The Future of Work Is about Change and Agility | Kate Lister


The Future Of Work is decentralized and fluid. Kate Lister, President of Global Workplace Analytics, shares why the Future Of Work is about change and agility; specifically, an organization’s ability to be agile in terms of place, people, and processes.


Kate Lister



Frank [00:00:16]  So Kate, hi. Frank Cottle here. Welcome to the Future of Work podcast. It’s really great to have you aboard.

Kate [00:00:25] Hey Frank, great to be here.

Frank [00:00:27] Yeah, really glad you could join us today. We’d love to learn a little bit. It sounds like from some of the exciting things that you’ve been looking at, how does it relate to the future? I think you and I share a lot of background in that regard. I was looking here and your partners, backgrounds & resumés and I think between the three of us, we have a century of experience.

Frank [00:00:50] You know, we’ve done things a very different way in very different ways. You’ve been extremely consultative and new publications, white papers and all of you speaking globally. We’ve been on the execution side of the facility in the planning stages side of the industry. So it’ll be fun to see where we can come up together and what where we overlap. Could you tell us a little bit about global workplace analytics, how you came to form, what is how you came to form, but what’s your motivation for continuing this work?

Kate [00:01:24] Yeah, we started pushing this rock uphill about 15 years ago. The remote work rock. I’m a former banker and I came at this seeing that nobody had really made the C-suite business case for remote work. And yet when I was doing research for a book that we wrote for John Wiley and Sons, which was a consumer title, we wanted to do a business title, but they didn’t think anybody would have an interest. Fifteen years ago, it was called Undressed for Success The Naked Truth about Making Money at Home. But it wasn’t doing that research that I saw all the people, planet and profit elements to remote work and just thought, wow, this is a no brainer. But, you know, nobody was coming at it from the bottom line or from the C-suite. So we started putting together models to quantify the impacts and back them up by research so that we could go to a company and say, look, here’s why you’re going to increase productivity. And here’s the 10 companies that have done it. And here’s what it would mean to you in annual savings. So do you think that each of the people, planet, and profit arena.

Kate [00:02:33] So we’ve been doing that ever since then. We’ve moved also into different kinds of workplace strategy. Wellness and well-being, stress activity based working coworking, really still just looking at what it does for people and what’s the bottom line impact.

Frank [00:02:48] You know, I saw your telework savings calculator that you did for workplace analytics. I know that people in the business center side going all the way back to the 80s and 90s are using a similar type calculator to justify cost savings of being in a business center versus being in a conventional space. We always found that quite efficient, effective. But one of the things that we failed to put in our calculator, we were doing pure space. A business calculation is that you’ve an added increase, voluntary turnover, absenteeism, things of that nature, something that neither of us really hit on the systemic calculations that we usually use for real estate sales. One of the things that I see savings that you didn’t put in was relating to the balance sheet, but using only the cash savings, which is what we did as well. The balance sheet side is really probably where the largest savings ultimately is as we reduce workspace and improve efficiency. So tying these things together, I think we could really come up with an improved approach by adding this additional contribution. What do you think?

Kate [00:04:04] Yeah, I think it’s a great idea. And in some ways, you know, you’ve been coming at it from a real estate point of view. We’ve been coming at it from a people point of view, although most of my clients get started in this because there was some real estate reason typically saving money or maybe moving space. So I think you’re very well positioned in this. I could say the same thing about the people’s side. People aren’t hired to just offset their salary. They used to make more than that or there’s no nothing in it for the company. So in the financial services industry, for example, it’s a factor of about six times. If somebody’s making a hundred thousand dollars a year. Should be earning for the company. Six hundred thousand a year and of course only some of that drops down to a profit. But the reason I don’t include that in the model is because it’s so compelling on its own. It’s almost unbelievable. That I really have to just keep it conservative…

Frank [00:05:05] Well I think if you do make those giant claims you can start to look like the proverbial snake oil salesman.

Kate [00:05:10] Exactly.

Frank [00:05:11] But one of the things I think right now in our current circumstances, will the kernel of virus and all the changes that we’ve gone through is that the CFO, every major corporation in the world, has just got to be wandering through their empty corporate headquarters right now with the mouse going, of course, looking at all those deaths, all the space and all the stuff they’re saying there’s nobody here. Yeah. Nightmares company. I agree. I just don’t need this stuff to run our company. Well, we need some of the stuff, of course. Well, I think that so many large companies have been trying to perfect the enemy of good books. Tempting to come up with just the right change management structure to finally do flexible working in order to win the war for talent, in order to adjust the balance sheet. No, I think they’re going to look at what’s happened. Look at the good old days and say, well, the good old days need to be tomorrow, not yesterday. We’re going to change radically. And I think that will repurpose and restructure so many things. We talked about the workplace, but what will it do to public transportation? What will happen to the way cities were formed? What will it do to housing? Because office space is being repurposed. All of these things have just trickled down. Well, all the drug activities or major impacts will be going to come out of those- I see in France yesterday – the french government, just over $50 per cycle is the contribution of about 3000 bike shops where you can take your bike and give it to them. So you should stay off of public transportation. What about the great initiative or more all sorts of little initiative initiatives like the around change or definitely going to happen. What do you think the biggest ones will happen?

Kate [00:06:57] You know, I’m starting to think that maybe you and I were twins separated at birth because we’re really I’ve literally written many of those words just in the last 24 hours. I think one of the big things that’s going to come out of this is that remote work has always been. Not always, but for the most part, kind of a tactical solution to the problem de jure. Therefore, it always came out of a silo. Where was stated at the time of the recession was driving it H.R. driving it when there are talent shortages, sustainability, driving it not necessarily in the US, but in other countries.

Kate [00:07:36] And I think the recession started to do this. But I think this is going to loft the conversation to the C-suite so that remote work, flexible work is going to be a strategy versus a tactic. And that means that all of these parts of the organization that were formerly siloed are going to be working together to make it happen. And that’s where the optimization happens. H.R. is doing it. And you’re not talking to real estate. Then you’ve got all these empty spaces that real estate doesn’t even know the strategy is in place. Now, as you say, I mean, they’re looking at the CEOs or laying awake at night thinking about all that empty space and saying, geez, you know, we’re still continuing. Gosh, do we do we need all that? In the polling that we’re doing shows that 80 percent of the people in the workforce are working from home now, about more than half of them.

Kate [00:08:31] This is new. They haven’t done it before. And 77 percent want to do it in the future. The average is around two to three days a week. Now, they’ve always, I mean, employees have always not always wanted this. But for a very long time, this has been one of the top benefits being able to work flexibly. But I think if you add on top of that, managers now who’ve had an experience with it and are not as afraid of it as they were before the full suite, who’s going to be all over it because of the cost savings, especially as we go into an economic downturn and the risk manager saying, no, this can’t happen again. We can’t have a centralized workforce. And then I think sustainability. I mean, you look at me in three or four weeks, you can see a difference in the air, in the greenhouse gases that’s going to make a lasting impression.

Kate [00:09:22] Well, I think it will get a whole variety of pressures, if you will, for this type of change. Hopefully the pendulum swings too far in one or one direction or the other and remains someplace in the sensible middle in that regard. But you know it. There’s about 1.2 billion people today that work.

Frank [00:09:47] That work mobily, and it’s luck. We use a lot of different words. You use people place and profit. We use people place in technology. You’ve been using yours for a decade after a decade or two. That’s a lot of different words. To use them of a mobile workforce is a remote workforce and vise versa. Does remote work doesn’t just mean working out of your home. I think what we’ll find is a lot of people that are working out of their home, they say, oh my gosh, I can’t wait to get back to the office because their home isn’t really a suitable place for work. Distractions. Kids, neighbors. Dogs, noise. Not a good ergonomic environment. Etc. And so I go back the old talo telecommuting days of the 90s and early 2000s. You know, the a lot of employers that forced their people into a telecommuting model because they had to because of the Clean Air Act and the things around that many of those employees came back into, hey, that’s terrific. No problem. How much rent are you going to pay me for the bedroom? I’m now using instead of your office. You run into all sorts of issues. Safe workplace issues.

Frank [00:11:18] Kids coming in the back of a computer or the back of a copy machine and giving you all sorts of things that happen in houses that don’t happen in workplaces.

Kate [00:11:30] You’re losing me there. OK. Let’s look at that. Let’s get the gloves on here.

Frank [00:11:36] OK. Good, good, good.

Kate [00:11:38] I think it is a blend. Yes.

Frank [00:11:40] Yeah, I would agree that it’s a blend.

Kate [00:11:43] People love to make this poller. You know, we’re either going to have everybody working in offices or everybody working in closed co-working spaces or everybody working at home. And that’s just not how it is. I mean, it’s a fluid you know, one of the things that we’ve seen over the last five years is that work has become a fluid kind of thing. You know, it’s a verb, not a noun.

Frank [00:12:03] We say “officing” instead of office.

Kate [00:12:05] Yeah, exactly. And I don’t care what you call it, whether you call it remote work or mobile work. If you’re 10 floors, 10 miles or 10 time zones away, you’re still probably working with other people remotely. So let’s let’s let’s go back to work what we know and get all that figured out. How do we make people as productive as they can possibly be with technology, with the provision of space, with the tools that they need to be successful? Wherever you are.

Frank [00:12:34] Well, I think that’s an issue, and, you know, one of the complaints that I hear of people that are shifting into mobile work, flexible work, remote work… Is the shift in technology and the onboarding process for that technology. Many companies aren’t really set up for the people who are used to sitting at a desk and in that desk is a desktop or a desk oriented computer system, not a laptop oriented computer system. They don’t have the mobility with it. And then a lot of companies also have very strong security issues that you can’t get in the household environment sometimes just because of the way you’re bent with the setup. So there’s going to have to be a lot of shifts around that, those sorts of things to help. Both the great majority of people are to maximize, I guess, the effect of that strategic impact versus the tactical. We’ve used those same two words too. So I guess we are a little at least we’re cousins. We’ve been saying the same things for three decades that…

Kate [00:13:42] … you’re much closer than I am.

Frank [00:13:44] I know it. I know. But an immortal. So it doesn’t matter.

Kate [00:13:49] But you know, I think that plays in here too Frank. I know I am so unproductive on a laptop. I have three screens in my office and I need all three screens. And I’ve tried to figure out how to attach a fourth one. But I see my kids and my grandkids operate just fine on their phone or their laptop. Yeah, I think there is a difference in how people are working.

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    Frank [00:14:17] There is. You’re probably doing a lot of writing, a lot of consultative structuring, editing and things of that nature. I work off of a laptop, but I have two screens in my home, my home office. So when I’m traveling and doing this now, I’m happy with my laptop or not. I am not that I want my other screens for just the same thing. Plus my eyesight isn’t so great so I like the big screen for that. But you can do that, but you have to have a place that’s dedicated to that. And if we looked at a younger workforce, genze coming up to how many Gendry people or even younger millennials right now have a suitable workplace at home, that’s not the kitchen table.

    Kate [00:15:07] Well, I think right now these are certainly not well. With everybody scrambling for bandwidth and dining room table space. So it was interesting. We just did a survey of twenty five hundred global employees asking them how much they were interrupted at home versus how much they were interrupted at the office. We were very surprised to find double the amount of time at the office of seventy five a day at the office. Thirty something minutes a day at home. Even within the situation now, what we also find is, you know, there’s this collaborative time and private time and the survey also shows that for private time, for concentrated work, they were more productive at home for collaborative work. They were about the same productivity, whether they were at the office or at home. And I think that productivity at home or at a third place at a coworking center or a shared office. I think that that’s going to only improve as time goes by. We’ve already seen innovation coming out of Silicon Valley just in these past four weeks. Boy, now I can put Hawaii behind me when I’m doing a zoom goal. But I think we’re going to see more innovation that makes that kind of interaction richer. It has to!

    Frank [00:16:27] That’s absolutely right. We’re definitely going to see that and come back to that traveler concept that there are no occupier’s early travelers. We don’t. But we move from space to space on a fluid basis now and whatever. The only singular requirement we have in order to have that mobility is bandwidth. The instrument itself can be adjusted very easily. I can travel for a week just with my telephone. I can travel for a week on my laptop. Or I can have, you know, sit for a week in my office with my full setup. So I think that the demand curve is going to be around bandwidth and the ability to go in that regard. The other thing that’s interesting, worlds and Kastor and that is Zoom right now, if we were on Zoom, we’d all be on video.

    Kate [00:17:28] And it will probably be jerky because the bandwidth is so poor…

    Frank [00:17:31] Well, right now, it’s certainly getting stressed.

    Frank [00:17:36] But still, five years ago, people used video systems and we would use voice and screen sharing only. People come uncomfortable going on video. The cameras weren’t that good in the background or in fact good, etc.. Today, I don’t think anybody is uncomfortable going on video and it adds a whole nother dimension to all meetings. We just had a TGIF Friday meeting for our own company last week and everybody was showing off their different backgrounds. I was sort of in a little contest about the crazy, crazy background contest. So it once you’re used to the media. Oh, my first video system we put in in 1984, that was ridiculously expensive back then, but still it worked. And so once we get used to these new structures, we’re looking at holographic meeting structures and things of that nature right now and we’re looking at virtual reality offices. You said where do we think we’ll be going in the next cycle? I think we’ll be selling offices of software as opposed to physical offices.

    Kate [00:18:50] Yeah. That’s one thing that they haven’t really, you know, the technology just isn’t there yet. We need an easy way too..

    Frank [00:18:57] It’s very, very close. We’re working with the looks of a large gaming company right now and looking at how to create realistic environments. And if there’s anybody that’s good at that, the rendering, it’s up to business people. It’s the gaming people.

    Kate [00:19:14] Yeah, some of the avatars and I’ve been following some of those kinds of applications for years. I guess what I mean is in terms of the organization of work, I shouldn’t have to jump to this program to collaborate in this program to communicate and this program to put where to put my documents. And, you know, I know that all the pieces are there. And Microsoft has a solution, Adobe and Google and, you know, no solution… Slack. But it’s just not seamless yet. And I think that’s another thing that we’re going to see coming out of this is more innovation around making it easy, making it seamless.

    Frank [00:19:55] But don’t you think as long as there is innovation, that technology will always be somewhat generational? And so seamlessness will always be the constant goal, but will never quite be achieved because one company is going to be ahead and another company is going to be behind.

    Kate [00:20:15] I don’t know, we all know how to use the microwave now, I wouldn’t say the same thing for the TV remote, but there is a learning curve. It just seems to me that it should be so simple that it’s it’s you don’t have to learn it. It’s just intuitive. I may be talking five years out. I was talking to a venture capitalist last week about all of this. What is it that the market needs? What kinds of things should we be looking at? And I think that, you know, that’s one of them is just making it easier and using less bandwidth. We don’t need to be on Zoom all day. There’s a time for it. And I think everybody’s kind of gone overboard at this point. I know I speak for myself as an introvert, I’m so Zoom exhausted.

    Kate [00:21:05] You know, it’s just because we’re sheltering in place. And for a whole variety of reasons, I think trust is still a fundamental problem that The Washington Post had an article yesterday about all the software that’s now being used to virtually babysit people in case you think they aren’t working. I really hope we get used to managing by results before technology does it in a way that allows us to virtually babysit.

    Frank [00:21:33] Well, I think the government in particular always wants to virtually babysit. I mean, we have drones flying up and down streets telling people to get into their houses and things of that rather than saying, hey, you’re a responsible adult, figure it out.

    Frank [00:21:49] So there’s always going to be some of that going on. Yeah. Well, you know, it’s funny, we’ve noticed something on our own company in the Alliance Virtual Company. Everybody went home to work. We were prepared for it because we’ve been watching things in Asia evolve. And we thought, well, this is going to hit here when we do it now. So  we reacted early basically because we do business globally. And so we felt the tidal. We felt the wave early and so everybody moved to their house and got everything set up. No problems with the technology whatsoever. Everything is working very smoothly. And we found that people and this begs your issue around interruptions and things of that nature. Everybody’s productivity individually improved. It improved. And I think was part of what I’m amazed at, honestly, is the capacity to stay. For the team to stay so focused on their work product without supervision, without anything and doing just an amazing job, you couldn’t be more proud of them. Everybody is..

    Kate [00:23:06] Micromanagers of the world are noticing that. It’s one of the reasons I say that. I think the fact that one of the biggest determinants of whether a manager supports remote work is whether they’ve done it themselves. And now that they’ve done it, they’ve seen that, wow, this can work. My people are working. I can tell that they’re working. We’ve still got to go back and organize and teach people how to manage results in some cases. But I think this is gonna be a good lesson.

    Frank [00:23:34] No, it absolutely will be. Well Kate, if you were to kind of leave all of us with one super high level amazing comment that summed up everything that you think is going to happen here and then why? Sort of an advisory comment for the listeners here. What would it be?

    Kate [00:23:54] Wow. Put me on the spot there.

    Frank [00:23:57] I know it, I know, I got through with that one.

    Kate [00:24:00] I think the future is all about change and agility. And to the extent that companies can make themselves more agile in their places, in their people, in their processes, that they’ll be better able to handle whatever comes.

    Frank [00:24:18] I would absolutely agree with what I want. I would follow up with a question: how do companies make themselves more agile in order to achieve that goal?

    Kate [00:24:29] Yeah, it’s cultural. It’s why there is so much change management around this. If you’re from a command and control organization that’s counting heads and watching the clock to see who gets in early and who leaves late and that kind of thing, it’s going to be a much harder road to get to that place of agility. But I think we’re all going to be very motivated, in particular the C-suite, to get there and understand why we need to. You know, if for everything, for every person that you want to convince us something, you’ve got to show them what’s in it for them and for those that are resistors, I think they’ve had a pretty big demonstration of what’s in it for them or what’s in it. If they don’t become more agile,.

    Frank [00:25:14] You know, they like the old thing used to be. “It’s the big, the big, the small”. I think today it’s the fast, the beat, the slow. Yeah. So the race to agility. Whoever wins that race will have demonstrated their success through their culture and they will be the leaders in tomorrow’s business.

    Kate [00:25:34] Yeah, I think you’re in a good spot right now, Frank. I mean, people are going to be seen seeing the need to shed space. It’s going to take time. They just dropped their leases overnight. But I really think that we are going to see a whole lot less downtown fixed office space. Everybody working in the same place in total.

    Frank [00:25:56] Well, you know, it’s funny. I was going to summarize and come up with what we were gonna do there. But let me go back to the comment that I don’t think the problem will be with the people going back to their offices. I think in a lot of cities and I’ll use New York, London as examples. It’s going to be the reluctance of people to get to  their office.

    Kate [00:26:17] Getting there, public transportation, yeah…

    Frank [00:26:20] You know, I know you can  separate office space pretty easily. If you think of it, if you use a six foot stand or rule out everybody at a 72 inch workstation. And that’s bigger than normal, but not that much bigger. If you went to, you know, a standard like that, you could. You can also do shifts. You can bring people in an hour early, an hour late. That’s why I think clients. But getting on the subway or getting on the train from Connecticut, getting in the tube in London. That’s impossible. The numbers I’ve read say that the tube will only improper physical distancing. Would you call it physical distancing? Not social distancing, because we think we’re still social. Improper physical distancing. The metro or the tube and in London will only operate at 15 percent capacity. Yes. So how are the people going to get to work?

    Kate [00:27:20] Exactly.

    Frank [00:27:21] I think that’s the big issue.

    Kate [00:27:23] Via the information highway versus the traditional highway.

    Frank [00:27:27] Exactly. That means that they will work closer to their home, whether it’s in their home or not. They’ll work closer to their home the less on the corporate corporate headquarters. So I think that’s the big takeaway. Corporate headquarters are going to shrink. Remote work, whether it’s in a facility or a household or whether it’s in the travel environment is going to increase. Bandwidth is absolutely the requirement to make that happen. And culture is going to drive it. Yes, absolutely. OK. Thank you so much for joining us. I’d love to follow up on a few things with you outside of this conversation. And we’ll look forward to seeing how global workplace analytics can continue leading the way into the future of work.

    Kate [00:28:13] Thanks. It was great to meet you. Great conversation. Thank you.

    Frank [00:28:17] Take care.

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