The DNA of Work

New Normal or Better Normal?

June 10, 2021 Season 1 Episode 2
The DNA of Work
New Normal or Better Normal?
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Are companies simply going back to the way things were – or are they striving for a better future? AWA’s Senior Associate Lisa Whited reflects on how many offices were before the pandemic struck - full of noise, interruptions and inadequate spaces for concentration and collaboration. 

We hear from two guests at a recent AWA Webinar – Kerry Smith from British Heart Foundation and Robin Shapiro of TBWA/WorldHealth. Both organisations are adapting to new opportunities and are engaging with their people to jointly design the future of work.

Passionate about the power of conversation, Lisa explains why they can bring about so much positive change. She also talks about the need to support managers to manage their people in a different way (particularly if they are working virtually or in a hybrid way), to provide the right conditions for them to flourish.

Also, Partha Sarma shares what he’s seeing in India as companies adapt to employee feedback. This represents quite a change in approach and culture for India. Many people moved to their home towns during the pandemic and some don’t want to return to the cities. Recognizing that a world of opportunity is available through virtual working, they are even prepared to quit if they don’t get what they want. 


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

Featured guests: 

AWA Guest details:  


AWA contact:
Andrew Mawson 

Advanced Workplace Associates:    

AWI contact: David Smalley

Advanced Workplace Institute:  

Music: courtesy of  

Want to know more about AWA?

Thanks for listening to the DNA of work podcast

00:00:00 Karen Plum

In this episode we're talking about how organisations can build a better future through listening to people and working on solutions together and later, we'll hear about how this better normal is shaping up in India. Here we go.

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.

00:00:42 Karen Plum

Welcome to this episode of the podcast where my guest is one of AWA’s Senior Associates in Change Management, Lisa Whited. Hello Lisa.

00:00:52 Lisa Whited

Hello Karen.

00:00:54 Karen Plum

Welcome to the show. So Lisa, you recently took part in an AWA webinar and we were talking about the new normal as we emerge from this pandemic world. I thought it raised a lot of interesting subjects, so I wanted to talk about them with you. Thanks so much for coming onto the podcast.

00:01:13 Lisa Whited

I am so happy to talk about this further, I'm honored to be here. Thanks, Karen.

00:01:18 Karen Plum

During the webinar we had two guests talking about figuring out what's right for them in the future. I remember you saying it's important not to romanticize the office of the past, because it certainly wasn't perfect, but people seem to have forgotten how bad things were, don't you think?

00:01:35 Lisa Whited

They sure have forgotten how terrible things were before COVID. When we surveyed people - and we have results from thousands of employees and multiple geographies from a variety of industries over and over again - we heard “I can't find a place to focus”, “it's noisy”, “I'm distracted” and “I'm constantly interrupted”.

We also heard that meeting rooms lacked good technology. They were hard to find and they were often the wrong size for the group meeting in them.

On top of that, desks or workstations were empty, 40 to 50% of the time. Simply empty because people didn't need to be there to do their work. They were working in other places, or they were in meetings. 

And then finally this statistic that to me is the most appalling. The Gallup poll has measured people's engagement with work for 20 years and for all of that time, this statistic has barely wavered. 87% of people worldwide are disengaged with their work. Not engaged in their work. We've got one life and we spend a huge portion of it working and yet so many people are miserable at work.

00:02:46 Karen Plum

That statistic is truly shocking, isn't it? And you know, let's face it, part of the issue is the working environment. As you said, the impact of noise and interruptions, and we know from our research that both of those things really stop people being effective, and in the office, everybody complaints about constantly being interrupted.

00:03:08 Lisa Whited

Yeah, absolutely. And then the research that shows how long it takes your brain to get back to the original thing it was doing. It's not just the interruption, but then the brain trying to track back to where was I it? You lose a lot of time, lose a lot of productivity.

00:03:22 Karen Plum

Yeah, and it's all invisible really, isn't it? We don't have a way to measure that other than people’s subjective views of how interrupted or how unproductive they feel.

One of the things I was interested in from the webinar - we heard Kerry from the British Heart Foundation here in the UK talking about things that they as an organization can do virtually that they could never do before, and I guess again it's all about those things which were the unintended consequences of the way we've been working. Let's have a listen to what she said.

00:03:57 Kerry Smith

And for us it's been fantastic, because we've been able to have the big town halls that we never thought we'd be able to have. We've got 750 shops, we're on virtually every UK High Street - we can never get that group of staff together, well we couldn't before, but now we can so they can all tune in to big conversations on topics and feel connected to their leaders and feel connected to the chief exec. But also, for us because we're a researcher, it gives us a chance to showcase some of our research to every person in the organization. The way that we've never been able to do before because we don't have to do it physically.

00:04:40 Karen Plum

Do you think that organisations are really starting to get past focusing on the things that they lost? Are they really now turning their attention to what sort of opportunities are opening up if they're just willing to embrace change?

00:04:54 Lisa Whited

I definitely think that's true. Especially if they are approaching this moment as an opportunity instead of a barrier. And I love Kerry’s story, because I think it's a great example by connecting virtually and being smart about using interactive technology, the BHF are able to ensure everyone’s voice is heard and that is so critical to having a successful result. 

There's a recent story I heard that I absolutely love. It's from the founder of Patagonia, which is the outdoor clothing company. Yvon Chouinard is an avid fly fisherman (he's the founder of Patagonia), and if you're into fly fishing, which I'm not, but if you are then they get really into tying flies and trying a variety of flies to see how they can catch fish. So he decided one year that he was only going to use one fly. He wasn't going to get sucked into trying all these different fancy flies. Just one singular fly.

He said he caught more fish that year than he ever had before. So by letting go and simplifying his approach, he spent more time focusing on his technique and he caught more fish and it's a simple story but I love it because for me when I think about work in the workplace, if we can think about what we can let go of and do less of - we allow for more meaningful and impactful things to come into how we work.

I think Kerry had that's - she's a leader that's figured it out by doing things in a different way. They're actually getting a richer result.

00:06:36 Karen Plum

I agree, I think it’s all about discovery really and having the openness of mind to those sorts of new discoveries. But I also think it's really interesting that we're having to review many aspects of organizational culture and how we create and sustain that culture.

I know people get very tense about how we're going to sustain a culture if we're not in the office together, but again in thinking about involving people in decision making and in planning the future, there's different approaches, right, that work in different cultures?

00:07:15 Lisa Whited

Absolutely, and that's where that sensitivity to what your culture is and how you do things, or your belief system is so important.

You know culture is not a physical office. That's been the container of the culture. The culture is the people, the values, the beliefs, the purpose.

That's what makes up the culture and Philippa in our webinar also referenced the idea of thinking about - if you plonk a fully formed idea in front of people that they're not going to feel a part of creating it and it's different for different cultures. In other cultures, they would take a fully formed idea and just respect who gave it to them and go along with it, maybe begrudgingly, but they would never say anything vocally about it, so that's a different way of an organization or a group of people responding.

A few years ago I consulted with volunteer boards of a US sustainability organization, the US Green Building Council, and in that work I was traveling the country working with the leaders to facilitate strategic planning, and I can't tell you how many times a group of people would say, “well, can't we just copy so and so's plan from another state? Why do we have to go through this?

And yeah, you can copy the plan, but the whole point is the process. It's the process, the conversations and galvanizing people around a shared purpose so they own it.

And in that same process, whatever the process is, but that that's what change is all about, right? It's built upon conversation and people coming into a dialogue and talking with each other. So I think in any culture - thought about this a lot - in any culture, whether it's a more formal culture that reveres whatever is given to them, or an informal culture that is told to challenge everything, a more formal code – if you simply start with two questions and invite thoughtfully people to come in and talk to each other.

Even a small group just like you and me, just having a conversation and if the two questions were “what helps you have a productive day at work wherever you are” and we would share with each other and then the second question, “what is a guideline that you can think of” that would help your partner have a productive day, wherever you are. 

So, just two questions. Two people having a dialogue, I think is an opportunity to bring about the change that we're talking about and that's where culture comes from - conversations.

00:09:57 Karen Plum

Yes, and going back to the webinar again, I think both of the speakers were talking about the importance of that dialogue and I'm going to play a couple of clips from them - one from Kerry, who we've already heard from, and the other from Robin Shapiro, who's the CEO of TBWA\WorldHealth in the US, both reflecting on the importance of collaboration. Let's have a listen.

00:10:22 Robin Shapiro

To me as a leader, if you have a clear answer for how something should be done, you need to be direct and you need to say I have a solution here, I have a structure. If you do not know and I think we'd all be lying to say we all know how this is going to shake out, then I think that it's inauthentic to say that you know the answer, and I think the degree of authenticity and collaboration needs to increase with the ambiguity and that to me is where I've got to a new place in this discussion today.

Because coming in I thought, OK, we're going to do our best to lay out the structure, but now I realize that we don't know the answers and we need to be more collaborative in how we approach coming to the answer.

00:11:12 Kerry Smith

So, at first we did a couple of things really. One we did a survey and we talked about the fact that we are looking at the future of the workplace and we really want to hear from people. We actually called it a study because it was very detailed. It asked questions from very many different aspects and we sent that out to one and a half thousand people and got a tremendous response back from it. It is the hot topic people do want to have their say on it. So we've got a huge amount of rich information and thanked people for it and then took that into the executive so that we're actually making decisions around models based on what our people are telling us.

00:11:53 Karen Plum

So as a change manager, why do you think involving people is so important, Lisa? I mean you mentioned different cultures and expectations and we have to take those into consideration as well. But generally speaking, why do we need to involve people?

00:12:11 Lisa Whited

Because change happens one conversation at a time, that's really the crux of it all. If we involve people early in the process and we're thoughtful about how they're invited into a conversation, and we really want to hear what they have to say, then that's how we can have change come about.

One of my favorite quotes is by Thomas Merton and he said, “do not depend on the hope of results”. In the end, it is the reality of personal relationship that saves everything and I think that we often will think we're going to go change the world and change a process or change something at work.

And we're also focused on what the result looks like. That we forget that there's this process along the way of conversation and through conversation, we build empathy and we build relationships. When that happens, we can bring change. We can bring change about, so I just think it's as simple as that, that in order to get there we need to include all voices and we need to be open to listening to what other people have to say. And then we find something together in common and work together.

00:13:24 Karen Plum

I think that's really true. I was just thinking as you were saying that, for many people, I guess they won't be used to having their voice heard. They're used to receiving instructions and being told, and there not being a collaboration. It was a bit like you talking about the people that you were working with a while ago - those different boards where they were all saying well, can we not just use somebody else’s? Even given an opportunity, we're not always in the best place to take advantage of the opportunity.

00:13:59 Lisa Whited

Yeah, right? And then so much is tied to the culture - because you say you want me to give input but….  Think about community work - I served on my City Planning board for a few years - the group will say, oh, we want to hear what people have to say, but they've already formed their opinion. The group has formed their opinion on what they're going to do.

And people know that it's like a false ask. Don't do that. Don't ask if you're not really going to listen and act. So there is work that needs to be done on both sides, leadership to realize that inviting voices in doesn't have to be threatening.

It can be a really good healing process, especially after the year we've all had. It's a great opportunity to do things a little differently, but you're absolutely right, some cultures, it would just feel so out of whack and against the norm that they may be uncomfortable with it, but that's where you start, small and start in a friendly way, inviting conversation, you know.

00:14:58 Karen Plum

Right and just to play our final clip, I was really struck by something that Robin said and she says it's so well that I'm just going to play it.

00:15:10 Robin Shapiro

You know now more than ever, every employee is in charge of themselves. Even if we try to convince ourselves otherwise, the reality is that you know, we've seen a lot more talent leaving in the last couple of quarters than we have historically.

And I think everyone is going to decide for themselves what they want in their company and if they don't get that, they can easily find another job. So I think the control is now more than ever in the hands of every employee.

00:15:42 Karen Plum

And I think for many managers and organisations, that's quite an uncomfortable thing to acknowledge. So how would we help managers embrace that new reality?

00:15:52 Lisa Whited

I think it's the same in just having those managers come together, have them in a small group conversation. Ask questions of each other and listen and respond and give them space. To do that, you know, we've talked about this and Robin coined the phrase which I've been using a lot “on-site parenting”. Meaning that in the office, because people were there, they assumed they were managing and they were being managed. And again, many leaders have said over the last year they've recognized the gap in skills of their managers. They haven't been set up for success.

And so, again, a great opportunity to say, well, let's just have a conversation. And just with the managers, let them talk among themselves with pointed questions, build understanding and connection and let them come up with ideas for moving forward instead of being the receptors or the recipients of a directive. Let them start to have the conversations to build a new way forward, 

But honest to God and I say this from personal experience - watching my husband who's been employed by wonderful large companies over his professional career - he's a manager because managers often are people that have great technical ability and then they get promoted to manager and when he's been managing, maybe one has invested in really good management training that he's been able to experience. Sadly, I don't think that's an unusual state of affairs.

You know you can't put people in a place and expect they're going to know how to manage without giving them the training and the opportunity to build that muscle.

00:17:39 Karen Plum

It's that whole thing of promoting them out of their level of competence, isn't it? And you put them under huge stress and strain and expect them to come up with a set of skills that they've never needed.

00:17:51 Lisa Whited

They've never had to do before, and then they're also doing their great technical work because they're really great at it.

But this is the people part. This is what's so important, so this is that thing about relationships, again, that Thomas Merton talks about and some people are natural at building relationships, but many of us aren't. And you know what's the harm in helping us, and who's going to benefit? Our entire society benefits when we're all a little bit better about people stuff, right? It's not just fluffy sauce stuff. 

This is what our society and our culture is built upon. Connections, authentic connections and relationships. No matter where they start, it may start with your neighbor next door, but more often than not, it will start in your workplace because that's where you spend most of your time.

00:18:32 Karen Plum

Yes, and what does our research tell us? It tells us that the thing that's most strongly connected and correlated with the performance of any team, and that's social cohesion.

So the degree to which we know each other, we know each other as people we get on. We support each other and it sounds a bit pink and fluffy, but it's really important and if you look at any good team, a high performing team, you'll find that that level of cohesion is there.

Anyway, just to wrap up, what's the biggest reason for opting for a better normal, not just a new normal because everybody talks about the new normal or about a better normal, seizing the day, seizing the opportunity?

00:19:17 Lisa Whited

I love that. Yeah, I know you know this - that hearing the phrase let's go back to normal. It's like fingernails on a chalkboard for me. I can't stand that phrase! 

You know why would we think back to normal? Normal is average. Normal got us to where we are today. So yeah, we're going forward. We're going forward, not back to normal.

And you know why would we go forward? It's because there were so many things that were broken in our world of work and in the workplace before the things that we just talked about. Or broken as far as noise interruptions, meeting spaces, but also let's go deeper. Systematic racism, inequities, entire groups of people being left out of the conversation in ways of working. We've talked about people on the spectrum. I mean, there's just so much that could be better. So much better. But the biggest reason to go forward is climate change.

So COVID and all of its tragedy has given us an opportunity to do things in a new way that can help us reach net zero and let me just give a little context for that. Commercial buildings contribute 39% to carbon emissions both in the construction, fabrication, and operating of buildings.

So if we can think differently about how we work, we do have an opportunity to make a difference on climate change and that is better for the planet and for everyone who lives and works here. That's the biggest reason to go forward and not go back to normal.

00:20:45 Karen Plum

Well, I don't think we can improve on that, Lisa. Thank you very much for sharing your thoughts today. It's been great talking to you.

00:20:53 Lisa Whited

Thank you, Karen.

00:20:55 Karen Plum

Now we have a quick break and then we'll be taking a look at what's going on in India. See you soon.

00:21:06 ADVERT

Are you changing the way your organisation works? Maybe you’re trying to see if hybrid working is right for your business; or needing to train people to work or manage in the virtual world. Perhaps you’re trying to work out how much space you need once you adopt different ways of working, and what types of environments will work best. 

At Advanced Workplace Associates we work with companies around the world, helping people figure out the answers to these challenges, based on what they want to achieve for their business. 

Our friendly team of consultants blend workplace science with creativity to help you create the best work experiences for your people. We gather the evidence needed to decide on future ways of working through a range of studies, and provide change management support when you’re implementing new strategies.


If you’d like to talk to us, there are details in our show notes. We look forward to hearing from you.

00:21:50 Karen Plum

Now we're going to take a look at what's going on in India and I'm delighted to be joined by our senior associate in India, Partha Sama. Hello Partha!

00:21:59 Partha Sarma

Hi Karen, it's such a pleasure to be here. Thanks for having me here today

00:22:02 Karen Plum

Oh, you're so welcome. Can you share with us the main trends that you're seeing in India? Are companies just waiting to get everyone back to the old way of working or are some looking for a new or even a better normal like we've just been talking about?

00:22:18 Partha Sarma

I think the outlook has been pretty dynamic and diverse as well. I mean we got quite busy with work from around November last year and this is when the COVID situation in India began to improve and people were slowly getting back to work.

And I could see two types of companies you know, type one who are in a hurry to get back to old ways of working and then type 2 - these companies really wanted to do things better. They may not have figured it out, but they actually want to do something different. But here's what happened - employees did not want to get back to the old ways of working.

So we began to work with a client in Bangalore in December last year and they had huge operations, about 15,000 people and they kept on saying to us don’t talk to our people about work from home or anything like that. Everyone needs to come back to work and this was in December. 

By March this year they were singing a completely different song and they said that we will have to adopt hybrid models of work. A lot of our people do not want to return to Bangalore. We cannot afford to lose so many people. So what is actually happening is that there was a reverse migration, which had happened. A lot of these young engineers who had come from smaller towns had actually gone back to live with friends and family and they were very happy with it. They got used to it. Better quality of life, being with friends and family, and they did not want to return.

00:23:41 Karen Plum

Was that expression of what people wanted to do - was that a new thing for this company – that they had never asked before?

00:23:52 Partha Sarma

Yeah, I think this is something you know new about India in the sense like I think traditionally there has been a culture where people have listened to their bosses and they've listened well. They've done their work diligently. And they have not been used to their voice being heard, and I think what the pandemic has done is that it's probably more sensitivity amongst managers. Maybe they heard it from their bosses at the West, but they have become more sensitive and they are listening to their people.

Will they do something about it or not? I'm not sure, but at least they're listening to them now.

00:24:26 Karen Plum

Yeah, and you mentioned the younger people. I mean is the movement really coming from those younger people or were you seeing the same sort of appetite for a different way of working coming from different age groups?

00:24:39 Partha Sarma

It's largely from the younger generation, mainly because when you are in your 20s or early 30s, you're not married, maybe, so you're living in a in a small apartment in Mumbai or Bangalore with three other mates, and then you've left your family and there's a promise of a better life there of more money.

And all of that, and they have suddenly realized that they can actually go back home, save a lot of money, have home food, and be generally happy and they're actually getting much more money. And with little option to spend, so they're very happy with this quality of life.

And they want to stay there. The more senior people, because they're more settled, they have kids, they cannot go because their kids have to go to a certain school and all of that. I think it's not really coming from that section, but coming more from the youngest block.

00:25:29 Karen Plum

Yes, I think we shouldn't ever speak about India as one country. Clearly it's a huge country with many differences and I remember you telling me about the differences between places like Mumbai and Bangalore, as you've been mentioning and I guess that commuting patterns are different around those places as well.

00:25:51 Partha Sarma

Absolutely. I think it is probably more diverse than the European Union, the country as a whole. And this has an impact on how people behave, that workplaces in different cities within the country, and I think this needs to have an impact on how workplaces are designed or how managers address different issues in different cities. But traditionally this is not how companies in India has behaved, I think. Large and medium companies in India have largely grown on the back of a focus on standardizing everything and this is beginning to change now, as study after study points to the fact that knowledge workers in different cities are motivated by different things.

You mentioned about transportation and for example, Mumbai has a very efficient public transport system. Bangalore does not. People travel for more than three to four hours every day in Bangalore. A recent study I saw last week it shows that more than 70% of people in Bangalore are saying that they can actually get more work done or they can be more productive being at home, whereas the same study points to the fact that people in Mumbai are saying that and more than 70% of people in Mumbai are saying it - I'd like to get back to the workplace because that's where I can do focused work.

And I spoke to the guys who actually did this study, and some of them said that it is also because that home buyers have smaller apartments and it's got a lot of people who cannot focus there. So you need to go back to the workplace where this whereas the situation in Delhi or Bangalore might be quite different.

00:27:20 Karen Plum

It speaks to why we need to really adopt the “no one size fits all approach”, I guess.

00:27:27 Partha Sarma

Indeed, I think that that's so. That's a fallacy that large organizations in India have fallen into all these years and I hope it changes. It needs to change.

00:27:38 Karen Plum

Are you seeing differences between the approach and attitudes of multinationals that have a presence in India as opposed to Indian based companies? Are you seeing any differences between those two?

00:27:52 Partha Sarma

Yeah, I think the sensitivity towards all of these issues, the people issues are more predominantly seen today amongst multinational companies than Indian companies. A lot of Indian companies are still saying we will get back to the way things were and I know there there's been a business shift in the thinking of managers in multinational companies in India in the sense that traditionally I think there's a lot of direction that’s come from the West and managers in India have kind of followed them. 

It's been a top-down model, now suddenly it is bottom up. People are saying that I want this or I do not want to do this. I want to be at my home. I want to be with my family and this has led to this new sort of sensitivity that hey look, I need to listen to my people and give to them what they want. Otherwise, these people are going to leave and join somebody else and the cost of that is going to be very, very high. So people are kind of actioning that now and things are being done. Policies are being framed around this. These things which have come up.

00:28:52 Karen Plum

I think we were talking about this the other day about people expressing their intention to leave if they don't get what they want, I think you'd seen some research on that and I'd seen some in the US and it's quite revolutionary, really, that people feel empowered to say that in the knowledge that they in all likelihood could find a replacement role with another company that will be more flexible.

00:29:17 Partha Sarma

We were working with a company in December and they kept on saying do not talk to our people about work from home. We'll all get back to the workplace in February or March because we were supposed to be quite OK. And now they're completely changing - they're saying when I spoke to my people (“please come back”) they thought I'm crazy. I'm not gonna come back to work so soon, so things are changing.

00:29:49 Karen Plum

I was talking to Lisa earlier on about management and it's so important in terms of whether organizations are able to embrace these sorts of different ways of working - hybrid working, people working away from the office. Are you seeing a recognition that managers need to change, or that they need some support in order that they're able to change the way they manage?

00:30:13 Partha Sarma

Absolutely. I think managers are struggling a lot handling issues. These are new issues, you know and I refer to something which I know you're very passionate about - psychological safety. I think managers have been trained in India at least to kind of deal with this aspect by keeping the professional separate from your personal life. So, you go to a meeting and somebody says something which is related to business, that's fine, but you're not supposed to talk about your dog or your family. Anything related to that right? And this whole frame of psychological safety is built around this concept.

And suddenly they're saying that my people are talking about all things personal. How do we deal with that? So if somebody says that, hey, look, I cannot come to office tomorrow because I have to take my son to school, the manager has to learn to accept it and say and do things which will make the other person more secure psychologically.

And managers really do not, they've not been trained in the last 10, 20 years to actually do this properly, and I think HR managers, Human Resources Department has a big role to play in this, in training managers in saying and doing the right things.

Because at the end of the day, I mean, if you really think about it, if we remove all the frills from business, it's all about people, isn't it?

00:31:38 Karen Plum

For sure and of course that support for managers is one of the things that AWA does for so many clients, because we recognize that a lot of managers haven't been trained even in basic management skills and so asking them to manage virtually just looks like another big challenge for them.

Anyway, thanks so much for sharing your insights with us Partha, it's been great.

00:32:02 Partha Sarma

Was a pleasure.

00:32:04 Karen Plum

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 India