How to say no in No-vember for a happier, healthier, more productive work life

Originally published in the Globe & Mail November 21, 2022

As companies are adapting to new ways of working at varying speeds, there is a need for organizations, teams and individuals to optimize and prioritize along new dimensions: What work is best suited in-office versus remote? What is best accomplished synchronously versus asynchronously? How can we rethink and revitalize meetings so we aren’t stuck in meetings all day with no time to think or do?

Many employees are overstretched and overwhelmed, finding there aren’t enough hours in the day to deliver on commitments. According to Microsoft’s September 2022 Work Trends Index, 48 per cent of employees and 53 per cent of managers say they are already burned out. In the same report, it was noted that last spring, meetings had increased by 153 per cent since the start of the pandemic, “double bookings” increased by 46 per cent in the last year and, in an average week, 42 per cent of participants multitask during meetings. This goes to show that, in many cases, there is no slack in the system. Prioritization must go beyond simply reordering an overflowing to-do list.

Much can be done at an organizational level and team leader level to help prioritize and create capacity for employees, so that they can focus on what matters. Not just cutting big projects and product launches, but reconfiguring how work is done and delivered. For example, does that quarterly business review really require a 100-page polished PowerPoint deck and eight hours of meetings? Leaders and employees alike should be empowered to evaluate each task and deliverable with the following three Ds: Delay, Do Differently, Don’t Do, to challenge the status quo.

At an individual level, it may be time to simplify our lives by saying “no” to things that do not serve us. Liane Davey, author of The Good Fight, highlights 30 drains on health, happiness, and productivity you can start saying “no” to in No-vember, perfect timing before the holiday rush adds to our stress. Below are five, though you can find the rest here:

  • Prioritization: “‘Priority’ comes from ‘priori’: first; not 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th,” cautions Ms. Davey. Otherwise said, when everything is a priority, nothing is. Your work priorities should clearly align with company and team goals and broader purpose. If the alignment is unclear, say so, and seek clarification. Let’s not prioritize until we determine what needs to be de-prioritized.
  • Collaboration: According to Deb Mashek, author of Collabor(h)ate, ask these four questions to determine whether you should say no to a collaboration opportunity: 1) Is the opportunity aligned to your values and interests? 2) Are you able to meaningfully contribute to this project (for example, skills and capacity)? 3) Are there appropriate resources for the scope and scale of this project? 4) Are the other people on the project able to meaningfully contribute? If the answer to any of these is no, you may want to take a pass on the collaboration opportunity.
  • Wasting in-office days: This doesn’t mean don’t go to the office, it means make it count when you do. In this transitory period, leaders may need to suggest what would be beneficial to do on in-office days, so we don’t have the worst of both worlds – hard to find space (as a result of fewer desks and hot-desking) with many workers in virtual meetings all day.
  • Perfection: Waiting for the perfect moment means potentially missing the window of opportunity, entirely. In our new world of work, where there is so much uncertainty, we need to not let perfection get in the way of good enough. For example, when it comes to adjusting to new ways of working, be aware that we will make mistakes, learn and iterate.
  • E-mail fights: Selecting appropriate channels for different types of communication is an essential part of adjusting to our new ways of working. Before sending that emotional or controversial e-mail or message, think about how it may be received: tone and nuance are difficult to decipher in written form. Instead of potentially getting into a battle, save difficult dialogue for the channels in which they are best-suited: in-person, video or phone, depending on your respective locations.

While we are on the topic of saying “no,” one final idea for leaders: establish NOKRs, not just OKRs (objectives and key results): what employees should not do to get the most critical work done. This will help them prioritize more effectively and remain aligned with the team and organization’s objectives without the burden of extra low-value work. Happy No-vember.

Take advantage of in-office ‘anchor days’ to strengthen relationships and build skills

Originally published in the Globe & Mail October 28, 2022

As organizations attempt to transition to a business-as-usual environment after two-and-a-half years of a pandemic, they are diving into new ways of working. Many are considering a hybrid model, where employees split days between the office and a remote location. However, if employers don’t provide a compelling reason to trade the comforts of home for long commutes, an “us versus them” power struggle between leadership and workers may emerge.

To break through the inertia, some companies are mandating anchor days when the team or whole company is requested or required to be in the office on specific days. For example, Uber just announced workers must return to the office starting Nov. 1, with Tuesdays and Thursdays as anchor days.

At first, I had a visceral reaction to the concept. After all, isn’t it counter to the flexibility we are trying to support, by essentially imposing new rules that don’t work for everyone? Having had experience transitioning to a hybrid working model in 2010 and again in 2014, I observed that if you empower teams, leaders and individuals to figure out how, where and when to get their work done, they do.

Sure, they may make mistakes along the way, but most get into a rhythm by trying and learning. This trial-and-error process is an important step in building ownership and accountability for outcomes, where location and schedule are simply a means to an end, not the end in and of itself.

While I used to be against anchor days, I now see them as similar to training wheels, providing a tangible construct to support employees in building new habits, before they are ready to ride on their own.

According to the latest Microsoft Work Trends Index, 73 per cent of employees surveyed want a more compelling reason to be in the office than “because I said so.” The reason should be clearly communicated, connected to the company’s purpose and values, and considerate of individual needs.

In this transitory period, it may not be enough to articulate “why” we should be in the office (some of the time). Leaders may need to suggest what would be beneficial to do on anchor days, so we don’t have the worst of both worlds – hard to find space (as a result of fewer desks and hot-desking) with lots of people in virtual meetings all day.

In his book, Remote not Distant, Gustavo Razzetti talks about six work modes for distributed teams. Each of these modes can be classified along two dimensions: “me versus we time” and “deep versus shallow work.” In doing so, we can better identify activities best suited to our in-office days. Here are a few ways leaders can help their teams prioritize on anchor days:

1. Deep collaboration: One of Mr. Razzetti’s six identified modes is Deep Collaboration (for example, teamwork without distraction, to accomplish a single task together). Not all collaboration is best accomplished in-person – it has been shown that an asynchronous and remote form can mitigate bias and groupthink. However, when we need to focus as a team on accomplishing one common task or goal, being together in the same room can enable quicker alignment and decision making.

2. On-the-job learning: Data from The Power of Proximity study suggests people give and receive more regular feedback when in proximity with people on their teams, even in a digital world. This type of feedback is considered “on the job” and/or “in the flow” learning, which is a critical component of building new skills.

3. Exchanging human energy: Or “casual collaboration,” per Mr. Razzetti. The Microsoft report indicates that:

  • 85 per cent of employees would be motivated to go into the office to rebuild team bonds.
  • 84 per cent would be motivated to go into the office if they could socialize with coworkers.
  • 74 per cent would go to the office more frequently if they knew their “work friends” were there.
  • 73 per cent would go to the office more frequently if they knew their direct team members would be there.

People miss and care about their work friends: it’s that simple.

Hybrid work, if implemented thoughtfully and given time to normalize, creates many win-wins for organizations and employees. Eventually, I believe anchor days can go away once people naturally recognize when they should and like to be with people versus not, and self-organize that way.

But until then, implementing such days, including clearly communicating the “whys” and suggested “whats,” is a temporary solution to encourage meaningful, intentional in-person interaction.

From wanting to stay in bed to dancing in September: how a small habit shift is having a big impact

Originally published in the Globe & Mail September 30, 2022

For many years, the song Wake Me Up When September Ends by Green Day has been on repeat in my head for the whole month. The weather change and post-summer wake-up call made me want to … well, stay in bed.

This year, I made a deliberate shift to change that tune to the more upbeat September, by Earth, Wind and Fire. I am choosing to embrace and celebrate all the newness. Now, when that feeling of being overwhelmed creeps in, instead of letting my stress fester, manifesting in unproductive ways, I blast September out loud or in my head. This small shift in behaviour is helping me reframe this month.

We don’t have to commit to major changes to achieve meaningful results. Simply making a conscious effort to adjust our response can be effective, according to The Coaching Habit author Michael Bungay Stanier. “When (insert situation/trigger), instead of (current behaviour), I will (insert new, desired behaviour) because (insert why it matters),” he suggests.

So when encountering a trigger, in this instance, the feeling of being overwhelmed, rather than letting stress fester and manifest itself in unproductive ways, I will respond with the new, desired behaviour – in this case, by blasting out September, in order to refocus.

Here are three areas where commitment to a small habit change can lead to meaningful results:

Return to Office: I was recently asked why it was so easy to get everyone to go remote in 2020 and now it feels virtually impossible to get people back into the office. The answer likely has to do with urgency (in 2020, we were in a state of emergency, and had no choice but to work from home), clarity (we have moved the goalposts too many times, and employees are confused) and, perhaps most importantly, habits. According to a recent survey of about 50 Canadian chief human resources officers, conducted by Cotalent and Strategic Capability Network, 55 per cent of employees are in the office less than expected by their organizations, despite 68 per cent of the organizations providing incentives such as events, meals and gifts to encourage their return.

As Roger Martin, the former dean of the Rotman School of Management, recently wrote in Fortune, the pandemic disrupted old habits of going to the office. When a habit is broken, he points out, its privileged position disappears and a new habit takes shape – in this case working from home. The subconscious gives privilege to that new habit and it quickly becomes the default habit. Encouraging a shift in habits requires more than mandates. Instead, consider prompting leaders and teams to find their own triggers (for example, a certain type of meeting) that would enact the new behaviour (coming into the office) instead of the current one (assuming virtual attendance is okay).

Culture: I recently came across a public-serving company that banned one habitual word from employees’ lexicon to drive meaningful culture change. The word? “Next.” As a customer, hearing someone say the word “next” is impersonal and does not inspire action or loyalty. Making this small change refocused front-line workers on the customer, as they were forced to choose language that inspired better human connection. I am trying to eliminate the word “busy” from my habitual language for the same reason.

Well-being: In a recent workshop, participants were asked to commit to one small behaviour shift that would affect their own well-being and that of their teams, in pursuit of more human-centred leadership: They were asked, when feeling overwhelmed, to commit to doing something for their own well-being (such as taking a walk or eating a healthy snack), instead of just powering through. This small effort would allow them to be better leaders for their teams, and in turn drive better results.

Staying committed to habit changes may be easier said than done – that is why so many of our New Year’s resolutions fail. According to behaviour-change technology company, Actionable, here are ways to improve the chances of making habits stick:

  1. Design your commitment thoughtfully: structure, relevance and duration are all important foundational elements to building new habits.
  2. Reflect on your commitment deeply and regularly: Build reminders to check in on your commitment into your workflow (such as using calendar notifications, alarms or post-it notes) at a time and in a way you know you will pay attention. Reflecting on how well you’re doing at a regular cadence (by rating yourself and writing down some observations) can help you stay committed to continuous improvement over time.
  3. Be accountable: Choosing a trusted partner to check in with on a regular basis not only makes the process more fun, but also helps improve the chances of staying committed and making the habit stick.

September represents the beginning of a new year for many – for those of us who are parents of school-aged children, for those of us who are of Jewish faith, and for those of us who start a new fiscal year or end a quarter. This year, many organizations are also (re)launching their new working models this month, attempting yet another return to office, in some capacity. It’s a great time to reflect on some of the habits we may want to shift to enable a better working environment for all.

As September comes to an end, I am feeling more energized and ready to take on the fall. Here’s to “New Year’s resolutions” that stick.

Thinking about quiet quitting? Consider these alternatives for a more fulfilling career

Originally published in the Globe & Mail August 29, 2022

Quiet quitting is the latest workplace-related alliteration that’s gaining momentum, especially among Gen Zs. It is not about quitting in the literal sense. In fact, quite the opposite, it’s about doing the bare minimum required, while remaining fully employed.

As the now viral TikTok video by a user named zaidleppelin suggests, by quietly quitting, “You’re not outright quitting your job, but you’re quitting the idea of going above and beyond … your worth as a person is not defined by your labour.”

The notion is not new – “work to live, instead of live to work” is a philosophy that’s been embraced by cultures outside of North America forever. However, describing this as “quiet quitting” has negative, cynical connotations that can be harmful for workplace engagement and performance. It insinuates a fixed mindset, thinking of jobs as a discrete set of tasks, beyond which employees should be entitled to opt out.

The reality is, jobs are more nuanced and complex, requiring some give and take. Sometimes work requires an extra push to get to the finish line. And employees can only feel good about those instances if they are allowed adequate recovery (for example, “fire drills” can’t become the norm). As organizations have not necessarily operated with employee well-being in mind over the past few decades – expecting them to do more with less, leading to more encroachment on personal time and pervasive burnout – this type of quiet revolt could have been predicted. But there must be a happy middle ground where employees are motivated to do their best work and are fairly treated and paid for it.

What can employees do as an alternative to quiet quitting?

  1. Look before you leap: Before jumping on the bandwagon, think about what’s causing you to quietly quit. Are you resentful that you aren’t getting enough pay or recognition? Have you been given an unfair workload without adequate resources? Do you not see the point or context for the work your leader has asked you to do?
  2. Have open conversations: Once you’ve identified your “why,” take steps to proactively address it. It’s better, both for you and for the organization, to pitch a solution (which may include more resources, more context, or help in prioritizing), than to marinate in mounting resentment. Even in cases where you are not granted everything you ask for, you at least will have done your part in attempting to solve the problem, bringing transparency to managers who may not fully appreciate the full weight or implications of their asks.
  3. Reframe: Instead of quietly quitting, consider joyfully joining. As Arianna Huffington suggests, “rather than go through the motions in a job you’ve effectively quit on, why not find one that inspires you, engages you and brings you joy? We have, after all, a once-in-a-generation opportunity to redefine how we work and live. Let’s not settle on quiet quitting.” Take the power back into your own hands – choose work that aligns with your skills and/or purpose. Going “above and beyond” doesn’t necessarily mean extra hours. When we are engaged and in our best-fit roles, we can work smarter, more efficiently and feel good about the impact we are making.
  4. Set boundaries: Know what your non-negotiables are and openly communicate them. Remember, your team and leader(s) are not mind readers, so if you continue to allow your non-negotiables to be sacrificed, they will assume you are okay with it. It’s important, however, to also be aware that jobs are a give and take and we need to flex sometimes if we expect flexibility.
  5. Quit (for real): Instead of taking a passive-aggressive approach, if none of the above are suitable solutions, take your talent elsewhere. Life is too short to be in a job where you are resentful and not operating at your best.

If quiet quitting is a new form of “presenteeism” (where employees are physically at work but mentally elsewhere), there is cause for concern: we can’t afford to have organizations led and operated by disengaged zombie-like workers. However, if it is a rallying cry for better prioritization, fair pay for fair work and career and time management, then it is long overdue, but perhaps deserves a reframe. Whether you are for or against it, the fact that this provocative term has struck a chord with so many is something organizations need to pay attention to, as they continue to manage a fed-up, burned-out work force.

Lessons in trust, empowerment and innovation after a preventable 90-minute flight delay

Originally published in the Globe & Mail August 19, 2022

Air travel this summer is not for the faint of heart. Between sky-high airfares, delays, cancellations and lost baggage, many travellers are experiencing moderate annoyances to significant disruptions as they try to get back to some semblance of prepandemic leisure after two and a half years being grounded.

While some of the root causes are out of humans’ control (such as severe weather), and some will take time to resolve (such as staffing shortages), it is important that airlines address issues that are in their control, swiftly, to start rebuilding trust and loyalty among travellers. There is a lot to be learned from the airline industry’s front lines about the connection among customer (and employee) needs, employee trust and empowerment, innovation and loyalty.

A quick story as an example: On a recent flight home, upon boarding, it was clear to ground staff there would be a weight balancing issue. As we approached the jet bridge, the gate agent attempted to convince passengers to check their bags “for free” to their final destination, warning that if not enough bags were checked, the flight would be cancelled. After an hour already delayed, and with no confidence that baggage would actually make it to our destination if checked, passengers were eager to board, with carry-on luggage, as entitled with our ticket purchase.

A game of chicken ensued – everyone boarded, majority with carry-ons, expecting to call the agent’s bluff that the flight would be cancelled. Once we were all boarded, and all bags were safely stowed in overhead bins, the flight attendant made an announcement that we would need fourteen bags offloaded and checked or we would not take off. This was a safety issue. Stalemate.

We sat on the runway for an hour, no one willing to part with their bag. The flight attendants and ground crew then went through the cabin, randomly selecting bags, each one angering the passengers to whom they belonged, each with a reason why they couldn’t part with them, including running late for a parent’s funeral. At which point, an empathetic passenger turned in his bag, and one by one we got to fourteen. An hour-and-a-half delay was fully preventable, leaving many passengers irate and contemplating switching to a different carrier.

What I observed in these 90 minutes has relevant application for our organizations across industries:

  1. Design incentives with customer (or employee) needs at the core: In the current environment, offering to check bags free of charge is akin to offering an ‘extra curricular’ project to a maxed-out employee, without providing reward or relief. The customer does not value this incentive, because they are fed up and do not trust that their bags will make it to the destination, which would cost them time and money. When designing a customer or employee value proposition, it is important to put the customer or employee at the centre, really understand their needs and provide engaging offerings that motivate action (for example in this customer case, handing over a bag, in the employee case, doing great work for the organization).
  2. Want innovation without employee empowerment? Good luck. Innovation happens when people closest to customer needs are trusted and empowered to make suggestions, decisions and change. When I noticed we weren’t getting anywhere with the proposed free baggage check offer, I suggested to the flight attendant that they offer an incentive (for example, a monetary reward or future upgrade) for passengers who check their bags. Even though this idea was derived from a typical airline practice of incentivizing passengers to give up their seats, she looked at me like I had nine heads. “Not my job, we are order takers” is essentially what she said, even after I recommended she escalate to the person whose job it was to make these types of decisions. If we think about this scenario happening over and over in airplanes and other businesses across industries, think about how much could be solved, and how much time and money could be saved, if those closest to problems were actually trusted and empowered to solve them.
  3. Customers (and employees) are loyal when they feel heard. The more transparent and timely companies are in responding to customer and employee concerns, and their plan to address them, the more customers and employees will give them the benefit of the doubt (note: a recent telecom example also comes to mind with regards to what NOT to do). When the voices of the customer and employee are ignored, people come to their own conclusions and take their business or talents elsewhere.

Safe travels to all this summer.

Three ingredients to make hybrid working a success: planning, communication and trust

Originally published in the Globe & Mail July 8, 2022

Is your team working in a hybrid model, where some time is spent in the office and some time is spent remote, and you don’t know where to go from here? Whether your organization is leaving the schedule up to individual preference or mandating fixed days in the office, leaders and employees want guidance on how to be successful in this new way of working.

There are differing views on how many days are optimal in the office versus remote. Stanford professor Nick Bloom published research indicating that the percentage of days worked from home is converging at 30 per cent, and that the large majority of employees are complying with their employer’s planned working arrangements. However, mandating a fixed number or specific days in the office risks employee disengagement and frustration if they come to the office only to sit on video meetings all day.

Another way to think about it is which activities are best suited in-office versus remote. And “activities” are not confined to tactical work tasks, they also include less-tangible ones like apprenticeship, relationship building and serendipitous collisions. Here are some steps that guide how I approach hybrid working, both now as an entrepreneur and in my prior role as a leader at an organization that migrated to hybrid working in 2010:

1. Plan in-office and WFH days: I scan my calendar each Friday for 2-4 weeks out and look for patterns – do I have certain days that are heavy on collaboration / social / sensitive meetings that would be better suited in-person? Depending on how many, I try to cluster them on one to three days. I then ask myself whether there are meetings or activities that are better suited remote (for example, meetings with people from other offices / time zones, prep time or writing time)? I try to move these to another day.

2. Optimize in-office days: When I am in the office, I choose a visible space and encourage open-floor dialogue to maximize face-to-face time. I schedule one-on-one meetings with colleagues I want to catch up with in person, and periodically full team meetings or events so that I have an anchor or pull to the office for the entire team. I always communicate “why” I think we should all be in the office for a particular activity or day. Note – the cadence of full-team in-person days largely depends on the type of work we do.

3. Communicate with my team(s) and / or clients – People are not mind readers – don’t assume that because you think a meeting or activity should be in person, everyone else does. I also clearly indicate where I am each day in my calendar and messaging apps. For example, if I am a part of multiple / cross-functional teams, and all have regular in-person meetings on different days, I rotate and communicate my in-person attendance, depending on my role in the meeting (observer, presenter, decision maker).

A few additional considerations:

1. Assume positive intent and trust your team (and your leader): Regardless of how prescriptive your organization’s hybrid model is (from “everyone makes their own decisions” to “everyone in the office Mondays and Thursdays”), most people don’t want to be rule enforcers: trust is the foundational element for success. However, it is also fair to assume that not everyone (particularly more junior team members or newly formed teams) have enough of a sense of what they’re missing in terms of in-office nuance. You may need to be more prescriptive at first (and provide the “why”), while you are building new team habits.

2. Be clear about exceptions: Life happens. As always, there will be exceptions to established organizational and team norms – it’s important to acknowledge this and, at an organization-wide and team-level, make the exception process simple and clear.

3. As a meeting owner, set clear expectations: If you are scheduling an in-person meeting, be clear (in the subject heading or otherwise) that this is the expectation. For example, don’t include a Teams / Zoom link in the invite. This will put the onus on the attendees to ask for an exception by requesting a link if they can’t make it in person. Also, give people as much advanced notice as possible for in-person meetings so they can plan accordingly.

It is also important to use common sense. Especially in organizations that are less prescriptive, both as a leader and as an accountable team member, there is a reasonability check that needs to take place: “when was the last time I saw my leader / team member face-to-face?” While there is no one right answer, if the answer is “I don’t remember” or “seems like forever,” it may be good to schedule some coordinated face-to-face time, for general good team hygiene and human energy exchange. Everyone should feel empowered to suggest coordinated face-to-face time, not just team leaders.

With economic headwinds, layoffs may be coming: What leaders can do to make them less painful

Originally published in the Globe & Mail June 10, 2022

Naomi Titleman Colla is founder of Collaborativity Inc., a Toronto-based consultancy focused on driving progressive talent strategy in this new world of work. She is also a co-founder of Future foHRward.

At last month’s Economic Outlook panel in Davos, a widely expected global recession was top of mind. As we continue to see volatility and uncertainty in our economic environment, many companies are grappling with what to do about their workforces. Despite it currently being a tight labour market, layoffs may be inevitable at some companies, compounding the pain felt through the pandemic through the loss of talent.

While layoffs are never easy, there are things leaders can do to make them less painful for all:

  1. Check your bias: be careful not to disproportionately lay off remote workers – In a recent New York Post article, Brian Kropp, chief of human resources research at the consulting firm Gartner, said that managers believe employees who work remotely are lower performers than those who come into the office, and will on average be more likely to lay off remote workers. He also pointed out a gender discrepancy. “Women work from home more frequently than men, “ he said, and “if companies axe employees based on whether employees work in-person, they therefore risk ending up with a male-dominated work force.” This is of course especially concerning on the back of the pandemic-induced “she-cession,” in which women have stepped back from their careers to take on a disproportionate amount of home responsibilities during periods of lockdown and home schooling. If workers have been hired as fully remote or have otherwise been granted the flexibility to work in this way, they should not be negatively affected as a result. Cutting corners by cutting remote workers first is a sure way to inadvertently let go of great talent. The answer shouldn’t be to get everyone back in the office, either. Instead, organizations should have clear guidelines to set up remote workers for success. This includes transparent communications detailing individual and leader responsibilities to ensure they aren’t “out of sight, out of mind,” as Mr. Kopp suggests. Leaders then need to clearly prioritize for their teams, regularly communicate performance expectations and assess progress, and in the unfortunate scenario of layoffs, use objective criteria.
  2. Pro-actively help people find a new gig – When preparing for layoffs, take time to have career conversations with those who are affected. You may discover employees who have hidden skills that would be useful in other areas of the business, which is a great opportunity to redeploy talent within the organization. In cases where that can’t be done, being transparent about layoffs can help workers find new positions elsewhere. For example, website Layoffs.FYI lists tech companies (and in some cases employee names) affected by layoffs since the start of the pandemic. While many of the companies listed are U.S.-based, companies that can accommodate workers based anywhere will be able to access broader talent pools. And thanks to social media like LinkedIn, employees and leaders can quickly communicate at scale that they are either open for hire or that they endorse those who are. I’ve seen great examples of leaders vouching for affected employees through posts on LinkedIn. Conversely, leaders looking to hire talent have also used this channel to offer interviews to workers who have been laid off.
  3. Tap into your human-centred leadership – human-centred leadership, simply put, is focusing on the people so they can take care of the business. On the flip side, business-centred leadership focuses first on financial metrics, and then on how people can help achieve them. Finding equilibrium between business-centred and human-centred leadership in tough situations like layoffs is a delicate balance. While layoffs are business-driven imperatives, leaning into human-centred leadership principles can make or break how people feel, react, and talk about your company on the way out. It is of course important to communicate the business reasons for the layoff, but it is equally important to treat people with respect, dignity and compassion through the process. Also pay attention to those remaining – survivors’ guilt can lead to disengagement and voluntary attrition, especially if they feel they are left with an unfair workload to bear.

As we face economic headwinds, many leaders will conduct layoffs for the first time in their career and most will be conducting them for the first time in a hybrid or fully remote setting. Supporting leaders with the tools and skills they need to lead through these challenging times in a human-centred way will mitigate bias and enable those who are affected to leave with dignity.

Is thinking in extremes getting in the way of hybrid work working?

Originally published in the Globe & Mail May 13, 2022

3+2, 4+1, 2+3. In today’s business context, these are not simple math equations but rather the way companies are trying to build consistency for their employees in their hybrid working models.
The figures represent the number of days employees are expected to be in the office versus not. According to Nick Bloom, Stanford Economics professor and co-founder of, the optimal mix may be 3+2 … or maybe 2+3, and he believes the arrangement will last, “in part because of technological advances improving the hybrid work-from-home experience.”
Laszlo Bock, former CHRO of Google and founder of Humu, concurs with the 3+2 balance; however, Bock predicts hybrid won’t last more than three to five years, because of various reasons including “bosses wanting people back in the office” and “a lopsided system for employee evaluations.”

But does the ratio of office-to-home days actually matter? Does it need to be uniform and set in stone? Indeed, many organizations are still stuck at the point of figuring out whether hybrid working is a viable option at all.

Part of the challenge is people think in extremes when they are uncomfortable with the unknown. Hybrid working, by definition, is a blend of in-office and remote work. This means employees will be in the office, but not necessarily full-time – which is subject to interpretation and therefore fills leaders with uncertainty and fear that their people will never be in the office.
In a hybrid model – different from a remote-first or fully remote model – it is fair to expect employees can get to their workplace within reasonable commuting time, unless they have an explicit arrangement otherwise. Therefore, we need to trust and empower employees to show up when they need and/or want to – when it’s the better choice for themselves and/or their team and/or their client, whether it’s for social, productivity or collaboration reasons. This will take time to normalize, and people will occasionally make the wrong decision, but it’s important we keep the lines of communication open to learn from mistakes and course-correct quickly.

Several financial services companies were first out the gate declaring that hybrid working wasn’t for them. For example, JP Morgan’s chief executive officer, Jamie Dimon, was quoted saying, “Working from home doesn’t work for people who want to hustle, doesn’t work for culture, doesn’t work for idea generation.” But some, including Mr. Dimon, seem to have had a recent change of heart. Last month, it was announced that JP Morgan would allow most workers to work remotely at least part of the time. Whether this decision was based on a true change in belief or because of fear of attrition (anticipated or real), employees have spoken and it’s clear that if their employer doesn’t offer flexibility, they will find one that does.

There have been some arguments against hybrid working that we need to address and manage as leaders as we embark on this next chapter.
 A few to consider:

“If they’re not in front of me, they’re obviously not working as hard.” Leaders need to focus on being clear about goals, including timelines and driving desired outcomes. I always say, if someone is shopping online or streaming Netflix instead of working, I would rather they do that at home than in an open floor plan for all to see. If they don’t deliver, it’s a performance conversation, not a location one.

“We can’t preserve our culture if we are in a hybrid or remote working model.” The truth is, culture must evolve to be relevant. It is not the physical structure of an office building that matters most, it’s the values and relationships that have been built in its four walls and outside of them. An organization’s culture remains deeply rooted within us and our work practices – it just evolves as we move along our journey. Companies that didn’t already deliberately manage their culture, aligned with their purpose, will need to do some soul-searching to ensure they build the culture they want and need to be successful in this next chapter.

“If I don’t assign set days in the office no one will show up.” There may be days where leaders wonder where everyone is, but giving people a reason to be in the office (and not just free lunch) is the work. Creating pull to the office, a “want to” as opposed to a “have to,” is more sustainable in the long run than having fixed mandated in-office days. People are craving in-person interaction – but they are also looking for signals from leaders regarding when and for what (hint: not for more Zoom calls).

At the end of the day, a hybrid model will not be successful without strong leadership buy-in and role modelling. Like Mr. Bock said in a recent LinkedIn post, ” 3+2 schedule maximizes happiness and productivity, but only if companies and managers are willing to do the work needed to make it successful. Most don’t know how.” Let’s support leaders in developing new capabilities, instead of mandating everyone back to the office because leaders don’t yet know how to lead in this way.

Want to make human-centred business decisions? Use design thinking

Originally published in the Globe & Mail April 13, 2022

In the rapidly evolving world of work, there’s constant pressure on organizations, leaders and individuals to get more done with less.

Teams that are under time constraints or facing looming deadlines sometimes adopt solutions with inherent biases or that lack creativity. While innovation is often a stated objective, these pressures can cut into the spaces that are necessary to spark creativity and generate new ideas.

How can workplaces know where innovation is called for without taking the time to understand customer needs? How can leadership do better for their staff if they don’t truly listen?

Design thinking is a human-centred approach to innovation and problem solving. “It encourages organizations to focus on the people they’re creating for, which leads to better products, services, and internal processes,” the global design firm IDEO says.

You don’t have to understand the full technical framework and process to apply the key principles of design thinking in day-to-day business decisions and people leadership. Adopting a human-centred approach at work can help generate more – and often better – solutions for customers and staff.

Inspired by the process used by IDEO, here’s the process to implement design thinking:

  • Identify the challenge: Teams often stumble right off the blocks because they don’t agree on the problem they are trying to solve. To avoid wasting time and resources, make sure all team members understand the challenge from the outset.
  • Gather inspiration: Avoid creator’s bias by gathering a wide range of ideas and insights to understand the end-user. Use surveys and other tools to research your audience. To ensure you’re considering enough viewpoints and mitigating blind spots, think about the extremes in your population.
  • Generate ideas: Team members should be encouraged to build on each other’s ideas. If your team is remote (or a hybrid of virtual and in the office) or in different time zones, try using an online collaboration tool such as Miro or Mural to be inclusive and avoid groupthink. After ideas are generated, meet as a team to create – and agree on – a short list of solutions to explore in more depth. A work culture where all members are comfortable speaking up promotes inclusion and team well-being, in addition to better business solutions.
  • Make ideas tangible: With ideas in hand, encourage team members to have fun using their imagination to design solutions with the user’s needs front and centre.
  • Test to learn: This might feel unnatural in organizations where teams are accustomed to waiting for perfection before releasing a solution. However, testing and learning or “failing forward” by constantly incorporating user feedback, builds the agility required for innovation.
  • Share the story: Even the best solutions fall flat without a thoughtful communication plan. Get buy-in and adoption for your ideas by sharing the why behind decisions, including user feedback. Overcommunication is a must: Do not assume you’ve reached the hearts and minds of users with one corporate memo.

A Design Thinking approach can also apply in day-to-day people leadership. For example, understanding the needs of individual team members ensures you can support them with personalized and relevant resources.

Gathering inspiration from a variety of sources enables us to tailor our leadership style to the unique individual needs of our team members. Asking for and acting on feedback – after meetings, throughout difficult projects – is a great way to develop vulnerability, a key leadership capability.

This type of human-centred approach to business and people leadership fosters a more inclusive, inspiring culture, essential to both innovation and organizational well-being.

Naomi Titleman Colla is founder of Collaborativity Inc., a Toronto-based consultancy focused on driving progressive talent strategy in this new world of work. She is also a co-founder of Future foHRward, a Josh Bersin Academy partner.

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Is conflating the return to offices with hybrid working creating confusion and angst in our workforce?

Originally published in the Globe & Mail September 27th, 2021

As more and more companies firm up vaccination policies and children return to school, so too are many employees returning to offices. In what capacity colleagues are returning varies significantly based on two factors. The first is return-to-office (RTO) policies – the requirements to be granted entry, which can include vaccination, testing, attestations and masking. The second is the degree to which companies are implementing hybrid working models that include a blend of in-office and remote work. While these two factors are very much intertwined, we must not conflate them.

Even as we take into consideration some of the work practices we have tested over the course of the pandemic – particularly, the notion that work can be done productively from home – we must be cognizant that we are still living through a pandemic and there are factors at play that prevent putting an ideal hybrid model into effect.

It appears that many are struggling to imagine today’s return to office as distinct from a future hybrid model in which we are not as constrained by health and safety concerns. As a result, guidelines are being launched too soon, with arbitrary dates (some U.S. banks pushing back their highly-publicized September RTO dates to October, or later) and employee reactions are biased by pandemic-induced emotions (“How can I go to the office 60 per cent of the time if I don’t feel comfortable taking public transportation?”).

While many companies are planning to implement a hybrid model, we must take into consideration that certain guidelines, such as requiring that a predetermined amount of time or certain activities must be conducted in the office, may not be fully achievable until the real threat of the virus is behind us. So what do we do in the meantime?

Recognize variability in employee-comfort levels: Having an option to go into an office is a huge step forward on the freedom scale. And yet, many employees may not feel comfortable in doing so. Yes, new and evolving innovations like vaccines, rapid tests and space-reservation systems have enabled the implementation of more robust RTO policies. And good news from Pfizer/BioNTech this week gives parents some hope that our kids will also have the opportunity to be vaccinated soon – but we still need to respect that not everyone has the same comfort levels or reasons to return to the office. We need to be empathetic and mindful of inclusion, especially as we start to see a mix of in-office and remote working.

Have a plan, with room for exceptions: Given the variability in pandemic waves taking place across the globe, we are not yet able to adopt an ideal hybrid model for “normal” times – but will we ever be? Perhaps the key to success is allowing for the maximum amount of flexibility to optimize work by empowering people to work from where and when they are most productive, not just during normal times, but also during the current and any future “black swan” events.

This is achieved through some overarching “business as usual” guiding principles, allowing for exceptions based on individual, team, organization or global circumstances. For example, guiding principles for an ideal hybrid model in normal times can be launched now, with the caveat that we are still operating under an exception due to global circumstance. While timing as to when the exception will be lifted is still unknown, this distinction helps differentiate between the current pandemic situation and a “business as usual” hybrid model.

Be the tortoise, not the hare: Organizations that have been too quick to pull the trigger on mandating a full return to office have been faced with mismanaged expectations and a lot of internal friction. Creating arbitrary timelines and trying to control an outcome that cannot be controlled causes anxiety and erodes trust. We often think about the word “lead” as having to be the quickest, the first to come up with a definitive solution – but this is not always the case. In many ways leading during these times hasn’t been about being quick or having complete conviction, but more about constant communication, adapting to a situation and actually admitting that we don’t have a quick or perfect solution.

As RTO plans start to unfold, it is important to be ambitious and deliberate about your ideal working model – it will have implications on your culture and talent strategy. However, it is equally important to remind colleagues that we are not quite “there” yet, that we are still operating under exceptional circumstances. Constant communication is the key to building trust and mitigating disruption as we continue to navigate these uncertain times.

Naomi Titleman Colla is founder of Collaborativity Inc., a Toronto-based consultancy focused on driving progressive talent strategy in this new world of work. She is also a co-founder of Future FoHRward, a Josh Bersin Academy partner.