The DNA of Work

Is hybrid hell on earth?

September 28, 2021 Season 1 Episode 10
The DNA of Work
Is hybrid hell on earth?
Show Notes Transcript

Is your organisation implementing a hybrid model? Are you responsible for delivering it for your organisation?

We look at who is typically getting the job of making hybrid work, why leadership commitment and support are vital, and how piloting can be a safe way to transition into a new model for your organisation. This journey is complicated and while some organisations don’t know how to get started, others are getting stuck. If this sounds familiar, you aren’t alone.

Find out about the challenges facing those trying to navigate hybrid, such as HR and Corporate Real Estate and pick up some practical tips from our experts. 

And if you’d like to know more, sign up for our AWI Event, “Journey to the new world – process for transition” (see details below).

AWA Host: Karen Plum

Featured guests: 

  • Celeste Tell, Senior Associate, AWA
  • Nida Mehtab, Senior Associate, AWA
  • Lisa Whited, Senior Associate, AWA
  • Brad Taylor, Director of the Advanced Workplace Institute

 AWA Guest details:  

AWI EVENT: Journey to the new world - process for transition
                              12 October 2021  4pm BST / 11am US Eastern / 8am US Pacific

If you would like to attend our online event, please register your interest using the link below, or get in touch with David or Brad (email addresses below):


AWA contact: Andrew Mawson  

Advanced Workplace Associates:     


AWI contacts: David Smalley and Brad Taylor 

Advanced Workplace Institute:   

Music: courtesy of  

Want to know more about AWA?

Thanks for listening to the DNA of work podcast

00:00:11 Karen Plum

Hello there. Everyone’s talking about hybrid, but if you've been given the job of implementing it in your organization, is it turning out to be hell on earth? Do you even know where to start? Let's find out more. 

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. 

00:00:54 Karen Plum

Welcome to this episode of the podcast where we're looking at hybrid working. Is it the latest best solution for organizations or is it just too difficult to implement? To talk about the challenges for those charged with delivering hybrid working, I invited 2 colleagues, both senior associates with AWA – they are Celeste Tell and Nida Mehtab, both based in the USA. I started by asking Celeste who typically is making the decision to go hybrid. 

00:01:24 Celeste Tell

Really, it tends to be senior leadership, C-Suite. These decisions are really being made at the top in a business context. 

00:01:32 Karen Plum

OK, so they are strategic decisions then. And what are they based on, do you think?

00:01:39 Celeste Tell

Ideally they're based on what is best for the business and how to align the way they're going to work to their business objectives. That doesn't always happen, but in an ideal world, that's how it would be. 

00:01:52 Karen Plum

What I see from things that are written up in the media is that a CEO has made a decision about how the organization is going to work and the way it comes across is very much as if it's their opinion and their personal experience, but we know from an evidence based perspective that just making a decision on one person’s belief isn't really a defensible way to go. So is that really what you're seeing, or do you think that there's more evidence behind the decisions that are being taken, Celeste?

00:02:23 Celeste Tell

I think it varies. I think that in an ideal world, it's senior leadership aligning how the organization's working to their business goals. But we are also seeing a lot of decisions being made based on senior leadership’s personal experience. 

Sometimes, as we've talked about in the past, it's a generational disconnect where you have senior leadership that are boomers and X’ers, who are basing things on their experience, making decisions for millennials and Gen Z’ers who think and operate differently and it may not be working as well. 

00:02:58 Karen Plum

OK, so let's say a CEO decides that we're going to go hybrid - we're going to have everybody in the office for three days a week and two days a week they can work wherever they like. How does their organization know that that's the right solution?

00:03:13 Nida Mehtab

That's a great question. I think that the 3:2 model is also one of the shades of hybrid or flexible working that organizations are opting for. But when you ask about right, Karen, I don't think what's right for one team is necessarily right for the other team or what's right for one organization is the right thing for the other organization. So what's really become important in that journey is to engage the functional leaders and people managers and understand what is the right thing for their team. What is the 3:2, 2:4 one 2:2 with fifth day not being in the office? What's the right answer for them? Because in the end it has to align with what that team lead and the people manager has to deliver as business objectives too. 

Oftentimes we see that 3:2 is not just a function of what leadership think is the right answer, but also supported by what employees prefer to get some more flexibility. As we all know in this day and age the most important thing that every organization is really fighting for is the right talent. So it's taking into account what the employees preferences are and how the team managers are really going to incorporate those preferences while aligning with the high level framework that they need to put in place. 

The right answer can be one of the five options that you give to the team managers, but the first and foremost thing is to set up a framework under which those options can be explored so that you can still maintain some consistency. 

So as long as that top down guidance and framework is there, you can really incorporate the right answer for team specific or the function specific right answer, and I see that organizations are really doing that as well because while we thinking that it's a global talent pool, some of the businesses need to maintain some local presence or local concentration, and that's why it becomes more important. 

00:05:21 Celeste Tell

I think in some organizations you have a very strong top down and there are implications and unintended consequences that come out of that. In other organizations what Nida is talking about is more of a bottom up where the employee base is surveyed and that evidence and that data is called to assess what's going to work best across the organization, and there may not be a one size fits all across an organization. 

You know organizations and particularly large organizations - you know we talk about culture, but oftentimes there's not a mono culture, there can be micro cultures and different needs for how people work based on the different departments and functions. I would echo what Nida said - there isn't a one size fits all - it really needs to be uniquely tailored to each organization and their needs. 

00:06:16 Karen Plum

Who gets the job of implementing these new ways of working - whether it's hybrid or something else? A senior leader makes a decision about where we're going, but somebody has to figure out how that's going to work in practice - so Celeste, typically who's getting that job in an organization?

00:06:32 Celeste Tell

We're seeing a range of how that's being done. In some instances, HR teams are being tasked with implementing a hybrid solution, and in other instances Corporate Real Estate is being tasked with implementing a hybrid solution. 

What we see is that the most successful implementations of hybrid generally involve a cross disciplinary team that includes Corporate Real Estate, IT, and Legal to address the complexities of creating a really effective hybrid solution. 

00:07:02 Karen Plum

I know the two of you talk to Corporate Real Estate and HR people, particularly who are being tasked with this implementation. What are they saying about the challenges that they're facing - can you say a bit about that?

00:07:15 Nida Mehtab

Sure, and I'm glad you asked that because I couldn't agree more with Celeste that it has to be a cross disciplinary team. In the end CRE or HR and Technology or Legal, these functions are the enablers of hybrid work models. 

The challenge that most of these organizations are facing is that oftentimes they're not leader led and the executive support is missing and business is not driving it within their teams and that is very, very critical to implement these hybrid model or flexible model or agile working, whatever the shade of this future of work that organizations are looking at. Because nobody is close to the people more than the people managers and the business leaders themselves. 

There has to be that needle that needs to be threaded through, so that from an employee perspective, I know that how holistically it's coming together. Yes, HR is going to enable through policies. Yes, CRE is going to enable through the different neighborhood styles or making the workplace ready. Yes, IT is going to make sure that everything is technology enabled to keep the remote and hybrid and on site component, that equitable experience. But if this is not led and driven by the leadership of the organization, it will not succeed and that is just the truth. 

HR is closer through being the driver in that seat. Because I read it on the Billboard the other day that people strategy is business strategy. So since HR is more called these days the people function, so they are the closest to the people they are being asked by the leadership to be in the driving seat of that. However HR and I repeat, HR, IT and real estate and legal, they are the enablers. The drive has to come through the business leadership. If we need to do a successful delivery of any hybrid. 

00:09:15 Karen Plum

So essentially I guess the Corporate Real Estate and the HR folks are able to tactically react and deliver, but they need to do that in the context of the overarching strategy, and this is a strategic decision as I think Celeste started off saying at the beginning of the podcast - that the decision is a strategic decision. But is it actually being made in that way, Celeste, or do you think the senior leaders are just kind of, well, we've got to choose something, so we'll choose this. 

00:09:51 Celeste Tell

No, I don't think it's just we need to choose something, so we'll choose this. I do think this is how we got to hybrid is really by talking to people and asking people. And then leadership needs to say strategically that they support this and that they're going to lead the organization forward in this way.

Where we get into conversations with you know why HR is so involved, in many cases going hybrid means shifts in what employment contracts look like; shifts in what compensation and benefits look like. There are legal issues that for when people are working at home and not on the premises all the time that are going to change, that HR is responsible for. And so I do think HR gets involved in many cases as an enabler because they hold the people policies and the policies that have to do with employment, and that's really critical. 

Corporate real estate holds the policies and the purse strings around physical space and how that works. And so now all of a sudden, if you're going to be working offsite half the time, that's a whole conversation that has to involve Corporate Real Estate. 

00:11:03 Karen Plum

Because presumably the challenge for Corporate Real Estate is to then look at the amount of space that they have and how it's organized and how that now makes sense in this future hybrid world. So is that a big challenge for the Corporate Real Estate people Nida?

00:11:18 Nida Mehtab

Yeah, I think that what I'm seeing through various clients is that organizations are either going in the direction of tapping into this opportunity, making it more of a transformational change and real estate is also at the forefront of that because they're changing the overall anatomy of the workplace or what's the highest and best use of the real estate. 

But the challenging part right now is that the return to office hasn't really happened in that momentum yet, so organizations are also just waiting and seeing - what are the learnings that are going to come out of the return to office and the flexible ways of working so that they can make a robust business case and the proposal that, given that data insight, we can confidently, let's say, reduce our footprint by 50% or 30%. So yes, in the moment if we expect the CRE leaders to just suggest a different strategy for their portfolio, that is not going to happen right now. That's gonna come in maybe when we have comfortably entered into a post pandemic time, if that will ever be the case!

So yeah, the challenge I think, the biggest challenge right now is how do you really align the supply with the demand of real estate, the occupancy and the utilization are becoming more and more important, and as we can see, the technology is enabling a lot of that data gathering and capturing the trends of how their real estate is going to be used because that itself is going to inform our future real estate and portfolio optimization strategies. 

00:13:04 Celeste Tell

Utilization and occupancy strategies - the reality is, pre pandemic, you know, before this all happened, that was very simple math. We could all almost do the supply and demand in our heads. What's happened in the calculations, the inputs and the outputs, and the calculations for utilization, occupancy strategies in a hybrid model change, and the math is more complex. And I think when you're hearing from people that they're saying is hybrid hell on earth, is hybrid complex, too hard, too complicated - I think that's what people are, in many cases referring to. Because in order to really get your utilization and occupancy strategies, you now have to mesh complex HR strategies with complex real estate strategies. And the math - it's like going from simple math to calculus, overnight and we can do that and we've figured out some ways to do that, but it's not obvious to many people. 

00:14:05 Karen Plum

For sure, and I think if we look to the people side of things, I know we've talked before about managers and the difficult position that managers are in, in trying to manage people that they don't see anymore. And I think you were telling me from the discussions you've had at a recent HR conference that the pandemic has really shone a spotlight on the quality of the people skills amongst the manager community and that's what's keeping them awake at night. Nida is that a fair summary of what you've heard?

00:14:40 Nida Mehtab

Absolutely, I think that as Celeste said, that the real estate community was used to supplying the real estate on a one to one basis. Now it's everything but one to one, and it's even within each line of business, if  could be more than one worker type, remote and the hybrid and the on site and the on site without desks, and there's separate ratios tied to it. So real estate is a function of the business strategy and HR is also a function of the business strategy, so people strategy is also functional business strategy. When businesses are themselves learning about how do we actually adjust ourselves or future ways of work? CRE will have to wait and see that how they respond to those changes to the way of work. But doesn't mean that we cannot be partners and handhold with the business and try to experiment different scenarios because we will strike one right answer or more than one right answer. 

So I think that absolutely that's the HR organization SHRM had their summit in Vegas this year. The common theme is that - how do we really upskill the HR community and being OK with the grey and understanding that hybrid has implications throughout the life cycle of the employee. And if the HR as an organization doesn't understand that, that you cannot lead the people strategy in your organizations. 

00:16:13 Celeste Tell

I do think that one of the best things we can do to help teams that are trying to implement a hybrid solution is help them develop scenarios and develop pilot programs because I think going back to a question you asked earlier, Karen, jumping to the solution based on someone's opinion and then implementing that, there's an instinct or a knee jerk response in corporate America to just have the answer and go do it right, just do it, but there is a complexity and we don't really know how this is all going to end. 

We've had to learn to be more agile and more flexible in ways that we never thought we could be, and so looking at all of those factors through scenario planning, through pilot development, I really think is one of the smartest things that we can help our clients do. 

00:17:02 Karen Plum

Clearly there are lots of challenges and it's not an easy fix to move to a hybrid model, and I think you've just given us a great example of something for people in this position to think about. Are there other things that you'd recommend to somebody from HR or from Corporate Real Estate that's been given the task of figuring out how to make this sort of hybrid working work and how they get started? Nida, what would you advise?

00:17:30 Nida Mehtab

I think that we should just not jump to the conclusion and these solutions as Celeste said. And we are wired that way - we are human beings. We want to solve because the more problems that we see around us, that feel psychologically unsafe and we're not in control of the situation. That's what the human being feels. So we try to resolve those problems around us to be able to feel more, sleep better at night!

But this is one of the most historic moments in the industry or in the entire world. Allow yourself to learn from it and allow yourself to fail because the failing doesn't mean that you're losing something. It means you're learning better and being better for next time. The real estate organizations are expected historically to just solve the problem that business brings to you in the moment. And the faster you can solve it, the better, right, but that's not how things are happening. 

I think there's a higher level of engagement needed with the business leaders, with the people managers understanding the implications of every scenario on the policies. And let's not forget the employee experience is still at the core of everything, because happy employee makes profitable organization. 

But I think the engagement has to be elevated. There's no doubt that Real Estate, HR and IT, their roles have been elevated within the organizations. They have the seat at the table - they should have a seat at the table because you're now talking about the overall health of the organization. But my one core message is that allow yourself to experiment and fail. It's not just the solutioning today - you are solutioning for the future and flexible solutioning is not that just comes up instantly. 

00:19:19 Celeste Tell

The one thing I would add is to really also understand your own organization and your organizational DNA. Every organization is different, and while you can look to what other organizations are doing, that might not be a good fit for your organization and you know each organization has a different business, has a different business model, has different needs for talent, has different ways of working and different leadership styles. So take the time to understand that and look towards solutions that are going to be a good fit for your organization and not necessarily you know, looking to what other people are doing. 

00:20:02 Karen Plum

Sure, because if we choose a way of working based on what everybody else is doing it, then it's a disaster waiting to happen, isn't it? It's not a guaranteed solution. OK well ladies, thank you so much for sharing your insights with me today, it's much appreciated. 

00:20:22 Nida Mehtab

Thank you Karen. Thanks for having me. 

00:20:23 Celeste Tell

Thank you, Karen. 

00:20:25 Karen Plum

If you'd like to find out more about transitioning to hybrid ways of working, there are details of an event coming up now and then I'll be speaking to AWI Director Brad Taylor about the challenges facing HR as they grapple with implementing hybrid ways of working. See you shortly. 

ADVERT: Hello, I am here to tell you about an event we're running on October 12th for the Advanced Workplace Institute. If you are in a position within your organization that you have to support a transition to hybrid working, you want to do it effectively and be successful, then we would love to have you join us. 

The way we run these sessions will be an informal discussion with a guest speaker, then we'll have some breakout discussions where you'll be able to talk with peers in other companies and other industries that are wrestling with similar challenges; share best practices with each other; lessons learned; and then come back to the large group and we'll recap and share some of the highlights of those conversations. 

So if you're in a place now where you've been told - look we're doing hybrid working and we've got to make it work well, then this event is for you - we'd love to have you join us. 

October 12th – “Journey to the new world - process of transition”. And to find out more information please look for the link in the show notes. I'm Lisa Whited and I look forward to seeing you there. 

00:22:01 Karen Plum

Welcome back. With me now is Director of the Advanced Workplace Institute, Brad Taylor. Hello Brad!

00:22:08 Brad Taylor

Hello Karen, how are you?

00:22:10 Karen Plum

I'm very well thank you and yourself?

00:22:11 Brad Taylor

Yes, very well thank you. Thanks for having me. 

00:22:14 Karen Plum

Excellent! So we've been talking earlier on the episode about the role of HR in helping organizations move to new ways of working. This has become quite a task for them, hasn't it - on top of the day job? 

00:22:26 Brad Taylor

It has - I mean, this has been something that's been gradually building out for some time. And people in HR - HR directors - have had to be playing a pivotal role in helping the organization navigate the pandemic and the organization's response to it, keeping people safe, whilst at the same time trying to keep an eye on the horizon and that eventual return to whatever that new normal looks like of blended being in an office environment as well as home working. 

00:22:56 Karen Plum

Yes indeed, certainly a lot to keep track of and there's so much uncertainty I think isn't there, and it seemed to me that most organizations were waiting and waiting and waiting and sort of pushing off the date for return to the office, or you know delaying making a decision. 

But yesterday the CIPD, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development in the UK put out a press release saying that one in five employers had changed their terms and conditions of employment since March 2020, which rather surprised me because it sounded like things were getting a bit more serious. 

00:23:31 Brad Taylor

It is and I think this demonstrates, again, the pressure that the HR function and organizations are under, in trying to determine what does the future look like and what needs to be put in place in order to ensure that that people understand the rules that apply to a particular organization and the organization doing the right thing. But it is quite surprising in that people are now facing changes to their terms and conditions and in some cases that's impacting the level of pay. 

For some people that could feel a little bit rushed or a little bit sudden, or that they weren't expecting the organization to approach it in that particular way, which I think speaks to organizations just trying to understand, how do we go about doing this effectively? How do we understand what the directors of the organization want to do in terms of how they want to take the organization forward? And how we meet that in terms of where our people are deployed and how they interact with the organisation. 

00:24:29 Karen Plum

Do you think it's about organizations wanting more control?

00:24:33 Brad Taylor

I think it is and I think this has been something that organizations for a long time have wanted to do, and it's becoming harder and harder as the world picks up pace and organizational leaders face this ocean of ambiguity of - it's really hard to see what's coming up. What's further on down the line and what sort of things do we need to be doing and putting in place in order to be able to responsibly meet the challenges that face us and ensure that the organization remains successful and sustainable. 

So I think there's often you know they talk about the road to hell being paved with good intent, but there's a lot of good intent here, but it's just the way that it manifests itself. And how do you bring your people along on this journey, because this is something that pretty much everyone feels passionately about and everyone has a point of view now that they've experienced a different way of working about how they think this could be successfully done. And that's where really having a proper framework in place to follow, therefore, having the ways to engage with business leaders and to carefully plan and structure the approach is very, very important. 

00:25:39 Karen Plum

We're going to be talking about this at the next AWI event - could you tell us a little more about what we're going to be saying about that framework?

00:25:46 Brad Taylor

Yes, yes indeed. We've got a great session coming up on 12th of October, which we're calling the “Journey to the new world, a process for transition”. And at this, we'll have Andrew Mawson from AWA and Lisa Whited talking about successful frameworks and processes that can be put in place to think about, engage, and move the organization forward in terms of transitioning to hybrid working. So yes, it's definitely one to come along to, if you're in a particular role, whether it's in HR, FM, IT and you're trying to grapple with these things and think, well, how do we collaborate effectively to get this done? Not one to be missed. 

00:26:26 Karen Plum

Excellent, well, I'll certainly be listening in! Thanks very much Brad, it was great to hear from you and hopefully you’ll be becoming a regular on the podcast. 

00:26:35 Brad Taylor

I look forward to it. Thanks very much, Karen. 

00:26:38 Karen Plum

And that's it for this episode, see you next time. 

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.