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.

Stay ahead in your career. We have a weekly Careers newsletter to give you guidance and tips on career management, leadership, business education and more. Sign up today.

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.

On the 20th anniversary of 9/11, looking back on some life and career lessons I’ll never forget

Originally published in the Globe & Mail September 11th, 2021

I will never forget the beauty of the morning. The sky was clear blue, and the temperature was warm for September. I was one year into my post-university adventure at a Big 5 firm in New York City. On a typical day, I would have put up with the sweltering commute, trudging with hundreds of thousands of others, exiting the subway tunnels through the World Trade Center to get to my desk before 9 a.m. – but something told me to pay the extra fare and treat myself to the luxury of the air-conditioned bus that day, a decision that perhaps saved my life.

At 8:46 a.m., the bus driver asked us to disembark, having not quite yet reached my destination at 1 World Financial Centre: It looked like there was a serious incident at the neighbouring World Trade Center. While I looked up at the smoke and flames, horrified by what I thought was a terrible accident, I was somewhat annoyed that I had to walk an extra couple of blocks to get to my office. The next few minutes changed my life forever – the second plane struck the World Trade Center at 9:03, and I, like so many others, ran. I didn’t know where we were running – I remember feeling intense heat and the sense that we were running away from a colossal fireball. Miraculously, I was able to hail a cab with two other bus passengers – and asked the taxi driver to take us as far away from the scene as possible.

In a world before social media and wifi, television and spotty phones were our only source of information and communication. As the news broadcasts began, my mother reached me on my newly purchased cellphone before the telecom grid went dark. I was fine.

The next few days were filled with angst – as we dialled daily into our company’s disaster recovery hotline, we were acutely aware of who wasn’t on the line. After a few seemingly endless days, all of my immediate colleagues were accounted for. As we know, thousands of others were not as fortunate. The following week would have marked the kickoff to the annual review my team and I usually conducted at Cantor Fitzgerald, one of the companies experiencing the most human loss at the World Trade Center.

After what seemed like months but was likely only a few days, the city rallied. People were kind and compassionate, having experienced collective hardship – and, for many, unthinkable loss. We cautiously started gathering at local establishments, toasting and commemorating first responders, supporting local businesses and celebrating our privilege of life.

On this twentieth anniversary of 9/11, I reflect on some lessons that have guided me through my career journey:

1. You only live once. After going through such a traumatic experience, many of us went through a time of reflection, realizing that life is too short to be in a job or career that does not fulfill us. One of my colleagues left a big corporate gig to become a pastry chef, another an ER doctor, and yet another a teacher out west. It was a time to pause and reflect on the impact we wanted to have and the legacy we wanted to leave, while charting a path that would get us there.

2. Great leadership emerges in times of crisis. As a young leader in a post-9/11 world, I felt incredibly ill-equipped to lead my team through such uncertain and volatile times. I was heavily influenced by my own leaders, who demonstrated a balance of confidence and vulnerability. Only recently did I discover that those individuals did not behave this way by chance – they were following the lead of the senior-most leaders in our firm, who operated with a sense of calm; and, through it all, perspective. Perspective was the key to unlocking swift and rational decision-making that was needed in this very emotional time.

3. True urgency bonds people together. Teams, no matter how well-formed prior to the crisis, emerged stronger post-9/11. We were forced to lean on one another, not only in getting back to business for our clients and firm, but also in support of one another as humans. The number-one priority quickly became the well-being of our teams. Therefore, it was critical to align the team to focus on driving impact, not on logging hours at all costs.

Finally, it was critically important not to lose sight of what mattered – and what needed to continue, not just in the weeks and months following the terrorist attacks, but indefinitely. Sure, in the weeks that followed, we put our most human leadership capabilities to the test – empathy, vulnerability and growth mindset were necessary for our collective survival. But those leaders who continued embracing and developing these skills set themselves apart and enabled healthier, more resilient organizations for the longer haul.

Personally, in retrospect, the experiences on and surrounding 9/11 were likely the most influential of my career: I developed a curiosity about and interest in the “people” side of the business, leading to a career shift from risk management to human capital. I learned the importance of perspective, of focusing on what is in our control (and letting go of what is not), and not to take for granted the people and opportunities that life affords us. Never forget.

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.

Stay ahead in your career. We have a weekly Careers newsletter to give you guidance and tips on career management, leadership, business education and more. Sign up today.

As the COVID-19 pandemic recedes, here’s how to prep for a hot talent market

Originally published in the Globe & Mail August 2nd, 2021

An impending resignation boom is on the horizon, with everything from “the great resignation” to “the big quit” to the “turnover tsunami” making headlines. Accordingly, companies are bracing for what could be a very active talent market in the coming months. According to a recent study conducted by Microsoft, 41 per cent of workers globally are considering leaving their jobs this year. This is not necessarily surprising given the pandemic-induced volatility over the past year (causing people to want to hold on to any sort of job “security” they have), the collective exhaustion caused by endless online meetings, and the inclination for humans to re-evaluate life goals after experiencing crisis.

Meanwhile, official Statistic Canada’s job figures still show plenty of volatility. Although the 230,700 jobs added last month beat economists’ expectations of 175,000 jobs, and reversed job cut figures from April and May, all the gains were in part-time employment. The number of full-time jobs remained down. With the supply and demand side of the employment equation restless and ready for change, now is a great time to re-evaluate your career aspirations. It might be time to consider entering the gig economy, raising your hand for a stretch assignment or even contemplate a career change.

Whether or not you are considering participating in this global game of career musical chairs, there are a few things you can do to prepare for it:

  1. Practice good resume hygiene: Regardless of whether or not you are pro-actively seeking alternative employment, now is a great time to refresh your resume and online professional profile. This will not only ensure you are ready if that opportunity you can’t resist falls on your lap, but also is a good way to showcase some of the skills and capabilities acquired over the last year – particularly digital literacy and “human” leadership capabilities like growth mindset and empathy.
  2. Reconnect with your network: Lost touch with important professional contacts over the past 18 months? It’s OK – many have been in a blur of “survive mode” and have de-prioritized networking. Given the recent and ongoing reopening across Canada, there is impetus to reconnect with mentors, sponsors and other professional contacts and to make them aware of your short and longer term aspirations.
  3. Anticipate and take advantage of the inevitable change: With the amount of talent movement anticipated, even if you are not planning to change jobs in the near future, there will no doubt be opportunities (e.g., backfills, secondments, stretch assignments, internal gigs / special projects) you can raise your hand for, within your current job or company. Don’t forget – many employers are now offering location flexibility so you can cast a wider net for opportunities both within and outside of your current job, department and geography.

As for organizations and leaders, it is important to note that the upcoming war for talent will likely not be won through money, titles or job security – it’s all about the employee experience. Most organizations are grappling with their approach to hybrid work and work flexibility, though that’s just one piece of the employee experience. Prioritizing the holistic employee experience (EX), which is coined as a term to capture all that employees encounter in their tenure at an organization, not only attracts and retains top talent, but also drives key business outcomes. According to a recent study conducted by Josh Bersin Academy, companies leveraging the right EX practices are 2.2 times more likely to exceed financial targets, 2.4 times more likely to delight customers and 4.3 times more likely to innovate effectively. The top three of fifteen such practices which have a disproportionate impact on business, people and innovation outcomes were found to be:

  1. Fostering a culture of integrity and helping others
  2. Embedding mission and purpose as part of every activity
  3. Inspiring trust in leaders to be ethical and operate with agility.

Ensuring that leaders, and the enterprise as a whole, focus on and internalize these practices helps to build trust in the organization, and thus higher engagement: This is the way to win the war for talent post-pandemic.

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.

Stay ahead in your career. We have a weekly Careers newsletter to give you guidance and tips on career management, leadership, business education and more. Sign up today.

As employees begin to head back to the office, workplaces can help ensure a thoughtful transition

Originally published in the Globe & Mail July 5th, 2021

As cities around the globe progress through reopening phases, many workers are preparing to transition back to the office after many months of remote work. While some companies are already reopening their offices at varying capacities, many are offering their employees options for how often and how long they might be required to be at the workplace.

In fact, many companies are contemplating a hybrid model (a combination of in-office and work-from-home time) or fully remote model indefinitely, as part of their long-term talent strategy. As leaders and colleagues, it is important that we acknowledge the wide range of emotions that people may experience through this transitional time – from elation to relief to anxiety. These emotions will be triggered for different colleagues at different times and for different reasons. Some may feel uncomfortable getting into an elevator in proximity with others. Some may be eager to socialize and interact with others. Others might be anxious about fitting into their old work clothes, or could be keen to get some space from the roommates they’ve been sharing close quarters with for over a year. Many might experience a combination of all of the above.

The more we can tap into our emotional intelligence – which is the capacity to be aware of, control and express one’s emotions and to manage interpersonal relationships judiciously and empathetically – the more adept we can be at supporting our colleagues through their own emotional journeys. A few practices to consider:

  1. Name our emotions: If we feel like we are being forced to do something against our will, emotions can quickly take over, impacting our engagement, productivity and overall well-being. Being honest with ourselves about (or even writing down) the emotions we are experiencing, and their real or perceived cause, can help identify what is holding us back and empower us to make decisions more deliberately, responding with our six mental faculties (reason, will, intuition, imagination, perception and memory) instead of reacting with emotion.
  2. Tame our emotions: Getting practical and organized keeps us focused on small steps that are within our control and can help keep our emotions from getting the best of us.

As leaders:

  1. Continue employee listening: A strategy to gather employee sentiment at regular intervals, and quickly take action based on that feedback, will be key to maintaining colleagues’ well-being and engagement, and minimizing business disruption through this transitional period and beyond.
  2. Show vulnerability: As an example, in an e-mail sent to all employees, one of the executives I work with shared some of the things that tripped her up on her first day back in the office (dusty shoulders on suit jackets, misplaced jewellery, “hard pants” and social anxiety). She equated the apprehension to the feeling you get before a high school reunion. Communicating in this honest, relatable way undoubtedly alleviated some of the pressure felt by colleagues contemplating their own re-entry.
  3. Help set priorities: Distractions abound, colleagues will be looking to leaders to help set priorities, including expectations regarding in-office versus remote work. At the onset, managers may need to be more prescriptive while new habits and norms are still forming.

As we have seen through the pandemic, tapping into leadership capabilities such as empathy, vulnerability, growth mindset and emotional intelligence will continue to be critical during this transitional period – and ongoing uncertain times. Continuing to develop and practice these principles under varying conditions will ingrain stronger human leadership in our organizations, better supporting colleagues to thrive.

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.

Stay ahead in your career. We have a weekly Careers newsletter to give you guidance and tips on career management, leadership, business education and more. Sign up today.

Find a ‘safe brave space’ that will help you flourish post-pandemic

Originally published in the Globe & Mail June 7th, 2021

As the pace of COVID-19 vaccination accelerates and the number of cases decline, many of us are seeing new glimmers of hope. The past 15 months have been a tough slog, personally and professionally – many have been laid off, furloughed, displaced or have opted out of the work force entirely to care for family or to recuperate from burnout.

Even for those whose jobs have not been directly affected, the burden of the pandemic has weighed heavily, In a piece in the New York Times in April, organizational psychologist Adam Grant referred to a collective feeling of “meh” or “languishing … a sense of stagnation and emptiness.”

While the pandemic is not over, as more companies and countries continue to reopen in various phases, it’s a great time to dust ourselves off and think about how we are going to get back in the saddle. As we’ve heard many times throughout the pandemic, the world of work we are returning to will not be what it was; so how can we return to something better – at both a company level, and an individual level? How can we move from languishing to flourishing, feeling more connected to who we are, gaining real clarity on what we want, and being deliberate about how our work will enable it?

The first step in the journey from languishing to flourishing may very well be getting to know ourselves better.

Greg Smith, a partner at management consultant Lighthouse Nine, explores self-discovery through the lens of searching for “safe brave spaces,” as his new book is titled. When we feel safe, we understand, trust and value ourselves; when we feel brave, we discover and activate our courage and voice. The combination of the two empowers us to maximize our own potential and help others to unlock theirs.

To discover our own safe brave spaces, Mr. Smith proposes the following phases:

  1. Knowing: Asking ourselves What are my strengths? What are my values and passions? What is my unique way of working? What are my unique contributions?
  2. Growing: Testing and learning from what we’ve discovered in phase 1 with a few people who will be honest and encouraging, to help move toward “brave” action planning.
  3. Letting go: Acknowledging and unshackling ourselves from the patterns and responses that get in our way (often our inner critic or ego). For example, to free ourselves from the negative narrative in our minds, Mr. Smith suggests tactics such as singing that narrative to the tune of Happy Birthday, to bring consciousness to how silly or unfounded the negative narrative is; another is saying out loud “Thank you, not now” to dismiss the inner critic and own the space.
  4. Showing up: Being true to who we are in order to confidently pursue what we want.

Mr. Smith suggests that starting from their own safe brave spaces, leaders of teams and organizations can begin to cultivate them for others, creating a psychologically safe environment where employees can thrive. He cautions that organizations that lean too safe (without enough “brave”) risk breeding “toxic positivity” where everything on the surface is great, but colleagues are not motivated to challenge the status quo. On the flip side, organizations that are too brave (without enough “safe”) risk becoming overbearing, overlooking the need for empathetic leadership, leaving colleagues feeling unheard and undernurtured. Great leaders recognize the need for both safe and brave and strive to bring them to life through their actions and in the environments they enable.

I encourage us all to think of this time as an opportunity for a reboot, individually and collectively. Self-reflection and being true to who we are can enable us to emerge from the hardships of the pandemic stronger, wiser, and ready to flourish.

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.

Stay ahead in your career. We have a weekly Careers newsletter to give you guidance and tips on career management, leadership, business education and more. Sign up today.

The hybrid workplace is here to stay – three ways to make the most of it

Originally published in the Globe & Mail May 10, 2021

As more countries and companies start to prepare for a post-pandemic future, there are many questions surrounding what the workplace will look like. With such variability regarding readiness for, and openness to, co-locating with colleagues, there’s no doubt we will need to employ a remote-first and hybrid approach for quite some time – and for many, indefinitely.

The big question is how to enable a hybrid way of working – where workers have the choice to be co-located or remote – that maintains or increases productivity and engagement. As we continue to revise and refine return-to-office plans, we must all keep in mind that flexibility will need to be our mantra. While eyes are on HR departments for a silver-bullet solution, no policies will catch all scenarios. A leadership mindset that embraces the unknown and relinquishes control will be a differentiator in making or breaking organizations.

The good news is that 79 per cent of C-suite executives plan to implement or sustain a hybrid working model post-pandemic, according to a study conducted by WeWork in partnership with independent research firm Workplace Intelligence.

Here are a few principles to consider when implementing a hybrid workplace.

Flexibility is purposely flexible: While it may provide comfort to have set days in the office and rules around working time, employees want control over their schedules and location. Telling people they are allowed to work from home on Fridays and can’t send e-mails after five o’clock simply provides new rules. Instead, consider norms that encourage true flexibility. This way, colleagues – including those who don’t have the luxury of working remotely – can adapt to ways that work for their particular situations. For example, one company I work with encouraged everyone to include the following text above their e-mail signature: While it suits me to send an e-mail now, a response or action is not expected outside of your own flex work hours.

Implement digital-first in a more sustainable way: Once we are able to co-locate safely and comfortably, we will need to make more deliberate decisions about use of space (for what purpose or occasions) and digital tools. This requires a change in mindset and behaviour toward trusting and empowering employees, while leveraging options to keep connected in various scenarios. For example, including Teams or Zoom links in meeting invites or, better yet, replacing low-value meetings with asynchronous collaboration through digital tools.

Design with individual human, not just institutional, concerns in mind: In this month’s Harvard Business Review, Lynda Gratton, professor of management practice at London Business School and founder of the Hot Spots Movement consultancy, suggests managers approach hybrid work with the following in mind.

1) Job and task: Consider the corresponding level of energy, focus, co-ordination and co-operation required to drive productivity on both fronts. For example, demands for each can vary significantly between strategic planning (where the primary productivity driver is focus) and team management (whose primary productivity driver is co-ordination).

2) Employee preferences: Factors such as proximity to the office, tenure (and learning curve) in role and extraversion versus introversion contribute to overall productivity. As the article suggests, using a design-thinking approach based on personas, and interplay among them, is critical.

3) Projects and workflows: Consider how technology can be leveraged to better co-ordinate across teams and projects, in absence of co-location. Also take the opportunity to optimize processes that no longer work (or may never have) in a hybrid model.

4) Inclusion and fairness: Remote working has presented an opportunity to level the playing field. Everyone has the same amount of real estate on our Zoom screens, and no one is “in the room” or left out for being the only person to dial in (as opposed to video). However, as we move to a more hybrid model, all eyes will be on leadership buy-in and adoption. The moment it is perceived that flexibility leads to career and opportunity limitations, the model unravels and cultural ramifications ensue.

Each of these presents design considerations for hybrid work along “space” and “time” dimensions. Because organizations are comprised of individuals with diverse needs – who also manage many jobs and tasks concurrently – it’s clear that offering as much choice as possible, with leadership buy-in and adoption as a top priority, is key to optimizing productivity in a hybrid model.

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.

Stay ahead in your career. We have a weekly Careers newsletter to give you guidance and tips on career management, leadership, business education and more. Sign up today.

On-the-job learning more important than ever

Originally published in the Globe & Mail April 12, 2021

Learning-agile, continuous learning, lifelong learning – however you want to frame it, professional learning has evolved significantly over the past two decades. We’ve gone from organizations telling employees what training courses are required for their job, to encouraging employees to take accountability for their own learning journey and career. Long gone are the days when employees went offsite to participate in days-long training sessions, returning a week later and considered “trained.” Particularly over the past year, we have all been forced to be creative in our learning approach: both from an organizational and from an individual perspective. This is in part because skills and business needs continue to change so rapidly, and in part because an abruptly forced digital and remote work force has made some of our go-to learning methods obsolete (at least for now).

In a recent Future FoHRward workshop with Canadian senior human resources executives, it was found that some of the biggest obstacles to enabling a learning culture were the lack of agility and effectiveness of traditional programs, an overwhelming amount of content and the leadership mindset. In order to address these challenges, the following three aspects of learning should be considered – as individuals, as leaders and at an enterprise level:

BROADENED DEFINITION OF LEARNING Like Simon Brown, chief learning officer at Novartis was quoted as saying, continuous learning organizations are “blurring the boundaries between what is learning and what is work and creating the environment, whether that is cultural environment, technological environment, mindset, so that people are actually constantly learning and that the work becomes learning.” Progressive organizations are launching initiatives such as internal “gigs” (short-term projects) designed not just to cover capacity gaps, but also primarily for employee development – learning becomes the work and work becomes the learning. Other learning initiatives, including mentoring and digital skills adoption, are being taken to the next level, with the power of technology. For example, companies such as Together are helping organizations advance their mentoring programs through automation. Companies including Lemonade help make learning more engaging through gamification. Knowledge management and sharing is also an important component of learning – for example, many companies are encouraging sharing of user-generated videos and other content to bring colleagues up to speed more quickly and efficiently.

LEARNING IN THE FLOW In many organizations, there is no shortage of great learning content – the challenge is in deploying the content in ways in which employees want to consume it (that is, not by sifting through learning management system course catalogues). Learning in the flow requires that job-relevant content is served up at the time of user need. It seems impossible that until about a decade ago, we were able to get anything done without Google, YouTube and TikTok. And what would Netflix be without its automated recommendations (in addition to those suggested by our human trusted contacts)? Similarly, in a professional context, the power of technology enables an adaptive and curated learning journey, meeting employees where they are. The key word here is curated – self-directed learning has been a big trend over the past few years; however, drawing a parallel to the Netflix example, without leadership guidance and prioritization, ideally coupled with intelligent tools to create personalized experiences or “learner journeys,” we end up with an overwhelming amount of undoubtedly great content without context – leading to lower uptake.

LEADERSHIP MINDSET AND SUPPORT When times get busy, learning is the first thing to drop from our to-do lists – which is ironic since, according to an article in the MIT Sloan Management Review, it can be one of the most important ways to advance the chief executive officer’s agenda, by intervening in the places that matter most. In order to enable a learning agile organization, employees need to trust that learning is a priority. Leaders can enable this by:

  • Articulating a focused set of business priorities requiring skill development.
  • Protecting teams’ learning time, like they would other high-priority commitments.
  • Supporting to-learn lists, in addition to to-do lists.
  • Mandating time to learn, synchronously as a team (for example, lunch and learns) and asynchronously, based on how and when individuals learn best.
  • Having regular and open conversations about development plans, focused on current job, as well as career aspirations.
  • Encouraging on-the-job development, including “gigs” within other departments.
  • Treating all work activities as learning moments, and coaching employees to view them as such.

In this rapidly changing business landscape, learning is not a nice-to-have, but a critical part of business execution. Enabling the right mindset and ensuring employees are given, and take advantage of, the space to learn (not necessarily more, but better) is essential to build the agility we need for our organizations to survive.

Stay ahead in your career. We have a weekly Careers newsletter to give you guidance and tips on career management, leadership, business education and more. Sign up today.

Fear not, young leaders – tumultuous times build skills for life

Originally published in the Globe & Mail March 15, 2021

No leadership case studies or textbooks could have prepared young leaders for 2020: They have been thrown into the deep end and have been asked to navigate uncharted waters, blindfolded and handcuffed, without a manual.

But these challenging times also provide an opportunity to find one’s authentic leadership voice. While doing so may feel painful in the moment, it is invaluable in these times and for the rest of your career.

On my first anniversary in the working world, I was in New York and leading my first team when terrorists flew two planes into my office’s neighboring buildings, changing the world forever. The devastation and emotional trauma caused by the acts of Sept. 11, 2001, were seemingly insurmountable. And as a young leader, I felt incredibly ill-equipped to lead my team through such uncertain and volatile times.

Thankfully, I was under the wings of some incredible role models who demonstrated a balance of confidence and vulnerability – and I knew they had my back. I took their cues and through the hardest of days knew it was my duty to lead, despite my lack of experience in doing so. By the time we finally returned to our offices nine months later, my fellow young leaders and I resurfaced with a renewed sense of gratitude and resilience, having navigated very troubled waters.

Drawing a parallel to the present day, as difficult as it may be to get your footing as a young leader in pandemic times, we have the choice to blame circumstance for stunting our growth as leaders, or we can focus on what is in our control and embrace the opportunity afforded by the tumult.

As Chuck Saia, a senior partner at Deloitte, explores in his new book You Got This, Kid, we have a lot to learn from the animal world when it comes to leadership. Here are a few simple tips as you embark on your leadership journey:

Be the mandarin duck: Protect what makes you special: In 2018, a beautiful mandarin duck, typically not found outside of Asia, appeared in New York’s Central Park. The duck became quite the celebrity for his uniqueness and was the subject of many blog posts and news stories. But then one year later, he disappeared – no one knows why. Perhaps he tired of the attention, realizing that what made him uncompromisingly different was not a fit for the urban oasis of Central Park. Don’t compromise what makes you special as a leader: Seek out environments that will best leverage and nurture your unique attributes, as opposed to those that force you to conform.

Be the butterfly: Embrace a growth mindset and evolve: Only 10 per cent of caterpillar eggs make it through metamorphosis to the butterfly stage – with the ultimate reward of flight. At certain points in your leadership journey, it may feel as though your growth is stunted – but be patient. Like the chrysalis stage of metamorphosis, there is a lot of development “on the inside,” not apparent to outsiders, and not measured by promotion and accolades. Be open to opportunities – even the ones that appear not to contribute to your longer-term plan. A lattice (versus ladder) career path broadens leadership capability and allows you to build skills and relationships that become invaluable in the long run.

Be the armadillo: Develop a thick skin and a soft heart: Armadillos are the only living mammals with a hard shell. An attack too early in a young armadillo’s life is perilous, as the animal’s armor is not yet thick enough to protect its soft underbelly. As you develop as a young leader, many people will offer (sometimes unsolicited) opinions. It is important to quickly decipher and triage helpful constructive feedback from unproductive attacks. Balancing vulnerability and confidence is critical so that you can learn and grow, while focusing on what matters most for your own development as a leader.

Most of all, be human. If nothing else, this pandemic has taught us to be empathetic leaders, something which should not be taken for granted. We have been humbled by the amount of uncertainty we have had to navigate over the past year – even the most senior leaders do not have all of the answers. While some leadership rites of passage have been victims of the pandemic, a generation of leaders is currently experiencing the leadership training of a lifetime. Not only are they learning to lead with with curiosity and empathy – they will also set the foundation for more human leaders that genuinely care about their teams’ well-being and success in the future.

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.

Stay ahead in your career. We have a weekly Careers newsletter to give you guidance and tips on career management, leadership, business education and more. Sign up today.