The DNA of Work

Ambiguity or clarity?

February 08, 2022 Season 1 Episode 20
The DNA of Work
Ambiguity or clarity?
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

In 2021 we had to cope with a lot of uncertainty and ambiguity. Leaders weren’t able to make and communicate clear decisions about the future ways in which their people would be able to work. Many opted to be honest about the uncertainty and difficulty of seeing a clear path forward. 

But as time wore on, the lack of clear decisions started to prove difficult for staff who wanted to know what they were going to be able to do – carry on working from home, return to the office, relocate their home to another location, etc. 

In this episode we return to two of our guests from last Summer’s podcast episodes to see what is happening in their territories – the USA and India. It seems that more clarity is being provided, and while not always suiting everyone, at least people are now clearer about their options – and many forms of hybrid working are emerging. 

We explore the situation in the USA and India as observed by our local Senior Associates, providing a glimpse into the trends they are seeing.

If you’re interested in the event mentioned during the episode, here are the details:

AWI event: How do we use technology to manage the hybrid workplace? 
16 February 4pm UK  : 11am US Eastern : 8am US Pacific 


AWA Host: Karen Plum

Featured guests: 

  • Nida Mehtab, Senior Associate, USA, AWA
  • Partha Sarma, Senior Associate, India, AWA

 Link to AWA team page:



AWA contact: Andrew Mawson  

Advanced Workplace Associates:     


AWI contact: Brad Taylor 

Advanced Workplace Institute

Music: courtesy of  

Want to know more about AWA?

Thanks for listening to the DNA of work podcast

00:00:00 Karen Plum

Hello everyone. Over the last couple of years we've talked a lot about living with uncertainty and ambiguity. Leadership teams realized that they couldn't have all the answers for their people, so much was out of their control. Many concluded that they had to live with that ambiguity and they decided to be more open and honest about the decisions that they just weren't in a position to take. But then as time wore on, people started to need more clarity in order to make decisions about their own lives. So where are we now? Let's find out. 

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. 

00:00:59 Karen Plum

In the summer of 2021, I talked to colleagues in different countries about what was going on in terms of the return to the office plans and general trends that they were seeing around how organizations and their people were responding to the different ways of working, and we featured these in lots of our podcast episodes. 

So at the start of 2022, I particularly wanted to see whether the ambiguity and uncertainty that we were seeing in 2021, was being replaced by more clarity and certainty. 

To discuss this with me and to give an update on what's happened since last summer, I have two guests in this episode. The first one, who told me last year that people were getting used to living out of a backpack - so being flexible and working in different locations - is Nida Mehtab, AWA’s Senior Associate based in San Francisco. I started by asking her to describe the current situation. 

00:01:56 Nida Mehtab

Last year companies were actually trying to do two things at a time. Number one is that when can we bring people back to the office? And secondly, what does the future office or future workplace look like? 

So, given that we’ve now lived another year with COVID and another variant of COVID, while there is a wide understanding that return to office is still not on the books right now, companies have really focused their attention in figuring out - what does the future of hybrid world or future of work look like, for their respective organizations. 

Have they had a chance to experiment? Maybe not, because nobody has come back and nobody has actually piloted that. But at least in order to give the employees and the workforce that clarity, there have been intense effort that has gone into understanding what work types can continue to work from home? What work type will be hybrid? 

And that has given employees a little bit of predictability into their future to allow for them to make future decisions. So yes, the work is going on. Maybe not as fast and where we want it to be, but there's more clarity coming that - we are in it for a long run, so how can we make it well understood by our workforce that what the expectations will be? 

00:03:14 Karen Plum

Do you think that the desire to give people clarity was something that came from the organization, or was it something that the staff were really asking for? Or was it a bit of both? 

00:03:26 Nida Mehtab

Definitely the latter, Karen, and I do empathize with the organizational leadership as well, because there was a lot that was thrown at them to figure out. Leaders did not want to make any radical decisions and then regret or have the adverse effects on the employee. So there was some time that was needed from leadership point of view. As well, before they could give any clarity to the workforce.

But the desire and the heightened desire of the clarity definitely came from the employee level. And leadership understood that, and they realized that if it's not being responded to then there will be a loss, from talent perspective. 

00:04:07 Karen Plum

So we've heard all about the great resignation and surveys saying that people were prepared to resign if they couldn't get the flexibility that they needed. Are you seeing much of a trend in that direction or are organizations managing to hold onto their people? 

00:04:24 Nida Mehtab

I heard this term yesterday in one of the industry thought leaders interview, that it's not a great resignation, it's a great revaluation and why? It's because all of us throughout the world, at the same time, were posed with a challenge to evaluate it. What are we doing? How are we doing things? Can they be done differently? 

So, of course people responded differently. The other thing that happened is that people realized that they have a right to choose how they want to work and where they want to work. 

And maybe in the past there was a misconception that work only gets done in the office and it only gets done if we abide by five days a week, work week. But there are so many different ways people have still managed to be productive, so why not apply that flexibility into their lives, and their work lives?

Organizations are, sad to say, but they're not as far along in making that radical flexibility happen. But as the pandemic timing is expanding, there is more maturity and realization that is happening at all levels, including the leadership level. Technology is enabling a lot of that too, so people are learning new tools and new practices that otherwise they didn't think they could do. So yes, organizations are - because the biggest war we have at hand is the knowledge worker talent war. 

00:05:56 Karen Plum

Indeed! And I remember last year we were talking about people having temporarily moved away from the big cities, because they knew that, at least for a period of time, they weren't going to be required to pitch up at the office. And I remember your term “live in your backpack”, which became a bit of a catch phrase at the time! Do you think people are still living in their backpacks? 

00:06:18 Nida Mehtab

I think the difference between last year and this year is now people have actually learned how to live in a backpack because it's been going on for two years and just given where we are in on the spectrum of pandemic surge, organizations have not set their return to office dates.

But they have given some more clarity around that even when and if the organizations do bring people back to the office, while not everyone is going to be remote or not everyone is going to be hybrid, there's another category that is being introduced to our industry which is ad hoc employee. 

And what does ad hoc employee mean? It's basically the middle ground between a hybrid employee and a remote employee. A lot of companies were being posed with a challenge that while there is a high desire from the employees to not be in the office even one day a week, if we make them remote that comes with a lot of legal implications and the compensation and other on-boarding and abiding by many different laws.

So this category is specifically created for the organizations that are OK with employees not coming to the office here, two to three days a week, but they are still not going to put them in the category of remote. Now from an employee perspective, that still is a win for them too, because if I'm not expected to be in the office two to three days a week, I know I can live really little farther, and if I need to go in once a week once a once a quarter, I can do 4 hours drive once a quarter, but I don't want to do that twice a week. So I think the trends are morphing in a way. It's going to be a win win for organizations and the employees. 

00:08:03 Karen Plum

And I think that's part of the certainty that you were talking about earlier on, so it's one of the ways of delivering certainty is to create this new sort of work style, if you like. So are you seeing differences between tech companies and other sectors in terms of the decisions they're making and the things that they're offering?

00:08:25 Nida Mehtab

Yes, I am and I think it's also function because they are being posed - maybe the industry is looking at them to set the trend as well - how the open office trend started that way too. 

I'm seeing that there's a higher level of realization in the tech sector that the decisions are not going to be made at the C-Suite and the executive leadership level and the shift is coming to giving more autonomy to the people managers and team leads. Because who is closest to the employees and who is going to make sure that the business outputs continue to happen as they were promised? The team manager, the people manager and the team leads. 

So being close to the work, they are empowered - I wouldn't say best because employees are best suited to make the decision what's good for them - but the team managers and the people managers are best positioned to find that balance. That no, my team doesn't need to be in the office more than once a quarter, because then they feel empowered that I need to learn how to manage virtual teams as well, if I want to make my team happy.

So that the co creation of solution and the ownership starts to happen in residing at the team level and that actually becomes one module gets multiplied and then that becomes the whole cohesive culture where team managers become responsible for the output. 

00:09:48 Karen Plum

From what you're saying, it sounds like that decision making has shifted from, as you say, the C-Suite down to the more sort of operational level, giving them more control, more autonomy, which sounds like a good thing. So does that mean that really the culture of those organizations is changing? 

00:10:09 Nida Mehtab

Absolutely. I think in this new world of - I don't want to call it post Covid world, but let's just say it's a first Covid world - people managers have a whole new role and responsibility and slowly the executive leadership is also realizing that we need to empower people managers to be better leaders of the future, but also take the vision of the organization forward. 

So that's definitely a very good trend that we are seeing. Not all the companies are at the same level of maturity to acknowledge that, but it is definitely becoming a trend. 

00:10:44 Karen Plum

Now empowerment's one thing, capability and skills is another. So again, is that something that you feel companies have been doing over the last couple of years - to upskill and support their managers in developing those skills? Or are we still on that journey? 

00:11:01 Nida Mehtab

I think first step is to acknowledge that something and that acknowledgment is happening. It's happening faster than we think, and some organizations that are farther along on that acknowledgment curve, yes, they have already developed many good programs and learning and development and training programs for their people managers, how to manage virtually, how to run a meeting with inclusive workforce. 

But not everyone is there. I think that we're going to see next year if I'll talk to you again on the podcast, we will hopefully we'll see that people managers are the new decision makers for what the future of the company looks like. And one of the clients, potential clients that we were talking to for the cultural transformation work, they actually did say that we see that the trend has to shift from the decisions being made at the leadership level to the business unit leaders and the team managers level. 

However, the rift is between that letting go of that decision making and trusting that yeah, they are ready to make the decisions, so we'll see more of those dialogues happening. 

And then there's definitely going to be more desire from the people manager side that if you want me to deliver business for you, you need to give me some autonomy. So last year was about employees wanting to have a choice. This year I think is going to be more about people managers wanting to have more autonomy. So silver lining of pandemic. 

00:12:36 Karen Plum

I do think it's important to find those silver linings in amongst the disruption and all the things that we've struggled with. I do think this time has advanced the cause of people power and flexibility more than we could have ever imagined. 

My thanks to Nida for joining me in this episode. I'll be catching up with her later in 2022. 

But now we're going to take a quick break and I'll be back after this message with my second guest who's going to give us an update on what's going on in India. 

00:13:05 ADVERT: As more people start to embrace a hybrid way of working, how are organizations applying the technology required to enable an effective workplace experience? 

I'm Brad Taylor at the Advanced Workplace Institute and I invite you to join our one hour online session on February 16th at 4:00 PM UK time. 11:00 AM Eastern and 8:00 AM US Pacific for “How do we use technology to manage the hybrid workplace? ” 

I'll be joined by AWA founder Andrew Mawson and we'll be discussing what organizations are doing and how you might want to think about this important enabler of effective hybrid working. You'll get the opportunity to pose questions and share your own thoughts and insight. So don't miss this AWI event on February 16th – “How do we use technology to manage the hybrid workplace?” 

You can find details of how to sign up for the event in the podcast show notes. 

00:13:57 Karen Plum

Welcome back. In this part of the podcast I'm joined by Partha Sarma, our Senior Associate based in India. When we spoke last summer, Partha told me that organizations seemed to be listening to what their people were saying, and this was something rather new and encouraging, and there was very much a watch and wait approach with organizations planning to review the situation after the holidays. 

So I was interested to know where things have reached now. Have people flooded back to the office? 

00:14:28 Partha Sarma

There was an attempt, I think around Diwali last year which was in November, for organizations to actually bring back people to their workplace and then people kind of, I won't say revolt, but people actually said hey wait, hang on, we need a little bit of time to actually get back our accommodation. 

Because a lot of people had actually left the big cities like Bangalore and Mumbai and gone back to the smaller towns and they said that give us at least a couple of months for us to, you know, get back our homes and our accommodation. So they actually pushed it back to January and then Omicron hit us in January and then offices had to be shut down again. 

So I wouldn't say that people are actually flooded back to the office. Not at all, in fact, so that kind of uncertainty which was there about 6-7 months ago has begun to creep in again in terms of when will their offices reopen. 

So it's there, but certainly I think one thing has changed is that the last time from the last time that we spoke, organizations do seem to have a plan in place, so there are things like agile working policies which have come into place. It's just about rolling them out now. 

00:15:27 Karen Plum

Right, so when people thought they were going to have to come back to work in the office in November time last year and they said, well, we need some time to get some accommodation. Do you sense that they were willing and happy to come back? I'm just interested that having felt that they had a greater voice, do you think that voice was effectively being taken away and that the companies were saying, well, no, OK yeah, it's all over now. We want you back in the office. 

00:15:57 Partha Sarma

Yeah, I mean of course, like we spoke the last time, a lot of decisions were delayed because people were following the wait and watch policy and you know it's actually been two years if you think about it, it's been two years for organizations.

And what happened was that a lot of office leases expired or are about to expire. So a lot of decision making was actually driven by that – to find that, oh my lease is expired now or is about to expire, so I need to do something about my office.

And when you think about it this way, what you then think about - is it OK? Am I going to take more space, or am I going to take less space? And this I feel at least in India, prompted a lot of these new policies about how you should return to work. Should we work remotely and all of that. And decision making to a large extent I would say was driven by these lease expiry dates, but people were speaking about, you know the fact that they like to work from their homes and people expressing that I cannot do this and do that. 

So organizations did listen to them, but I wouldn't say that they listened to them 100%. For example, an organization that we worked with recently, they actually rolled out an agile working policy and they said that OK, you can work two days a week from home. However, on every Monday or on a Friday, you have to be in office so that's a tweak that they introduced. 

So yes, they listened to the organization, but they thought that OK if I have to make my real estate efficient and if I have to make my lighting and air conditioning efficient, I need to get my offices back in on a Monday and Friday as well otherwise my office will be empty on the Monday and a Friday. So these sort of kind of, not negotiations, but you know things happen in organizations. 

00:17:40 Karen Plum

Very interesting that some of them are taking the opportunity to downsize, perhaps move as a result of a lease expiry, or maybe a lease break. Have you seen many examples of organizations being more flexible or really just wanting to change the way they do things as part of the way they operate? 

00:18:01 Partha Sarma

Yes, quite a lot actually. I mean, if you really think about India, the whole commercial real estate market in India actually grew on the back of these large companies providing IT services to the West. And this whole thing was actually centered around cost efficiencies, so a lot of organizations had carried on with the legacy of setting up densely packed offices, running two or three different ships and you know it's like a sea of workstations. 

Now I think generally kind of acceptance has come amongst leadership in these organizations that all work does not necessarily happen within those workstations, or can happen anywhere. 

So a lot of changes happen there in terms of defining that you know activity based working, which is something which is heard of in India but not really practiced, is being rolled out in India a lot. 

And I wouldn't say that that's a tectonic shift as far as the workspace landscape changing, but the shift really is centered around a deeper understanding that productivity is a lot more than actually sitting on the desk and spending 8 hours on the table every day, and that for the IT industry is a big shift. 

The fact that you need to have different kind of environments to be productive for different kind of tasks throughout the day, from an earlier mentality of let's throw in some fun areas and some cool spots, just because you know somebody on the West Coast is doing it or because my neighbor is doing it. So that's the mental shift which is happening. 

00:19:29 Karen Plum

It sounds very encouraging. We talked, I think last year about people voting with their feet and if they were not getting the flexibility that they were looking for, that they might be willing to look for another job. Is this something that's still being spoken about in India? Is there any evidence that this is happening? 

00:19:49 Partha Sarma

Compromise is what is happening now in the sense like a lot of people actually said that I'm happy being in my hometown with my parents eating home food kind of a thing. And then people wanted a lot of clarity in terms of, can I continue to do this for the next  2-3 years, because my neighbor’s company is actually offering that. Otherwise I go there. 

So organization did realise, hey look, this is a threat for us we're going to lose some people. So what they said is yes you can, but there are only certain number of days in the month they actually work remotely. 

In a sense, what they were saying that you have to back in our city and they roll out all these policies, agile working policies and said that hey look, if you were within these cities in India, it can still work. But if you're let's say you know remote town 2,000 kilometres away from Bangalore where we cannot provide PC support like for example if your laptop breaks down there, we cannot do that. 

So organizations went to the extent of saying that, OK, we say we’re Bangalore centric or Mumbai centric but hey look there are these twenty other cities in India where you can work from, where we can support you through a tie up with the co-work space or somebody like that, and you can work within these spaces. 

So these kind of compromises have begun to happen, and I see that these agile working policies are rolled out with these conditions in them. 

00:21:10 Karen Plum

What we heard last year was very many companies saying that they were getting more comfortable with the ambiguity and the uncertainty of living in COVID times, and that they weren't able to give people certainty about when the office would open, what hybrid working would look like, how many days a week they'd be able to work from home, all of those sorts of things. 

And yet as it went on and on and on, and they kept deferring making any concrete decisions some CEO's started to say, well, we can't keep saying we're putting it off, we're putting it off. People are asking us for clarity, for certainty because they want to make decisions of their own. 

00:21:56 Partha Sarma

Yeah, I think essentially employees raised their arms and said we've had enough of this uncertainty. Give us some news, even if it's bad news, give us some news. So that's why I think a lot of these organizations actually came out with these policies. Although I won't say that all these policies were favorable to employees, but at least they got to know that yes, I can do this, or I cannot do this.

And I won’t say this solves all problems for everyone, but it's a good beginning and what we also see is that I've seen some of these policies - we've also helped some organization these draft policies. They are of course not sufficient to satisfy everyone’s needs, but the other things which are coming up is things like working together agreements. These are things that are being introduced between teams, and team leaders are being trained. 

We're helping some clients to do that, so I think a combination of these agile working policies and working together agreements will to large extent help people slowly adjust to these new ways of working. 

00:22:56 Karen Plum

Yes, and give them more clarity and more control over what those agreements look like. So are there any other major trends that you're seeing? 

00:23:07 Partha Sarma

Well, I mean one of the things, and this is particularly with reference to India I would like to point out is that a lot of decisions were earlier taken on the basis of management saying that, OK, this is how it should be. This is the rule of you know how it should work within the office and so on. 

Then organizations began to listen to their people, what they were saying. So one of the trends I would say which is actually picked up, is that more and more organizations are taking data driven decisions, which is not so much of the case earlier. And of course there are two sides to the workplace, right? There is a people side and there's infrastructure side.

Now earlier organizations used to rely on employees surveys like the ones that we used to do and infrastructure surveys, which is typically called small data or people data. But now I see a move towards actually looking at big data as well, which is like you're looking at occupancy sensor data to actually check on occupancy levels and then using automation to control lighting and air conditioning

So not only about bringing in operational efficiencies, but also about curating kind of personalized experience for employees. And so there's a realization that if I listen to people and use that data to actually curate personal experiences for them it will probably convince them to be in office, because when you realize as an employee that I can get everything done by being on my laptop, there needs to be a very, very compelling reason for me to be in office, take the train, take the bus, and be in office. 

So there's been a move, I think, amongst leadership to actually try and curate  kind of experiences. We're still in the early days I think, but that's where I see things moving. 

It has been a wakeup call, both for employees as well as employers. And I'm happy that organizations have realized - end of the day, it's not something which is written in some management book, that it's all about the people. It really is about the people - they are your first line of customers and that realization definitely has come in. 

So when you talk about product companies actually creating experiences for their customers because they want to buy your product, the same kind of attitude has come amongst leadership and they're beginning to treat employees as the first line of customers. Which is, I think, not only a wakeup call, but very, very encouraging, I think. 

00:25:20 Karen Plum

Well, my thanks to Partha for updating us on developments in India. I'll catch up with him again later in the year.

It's encouraging to see organizations taking the initiative to make changes and focus more on delivering great workplace experiences for their people. If you're going to travel to the office or relocate back to the big city, you have to know how that's going to help you to do your work. 

That’s it for this episode. My thanks again to Nida and Partha for giving us a glimpse of what's going on in their part of the world. 

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. 

India with Partha Sarma