The DNA of Work

We've come a long way

December 28, 2021 Season 1 Episode 17
The DNA of Work
We've come a long way
Show Notes Transcript

In keeping with tradition, this is our look back over 2021, reflecting on how the world of work is changing.

We have gathered a collection of highlights, insights, inspiration and advice from the wonderful guests that appeared on the podcast - change managers, workplace strategists, people experts, tax and employment law specialists, workplace transformation experts and business leaders. We look at aspects ranging from climate change to the vital role that managers play in the operation of hybrid working. 

In addition to deep insights, there are also magic moments where we are counselled to set ourselves an “extremely hairy, audacious target” for space reduction; to  “never have your back to your people”; and to listen hard to them because “the thing is almost never the thing”. Whatever they bring to you is rarely the real issue – and only by the power of listening and conversation does the real problem emerge. 

The key takeaway and thread across the podcast, is the importance of communication. It sounds so simple – just talk to each other. But so often it’s a neglected, underrated activity and a skill that needs work. 

We wish you a very healthy, safe and successful 2022 and thanks for listening to our podcast.

AWA Host: Karen Plum

Featured guests: 

  • Andrew Mawson, MD, AWA
  • Lisa Whited, Senior Associate, AWA
  • Lara Al Ansari, Associate, AWA
  • Adria Horn, Executive VP, Workplace, Tilson Technology Management
  • Brad Taylor, Director of Consulting, AWA
  • Sue Warman, VP, People, American Institute of Certified Public Accountants 
  • Ainsley Wallace, President & CEO, University of Southern Maine Foundation 
  • Celeste Tell, Senior Associate, AWA
  • Gervais Tompkin, Founder of Plus Gervais LLC  
  • Chris Hood, ex-Director of Consulting, AWA
  • Pierre-Louis Godin, Sustainable Business Manager, Emitwise
  • Philippa Hale, Senior Associate, AWA
  • Partha Sarma, Senior Associate, AWA
  • Anne Balle, Senior Associate, AWA
  • Hannah Crisp, Senior Associate – Employment, Allen & Overy LLP
  • James Hourigan, Partner / Global Employer Services, BDO

 AWA Guest details: 

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AWA contact: Andrew Mawson  

Advanced Workplace Associates:     


AWI contact: Brad Taylor 

 Advanced Workplace Institute  

Music: courtesy of  

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00:00:00 Karen Plum

Hello everyone! Our podcast has been around for about six months now, so I thought it would be cool to take a look back over all the episodes and the amazing insights that have been shared. Of course, there's far too much to relive again, but I'm picking out my highlights and the things that have inspired me, including “The thing is not the thing”. Let's get started. 

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

00:00:50 Karen Plum

What's abundantly clear is that since the pandemic struck in 2020 and working away from the office became the new normal for so many, we've had to focus on sustaining relationships with our colleagues. Maybe that was something new for many - relationships just ‘were’ when we were together in the office and took care of themselves. Or did they? 

Our research about the things that helped teams to perform well, shows that there are three aspects that particularly come under strain when we aren't together. First is social cohesion - how close we are as a team, whether we have each other's backs, how well we know each other as people. The second, not surprisingly, is trust. And the third aspect is the sharing of information and expertise with our colleagues. AWA’s Andrew Mawson explains the importance of social cohesion. 

00:01:42 Andrew Mawson

One of the things that we've discovered through our own research is that social cohesion is the most important factor within knowledge-based communities, and I think in the past organisations have thought that that would just happen by people turning up in the same space, and I don't think it did happen. And I don't think it happens now. And I think the word intentionality is really important because I think what you have to now start thinking about, if you're running a business, you have to be thinking about what are the things that I can do to enable people to connect, at a personal and a business level. And when I say that, I don't just mean within the team, I mean across teams, up and down the organization. 

00:02:21 Karen Plum

It might not have been immediately obvious when everyone went home to shield from COVID, but our relationships were in danger. Those that realized this would have spent more time ensuring that their relationships were given sufficient focus. Change management expert Lisa Whited explains the importance of relationships. 

00:02:40 Lisa Whited

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 all so 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.

And 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. 

00:03:33 Karen Plum

Through our latest research, we also found that relationships and particularly trust, help us with our mental workload, as summarized by AWA’s Lara Al Ansari. 

00:03:45 Lara Al Ansari

Personal relationships with your colleagues we found to be really quite important because if you don't, for example, trust your colleagues to complete their task in a satisfactory way, then that might be adding to your mental workload. 

00:04:00 Karen Plum

We're all aware of how much our mental wellbeing has been put to the test and stretched since the pandemic started. So having trust in colleagues, knowing that you can rely on them doing what they say they will do, actually reduces some of the load on your own brain. You can leave that task in your colleague’s hands and this frees up your brain to focus on its own tasks. 

I found that discovery one of the most insightful of 2021. Another wonderful insight came from Adria Horn, Executive Vice President of Workplace at Tilson Technology Management in America. 

00:04:36 Adria Horn

I have been in the military now, I was on active duty for 11 years, I've been in the reserves, so I'm 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. 

00:05:02 Karen Plum

‘The thing is not the thing’ has certainly become a catch phrase among my AWA colleagues. It so neatly sums up one of the really important things for managers - listening to your people. Really listening and asking questions, not giving immediate solutions and answers. That's not what your people need, particularly during periods of stress and anxiety. They need to feel heard and, as Adria says, they may not be immediately able to articulate the problem, may not even be aware that the problem they have isn't the one they'll first tell you about.

One of the things that has become so evident since the great work from home revolution started is that manager skills are paramount and many managers found themselves without the skills they needed to support their teams in a virtual setting. 

The people skills have been poorly trained in the past, if people have received any training at all and so called soft skills were assumed to be present in managers purely because they're human beings. AWA’s director of consulting, Brad Taylor explains why the term soft skills really is a misnomer. 

00:06:11 Brad Taylor

These sort of skills, you know, organisations often refer to them as soft skills and they're not really soft at all. These can be very complicated, difficult things to do as a line manager, where you're having to really ensure that you understand every individual in your team. And that you're spending time and treating them as an individual and making time for them rather than just thinking about the tasks that need to be done. 

00:06:39 Karen Plum

Another memorable statement made on the podcast came from Sue Warman, Vice President of People at the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants. She said that if you're a manager, then managing people is the most important thing you do. Here's the advice she gives her managers. 

00:06:58 Sue Warman

If you don't have time to do everything, or if you have to cut some corners, don't let it be your people that are the corner you cut. Because people tend to have a mindset that's the opposite - that the tasks are more important than the people. I haven't had time to do my team meetings. I haven't had time to do my appraisals, etc. And I think that whole paradigm has to be flipped on its head, and managers need to be on the hook, most definitely, it's not on to have your back to your people, if you're a manager. That's not who we are as an organization, that's not good enough, and I think that's a very powerful position to take as an organization. 

00:07:31 Karen Plum

The image of having your back to your people is so powerful. I doubt anyone that does have their back to their people has ever thought about it in that way. They probably think that they are facing their tasks, their own leaders and their customers, and that those things are the most important ones to be focused on. 

But think about the message it sends to your troops. And what you are role modeling to them. When discussing the perfect virtual leader, Ainsley Wallace, President and CEO at the University of Southern Maine Foundation in America, suggested that maybe we should give up the idea of perfection, and certainly for many, the perfect is the enemy of the good. 

00:08:11 Ainsley Wallace

Maybe the perfect virtual leader has given up the idea of perfection, because I think that there is sort of shift in the virtual world, from a command and control mindset to a more democratized leadership mindset. And when I was thinking about the six factors that Lisa was talking about and the ones that need the most attention in a virtual world, no one leader is able to provide all of those things that it's about trusting your people to establish the systems to start to do that. 

00:08:40 Karen Plum

Another recurring theme in several podcasts was the concern expressed by many managers and senior leaders about the maintenance of organizational culture. How could culture be maintained if people aren't in the office? This is an excellent reason, they said, to have everyone back in our buildings. But just what is organizational culture and how is it created and therefore sustained? Here's Lisa talking about the need to be explicit about culture. 

00:09:08 Lisa Whited

The culture and the way we do things is often the unsaid, right. It's - so we always start meetings 5 minutes late. Well, where are you going to find that written down? Who wants to say that's our culture?! But when you can make it explicit as Anne said it’s the opportunity to have people have the conversations together early on. How do we want to be together? How can I do my best work? 

So it's important because we come from different backgrounds, experiences, families, cultures and until we can understand how we are going to work together, there's a lot of guessing going on. There are a lot of assumptions made. And it's crazy. That the little teeny irritations in the workplace, when you ask any HR department they'll tell you this. They can blow up to be the most major issues. Well, geez if you could nip that in the bud and have those conversations early, wouldn't that be a healthier way of being together? 

00:10:05 Karen Plum

Lisa quite rightly also commented that the office is a container for the organization's culture, not the culture itself. A point reinforced by AWA’s senior associate Celeste Tell. 

00:10:18 Celeste Tell

If you think about it, historically, culture was this intangible. But then, over time, as we developed how we looked at the physical workspace, we intentionally chose to find ways to embed those intangibles into the physical environment. Now what we're saying is we need to really take those intangibles and decouple them again from the physical environment and understand what works in the physical environment and what really is intangible that can be translated into a virtual environment. 

00:10:53 Karen Plum

None of this is particularly easy, but it's all about going forwards and creating a better future, not returning to the old ways of working that weren't that great in the first place. Here's Gervais Tompkin of Plus Gervais LLC, explaining the old way of doing things. 

00:11:11 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 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. 

00:12:01 Karen Plum

And now we'll take a quick break and we'll be back after this message. 

ADVERT:Are you changing the way your organization 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. 

00:13:03 Karen Plum

Welcome back. Before the break I was talking about office space and clearly there are many challenges faced by organisations in trying to decide what to do with their offices. How much space do we need? What will we use it for? What does it now represent to our people? The opportunity here is to reimagine the office, not only for the good of the organization, but as AWA director of consulting Chris Hood points out, for the good of the planet. 

00:13:31 Chris Hood

I would say over the last 18 months we've all experienced a different world, one where we've tried something very different in the way we work, and we've established our own preferences and thoughts about how we work most productively. And I think there's a sense that as we return to a different situation where we enjoy being together more, some of those preferences and choices will continue to exist. 

Now the challenge with that from an organizational perspective, is that becomes a completely random process and some organization of that is required in order for the organization to benefit. So there's a sense that teams need to also engage in this umbrella of choice and self-determination of how they work best together. Now the problem with that is that it's possible that the choices that separate teams might make are counterproductive from an organizational standpoint, because if everybody chooses to come in on a Wednesday, leaving Monday and Friday pretty much empty, two things have happened. 

One is that anybody who comes in on Monday and Friday are disappointed because the people they want to engage with may not be there and secondly you have an asset that's not particularly well used. Now I think what's happened with the release of the United Nations Climate Change report is another reason for this organization to occur, for us to think more carefully about space as a very treasured resource and how can we maximize its benefit? The notion of trying to understand togetherness in a workplace, trying to organize it in ways that allow for teams to work effectively together and to work with other teams and so on, that's really important. And then to do so there's a call here for doing it the most efficient way possible. 

In other words, what's the minimum viable workplace? Why is that important? Because it's the smallest footprint. And that footprint is the beginnings of a response to climate change. If we could all think more carefully about the treasured resource that office space is, then we begin to think about reducing the carbon footprint of organizations reducing the carbon footprint of people traveling to work. So that there's something in this for everyone, there's something in it for the planet, there's something in it for individuals, and there's something in it for the organization itself in terms of the value of being organized and sort of scheduling people time and togetherness. 

00:16:33 Karen Plum

In helping organisations get to grips with reducing their carbon footprints, the focus should be about real reductions, not cosmetic ones. And to do that you need real data as explained by sustainability expert Pierre-Louis Godin of Emitwise. 

00:16:50 Pierre-Louis Godin

Absolutely, with the hybrid working a lot of organisations are trying to understand what's the best option. Should their employees be working from home, from the offices and to my earlier points, it's all murky, it's in the air right now there's no actual data to understand what is causing which. Some companies are claiming they're reducing their emissions considerably by allowing their employees to work from home, but that varies. Depends on the countries, the regions - say for example working from home in the winter is much more carbon intensive than having your employees in the office because homes are less energy efficient than some office spaces for companies. So you actually need to use the granular data of what's the energy use in the homes of individuals, how are the heating systems, inefficiencies. So that’s the type of data we’re looking at. 

00:17:39 Karen Plum

It's interesting to appreciate that simple statements about working from home having a lower carbon footprint is not necessarily the case. The devil is always in the details, it seems. Returning to the earlier topic of managers and relationships, here's a quick summary of some of the advice that our experts provided on the podcast. Here's Brad. 

00:17:59 Brad Taylor

It's interesting in my career where I've been involved with surveying line managers and we speak to them and we say, you have a regular one to one with your manager and they'll say yes. And do you value it? Yes, I value it a lot.

And how often do you have one to ones with your own team? And then the answer is well less frequent. So even though people as humans, we all like and value our line manager spending time with us, it can be difficult to ensure that as a line manager ourselves we make that time to devote it to every member of our team so that they feel that we are there, we’re accessible. And when they have time with us that we are clear of mind ourselves to be able to really treat them as special and to listen carefully to what they're saying and be able to focus and add value to them as an individual. 

00:18:48 Karen Plum

And as AWA’s senior associate Philippa Hale explains, developing more self-awareness can also be helpful. 

00:18:56 Philippa Hale

What I've seen quite a lot of and I've really done my very best to avoid, is that very slight irritation, or I've heard the phrase ‘low level coercion’, which sounds a bit dramatic, but it's sort of because we're remote you don't want to upset people, but nevertheless, you're frustrated. So what can happen and I don't know whether this is a very British thing, but it can slide into a versus like passive aggressive narkiness. And I think being aware, really listening hard to yourself and making sure that you're not drifting into that because you will be role modeling it for others, if you do. 

And coming back to that authenticity, am I being honest here am I handling this in a in an adult-adult way? Or am I trying to be authentic, but actually maybe not quite getting there. 

00:19:47 Karen Plum

Returning to the theme of listening to your people change manager Lisa makes a very timely and simple point. 

00:19:54 Lisa Whited

Know that your people have good ideas. Know that they need to be heard and be listened to, and then know that you can end up with something very tangible that can help your business do better because you're going to allow your people to be more productive. 

00:20:12 Karen Plum

And AWA’s Partha Sarma reflects that managers and bosses do seem to be doing more listening. 

00:20:18 Partha Sarma

Yeah, I think this is something 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 voices being heard. And I think what the pandemic has done is that it's gotten more sensitivity amongst managers. Maybe they heard it from their bosses in the West, but they have become more sensitive and they are listening to their people. What they do something about it or not I'm not sure, but at least they're listening to them now. 

00:20:51 Karen Plum

This resonates with many of the themes from the podcast, which is about how leaders and managers have been finding ways to involve people more in the discussion about how things are going to be done - moving further away from the command-and-control approach. If the pandemic has done us any favors at all, then one is the step change that has been brought about in those organisations that have seized the opportunity to do things differently. 

Recognizing the pressure on managers, AWA’s change management expert Anna Balle reinforces the need to support managers through this period of transition into operating in a different way. 

00:21:29 Anne Balle

At the moment, the people managers and leaders that I'm talking to are under a huge amount of pressure. They are typically in the process of returning to the office, everything is new, they are busy as like they've never been before. So one of the things that's really difficult is prioritizing the time, their time, to equip them to be able to drive this. And it kind of feels like we don't have the time, but you've got to stop up and take the time to equip the leaders and the people managers to actually implement this. Equip them to - how do I manage in this new world? And it's just it just makes the whole difference. They make the whole difference for a successful change process. Finding that time is really difficult, but it's going to be a really good payoff on the other end of that. 

00:22:21 Karen Plum

Communication is something that was echoed by Hannah Crisp, a UK employment law specialist from Allen & Overy. Ensuring that you know your employment law obligations is clearly important, particularly as we move into different ways of working and have people working in other countries. In addition to her legal advice, Hannah made some excellent points about simply being clear about what you're trying to achieve. 

00:22:46 Hannah Crisp

Make sure you're clear on why you're doing what it is you want to do, and then make sure you stand behind it. I think an employer who has spent time thinking about what the business needs and in terms of this kind of aspect, designing a hybrid working arrangement that will not only be able to explain that to staff in a way that's going to be accepted and make the whole process run smoother. But if you know what you're doing and why you're doing it, that business is also just going to be much better placed to defend its decisions if they're ever challenged. 

And to make sure that it works commercially, it works for your staff. For the vast majority of businesses, the staff is kind of the key resource, and if you don't have a happy staff, you've not going to do great in business. And so I think, sometimes just stripping it back and not necessarily immediately thinking what legally can I do, and sometimes starting from the perspective of what do I want to do and then can I do it, is sometimes just a better way to do it, because then you make sure you're doing things for the right reasons. You can communicate with staff, I think much more effectively. You can often get staff on board with that thing much more effectively, and you're just able to make sure that it works and it can continue and you can achieve what it is that you want to achieve. 

00:24:12 Karen Plum

Thinking about another aspect of how things have changed in 2021, James Hourigan, a tax partner at BDO London, told me they're seeing some organisations with people working abroad actually backtracking from their work anywhere plans, and he gave us some sound advice. 

00:24:28 James Hourigan

We're seeing companies out there who have sought the advice from the tax side, realized what's involved, realized all the variables here and the length of time in a particular jurisdiction can dictate what the tax issues are, for example, it can be one of the factors. That they're actually backtracking entirely and saying we're not embracing working from anywhere. It's as simple as that. 

Make sure you have a policy framework in place around this issue. If you're working on it, great, but I think it's important because what you don't want to do is adopt the laissez faire approach here. Inevitably, you're going to run into trouble. So I think it's coming to whatever is right for your business, is right for your business. Whether tax is top of the pile in terms of issues to consider or not as the case may very well be. Have a policy, have a written policy framework in place. We've definitely been helping quite a few businesses in that regard, perhaps more so from the tax perspective, but it is something that businesses should not overlook. 

00:25:34 Karen Plum

Finally, I'd like to close this review with a call to arms from my colleague and much admired industry leader, Chris Hood, who has just retired. 

00:25:44 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 sort of tough, steep target and see how far you can get. 

00:26:25Karen Plum

Well said Chris, and we all wish you a very happy retirement. 

And that's it for this episode. I hope you've enjoyed this walk through some of the highlights of our 2021 podcast. If you enjoy the show, please like or follow it wherever you get your podcasts and share it with a colleague. 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.