What does hybrid mean in today’s corporate environment? Both employees and management have differing views, and in this episode, we examine these viewpoints. Ben Baker wades into the fray with the irrepressible Nancy Halpern, founder of Political IQ. Nancy and Ben discuss what a hybrid model of work is, and the disconnect between employees and corporate. Listen in and learn from this thought-provoking conversation.
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What Does Hybrid Mean… From An Employee’s Viewpoint? With Nancy Halpern
We have a real treat for you. Nancy Halpern from Political IQ is joining us. She and I have had formed a great relationship and we are going to talk about, “What does hybrid mean from an employee’s perspective?” Nancy, welcome to the show.
Ben, there’s no place I would rather be. Thank you so much for inviting me.
You are so kind. We have had several great conversations. I love your perspective on things. I want to give the audience a chance to find out a little bit more about you before we get into the subject because we could probably talk for hours on this but let everybody find out a little bit more about you.
I have been in the area of leadership development, working across industries with Big Pharma, biotech, financial services and publishing. What I discovered over these few decades in my career is that it’s always the same thing. On an individual level, people seem to stall out in their careers because they don’t want to “play the game,” because they don’t know how to deal with a difficult colleague, manager or boss.
On a leadership team level, they fail to ignite as a team. They can’t agree on what they want to achieve, people sitting on top of their fiefdoms. That just got me intrigued thinking that’s a very political thing they are all running up against. Could I figure out how to measure that and measure the impact on the actual business? That’s what I have been spending the last few years tooling around it, the academic literature, the progression analysis and always introducing that way of thinking, and to make the work political a little less hated when it comes to office politics. That’s a little bit about the work I do.
Office politics are an interesting thing. Several years ago, I was blessed enough to get out of Corporate Canada. I was working for a multibillion-dollar company. My client was a hundred-million-dollar client and the politics were incredible both with the client and also with the company itself. When we agreed, part of the deal was I’ve got a, “What do you want to be when you grow up trading?”You need organizations that have messaging that doesn't feel like sloganeering, but actually treats employees as adults, not as children. Click To Tweet
I’ve got to go to an industrial psychologist. He ran me through a bunch of tests and the biggest thing he said and I will never forget this to my dying day, “You work well with large clients. You work horribly for large clients. It let me know you are a consultant. You are good as a solutions provider but don’t go work for big companies because you don’t have the political makeup to deal with the day-to-day minutia, that is large Corporate Canada and North America.”
I also was a refugee from Corporate America. My only HR job was eighteen months in a Fortune 100 company but having said that, we think about office politics overall. What it is, is competition for limited resources and resources are always limited. It’s a natural outgrowth. In fact, the origin of the word is from Greek and it means group decision-making, that’s all it is.
However, if you have an evil actor’s intent on evil action, that’s what most people think when they think about office politics. They don’t think of it as a skillset that can have a very benign and positive impact. Be it negotiation, alliance building, messaging, filtering, persuasion and influence. Those are all skillsets that fall under the umbrella of group decision-making and influence. There’s nothing inherently evil about it. They say, “If you can’t do, you consult.” I certainly wasn’t good at it either. I made every mistake in the book. It’s not hard for me to talk about what not to do because I wish I had my own advice in my corporate career.
It’s interesting because you bring in the dichotomy between fiefdoms and alliances. I deal with C-Suite all the time in large corporations across North America and throughout Europe. I find the closer the people get to the CEO chair, the more fiefdom and political infighting there is based on limited resources. There’s only one CEO chair, there’s only one person that is the ultimate decision-maker. There’s only one person that is the mission-vision person for the company and no matter what they say within a corporate boardroom, it all funnels up to the top. If people could sit there and say, “We need our departments to work well together and we are going to be far more powerful as a group.”
If we are sitting there taking all these resources, energy, people and ideas, and focus them on how to take care of the customer better, we are going to be far more effective as a company that if we have this inviting over limited resources and budgets. A lot of companies can’t get beyond that. My question to you is, what are the things that we can do to help companies move beyond the zero-sum game mentality and get into a situation where we are able to do that? That’s good as sign us up for what hybrid means.
Until we could break down the silos, that whole thing, it’s difficult for us to be able to move forward. I wanted to get your opinion about where we can go from here because there are inherent truths. How do we move beyond the inherent truths to enable teams to realize that they are stronger and better together than fighting each other internally?
I do want to link with hybrid and I may not be answering your question fully, to be honest. I could give you answers to those questions but my concern is that there will be the answers that everybody intuitively knows. You need organizations that have messaging that doesn’t feel like sloganeering but treats employees as adults, not as children.
You have to have leaders and managers who are willing to put their ego to the side for a moment so they can listen deeply and ask questions of humble inquiry. You need to have fair compensation and a sense of system so that people don’t feel that someone else is getting something they don’t deserve. You need to take a look at the underlying structures and levers of your organization and your culture to see what behaviors you are truly implicitly or explicitly encouraging. That’s the analytical answer in the way. What makes it hard is doing it.
Also, the emotions behind it.
The emotions behind will always be there. I don’t believe in eliminating any emotion. I believe in accepting emotions and then looking at what you do with that emotion. People feel fear, anger and jealousy at work. People feel envy and frustration. They are all valid feelings. You feel what you feel but how you act on those feelings is the world I live in because those actions are choice-based.
It may not feel like a choice but if you get a little bit of distance from yourself, you can see that there are multiple options. Most people base their actions, not on what they have observed but on what they have decided is the evaluation of the observation. For example, Ben is smiling. That could mean Ben is happy. It could be Ben is polite. It could mean that is his de facto resting face.
It could be the hopes I’m going to shut up but he doesn’t want to look like it. It could be many things but all those evaluations are just guesses or stories and yet, that’s what people emotionally react to. That’s where we all get into trouble in office politics, is that we are all working on these evaluations, not necessarily working from our observations.
We live in a world of assumptions, whether we are face-to-face with people, whether we are across the city or the continent from somebody else. We are dealing with how we react to what’s put in front of us, whether it be a memo, email or conversation. It’s how we internalized that piece of information. It’s not how we may not understand how that piece of information was intended for us to react to because people are lousy communicators. We are terrible at communication. For people that speak a language fluently, we are terrible at letting people understand the nuance behind what we want and why we want it. We leave people to interpret things and when they interpret things, a lot of times, they interpreted them incorrectly.
Many people are not good communicators. I can’t argue with that but we are lazy organisms and we take cognitive shortcuts. When we try to fill in the blanks, we often fill them in with our worst fears or the things we don’t like. That’s just human nature. It’s not that we are fighting ourselves as clichéd as it sounds, understanding yourself, therefore, the impact that might have on someone else.
There’s a great school of thought on communication that I’m very big on. It’s called Nonviolent Communication or NVC. It posits that most communication theory starts with, “I’m going to help you understand me but then my goal is for you to understand me.” If you flip that and say, “My goal is to understand you,” that’s where I’m going to stop because in understanding you, I will know I have a much better-informed sense of what I should say and how to convey it.
Everything changes by just turning and I like to turn things upside down. I have to admit. I’m a little bit of a contrarian and I like to poke at things because it’s more fun. It’s selfish. To take what’s accepted sometimes when something gets accepted for so long, it loses something. You are not going to be curious about it anymore, which is a long way away from talking about hybrid but it all plays into it.
It is and it’s not because when we are dealing with people, with leaders and with the difference between managing process and leading people, it requires far more empathy when people are remote because you don’t have the visual cues that you might have when somebody is right in front of you.You need fair compensation and a sense of systems so that people don't feel that someone else is getting something they don't deserve. Click To Tweet
You are seeing me from the shoulders up. You have no idea what I’m doing with my hands. You don’t know how tight my body is positioned. Am I crossing my legs? Am I uncrossing my legs? Am I leaning forward? Am I leaning back? You lose that three-dimensional experience of dealing with somebody and therefore you don’t have the same ability to understand what they are truly thinking and what they are saying.
That’s where we need to get from the employee’s perspective. That’s a great segue into this because we need to sit there and say, “How do we, as leaders, make a hybrid experience that is going to work within a hybrid environment?” We are in a new world. This is not going away. We are not going back to the way things are. There is no return. It’s a return to premises, not a return to work. We have been working hard for several years. Thank you very much. How do we, as leaders, enable our people to be successful and meet them where they are and help them be successful?
I wanted to add something to your comments in your various observation about how no one knows how tall anyone else is on Zoom. I have read that the closeness on the screen of each other’s faces in real life would be something like 5 centimeters. It’s incredibly, visually close, tight focus on the face. In addition to that, there has been the complete loss of counters of serendipity.
Unscheduled or unplanned meetings at the coffee bar or walking by someone’s desk, are the conversations that are strike up. Those kinds of social interactions are the oil from a ship in interpersonal relationships at work and that’s gone because we have to schedule all these things. To answer your question about leaders in hybrid, the first thing leaders have to do that they are truly struggling with is recognizing and accepting the increasingly empowered voice of the employee.
Any survey you have read or you can read and the numbers have only been more in a way, startling and revealing as COVID continues, sadly to go on is that employees have defined hybrid very differently than the organizations. To an organization, a hybrid if you had the little equal sign, is a massive exercise in scheduling so that I know where you are with. That’s not how an employee thinks about it at all. An employee thinks hybrid equals flexibility to be at home on the days I would prefer to be home, and then the office on the days when I need to be.
That’s what an employee thinks. From the get-go, I have envisioned two bulls locking horns in a way about the definition. If you can’t agree on what something actually is, you are going to have tons of conflict about it. Who gets to decide? One thing leaders need to do is to recognize given social media, given Gen Z and let’s say later-born Millennials, and given a lot of corporations use of contractors, the rise of the gig economy. We have been heading towards this moment anyway, where employees feel very empowered when it comes to individual choice. COVID accelerated it by fifteen years.
I heard a story where there are a bunch of Millennials that were living in San Francisco and working for some very prominent corporations, got together and bought a house somewhere in the Midwest. On a lake somewhere, a great big house. They went and bought it together, and the reason they bought it in this particular neighborhood, first of all, was because the land was 1/10 of what it would have been in San Francisco.
Number two, it’s on a lake, it’s a huge house and they were able to get gigabit connection throughout the entire house. They wired this house for sound and there are four of them living in this house. Each one of them is working for either 1 or 2 major firms in Silicon Valley. Their bosses know that they have two jobs.
As long as they are non-compete companies like Google and Netflix, where they are working on two completely different projects and mandates, the companies are fine with you as long as you get the work done. There’s the acceptance of being able to do that but that’s a rarity. That’s certainly not what most leaders and CEOs expect, they want you to work the 8 or 10 hours, not a, “Did you get your work done?”
A couple of things, I started a similar story. I don’t think it was exactly the same one in The Wall Street Journal about people working two jobs but their employers don’t know. The reason they are doing it is that they can. The truth is what makes organizations, people and teams unproductive, are meetings.
They have experimented with these people holding their two jobs would say, “I don’t have to be at that meeting.” They may have two different laptops. All of this is a very new trend that I don’t think employers are paying attention to. The other thing that is interesting, so something else leaders have to be aware of, is they need to redefine what they think of this flight risk.
In the past, flight risk for your key revenue producers, people with institutional memory or competitive intelligence, you could describe these qualities. Now, flight risks are the kids you are describing who formed the backbone of the daily operations that make the organization tick. If you have 20% of the people in IT leave because you want them to be back in the office four days a week, your company is out of business. You are going to crumble.
Your flight risk is different now. Your flight risk is lower-level employees, which means power in the organization is once again shifting doubt. I don’t know that many C-Suite leaders have woken up to the fact that this isn’t like a berk anymore. This is not a blip. This is a continuation of a trend. As we were saying before, this has been growing, made possible by the fact that one can work anywhere if you have a head down a job. Meaning if your main means of work are on a laptop or other technology. There’s no geographic restriction on where you do that. Who has the power to decide? Is it going to be employees or organizations, who’s going to be the employer of choice?
Who’s going to win this argument? Is it Jamie Dimon on Wall Street? Thinking that, “I need everyone’s face here. We are a hierarchy. This is how we function and it’s important,” or is it an Apple in tech model who says, “We don’t know when you are going back to the office. You may never go back to the office. Work wherever you want.” What you said was so important, the other thing is, do you think we are beginning, at least to talk about it? I don’t think it’s happening. The transference of how we evaluate performance to output, it doesn’t matter where the input comes in and that is what you have accomplished. That’s a different way of thinking for most organizations.
Here’s the thing it shouldn’t be because any organization that has one salesperson has somebody on the payroll that is based on output. Ninety-nine and nine percent of salespeople, some part of their salary is based on commission and output.
That’s because it’s easily tracked.
It’s easily tracked and managed. No question about it but the thing is, it’s the mentality. There are two different things. One thing is we are so worried about tracking people’s time. We are back in the Henry Ford days where we are sitting there going, “Somebody needs to be on the assembly line at 8:00 in the morning because the machine starts running at 8:01.”
It’s an email factory.
We need to get beyond that. If we are going to continually measure people based on that authoritarian, managerial style of, “If they didn’t put in the eight hours, if I didn’t see them for eight hours, if I didn’t count the keyboard strokes for eight hours, they obviously weren’t working and they weren’t providing us value, so why should we pay them?” We need to get beyond the fact that we need to get this job done. I don’t care if you do it at 3:00 in the morning. If it’s done on time and done right and if it doesn’t adversely affect other people based on your timeline, go for it.
I’m going to make a prediction right here on your show. It is much harder for people at the top of the organization who are comfortable in their ability to manage people they can see. It will be much harder for them to change than the people at lower ranks in the organization. Therefore, the way they are going to try to adapt to what you are talking about is to embrace technology that tracks employees.
Technology is way behind this. They have not caught up yet. COVID happened, shutdowns happen so quickly. God knows where we would be without things like Zoom that already existed. There are going to be a lot of legal issues, a lot of challenges. This will be a real push for large corporations to say, “You want to work at home? Okay. We still need to know what you are doing and we are going to install tracking software,” and they may not even tell them on your laptops.There's nothing inherently evil about office politics it. It just is. Click To Tweet
There are people sadly who take advantage. It’s the minority but I also understand that hierarchy is functional control and unless you are going to demolish every hierarchy in the United States and globally that’s a company, which I do not see happening, there’s going to be an adaptation to make both sides semi-happy. That’s my prediction.
My prediction is you are going to have employee tracking software, and my other projection is I should have been an employment attorney because if I had been, I would have bought my own Hawaiian island by now and been building eight incredibly large mansions to which you and your wife would have been welcome at any time.
In fact, most C-Suites live, die and breathe metrics. Everything is pie charts, dashboards and analytics. How much efficiency did we get? How much did this cost us? What’s the ROI? The challenge lies in, “How do we wean people off that drug?” A lot of it is, “Can we wean people off that drug?” The answer is, in the short-term is absolute, not.
I look at organizations over few years, swore that no employee unless your death and dying works from home. It’s just not going to happen. You are not going to work from home, and then came March 2020, 80% of their force got thrown out of the office, and a lot of them still aren’t back yet.
I’m here in New York and I can tell you unless you are Goldman Sachs and Chase, you are not back in your office. I have clients who have said, “You know when I return to the office date is? Indefinite.” We are not even putting a date. We are never announcing a date because we had a date and we have just changed it to indefinite.
The commercial real estate people are terrified of this.
I don’t blame them. I would be terrified, too, if I were them.
C-Suites are terrified about this because they have paid 25-year leases on 100,000 square feet and at 1 out of every 10 or 1 out of every 35 employees are at their desk.
I’m a big believer in looking at money because money tells you a lot. For the C-Suite change, you would have to shift incentive and compensation systems to be less about share price each quarter and more bad middle over term results. As long as you are beholden to shareholder value as the only or biggest metric, and I understand I’m not a C-Suite person so I’m sure I only have half knowledge on this issue, you win every compensation system you have incentivizes a certain type of behavior.
If you want to incentivize certain kinds of behavior here, the answer is not what kind of food trucks do you have parked outside Goldman Sachs of people come to work. Maybe that’s good for days 1 to 4 but if you can’t give me a good reason to leave home, then you are not speaking to me. It’s not about giving me a good reason to return to the office, it’s about giving me a good reason to leave home. I don’t know any company that has been able to answer that question.
The real challenge is, employees are sitting there going, “It has been 16, 18 months. I haven’t seen my desk and my coworkers in 16, 18 months. My productivity has not changed. In fact, it has been more effective. I have been able to live a better life. All my jobs are being done. The company is still making money. All these things are going on. Why do I have to go back to the office?”
Why is going back to the office if I have already proven that, “I can work remotely. I don’t crave that hour-by-hour sameness and cohesion of being next to somebody else in a cubicle. Why do I have to go back?” There’s that dichotomy where the C-Suite are sitting there going, “We paid for all this space. We want commanding control. We want the optics of having people busy within an office space and employees that want something completely different.”
I’m going to cut the C-Suite a little slack because most of them, were probably ensconced in their homes in the suburbs during the time of COVID. I don’t think they know how to lead because there is no best practice or rule book here. What I was interested in over several months, was not the office. It was the channel to the office.
For example, if you are in a city, it’s not the office you dread, it’s the commute of 45 to 60 minutes, 90 minutes each way every day. All of a sudden, you didn’t have that commute. Why would somebody want to commute? That’s one problem. The other problem and I did have one C-Suite person prove this to me this but he then quit the company and moved to a small place. It’s the elevator.
I was in a Midtown Manhattan office building because that’s where my dentist is. It was so interesting. The elevator did indeed have four circles in it. Only four people were allowed. I was alone in the elevator. I was going onto the elevator and this woman said, “Do you mind if I come in, too?” There be two of us. I was like, “Of course, not.”
I had always wondered, “How are you going to have a rush hour in Midtown Manhattan and have social distancing in an elevator?” In fact, McKinsey calculated on an average rush-hour day, in an average Midtown Manhattan high-rise with 50 floors, it would take you 90 minutes to get from the lobby to your desk on top of the commute. That’s insane and you cannot get around the elevator. You can’t build more elevators in the lobby.
All of these things are bottlenecks in the system of how work works. What I have been saddened by, and maybe it’s happening below our radars because I haven’t seen any really creative conversations that re-imagining work. Re-imagined co-dependencies for employees across departments. Re-imagining output, “Let’s reverse engineer this. We have an output due on this day.” There’s such a call here for AI to embrace and reinvent efficient and productive ways of working that aren’t linked to being in the office factor. I’m hoping this going to be more of that because necessity is the mother of invention.
You just open up a can of worms that we could talk about but unfortunately, we just don’t have the time. I want to bring this in for a bit of a landing. I want to ask you this one question. Where do we go from here? What do you see as the next step that’s going to enable the mass exit is the 50% of employees that they are guessing are going to be changing jobs over the next several months from stopping that situation and creating the chaos that’s going to cause within large and small corporations alike?
The first thing leadership has to do is take a look at who they can’t afford to lose. I don’t mean that in an individual person way, we can’t afford Nancy or Ben to walk, which are the mission-critical functions and which are the mission-critical deliverables we have. Mapping those together and speaking to those individuals before those rules in those deliverables and say, “Tell us how you want to work.”
Leadership has the hand of power over to the people who can have the potential to sync their organization. The other thing is that they should employ some smart workplace engineering, design, futurist people or people who have some proven track work. Take a look at getting out of their leases, frankly and looking at sub-centers.
Where do most of our people live? Lots of people don’t mind driving twenty minutes to the office. We are delighted to get out of the house. Can you do that? If you are a small business, maybe you can’t but maybe you could look at shifts. To throw out what you know and not be afraid to embrace experimentation. If you keep thinking of hybrid as a schedule, you are going to screw it up.
Before I let you go, I’ve got one question I want to ask you but I want to make sure people can get in touch with you. It’s Nancy Halpern, it’s Political IQ. Is LinkedIn probably the best way to get in touch with you?Most people base their actions, not on what they've observed, but on what they've decided is the evaluation of the observation. Click To Tweet
I post a lot on LinkedIn. If anybody comments on LinkedIn, I always reply in their comment. Please come over and visit me on LinkedIn, and that way you can start getting the Political IQ newsletter. I will send you links to my podcast, where I interviewed corporate people and most leaders in academics about the future of work. Come join me on LinkedIn.
Here’s the last question I ask everybody. As you leave a meeting, you get in your car and you drive away, what’s the one thing you want people to think about you when you are not in the room?
I want them to think that I was interesting and helpful. Those are both important to me. Interesting because then there was something newer value and helpful because then there was something pragmatic that they could use.
The combination of those is powerful. Nancy, thank you for being an amazing guest. Thank you for all your insights and for adding some wisdom to my audience.
Thank you for inviting me and thank you to all your audience for tuning in. I appreciate that. I honor it. Thank you, Ben.
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About Nancy Halpern
Nancy Halpern is a nationally recognized leadership consultant and pioneer in the field of talent development who diagnoses political dysfunction in organizations. Leveraging practical experience and intellectual capital from over twenty years of client engagements, Nancy helps companies find solutions to the most intractable of problems – office politics. Her client list, cutting across industries and functions, reflects her adaptability and love of business.
She has worked domestically and internationally for The World Bank, Credit Suisse, Disney, Bank of America, Guardian and Novartis, among many others. Nancy has been interviewed by The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Forbes, Fast Company, Inc., The Financial Times, The Chicago Tribune, The Huffington Post, National Public Radio, ABC and NBC News. Thought leaders, authors, academics and corporate executives are guests on her podcast Political IQ, focusing on transforming leadership cultures, the future of work and talent development.
She holds an MBA from Yale University, BA Magna Cum Laude from Brandeis University and additional undergraduate study at Oxford University, Great Britain.
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