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Episode 170

Live from Sydney - Lessons for a Post-Pandemic World

with Nikki Greenberg of Real Estate of the Future
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Nikki Greenberg is the Founder of Real Estate of the Future and Women in PropTech where she is a futurist and thought-leader for the real estate industry. In June of 2021, Mike Petrusky hosted a webinar called “Live from Sydney: Lessons for a Post-Pandemic World” during which Nikki shared her experiences living both in New York City and Australia during the COVID-19 pandemic. What lessons can we learn from the vastly different course the virus has taken on both continents and how will the future workplace be impacted? Mike and Nikki discuss returning to offices, hybrid working, flexibility and the importance of empathetic leadership for all that may come for facility management and real estate leaders.

Ep. 170: Live From Sydney - Lessons for a Post-Pandemic World

Full Episode Transcript 

Mike: This is the Workplace Innovator Podcast where we talk with corporate real estate and facility management leaders about the industry trends and technologies impacting your organization. This show is powered by iOFFICE, the leading employee experience focused IWMS software that delivers real- time data and mobile tools to help you intelligently manage your digital workplace. Hey folks, and welcome to the show. This is Workplace Innovator Live, and we have a great conversation for you today. We have received a lot of interest in this topic, the topic being live from Sydney, lessons for a post pandemic world. And a return guest to the broadcast, folks, I'm very excited to welcome Nikki Greenberg to the show. Hello, Nikki. 

Nikki Greenberg: Hi, Mike, or rather, hi, DJ Mike. So glad to be back again, I know we had an absolute ball the time that we recorded before, and I'm glad that we get to kind of revisit some of the stuff that we talked about and see what was completely ludicrous and what's changed since. So, thanks so much for having me. 

Mike: Indeed, episode 133, folks, of the Workplace Innovator Podcast. If you did not hear Nikki's episode back in the fall of 2020, it was early fall probably, and Nikki, you were in New York City at the time, but now you are coming to us live from Sydney, Australia. Explain that to me. What has happened in the last seven, eight months? 

Nikki Greenberg: Yeah, that's right. So, I was in Manhattan in my beautiful West Village apartment through most of 2020, and really in the thick of it. I'm pretty sure when we spoke New York was ground zero for the pandemic, nobody knew what was happening, nobody knew what to do, was hardcore lockdowns, and it was scary, it was really scary. At the same time, the city had this real sense of solidarity, and the sense that if you believe in the city, you stay around in the city, and you support it. Summer was wonderful, the place opened up. But as we started getting towards the end of the year and things got a little bit colder, I figured," You know what? I really don't want to be locked up in my studio apartment through the middle of winter." So, I came back to Australia for what was meant to be three months that has actually ended up being six months. But look, it's been an interesting exercise because it's really showing that I could be a 100% digital nomad. My LinkedIn still says that I'm in New York, so most people just figured they talking to me in New York in the late afternoon. So, it's all possible. So when we get to talk about a hybrid work, I can give you some insights into that as well. 

Mike: That's why I asked you to come back, and this is the topic at hand because we wanted to learn some lessons. We know that Australia is in a different place than we are here in the US, North America more broadly, even Canada's in a different place, obviously Europe and across the globe, we have different experiences throughout the pandemic and you have this unique opportunity, you've been here and then you've relocated during the pandemic, and now you're living your business life in Sydney. So I didn't give you a proper introduction, but as it says on the slide here, you are well known in the industry. Many of my audience members already know you, again, from your past appearance, but as an innovation consultant and a real estate futurist, tell us what that means, and a little bit more about the work you do. 

Nikki Greenberg: Yeah, well, what I say is I'm a professional problem solver. And my professional background is working as an architect. So what I love to do is I love to design things, I love to create things. So I think designers were the original rebels, we don't believe that we need to do things in the same way. We create things, we look at an empty page and we go," Well, what can we create?" So essentially I apply that sense of design thinking to any kind of problem that anybody's having. And the time that we're having at the moment where everything's just been completely dismantled is prime time for people like me that are always going," Well, what's possible? What's next? What's working? What's not working? How else can we do these things?" Because I don't believe in following the rules if they don't suit us. So yeah. I mean, look, it's been fun working with my different clients and coming up with innovative solutions, or just hypothesizing on what's possible without actually knowing and testing it out. 

Mike: You are indeed a workplace innovator, Nikki, and that's why I'm so excited to have you here. Well, let's get into it, but before we do, we have to set our minds on the task at hand. We are in a very challenging time, but one with opportunity, I'm an optimistic guy, Nikki, and I like to inspire my audience. I often refer to quotes by this guy, he is one of my favorite marketing gurus. I know you know him as well, Seth Godin. And for today I dug up this quote because I think it really summarizes a lot of what I've been saying over the last couple of months at least when it comes to this challenge ahead and dealing with the human side of return to office, hybrid working, flexibility, all those things. And we are in a place now, it's been a year and a half, the middle of 2021. The pandemic's been going on for a long time, and no matter where you got to the point where you are in your feeling of comfort or your feeling of vulnerability, your thoughts about work and strategy and what you want to do, you're going to be kind of in a position now that we have to say, "This is the new normal for most of us." So Seth says this, he says, "We believe what we want to believe, and once we believe something, it becomes a self fulfilling truth." And Nikki, I want to get your thoughts on this because I have been talking a lot about confirmation bias and I call myself out in many ways by saying, hey, I've gotten to a point where I have thoughts, and a lot of my friends and colleagues in the workplace world have strong opinions, and then we look for those news reports, we look for the statistics, we look for the other strategists who agree with us, and then we dive deeper and deeper into our personal view. But I'm here to encourage us all to break out of that default setting or look at the other side, challenge ourselves, and not get blinded by our confirmation bias. What do you think about that as being a potential problem for us as we enter into a conversation like the one today? 

Nikki Greenberg: I hear you, 100%, and I think one of the things that I've definitely noticed, and I wouldn't be surprised if you've noticed it too, is that you see so many different surveys, for example, about whether people want to return to the office or that they want to work remote, and it's completely opposite views. So personally I've stopped reading those articles or those polls because it is, you can find whatever results you want. What I actually find more interesting is when you speak to individuals and you hear their stories about why a certain approach matters to them. And I find those anecdotes is actually what brings quite a lot of insight and humanity and empathy to why they have that preference. 

Mike: Great point. And you're right, it's something that I've seen as well. We've got surveys, I've given my opinion, but we haven't yet seen, at least here in my part of the world, Nikki, how people will put those beliefs into action. If they say they want to work X number of days in the office, and want a certain level of hybrid working or choice. Well, we actually do that in the real world, and I can't wait to hear your insight around what you've seen in Australia. I think it might be, in many ways, a preview of what's to come here in North America and other parts of the world. You also had a quote that you wanted to share with me, and why don't you go ahead and read this and tell me what you were thinking when this came to mind? 

Nikki Greenberg: So this quote, when Mike and I were chatting before we recorded the webinar, he said," Oh, can you come prepared with an inspirational quote?" And to be honest, I'm not really an inspirational quote kind of person. I do adopt, you could say, AKA steal great quotes from other people that I think say very smart things, but in terms of inspirational quotes, I'm not really an inspirational quote person. So I said to Mike I'll find an inspirational quote that encompasses him. And this is the one we've found." Always be disturbingly exciting." Which I feel completely embraces who he is. Now, this is the catch, I told Mike that there was going to be a catch. If anybody knows me, I love robots and I think that they are just the future that's coming, and there's so many exciting things happening. This quote actually came from a website called InspiroBot so it's a bot that created this quote, it wasn't a human being, it wasn't a guru, it was a robot just stringing some random words together, and yet crosstalk. 

Mike: Really? Wow, that is surprising. So did you put in characteristics, did you say," DJ Mike P likes to talk about music. He likes to sing badly. He likes Star Wars. He talks about Baby Yoda too much."? What did you put into came up with this kind of end result? 

Nikki Greenberg: No, that's too high brow, DJ Mike, honestly, that's too high brow. 

Mike: Okay. 

Nikki Greenberg: I basically pressed refresh when it came up with a quote about how trees have feelings, I figured that that wasn't quite you, and crosstalk. 

Mike: All right, well, I'll take it. Well, listen, it applies. I am excited about things. I excited to talk to people like you, Nikki, and talk about incredible topics like this. And I can be disturbing. When you hear me sing, maybe later in this very broadcast, you will be disturbed, folks. But it is something that I am passionate about and I really feel we have an opportunity as facility management, real estate, and workplace leaders of all kinds to have a real impact on our organizations and the world around us. And Nikki and I share a lot of the same philosophy, but we're going to challenge each other today, and we want you to be a part of this discussion as well as we talk about lessons in the world. And we're, again, deliberately being a little bit controversial by saying post pandemic, we want to look to the future, for some it may feel we're already in the post pandemic experience, I know here in the US we've got a different experience depending on where you are, what city you're in, how you have approached this pandemic, how you are in terms of your vaccination status, your comfort level, your level of vulnerability. 

 I kind of think that everybody is grooved a new habit and is in a place, and that we all need to consider each other. And as Nikki mentioned earlier, be empathetic. I think we need to be empathetic and understanding of each other. And that's what I try to do on this show is kind of give that more nuanced view of all these things. It's not about whether everybody's coming back after Labor Day this year, or everybody's going to remote work forever. We have to know that there is no one size fits all for our organizations, and as leaders, we can help lead people to be their best selves. So you may or may not realize that this is the state of the pandemic in my country and where I am, and then I want to compare it to where Nikki is right now in Sydney. It's a huge difference. We've been through four waves and it's down to where we are feeling pretty good, a good percentage of the population here is vaccinated, and a lot have returned to" normalize" in many ways, but not everyone, certainly. Nikki, dramatically so, the difference in Australia was a spike, and again, don't look at the raw numbers because it's just a different experience altogether, the population sizes are much different. And the fact that Australia is an island where you were able to shut off travel and keep yourselves pretty isolated there. But after last early fall, looks like it's been a pretty good situation, but you just want to do another lockdown in Sydney. So why is that, tell me just a little bit more of the strategy there you're experiencing now in Sydney, and compare it to what you went through in New York very briefly. 

Nikki Greenberg: So what Australia did to deal with the pandemic, which is quite different to the US, and with us being an island is that in around March last year, the government said," Listen, we are closing our borders, nobody's leaving, nobody's coming in, and if you want to return, you're going for two weeks in hotel quarantine at your own expense." And the country went into lockdown for about eight weeks to eliminate the virus, and then the country reopened. And for most of the time, for most of the country, life was like 2019, every so often there'd be a COVID case pop- up here and there, mostly in Melbourne. 

 But for most of the time, the country's been open, complete the open, which means that we've been able to experience essentially a post pandemic world and return to the office. Now, what's happened in the past week or so, which like when Mike approached me inaudible talking about what's happening in Australia, I was meant to be coming and saying, "Oh, we're this great success story, and COVID's been eliminated, and life is normal, and we've entered this new phase, and there's lessons that other countries can learn about what does return to workplace mean." Blah, blah, blah. And then in the past week or so, there's been a couple of cases of the Delta strain coming in which has meant that the countries just had a little bit of a freakout because one COVID case equals exponential growth. So we're actually sitting at the moment, Sydney's in lockdown, we haven't had a lockdown since... We had a partial lockdown in January, over Christmas and New Years, but now it's a full lockdown so you have to work from home, can only go to the grocery stores, masks again, et cetera. But this is on the basis of about having maybe, call it, 30 new cases per day. So again, if you want to compare it to what's happening in the US, it's a very different scale of issue.  

So what we're seeing at the moment is this unfortunate situation of this open, close, open, close, open, close, which is really hard for people psychologically, and for small businesses, and for planning. And a big problem and a big part of that is that Australia didn't back that many vaccines so we don't have enough vaccines to give to everyone. So while the US is reopening and my friends in New York they're all like, Ah, the city feels great, it's so vibrant, and everyone's looking to the future." Australia, although it handle things very well at the start is now going through this," Well, when are we going back to normal because we can't keep opening and closing and opening and closing." So a very, very, very different situation. And as I like to say to people, we're really living through a case study that's going to be studied by our kids and grandkids and future generations about these different approaches to how it's all handled. 

Mike: Indeed. Very interesting too. And you've kind of described where we are now, but I want to really be focused on what comes next and what we can learn from what you've been through or what Australia's been through. Do you think that you can speak to reopening offices this fall in mass, and compare that to what happened in Sydney? It sounded like everybody returned offices once things got under control pretty quickly last year, and I wonder if there's as much to compare or to learn as I thought when we put this together. And there's plenty to talk about, and I know you have opinions and experience and expertise across a broad array of things so we have plenty to talk about, but just on this particular topic of the pandemic, are we able to really take lessons from how things have gone, or is it just too much of a different experience? 

Nikki Greenberg: Look, everything I have to say is going to be completely irrelevant now, Mike. Nah, I'm kidding. 

Mike: I set you up for that one. 

Nikki Greenberg: I mean, look, there's commonalities and there's differences. A big difference obviously being that the US has had this mass vaccine rollout, which has being very successful, and I commend everything that's been happening in that regard. And we are talking about different situations because Australia, not vaccinated, the US for the most part for a lot of places, vaccinated. That's great. But skipping beyond that, there's quite a few lessons that can be taken.  

One being around hybrid work, which we're going to discuss later so I won't go into now, but also around this return to office and this long tail of COVID. So even when we hadn't had COVID in our city for months, and months, and months, and months, there was still this cautiousness from people and this reluctance to return to working in the office from a safety perspective. And even just that sense of," Well, what does one case mean to everybody?" And you have to remember, and hopefully we will get to talk about this topic later in more detail, not everybody can be vaccinated and there are a lot of people, or a lot of people with somebody in their family that have compromised immune systems, and that does cover a significant part of the population.  

So even if somebody can go into the office, they might be coming home and worried about the health and wellbeing of their loved one because they're susceptible to getting it. So there is this long tail, I think that's one of the first lessons. And the second lesson is also about how we return to the office and what the strategies have been for most companies. And it was a bit of a feel the way through, a lot of companies basically said to their employees," You decide when you want to come into the office." And a lot of employees said," Okay, well, I'll come in part time, but I'm going to come in on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday." Which means that the city, even to this day is completely dead on a Monday and Friday, which to me is ludicrous because now you're having office spaces that are used less than half of the week, and it's also only used during set hours. So this is a huge redundancy, which is something I'm sort of interested in at the moment. And again, hopefully we'll talk about this a bit more in detail later. There's this is huge redundancy and this huge vacancy for offices on certain days of the week, but also after hours that I actually don't think needs to exist if we just have a little bit of a rethink. 

Mike: Well, let's get right into it because you've touched on a number of things there. I'm very interested in hearing more about your opinion on, because we have been talking a lot about the hybrid workplace of the future and now, and the need for flexibility and choice. And I'm in agreement that we have a lot of great theories and we have a lot of great strategies even being put into place, but I've had a hard time articulating it, but I think that there's this human element that is going to be a tricky thing. And this is where you've kind of touched on it because you're experiencing this in Australia. The danger or the downside of giving all the choice to employees and individuals, it's two- fold.  

One is they'll all choose, like you say, just to come in on Wednesday, or Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, if you're given that much freedom, and then all of a sudden you've got no workplace experience on Monday and Friday. The other problem being that what if people choose what they think they want, which is our new default setting of," I'm very comfortable. I'm very safe in my little home." And I call it my hobbit hole, I always talk about Lord of the Rings and the fact that we've grooved this new experience living in our comfortable homes. Whereas it may be better, and for our teams, and for our companies, and for the broader society to get back out and re- engage. So I always say, leaders need to lead. We need Gandalf, just to continue the Lord of the Rings, reference to call Bilbo Baggins out of his hobbit hole and get him back into some level of re- engagement. And it's a tricky thing though, how do you address this idea of flexibility and the balancing act between what's good for the company and what's good for the employee, or at least what the employee thinks is good for themselves? 

Nikki Greenberg: Yeah. And look, it's a tricky one and I think your slide says it very well, that the word is flexibility. There's not going to be a one size fits all approach for every individual, or every single team, et cetera. And one of the things I've been thinking about is because now that it is possible to work remote, that becomes a location. So for example, if I'm hunting for a new job, or if I'm looking at changing jobs, if I look for jobs exclusively in New York where I'm usually based because that's my location, or should I be looking for jobs that are in Austin, and do I need to physically move to Austin, or can I work remote? being able to work flexibly or work remote becomes almost a third location when you're doing a job search. So you're kind of opening things up.  

Look, as I said, it's not going to be a one size fits all for every individual, or every single company. And I'm not saying anything here that hasn't been said before, but we need to also kind of evaluate what is work and is it about... Is work sitting on your seat between 9: 00 and 5: 00 and just by virtue of being there in your seat 9: 00 to 5: 00, therefore you are working. Perhaps in the '20s, when people were working on typewriters, you had to physically be there. But when we have the internet, you don't need to be physically sitting in a seat between set hours. So are you saying that work that happens at 8: 00 AM at home is not work because you're not physically there during those set hours? 

 I mean, we know that's not the case. And the thing is, and we've heard it from a lot of different people, and it's true, it's got to be about outcome based. You have to say," Well, the work is..."" Okay, you need to finish this report." Or," You need to figure out this budget." It needs to be about outcomes. It should have always been about outcomes. And whether you do it in the morning, or the afternoon, or in front of the pool, in front of the TV, whatever, I think there needs to be a good sense of responsibility for people to be able to deliver the work. And if they don't deliver the work, then they're not doing the job. 

Mike: So the fact that our audience is made up of workplace leaders wanting to create great spaces that deliver on the needs of the employees and the workforce and provide flexibility, again, a lot of those are corporate decisions, some of it's corporate led, some of it's employee led, you've been through this period now where are people choosing what you thought they would choose, or are organizations needing to call people back, set policies? Have you seen that play out in real world experiences? 

Nikki Greenberg: Yeah. And here's a quote that you are welcome to steal from me, I stole it from somebody else and I am a big, big, big believer in it. And it's that you can't put a changed person in an unchanged environment. And this is the thing, with everybody working remote for more than a year, our habits have changed, our lifestyles have changed. To go from that extreme to something else, it's not working for a lot of people. And what I find to be quite interesting is, as I said, I'm referring to anecdotes rather, I can refer to articles for The Wall Street Journal, or New York Times that I'm always reading, but I like these anecdotes. I'm a digital nomad, I'm a millennial, I can move around, and blah, blah, blah. And this whole hybrid thing kind of suits me and my personality and whatever, and I work for myself so it's great. 

 So, I'm an obvious one. But I have a very good friend of mine who's approaching 60, she's a very senior executive at a bank in Manhattan, and she's received a notice from this bank saying," You have to be back in the office 9: 00 to 5:00 a week, and we're going to start off with three days a week." And I mean, she's been working for this company for probably close to 20 years, she says, "No way, José." She goes, "If you're going to force that upon me, I'm not going to do it. There is no way. There's absolutely no way." And she's from a very different demographic, she's like," I get my work done when I'm working at home. Why do I need to do it during these hours?" And she is beside herself. 

 So it comes down to the individual. It becomes... I wouldn't say that it's a perk, but as I was alluding to previously, almost saying that you have to be working in the office physically is almost like saying," We are relocating you to a different branch, or to a different office, and that office happens to be in a different city." That's almost what you're telling somebody because they've become so used to being able to work in a different way, and it suited them. So I think I'd be a little bit wary, and my personal opinion for companies that are being very strict about saying," We want everybody back in the office five days a week, back to the way that things are." Because people have changed. And also during this time, a lot of people have reevaluated what they want and what they want out of life.  

And everybody has a different reason and a different circumstance. For some people it's about being able to spend more time with their kids, or it's health reasons, or hobbies, or lifestyle, or whatever it is, we don't have to be in the office 9: 00 to 5:00, five days a week in front of our typewriters because I do think it's typewriter thinking, you can quote me on that one too, typewriter thinking, to say," Dogmatic, return to 2019." Because there's another way of working and it works for a lot of people and a lot of teams. 

Mike: I'm glad you brought that up, Nikki, that example of your friend because it reminds me of each of us have, as I said in the beginning, our view is established and we can fall into the mistaken belief that everybody else is experiencing things the same way and has the same thought process or the same priorities, and that's clearly not the case. So if we could all take a moment and remember that what we think is right for us, or even for our team, is not necessarily right for others, and have that more empathetic view of things, and try to look outside kind of the bias of our own personal experiences. That's one thing. I want to get your view on the way we rethink about space. And you alluded to this earlier, and you have talked about re- activating or activating under utilized spaces and designing the workplace for the future and for the future needs and for the future desires of the next generation. Give me your thoughts on technology and how we can rethink the workplace in terms of space. 

Nikki Greenberg: Yeah, absolutely. And this is something that I'm very passionate about and something that I've been thinking about a lot, especially over the past year with everything being dismantled. So a little plug and a little announcement, DJ Mike. I've launched a new initiative so if you go to www.anyplaceworkplace.com you'll get to my website. You can put in your details there and find out when it launches. And what I've been thinking about is just really this question about underutilized space. And I don't think that a space should ever be vacant, it should always be vibrant. And I'm not coming up with a solutions, there are a lot of very smart providers that already do that, whether it's using vacant parking lots for markets, whether it's having combined uses where you can have a yoga studio and bike repair, there's people that do that too, or it might be a complete change of use. There's just so much that's happening in this reconsideration of what a place needs to be. We saw that with our homes, our homes changed very quickly.  

Our homes used to be where we live and sleep and eat and do other things, and all of a sudden last year our homes also became our workout studios, and our offices, and our schools, et cetera. I believe that the same thing as possible for every space, I believe that an office at those times that they're not being utilized, the Fridays, the Mondays, the Saturdays, the Sundays, the after 6: 00, why don't we put it to use? Why don't we find something else to do? Maybe it can be a call center that's talking to Australia because then the time zones match up. Maybe it can be a gaming center. Maybe it can be something else completely different. Maybe it can be spillover space for offices that don't have the equipment that they need, or inaudible. 

 There are so many possibilities, which I'm a crazy excited about. Every day I speak to different innovators and creative thinkers that have also been spending the past year, or even longer, thinking about how they can solve for this problem. And really what I'm doing is I'm bringing everybody together in one place so that you can find them, and if you're facing a problem of vacant space, or underutilized space, or you just want to also re- energize your space then you'll be able to find it there. So that's what I can thinking about. 

Mike: Excellent. Anyplaceworkplace.com. And I can't wait to see you, Nikki, in person someday, hopefully not too far into the future. And thank you so much for taking time to be on the show with me today. 

Nikki Greenberg: My absolute pleasure. And just to everyone in the audience, I love hearing from you so do you find me on LinkedIn, search for me, connect with me, and if there's anything you found interesting, or if you have any questions, drop them in, I'd love to know what's of interest to you and have that two- way conversations. So DJ Mike and team, thank you so much for having me again as a guest, I love joining you and I love these conversations. 

Mike: It was a lot of fun, thanks, Nikki. And thank you all for taking time to join us wherever you are in the world. If you're not already a subscriber, please head over to workplaceinnovator.com and there's a place for you to share your email, you'll be notified each and every Tuesday when a new episode comes your way. And until then, I thank you again for joining us. I hope during this hour, in some small way, we encouraged and inspired you to be a workplace innovator. Peace out, everybody. You've been listening to the Workplace Innovator Podcast. I hope you found this discussion beneficial as we work together to build partnerships that lead to innovative workplace solutions. For more information about how iOffice can help you create an employee centric workspace by delivering digital technology that enhances the employee experience, visit iofficecorp.com. 

Space management software

Connect with Nikki on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/nikki-greenberg-futurist/

Watch the full hour-long video with Nikki and Mike: https://www.iofficecorp.com/webinar-download-live-from-sydney-lessons-for-a-post-pandemic-world

Discover free resources and explore past interviews at: https://www.workplaceinnovator.com/

Connect with Mike on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/mikepetrusky/

Share your thoughts with Mike via email: podcast@iOFFICECORP.com


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