Let’s Get Real Ep 3: Flexible Working & Unstructured Upskilling

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:

  • Slack survey results
    • Feeling connected at work
    • The insignificance of proximity
  • Trust and accountability
  • Experience of working and why you need policy
  • Trust, culture and privacy at work in and out of the office
  • Learning is still part of culture

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 am 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.

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


Hey Judy, hey Chris, welcome.


Hi Sandra.


Hi Sandra, thanks for bringing us on today.


Hi everyone, good morning, good afternoon, good evening, wherever you are. My name is Judy Holcomb-Williams, I’m an advisor, consultant, and executive life coach providing support for individuals, teams, and organisations to reach the next level of success and thrive through reinvention. I’ve spent the last 20+ years of my career as an HR executive and change leader. Recently I have been facilitating and participating in discussions around the future of work.


My name is Chris, I’m an applied anthropologist. I’m originally from the Richmond, VA area, but by weird twist of fate I ended up going to Durham University in the UK to do a PhD in anthropology where I focused on public space and how culture forms within spaces.

Recently, I’ve been participating in various workplace evolutionary events, and I’ve been articulating how applied anthropology contributes to workplace strategy and design and that’s why I sometimes refer to myself as a workplace anthropologist.

Right now, what I’m doing is, I am working with a workplace management software company called Facility Quest to help them understand what types of data need strategies going forward. Thanks a lot for bringing me into the panel and I look forward to future discussions.


I came across an article this morning where there was a chart, I think there was a survey that was done by Slack and there was a graph that was interesting where they were talking about how people were feeling about burnout and productivity.

There was one metric that really surprised me, and it was the whole idea of feeling connected to the organization and the difference between working from home and working in the office. It was just a slight difference between working in the office versus working from home, but 42% was in that gray zone where it didn’t really make a difference. Because it was the largest percentage overall of how people were feeling, the takeaway was that space or the idea of proximity to people wasn’t driving the feeling of connectedness.

Which I thought was interesting because everybody is talking about the need for the space to feel connected. But that wasn’t showing up in this survey. I thought, well, that’s interesting because how much does space play into this whole feeling of belonging, this whole feeling of connectedness? Is it the physical space that does that? Or is it more about the culture and the leadership and the values and things like Judy you were saying before? I thought that might be a good starting point to talk about: what is this whole feeling of connectedness and where does that come from?


I can’t think of who it was who said, “We’ve always operated that way. When we hire somebody, we trust in the fact that they’re going to get their work done. We don’t care where or when; we hire them for their knowledge and expertise. It’s their accountability to get things done.”


In terms of general business decision making, I’m thinking about companies that I’ve worked with in the past that had the flexibility component. There was still an element of core hours where there was an expectation that, at minimum, you had to be available. So, if somebody was trying to reach you either via email or text or whatever, you were readily available to respond.

But in an asynchronous environment I would think that the accountability would be on the person, to your point, Judy, about knowing what your accountabilities are. What things you need to do and how you choose to do them should be a decision that you ultimately make. If you’re part of a project, for example, and you know your team is reaching out to you during those core hours because that’s when the expectation is that you would be made available then so be it.

The alternative would be, as the person who is on the side says, “Hey, I need to work maybe more asynchronously than the rest of my team.” Then maybe you make some sort of arrangements, or you make it known to your team that the best time to reach you would be at such and such a time. If, as an organization, there’s the core hours of let’s say 10:00am to 2pm or 11 to 3 or whatever that time frame, that doesn’t really work for you, then you take the responsibility to work within the project team that you’re working with to say, “This is the time that works best for me.” And then that way everybody is clear on what happens and when.

Thinking about it more from an experience point of view, the whole idea of teams working and collaborating where if you were in the office, it’s easier to do. Whereas now if you’ve got not only people working from the office or working away from the office, but then you got all these different time schedules that also play into it, that just further creates complexity.


I think when the pandemic hit, it shifted that mindset a little bit. Because now all the companies said, “OK, you got to work from home now.” I think it shifted that mindset. I think some businesses have really changed their mindset of this flexible work arrangement because they did see how productive people were. They didn’t have to physically see them sitting in a desk and they were still delivering upon their obligations. I think, if anything, this last year plus has shown businesses and leaders and managers, you don’t have to physically be in front of somebody to still be looked at as somebody who’s very productive and accountable and fulfilling their obligations.


Another topic that I thought was interesting, and this is one that I came across this morning, I think it was in that same survey that I was talking about earlier, was the whole aspect of learning. There was a question that was asked in the survey, asking people about upskilling themselves. During the pandemic, how many people learned something, took the time to learn something. And I was shocked at the metric.

50% of the people that were surveyed had upskilled themselves. My first take was probably because of the uncertainty of work, maybe rethinking about your current position and not really knowing where this was going to go. It’s like, “OK, maybe I take advantage of the time to learn something as a Plan B.”

But then I thought about it. This is interesting cause learning and development has been huge in organizations. I mean, every company that I know of has a learning and development strategy. But it’s interesting from the standpoint of the struggles that people have had in organizations with upskilling. And again, thinking about structured versus unstructured, where here you have people working from home, generally, reporting that productivity has been OK for the most part and people finding time to upskill themselves, I find fascinating.


You know, it’s interesting because with this HR council that I sit on, a small group of us just produced this report around talent acquisition now and going forward. One of the emerging areas that we saw a lot of movement around was this whole concept of upskilling.

Companies were supporting the upskilling because they needed employees to be more versatile to meet the needs of the business over the past year as they had to exit or layoff some individuals. They were empowering employees to upskill so they could have more opportunity across the organization, not just this specific area.

In specific functions, we saw a lot of upskilling. For example, we’ll talk about recruiters per say. Recruiters now have to be much more versatile and understand the business as a whole as opposed to being so task focused and just hiring this job, they have to take much more into consideration. For example, become much more knowledgeable around diversity and inclusion, and understand maybe more than one functional area that they’re recruiting for. They were upskilling themselves to be more valuable to the organization and add more value and contribute at a higher level. This was a trend that we were really seeing emerging because of this past year.




So, not surprised.


Chris, do you have any thoughts?


I think when you bring up learning and development and upskilling, I’m reminded of the discussion recently on weak ties and strong ties in organizations. Weak ties are viewed as being a conduit for knowledge within organizations, and there have been some papers on social networks and how creating cohesion within organizations can allow knowledge to flow easier.

In addition to upskilling in terms of individual people and for bringing more of an interdisciplinary frameset, you’re looking outside of maybe a siloed skill set if you will. But I think it’s also about breaking down silos between teams and within departments, because to Judy’s point, if you’re going to try to contribute more value, then a big part of it is working with more people and being able to facilitate that knowledge flow between people of different skill sets or people within different departments. A way to do that would be to build networks of interpersonal relationships between people as they act like highways for information flow.


Yeah, that’s interesting cause I was thinking the same thing around the learning aspect and people taking it upon themselves to upskill rather than it be a requirement of the job. This particular article spoke more to people taking it upon themselves more as a fall-back plan. There may be a requirement from a job perspective where if the employer is giving me an opportunity to upskill, that’s one thing, but if I say, “Hey, you know what? Maybe I’m going to learn a completely different skill because I’m not sure whether my job is even going to exist in 12 to 18 months from now. It’s probably in my interest to learn a new skill.”

I was just shocked at how many people took advantage of that, given everything that was going on, the stress and trying to maintain their job, their family life.  So, thinking about if you work in a traditional workplace environment, I don’t think that that 50% would have been as high from an upskilling perspective like basically someone taking it upon themselves. I don’t know Judy, maybe you’ve got some insights.


I was just going to say, it’s kind of interesting because, if the last year shown us anything, how quickly technology is evolving and how quickly companies are embracing that technology. We’re seeing portions of jobs moving to technology. Companies leveraging artificial intelligence, for example, to answer basic questions.

So maybe people are catching on and saying to themselves, “You know, as I’m looking at this technology coming maybe parts of my jobs are going to become automated. So, either a) I have to upskill from a technical standpoint so I’m more relevant. Or b) maybe I realize that in a year from now I may not have that position. So, I’m going to upskill and try to learn some new job so I can go to a new opportunity.”

I think that person is being in an astute individual and in some circumstances maybe the companies even have conversations with that employee saying, “Hey, listen, you know as we’re implementing technology…” maybe a year from now they could be even having conversations with them.


I think that’s a really important point. I remember for a project I’m on I read this paper from the World Economic Forum called Global Risks Report 2021. Now one of the risks it highlighted is digital inclusion as a result of the increased reliance on technology, but I think also as a result of automation and how automation could end up with some people be excluded from the job market. I think that’s just an important point is that with automation, well, what are we going to do?

And I think it leads to another theme of agility which would be agility for the workforce but also agility for the organization. So, ability to respond to challenges and being resilient, but being resilient through agility.


I think there’s opportunity to continue this conversation specifically around the whole idea of knowledge transfer and learning. Especially around the conversation we had online a couple weeks back around tribal versus organizational learning and different things like that. I think that whole knowledge transfer piece is going to be an interesting area to explore in this new world of work.

Also, to your last point, Chris about exclusion and the risk in that regard, I’m thinking more along the lines of we’re making assumptions that everybody has access to technology and the reality is that’s not the case. If anything, this experience is going to highlight the fact that there’s people that don’t have the same level of access. How can we potentially design a future that is more inclusive of people in areas that are not as advanced as some other places in the world so there’s more of an equal opportunity from a social perspective. So that’s what I’m thinking for future conversations.

Well, thank you very much to both of you, I really enjoyed this conversation, I think there’s a lot more to be said, 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.