and I think just getting your perspectives on what you’re hearing would be helpful.

I think in general there is a lot of discrepancy over these terms, like ‘flexible working’ and ‘remote’ and ‘working from home’. I think remote working as a term and as a practice has been on for awhile. It only became working from home and the #wfh format with the rise of the pandemic when the term itself was popularized.

I think what’s more interesting to me now is this idea of what hybrid working even is and how do you produce hybrid working for your organizations? And what is the difference between a hybrid work format that reflects your organization versus some kind of McHybrid that Google, for example, gets because Microsoft got it, and so other companies get it because Microsoft and Google got it. That’s what I’m thinking about right now and why I think this is an important conversation to have.

Building on what Chris said, I think this word ‘flexible’ can mean many different things and I think it’s up to the organization to take the opportunity to figure out what it means to them specifically. And then determine what that hybrid solution or co-locate or all this different terminology means to the organization itself.

I think it’s a real opportunity for business to figure out how they best move forward from this point of view. One, from a business perspective and two, from a people perspective. That should guide them on what “flexible” means.

Do you think flexibility will always incorporate some level of working outside of the office? I’m thinking about projects that I’ve worked on where flexibility was part of the language or the requirement, but it didn’t necessarily mean that people were working from home or working from different locations like what is being spoken about today. It’s more when you come into the office, thinking about the old design of workplace where you had one to one dedicated spaces and you came in, and you sat at your desk all day long and that’s where you worked.

Flexibility could also mean you know, coming into the office, but then moving around in the office. I’m wondering, do you foresee flexibility being that going forward, or do you see the actual the division between in office and out of office as a part of the flexibility definition?

Well, to a point that Chris made earlier, this term ‘remote’ has always been around. And this flexible arrangement has been around for many years. Employees will enter into the organization and agreement around what this flexibility means. They can come in later. Maybe they have four-day work weeks. It could even be hours of work.

And then, I would say over the last several years, we’ve seen progressive organisations really being flexible about their work environment. Meaning that you could work from, for example hoteling. So perhaps the employee didn’t have a designated workspace, but they could come in and hotel. And this is for many reasons: flexibility, savings of costs, real estate costs, all sorts of reasons why perhaps this has become an emerging trend.

But I think we’re going to see that even more so now, since we’ve hit the pandemic and we’ve seen so many issues arise from this. I think companies are really going to embrace this flexible work environment and work arrangement and continue to embrace it.

I would say that I see flexibility in a few different ways. I think on one hand you have the flexibility regarding where and when you can work, and that’s what Judy just touched on. But I think there’s also the flexibility and the arrangements. Once you go into the office where can you work within it? So again, like hoteling and hotdesking.

But I think there’s also flexibility in the way that the offices are constructed, in the way the designs are constructed. Can they be fit around and change depending on what a team might be using for that particular time period? Regarding the furniture, can the furniture or elements of the furniture be changed to fit someone’s needs or to fit what activities might be done?

What this all speaks to is flexibility is going to be more pronounced. It’s not really a question of whether flexibility is going to suddenly exist. Again, I agree with Judy that flexibility along with remote working has been part of the discourse. Especially when I was looking for jobs in the UK, I’d see things like flex passes and flex days and flex time, and so the ability to flex was there too.

I think it’s just a matter of the magnitude and how it’s going to become more widespread for certain professions and certain companies. To an extent it will be more widespread, but for whom? And who not is one of the questions that I have. It goes along to the role that the workplace and the office will have.

For certain groups, I think maybe more knowledge workers, the office might become more of a service, might become a product that’s designed over time to increase the productivity and make it so the knowledge worker wants to go to the office. If the furniture is flexible, if the design is flexible, and if the policies and overall ability to work for one place or another, if that’s flexible then that means you can create and constantly iterate an environment that’s attractive to employees.

To me it speaks to flexibility itself as part of this wider concept. The office becoming more like a product or a service that’s designed, but for specific populations and for specific people and organizations.

I read an article this morning where there is now another element that’s being layered on top of this, which is flexibility around hours. Where before it was the whole asynchronous working your 8 hours a day but spreading that out. Now there’s kind of this emerging conversation around what should the workday consist of.

Should it be an eight-hour day? Should it be a 5-hour day? Should it be a four-hour day? A 10-hour day over four days? Do you think flexibility should also incorporate flexible hours as well? Because the flexibility around the space is one thing in terms of where work gets done, but then how does that also play into the hours that people work?

It’s an interesting question, right? We were all so used to going to work from 8:30 to 4:30 or 9:00 to 5:00. Now I think we see companies beginning to think outside of the box.

We’re going into something that’s completely new. It widens the scope around the amount of disruption and change that would be required as we look to the future. It’s not just about the place, it’s not just about asynchronous working, it’s really looking at everything that relates to work.

Is there opportunity? Absolutely, and I think as things continue to evolve and companies start looking at how they need to get back to business and drive business continuity and sustainability. Maybe these conversations will rise out of this.

Along the lines of flexibility, a lot of companies are trying to figure out, how do you decide who gets to work flexibly and who doesn’t? And so, you’ve got conversations around on one side, let people figure that out on their own, give them the autonomy to decide for themselves whether they can or can’t work out of the office. And then you have on the other side organizations that are reviewing jobs and making the decision. So, I wanted to get your thoughts on who should be deciding who can be flexible and who can’t and why.

Yeah, this is an interesting one because it speaks to who has control. I mean, if the company is employee centric then wouldn’t they give their employees the choice of how they want to work? But as soon as the company makes this declaration that some people can work flexibly and some can’t, then that immediately starts to pivot away from the company actually being employee centric.

I think it’s an interesting situation for companies to be in because it is so fraught with contradictions. It speaks to who is included in it and who’s excluded from it. Or one way to look at, who would have the right to be able to decide where they can work flexibly and not, and when and where they work? And how will employees decide that?

I wonder if part of it’s already happened through the distinction between essential workers and non-essential workers. I wonder if because some people have been viewed as being more essential for the maintenance of society than others, does that mean that they’re going to have less freedom to work flexibly? And since that distinction is already been made, won’t companies just follow that? And I don’t really know. It’s just an interesting topic to explore.

Yeah, to your point Chris, if you want to be people centric – and we all know how we feel about that word – it’s really leaving it to the people to decide. But the part that I find fascinating is, where in the past we might have been looking at a job function, for example, as a determinant of whether a job could be done remotely or not, is that really true given the fact that we’ve all been pushed out of the office and have had to figure out how to be able to work? Are there other factors that really sort of make that determination?

I can think of a lot of examples of when companies would use that and people would sort of stomp their feet and say, “Well, I can do this job from home. Just because my title is X doesn’t mean that I don’t have the discipline or the capability of working from home.” It seems like it’s more of a personal choice, just like somebody can say, “Hey, you can work from home,” but then personally it’s like, “But I’m not disciplined enough to do that.” Or “I prefer not to work from home.”

How do you deal with it that way? Because it could go, not only for the people that are being recommended to be working out of the office, but then those people also coming back saying, “Well, that’s great, but I don’t necessarily have an interest in working out of the office. I actually want to work in the office because that’s my preference.” So how does that add to the whole complexity of figuring that all out? Judy, you’re on the HR side, so let’s hear your thoughts.

I do have a point of view on this, and I think you said a really interesting word: “effectiveness.” I think right now this situation is providing opportunities to experiment with hybrid ways of working. When we look at returning to the office strategically, there’s two sides of this: there’s a business side and there’s a people side to this. We really have to start focusing on the activities best performed in person in this process.

As we know we have a lot of jobs, I’ll say here in Canada, they say 60% are on site jobs that cannot be done remotely because they’re manufacturing jobs or maybe you know on site retail jobs, etc., etc. But in this process, we should be evaluating the overall effectiveness of when we see it done remotely or maybe even when the world can be a co-located work situation where perhaps they spend some time at home and some time in the office.

Well thank you very much to both of you, I really enjoyed this conversation. I think there’s a lot more to be discussed and I look forward to future conversations with both of you. Thank you again for your time today.

About the Author

Image of a lady in a dark blue shirt with blonde hair
Sandra Panara, Director of Workspace Insights

Sandra has a proven deep and wide understanding of Global Corporate Real Estate and Technology that enables her to quickly connect the dots and apply non-traditional approaches to research and analytics to extract deep learning from the most unsuspecting places to drive strategy. She has 25 years of hands-on experience managing all things Corporate Real Estate including devising holistic Global Workplace Strategies for administrative offices that include workforce planning, location strategy, and design strategy. She has developed an appreciation for always challenging the status quo to provoke and encourage new ways of thinking that drive continuous improvement and innovation. Sandra believes square pegs can fit into round holes and that the real workplace ‘misfits’ are those environments that fail to adapt.