While it’s the company bosses that typically hit the headlines with their pronouncements about where people will be working – “everyone in the office or else!”, we like to look behind the scenes to find out what’s going on, and this time we look at the Tech sector. How are companies evolving and managing in their new normal ways of working?
Here's a quick overview of the discussions:
Anne Balle & Clark Elliott:
If you have any questions that you'd like to discuss, please get in touch with host Karen Plum.
AWA Host: Karen Plum
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00:00:00 Karen Plum
Hello everyone. How often is your attention grabbed by headlines that tell you what the big bosses are saying? They don't believe in hybrid working. They learned their trade by working alongside other people 24/7. They live for the water cooler moments and so on.
What you may hear less of, is what's going on inside organisations. What people are experiencing as they work towards a new way of working. It turns out that many are figuring it out as they go along, experimenting to see what works. Let's find out what this looks like in the tech sector.
00:00:34 INTRO: Welcome to the Changing the World of Work Podcast where we provide insightful, practical content to untangle and demystify workplace change. I'm Karen Plum, director at Advanced Workplace Associates, where we combine science with nearly 30 years’ experience helping organizations change the way they work, for the better.
00:01:00 Karen Plum
While the tech sector typically likes to portray itself as having all the answers, in times of uncertainty and upheaval that's a tricky position to pull off. During the height of the pandemic, lots of people I spoke to said they'd had to get used to uncertainty and were finding it best to share that with people in their teams and organization.
To see how the tech sector is navigating this landscape, I talked to three guests to get their perspectives. Later in the episode, I'll be talking with Michael Hirahara. He's worked with tech companies since the 90s in a variety of real estate and workplace executive roles and has some great experience to share.
But firstly, I talked to two AWA Senior Associates based in Europe - Anna Balle and Clark Elliott - who've been supporting tech companies, both giants and smaller startups, since well before the pandemic started.
I started by asking about the bigger challenges that tech companies are currently facing.
00:01:58 Anne Balle
I'm seeing lots of different things, so let me start with headcount growth, I think that's one of the really big ones. A lot of the clients that I'm working for have grown a lot, like really substantially, which is great, it's a sign that they have success, they've done great, even during lockdown. A lot of new people coming in, but that also poses some challenges.
So in the midst of this success and this growth, there are some challenges that come with that. One of them being that as the headcount grows, so does the headcount of people managers and leaders. And what we're seeing is that there are a lot of people in leadership and management positions that are actually quite inexperienced, that are quite new people managers that don't necessarily have a natural authority and confidence in leading people and driving change.
And especially when there's quite a lot of them, compared to what there was before. So there's a lot of new people managers, and working with change as we do, that definitely becomes a challenge because one of the things that's extraordinarily important if you want to be successful with change and implementing change, is clear, confident leadership. And that seems to be a bit of a struggle. People who really, really want to do well but are struggling to actually be successful in that leadership role because they don't have the experience.
At the same time, and I think maybe this is just as relevant for other organizations and not just tech, there's also the war for talent. Everybody needs to get the good people, and that also means people realize the power that they have as employees. They are perfectly happy and comfortable setting demands, being clear on their preferences, what they need, what they want for them to stay in that organization, because there are other organizations that need them and want them, which is great.
But again if you combine that with our slightly inexperienced, fresh managers, that becomes somewhat difficult sometimes when we want to implement changes, when leaders need to push back and have the confidence to do so in a climate where we've got to cater to people preferences, we've got to make them feel happy and that they want to stay.
00:04:22 Clark Elliott
I would pick up on what Anne said and refer to these hundreds and thousands of people who have been hired during the pandemic. This is part of a new kind of challenge in the tech companies we're working with and the on board recruiting and then on-board orientation is a work in progress and a lot of people are struggling.
We had a workshop just this morning with one of the big tech companies and the fact that they don't know anyone outside their team from team meetings, they don't have a vision of the larger organization and I think this is a challenge that needs to be seriously understood for a more thorough onboarding experience.
Physical meetings, a new focus on repurposing buildings, but people are literally saying what should we do in the office, now that this pandemic is almost over? And the kind of collaboration issues are being looked at not so much as collaboration, but as people building relationships, learning about who in my team, who I never met, and these opportunities are showing up in a very… I’d say it's a work in progress, in parallel we’re trying to figure out really, what does #hybrid working mean for each organization? And the fact that hybrid working can go really far and certain tech companies are looking at remote only, why not? And they're pushing the boundaries of considering that.
00:06:13 Karen Plum
It's a bit of a perfect storm, isn't it? So we've got loads of new people into the organization, loads of fresh managers who are finding their way, all of this stuff coming together - is it really putting a lot of strain on organisations, and is it something that's specific to tech or is it just that it's the scale, maybe is just higher for the tech companies because they've recruited such a lot of people?
00:06:39 Anne Balle
I think maybe it's also an issue in lots of other kinds of organizations, but one thing I certainly do see is the tech companies - they do like to promote the fact that they have this down. It's kind of like, you know we're the pioneers, we are tech companies, we know what we're doing, we've got this hybrid down and they really do want to promote that image.
And you know nobody has it down. Clark, you said this earlier today, we're all making it up as we go along, nobody’s got this down, we don't have the manual, we're still writing it, and we're still figuring it out. So I think that sort of adds to the to the conundrum, if you will.
00:07:18 Karen Plum
Something else that I was reading about in terms of, what people are starting to look for now is flexibility, but it's also development. It's, you know, am I learning here? Can I develop my career? Can I progress in this organization? Is the organization really paying attention to that for me? Or if I go somewhere else, perhaps out of the sector, do they do that stuff better? Clark, are you getting a sense of that?
00:07:47 Clark Elliott
Absolutely Karen, in fact, as soon as you mentioned it - thinking of coaching, training, and mentoring which used to happen easily because of physical presence and a lot of business models were structured to just have people learn by osmosis, by being there, being in meetings, being a new hire, listening to other people on teams and suddenly that's not happening without being intentional.
Something that Anne and I are talking about a lot in this new world that's being made up as we go along is getting people to consider intentionally what they're going to do next; what they would do ideally from home; what they would do and how they would make the most of going into a physical location; and then again in hybrid, here's the challenges for managers to get those introverts involved. In fact, a lot of the things there have been many articles over the last two years - introverts and certain minorities - happy with staying at home and not being bullied and being their authentic selves from beyond their screens and digesting things, or just turning off video from time to time.
This is great on certain levels, but it takes another challenge in terms of the managers that new managers - you've got to have a level of emotional intelligence. Challenges that are being layered on every time a new article comes out about diversity and inclusion.
00:09:33 Anne Balle
I think it's super complex as well, isn't it? Because on top of the fact that we're figuring this out as we go along, there isn't one right answer. Making hybrid work depends on what do you do, what's your personality, what type of task do you have, what do you need to do to be successful on a personal level or an individual level?
But on an organizational level, it also really depends on what’s success for the business, what kind of business is this? So, while some people may actually perform really, really well and some whole teams may perform really well completely virtually, what we do see is, for example, you know cross team collaboration is difficult to achieve virtually; complex creative problem solving is more difficult to achieve virtually or hybrid; the mentoring, it's possible, but again more difficult to achieve.
So if you're in the business of doing pioneering research and development, those elements are actually really important, and so typically with research and development teams, we see that they've probably suffered more during lockdown than more production-based teams.
00:10:46 Clark Elliott
I would put a qualifier on ‘making it up as we go along’. Hybrid work is a work in progress that's clear. However, the workplace strategy framework that we do - this is no different than any other project we've ever done. Who are the users and what's the future user experience we want to create; what are the challenges and what's happening?
So I think we've got opportunities to merge all of those complex factors and I would bring up, you know, vuca - it's volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. But you have to make some decisions and with this framework of understanding what the challenges are.
We can come with and most of our projects we're doing now is for some of the big technology companies you've got this idea of - we're experimenting, we're moving to a new building and we're creating an ecosystem in our industry sector. And because we signed the lease, 30 other big tech companies have moved into this town or even into this physical new building. What are the opportunities there at the same time, and this is quite exciting.
And again though, for the change management side, it's really hard to sell someone the fact that, well, you know we are going to discover and experiment.
00:12:16 Anne Balle
Yeah, no I was just thinking about our workshop this morning Clark, with the tech client because we were all you know talking with this group of leaders on a very intellectual level about the complexities of hybrid and pioneering and hey, we're the frontrunners of this.
And then at some point someone put up their hand and said, guys, you know, I don't want to burst your bubble, but you know we've been working hybrid for years. This is new really, I mean, come on, let's not make it wilder than it is.
00:12:45 Karen Plum
But it might be new to the people that they've just recruited, and as you were saying, managing in this environment is also new for those managers. But there's also a degree to which, if they are being more responsive, you know they've got startups nipping at their heels, haven't they, as well, who can iterate faster.
And so they're trying to keep up with that and stop the talent leaving to go to the startups and that sort of stuff so they've got to show that they're responding and doing things differently, because if you've got a, you know a load of managers who aren't changing, for example, not the new ones, but the ones that are used to doing things in the old way, then that's going to put a bit of a break on their ability to be faster and fleeter in their responses.
00:13:31 Clark Elliott
I think there's an opportunity hidden there, Karen. Over the years I've loved this expression, use the new hires and train them well at the beginning with the orientation, and then use them to infect the old timers and grow a new culture.
So I think post pandemic and in the tech sector with these thousands of new hires coming on board and finally getting to discover what a building is, in addition to being productive in purely remote mode, I would say look at those opportunities.
00:14:11 Anne Balle
I think that's a great point, Clark, because we work with some companies as well that have until recently been startups, and that's another challenge because as they grow from being a small startup where everybody knows each other, everything happens organically, it's all super creative and we all know what we're doing and why.
And all of a sudden there are thousands of people. It's a completely new organism and it suddenly requires a completely different set of policies, procedures, you know, dare I say it..
00:14:43 Karen Plum
00:14:47 Anne Balle
Boring! Exactly. And there is a huge shift in culture and where people who have, you know, employees that really identify with that whole startup and the anarchy and the self-determination and everything - all of a sudden, they don't like fitting into those boxes. They don't like following policies, procedures and you know they're growing, again because it's a huge success, which is fantastic, but that in itself is a is a really big challenge.
And often here as well you have some really talented people who are, you know, superstars within what they work with, but that also are really strong characters that don't feel like following policies or procedures, or they don’t want someone telling them what to do.
But I think it's a good point of using all the new people to help fuel that new culture. I think that's a great idea.
00:15:40 Karen Plum
I'm not sure about the word infect, Clark when we've just had two years of a pandemic, but I understand where you're coming from?
00:15:45 Clark Elliott
OK influence, influencing!!
00:15:49 Karen Plum
But anyway, I was wondering if you could share an example of something that you're either doing with a tech company, or that you're seeing a tech company doing, that's really trying to address some of the challenges that you've been talking about.
00:16:05 Anne Balle
I would say in the change processes that we are involved in, we're going a lot heavier on the people manager training than we would a couple of years ago, so there's a lot more influencing, there's a lot more time that we spend in workshops with people managers, coaching them, supporting them, and training them.
00:16:29 Clark Elliott
I think the most positive things that I've observed are being proactive in using physical space and services to attract talent, this is clear. Many firms are bending over backwards to attract talent, as we mentioned before.
But what's coming I think is, for me as a professional in workplace strategy, the focus on user experience is being sincere, and there's a positive spiral happening in a few companies where they get it and they're really focusing on diversity and being excited by this and by saying clearly, OK we’re gonna introduce new ways of working, but we're going to consider now mobility with our hybrid working and what kind of services can we introduce to ease your day, but also make you not waste petrol driving around to get your shirts and to pick up groceries, and why not have the shop deliver things and maybe we'll do a cool room.
I mean, we're brainstorming with some customers right now, some clients who have some new projects that are – they built the building and now they're looking at services. So I would really, coming back to our focus - co-creation, talking to the users, and I think this is also going to bring appropriate solutions that are coherent as we move forward by asking all the right questions and getting people to be involved with creating those solutions.
00:18:11 Anne Balle
I could tell you, Karen, what I'd like to be working with, but I haven't got the opportunity yet. But what I would like to work with is to develop and identify what's the kind of culture that we want to create, in order to make this as an attractive place to work?
So rather than constantly saying we've got these fantastic food and beverage amenities and you know, whatnot and fitness room and yoga, this that and the other, whatever. That's great, but at the end of the day, what's that connectedness? What's that culture that we want to build and not just looking at the organization, but actually demanding something of the people and what they bring into the organization every day to create and co-create and be part of that culture.
Well, how am I contributing to creating a positive culture, in my organization. It's more complex. It's more difficult than putting in, you know, a yoga room or a fancy barista, but I think the payoff is bigger.
00:19:14 Karen Plum
I think it's knowing why you're doing things, isn't it? And we were talking about this on the previous podcast when we were talking about wellbeing, you know why am I putting in that extra room, or that space or whatever.
We've got to create a culture that allows us to be competitive with the organisations we weren't in competition with before, for talent, but we are now. We can't assume we have the advantage and that people will just want to flock to us because we're, you know, this company or that company or whatever.
00:19:46 Clark Elliott
It's all about people. I think really we're coming back to putting people back in the center. In French we say put the church back in the center of the village. You know, it's about people, stupid!
00:20:03 Karen Plum
OK, well I think that might be a sound bite for the episode!
My thanks to Anna and Clark for sharing their experiences. I found their insights very interesting. Next, I talked to Michael Hirahara who joined me from the Bay Area in San Francisco. I was interested to know whether tech companies are trying to downsize their real estate portfolios.
00:20:23 Michael Hirahara
I think there are definitely tech companies out there that are downsizing their portfolios for a couple of different reasons, and if you just hit the two spectrums you know one is because they see it as an opportunity to reduce operating expenses. And then on the other side, they're reducing because they see an actual change in the need, demand if you will.
But probably the more interesting topic to reference that tech companies are also doing is they're changing their portfolio because they use that they need post-pandemic I think it is so different, that it's not about providing desks for employees, which typically made up about 50% of the space for heads down work; it's about providing space that's going to facilitate the way that the employees work now in terms of coming into the office for collaboration; coming into the office to work on a very specific part of a project that just benefits from even the kind of interaction that you and I are doing right now.
It's the face to face, it's you know, it's the quick iteration. It's the quick testing of certain aspects of a product or a service, right and running through the process so that it's more clear, just faster. I think that's the area that also creates the greater opportunity, because that allows the companies, the leaders, to better understand - how are people working now - again, which has changed from prior to the pandemic. How are they working best, more productively? And I think that's a continuing evolution.
00:22:13 Karen Plum
It's interesting as you were saying that I was thinking about, you know, experiences in the past. Everybody talks about the Yahoo experience, the home working experiment that got withdrawn when it was decided that there was not enough innovation going on. So I'm wondering what's different now?
00:22:32 Michael Hirahara
Yeah, that's a great perspective to talk about, because each company is unique. It's almost like saying that you know there is one great architectural design. It depends what the intention of the design is. That's the essence of the unique aspect of many, many companies trying to solve the same problem and looking to others for glimpses of, well, how did they do it.
And the common one is - what's Google doing? But the culture at Google is different, if I use Yahoo as an example, than the culture at Yahoo and so the things that each company is trying to accomplish, right, needs to be looked at in the context of their business situation, their culture and their processes, and then more specifically the products that they're trying to develop.
I mean, think about all the products that Google actually works on. I mean, it's mind boggling and so even within these large enterprise companies, I would argue that the approach that is going to be beneficial for them, needs to be multifaceted.
It needs to be flexible and I think therein lies one of the great concepts that can help all of these tech companies figure out what works for them, which is being open to how they go about accomplishing what they're going to accomplish, and doing that in a very iterative, I call it a testing kind of way.
And not trying to solve the single problem with a single solution or a single design that sub optimizes for 80% of the folks, but it's great for 20%.
00:24:23 Karen Plum
Yes, interesting talking to colleagues earlier on this episode which I'd love to get your perspective on. The need that a lot of bigger tech companies have had over the last couple of years to recruit more managers. They've been recruiting like crazy so their headcount’s exploded and therefore they need more people in management positions.
And they have, you know, in time honored tradition, promoted people from technical roles into those positions and those people are not necessarily the best skilled for the job. And this isn't really a new thing, right? But is the danger here because of the scale for tech companies? Or is it the case that the managers have perhaps a different role in a tech company than they do in other companies, that makes that a bit more vulnerable?
00:25:13 Michael Hirahara
I do think that the management roles within tech companies at scale, so take an enterprise business that has 15,000 employees and maybe 15% are in management type roles, 10 to 15 depending on the structure. And in these technical roles, they're somehow tied to the product, either supporting the product or developing the product; and their management role of – I call the care and feeding of you know their team, their employees - and in a lot of other industries, you're just responsible for a slice of the process.
And I think that does create a challenge in tech companies where you're trying to roll out a new product introduction. Now think about all the aspects of the activities that a manager has to support - product or schedule delivery; scheduling of people and processes and things to hit deadlines to get to the next hand off, the baton pass; and put on top of that you're doing that remotely with people in different places, etc.
Well for these managers, if they were promoted from technical roles, how they got success in those technical roles was they were brilliant at solving technical problems, developing technical solutions, and in some cases driving a process.
So my original background comes from engineering. And I was blessed by having some great mentors and managers and coaches along early in my career, who very quickly told me yeah, what you've done as an engineer is going to kill you if you want to be in management. And it was a rude awakening for me, but you know, thankfully, even though I am a little hard headed, I did listen and I learned.
And the experience has a lot to do with realizing that they are human beings, right, that we're working with, not human doings. And so if you focus too much on the doing and not dealing with the human right, not interacting, then as a manager we lose the point.
00:27:49 Karen Plum
So there can be a chasm between the new manager's technical understanding and his or her connection to the people - seeing them as people, right? And if we come back to understanding what people need from the workplace, these managers, if they aren't connected to their people, well, that's going to be tricky.
00:28:10 Michael Hirahara
In terms of defining how things are getting done, the new normal, all of that and you're talking to managers. Depending on where that manager is, are they on the left side where they're very focused on process orientation and delivery; or are they on the, I'll call the human side and they're focusing on the individual.
Us as designers, or, you know, trying to come up with requirements, defining those, we actually want to talk to the person that that straddles both sides. And so this management need exists out there for a lot of companies, a lot of tech companies that are now trying to define what the better solution is, considering their culture and considering where their business is, et cetera. And that's hard work!
I mean and you know any manager / leader out there in a tech company who might be listening to this podcast is going to be shaking their head uh-huh. Yeah, it is. And yet to come up with the optimal solutions for those companies, you really need to be working with the individuals that are seeing both sides of that chasm.
00:29:27 Karen Plum
Is that what your advice would be to people in this sort of situation, 'cause I'm sure a lot of organisations are trying to decide what real estate do we need and what are we going to use it for and how much of it do we need post pandemic?
So just to wrap us up, where would you start with that what? Would you advise?
00:29:47 Michael Hirahara
Yes, so the way to get to the best iterative solutions I've found is to be able to get people to engage and see both sides. There's the process orientation, and there's the people orientation and one of the ways that I found helps people see better, is to put them in that situation and some people call them pilots, some people you know call them charettes - there's different approaches to it, and again it depends on the culture.
But if you just ask the manager, give me your requirements, right, for your space, for your workplace, that's super challenging. I mean, gosh, that's super challenging for us that have been doing it for decades!
And yet, if we can just talk people through the situation of - walk me through your day, help me understand what your challenges are. Help me understand you know what your great successes are and then you start to define well what caused that? And so there's this cause and effect that then if you can take people through that process, defining their requirements for real estate also helps them define better or good measurements for performance management, which is core to the business.
Because like we said at the beginning, everything has changed post pandemic. How people think about the work that they do is changed. How people interact if you will with their workplace because their workplace has their dogs and cats and kids and you know partners around them in their workday that maybe they didn't have that before.
And so understanding that and testing the situations. And there's another reason why the testing of those situations, either through pilots or charettes, is extremely powerful and this existed pre pandemic. But when you take people through those situations, they have experience now with what the new normal might be. And so you're warming them up to the idea of – oh this isn't so bad.
And so now the transition point from, well, this is what we did before, but now this is what we're going to do in the future because it's going to be beneficial to us - the more people you take through that process, through the pilot, through the experience, the faster they move into the new normal into the new, I'll call it the work environment, the new solutions, the new processes.
00:32:32 Karen Plum
And they've been party to it as well, so it's been a collaboration.
00:32:37 Michael Hirahara
Absolutely, they've contributed. They've literally contributed, versus having somebody come to them and tell you this is how you're going to work.
00:32:44 Karen Plum
There you go.
00:32:47 Michael Hirahara
This is the best way and we've decided for you.
00:32:50 Karen Plum
We know from so much change management experience that giving people solutions is nowhere near as effective as involving them in the change decisions, as far as we can.
My thanks to Michael for sharing his expertise, I really enjoyed talking with him, Anne and Clark. Clearly, they had similar views on the critical drivers for tech companies and unsurprisingly, it's all about the people.
00:33:14 CLOSE: Thank you for listening to this episode of the Changing the World of Work podcast. Please follow or like the show so you don't miss any of our content. You can find more information on this episode in our show notes, including a link to the AWA website, if you'd like to know more about us. Hope to see you next time. Goodbye.