Let’s Get Real Episode 4: Flexible People, Places, and Schedules

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:

  • Definitions of hybrid, flexibility when there’s no standard to follow
  • Employment law on working hours
  • Standardizing Human Resources workplace policies
  • What HR and companies need to “catch up” on

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 super excited to be sharing conversational musings about current events and how we envision the ever-changing world of work. I’m 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.

Sandra

Hey Judy, hey Chris, welcome.

Judy

Hi Sandra.

Chris

Hi Sandra, thanks for bringing us on today.

Sandra

There really is no standard in corporate real estate. Everybody defines it differently. There’s a lot of gray areas where the definitions are crossing into each other.

Using the example of hybrid, what does hybrid mean? People have said hybrid is a combination of working in the office or working from home. It’s the physical split between two different types of spaces. When I think about hybrid, I equate it to the electric vehicle. You have gas or electric, and you couldn’t inadvertently switch between the two on the fly. When I’m in the office, I might be working in a face-to-face scenario because there’s other people in the office. But then I might also be in a face- to-virtual combination, working with people that are not in the office. The difference is when I’m working from home, I don’t have the option of being able to switch to a face-to-face because I’m completely virtual. To me, that’s how I define hybrid.

It was interesting, some of the comments that I got on that post about how different companies define those different terms—people are using the same terms, but they mean very different things to different companies. Chris, have you encountered anything like that in your space?

Chris

In my perspective as an anthropologist who’s stepping into workplace, there isn’t really a definite meaning of what hybrid is. Hybrid is a buzz word that came to fruition around July and August. I haven’t seen much of a definition of what hybrid is and what’s included in hybrid. Hybrid involves distributed work too. Sometimes it’s just seen as being virtual and physical. Hybrid could involve co-working spaces in addition to home and in addition to a central office. It could just be a bunch of distributed offices or a central office. And elsewhere it could be a virtual reality, or could be augmented reality. Hybrid is essentially another word for a combination of stuff.

I think what’s exciting about it is that it points the way towards using an organizations context to define what the future workplace can look like. I think that’s where the possibility goes. I think that trying to make a hard and fast definition of what hybrid is, in this case, may actually limit the possibilities of what could be done.

Sandra

The other one that I thought was interesting is the term “flexibility”. Flexibility, again, is a very grey area because it means so many different things to different people. Some people think about it from a space perspective, some people think about it, similar to your point, Chris, as the use of multiple types of spaces. There’s the ownership component of, “I’m flexible, but I’m only flexible within the confines of my portfolio,” or “I’m flexible within a certain city or certain areas”. There’s the degree of flexibility, but also how the hours play into flexibility as well.

Actually, interestingly enough, this past week I’ve seen a few articles come up about the four-day work week. From what I gathered, it’s a rotational four days, and the objective is to manage and minimize that “mid-week mountain”, as we often refer to it in corporate real estate, where you’ve got everybody coming in on Wednesday and then you have the earlier and later parts of the week where nobody comes into the office, or fewer people come into the office. It’s almost like you’re engineering the occupancy to some extent, in terms of who should be in the office and when.

But I’m not sure that’s the solution when you think about why people are coming in the office in the first place. You can’t engineer serendipitous communication, conversation, collisions, and those types of things, so it seems a little bit strange to me that the four-day work week is a consideration to try to address that. And what does that actually mean? Is it 10 hours a day, four days a week? How do work hours play into that as well? Have you heard anything along those lines, Judy?

Judy

I’ve been reading the same articles as you have, but if we go back to your first question around flexibility: I think that term has to be defined by each business itself, because it’s an umbrella term. Each company can decide what “flexible” means to them, and then from there all this other stuff falls out from it. So, let’s talk about flexibility, what does that really mean? Does it mean remote work, hybrid work, on-site work? Does it mean flexibility in hours, flexibility in workspaces, offices? I think that’s where a lot of companies should start.

As to your question around this four-day work week, I think, again, companies have this flexibility to decide how their workers can best meet their new work environment, whatever they deem that to be. Maybe some people can work a four-day work week, or a four day-work week with reduced hours. As an aside, when we talk about employment law, when we start adjusting the hours in a day, companies sometimes have to apply for special permits through the HRD (Human Resources Development), so they have to be mindful of that. I think flexibility is where people really need to start.

It’s interesting, I’ve been watching this going on within the HR circle and I’m beginning to see HR workplace policies starting to be developed around exactly what you’re talking about. Companies are getting at this now—they’re trying to standardize these things so people don’t get caught in that. I think we’re all catching up as all of this is unfolding.  We’re in uncharted territory, so companies have to figure this out.

Sandra

But do you think that there has to be some sort of control or standardization or regulation around how things get done? Or do you foresee in the future that people can be more autonomous in making those decisions, not based on a policy of whether you behave a certain way or you don’t? What are your thoughts there? Pre-pandemic, there were a lot of companies who had policies on certain things, but they didn’t really mean anything. You knew that they were there, but they didn’t really mean anything to the users, because the behaviour still either happened or didn’t happen. It’s interesting that the business element is interjecting themselves into an experiment that ran wild for a year and a bit, and the question now is, is that going to mess things up?

Judy

I think when people get hired on, they’re hired on to work a standardized amount of hours to get paid a certain amount of pay. Let’s say your work week is a 37.5-hour work week. Does it have to be exactly from 9:00 till 5:00 every day? No. This is where we see this word “flexibility” coming in. We talked about autonomy and empowerment, and can organisations now empower people and hold them accountable—who cares when you get your 37.5 hours a week done? You could do it any way you want, as long as it’s done, because that’s what you get paid for, as an example. That’s an empowered organization and a flexible organization.

I think there are already some companies who are embracing that. I can’t think of who it was who said, “We’ve always operated that way. When we hire somebody, we trust in the fact that they’re going to get their work done. We don’t care where or when, we hire them for their knowledge and expertise. It’s their accountability to get things done.”

Sandra

In terms of just general business decision-making, I’m thinking about companies that I’ve worked with in the past that had that flexibility component. There was still an element of core hours where there was an expectation that at minimum you have to be available, so that if somebody was either trying to reach you either via email or text, you were readily available to respond. But in an asynchronous environment, that accountability would be on the person, to your point, Judy, to know what your accountabilities are. What are the things you need to do and how you choose to do them should be a decision that you ultimately make.

For example, if you’re part of a project and you know your team is reaching out to you during those core hours because the expectation is that you would be available, then so be it. The alternative would the person who says, “I need to work more asynchronously than the rest of my team,” then you make arrangements or make it known to your team that the best time to reach you would be at such and such a time. So if, in the organization, there are core hours of 10 to 2 or 11 to 3 and that doesn’t work for you, you then take the responsibility within the team to say, “this is the time that works best for me”. That way everybody is clear on what happens when.

From an experience point of view, when there are teams working and collaborating together, it’s easier to do in the office. Whereas now, there are not only people either working from the office or working away from the office, but different time schedules also play into it, which creates further complexity.

Chris

Who has flexibility, and who is given flexibility? How do you decide who’s given it and who isn’t? In some companies, at least before the pandemic, some people were given the choice to work remotely or not. But others might not be able to. Was that because of their seniority, or because of their role? Going forward, companies will also have to figure out who gets the privilege of being flexible and what that flexibility means. Does it just mean you can work wherever you want? Does it mean you can work when and where you want? Does it mean it work when and where you want, but if your manager messages you, you have to respond absolutely immediately? What kind of controls are in place?

Flexibility can mean people and policies, but it can also mean space—how flexible the leasing is. If the leasing terms are flexible (12 months or monthly), that means that there’s perhaps more potential for the workplace itself to evolve as a sort of product or service that changes depending on what’s needed. That’s the potential of a flexible lease. What if the lease is more conventional, say five years, or 12? When people talk about flexibility, is it flexibility in space or is it flexibility in people—but what is it that they care about? I hear both sometimes, and it seems like they’re synonymous, when actually “flexibility” could be referring perhaps to the space rather than the people.

Judy

When we have this conversation, there’s two sides to this equation. There’s a business side to this equation—what does flexibility mean to the business? They have to serve the customer at the end of the day, so they have to ensure that that need is being met. Customers have to be taken into the equation as well. They talk about flexibility, flexibility of workspace, flexibility of policies, flexibility of hours, flexibility of jobs (meaning the work that somebody does).

Then, on the other side, you have the people. There may be a group of people who want more flexibility. There may be a group of people who want to be in the office more, or maybe somebody wants to do both. So, there’s two sides of this equation. On one side, the business has to figure out what flexibility means to it and what it can actually enable to ensure sustainability going forward. As much as these people may want this, can the business accommodate it?

Sandra

Well, thank you very much to both of you, I really enjoyed this conversation. I think there’s a lot more 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.