The DNA of Work

Employment - all change

July 20, 2021 Season 1 Episode 5
The DNA of Work
Employment - all change
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Since the start of the pandemic, organisations have been navigating many changes, not least of which is their relationships with employees. We’ve seen a softening in these relationships, with compassion and empathy now the watch words for managers. Our guests discuss the change in the balance of power at work, where many employees now feel empowered to speak more openly about what they need – whether that is within the current organisation, or a fresh start.

Sharing her popular catchphrase “The thing is not the thing”, Adria Horn from Tilson Technology Management explains that she learned through many years leading people in the military that it is often difficult for people to pinpoint the issues they are facing. So whatever they bring to you is generally not actually “the thing” – i.e. there is another, underlying issue that you need to try to help them uncover and then address. All part of the new approach to managing in a world where the pandemic has brought so many changes and challenges, but also opportunities.

In addition, AWA’s Izabel Barros shares her perspective on developments in Brazil, where 95% of Brazilian CEOs are looking to implement hybrid work environments. Labour laws are very strict in the country and Izabel tells us about an agreement reached between an insurance company and a union to implement flexibility at work, which looks like great progress.


AWA Host: Karen Plum

Featured guests: 

  • Adria Horn, Executive Vice President (Workplace), Tilson Technology Management (USA) 
  • Lisa Whited, Senior Associate in Change Management, AWA (USA)
  • Dr Izabel Barros, AWA (Brazil)

 AWA Guest details:  



AWA contact: Andrew Mawson  

Advanced Workplace Associates:     


AWI contact: David Smalley 

Advanced Workplace Institute:   

Music: courtesy of  

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00:00:00 Karen Plum

Hi everyone. This episode considers the changing relationship between employers and employees. We consider whether there is a genuine shift in the balance of power between them and look at how some organisations have become more compassionate and transparent in their approach to their people. 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 nearly 30 years’ experience helping organizations change the way they work, for the better. 

00:00:46 Karen Plum

Welcome to this episode of the podcast. We held a webinar recently where we were talking about the new relationship between employers and employees, which is evolving as a result of the experience we've all been through over the last 15 months. The conversation was really interesting and I wanted to go deeper on some of the topics. So with me today are two of the guests from the webinar. Firstly we have Adria Horn, Executive Vice President of Workplace at Tilson Technology Management. Hello Adria. 

00:01:00 Adria Horn

Hello Karen, great to be here. How are you?

00:01:18 Karen Plum

I'm very good, thank you.

And friend of the podcast, AWA Senior Associate Lisa Whited. Welcome back, Lisa!

00:01:26 Lisa Whited

Hey Karen, delighted to be here. 

00:01:28 Karen Plum

Good to see you! So to get us going Adria could you tell us a bit about Tilson?

00:01:34 Adria Horn

Thanks again for the opportunity to come. It was a great webinar and it's nice to talk more in depth. So Tilson Technology Management is a high growth telecommunications infrastructure development firm. We are on a mission to build America’s information infrastructure and so we have a couple different divisions in the company. Sometimes people think we're in IT company, but we actually use a lot of IT - a lot of very high tech systems, in order to actually do physical construction of communication networks. So that's networks of fiber, literally in the ground - if you see a neighborhood with strings of utility lines or maybe fiber that you string up there. We have cell phone tower climbers who replace and upgrade tower networks. 

So we actually have quite a heavy lift of both white collar technical systems oriented and some very more blue collar field only positions in our company - all on a mission to increase broadband connectivity and increase Internet across the entire nation. 

00:02:42 Karen Plum

Well, it sounds like we're highly reliant on you to do the very thing that we're all trying to do, doesn't it? How many people do you have?

00:02:51 Adria Horn

So we have about 550 employees. Right now we're a national company in the United States only right now and we have quite a dispersed workforce. So at 550 employees we are in almost every single state and we're in about 42 States and we have 20 offices. 

So our teams and our groups are sometimes remote, sometimes they're in crews, sometimes there's you know a hub office that they’re at so we’re really quite disparate across the country and time zones, and everybody is out and about building America’s information infrastructure. 

00:03:28 Karen Plum

What changed fundamentally for you when the pandemic hit?

00:03:34 Adria Horn

I think there are a couple of things that were fundamental changes. Some of our changes that were of no consequence to us - or really easy - were major fundamental changes in another company. So, for example, we were already completely cloud based. Everything that we have is in the cloud. So we didn't have servers that people needed to connect to or figure out how work from home status or how people are going to be engaged. We had actually already figured that out. 

We were very quickly able to move everyone in an office to a work from home environment, but what changed fundamentally for us because we already had all that connectivity was how we communicated with each other. I think this is very common for a lot of different companies. You know the lack of  ancillary conversations that you would never have otherwise been able to quantify, at the water cooler, right, or when a meeting runs over and you stay and you finish up the conversation, or you almost like debrief with some other people at the time before you move on to your next thing. We really physically lost that and so what we gained in some productivity we lost in collaboration and we gained a lot of miscommunication. So that miscommunication was that if you weren't on the email, you didn't get the information. 

We hired over 200 people during the pandemic, so that's bringing people on board to the company that we've never met before, like, well, maybe only two people, where 35 would have met them if they had come in as an employee pre pandemic and that loss of knowing how or who was new to a project in real time was I think something we really struggled with. 

And you can't assume the way you're communicating with your team or with other people at that point makes you as the communicator, have to be acutely aware of the multiple different audiences in your company, because you may have three more people who have no idea where you're talking about receiving your email for the first time. 

00:05:48 Karen Plum

So how quickly did you become aware that this was going on? What were the indicators?

00:05:54 Adria Horn

Yeah, pretty quickly where we were starting to see duplicate work efforts. So where we had not necessarily been siloed previously or the really inherent collaborative nature of our work environment, open offices, Lisa knows first hand she helped us actually design our activity based working space which was - to really have no barriers, full integration of anyone anywhere in the company, and that was to facilitate a very quick, creative, collaborative work environment all the time and it really did that. But we could see the lack of that occurring in duplicate work efforts. 

So one group over here identified the problem and another group over here identified the problem and they both were trying to solve it at the same time. So that level of direction before motion was very clear that we needed to communicate better and understand who we were communicating with and who else needed to know what we were talking about in the time that we were talking about it. 

We had a two month impromptu training for all of our mid level managers and above in order to address it, actually, it was that significant. 

00:07:09 Karen Plum

What were you doing to help managers to navigate the change?

00:07:23 Adria Horn

Our managers didn't know what they didn't know and obvious if that statement is they are very trusting and trust that you're going to probably approach the problem the same way I am. And if you have a problem, you're going to try and solve it, or you'll let me know if you need help. 

And that just was not the case. People new to the company, didn't know anyone and didn't feel comfortable trusting their manager 'cause they didn't have connection and where the managers felt like they already inherently did that, we've had employees who didn't feel that there was an open door for them, so we actually had to explicitly almost create that bridge and say, don't assume that people think the way you think, or that they’ll act the way you act or work the way you work. And that was much more explicit in a virtual environment than it ever was in person. 

00:08:17 Karen Plum

In the webinar, people were talking about adjusting their induction processes, and I remember one of the guests speaking about needing to do much more before people actually have their first day with the company. 

I'd like to bring in Lisa. What are you seeing in the organisations you're working with? Are they putting different things in place, to try to, really connect with people before they have their first day?

00:08:43 Lisa Whited

Some are and some aren't!

So much is the leadership’s view in how they approach a problem or an opportunity. I think a lot of it is driven by their perspective, but definitely those that are have taken the opportunity to re-engineer their induction process. 

And if they had the time to do it, they broke down what they were doing before and said how can we do it differently, not just for during COVID for on boarding, in a remote world, but what are the benefits that we could take to this system that we can use for everybody, whether they're in person or remote to create a good experience for onboarding and induction. 

One of my favorite ones that I heard is they developed a nine month program to onboard their new folks and each month a workshop or seminar is delivered by two of the company leaders, so it gives the new people a chance, probably to have more face time or time with these leaders than they would in a pre pandemic situation. And it gives the leaders an opportunity to get to know new employees. 

00:09:57 Karen Plum

I'm getting the sense that the relationship really is changing between employers and employees, and it's almost a shift in the balance of power. But I also see very positive initiatives from employers that are really starting to seemingly see their people differently. I don't know Adria whether your organization is seeing people differently, but I do remember you talking about the importance of compassion and really supporting people. Could you tell us a bit more about how that aspect has changed?

00:10:34 Adria Horn

Yeah, I think you're right, compassion is super important. I have been in the military, I was on active duty for 11 years and I've been a reserve so over 20 years now in military and I think what I learned back in the military in leading people was that “The thing is never the thing”. And what that really means is when someone has a problem and they're coming to you with what the problem is, there is something else behind it. 

And by inherently appreciating that we, as communicators, as individuals, are actually unable to ask for what we need because we can't necessarily identify it or we’re ashamed, so we ask for something else and I think as leaders in this type of environment, specifically in the virtual environment where you're not seeing people, you're not identifying indicators, you have to almost approach every conversation, thinking that The thing is not the thing. So when someone is super productive or they're falling behind, or they're asking for a huge raise out of nowhere - like what is going on right now? Something else is driving this. Why don't we actually talk about what's going on? And then we'll talk about solutions and that there may be solutions. 

And if you don't ask for what you need, no one’s are mind reader, nobody really knows what you need, right? So if you're asking for what you need and The thing is not the thing, then as a leader you almost have to be incredibly sophisticated and adept at managing the conversation in front of you. To move it from what could become a very uncomfortable, unproductive conversation. And perhaps putting an employee in a place where you may lose them, to a place where they know that I can be my whole self at work and it's OK to bring my whole self because in order to be my most productive self, I have to know that we can both be vulnerable and then bring that forward in order to move our work to the next productive level. 

I will say one of the benefits of being virtual, on the compassion side, is actually seeing where people physically sit and live has been really wonderful. Knowing that someone perhaps is cramped, lots of kid interruptions, you're a cat person 'cause your cat is walking across your computer! I think that's where compassion is knowing where people are and meeting them there before you have the next conversation, whatever the conversation is. 

00:13:02 Lisa Whited

I was just going to ask Adria how they share that knowledge about the Thing isn't the thing and train managers to listen for cues or watch for cues to help them build their empathy muscle. Because I do think that some can do it naturally well, they get it, that's part of how they're wired, but many are not. 

00:13:21 Adria Horn

Yeah, so one of the things that we have done is talk about performance improvement and that when someone comes with a frustration, typically “I'm frustrated with this employee and now I'm talking to HR. What do I do?” And the first question is, well, what have you done?

And what have you done helps us understand how long this has been going on and whether or not it's probably gone on for too long and you’ve just like been avoiding the situation. And I think we provide some counseling at that point.

I actually had an employee that was really upset with someone for saying some inappropriate comments, and they're like I just want to fire them! And I said, OK, I appreciate why you're at that point, but have you actually told the person that you are offended and upset? Because you are ready to just take them all the way down and they may not even know how you feel right now  and sort of curated that and said in the workplace, this is totally inappropriate, this is how I feel. I'm ready to fire you, but I am having second thoughts because I want to make sure I understand where this came from. I don't know if you actually know how upsetting this was. And it went from I'm ready to fire that person to - oh I got an apology. 

And when you can change that dynamic and have a real conversation, now they work together better. Right now they all of a sudden they’ve spoken this, the impervious thing. And I'm like - you can't just pretend no problems exist and run away from them and higher and fire and higher and fire. You have to learn how to work together. 

00:15:02 Lisa Whited

Adria, it took me back to my days in therapy and triangulation. Really what you just described right? When you have an issue, you talk to the person you don't triangulate by pulling a third in. 

00:15:13 Karen Plum

You've really got to own it. I was just thinking, we've also been through that cycle of helping managers addressing tricky questions, and people are always worried about not engaging with their staff and being able to answer their difficult questions. “I need to know all of the answers to the questions” they say and we say, well, no, you don't actually, you don't need to know the answer to every question. But what you should perhaps try to think about is that the question is an opportunity to have a conversation. Whatever the questions being asked, they're not really interested in the answer, they want to talk with you, so don't just give them the answer and send them packing. Use their question to have a discussion so that you can understand why they're thinking that way, what brought the question up, and how you can move things forward. 

00:16:05 Lisa Whited

Yeah, so it's “the question is not the question”! 

00:16:09 Karen Plum

And questions are a gift, right? Because it opens up the opportunity, much as Adria was saying, I'm really cross with you - becauseif I can tell you, then we can move our relationship on. It's a bit like trust. It's a bit like saying I don't trust some person in my team. Well, why don't you trust them? Well, they don't deliver very well. Then you need to be discussing the performance. 

The thing which is actually the thing for you and I have to tell you Adria, since you said The thing is not the thing in our webinar, it's just got traction within AWA for sure. So I know you didn't trademark it, so I'm going to. I'm gonna steal it!!

00:16:49 Adria Horn

It's free for the stealing, as long as people get it, that's all!

00:16:57 Karen Plum

It's so simple - you're a bit like the Simon Sinek of our podcast, I think!

But to wrap up, I guess I have a question for each of you. Lisa, I'm going to start with you and maybe ask you to suggest a top thing that organisations can focus on to ensure that they can attract and retain the talent that they need around this whole sort of employee lifecycle. What's going to bring people to me and keep them in my organization?

00:17:28 Lisa Whited

Well, it's so funny that you just mentioned Simon Sinek because the very first question that leadership needs to ask is what's our purpose? What are we trying to achieve? And especially remind themselves after this last year, why do we exist and what are we trying to do? Just begin there and then after getting clear – everybody on the same page - yep, we're all rowing in the right direction - what is our greatest fear? What's our greatest fear? What are they really afraid of? Are they afraid of losing control, or are they afraid of losing great talent?

Once they can honestly have that honest conversation that Adria is talking about and identify what they're afraid of, be clear on the organizational purpose. then they can create a smart strategy that would allow them to attract and retain the people, the talent. And you know obstacles are what we see when you take your eyes off the goal. And if leaders can focus on their goal and identify their greatest fear, then they'll see opportunities and not obstacles. 

00:18:37 Karen Plum

And to pick up on what you were saying there, Adria, I was very struck when you were on the webinar because you were talking about acknowledging that people needed to leave the organization. They didn't necessarily want to, but they are in a different place now and I've been sharing that with other people and I summarized it as exiting with grace because in a sense it felt to me like you were paying forward. You were letting that person go with good grace and almost delivering them (I'm getting a bit poetic now!), but delivering them to their next organization in a really good place and that Karma has got to come around, hasn't it?

00:19:18 Adria Horn

Hoping so! You have one life right and I think they've called this Yolo resignation time like everybody sort of feeling that post pandemic that you've had your wings clipped. You haven't been able to do what you want to do, go where you want to go. 

You only live once type of attitude I think is really important as an employer to appreciate that people with that type of decision on their hand that they're actually making some emotional decisions or some professional next steps. Thinking you only live once. Do you want them to remember you as being the thing in their history that was contentious - you're so glad you're away from? Or the thing that helped you actually move into your next step in your next journey? Like I don't want to be remembered that way. As a person I don’t want Tilson to be remembered that way in someone’s history and I think it's really important to know. But this is actually very normal. 

People don't go to companies and stay for 30 years and retire anymore, right? There's some appreciation for what the journey is in the transition, and people are going to continue to move. Know that those next steps are healthy at the right time at the right place for the right person, and that you basically let them go professionally and hope that when the time is right, maybe they can come back or they can send someone else your way. 

00:20:47 Karen Plum

Absolutely well, I think that's a great place to stop. Thank you very much indeed. Adria and Lisa. It's been fabulous talking with you both today to explore some of the issues a bit deeper. 

00:21:00 Adria Horn

Thank you, Karen Lisa, thank you. 

00:21:03 Lisa Whited

Thank you so much. Always a joy. 

00:21:06 Karen Plum

Now we're going to have a quick break, and afterwards we'll be finding out what's going on in Brazil. See you soon. 

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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. 

00:22:09 Karen Plum

Welcome back. Now we're going to talk about what's happening in Brazil and I'm delighted to welcome AWA’s Izabel Barros, who's based in Rio. Hello Izabel!

00:22:20 Izabel Barros

Hi Karen, how are you? Pleasure to be here with you.

00:22:22 Karen Plum

I'm very well thank you and great to see you. 

I've been asking people on the podcast about the main trends that they're seeing in their part of the world, so I wanted to ask you, what are you seeing in Brazil? Are companies just waiting to get everybody back to the old ways of working, or are some making changes? 

00:22:44 Izabel Barros

I would say that as pretty much everywhere, we have a continuum of people who really would like everything to be as it was before, but that's very little chance to happen. And we have a lot of people that want to be 100% remote, but we see that in the middle of that continuum there's a lot of organizations looking into what we learned during this period of forced remote work and looking for how employees and employers want to reach a happy medium there. 

We are seeing a lot of organizations that are looking for two to three days at home and then the science becomes how you implement it. So we see a lot of people getting ready to return. Some people are coming back slowly. A lot of people still afraid of going back because we haven't had full vaccination yet, but the moment it goes, I think people are really wanting to put a sense of belonging to an organization back into their lives in terms of growing, seeing colleagues, finding a new purpose for work. 

00:24:03 Karen Plum

Yeah, do you think people have made a good transition into working remotely?

00:24:09 Izabel Barros

I believe so. I think that the big disruption we had last year with in 24 hours sending everybody home. There was the scare, what do we do? From one side it was very extreme and traumatic but from the other side it showed that people are resilient and they found ways to do it. And it's interesting how informal we can get now with our colleagues at work with our clients. It's OK if a kid comes in. I think we are more authentic, right as people. 

So we don't have that persona that goes to work that's different than the mother or the father. On the other side, I think we're feeling a little bit of a sense of - we gotta get together, but we need to have a purpose. 

00:25:00 Karen Plum

Do you think it's been a bit of a struggle for managers - is that something that the organisations that you're familiar with have tried to focus on during this period to supporting managers managing more effectively?

00:25:18 Izabel Barros

I think there are still a lot of people struggling with that idea of managing without seeing. Come on, it's been over a year that we were managing without seeing. Some people are still uncomfortable with that, but now there's this new challenge. How do I manage this so called hybrid work? How do I manage flexibility? What does it mean? Is it people working synchronous or asynchronous from each other. And when you are part of large organizations or you deal with organizations that are in multiple time zones, that forces you to think in different ways. 

00:25:59 Karen Plum

Yes, absolutely. I've heard in other parts of the world and people have been seeing surveys of intentions for the future and people saying that if they're not allowed the amount of flexibility that they're looking for in terms of where they work, that they're ready to quit and that they feel they can get the sort of jobs that they want from a more flexible employer. Is that something that you're also seeing in Brazil?

00:26:29 Izabel Barros

So we are seeing a lot of that, especially with younger generations that don't have kids yet? Because they are not committed to bigger end of the month bills and everything. So they can say I will go find something else. We saw a huge announcement the other day from a large consulting company, a global company hiring more than 100 people, and it said “no matter where you are”. It's fully remote.

So you start to see this kind of thing and major attractiveness for those and opportunities for people who are in small cities that would never dream of going to a big city, or I don't want to go to a big city. 

00:27:18 Karen Plum

So the competition is ramping up then - people are seeing the opportunity to steal people away from other organisations where they're perhaps not getting the flexibility that they're looking for. A really interesting time. Are you seeing different responses from organisations that are locally based in Brazil as opposed to the multinationals? Are you seeing different responses from them?

00:27:48 Izabel Barros

The family owned businesses that are going into a more professional leadership - they're really being even more aggressive than the global organizations, because they really want to be leading. But the smaller companies with a sense of ownership of people, my employees, my people - they tend to want people around, right? So that's the difference, I would say. It's more leadership style than anything.

I was just reading this morning that 95% of Brazilian CEO's are looking for a flexible hybrid work environment in the coming months, so that was impressive. Right?

00:28:39 Karen Plum

And that surprised you?

00:28:42 Izabel Barros

Yes it did. I thought it was like. Half and half, or a little bit 60%, but 95% was quite impressive. 

00:28:51 Karen Plum

Do you get the sense that the balance of power is changing between employers and employees? You know we were talking earlier about the new lifecycle of the employee and the amount of power that they have in the relationship now - is perhaps greater than it was seemed to be before. I'm wondering whether that's something that you think is gathering speed?

00:29:18 Izabel Barros

I believe it's becoming more and more the norm, especially for younger generations and for careers that aren’t very unionized. In Brazil, different from other countries, we have very strong unions. We had a client in the Insurance sector that really changed they flipped it back down - the whole idea of flexibility and the days of work. And we have flexible time in and out. 

We have the legislation in Brazil is very strict, but they got such a cool deal with the Union that they were able to implement new ways of working as a very progressive way of working with flexible hours, flexible days in the office and technology access. A lot of things that were within the regulation of insurance that were possible. 

So it's always a challenge and an adventure when you get into this kind of negotiation, but it was good to see that they were very creative and collaborative. 

00:30:34 Karen Plum

What's the usual view of the unions towards this sort of initiative? Are they generally in favor of it, or does that move away from the prescribed legislative framework? Is that something that they're not keen on?

00:30:51 Izabel Barros

I don't think they're very keen on change in general, because if you look backwards, they've been through a lot of fights to get to where they are, so they're very protective to the conquests that they had, which is really understandable. But when you need to modernize things you gotta have a very good conversation to make sure that it's a win win situation. It's not something that employers are trying to have a profit over employees. That's where the conversation gets really productive when you're looking for something - it's great for everyone. 

00:31:34 Karen Plum

So they've worked really hard to achieve the level of protection for their membership so that they won't be exploited and they'll have good benefits and whatever, and they don't want this to be a sneaky way of eroding those safeguards? Interesting. 

00:31:52 Izabel Barros

And in Brazil we have very complicated labor laws. It's complicated, it's very regulated. And it's interesting, but when you go from one country to the next, even Latin America, for example, when we go from Brazil to Argentina to Peru, Chile, every country has its own rules. So what's possible in one country is not yet in your neighbor, so when we start talking about a global world of workers - wow, that that complicates things!

00:32:25 Karen Plum

Then of course, any multinational operating in one of those countries has to be sensitive and mindful of the local laws and culture that they're operating within. But interesting to hear that certainly for the insurance company you spoke about that they've managed to negotiate this new flexible deal and have it approved by the Union - so that I guess that's going to lead the way perhaps?

00:32:53 Izabel Barros

Hope so! Let's see. There are other companies doing the same in the financial sector. We have a client – a big manufacturer of machinery and they're doing the same, so I think that there's the trend. It's a global trend that it's good for everyone, so why not think about change?

00:33:15 Karen Plum

OK, well that's all we've got time for today. Thank you very much for sharing your thoughts and insights Izabel. It's been really great talking with you. 

00:33:23 Izabel Barros

Great pleasure Karen, thank you. 

00:33:27 Karen Plum

And that's it for this episode, we'll see you again soon. 

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. 

Focus on Brazil