“What keeps you up at night?” My interview on UC Berkeley Extension’s The Future of Work podcast

“What keeps you up at night?”  That’s one of the thought-provoking questions the host of UC Berkeley Extension’s The Future of Work podcast, Jill Finlayson, asked during my recent appearance. Finlayson is also the Director of EDGE (Expanding Diversity and Gender Equity) in Tech Initiative at UC, and the monthly podcast she hosts focuses on the changing evolution of the workforce and the skills needed to stay competitive.

In this episode, The Humanizing of Flexible Work, we discuss the costs and benefits of flexibility, the impacts as more employees work a hybrid schedule, and who might get left behind or forgotten.

But we started our conversation with a question I’ve never been asked before: what keeps me up at night?

First, I am constantly thinking about how can I share with organizations, leaders, and individual employees what I’ve learned over nearly three decades actually transforming work so they don’t feel so overwhelmed. There is a proven path. How can I help them be as excited as I am about the possibilities of a well-executed flexible work strategy? I’ve seen the results and benefits that I call “the spark.”

Second, I still don’t think leaders truly understand that we’re not going back to the old ways of working. Without senior leader buy-in and sponsorship, a broad flexible reimagining of work is much more difficult.

And third, we are still too hyper-focused on where we work. Instead of leading with the work – purpose, values, and also job tasks – and THEN, determining together not just where, but how and when that work is done best.

It’s not that where doesn’t matter. It’s just not the most effective place to start. For example, what leads to a better outcome–setting “anchor days” and then figuring out what you’re going to do on those days onsite together, or looking first at what you need to do and then deciding if anchor days make sense and, if they do, what would the best anchor day or days be?

Yes, change is scary.  But I’ve seen what happens when work is the focal point. You start to ask “How can we do this better?  How can we do this more effectively?” That’s innovation in action.

Take the best of how we worked during the pandemic, and add back what was missing. That’s how you move forward to the best of what’s next and unlock new levels of performance and well-being.

But it requires a consistent process to guide that decision-making and a new set of skills for both leaders and employees. It also requires us to expand beyond hybrid and remote work, which are just two possible ways to work flexibly, and exclude nearly half of the workforce that needs to be onsite for their jobs. To fully seize the beneficial outcomes of high performance flexibility, organizations need to consider the full continuum of how, when, and where work can be done across the entire talent base.

We discuss this and much more, including my look ahead at how, when, and where I believe we’ll be working 10 to 25 years from now. Listen to the full episode.


Moving Past the Office Occupancy Scorecard

While there may have been a Labor Day bump in return to office occupancy, rates have remained steady, and a variety of data indicate “where” we work patterns appear to be stabilizing somewhat. Hopefully, we can now move beyond RTO/hybrid limbo and start to answer these important questions:

  • How are team-based decisions about “where” people will work best being made?
  • Is the work (what we need to do) or the where/location leading these decisions?
  • Do these decisions reflect the core values of the organization? (Read last week’s newsletter on why this matters.)
  • When (hours) are employees working?
  • How are they using technology to enable efficient communication, coordination and collaboration while working flexibly?
  • And, have processes, such as meetings, scheduling and onboarding, been reimagined and updated to support, or be supported by, new work patterns?
  • Do managers and teams have the skills and tools needed to flexibly work with strategic, coordinated intention?
  • Do individuals have the skills and tools they need to flexibly fit their work and life together in a way that considers their needs and the needs of the business?

“The office” is a location. It’s ONE enabler of work, and will continue to play an important, albeit reimagined, role, but it’s not the work itself.

 

Optimizing flexibility to achieve high levels of performance and well-being requires three stages that leaders, managers, and employees need to be trained to execute:

Stage 1 – Define: Use of a CONSISTENT PROCESS (not a policy) to define the unique “how, when, and where” guardrails within which the organization as a whole and individual teams will operate based on the work that needs to get done.

Stage 2 – Operate: Actively plan and coordinate the work, day-to-day, within those flexible operating guardrails.

Stage 3 – Review and Recalibrate: Evolve the guardrails and flexible way of operating as realities and needs change. Because flexibility is never “done.” It’s a continuous loop of improvement and innovation.

More on the role of the office and occupancy rates

Just as work has as fundamentally changed since the start of the pandemic, so has the role of the office. This was a topic I explored with Ryan Anderson, VP Global Research and Insights at MillerKnoll on a recent “Looking Forward” podcast episode (link includes audio and transcript links). Give it a listen or a read if you haven’t yet.

Understandably so, there’s a lot of interest in office occupancy data. But we must remember, pre-pandemic office occupancy was not 100%. Check out my twitter feed for this interesting exchange as Nick Bloom and I try to understand the 100% occupancy on the ‘Y” axis of the often-cited Kastle occupancy barometer:

Our Flex+Strategy Group research found that as far back as nearly a decade ago, one-third of full-time U.S. employees did most of their work from a remote location other than their employers’ office. This aligns with average pre-COVID occupancy rates that ranged between 60%-70% (we have confirmed this pre-pandemic rate with reputable commercial real estate sources).

While occupancy data is important and helpful, if organizations continue to look to it as a scorecard of who’s winning and losing the RTO tug of war, they’ll remain stuck where they are – trying to force an outdated work style that was disappearing even before the pandemic and is no longer valued or understood by most employees.

Hopefully, now that there’s more clarity about the “where” we work, we can focus on:

  • What it will take to work (and live) across workplaces, space AND time successfully and flexibly, and
  • How to make it a win for the business and employees?

The good news is there is answer, and it lies beyond “where.”


In the Boardroom and Why Values are Foundational to High Performance Flexibility

Produced by BDO’s Center for Corporate Governance, BDO in the Boardroom is a podcast for board of directors and those charged with governance. I joined Amy Rojik, Managing Partner, Corporate Governance, on a recent episode to address whether today’s directors truly comprehend the new reality of work and how it’s fundamentally changed.

We discussed why the successful execution of high performance flexibility requires full C-suite participation, organization-wide training, and a willingness to experiment. I shared how the boards and leadership teams that have instilled a strong set of core values and a culture of innovation have more success evolving and optimizing the flexible way their organization operates. 
 
When organizations align their work with their values and live those values, they’re leading with what they need to do. They lead with the work first and in service of the work, then they determine how, when, and where they do that best. Using your office building is not a value, but it can certainly enable connection and culture – those are values. (Yep — Return to office mandates, I’m talking to you.)
 
Whether it’s supporting colleagues or serving customers or communities, when work and values align, that’s what increases productivity and moves organizations forward.
 
Listen to the full BDO In the Boardroom episode. And for a refresher and further insights into why flexibility matters to corporate boards and governance execs, look to my July 26 newsletter on the topic.
 
A bit about my relationship with BDO. The professional services firm is a long-term Flex+Strategy Group client. High performance flexibility serves as a critical business driver for the firm, which continues to take its flexible work strategy to the next level as an integral part of its culture and operations.  
 
“Together, We Thrive” was the theme of their recent partner meeting where I gave a keynote that included stories and insights from the three partners — Meredith Pilaro, Ayoub Sunna, and Daniel Kramer — who champion the national effort. (That’s us illuminated by the backstage lights after we presented.)

The keynote served as a force multiplier kick-off. The goal was to ensure the firm’s 800 partners are poised to lead from a shared understanding and consistent approach as they continue to optimize how, when, and where their offices and teams are working to meet emerging employee and client needs.

This leveling-up execution includes the launch of a new Flex Success training series to provide professionals at all levels the skills and tools to partner with each other to define and execute the flexibility that will work for the unique needs of the firm and its employees. 
 
What is your organization doing to involve, engage and prepare every level for flex success and how can we help? Let me know.


Why Flexibility Matters to Corporate Boards and Governance Execs

As oversight of talent and human capital issues become front and center for corporate boards, I joined KPMG Board Leadership Center’s (BLC) Spring Directors Roundtable as a panelist for a discussion about “What workers want – Understanding the new employee/employer dynamic.” We explored the factors driving employees’ needs and expectations—from personal well-being and work-life fit to alignment with the company’s purpose.

Moderated by KMPG BLC Senior Advisor Stephen L. Brown, the panel also included Columbia Business School’s Todd Jick. Todd is the Reuben Mark Faculty Director of Organizational Character and Leadership and a former independent director of Claire’s Stores, Inc. Our other panelist was Eskalera co-founder and CEO Dane E. Holmes, who is also an independent director of KKR & Co., Inc. and Goldman Sachs’ former global head of human capital management.


We all agreed regardless of how directors structure their oversight of human capital management and talent strategy, it should be part of every board discussion. And as I noted, that includes work flexibility.

When people say, “I want flexibility,” they really want to be able to have some control over how, when, and where they’re going to do their jobs best. That means flexibility is not an HR policy or program that sits outside of the business. But unfortunately, that’s why a lot of organizations are stuck.

Why does this matter now and going forward? Because institutional investors and regulators are increasingly focused on ESG and human-capital metrics, all of which are directly impacted in some way by flexibility in how, when, and where we work.

Read more about our Spring Directors Roundtable in this Insight recap that was published in the July edition of KMPG’s Directors Quarterly publication and is also available at the KMPG Board Leadership Center. Additionally, you can watch webcast replay of the full Roundtable.

Flexibility was also on the agenda at the recent Society for Corporate Governance National Conference where I was a panelist for the general session, “The Modern Workplace” along with Randy Clark, CAO of Sempra Infrastructure, Geralyn Ritter, Head of External Affairs and ESG at Organon, and Adam Kokas, EVP and General Counsel of Atlas Air. We all agreed whether it’s cybersecurity to DEI to pending SEC rules regarding human capital metrics, the flexibility at the core of the modern workplace impacts a variety of management and corporate governance issues.

Lastly, the update of a popular corporate finance textbook reinforces the role strategies such as work flexibility will play in the operational, cultural, and financial success of organizations. The 14th edition of Principles of Corporate Finance (Brealey, Myers, Allen, Edmans) was released earlier this month.

Read more of my thoughts about this.

The days of flexibility as the sole responsibility of HR and thought of as nothing more than an employee perk or policy are long gone. If flexibility isn’t an all-C-suites hands-on-deck issue at your organization, you’re at risk.


Why “hybrid” is not working

Why “hybrid” is not working:

–It leads with the wrong question “how many days in the office,” instead of “what do we need to do?” and THEN thinking through “where” that work is done best.

–But “what do we need to do” can’t just focus on the core tasks of people’s jobs because in many cases the argument can be made those tasks were done pretty well remotely. And the “standoff” continues. You need to elevate the analysis to include cultural and strategic priorities, that often do benefit from a purposefully-executed combination of in person and remote work.

–“Hybrid” is too focused on the “where” of work and that focus is usually between the binary “onsite in the office or work from home.” There are also client sites, conferences, restaurants, and co-working spaces. All enabling different work in different ways that need to be considered.

–Executing the flexible “next” of work is not going to happen via a policy, memo from the CEO or an HR webinar.

COVID disrupted the traditional, place-based work model at the foundation. Work”place” is now ONE enabler of work, not THE enabler.

That means the entire organization–not just HR–engaging in a process that puts all of the pieces back together.  Working together to fundamentally reimagine how, when and where your organization flexibly operates, with strategic intention, to achieve its talent, operational and performance goals.

This is the work and it’s ultimately where every organization that wants to thrive post-COVID is going to have to go. Until then, we will continue to read articles like this…hybrid isn’t working, because it’s trying to answer the wrong question.

 


Cybersecurity, Technology and Flexible Work

Recently, I was a guest on CyberTheory’s “Cybersecurity Unplugged” podcast where I shared my perspectives on “How to Approach the Reality of Remote Work,” including:

  • How we’re still unwinding the ramifications of the pandemic’s almost overnight shift to remote work and the rapid adoption of new technology most of us had not been using
  • How the reintegration of the hybrid workforce is placing pressure on employees and how employers can stem the wave of resignations
  • Security vulnerabilities and other technology concerns remote work has created

CyberTheory is a cybersecurity advisory firm. And while we certainly chatted about cybersecurity and technology, we discussed several current leadership and work issues.

Here’s a few highlights from our conversation:

  • We have not come to terms with the fundamental shift and change in how we work. I’m seeing too much “slap a little remote work” around the traditional, placed-based work model. That’s not sustainable. We’ve worked too differently for nearly two years now to go back.
  • Employees want to know why – why am I doing this? Why am I being asked to return to the office. Lots of three days onsite policies. But with no rhyme or reason why. Employees show up, but then they’re doing Zoom calls they could have done remotely from home. Days are driving the mandates instead of the work. There’s no planning, no coordination, no matching the tasks – the work — to the place.
  • We can’t rely on HR alone to lead flexible work. We need HR at the table with the execs from tech, facilities and EHS. Because flexible work is not a policy, it’s an operating model. It’s ongoing change that encompasses people, place, space, technology, process and pace.
  • Right now, we should optimize and experiment with new and flexible ways of working. Because we’re in dynamic transition period where we’re dialing up and dialing down the amount of onsite work. But that’s just one feature of a flexible operating model. That’s not a bug! It’s a benefit of flexible work, recalibrating, scaling up, scaling down as needed.
  • Specific to technology: The pandemic and the need to work flexibly accelerated the adoption of technology as well as emerging pre-pandemic technology and cybersecurity issues. Now is the time to build consistency around who uses what technology when, how and why. That includes addressing data security and training everyone as a defender.

Listen to our full 30-minute conversation or read a transcript here.


Top 2022 Flexible Work Resolutions for Leaders

Welcome to 2022!  The year I believe leaders, line managers, teams and individual employees have the opportunity to come together and ask:

  • “What’s best about the way we worked then, pre-pandemic?”
  • “What’s best about the way we’ve been working now?”
  • “What’s the best way we can work next?”

Then execute that vision of high performance flexibility in a culture of trust and shared leadership.

As those of you who follow our work know, not only is it possible, but we’ve helped make it happen many times, before COVID and over the past almost two years since the pandemic began.

In the new year, we are excited to help others do the same by simplifying the system of change and accelerating the learning curve to achieve strategic, flexible work success!

To get the process started, here are my Top 2022 Flexible Work Resolutions for Leaders:

1. Remember Flexibility is Not New, Just Scaled. 2022 will likely be the year we move beyond crisis-driven flexibility to optimize where, when and how organizations operate going forward.  The good news is there’s a roadmap to follow, because high performance flexibility is not new.  Leaders and organizations, before and during the pandemic, have reimagined the way their organizations and people can operate. To simplify and accelerate your organization’s transformation process, look to their path for guidance. Don’t reinvent the wheel.

2. Flexibility Must Work for People and the Business. Flexibility is NOT a one-size-fits-all policy, program or initiative. High performance flexibility is a process-based way of operating.  It involves the way people plan, coordinate and execute the delivery of goods and services, while managing their lives.  That requires giving teams and individual employees the trust and freedom to answer the question “What do WE need to do, and where, when and how do WE do it best?” guided by flexible work guardrails they’ve set together.

3. It’s Not Just WHERE We Work, but HOW and WHEN.  If high performance flexibility is a digitally-enabled way of operating across workplaces, spaces and time, then 2022 is the year we need to move beyond “hybrid” to describe the model we are trying to achieve. The pandemic taught us work is not organized around “where we go,” but “what we do.” Once the “what” is defined, then “where, when and how do we do that work best” naturally follows. While “place” is still an important enabler of work, “hybrid” is too place-based. A flexible operating model also encompasses HOW we use technology to communicate and collaborate, WHEN we work and the pace at which we perform.  It’s not just where, but also when and how.

4. Give Managers, Teams AND People the Skills and Tools to Optimize Flexibility.  Gaps emerged during the pandemic—people reported they “love the flexibility” but “struggle with boundaries around their work and life.” Employees say their productivity has been the “same or higher” while managers aren’t so sure.  Not surprising because flexibility was executed, practically overnight, in response to a crisis.  There was no time to plan or introduce the skills and tools leaders, teams and individuals needed to efficiently and effectively execute work, and manage life, in a flexible, dynamic way. Train managers, teams and individuals and let them actively experiment with the new skills and tools they need to succeed working flexibly.

5.  Align Leadership Behind “What is High Performance Flexibility and Why It Matters” Then Cascade. To achieve the other four Flexible Work Resolutions in 2022, leadership at all levels must first be able to answer these three questions: What is high performance flexibility in our organization? What does it look like in action?  Why does it matter?  Then ensure the “what” and “why” they define doesn’t get stuck at the top. Cascade it throughout the organization so everyone is aligned–managers, teams and individuals—as they reimagine and optimize how, when and where they work in 2022.


Was it ever OK to go camera off?

I’m consistently asked this question: how do we communicate most effectively as we transition to working across different onsite and remote workplaces and spaces?

Many of the default communication norms adopted during the crisis-driven shift to remote work no longer serve us. They need to be reviewed and, possibly, revised.

Thank you to ROY MAURER for asking me to share my thoughts on virtual meetings, video conferencing and the need to intentionally clarify norms like, “cameras on or cameras off?”

Full article can be accessed here


It’s Not Too Late: How to Rapidly Switch to a Remote and Flexible Workplace

Monday morning we woke up to additional states and cities announcing “shelter in place” and “stay home” mandates. That means this week even more organizations and employees find themselves working remotely and flexibly for the first time.

It’s not too late to take action. Leaders still have time to help their organizations make the remote and flexible workplace pivot. And, in doing so, maintain a level of operating continuity without unnecessarily jeopardizing their employees’ health during the evolving new normal of the coronavirus crisis.

They also avoid the risk of having to scramble at the last minute if forced to completely shut down in-person, non-essential operations at some point.

Here are ten basic, get-started steps to rapidly transition your organization. These steps are taken from four more comprehensive posts listed below if you want more details.

I also discussed five of the steps in this episode of the Disrupt Yourself podcast (episode and transcript) with disruption expert, Whitney Johnson.

To get started:

Map out Jobs and Tasks. Note which roles and duties:

1) Can be done, even partially, remotely,

2) Cannot be done, even somewhat, remotely, and

3) Not sure (experiment with these by starting remotely).

Divide Non-Remote Employees into A and B Teams: For jobs that cannot be done even partially remotely, AND if you are not under a “shelter-in-place” or “stay home” mandate yet, divide employees deemed ESSENTIAL to onsite operations into A and B teams.Spread parents across “A and B” teams and be creative with schedules to allow them to coordinate childcare.

Prioritize Use of Available IT Hardware and Software. Start with the tech most people know and can easily use. Keep it simple. Wait to explore adopting any new technology solutions until later.

Set up a Communications Protocol. Clarify how different constituents will communicate and when. Don’t be afraid to “interrupt” each other. Assume everyone is “working” unless otherwise indicated.

Redirect Work: Identify tasks/meetings that can be handled virtually without disruption and execute as many details as possible. Experiment where you aren’t sure.

Optimize Work: Fill extra time and capacity that opens up with important, backburner projects that never seemed to get done before (e.g. manuals updated, market research conducted, client lists reviewed), but can be completed virtually.

Continually Prioritize and Check-in (Even If It Feels Like Micro-Managing): Set a schedule for formal one-on-one and team updates. During these check-ins, continually review and prioritize what matters. Leave space for some personal community-building.

Shift Your Productivity Mindset: This is not business as usual. It’s an immediate crisis with very real challenges to address. Adjust your productivity expectations accordingly. SOME productivity is better than NO productivity right now. Keep the flywheel going and people contributing as much as possible especially as everyone gets their bearings in this new temporary normal.

Accept Imperfect Remote Workspaces and Practices: Encourage people to be accessible and responsive during this crisis transition, even with dogs, kids, and roommates in the background.

Capture Real-time Learning and Insights: Each week, check-in and capture what’s happening. These insights can guide the ongoing reimagining of how, when and where work can be done through each phase of the crisis and beyond.

More details regarding the above steps can be found in the following posts:

What’s Your Company’s Remote Work Plan? (HBR)

Tips for Leading Organizations New to Remote and Flexible Work (LinkedIn)

How to Work and Take Care of 32 Million Children (LinkedIn)

A/B Teams: Flexible Schedules and Locations When Remote Work Isn’t an Option (LinkedIn)


How to Work and Take Care of 32 Million Children

Parents across the U.S. and their employers woke up this morning with a new and daunting reality — how to work, care for and educate the estimated 32 million children who may be home from school for the foreseeable future. Here are a few tips to help leaders and parents partner to flexibly fit work, life, school, and family together:

Shift Your Productivity Mindset:  The goal is not to maintain pre-coronavirus levels of productivity. It’s about keeping everyone safe and healthy while maintaining as much productivity as possible as we all adapt to this new, ever-changing normal. The key is to be as creative and supportive as possible. If there was ever a moment to not let the perfect be the enemy of the good, now is that time. Keep repeating: SOME productivity is better than NO productivity.

Talk Honestly and Be Patient:  Typically, bosses and employees don’t want or need to get into the nitty-gritty of how someone is going to work and take care of their kids. But these are not typical times. Keep the lines of communication open especially as parents settle into some sort of new routine with caregiving and home instruction. Managers, a little bit of extra support and understanding may be the difference between a worker who finds a way to keep contributing and one who throws up their hands and says, “I can’t do this.”

Expect and Embrace Imperfect Remote Workspaces: Effective remote working usually requires a separate workspace with limited disruptions from children, pets, and partners. That is an unrealistic and unnecessary expectation during this period when employees and kids were sent home to remote work and learn with little time to plan. The goal now is for people to feel they can be as responsive and accessible as possible, even if the environment is not absolutely perfect. If everyone—bosses, coworkers, and customers–can forgive a screaming child, barking dog, or the hum of a video game in the background, it will allow everyone to sustain a higher level of communication that would otherwise stop.

Spread Parents Across “A and B” Teams and Be Creative with Schedules:  For jobs that have certain tasks that cannot be done remotely, companies have started to use an “A and B Team” system to limit the number of people together in the same physical space. For those that have or are planning to do so, consider the following:

  • Assign employees who are parents evenly on both teams
  • Allow parents to stagger their start and stop times to coordinate care with partners and other support resources. Allow them to arrive and leave earlier or arrive and leave later as needed.

Hire College Students Available to Help: With two daughters sent home from college for online classes, I know there are millions of higher ed students that will have plenty of time in between classes for activities requiring limited social interaction. Now, there are public safety caveats given current CDC guidelines regarding social distancing. That’s why I say “will have” time. Many college students will not go back to school until fall. Use your judgment and listen to the public health authorities; however, after the period of strict social distancing and personal quarantine periods have passed, we will have millions of smart, motivated young people who could not only help care for kids while parents work but could also lead home instruction.

We have entered an unprecedented work and life reality. By shifting mindsets, changing expectations and re-imagining how, when and where work is done, we can mitigate the coronavirus, care for and educate our kids and stay open for business.

If you are a leader, how are you partnering with your working parent employees? If you are a working parent, what has been your experience so far? What’s worked and what hasn’t? What would help you?