Let’s Get Real Episode 2: Finding Connection in the Workplace

Discussions on the Workplace and Corporate Real Estate Podcast

Written by Sandra Panara, Director of Workspace Insights

Some of the highlights of the show include:

  • The role of innovation and connectedness
  • Talent attraction and retention
  • Effectiveness of people and productivity
  • Weak ties and strong ties: social cohesion, knowledge transfer, trust and social capital
  • Work ecosystems
  • Connections, serendipity and the purpose of place
  • Serendipity as a design industry term vs. old school water cooler connections

If you liked today’s show, check out more episodes of the Let’s Get Real Podcast! This podcast is available on iTunes, Spotify and Google Podcasts.

Transcript: 

Sandra

Hey everyone! Welcome to Let’s Get Real with Sandra and Friends, a workplace consortium podcast brought to you by Relogix. I’m excited to be sharing conversational musings about current events and how we envision the ever-changing world of work.

I am Sandra Panara, Director of Workplace Insights at Relogix. With 25 years of hands-on experience, I help value engineer global workplace portfolios and employee experiences by aligning workplace analytics with corporate real estate needs.

If you have any questions or comments or any suggestions for future podcasts, please drop me a line at podcast@relogix.com.

Judy

Hi everyone, good morning, good afternoon, good evening, wherever you are. My name is Judy Holcomb-Williams, I’m an advisor, consultant, and executive life coach providing support for individuals, teams, and organisations to reach the next level of success and thrive through reinvention. I’ve spent the last 20+ years of my career as an HR executive and change leader. Recently I have been facilitating and participating in discussions around the future of work.

Chris

My name is Chris, I’m an applied anthropologist. I’m originally from the Richmond, VA area, but by weird twist of fate ended up going to Durham University in the UK to do a PhD in anthropology where I focused on public space and how culture forms within spaces.

After my PhD, which I finished in 2017, I went to Hungary, where I worked remotely for a start-up called Javelin, which focused on building trust and social cohesion in cities. After year and a half, I then returned to the US in January 2020, and that’s where I began to explore the workplace and how culture forms within workplaces.

Recently, I’ve been participating in various workplace evolutionary events, and I’ve been articulating how applied anthropology contributes to workplace strategy and design and that’s why I sometimes refer to myself as a workplace anthropologist.

Right now, I am working with a workplace management software company called Facility Quest to help them understand what types of data need strategies going forward. I’m also working with a commercial real estate organization to look at well being in the workplace and how we can create regenerative workplaces. Thanks a lot for bringing me into the panel and I look forward to future discussions.

Sandra

Judy, it’s interesting that you talk about innovation because this is something that I’ve heard as of late and it’s definitely a topic of conversation around the requirement for people to be in the offices for innovation.

But if you take a step back and think about the majority of companies and specifically about innovation, is that more of a buzzword as an excuse to bring people back into the office? Or is there real innovation happening? Because if you think about the newer companies – so the tech startups, the companies that don’t have high dependency on physical space – they’re innovating. And they’re really successful in what they do and have a minimal dependency on physical space to do that. So, it challenges that whole idea of the physical proximity to be innovative.

Judy

As I said, there’s lots of research going on out there, and they’re showing that these weak ties – when people are virtual – the weak tie, that connectedness, that ability to just reach over and talk to somebody is really critically important when they’re talking about knowledge sharing jobs, or innovative or jobs that include a lot of innovation within their responsibilities.

For example, IBM is pulling people back in. Because they saw their productivity decreasing as they moved everybody remote. They’ve been slowly pulling people back into an onsite environment so they could see a more effective work environment that would allow these people to innovate and knowledge share and hopefully their productivity would go back up again.

Sandra

Thinking about companies that are considering bringing flexibility into their future of work planning. You have these companies that are saying “No, we’re going to go back to the way we used to be because of productivity,” or whatever. “We want our people to come back into the office 100%.” How effective or how successful do you think those companies would be in 2-3 years time from now when flexibility becomes more mainstream?

Do you think that they would be behind the 8 ball because they haven’t fully adapted? They’re still stuck in their ways of how they think about work today because they think that is the better way to approach it and therefore would be further behind when everybody else is further ahead in flexibility.

Judy

Like looking into a crystal ball, right?

Sandra

Well, there’s an element of understanding who you are as an organization. As we said at the beginning, flexibility doesn’t necessarily mean work from home or work from anywhere or whatever term it is that you want to use. It could be people are returning back to the office, but potentially not working the way that they were working before. Some understanding of OK, well, what’s changed?

But I still think that if other companies are moving in the flexible working direction outside of the office, companies who are not adapting will face some backlash. They’re going to have a harder time attracting and retaining staff because they can go work at another company and get the flexibility. Do you think that’s going to be problematic when it comes to attraction and retention?

Judy

I’m going to say no, because I think there’s many factors that go into why somebody goes and works at a certain organization. So, we think about culture. We think about mentoring. We think about opportunity. We think about all these number of factors. I think each company really has to reflect on what’s going to be best for them.

And I think quite honestly, there is a short-term solution to be dealing with what we’re seeing right now and in regards to ensuring the well being of our people. I think a lot of companies are taking a very serious thing into consideration: the psychological well being of our employees, making them feel safe.

They have this very flexible arrangement going on right now, but I think there will be a midterm solution where some companies may skip the midterm, but some companies may move into a midterm solution where we see this hybrid, co-locate, still testing the water, testing things out.

I think there will be a long-term solution. Once we’ve seen the pandemic has moved on and we’re not dealing with that, I think companies will really look again at working arrangements from a long-term perspective. A smart business would be doing that planning today, would be really thinking to themselves, “What makes sense for us from a business perspective and what makes sense for our people?”

And I go back to that word again, “effectiveness.” What’s going to have our employees be the most effective that they can be because, as we know, the more effective, engaged employees you have, the more sustainable your business should be. I think businesses should be really looking from these two points of view: what’s good for the business and what’s good for the people.

Sandra

So, when you talk about effectiveness, I’m assuming that you’re referring to productivity, right?

Judy

Could be one factor.

Sandra

What other factors might be?

Judy

Maybe your job needs to be very interactive with other facets of the organization. Could be something around that, off the top of my head. I think each company has to – I’m sorry it sounds like a business answer – but I think each company has to define what effectiveness means to means to them. So yeah, I think they have to define that themselves. Cause everybody does something different.

Chris, what do you think?

Chris

Well, just to go back to what you were talking about earlier about weak tires and strong ties. From an anthropological standpoint, a tie is a connection between one person or another within a network, so you’re really talking about social cohesion.

A weak tie is good for knowledge transfer. It’s good for connecting groups of people who might otherwise be separated. A weak tie is like a bridge, in a way. It’s the person you don’t really communicate with that much or the type of person you don’t really collaborate with that much. They’re not necessarily in your department, they’re not necessarily in your team, but they’re someone you see every now and then, like maybe in a cafeteria or maybe more formally in a meeting occasionally once a month. You kind of have a connection with them, but you don’t really. But if you had a problem you needed to solve, they could reach out to you, and vice versa.

A strong tie is more about support. It’s more about these are the people you collaborate a lot with, and these are people you interact with a lot. Within a work setting, they’re your immediate team. Overall, they could be your family members or your close friends and associates. That’s where the interaction and the exchanges are more frequent and in social science these relationships are often built is through exchanges and interactions. The ways that you interact with someone else. You might send, not just send a message, but you might send an invitation to join a meeting to collaborate with someone and they may do the same to you, and that’s the exchange.

To connect back to the current topic, if we’re talking about the work situations, or to use the phrase “the work ecosystems” that are being built. The hybrid ones where you might go into an office, you might go into a coworking space and then the central office too. And then you might be at home for some of the rest of the time. How do you sustain a network across all of that?

I think that’s one of the types of things that businesses should consider as well. It’s great to have everyone be able to work wherever suits them, it’s great to have that flexibility. It’s just also a matter of having that infrastructure in place. What kind of rituals or what kinds of platforms will you use? If you’re not connecting with each other every day in the office, then what is going to take the place? What’s going to take the place of the supposedly spontaneous coffee meeting? What’s going to take the place of being able to go into a cafeteria or cafe and just find someone, the serendipitous interaction? What’s going to take place of those informal things that go into making the formal things work?

I remember even during the beginning of the pandemic, some of the earlier surveys that came out highlighted that collaborative work effectiveness was decreasing due to the remote work setting. But it’s really not necessarily whether the work gets done which is the issue. It’s more of the collaboration and more of – to use another social science word – the trust and social capital. How are those built?

I think that’s what’s key to me is really how do businesses, in order to create the environment that best suits them, figure out how did the people within the organization work and how do they collaborate? And how do they want the teams to be structured? It’s all about organizational design too. So, I think there are a lot of issues at play that organizations will need to consider.

Sandra

What’s interesting too is, when you talk about hybrid and all of these challenges in terms of who’s going to be working in the office, who’s going to be working out of the office and just the concept of hybrid working even through the designation of who is a flexible worker and who isn’t, I think it’s still going to create challenges. Because if you’re in this situation where you are going to allow certain people or say, “OK, these designated job functions can work out of the office and then another set of people will be working in the office.” The people that might be working in the office might– like that whole collaboration thing is completely lost in some regards because there still has to be virtual collaboration.

Unless you’re bringing everybody back into the office to sustain this serendipitous collaboration and meeting of the minds, as soon as you step into flexibility, the assumption is that there’s going to be virtual collaboration as part of your everyday experience, regardless of whether you’re in the office, everyday or not.

The other thing also is when you talk about serendipitous interactions, when I think of that, I’ve heard a couple of people say, you missed that element of the office. But the serendipitous component to me seems to be much more social than it is work related.  A lot of people do miss that social interaction of work, but is that really what the office represents? Is the ability to be social rather than the ability to actually get work done?

And I’m just questioning what is the purpose of place? When you think about all of the research and all of the feedback and the comments of people about their experience having been out of the office for a long period of time, there’s the social element as human beings that we’re missing tremendously. Which somehow gets rolled into being work, but it’s not really work, it’s a social aspect of work.

I’ve been working from home for over 25 years. I remember when I first started working from home, it was pretty lonely. It took about three to six months before I started getting into my groove, and even then, every once in awhile I would just pack up my stuff and go and work at the local coffee shop, just to hear people or just to see people. That was enough to be able to do that one or two days a week. Even if I didn’t interact with someone, or if I had a random conversation with someone that was enough for me from a social perspective, but it wasn’t because I needed to go into the office to do work. It was more just to be around people.

Well, thank you very much to both of you, I really enjoyed this conversation, I think there’s a lot more to be said, to be discussed and I look forward to future conversations with both of you. Thank you again for your time today.

About the Author

Sandra Panara, Director of Workspace Insights

Sandra has a proven deep and wide understanding of Global Corporate Real Estate and Technology that enables her to quickly connect the dots and apply non-traditional approaches to research and analytics to extract deep learning from the most unsuspecting places to drive strategy. She has 25 years of hands-on experience managing all things Corporate Real Estate including devising holistic Global Workplace Strategies for administrative offices that include workforce planning, location strategy, and design strategy. She has developed an appreciation for always challenging the status quo to provoke and encourage new ways of thinking that drive continuous improvement and innovation. Sandra believes square pegs can fit into round holes and that the real workplace ‘misfits’ are those environments that fail to adapt.