Let’s Get Real Episode 28: Hybrid Work: Chaos for HR
Discussions on the Workplace and Corporate Real Estate Podcast
Key Takeaways & Discussion Points
- How did the pandemic impact HR as a field, and the practice of HR on the daily?
- The future of work is about flexibility — allowing individuals to choose where and how they thrive while doing work.
- The role of managers is to intercept and guide when individuals are having trouble figuring out where they thrive.
- Workplace policies should be constantly evolving documents — and should come from the employees themselves.
- Offices are fluid ecosystems that are ever-changing, which requires adept change management.
- Gen Z and Millennials tend to be fitting work around their lives, instead of their lives around work; how does that impact the balance of power between employers and employees?
- Does Gen Z need to go into the office to learn soft skills and collaboration?
- Is it possible to digitally recreate that spark of creative energy that can happen when a group of people work together in person? Do we need to?
- Every organization is going to struggle to figure out the future of work, but it’s about trying and failing, and trying again.
- Can we apply this same sort of thinking based on flexibility, agility, and constant evolution, to the world of corporate real estate as well?
- Sandra Panara on LinkedIn – Director of Workplace Insights at Relogix
- William Tincup on LinkedIn – President, Editor-at-Large at RecruitingDaily.com
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.
Have any questions, comments, or suggestions for future podcasts? Please drop me a line at [email protected].
I am very excited to be speaking with my special friend, William Tincup, who is well-known as an influencer, podcaster, analyst, strategist, writer, speaker, consultant, advisor, investor, and journalist. William is a thought provocateur, evaluating “what is”, and questions “why”. He has studied all aspects of Human Resources and talent acquisition for over 20 years, including practice, and the tech that serves that practice.
William is the President and Editor-at-Large at RecruitingDaily and serves on the board of advisors for 20+ HR and talent acquisition companies. He graduated from the University of Alabama of Birmingham with a BA in Art History. He has a Masters of American Indian Studies, an MBA, and a slew of other certifications including a Senior Certified Professional from SHRM, and a Senior Professional of Human Resources from the HR Certification Institute.
Hey, William! Thanks for joining me today. Very excited to have you on the podcast. Why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Sure, I’m William Tincup, I’ve been studying HR and recruiting and the technology that drives HR recruiting for 20+ years from a couple different vantage points. I’m President and Editor-at-Large at RecruitingDaily, which is a media outlet. We have a sister outlet, the HTM Technology Report. We cover the full span of recruiting from sourcing to onboarding, and onboarding to placements, which is HR.
I’m also an advisor to probably 30+ technology start-ups in IT, HR and recruiting technology, and I’m a venture partner of Evergreen Mountain Equity Partners, which is about a $20 million fund that funds HR and recruiting tech. So that’s me.
That’s pretty exciting. You and I crossed paths a couple of years back when I was doing my own start-up in the HR space, and learned a lot about HR in those couple years I was there. But I was always really intrigued by your point of view on what’s happening in the HR world.
And now here we are, coming out of the pandemic, HR having been obviously seriously impacted by what’s happening. I’m curious to hear what you’re seeing is the impact to HR specifically, as we’re returning to the office, or not, at this point?
Right. Well, I think initially in COVID, I would say for the first 6 to 9 months, it was the phase of figuring out what we’re doing to communicate with employees. On some level, HR ascended to a more powerful position. They should have always had a powerful position, but they ascended into this position because they’re the ones who are the glue that held things together while there was so much chaos going on for organizations.
I think that tapered off, and dovetailed into some of the layoffs, and they had to go through that emotional experience. When you lay off a lot of people, there’s a toll on you as an HR person. So, I think there were mixed emotions in 2020, 2021. It was trying to figure out, where are we thriving with work, who’s thriving at work? Who’s burnt out? How do we deal with that? There was more discussion in 2021 about mental health, which was nice. That dovetailed into discussions around DIY, which was great as we went into 2022.
I think with everyone, with COVID, there’s an exhaustion. If we get on the news and it’s just COVID, COVID, COVID, everyone’s tired of that. It doesn’t matter where you are on the political spectrum. Everyone’s just tired. And I don’t think HR’s unique in that way.
They’re also tired of essentially trying to figure out how to make work work. In December of 2019, it was pretty simple. We had remote employees, but by and large, people went to a box. And work was work. There was a clear demarcation. You commuted to work, you did the job, you went home and home was there. You didn’t do as much work at home or you didn’t work at home. There were clearer lines between the personal and the professional. Whereas COVID had us all interlaced, with more of a work life integration, as opposed to a work life balance.
And now we’re on the end of that, and in the phase where people want to have more of a separation, whether or not they go to an office. That’s not the point. The point is they want more of a separation so they can actually have a life. So that’s where you’re seeing some of this stuff come out in the popular media in terms of Quiet Quitting, which is actually just giving discretionary effort. You’re working, doing a job, just working, as hard as most people would like for them to.
I think again, it’s burnout. It’s tiredness and a reluctance to go back to a workaholic kind of culture. They want to have a life, they want to meet people, they want to go drink, they want to have fun. And that’s all generations. It’s not a generational thing. That’s just everybody.
So during this really, really negative experience of COVID, HR got to flex their muscles in different ways. Because normally, HR is all too often reactive. It’s firefighting. We’ve got a fire over here we’ve got to put out, and then another, and a fire over here, etc.
So this phase now, there are still fires of course, but they’re getting pulled into meetings with Ops and Finance, the C-Suite, and the Board, around skills gaps, internal mobility, retention, culture. With questions like, what is culture if we don’t have an office? They’re getting pulled into more and more strategic meetings and intellectual conversations, which I like. I like for them to be in those conversations because I think they’ll fare well there.
The last thing I’ll say is, I don’t think anyone will ever have hybrid figured out. If you take the polarity of Tesla, it’s everyone has to be in the office or you don’t work at Tesla, and that’s it. To the other end of the spectrum there’s Airbnb, who don’t own any offices. There are no offices, everyone is 100% remote forever. And in between those poles, there’s everything else.
We call it hybrid, but what does it mean? Every company’s unique and they’re trying things out and there’s a lot of experimentation. We’re going to work Wednesdays in the office, or it’s all about flexibility, or it’s pick one day a week, or come in one day a month, and what have you. Everyone’s trying different things. And I like that. HR has gotten arms deep in that to figure out what to do. That’s a lot to consume, so I’ll pause there.
Yes, you’ve said some really cool things. You made a comment about Quiet Quitting, specifically about just not working as hard. I often wonder if that’s really true. There’s pushback out there when you read some of these articles, that it’s just people taking their time back. Is it really a matter of people not wanting to work hard, or not being incentivized? What is it really about?
There’s this expectation of hustle culture, where there is no end in sight. You’ve got technology at your fingertips, so the expectation is that you continue to work. And the pandemic has made it clear to a lot of us how valuable our time is.
We’re old enough to remember a period where there was no Wi-Fi on flights. On a flight you either read, or dream, or sleep, or disconnect, or do nothing, or talk to the person beside you. And all of a sudden there’s Wi-Fi, so your peers’ expectation is that if you’re on a flight, you’re working. That expectation changed.
I still don’t work on planes. I don’t. I didn’t work on planes before and I don’t now, because I find it repugnant. It’s hard enough to be on a plane and away from my family, I’m not going to add other things.
This is the crux of the future of work. It’s going to be around flexibility. It’s letting individuals pick where they thrive and how they thrive. And that could change day to day, hour to hour, week to week, etc. But instead of a company dictating, the company backs off and says, where do you thrive?
Now applying that back to my plane situation. If I wanted to work, if I just suddenly had an idea that I wanted to work on, my laptop is there, I could crank out something. But I get to choose. And I think the sooner we come to that realization that employees and candidates are in the driver’s seat, the better off we’ll be.
I totally agree with that. The other interesting comment you made was about hybrid and how we’ll never figure it out. I’m totally with you there too, because it’s always been an evolving idea about how we work. And hybrid is definitely different for each organization. That’s been my thing — when you look at the makeup of the people that work in your organization, it’s not a fixed thing, and culture isn’t a fixed thing. If your workforce changes, your culture is going to change as well. It’s the same thing with hybrid — is it a 3/2 model, or a 2/3 model, or 1/5 or whatever model you want to use. If you have a slightly different workforce, the model is going to change, because the people that are working in that environment are different and they’re going to have different needs.
Which is fascinating, because it’s about agility. What we’re really talking about is agility and nimbleness, and the ability of the organization to follow employees and say, again, it ultimately doesn’t matter. What matters is you enjoy your job and do your job and thrive at your job. And that is for old employees, new employees, etc. Maybe I have a bunch of things I really need to work on this week, I don’t want to go into the office, I don’t want to commute, I don’t want to be around people. I want to put my head down and I want to pound out some stuff. Why would we force someone who knows that about themselves to come into the office? That’s the output the company needs from them, it furthers the business agenda. To force some type of false construct that says no, you have to come into the box?
The opposite can also be true. You can stay remote, but I read an article the other day about fresh grads, they want to go into the office. By and large, they want to go in, because for the last 2.5 years of their life, they’ve been virtual. And they want to experience that early-career stage of going out, going to parties, meeting people, having fun at work, going to ball games — they want that. So it’s about flexibility. It’s real, radical flexibility that’s going to become the mantra of HR and People Operations.
It’s funny, your last point about people wanting that. The people who’ve been cooped up for the last 2 years, this is the dilemma. You want to come back into reality, but reality has changed. I’ve talked to so many people who had the perception that the office was going to reopen, everybody’s going to go back and it’s going to be great. Then it lasts 2 or 3 days and then they say, why am I here?
Yeah, this isn’t that great! I kind of liked working in my pyjamas. So again, I think you allow for flexibility. You allow employees to solve it. On a basic level, if you can’t trust your employees, why did you hire them? Why are they there?
This is kind of moral-philosophical, but if you can’t trust them with something as basic as where do you thrive, then why are they employed? And this discussion is centered mostly around knowledge workers. I mean, if you’re a bank cashier, you have to go to the bank. Ok, fine. If you work at Walmart, you need to go to Walmart. But for knowledge workers, it’s about letting them drive.
And that’s not gender or race or generation or geography or any of that stuff. It’s just that the person should know themselves, understand the outcomes that are being expected of them, and then navigate.
And if they’re having problems navigating, then intercept that as a manager and say OK, obviously you’re struggling with where you thrive, let’s figure it out. Let’s talk about it. Why don’t you come in for a couple of days, or go to the office for a couple of days? Let’s see if that helps. Let’s do something different and shake it up. That’s what managers should be doing.
Trying different things.
And optimizing performance, rather than creating a box again. It’s a false construct that you have to do it that way. You don’t have to do it any way, the work just needs to be done.
So just to switch gears a little bit, I’m curious, given where HR has been, as the creators and keepers, if you will, of policies and standards — looking at where things are now, there are a lot of companies trying to figure out their hybrid policies or their flexible work policies. How does HR work with that and fit into the corporate real estate realm of the workplace?
Well — I wouldn’t write in pen. If I were in HR, I wouldn’t write in pen, I’d write in pencil. Because as you already alluded to, it’s going to change. That’s a policy that gets updated frequently. Policy-wise, half the employee population needs guidelines, and half the population is comfortable with ambiguity. So, you create policies for everybody. And again, I’d write it in pencil with a revise date, knowing full well you’ll revise it in a few months. It dovetails with the learning of your employees about where they thrive, what they need, what best suits them. You have to put some rules in place because if you don’t, it’s chaos. But the rules can be so constricting that you squeeze all the fun out of it.
From a corporate real estate perspective, which I think is fascinating, is you’ll see more spaces. There’ll be more hotelling, like consulting firms did this years ago where people didn’t have offices. If you went to the Deloitte office in Auckland, it was hotelling, just areas where you could set up shop for the day, the week, a month, the year, whatever it was. There were conference rooms you could schedule, but it wasn’t like what we used to have, which is cube farms. You know, where you have baby pictures up — we’ll see less of that.
But again, there’s flexibility, so if you want that, you got it. You want a potted plant, you’re in your office, you can put up your favourite college football team, that’s cool.
I was visiting Stack Overflow in San Antonio one time, and they’d bought and taken over a mall that had fallen into disrepair. It became their corporate headquarters. It was interesting because they put in a skate park, did all kinds of fun stuff with it. Everyone’s office or area, they could personalize it any way they wanted. They set aside a certain amount of money, so let’s say, $1500, and said, what do you want to do? There were people with tents! Full-on four-person, six-person tents, and had their desks inside the tent. It was crazy, but we’re allowing employees to express themselves and do the job. Why are we creating anything that gets in the way of that?
I think, from a real estate perspective, we will see smaller footprints. Instead of 20,000 sq ft office spaces, those things will come down to size. I’m not worried about the commercial real estate office, because they’ll turn those things into condos. Whatever is not used in the building, they’ll just turn it into apartments and condos. They’ll be fine, we shouldn’t worry about the real estate folks. It’s fairly adaptive.
But the employees, I think, will want the flexibility of either hotelling or being able to create a spot for themselves. I think we’ve got to be flexible enough to adapt to how they see themselves in the office or if they see themselves in the office at all.
I think what’s interesting is, there’s the 8 to 4 day, or whatever office hours are, but right now, even with return to the office mandates, we’re seeing people come back but the amount of time they spend in the office is not the full day like it used to be. So how do you fit the office into your workday when you need to? Some people will want to be there the entire day, because they don’t have the space at home or they get distracted at home, or they prefer the vibrancy of the office, versus the person who’s like, I’ve got 3 meetings today, I’m going to schedule them back-to-back and do that in the office for 3 or 4 hours, and then I’m going to leave and go back to my home office or whatever the case may be. Those are all valid.
So, going forward from an office perspective, and how we think about office space — it’s not just a box, as you said at the beginning. It needs to be very fluid, and it needs to support the level of fluidity within the organization, because not everybody works in the exact same way.
We can think of the office as an ecosystem that’s ever-changing. There’s a fluidity to all ecosystems. If you go back to the Industrial Revolution, and the way they worked then, and you look at World War II and the way it impacted everyone in terms of structure at a lot of command/control levels, that bled into the office. And if you go back to 2019, there are people that pine to go back to this point in history that actually wasn’t that functional. It’s just what they knew.
So, it’s about change and change management. You’ve got leaders that, by and large, just want to go back to this place that they’re familiar with. You come in at 8, you leave at 5, your lunch is at 1, and I know where you are. I know what you’re doing, we can talk, we can meet. It’s what they know.
And the unfortunate part for knowledge workers is that’s not necessarily what we should be focusing on, which is outputs and outcomes of work, as opposed to how it gets done. There’s a lot of history that’s baked into our subconscious and a lot of leaders’ minds, that this is the way work gets done. No, this is a way that we got used to, but it’s not necessarily the way that work should be done.
The part that’s mind-blowing to me is we’ve all been in this environment for the past 30 months, we’ve all experienced it, it’s a sink or swim situation and we had no choice. So basically, we figured out how to make it work. It would have been one thing if we were out for 3, 4, maybe 6 months, we could say it’s temporary. But 30 months is not temporary.
Nope, the air can’t go back in the bottle. I think that’s the frustration for a lot of leaders, founders, etc. I don’t think there’s a frustration for workers other than having to interact with leaders because, take a Director of Human Resources or a Director of Demand Generation. We learned through this process that this job can be done from anywhere. So now, it’s a choice by the company and leadership. It’s a choice by the employee. Whether we’re in an employer or employee-driven market, I think we should err on the side of making it work for them. Not necessarily for us. What are the outcomes of work, the deliverables. What is the thing that you’re working on that we can look at and see that you’re working on? Great. Why do we care about how you got there? Why are we in that business, why were we ever in that business?
The other thing I find really interesting too is that we’ve been hearing a lot about the type of market we’re in. Specifically, it’s an employees’ market. The employees are in control, versus the employer being in control. Do you think that sort of cycle will continue, or do you think a line has been drawn and this is going to be it, going forward?
It’s the difference between a candidate-driven market and an employer-driven market. There used to be huge swings where we basically didn’t have enough candidates, or we had too many candidates.
The thing that’s different now is behaviour and expectations. Everyone wants to blame Millennials and Gen Z because it’s an easy target. But truthfully, and I’m squarely Gen X, if someone forced me to go back to the office, I would be forced to give them a resignation letter. Now people are opting out of work. They’ll go do 4 or 5 different things that fit their life. They’ll drive for Uber, DoorDash, these things. They can do multiple things, and make the same amount of money or even more. But they’re fitting work around their lives, rather than fitting life around work.
That’s a key change that has occurred, understanding where work is relative to my life. Your life isn’t work, which is what it used to be.
Before we were talking about policies and standards. When we talked earlier, we’ve got this new flexible environment where there’s no place for policies and standards there, versus the role of HR to put policies and standards in place. It makes me think about how management deals with it. Now, with the whole concept of hybrid coming into play, a policy gets put in place and then it’s up to management to decide whether they’re going to comply or not. Doesn’t that create problems?
100%. That’s the friction. So, we could question and probably should question why HR is in the policy business. And some of that is because of poor behaviour, things have happened in the past so you have to draw some lines and basically give people some guidelines about what can and can’t be done at work.
Outside of that, why aren’t policies drafted by employees? Why don’t we put that in their hands, and they drive policy? Instead of coming down from the mountain top like Moses and saying, here are our policies. Why is that? The foundational part of HR is the policy department. Why were they ever in that department? Shouldn’t policies come from the employee population, where they decide what’s right and wrong, what’s acceptable or not? We can run it through an employment attorney, who can make us understand what’s legal and not. Fair enough. That has a place. Employment law is important. There is absolutely a place in handbooks and policies for employment attorneys to go through them. But I talked to an employment attorney just this week, and he said the best handbooks are made where HR drafts it — almost like how regulations are made by the government, in a very public manner. It’s like a Google Doc where everyone has input and comments and then they put it together. Before publishing it, give it to an employment attorney and say, is there anything in here that’s illegal or would cause lawsuits? Because if you get the attorney to write it, it’ll be unreadable to the layperson. They shouldn’t ever write handbooks, but they should be the last line to make sure we’re in the guidelines of what’s the law of the land.
When I look at policies in general, I think employees should drive that. HR plays an important role there by sparking the conversation. Rather than being the Genesis, the Alpha and the Omega, they basically start the conversation. They say, should we have a policy about this? And then let employees come in, and if there’s overwhelming support for yes, we need a policy, we need guardrails, HR gets feedback from the employees. And once that’s all baked, go to an employment attorney, get it back, this is what we agreed on, now everyone can sign it.
I’ve done this, 100 years ago when there wasn’t an employee handbook, we created a What’s Not Cool list. We went around to every employee and said, what’s cool? What’s not cool? So, you know, arriving late to a meeting. Not being prepared for a meeting. Throwing hand grenades in the office. They wrote out a manifesto of what’s not cool. We sat around, we went through every one of them, we all agreed, ratified it, and then everyone signed.
And it was fascinating, because if I were to have sat in a room and tried to create that list, I wouldn’t have come up with half of things that are on that list. I would have come up with a bunch of extraneous stuff that people didn’t care about, and it wouldn’t have resonated with the audience. So I think we have a wonderful opportunity with our employees to actually be collaborative around policies.
I really, really like that idea. We did something similar, along those lines. They passed a law here in Ontario about not contacting your employees after work hours. They went out to employees and asked questions, because some of us don’t mind. Some of us are working asynchronously, or you’ve got people in different time zones. So it’s kind of hard to say, OK, at 5:00 PM, no emails can go out. It was interesting to hear the different perspectives in the company and then come to some sort of middle ground. I think bringing the employees into that is really important.
The word that we’ve both been nibbling on is “consent”. It’s asking people their permission. So that scenario about hours, it’s just: what do you give us consent to do? Again, we use the backdrop of flexibility. Somebody that comes in, does their meetings, goes home, or goes and takes care of their kids, and then logs back in later and does some work. Now you’ve got something that’s in the way of flexibility. I think it’s just asking employees for their consent rather than dictating some type of code.
And again, I think it’s done with the best of intentions, because that’s where a lot of laws come from, poor behaviour leads to some type of overreaction. But I think, if in doing something like that, you just opt in or opt out, you can just say, I don’t want any correspondence after 5:00 PM. Done. Not a problem. Cool.
And now that we have their consent, we understand what they’ll accept, we can treat our employees the way we’d like to be treated. If we did that, most of this would go away.
I totally agree. That leads nicely into my next question, which is around employee-centricity. What does that actually mean, for a post-pandemic workforce that doesn’t really want to go back to the office? How are you employee-centric?
You’re employee-centric because you’re personalizing it to the employee. You’re giving them the ability to drive the car. You couldn’t be more employee centric than by allowing them to drive the car of work.
I think we’ve historically failed by thinking the box was our culture. The box was never our culture. The box was just a place where people went. Our culture is how you treat people. That’s ultimately how it should be measured. How do you treat people? If we’re treating people in a highly personalized way, with regards to where they are and the work they want to do and how they want to do it, you can’t make it more employee-centric than that.
I think we’ve struggled because we’ve misdiagnosed culture. We’ve mislabelled it. Culture is not a place we go to. It’s an experience. It’s a relentless pursuit of creating a wonderful experience for all employees and candidates and alumni. You can’t make it any more employee-centric than by building it around them.
What’s interesting too is, as you were saying before, if you involve your employees and get their consent in terms of how you’re going to be dealing with them, you’re building policies and they’re involved in that process, it makes sense. You know the rules of engagement, so to speak. Everybody’s on the same page as to what they’re allowed to do. There’s a mutual understanding.
You’ve created a new social contract. A new social work contract. That’s agreed upon by both parties. This is how we work. Ok, cool.
I guess the challenge comes when you get into compliance. This goes to all levels of the organization. One of the things you tend to see is policies get made, then it applies to some and not others, which creates inequities. It starts to have an impact on the culture. That’s not part of the box, it’s part of the makeup of what you’re doing in the organization. There has to be that element of integrity. If you’re going to agree to something, it can’t be a situation where it applies to them but not us. It applies across the board. Which, I think, is probably what’s caused a lot of problems in the workplace — certain things are OK for some but not for others.
One of the other things that’s been really interesting for me in the past little while is just looking at the data, while there’s been return to office mandates happening now for the last while. All eyes are on the month of September and probably going into October, November. Ok, are people coming back? That’s the billion dollar question. Is that actually working? And we have the ability to see not only how many people are coming back, but right down to the space level and distribution level. Is it the office occupants who are coming back? The workstation occupants?
And not surprisingly, it’s the office occupants who are coming back in higher numbers, rather than the workstation occupants. What’s funny about this is — those are the people that are mandating the return back. It’s nice to say because they’ve got their own little private space. But the workstation people don’t have that, who maybe prefer privacy that they have at home, where they can control their environment.
If you just allow the employees flexibility to pick, and then pick again. You don’t just pick and then you’re done. It’s not like you make a decision one time and then that’s fixed, you’re going into the office 5 days a week from 8 to 5 forever.
Create a more fluid relationship with employees that says, we have workstations, we have workspaces, you can work from home. Where do you do your best work, down to the day. I think Nordstrom’s culture says they trust their employees. They trust them to do what’s in the customers’ best interest. That follows this old tagline that came out of the Old West: do right and fear no man.
Why don’t we trust our employees more rather than less? I think it’s in part because we want to control them. And that’s a false construct. There is no control. There’s no controlled personal relationship and there’s no controlled professional relationship. There’s just no control. So if we give that up and just accept that people need the freedom to be their best selves, they define that. And again, dealing with knowledge workers in particular, as it relates to the footprint for an office — I have a dear friend of mine who has 4 kids under 10 and she’s an extrovert. She couldn’t wait to get back into the office. It was a respite from the madness at home, but also, she’s an extrovert and she wanted to talk to people, meet people, be around people.
I’m seeing some interesting things around collaboration and soft skills development. Both my sons are Gen Z, so they’re very comfortable with devices. Not as comfortable conversationally. One decent argument I’ve heard is that you learn soft skills at work, at the office. You have to interact with people, you have to go out to lunch, to the water cooler. You’re around people, and that’s how you learn to interact with people. If you’ve grown up in a world where this hasn’t been emphasized, then that’s possibly a good argument.
Another one I’ve heard that’s reasonable is, occasionally there’s something to being in the same room with people, doing something collaborative and creative. In the advertising space, it’s a design charette, the customer wants to repackage and redo this, that, and the other. Everyone gets in the room, there’s 20 people in a room, papers are flying everywhere. Can you do that digitally? Sure. But there’s an energy to that room that doesn’t happen digitally. And that’s a fair argument. Now, do you need to do that every day? No. Nobody does.
I think this is the hardest part for HR and executives, is when does this apply? If it’s soft skills development, then just say listen, I know you don’t want to be in the office, I know you do your best work at home. But let’s come to an arrangement. Why don’t you come in every other Friday? Be around people, develop better soft skills, negotiating, communicating. It’ll help you in the future. I think most employees, especially younger ones, understand that they’re device-oriented. I think they can see that it’s a different way of training and thinking and developing. So I could see that argument.
I can see that. The flip side of that is going back to what you were saying about control. I have conversations with my own kids or even my nieces and nephews, they’re completely in the digital world. They’re still in high school, elementary school, so to them it’s still the fun aspect of the digital world. We’ve experienced that there’s a value to that element of interacting with each other. I’m a Gen Xer too, and I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but as you get older, you kind of pull back from interacting with people.
I don’t go to as many parties as I did in my thirties. I’m not even interested in going to parties, so I get it. And maybe we’ve over-indexed the importance of conversations. Which is a really interesting point, a counterpoint to say, maybe we’re overvaluing soft skills. Maybe we’re not valuing highly enough the digital skills that they have innately. Great arguments to be made.
I think again, the hard part for HR and the executives in general is there. There’s this fluidity and there’s no one answer.
The other piece that’s interesting is, when you were talking about being in the room, I’ve been in a couple of those myself, and it’s true —- there is a certain energy that can happen. If you think about what you were saying earlier about permission, to behave a certain way, whether you’re in person or online, it’s in the context of what’s expected of you. Usually there’s one person leading, talking. Usually it isn’t a co-creating experience like a charette situation, where you’re freely and openly contributing to this event, which can happen online just as well.
I kind of make the parallel to this argument we’ve heard over and over about the office being a requirement for collaboration and innovation. Well, is that really true? Again, it goes back to the idea that collaboration only happens between the hours of 9 and 5. It’s more about giving people permission. I read an article that spoke to this the other day, that when you give people permission to create and not be focused on process and policies and just be open to solve, to innovate, come up with ideas — it doesn’t require you to be in a place to do that.
You just have to have an understanding of what the challenges are, what can I as a contributor bring to this organization, bring to the table, are my ideas going to be slammed every time I raise my hand?
What’s wonderful about this whole discussion is that every company is going to struggle. In much the same way. They’re going to try stuff, fail, try stuff, fail. And the ground beneath them will constantly be moving because employee populations and their expectations, behaviours, and needs will be changing. And you either adapt to those changes, or you cease to exist. And it’s pretty much that simple.
I remember Walmart — I’ve told the story before, but Walmart in the 90s said, we need more SKUs. We need more choice. Our consumers need more choice. So if you went down the toothpaste aisle, there were 600 types of toothpaste. And what they found after a couple of years of doing that was that it was too much choice. People would go down the aisle and freak out. Do I need whitening? Does it need to be purple? What do I buy? And then they go and grab the thing they bought before.
So companies are going to have to play with this. Like modelling clay. That’s why I said, don’t write in pen, write in pencil. You’re going to want to erase some things and be OK to fail. I think this is for all executives, not just HR. Don’t have a fear of failure. Try stuff with your employees. And if it works, cool. Continue until it doesn’t. And then when it doesn’t, try to come up with something new, something that works for them, and go from there.
I agree with that. It’s funny. It also reminds me of the Kodak story. I was doing some research on that last week for a presentation that I’m doing in a couple of weeks. I’m just fascinated by the story of the rise and fall of Kodak and what led to their demise. There was this one line that I read — that they failed to adapt to a way forward that the leadership didn’t value. They’re not valuing the technology, valuing the new ways. The business didn’t adopt them. We saw that going into the pandemic. Who was on that path and who wasn’t. And here we are, 30 months later, still having the same conversation.
I think the conversations are constant. I don’t think the conversations are going to change. I think the nuanced part of the conversation will change, but the conversation itself I think is here to stay. What is the future of work? How do employees want to work, and how do we adapt to how they want to work, which is going to change?
It’s going to continue to change, and it should. I do believe in the adapt-or-die mentality. It’s a choice. Kodak had a choice, the Board, the executives. It’s not like they’re dumb people. They were really intelligent people. But they chose not to adapt. And that’s what they got as a consequence. It’s what we teach our kids: actions have consequences. We teach them to tether those things. You can choose not to adapt, but it is a choice.
I’m also thinking about adopting new ways of working, and putting a visual together for this presentation from a real estate perspective. We’re still at the beginning — most businesses still have traditional offices with a tonne of floors and furniture and all that stuff. And now you’ve got this small percentage of people coming to the office because people are behaving differently. And corporate real estate and HR are up in arms, oh my God, what are we going to do? We need to try to entice people to come back because we’re holding on to the box. But we need to be thinking about real estate a little bit differently. And evolve. Do you have to evolve your real estate into this new way of working? For the worker, it’s a bit of a revolution. Hey, we’re not going back, this is the way forward for us. So figure it out and let us know where you stand, and then we’ll decide if we’re going to remain an employee or not.
That’s right. We’re customers of all different kinds of things. We choose to be customers. If you choose to go to Target, you choose to go to Walmart, you choose to go to Academy Sports. You choose to go to What a Burger or Burger King or Tim Horton’s or Starbucks, whatever.
Employees are not connecting the dots of, I don’t have to make that choice. I can make a different choice. This is COVID-related, but also gig-economy related as well. Because they can just go make money right now. I can just get in my car, turn on an app and make money. It’s about what fits my lifestyle and suits me. The chaos is constant. I think there are executives who want the chaos to be controlled and gone. But that’s a failed strategy. They need to increase their skills around ambiguity, flexibility, and resiliency.
It’s almost like a lot of executives need to go back to school and learn empathy, if they haven’t already learned it. If they don’t, they’re choosing not to adapt. And then the employees will choose not to work with them.
That leads into the next question, which is about the elephant in the room. How does this new way of working impact productivity? There have been numerous conversations around that as well. When we think of what I like to call the productivity cocktail, which is having autonomy, flexibility, and responsibility — you have to have all of those in order for you to feel like you can actually make decisions and do the right thing. There’s a need for transparency in order to keep things moving in the right direction.
When you think about productivity, we hear about things like monitoring work. How do you see that in terms of impact to the business? Because obviously businesses are very keen on keeping productivity up. But there’s been a tonne of stuff in the media about productivity being down. Whether that’s true or not, we don’t really know. It could just be propaganda. But I’m curious to hear your thoughts on that in regards to how it relates to business, but also for employees. I think there needs to be some element of truth, some element of understanding of how productive an organization is. I think the way that information is used gets a bad rap. I just wanted to hear your thoughts on that.
This is close to the media frenzy around Quiet Quitting. It’s all about discretionary effort. It’s just solving for discretionary effort. How do you do that? I think that’s what we’re learning is that by and large, employees want to have a life. That’s a choice they’re making, that work doesn’t define them. I define the work that I do.
But if you really want to enhance productivity on any level, you work with your employees. You don’t monitor. You work with them. You set goals, and if they don’t hit their goals, you talk to them. You try to figure it out. It’s like working with an athlete. Pick any athlete, any sport. Are they managing productivity? No. They’re setting them up for success by giving them the tools and resources to be successful. When there’s not success, they coach. How can I help? What do you need? You’re in a slump, it’s not going well, you’re not making your free throws, whatever it is. What can we do together? What do you need around you?
This constant monitoring, again, it’s about trust and control. I’ll just say what I think it is — it’s a holdover, by and large, by white men, who want to have control. And this is just their excuse to have control, that we need to manage productivity. No, you need to manage outcome. How you get to the outcome, you can work with the person as a coach. Great coaches work with athletes. They don’t monitor their productivity, they monitor outcomes. They continue to look at the outcome and then they assist. It’s more of a collaborative process.
This idea that you have to monitor — why are you monitoring? If they’re not hitting something, it becomes a great discussion, a teachable moment. Give some coaching and support around them, make sure they understand what goals weren’t met, and then you can help them get there. But I believe most of this monitoring discussion comes down to control and trust issues. And again, I’m going to lay that at the feet of white men, primarily.
That’s an interesting perspective. I’m kind of on the fence — I don’t agree with monitoring either. It’s got a lot of negative connotations. But then, I’m trying to keep an open mind and say, OK, whatever it is — is there some valuable information that could come from that, that could help an organization? Could we use that data in some positive way to help them? To determine how you might be able to grow your business, to enhance the experience of work?
Take Domino’s — at Domino’s, you have to fold 1000 pizza boxes an hour. That’s the outcome. And somebody in the organization folds 1200 an hour. The thing is that monitoring is as much as going to this person and saying hey, can you teach what you do to other people? Teach them your tricks. That’s not monitoring, that’s just great coaching.
I think again, you work with somebody, you get their consent, you agree. Because creating an outcome that is an untenable position is no good for anybody. An unwinnable war. If I literally can’t fold 1000 boxes in an hour, I’ll never reach that goal, then why do we have that goal? So it becomes a different conversation. That’s just going to lead me to quit because morale is going to be low. I’m always going to feel like I’m a failure. Well, why do I have that goal?
So, I think there is a place for productivity, especially in certain jobs because of the environment. My dad worked for a warehouse that made corrugated boxes, so there were lots of machines that interacted with humans, some robotics involved as well. You had to have productivity to understand what the overall flow was, and what your part was in that flow. So in that scenario, productivity is not a bad thing. It’s not a bad word. It’s understanding the workflow and where you participate, and your importance in that workflow.
If we treat employees as stupid, then we’ve set the bar so low, they could trip over our expectations. I think we shouldn’t set unreasonable expectations, because then the opposite happens, they can’t ever reach it. They feel like failures. But treating people like they’re stupid — I just don’t believe it’s a long-term, winning strategy. If you hired them, trust them, set them up for success, and expect them to be successful. And failure is inevitable, disaster is inevitable. Something goes sideways. So have a great conversation. Say let’s talk, let’s figure it out.
It’s hard. I think that’s the reluctance of most leaders and managers. It’s hard. It’s much easier to look at a spreadsheet and say, well, the spreadsheet says red. You’re in the red, red’s not good. We’re not having a discussion. But when you’re in the red, it’s a wonderful teachable moment. You ask, what’s going on? They might say, my dad’s got cancer, I just found out, my mind is just elsewhere. I’m here, I’m trying to keep it all together but I’m barely holding it together. But I’m trying my best. Ok. Alright, well you know what? In that folding boxes example, lower the goal. Don’t worry about it. Getting through this is more important. Life’s more important. Your dad’s more important. Make sure you can hit the goal. We want you to feel good about it. That’s being respectful. That’s being understanding and having empathy. That’s having something basic. But it’s not basic for a lot of people, because they just want to look at a spreadsheet or some type of software, that says red, yellow, or green, and then that signifies something. And then they don’t take that as an opportunity to use it as a mechanism to help people. They use it as a mechanism to be an overlord, to beat people. I just don’t think that’s a winning strategy.
Those are very valid points. I’ve experienced some of those things as well over the years of working. Going through personal situations, having unreachable goals, or whatever the case may be. Then just the way you feel about it, because expectations are set so high and you’re constantly struggling, you never get the empathetic side of your boss until you’re basically ready to walk.
Until it’s almost too late. You’ve already checked out, most people. They’ve already checked out. They’re already looking for new jobs. Because they’re in an unwinnable game. An untenable position. I can’t win. If I feel I can’t win, why play the game?
Yep. It’s basic.
I don’t think this is all that intellectual. It’s just basic. Don’t put people in an unwinnable game.
On that last note, thank you for your time, William. This has been very enlightening! I’m sure our listeners will agree. Any final thoughts you want to share?
No, this has been absolutely wonderful. Wouldn’t change a thing.
Fantastic. Thank you again!
Absolutely, thank you for having me!