The DNA of Work

Build Back Better

May 22, 2021 Season 1 Episode 1
The DNA of Work
Build Back Better
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

How has the world of work changed since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, and how are organisations responding?

AWA’s MD Andrew Mawson shares his unique perspective - based on his work with organisations across the globe, many of whom are facing the same challenges. 

While many are using the opportunity to change the way they operate and to give people greater choice, others are calling everyone back to the office. Andrew shares how AWA is helping organisations figure out what’s right for them – outlining 4 key steps that embrace dialogue and engagement to determine the best solutions. 

Andrew concludes that "this is really sounding the death knell for the 'traditional' office". 

Also, hear what’s happening in California as Nida Mehtab highlights differences in how organisations in tech, utilities, insurance and finance are embracing workplace change, including the impact of regulation and the need to lead the way in sustainability and carbon footprint reduction.

Host: Karen Plum, Director of Research & Development, AWA

AWA guests: 

  • Andrew Mawson, Founder & Managing Director
  • Nida Mehtab, Senior Associate in Workplace Strategy (USA)
  • Chris Hood, Director of Consulting EMEA
  • Tanisha Krishnan, Associate (UK)
  • Lisa Whited, Senior Associate in Change Management (USA)

Guest details:  

AWA contact:
Andrew Mawson 

Advanced Workplace Associates:    

AWI contact: David Smalley

Advanced Workplace Institute:  

Music: courtesy of  

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Thanks for listening to the DNA of work podcast

00:00:01 Karen Plum

Hello everyone, in this episode we're talking about how the world of work is changing, how organisations are responding and what it takes to build a better future. Let's get started.

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 30 years’ experience helping organisations change the way they work. For the better.

Welcome to the first episode of the podcast where my guest is founder and managing Director of Advanced Workplace Associates Andrew Moss and Hello Andrew.

00:00:51 Andrew Mawson

Hi Karen, how you doing?

00:00:53 Karen Plum

I'm good, thank you and welcome to the show. So, I think it's quite clear that the world of work has been changing for quite a while, but it's definitely accelerated since the start of the pandemic. How do you think things have changed since March 2020?

00:01:09 Andrew Mawson

Well, I think since March 2020 a lot of people have had some of their illusions about the negative side of working away shattered. I think for a long time on a lot of the work we've been doing, we've been identifying large populations of people who wanted more flexibility in the way they worked.

And leaders were often the people who got in the way of that because they didn't believe that people could work effectively away and they could trust them and all these sorts of good things, and that has been one of the myths that's been completely taken out the equation during this last 12 months, and I think the other thing is, I think people have learned some new skills.

They've learned that there's possibly another way of doing things. Some people have learned that they were doing jobs in the office that frankly didn't need to be in the office and I think that all of these things have brought together enormous numbers of learnings for organisations and it's a great time for reinvention, really.

00:02:15 Karen Plum

Absolutely so as you said, we know that the demand for flexibility from the staff isn't something that's new. All of the surveys we've run over the years bear that out, but lots of organisations were still not willing to entertain the idea of giving more flexibility. Do you think, as you just said, it was partly to do with management? Do you think that they were the big blocker and that's the reason why organisations held out for such a long time?

00:02:43 Andrew Mawson

Yeah, for sure and honestly, I don't think that's gone away. I think inside of many organisations there's a little bit of a battle going on between the leaders who are more in the progressive camp and the leaders who have become very kind of accustomed to working in a kind of hierarchical and physical sense.

And I think for many people, the mental model of the world around work has really shifted the norm slowly over the last 12 months, the notion that work doesn't have to be synonymous with an office, that we can work in other places, perhaps that we don't really pay quite so much as attention to hierarchy.

We've all become kind of real humans. We've all got fridge magnets and pets it would appear, so I think there's lots of stuff here, but I do think there is a bit of battle going on in organisations between people at senior level who are quite powerful, who frankly don't want the world to change to be honest, and an increasingly growing proportion of the population that they have in their organization who want flexibility and can see no reason why it can't be afforded under conditions that seem reasonable and fair.

00:03:57 Karen Plum

Yes, it seems to me from the headlines that we read that there are senior leaders or CEOs in fact who are making decisions purely based on their own mental model of the world and not taking on board all of the 12-14 months’ worth of evidence that has been accumulated over this period. We are very strong on evidence-based management. Do you think that they can really get away with ignoring all that evidence?

00:04:25 Andrew Mawson

I don't think so - I think even companies like Goldman Sachs who’ve been very strident in wanting to have their people back, in fact, demanding it. It seems to me that ultimately they will lose out. It's a classic example of an organization that’s dominated by hierarchy and physicality, and I think ultimately they may will lose out on really good people who decide that they want to go to a firm that is a little bit more thoughtful and puts them in the in the driving seat. You take some of the organisations like that and the number of hours that people are actually being required to work, particularly the junior end, is frankly criminal. 

So, you add all these things together. You see a kind of a picture of an organization, and I think the more progressive organisations have already preempted the return to the office and others are yet saying, well, let's see what happens, but at least addressing things with a reasonably open mind as we go forward.

00:05:28 Karen Plum

As an organization, we're helping our clients to build a better future. Can you say a bit about our approach and how we help them to do this?

00:05:38 Andrew Mawson

You know a lot of a lot of people in a lot of organisations, a lot of leaders, are in a bit of turmoil here because this whole this whole thing has brought into question lots of things about the way we do things, not just about where you work, but actually how the organization is run, how leaders behave and how we manage to afford our workforce. 

The levels of diversity that clearly are being sought, so everybody is looking for something different, and the challenge is no longer one of these situations where a company can issue an edict or a policy.

This is going to require real people having real conversations within a framework of what the company is prepared to accept and that framework theoretically would be well done, well developed in a much more democratic style.

So, most of the work that we've been doing has been trying to look at the problem of what do we want to be in the future through four lenses, really, the top one from the vision standpoint, what is senior leadership trying to achieve? Then what do people aspire to? And when you know what is actually right for the business, you know which functions can really operate in a way which is very different - or needs to be in a physical space. And then really look at the infrastructure policies and practices and buildings and really trying from those four standpoints to build a picture of the reality of how things are from which they in a senior leadership team, can begin to consider the future. I think all too often the problem is that the whole debate at senior level is either not happening because it's a bit too kind of tense or it's happening in a very opinion fueled kind of way, and so the essence of the approach, I think that we've been taking very successfully with large numbers of organisations around the world is really to get back to the evidence and really get under the bonnet of what is the real need for physicality and how does the organization, how is it set in order to take advantage of this notion in the longer term?

00:08:08 Karen Plum

Yes, I think that's right. And actually I thought it might be interesting to hear from some of the team in terms of what their clients are saying - both leaders and members of staff. Let's have a listen to what they said.

00:08:21 Chris Hood

So what are leaders saying about the post pandemic world and the role of space going forward? Well, I think there's a few interesting things. Firstly, I think actually this conversation is a barometer of the culture of organisations, whether they see the post pandemic world new working styles as an opportunity or a risk to be managed. Clearly we're seeing both. 

Some large US organisations believe that they need everybody back to work. That's where their culture is driven. That's where the work is done - that's where collaboration happens. Other organisations, maybe not so at US centric are saying no, this is great opportunity. People have expressed their views about this issue that we've worked incredibly well in a sort of distributed way, and we'd love to continue that. We're going to downsize our portfolio.

Because clearly this is not about space anymore. This is a much bigger issue about satisfaction, about productivity, about attracting talent, and I think that's where the game has significantly moved.

00:09:39 Tanisha Krishnan

So, we've heard a mix of opinions. Basically, a section that does not have the right set up at home, or they thrive off other people's energy. They desperately want to go back to the office. There's another section that have a good set up at home and have been much more productive than they were before, and they would like to stay at home and not go back at all. And of course, there is another last section that probably makes up the maximum of the people and that they would fall into the category of wanting a mix, so they want to do a few days at home and around a day or two maximum in the office.

But across the board, people want to have the choice to be able to make that decision on where they would like to work in the future with wanting to do mainly focused alone activities at home while they want to be physically together in the same space for collaboration, creative and brainstorming type activities.

00:10:33 Lisa Whited

They want to know what the purpose of the office will be. They're concerned about retaining good people and having good talent stay with them, and many seem to be uncertain about how to move forward. They really feel stuck. They seem stuck. That's what I keep hearing.

Senior leaders have also talked about how the past year has made visible the gaps in their managers on how they manage people. They have this assumption that being physically in the office meant their people are being managed well and they've just recognized that's not the truth, but right now I am really seeing them struggle with what's the purpose of the office and how do I keep my people motivated if I want to be in the office and they don't?

00:11:25 Karen Plum

So we heard from our colleagues, Chris, Tanisha and Lisa there. What's the key message you take from what they said, Andrew?

00:11:33 Andrew Mawson

I think for me, what's important is that organisations equip themselves to be successful in a virtualized model, and by that I mean that people can work pretty well effectively anywhere and they can lead effectively anywhere and then by making people strong and resilient in that kind of context, and effective, then basically we've upskilled the organization in such a way that it can use space when it's useful and valuable, and not simply see it as a prerequisite on a daily basis.

00:12:08 Karen Plum

So, does the physical workplace come become more of a destination?

00:12:13 Andrew Mawson

Well, I think the physical workplace needs to have a purpose, and I think organisations and architects need to start thinking about the purpose in a much more sort of forensic way than maybe they have done in the past.

You know the purpose of the office is going to be a place where we get together to solve problems, we work on difficult things, we fuse knowledge and energy that would be difficult to do if we were elsewhere. It's for things that require a regulatory overlay where people have to be around. We’ve got to think more forensically about the whole reason why we need them.

For me, this is really sounding the death knell for the traditional office, and what we might call an open plan environment and it really starts to push you in the direction of a more activity based, thoughtfully designed workplace that gives people a variety of different sorts of facilities and tools to get on and do the stuff that they are doing, either on their own or in teams, or with clients or with communities. But thoughtful design, I think, is what we now need.

00:13:27 Karen Plum

Finally, Andrew, for anyone that's still on the fence or somebody that's working for a CEO that's telling everyone to come back to the office as soon as they possibly can - what would you advise? How can they navigate that space?

00:13:42 Andrew Mawson

Well, the approach we've been taking with a number of clients is to say that if you want to as an organization, get the benefits of this time and really use it as a time for evolution then the way to do that is with involving people. We know from our own research and our own thinking around organisations that one of the most important things is the building of community and involving people in working out how things need to be in the future.

And getting everybody connected along the way. And I think one of the ways to do that is to use this time and embrace the notion of connecting with people in thinking through the future.

00:14:39 Andrew Mawson

The first step that we've been suggesting is that companies need to get some firm guidelines on the table, so things like some stakes in the ground - we don't have second class citizens, for instance; we don't want a people in the office and people working away culture - we want one culture. Things like when we're in the office, we use things as we need them, and we make them available for other people.

So there's a bunch of principles, and of course they're going to be different for each organization, but there's some principles that need to be worked out, probably by the senior leadership team with a bit of tire kicking along the way and then really that has to be translated into what do we expect of people on a day-to-day basis? What are we prepared to allow? What are we prepared not to allow? Where are the tram lines really? 

And that process again can be done in a quite a democratic way if you so choose. But then the idea is really to get leaders and managers, anybody who's managing people really, to get fully equipped and understand what all that means.

And then be confident to go and have conversations with the team about which model of working might be most appropriate for the team. And I think it is a team issue. And what will be the new rules and by that I mean what's the new agreement that we make between ourselves about how we work. So, it might be that some people are not available until 9:30 in the morning, and we recognize that, we record it because you're taking kids to school or whatever, or it may be that we agree that there is a period during the day - maybe what I would call a sort of work siesta - where we just don't set up any calls of any kind at all.

We want people to have some time to go for a walk or do something that doesn't require them to be on calls all the time. Basically, what are the new rules? We will use Teams in a particular kind of way. We'll share our calendars. It's OK for me to put stuff in your diary without giving permission. All these little things, that we've left hanging a bit in the past, but now we want to make them real and we want to make them firm. And so I think going through this process, which is largely conversational, is a way to get your organization engaged in this whole thing and really get the energy behind this movement really and that I think is the best way. 

I think issuing policies and procedures and dictates is never going to really float the boats of most of your employees. It might look easy and comfortable and neat and tidy from a leadership perspective, but it I don't think it's going to be a lasting way of going about things to be honest.

00:17:35 Karen Plum

Well, I'm with you there, but we’ve run out of time, so thanks very much indeed for sharing your thoughts.

00:17:40 Andrew Mawson

It's a pleasure. Thank you very much, Karen.

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00:18:32 Karen Plum

It was good to hear Andrew’s perspective as he's talking to organisations all over the world, but sometimes it's easy to think we're all facing the same challenges and actually, it's quite important to recognize that there are differences in the different countries where we operate, so I'm delighted to welcome Nada Mehtab, our market leader in California. Hello Nida.

00:18:54 Nida Mehtab

Hello Karen, how are you?

00:18:56 Karen Plum

I'm good, thank you, it's great to see you. So I was wondering what trends you're seeing in California - as we're getting closer to organisations, maybe thinking of opening their offices, are most people heading back to the office, or are they leaving people to decide what's best for them? What's going on?

00:19:14 Nida Mehtab

In California, or particularly in the Bay Area, the one thing that organizations are really keen on setting the stage right for is giving employees choice. From a Bay Area trends perspective - giving employees choice, understanding the appetite for future ways of working; and from the portfolio perspective, a lot of organizations are not really over exercising the optimization or consolidation strategies because they also want to learn and see how the future use of the portfolio is going to be in the Bay Area or globally (~and a lot them are global anyways), so when they are developing the strategies, they're already developing those mechanisms that would be scalable and repeatable in different geographies too. That's pretty much what I am seeing in a nutshell.

00:20:04 Karen Plum

Does that go across all industries Nida? I mean we see a lot of headlines from the big tech companies - are you seeing the same sort of trends across other sectors?

00:20:15 Nida Mehtab

I do want to comment on your question about the headlines from tech companies, but I think there are many things that are hidden and are still being worked out, so the headlines not necessarily don't give a full picture, it just shows what is the sentiment in the moment, the position that an organization is taking. 

And to your other question, which is, are we seeing similar trends on the other sectors? Yes, but at a lower pace. Also, because the tech industry is way ahead in experimenting and has a lot of availability of resources as well, they're able to experiment in the interest of giving employees a lot of options and choice.

Other industries are following through, but there are many other variables in the picture. For instance, utility industry is regulated - they cannot follow an aggressive path because the strictness and the rigidity of the compliance comes with higher stakes. So similarly, the insurance industry or the financial industry - the more regulated you are, the slower your pace becomes because you have to think of many other variables. The culture is different.

So, I wouldn't say that the industry perspective in the Bay Area is relatively different except for, being in California, you have to be an industry leader in terms of the sustainability and climate control and your benchmarking and your goals are much, much more aggressive than if you're not in California. 

So, from that perspective yes, tech is experimenting in the workplace environment. Utility companies are taking this as an opportunity to lead more in the area of sustainability by reducing the carbon footprint.

00:22:06 Karen Plum

Nida the organisations that you're working with, that may be headquartered in California, but are global organisations, are you seeing that they're adopting different solutions in different parts of the world? Clearly there are different cultures, different expectations. Are you being exposed to much of that at the moment?

00:22:26 Nida Mehtab

That's a great question, Karen. The companies that are headquartered in California and do have global presence - even if these two factors are consistent, their solutions can still be different, and we are seeing that because it is also a function of what are their long-term organizational goals and vision. What do they need to prioritize in terms of the future of their organization?

For instance, a client of ours is thinking of this as a business continuity plan and diversifying their future talent pool geographically - basically allowing their entire workforce to have enough choices to work from anywhere. On the other hand, some other clients that we are talking to, they are really leading the way in terms of the culture, so they want to create that culture in their portfolio and their workplace so their future solutions are more tied to - what can we bring to the employees that will attract them back to the workplace? 

So, both are giving employee preference and it's more employee centric solutions, but it's push and pull that we are giving more choice to be geographically diversified and the other organization saying that I'm going to give you more choices within the workplace to bring you back.

Actually, there is no right and wrong, and I think it's just a matter of how much resources and how much time and how much aligned you are with your long-term vision.

00:24:02 Karen Plum

Absolutely, and I think it echoes what Andrew was saying about the people-centric approach and that we're really moving away from space being the focus that we're looking at. And I think there's a whole world of opportunity opening up now, and I think it's really positive.

So just to wrap up, if you could give one piece of advice to people considering what the future should look like for their organization, what would you say?

00:24:26 Nida Mehtab

Just live in your backpack.

00:24:30 Karen Plum

Have a bigger backpack maybe?

00:24:32 Nida Mehtab

No, you'll be surprised how much you can fit into a smaller one too. It's just – no, jokes apart - I really think that our work in in the future - how it looks like, with the AI coming and all the technological advancements and people being more adaptive to working in different ways, soon the connection with the workplace is not going to be similar to what we are used to seeing and what I mean by that is you can still show up in a workplace, You can still go to a place and work from, but it's not something that's tied to you or tied to your work and living in a backpack, that really doesn't mean that you absolutely have nowhere to go.

It basically means that you are equipped with the right tools and the right agreement with your management and your leadership that you can be effective working from anywhere. So that I think we just have to learn to compartmentalize that if people are more agile, doesn't mean from a leadership perspective they're not effective and from employee or people perspective that, oh, you have no home. You can still have a home. You can still be productive with or without the workplace. So why am I coming to the workplace? From the leadership vision or from the employee vision - that will vary from organization to organization, and I think that's what we are helping different clients finding the right solutions, because the answer will be somewhere in the middle but different in the shade of grey that exists between on site and remote.

00:26:13 Karen Plum

I think that's a great place to finish Nida. Thank you very much for sharing your insights with us. And that's it for this episode. See you again soon.


CLOSE: Thank you for listening to this episode of the Changing the World of Work Podcast. Please subscribe 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.

Focus on California