Let’s Get Real Episode 9: Resisting the “New Normal”
Discussions on the Workplace and Corporate Real Estate Podcast
Some of the highlights of the show include:
- Returning to “normal”
- Resistance to the new normal
- Control over schedules
- Adapting old ways of work to home
- Rethinking work
- The changing role of management
- Managing the outcomes of work
- How many zoom meetings do we need?
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].
This week, I’d like to introduce my special guest and friend, Pamela Ross. Pamela is a culture catalyst at Blue Rebel Works, located right here in Toronto. Pam, why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself before we get started?
Thank you so much for having me! I’m Pam Ross, and I’m the founder of Blue Rebel Works. I believe that we spend far too much time at work for it to suck, so our purpose is to improve peoples’ lives by making work awesome.
Fantastic. So, it’s mainly management and leadership who set the stage for what the larger culture of the organization is. To me, there seems to be a lot of resistance at that level around defining what the future of work looks like. There seems to be this belief that in some shape or form, we’re going to go back to normal, whatever that is. I’ve heard from several people all over the world that they believe that, at some point, this is all going to go away, people are just going to go back to work, and everything will just go back to the way that it used to be.
We obviously have a great opportunity ahead of us to change the course of history and to look to the future to essentially improve so many aspects of our lives, society in general, the environment—and yet you have this resistance which seems to be stemming from the leadership level. Do you have any thoughts or insights as to what might be causing that resistance?
So, short answer—ego. When you think about it, executives already have flexibility. Nobody’s telling an executive they can’t leave early or work from home, in most companies. In most organizations, a senior executive is already managing their life and work. For them to say we have to go back to work—it doesn’t affect them the same way. They’re still going to want to go to the office sometimes and they’ll do that. They’re going to need to work from home sometimes and they’re going to do that. But then to insist on a standardized policy for everyone else, I think is counter.
I was just reading a funny article that had adapted Tim Cook’s email about coming back to the office and written it in a funny format instead. It said things like, the real reason for the return-to-office is that I really need people around me to stroke my ego more often. I don’t think it’s ego to quite that extent, but I think it’s the unconscious ego of being in control, or the perception of having control over what’s happening. Executives have control over their own schedules—what people want is control over their schedules.
As you know I’m a huge fan of Results Only Work Environment (ROWE). There was just a new article in the New Yorker a few days ago, and Jody Thompson, who’s the founder and creator of ROWE said, employees don’t want flexibility, they want total control over their schedules. I would agree for a lot of people. Now, I think there are some people who would rather just have someone tell them when to come to work, because it’s easier, and they want someone else to manage that. I’m willing to be challenged on that. But I do think that senior leaders already have flexibility so they’re not really thinking about how that impacts a regular person day to day.
I think a lot of time, they have good intentions. They’re thinking, let’s give people flexibility, let’s give them Fridays off, or move to a 4-day week, or let them work from home on Mondays and Fridays so they can have long weekends, etc. They’re giving employees these structured flexibility plans, but that’s a bit of an oxymoron. People would rather control when they have their days off. I see a lot of frustration with those plans, because for example, some people might run payroll on Fridays. So now they feel like this isn’t fair, everyone else gets to work from home on Fridays but I have to go into the office for payroll. Why don’t we just let people figure out what they have to do to get their work done?
We’re so used to thinking that work is measured by time and attendance, and not thinking about just letting people get the work done. Through the pandemic, we saw people working from home and working even more hours. Tonnes of studies say they’re working more hours than they did when they were coming in to the office. Maybe a parent is working from home but also homeschooling, so then if they feel like they didn’t put in their hours, then they have to work later at night—and then they’re putting in even more hours in because they’re back and forth on email or Slack. There’s this overwhelm that was happening for so many people.
Instead, what if we were just really clear about what our objectives are, what you really need to get done? Maybe you don’t have to be online from 9 to 5 while you’re homeschooling. Just figure out when you want to work to get your tasks done. I think people were trying to manage their time in a world where that time couldn’t be 9 to 5 for so many of us. It led to some really unhealthy ways of working. So instead of just adapting our old way, we need to re-think how we’re managing work, and what work is.
I totally agree, I think that’s part of the problem right now—there’s this push and pull between going back and going forward, and a lot of the habits that we had in the workplace have now been transferred to online, causing this overwork. I was reading articles too about how burnout is at an all-time high because we’re constantly connected, we’re constantly working. Even though you can shut your computer down, you’ll still get the ping from Slack or email. And yes, you have the choice not to respond, but it’s there.
And what does your culture say about that, right? How is that actually recognized?
Exactly. You were talking earlier about the management role and the ego—how much do you think the role of management and leadership is changing? Is it threatened? Could we even go as far as saying management might not even be a requirement anymore? In an office environment, people are there to oversee their teams. Now, in a virtual world, it feels more equal. Everybody has a voice, people can communicate, create micro-teams, and work on projects that the manager might not necessarily have oversight on, but it’s all deliverables-based. We have an objective, we have a deliverable, so you figure out how to make it work. So what’s the role that managers play in this new world? You could be spending your entire day in meetings.
And many are!
And not actually get any work done! There’s this recognition that you can’t have that many meetings, you can just let people work. What is the impact on the managers who used to be managing and overseeing all of that? Maybe that requirement isn’t there anymore.
Self-management has been around for decades. There are lots of organizations that don’t have managers. You make agreements with the team depending on the roles you play in the organization, and there’s democratic decision-making. There’s actually a lot of structure in a self-managed organization around how decisions are made and how the meetings are held to make the decisions, but there isn’t a person who is in a hierarchy above or making the decisions for people. I’d love to see more self-managed organizations.
It does require a big shift. I have a very small team—I have 2 part-time people on my team and then 2 sub-contracted facilitators. I just hired the second part-timer, and I was thinking, how do I not be her manager? I don’t want to feel like I’m managing someone. I don’t want to make the decision about how often we want to meet. Instead, the question is, what do we think together will help us both be successful here? She decided on her first day to put some questions together and lead a market strategy meeting with me. This is awesome, but it is different for me—I was thinking I had to structure what she needed to work on. But if she tells me what’s needed, then why would I do that? She’s the expert in her field. And even for me, who has studied self-management, I’ve taken courses, I’ve worked in self-managed teams outside of my business—it’s still a big shift in thinking. I’d love to see more of that.
I’m thinking back to a study Google did a few years ago where the question was, could they manage without managers? They ended up deciding that managers were essential. But the function of managers was seen as coaching, sharing vision, and that sort of thing. Do you need to be a manager to be someone’s coach? I would suggest not. And in fact, there are people that are better coaches for you outside of your manager. It’s a deeper question, what that management role is.
I think there is opportunity. I’m guessing that most companies won’t go that far. But who knows —if it was going to happen, now would be a great time!
It’s true! You said earlier that people could just figure it out if they were given the opportunity to. I’ve often asked, are we over-engineering this whole return-to-office idea of what the future of work will be, where instead we should just let people figure it out? They have control over their schedule and they know what’s expected of them. That could open up a whole other conversation around goals and how you measure success, but imagine just having the autonomy to make the decision and to give people the benefit of the doubt that they’re going to do the right thing. And if they don’t, then obviously there’s going to be repercussions, and people need to understand that.
Imagine if you gave people the freedom to choose when they wanted to be in the office, and you gave people the freedom to choose their time of work. Obviously, there’s flexibility because sometimes you’re going to be required to work on a Friday because you’re working on a project, or you might be required to work till late at night because you have a client on the other side of the world. But then the next day, you can basically take that time back, or start a little bit later or whatever, and you still get your work done. When you’re in the position to be able to make those decisions, and not feel like you’re being watched or that you’re being judged or measured for productivity because you’re not sitting in front of your computer and working for the 9 hours or 7.5 hours a day, it changes your mindset.
I think when you have that level of freedom and ability to make those choices, I know from my personal experience, I’ve always been way more willing to put more into it than when it’s when you know that you’re being watched. You kind of think, I’m not giving more than what’s expected.
This goes back again to what your cultural norms are and patterns of behaviour. I’ve worked in the corporate world and in specific companies, your time at work was such a measure of whether you were high-performer. So, people would talk all the time about being so busy, having to be at the office all weekend, having to miss their child’s recital, because you got recognized for the time you spent. Now, were we more productive than any other place? I would say definitely not.
Can I talk just briefly about ROWE? Because I really love the way it thinks about work—it’s 100% autonomy and 100% accountability. This is where people go wrong, they think—we just give everyone all the autonomy, without getting clear about what they’re responsible for and what the required outcomes are. Then you lose the accountability piece and it’s just a free-for-all, and we might not meet any objectives. You need both.
That’s where a lot of organizations and managers are going wrong right now—because they don’t know how to manage the outcomes of the work. The easiest way to manage people is to know that they worked 8 hours. In a ROWE, you don’t say, I left early today but I’ll put in extra hours tomorrow. You don’t talk about time. You just get your work done. I really think that’s such an effective way to think about work.
You need to really get clear on the outcomes your role is responsible for, and then in a ROWE, what happens is people start to be more pro-active. For example, I’m working with Sandra, and I can’t assume that she’s going to be available 9 to 5. I have to think about what I’m going to need from Sandra ahead of time so that she has a heads up and knows what I need from her so that she can figure out how to get it done in her own way. People get used to being more personally responsible and collaborating in different ways. Because your job and your outcomes depend on other people all the time, you just have to communicate better.
One of the principles of ROWE which I love is that every meeting is optional. I’m hearing now that people are in Zoom meetings all the time. In the office before, you used to pop by someone’s desk to ask a question. I think what’s happened is we don’t have those pop-bys, so now we schedule meetings to do all those check-ins on all those things we used to just casually drop by and check on.
This is where I say: don’t adapt, re-invent. Adaptation is to say, we used to meet about this this way, now we’ll meet about it this way. Re-inventing would be, what if I could never speak to a person live? How would I do this differently? What would be a different way of managing this? Collaboration used to be in a board room with a whiteboard, so we adapted to an online white board in a Zoom meeting. Well—no. Re-think that. How can you be collaborating asynchronously? Our team sometimes just opens a Google doc and we’re not even on a call, but 2 or 3 of us will be in there working together. It’s this little burst of collaboration even though we don’t have to talk. There are so many ways to collaborate without being in a meeting with a whiteboard.
That’s really interesting—we do the same thing. We have Slack in our organization and when I first joined Relogix, it was interesting because I had worked in large enterprise organizations that used Exchange, for the most part. And everything was by email—you’d get a long list of emails every day. And transitioning over to Relogix, we use Slack internally, which is like a chat to quickly reach out to someone, so it’s kind of like walking up to somebody in the office. It’s also useful for updates—there are a series of different channels for different projects, private groups or teams that are being formed because we’re collaborating on a project together, and ideas and questions get posted there. And it doesn’t have to all happen at the same time. Somebody will post a question or an update, and then people will chime in at different times of the day or over the course of the week. And sometimes those conversations last for a long period of time.
The other thing that we also started to do was whiteboarding. We’re using tools like Mirror where you can asynchronously start to build an idea out and you have the ability to move stuff around, you can see who did the edits, who said what, who did what.
I think a lot of the resistance in corporate is because of the traditional tools that you’re given. Even in terms of the transition from one company to the next—when I was working in large corporate organizations, the tools that were available to me as a user made or broke my ability to be successful. I always tell the story of leaving an organization where they had adapted their network and then going to an organization where the network system and even the email system they were using was extremely outdated. If you work so many years using Outlook and Exchange, and you suddenly have to re-learn how to use a tool you haven’t used in 7 years, this has an impact on your productivity. I think that’s a key element to it as well.
Well, thank you for your time today, I really enjoyed this conversation. There’s always more to uncover and learn, so again, I really appreciate your time. Thank you very much.