Mike Petrusky hosted a panel discussion in July 2021 for the WORKTECH “Work from Anywhere Conference”. His guests were Inabelle Fang, Senior Real Estate Manager at Willis Towers Watson, Sid Bhatia Director, Workforce of the Future at PwC and David Savage Partner at Charles Russell Speechlys. The WORKTECH Work from Anywhere Virtual Conference and Innovations Exhibition explored the Work from Anywhere movement and how it is shaping the new world of work, and the built environment. Mike spoke with these senior decision makers to discuss the latest trends and thought leadership around return to office and hybrid work strategies. With a growing focus on what life will be like post pandemic, this conference was held at a unique time where organizations and business leaders are looking for inspiration and solutions to help them with this journey. WORKTECH is known for bringing innovative ideas and inspiration to the workplace community through inter-disciplinary speakers and learning experience to enhance creativity and move thinking forward.

Ep. 171: Worktech “Work from  Anywhere Conference”: End User Expert Panel Discussion

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. 

Announcer: Now, I can scarcely believe we’re onto our final sessions of the day, but here we are. Now for our penultimate session, we have a fantastic end user panel discussion, which brings together workplace leaders, Mike Petrusky, David Savage, Inabelle Fang and Sid Bhatia to discuss the work from anywhere model and its impact on the corporate office. Welcome Mike and over to your team. 

Mike: Thank you, Krupa and hello everyone. It is an honor to be here today. I am Mike and I am the host of a podcast called Workplace Innovator. If you’re not familiar with the show, you may not know that I’m also known as DJ Mike P. and we talk with people about the current and future state of the workplace and more importantly, the people, the occupants of our facilities. I talk with corporate real estate facility management leaders of all types, workplace consultants. I’ve even had some sociologists and anthropologists on the podcast recently because I think the human experience is so important to talk about and I’m fascinated by what makes us do the things we do as humans.  

So, with that as the premise, and certainly my focus, I’m excited to have a chance to speak on this end user panel as we talk about work from anywhere. Of course, this is the new frontier of the workplace and work experience wherever you are working and we are all dealing with it in different ways, depending on our perspective. I like to talk to end users because there are different industries represented, different geographies here, and it’s a chance to go beyond the theories and all the surveys around what people think they might want to do or what they have said they want to do regarding hybrid work or returning to an office and these folks here, we’re going to hear from today have real world practical experience around what’s happening in their organizations. 

 It’s a very short time together so it’s going to go by very fast so I’m going to kick things off by allowing each of the panelists to introduce themselves very briefly and then also just tell us where we are today, where your organization is today and what your personal focus is. So Inabelle, introduce yourself briefly and tell us how you’re approaching things at this moment in time here in the summer of 2021. 

Inabelle Fang: Sure. Hi everybody. I’m Inabelle . I’m the senior real estate manager for Willis Towers Watson, which is a company in financial services that does insurance brokerage and advisory risk management et cetera. My portfolio of responsibility is Western Europe, as well as Asia and I’ve led multiple workplace transformation programs over the past couple of years and within the company. So even before COVID, I think, I guess agile working, flexible working has been our key strategy since the merger of Willis and Towers Watson.  

So, we have rolled out these new ways to a new way to work program, bringing people from one- to- one to agile working to flexible working and that change of mindset. And it’s even more exciting now post COVID, what we are going to do with the company, with the colleagues, with the leaders. I’m very excited to join the panel together and with David’s and Sid to discuss what they are doing in their companies and what we can learn as well within our organization to bring a better user experience to our colleagues. 

Mike: Excellent. And you have this perspective and experience across different geographies. You’re based in London, but you cover, as you mentioned, different regions of the world. So, I’m looking forward to hearing some of the unique opportunities and also challenges that you’re facing and how you’re dealing with that. So, David, you are also in London and in the legal sector, right? Tell us about it. 

David: Hi, Mike and good afternoon, everybody. Yes. So, I’m a partner in an international law firm called Charles Russell Speechlys, which is London centered, but has three locations in the UK and then offices around Europe, the middle east and the far east. We have about 1,100 people across office network. And yes, I mean, the reason I’m here this afternoon, my day job is I’m a construction partner doing transactional and dispute resolution work in the construction sector including fitting out of commercial offices. 

 So, that brought me into contact with some of the workplace design issues. I’ve looked after our own property interests in the UK and with some of our international offices and worked with designers over the years. And I guess because of that background, when the pandemic hit our newly elected managing partner asked me to chair a group in the business looking at where we work and what kind of agile policy we wanted to have going forward. And I guess, what I’ve come to realize during this extended 18-month period, three major lockdowns in the United Kingdom, we’re in week 28 of that third one, and about to be released from it on the 19th of July, we very much hope. 

 Final government decision being taken next Monday. What I’ve realized is that what I thought might be quite a simple equation that this was accelerating existing trends, and we could just make a simplistic judgment call about how agile we wanted to be in the future. What I’ve come to realize is that actually, it’s a much more multifaceted, multidimensional debate where causation runs in different directions and there are competing interests in terms of what management wants, what the staff want, what’s good for productivity, what’s good for clients, what’s good for wellbeing. And I think the fact that all of our businesses around the world, in all business sectors, that we’re all grappling with this same opportunity, as well as threat, in terms of how we shape our physical buildings, the expectations around work and workplace and culture and wellbeing.  

The fact that we’re doing this together globally and coming out of lockdowns and different countries, obviously in different places with their vaccine programs. But the UK now well- placed to get into that sort of hybrid world and how you position your own business. And is there a competitive advantage to go further than the middle of the bell curve of your particular sector? Very briefly in the UK, the legal sector overall will land at something like a 40 to 50% hybrid solution staff would want more. Law firm management don’t want to give as much as the staff would like to have essentially many law firms would like the preponderance of office attendance to be around office tenants and maybe three days in the office, two days agile, the workforce would probably want it the other way around. So that’s kind of where, where legal is in the UK at moment. 

Mike: So many follow up questions come to mind. And I am going to resist asking them at the moment to give Sid a chance to introduce himself. And I’m going to circle back to David, some of those thoughts and hear all our panelists’ opinions, but Sid you’re with me in the US. I’m in Washington, DC. You’re up in New York City. Give us the state of the world at the moment at PWC. 

Sid: Yeah, thanks. Hi, everyone. Pleasure to be here. I’m a director in our future of work practice so I’m probably better suited to talk about what we see when we work with our clients versus PWC specifically, but generally speaking, New York and the US are moving towards, have been for some time, moving towards a sort of fall- ish reopening of the offices. What that means in terms of where we are today is we’re 60 days out, right? We’ve just come out of the 4th of July holidays. Announcements have been made that sometime in the fall offices will start to reopen. And so now there’s this dichotomy of, okay, I’ve, I’ve got to get my tactical action plan right because I’ve made this announcement and I need to start doing something about it and signaling what that actually looks like beyond just the statement that we’re coming back. But there is this long-term view that people are thinking about as well, right? What is going to be sustainable in the long- term from a hybrid work model, going back to sort of things David was saying, and we have yet to see if and how this situation evolves both here and globally. So, there might be some stops and starts along the way and I think that’s sort of in the back of everyone’s minds, as they think about a fall this year. 

Mike: Excellent. And Inabelle , as I circle back to you and ask for the practical application of these ideas, David mentioned it, this as a culture question, there’s the push and the pull of what may be corporate leaders are looking for to align with their business needs and also this new expectation from our employees and people, and everyone has their own opinion about how comfortable they are in their current work from home environment, or the idea of returning. Some are very anxious to get back, some never want to leave their cave or Hobbit Hole again. I often talk in terms of the Lord of the Rings on my show and say,” I’ve been here in my little comfortable Hobbit Hole for the last year and a half, and I may need somebody, like a Gandolf to come and call me to a new adventure. And I know I need that and I want that, I know I’m a better, more innovative, more creative person if I’m interacting with my colleagues and my customers. So how do we deal with that tension and how are you all dealing with it? 

Inabelle Fang: So I think you make a very good point. I think everybody is in a different position and different journey with this lockdown over the past couple of months. So the key here is to recognize that as leaders, as we’ve been suggesting to our board of directors as well. We need to respect people and we need to all come out the competent communication. And I really think transparency is the key here. Whether we’re conducting a companywide survey to understand what people are thinking, what they’re expecting in the next couple of months, or it’s a line of business-driven kind of thumb survey on conversations that is more dedicated to what their day- to- day activity is. I think either we just need to have that conversation, understand and respect employees’ position, their concerns, their hesitations, or their excitement even, and try to gauge where we take on the business going forward. So we don’t have any radical plans to, for example, cut the office space in half or expand the office or anything. It really is, firstly, try to understand what our colleagues are thinking and then how does that align with our business strategy? And then we can put forward a better strategy. 

Mike: Indeed, leaders need to lead. They need to understand they need to be empathetic. And hopefully you have in your organization, a culture of trust and transparency and communication, as you mentioned, is absolutely the key. So David, are you radically re imagining your offices? We hear a lot of talk about changing, and we’ve seen research earlier today around the need for more collaborative space. And it should be very inexpensive endeavor. If workplace leaders have to totally redesign things right away based on assumptions, you’re not doing that, are you? 

David: No, we’re not jumping into that. So what we’re going to do is an agile work pilot for three or four months, commencing officially in September running to the end of the calendar year. And the whole point about the pilot is to sort of test a lot of ideas organically and from the bottom up. So really individual teams, different practice areas, different business resources teams supporting the legal function in the business and allow people to create their own agile working charters and experiment with this. So we want our overall policy development decision- making to be informed by having given quite a lot of freedom to experiment in the first instance as people return to some kind of hybrid arrangement. 

 It happens that we were in a good position to facilitate that kind of process because we had regeared our property shortly before the pandemic. And we didn’t have a big property lease event that was going to force our hand in our decision- making process. And again, I went into this as chair of that, where we work group thinking that extracting some significant property dividend, because it was perfectly obvious that we were going to be working in a more accelerated agile way going forward, thinking that actually getting that property dividend was a key driver. And what I’ve realized is that actually any property dividend that we realize in the future, is kind of like a bonus.  

We’ve got to do this for other good reasons around the other drivers that I talked about: talent retention, talent attraction, getting the right win- win scenario between what management is looking for in terms of facilitating high- performance teams, which is what a law firm essentially is doing like most of the rest of professional services, but at the same time, recognizing that there is a real opportunity to do some really good things for our people, as well as our clients in this moment of opportunity. And our people have delivered during the pandemic. In the UK, most law firms have just closed out a very successful financial year despite the challenges and the shock of what we all experienced going back to March last year.  

So I think so much of those kinds of conservative trust issues are now off the table really, that we can really focus around these other policy drivers, but I don’t think the property dividend or massively kind of reworking your real estate is the most important thing. I think the most important thing here is to understand the complexity of the question and to create a decision- making matrix which is properly factoring and weighting those different longer term outcomes. There should be nothing short term about this type of decision- making in my view. 

Mike: I agree, David. That’s really well said, and Sid, I want to turn to you and ask you to either confirm or object to some of the things that Inabelle and David have mentioned here. When you’re talking to your clients, what are most doing when it comes to rethinking about how they’re going to manage their real estate, they’re going to manage their workplace. And then of course your focus and understanding and expertise around technology. I’m interested in knowing what technologies are being considered that may really help create this new employee experience. 

Sid: Yeah, thanks Mike. So, I’m really happy to hear about the directions that Inabelle and David are going in. Just to react to a couple of the things that I heard, this alignment is really between sort of the workforce and the employer is a really tricky balance. And I think taking a test and iterate approaches sort of David was alluding to is critical at this sort of inflection point that we’re at. I think something that was sort of in both of what Inabelle and David said, that maybe wasn’t sort of explicit that I’d like to call attention to, is this idea that even within an individual business, different business units, different functions have almost individual business cycles, right? Busy periods, slower periods, ways of working that are unique and different from other parts of the organization. And so, designing around that is going to become critical, which sort of gets to that third point around, what you just asked, around technology.  

I think the hardest thing is this has worked as David was saying, right? Productivity, that the fear of lack of productivity is no longer a concern in part because technology has been this great equalizer. I think the challenge now becomes, how does that work when three of us are in person and four of us or are remote or worse when nine out of 10 of us are in person and that one person is remote. We’ve all been in that situation in the past and it’s very quick to disengage.  

Now you’ve got the added complexity of well, does that impact my career trajectory? Does that impact my visibility in the organization? Does that impact sort of my ability to contribute in a meaningful way and get what I want out of my career as well? So, it’s now starting to unpack all these other issues. And I think technology has a significant role to play. The specific technologies, hard to tell at this point, I think it’s early days. I think some of the tools like the one we’re using today are a great indicator and in sort of providing everyone freedom to connect from anywhere really, but what’s that next layer? I think critical, I started to hear a little bit about it in the last session around things like what Microsoft Teams is doing and some of the other providers like Google and Slack have got some similar ideas around how do we connect people using algorithms. But as I said, it’s early days. 

Mike: Really fascinating, Sid. And Inabelle back to you. I want you to expand on that practical application of these strategies and the fact that human beings are complicated. We all have different experiences and desires and expectations and personalities, right? So, when it comes to supporting a flexible workplace, this hybrid workplace, is it even possible to create an equitable experience using the tools of technology using workplace strategy? How are you going to be approaching some of those challenges of the hybrid model? 

Inabelle Fang: I think this is the big question right now that everybody’s asking, I’m sure everybody’s thinking about and trying to experiment on. And when you talk about different expectation, I think so just to draw practical examples. So our offices in France, they are a bit more reserved and they are also governed by very strong work council, as well as unions. So pre-COVID, when Willis Towers Watson was rolling out this program of agile working, workplace transformation, they are of huge resistance because firstly, the leaders cannot see how this would work without being able to see the employee sitting at this desk at nine to five every single day.  

Employees cannot see this happening neither. They’d be working from home. They don’t even have a personal laptop or company laptop plans to do so. It really becomes an enabler to allow them to see the possibility of this happening, that he does see that the colleagues still produce. They still deliver, like David had said, successfully their job. And employees see the possibility of having this flexible workplace. It’s Zoom meetings, working from home meetings, they go out to the beach and for holiday or lay in the garden, but they actually be able to arrange your time even more efficiently while still delivering their job and being productive.  

So, it really is a change of mindset that really help with this whole transformation program. And I’m very pleased to say that like two months before the worst council in France have actually raised their all hands and said going forward after COVID, we will like our employees to be able to work two to three days from home in Paris and then two days outside Paris. So, this is an intrinsic generated desire to be able to have that flexibility going forward. And I think that’s very important. There’s no point forcing people to do something that they don’t believe in. And it really takes time to them on the journey. And I think really with COVID, it really allows us to actually bring those that are strongly rooted with resistance on this particular path and see the possibility of having different people from working on a future. 

Mike: I agree with you Inabelle, but I’m going to be a little bit contrarian and add a little controversy to the conversation as I turn to David. And I will circle back to you for another comment on this, but David, as you’re putting this plan together for the fall, is it fully the wisest move to give employees the full choice? Because I know as a human, I sometimes make pretty bad decisions for myself. And I wonder as we talk about putting up guardrails for the organization, for the outcomes that the firm needs, and there’s a misalignment sometimes with what the employee needs without going into full command and control, are there ways to encourage people to want to return to offices, to communicate the value of that experience? And if so, maybe train managers to do a better job of bringing people together. You follow what I’m saying? 

David: No, absolutely. And you know, when I talk about the creativity and the experimentation that we want to facilitate, we’re doing that, within an envelope that our senior management has signaled. So the envelope that we’ve signaled is that we don’t want to become a 100% virtual law firm. That’s not our business model, but I think what we are saying is we don’t necessarily want to say one size fits all in terms of team and location.  

So you’ve got to, you’ve got to, as I said at the very beginning, look at this in a more nuanced way. I mean, let’s take the example of your accounts function. There are times in the month when it’s great to be working in a team environment because it’s a kind of a peak demand moment and end of the month, the billing cycle or whatever, and you might want all your people in and motivated and engaged at that time, particularly in a group context. But when they’re doing kind of more routine task and process and administration task at certain other periods in the cycle, they may not need to be in drawing on the strength of group endeavor in the same way. And that goes for all sorts of roles, and it goes for the difference between different types of legal activity. If you’re about to close a major M and A deal, you do want to be there with your colleagues.  

It’s a long hours business, commercial law, and it’s great to be in that environment as it were having that high performance environment facilitated and feeling that others are making that sacrifice with you in the trenches of getting that deal over the line. But there are other types of legal activity, which are not that big  group push effort and it’s much more individual concentration, drafting type, analytical tasks. And for many people working from home, if they’re well set up in a home environment, that kind of high concentration task is exactly what they want to be doing in that environment. And maybe the quality of their work and productivity is higher in that environment than spending three hours a day commuting into the center of the city.  

So these are the sorts of things that we have to reconcile within an overarching envelope of we are not going to become a virtual law firm. And that’s the kind of experimentation that I’m talking about. One thing that I think is, is really interesting when we talk about workplace design and how we may physically change our environment is, we really do want to retain enough space to get peak attendance in the office at certain points in time because the collaboration piece and seeing people in the bus is a big, big reason to go to the office. But at the same time, of course, if you, if you prioritize that you may not get quite such a big property dividend, if that’s part of what you’re looking for.  

So I think the way to square that particular circle is you’ve got to be agile in the office, and this is where technology can definitely play a role. You can’t just rock up, put your coat on the back of a chair and sterilize that space for 12 hours. We’ve got to have technology and agile mentality in the office, as well as in that relationship between different working environments, critically home and office. And I think if we’re all a bit more responsible and we see our space as the valuable commodity that it is in our business, and we’re all committed to optimizing it for productivity and other reasons, that will allow us to deliver on this win- win scenario of sharing some of the dividend of the experience that we’ve all had. 

Mike: Wow. So many good points there and I appreciate all of your specific examples, David. I just noticed the clock and we’re running short on time. I want to leave a couple minutes for a question or two. So Sid, for your final advice, practical ideas that you want to share based on all that’s been said so far, where do you think folks should be focused as they head into the fall? 

Sid: I think it’s really in the conversation, just listening to everything David and Inabelle been saying, I’m just re- looking at some statistics from the Bureau of Labor Statistics here in the US and nearly 4 million people quit their jobs in April, not necessarily with something even have. And so, while the simplistic response is there’s disconnect between what people want and what employers want. There’s something more happening here. And I think we’re at this, as I keep saying, this inflection point where the transparency of conversation is going to be critical. And some of that’s going to be things like surveys, like Inabelle alluded to, and some of it’s going to be things like training and coaching and development of management around, how do I lead and manage in this environment where people aren’t outside my desk, outside my office, the way they used to be. I think that’s really the number one thing in my mind as we go into the next six months about sort of a conversation between employees and employers. 

Mike: Yeah. Great points Sid. And Inabelle, I’ll give you the last word. As we kind of wrap up this idea, we could do a whole another hour or two around the human experience and what we are dealing with this contradiction, this struggle, there’s something under the surface. We’ve only scratched the surface to describe why people are behaving the way they are, that war for talent that’s ahead. As people look to what they are getting or not getting from their employer and maybe looking elsewhere. So any final practical advice for our audience today, Inabelle  as we, as we wrap up here? 

Inabelle Fang: I think the key for me, and for our workplace team is really, going back to what we mentioned earlier, being respectful and understanding of personal circumstances, because we don’t know what’s going on with people’s lives. They have younger children or parents; they have personal circumstances that might not make them feel comfortable making certain decisions. With COVID, I think people come to realization that, there’s not one box fitting or there’s not one standard fitting. And it really is being empathetic from a colleague-to-colleague perspective, as well as from a leader to employee perspective. So, I really like what Sid said about training our manager, because managers sometimes don’t really know how to act. And it really is being, giving them, empowering them with the tools and the ways to be able to handle a situation like this and just be a good listener, trying to find a solution. 

Mike: Well said, thank you so much, Inabelle. In fact, I love this conversation. I want each of you, I want to invite each of you to be on my podcast at some point, workplaceinnovator.com. We can give you each half hour to go into this in more detail. But group. I’ll go ahead and end it there and thank my panelists for their insights. And ask if there’s a question or two, we have time to answer? 

Inabelle Fang: Wonderful. Thank you so much, Mike. Honestly, a really fantastic panel there. 

Mike: Thank you. 

Announcer: 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 i Office can help you create an employee centric workspace by delivering digital technology that enhances the employee experience visit iofficecorp.com. 

Connect with Inabelle on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/inabellefang/

Connect with Sid on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/sjbhatia/

Connect with David on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/davidjsavage/

Learn more about the WORKTECH Festival (on-demand event in August): https://worktechevents.com/events/worktech-festival/

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