The DNA of Work

Let's hack the workplace

December 21, 2021 Season 1 Episode 16
The DNA of Work
Let's hack the workplace
Show Notes Transcript

After 20 months of Covid, and looking back on the mediocre workplaces that we’ve all experienced, what does the future hold? The balance of power certainly seems to have changed, and people feel empowered to make choices about where they work on any given day. Many are opting to work more of the week from home than in the office. 

This is causing some consternation in organisations. There is anxiety about the loss of culture, socialisation, collaboration and innovation through not having people in the office enough of the time. Whether any of these things are actually true, there is no doubt that the option to go into the office some of the time, to see and interact with colleagues is an important part of most people’s world of work.

How then can we draw people back to the office? Can we make it “better than home” for the right types of activities? How do we create a sense of purpose that people can connect to? How can we show people that we value them? Can we make the workplace hackable, so people can customise it to their needs? And can we make a significant contribution to climate change, by reducing the amount of space we occupy and therefore the amount we continue to heat, light and resource.

All of this and more (including bathrooms!) in this episode. 

 AWA Host: Karen Plum

Featured guests: 

  • Lisa Whited, Senior Associate, AWA
  • Clark Elliott, Senior Associate, AWA
  • Chris Hood, ex-Director of Consulting, AWA
  • Gervais Tompkin, Founder of Plus Gervais LLC  

 AWA Guest details:  

Further material referred to by Lisa:

The Headline exercise

TED Talk: How to start a movement 

If you would like to attend the AWI webinar - "Working abroad - dispelling the tax myths" on 12 January 2022 (4pm UK, 11am US Eastern, 8am US Pacific) , please use this link to register: 



AWA contact: Andrew Mawson  

Advanced Workplace Associates:     


AWI contact:  Brad Taylor 


Music: courtesy of  

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00:00:00 Chris Hood

I do think in the short term the workplace does have a job to do to bring people back. The longer the time elapses when people are not having to commute and to get dressed up and go into the office, the harder that is going to be, and so there just has to be a very compelling reason to come to the workplace. That's social, it's cultural, it's physical attributes that can't be replicated. We've got some work to do here, but this is great because this is going to inspire a whole new series of innovation and creativity I think, to make it attractive. 

INTRO: Welcome to the Changing the World of Work Podcast where we provide insightful, practical content to untangle and demystify workplace change. I'm Karen Plum, director at Advanced Workplace Associates, where we combine science with nearly 30 years’ experience, helping organizations change the way they work, for the better. 

00:01:03 Karen Plum

Welcome to this episode of the podcast where we're talking about what the workplace needs to be, so that we can provide people with something they can't get at home. Whether that's collaboration, innovation, creativity or socializing, it's whatever it needs to be for each person. The one size fits all, lowest common denominator, vanilla, average approach just won't wash anymore. If we're going to attract and retain the best talent, to meet people’s needs and help them do their best work, the office has to be a valuable option in the range of choices of where people choose to work. 

To discuss this, I'm joined by two of AWA’s senior associates, Lisa Whited, from the East Coast of the US, hi, Lisa. 

00:01:42 Lisa Whited

Hi Karen!

00:01:45 Karen Plum

And Clark Elliott joining us from Switzerland. Hello Clark. 

00:01:50 Clark Elliott

Hello Karen. Hi Lisa. 

00:01:53 Karen Plum

Good to see you both. So we held an online session for the Advanced Workplace Institute recently, and we talked about this subject and I thought it would be fun to pick up a few of the discussion points and dig a bit deeper on them. And our colleague Chris Hood spoke at the event and in fact it was his last ever professional appearance, he said, because he's now retired. 

He opened this episode of the podcast by stating the challenge - to make the office attractive to people. He talked about the need to be clear about what the office is for and that kind of implies that there now seems to be a growing movement to demonstrate more of a sense of purpose and Lisa, I know you're passionate about the importance of people connecting to a purpose. 

00:02:33 Lisa Whited

Yes, yeah, I love purpose. I love thinking about purpose and I believe it is so powerful in our lives at so many levels. But I'll tell you one way how to not do it in the workplace, and that's to paint the organizational vision statement on a wall. This isn't a case of build it, and they will come. 

Your employees really need to be involved in these conversations about organizational purpose, and they need to be part of this discussion through really well facilitated dialogues, breathing new life into organizational purpose. So this time right now is really opportune because if your organization hasn't revisited their purpose since before the pandemic, then this is a great time to do it, but maybe you're going to do it differently than it was done before. 

Typically, when organizations think about purpose and vision, they only invite the upper echelon, the C-Suite, the executive leadership into those conversations. But when you have everybody engaged in thinking about purpose, then you can really build energy and excitement around the work that people do. 

So there are several ways to do this, and maybe in your show notes we could do a link to the Headline exercise, which is one of my favorites - getting people to imagine 20 years into the future and thinking about the impact that they would have on the organization. And how things could be different. But then after you've had those conversations, so that's the really critical part - the conversations.

Then there are many ways to make it visible in the workplace, and one of the simplest ways I've seen is a client who asked on a survey, to their employees - anonymous survey - how do you think we're making a difference with our work in the world? And they took answers to that question and they did put them on the wall of the stairwell that only the employees saw - it was only for employees. 

They saw those words when they came in and when they left each night. So it was a reminder to them that when they were coming in that yeah, the work that they're doing day to day is making a difference. And it was literally their own words, on the wall, it wasn't just the upper echelons, you know, sanitized statement of what our vision is.

So that's a physical manifestation. But we also have to know we're thinking digitally, right, and virtually. So there are ways to have purpose show up in everyday conversations. Having an icebreaker, having people use storytelling in meetings and just reminding people that connection to purpose is making a difference and they are there to make a difference. And that is a way to engage people and help organizations do better as well. 

00:05:16 Karen Plum

I do think it's interesting that the pandemic has really shone a light on the inadequacies of how we did things in organisations before, and I wanted to play a clip from the recent event, from one of our guest speakers, and this is workplace expert Gervais Tompkin, founder of Plus Gervais LLC. Let's have a listen to what he said. 

00:05:37 Gervais Tompkin

We're creatures of habit in terms of how we design organizations. We're creatures of habits in terms of workplace; we're creatures of habits in terms of how we use those; and though we've talked a lot about the whole focus on the human and productivity of teams, the workplace is still a little bit based on that factory model. 

The only way to scale a workplace is to figure out some common denominator that we can uniformly apply, and it's kind of this low grade equity, it's like, well, it's all equal, but everybody is getting something kind of mediocre. So you know, the priorities of the old system in a way were not the priorities of an individual or a team, but priorities driven by ideas of scale and efficiency of other things. 

So the pandemic flipped the whole equation. Suddenly a manager could not manage by walking around, they actually had to focus on teams. Whereas when the team came in, people had places to sit and there are conference rooms and in a way the space dictated how people would act and work together and suddenly teams and managers had to reconstruct and pay attention to and actually coordinate how everybody was going to work. 

00:06:58 Karen Plum

I love that notion of everybody getting something kind of mediocre. Nobody got really what they needed, we all had to make do in so many different ways. Do you think the inequity that Gervais spoke about and the focus on delivering that standardized workplace has really been recognized as a contributor to people’s lack of appetite for returning to the office, Clark? 

00:07:21 Clark Elliott

Well, I think there are many factors that you have to put on the table when you want to answer the question. I mean we cannot overlook 20 months of the pandemic, periodic lockdowns, physical risk of getting COVID just by going to work. However, they're dumbing it down to be worse than mediocre. A lot of the work we've done in the last 20 months with our clients has shown that it's worse than mediocre there are barriers to productivity. The actual work environments are stopping people from being productive. 

A lot of the behavior changes people developed by working from home for these past 20 months, which between us we've all heard the expression we've had a decade of digital transformation in a few weeks in spring 2020. People have gotten used to working in new ways. The behaviors you get after a few weeks of working from home, being free and flexible to choose certain routines, that has really grown roots and this giant experiment of working from home has shown how substandard so many offices are. 

Not all. I mean, luckily the kind of clients that come to us for help are seriously interested in removing any vestiges of Taylorism. Knowledge workers are not factory workers. We've been saying this for 10-15 years, but at this point in time, considering the true needs of knowledge workers and looking at what office environments provide is really dismal in many, many cases. 

When you do fact-based analysis of a situation. What do people do? Why would they want to go to the office? In this day and age of a hybrid approach to working, you need places for discussions, you need places for people to come together in twos and threes, you need spaces for confidential face to face meetings and you need wonderful attractive spaces that inspire people to be creative. 

Inspire people to think out of the box and with all of these things, colors, temperatures, one might even dare to say aromas, you can stimulate the human beings. We’re social animals with brains that function in scientifically understood ways. And who can expect a one size fits all, grey cubicle to generate the type of slogans you see senior management coming up with? 

So, the bottom line is - really take a holistic approach and repurpose spaces around what people logically want to come to the office to do. 

00:10:38 Karen Plum

Yes I think you’re absolutely right and who would have predicted at the beginning of the original lockdown how that step change was going to actually be delivered? You know that people would be more productive. I think Gervais talked about the work that he's been doing to identify team needs, which really struck a chord with me. Let's have a listen to that part of the event. 

00:11:02 Gervais Tompkin

This company's teams fell into two categories, sort of really heads down programmers that might have a focus bias and then teams like UX teams or cross functional teams that are collaborative bias. So this organization could dramatically increase how they met people's needs, if they would provide two baselines instead of just one baseline. 

Another thing that was so interesting about this work is no one chose, hey, let's all just come into the workplace randomly. Nobody chose that. Everybody said if we do that, we are going to be on Zoom for the rest of our lives. And one of the key objectives of the workplace was to speed up their processes to improve the team cohesion and socialization. And to reduce the fatigue of virtual work. 

And there were so many different solutions to it, but each of the business unit managers came out of this process going, Oh my God, I understand the way my teams work better than I ever have before and I am never going to go back to the point where I am not in dialogue with my team and we're not occupying the workplace in a really intentional way. 

00:12:22 Karen Plum

Now, on one level, that's really shocking that people don't understand how their teams work, but I guess the whole notion of having those conversations is real music to your ears, right? 

00:12:32 Lisa Whited

Oh my God, is it ever alright? So, Karen, you know me. I am an optimistic person. And I woke up a few weeks ago depressed - like just depressed. And I just I said, Lisa, you've got to do something about this. I needed something to look forward to. 

So I know some pretty amazing women and I sent an email out to a bunch of women. They were a cross section, they were friends, they were neighbors, they were others I know professionally and not really well. But the subject line was – Gratitude Brunch.

And my message said, friends I need to see you. And I invited them to drop by during a four hour window on a Sunday. I had 25 people show up - actually this past Sunday - and I witnessed people meeting for the first time, laughter, exchanging contact info. 

So not only did this lift me up, but it sparked connections in others and so many said to me, God, this is what I needed. I didn't even know I needed this. And I think that's how we have to think differently about the office and its purpose. 

We need to plan gatherings with purpose, with intention, with good food. with good coffee. And then just give people space and time to talk and connect. And I think Clark you had talked about the Taylorism, and the view of people thinking a coffee break is wasted time. We've got to recognize that these social moments, this cohesion, that we know is one of the six factors of a high performing team, we have got to support that happening in a much more intentional way we can't leave it to chance. 

So yeah, the conversations! I say that a lot - I just think we need more of it and it's a great opportunity to think differently about the purpose of the office. 

00:14:23 Karen Plum

But I think the notion of having conversations and talking to other people, it sounds, sounds just a bit too simple. You know it can't really be that simple, can it? That is going to make that much of a difference if we just talk to each other? But how did we get here? We got here by not talking to each other, didn't we? 

00:14:42 Lisa Whited

Oh my God and then look at our state of mental health and depression and opioid use and suicide and the fact we're actually finally talking about these things in the workplace and bringing light to them, that this is stuff we need to be talking about because it has a ripple effect on our communities, our families our society. 

So yeah, I mean, the conversations you're right. Boy, that sounds pretty basic. Well maybe it's right in front of us. And the science bears it out. I just saw brain scans comparing the difference of somebody working nonstop without interruptions or breaks and in a brain that did get those breaks. 

And it's clearly a healthier brain that has the breaks, and so we've got to recognize that these social moments and these other aspects - doesn't mean you're not working. It's an essential part of working. And so here's the opportunity to support it. 

00:15:36 Karen Plum

Absolutely OK, well talking of such things we're now going to have a quick break and we'll be back with more from Lisa and Clark after this message. 

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I'm Brad Taylor, leader of the Advanced Workplace Institute, and I invite you to join our one hour webinar on January 12th, 2022 at 4:00 PM UK time 11:00 AM US Eastern and 8:00 AM US Pacific for “Working abroad - dispelling the tax myths” where we’ll be joined by James Hourigan and Ross Robertson from professional tax advisors BDO. 

You'll get the opportunity to hear from our panel of experts and pose questions, so don't miss this AWI event on January 12th – “Working abroad – dispelling the tax myths”. You can find details of how to sign up for the event in our show notes. 

00:16:46 Karen Plum

Welcome back. Another really interesting thing that came out of the event was the notion that the workplace needs to be humanized and we were talking about this before the break. Gervais shared a story of someone that had gone into the office and said, oh God, it's so corporate! I'd forgotten how inhuman the workplace is. 

And that really kind of shocked me. What do you think we could be doing to make the office a more human experience? Clark, what do you think? 

00:17:11 Clark Elliott

Karen, all of our clients are asking this same exam question. What can we do to attract our staff to come into the office today? And you know, the simple answer is, well make it attractive! Treat employees like internal customers. I think the 20 month experiment has really humanized perspectives about people understanding that employees are actually internal customers, and we're talking ever more now about user experience seen through the eyes of an employee working for an organization.

And a lot of business research has shown how happy employees equals happy customers equals successful organizational outcomes. So coming back to the most basic safety and hygiene in these troubling times, beyond that, we really have to design work environments to deliver positive user experiences. 

The range of configurations we use in activity based working is something that is delivered in forward thinking organizations. A menu of spaces that gives people choices. It's really important to look at some of the research Microsoft has done in the last 20 months about the great paradox where most knowledge workers are really comfortable doing some work at home, yet they crave the social contact so that they want to go into the office. They want to see those colleagues, they want to feel that stimulation of being in a room, seeing people they haven't seen for a while, catching up socially, having a coffee.

One of the things I like to coach our clients to consider is how can the building speak to your employees and that the environment says we care about you? 

00:19:26 Lisa Whited

You know one way to show that you care about your employees. You know one of the most basic ways is to care about your bathrooms. Can you believe that? That that is such a basic need and it is so ignored! When you provide really high quality restroom facilities that are inclusive, they're not binary. We know that 50% of LGBTQ+ people stay closeted at work. We know that the people that least want to come back to the office are black men, and the ones that most want to come back are white men. 

And you know, white women and women of color are closer to the black men and not wanting to trot right back into the office. What have we done in our workplaces to give it that corporate vibe? What we've done is look at that office from a singular point of view, and it often is a middle aged white heterosexual man’s point of view. 

So this is our opportunity to be inclusive and not be afraid of asking those people who have never been comfortable in the office, what is it that would really make you feel more welcome and more included? And the bathrooms is such a basic. There are really excellent designs for gender neutral restrooms that are comfortable, that are secure, that are private, that give people facilities. When you create spa like restrooms in an office, that shows you that this company cares about me. 

Because those are spaces that hardly any other person will see you know your clients and how many companies do this? They've got client restrooms and then they've got restrooms for everybody else. 

00:21:02 Karen Plum

Let's move on to something slightly different, which Chris brought up during the recent event. He's passionate about climate change, and he shared the idea or the notion of having only the space you need and no more. As he puts it, the minimum viable workplace. Let's have a listen to what he said. 

00:21:22 Chris Hood

I want to advance this notion of the minimum viable workplace, which is really just a discipline which says, what do we really need in the office? What could we not build and get away with? And so essentially we're left with the true core value of the workplace and then everything else is done some other way. 

And the benefit of that is that whatever space you create should be well used, so there's always energy there, there's a rationale for having it there, there's always people to talk to, to meet with, and so on. 

00:22:00 Karen Plum

That idea of the minimum viable workspace I guess, speaks to the notion of having the lowest possible carbon footprint, which is another subject close to most people hearts and yours in particular, Lisa. But given the state of the planet and the contribution of the workplace to that mission, what do you think it'll take for this idea of the minimum viable workplace to start to get traction?

00:22:26 Lisa Whited

Courageous leadership. It's courageous leadership, Karen. Several years ago I was on an airplane and sat next to a passenger who was returning from a small remote village in Africa and she had gone to run a marathon and she shared with me the extreme poverty that she witnessed and she said, yet people were so happy, they were joyous, they had nothing. And they were very happy people.

And I think about that when I think about that soulless corporate workplace that we were just talking about, the sanitized, vanilla, mediocre workplace. 

Millions of dollars are invested in office space and furniture, and these environments are props for sad and dysfunctional teams of people. And why is that? It's because it's how things have always been done. 80% of people, according to Gallup 2021 statistics are disengaged at work. That statistic has barely changed for 20 years. 

Where are our courageous leaders? This massive work from home experiment has given us a chance to have these conversations that we've been talking about and talk to people about things that really matter to them and the climate is not something that just matters, but it's something that we in the world of workplace can make a huge difference on, if we're willing to stop doing the things that we've always done. If we're willing to do things differently. 

So let's talk about the workplace. Do you know one of the best ways to have a good conversation with people? It’s to have them sit in a circle on the floor. No furniture. How much does that space need to be? How much space do you need? How much would that cost? 

All it takes is a courageous leader who says, hey, we're going to do things a little differently today, this is how we're going to have this conversation. So in addition to linking to the headline exercise, I want to make sure we add in your show notes that connection to the TED talk about the lone nut ("How to start a movement"). 

I don't know if you guys have seen that, but often a courageous leader begins as a lone nut and we need more of those folks leading the way in doing things differently. 

00:24:49 Karen Plum

OK, well on the subject of doing things differently at the recent event, I was also intrigued by the idea of the workplace being hackable. 

00:24:58 Lisa Whited

About 10 years ago I worked with a team of software engineers and they were really excited to think differently. They actually broke out the Legos. They started to brainstorm about their space using Legos and they really wanted to use tables to move around and adapt the space, bring power from the ceiling with cables. So that is what they did. They created a very hackable space that they could control and they were very happy about being able to do that. 

You know it's the thing that would drive a traditional facility services team nuts because they're worried about the cost and people liability for moving stuff and damage, but it worked for them. And I do think the opportunity is digital environments and technology digital twinning, VR goggles. This is going to give us the ultimate hackable workplace, so we're not there yet, but I think technology if we continue to watch that will help us create this ultimate hackable experience. 

00:25:50 Clark Elliott

The project I just completed and had the pleasure of inaugurating a few weeks ago - this company decided to become an agile organization and the way they configured the new factory and the offices above the new factory, we just created a whole series of multipurpose spaces where everything can move and we have scrum areas. They decided to go full speed ahead with an agile organization management system plus the work environment. 

So scrum areas with stand up tables just with Teflon coasters on the bottoms of the tables slide around and there's groups of three in each cluster and there are six scrum areas in this building. And you slide around the tables, put them together, put them linearly; you pull up a Microsoft screen on wheels and you patch in someone who's working from home; and you pull up whiteboards that are actually on carts with wheels so project teams have their whiteboards in these carts. 

You don't need a room and you configure the space and you clip the whiteboards on the walls. And believe me, it's the joy of people moving furniture around, configuring the spaces, making it their own, is magic. It's like playing camping tent in your parents bed on Sunday morning when you're six. 

00:27:23 Karen Plum

People are just happy to do that sort of stuff I think, and it's quick and easy to do, and the stuff's easy to move around, it's just empowering, isn't it, because we're creating exactly what we need when we need it. Good stuff. 

So finally I asked Chris how he would get started on this journey to reimagine the workplace, reduce it to the minimum viable size and make it hackable and more human. Here’s what he said. 

00:27:47 Chris Hood

If you set yourself an extremely hairy, audacious goal of reducing your footprint by, let's pick a big number - 50%. Bring it down to 50 square foot per person, something almost ridiculous. That is the thing that really gets the mind into gear. Gets people sort of really thinking, and it's not just progression, it's transformation. Transformation of thinking, of activity, of priority. Bold is good here, so that's what I would do. Set yourself a really tough steep target and see how far you can get. 

00:28:28 Karen Plum

Do you think people are going to be brave enough Clark, have you seen people going in this direction?

00:28:34 Clark Elliott

Karen, I can confirm that people are going in this direction. One example actually the building opened last week. It's one of the Big 5 tech companies. The new headquarters here in Switzerland uses 75% of the new building space for meeting areas, client meeting areas, informal meeting areas, a floor for employee meeting areas, conversation rooms, pods, discussion areas, creativity rooms. There's 80 work points for 500 people, so the message is loud and clear - solo work is best done at home. You're equipped to do it from home. When you come to the office, here's a great menu to do all those other things. 

00:29:27 Lisa Whited

Well I love those numbers Clark that just gives me so much hope to hear those numbers is wonderful. But as Greta Thunberg says, don't look for hope, look for action. And then hope will come. So my last thought is a call to action for the courageous leaders listening to your podcast Karen. To just question how things have been done and know that 80% of people are disengaged with their work. 

We know the great resignation, great migration is happening. You want to have great people work for you and good talent. There are ways to do things differently and know that commercial buildings contribute 39% to carbon emissions, so think about it. You can reduce your office footprint. You can be intentional about how you bring people together, and when you do both of those, you're making a difference for the planet and for people’s happiness and wellbeing, so it's really a win win. And I mean, man, who wouldn't want to be a part of that change? Sign me up! 

00:30:27 Karen Plum

Fabulous, well what better way to finish off the episode? Thank you very much, Lisa and Clark for sharing your thoughts, insights and inspiration. 

00:30:35 Lisa Whited

Thanks Karen, always fun to chat. 

00:30:37 Clark Elliott

Thanks Karen, was a pleasure. 

00:30:39 Karen Plum

And my thanks also to Chris Hood and Gervais Tompkin for providing the springboard for our discussion. Remember, set yourself an extremely hairy, audacious goal to reduce your footprint and see how far you can get!

Happy retirement. Chris, we'll let you know how it goes. 

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.