S 5 E2

June 22nd, 2021

EPISODE 2: Why Your Culture Was Never Your Building

At the start of the pandemic, when many US companies were implementing remote work policies, many leaders feared that workplace culture would wither without in-person interactions. But, to the amazement and relief of many, that wasn’t necessarily true. Why? Because your culture was never your building—it’s something more. In this episode of Your Brain at Work, we unpack the science and explore the data at the intersections of culture and hybrid work. Our panel, including Lisa McGregor, the Global Lead of Workplace Space Strategies at Jacobs, and Perri Mathews, the Manager of Culture Transformation and Change at Blue Cross & Blue Shield of North Carolina, shares how hybrid work settings can actually be a culture accelerator, if we follow the science.

Episode Transcript


[00:00:04] CD: Where do you do your best work? At the kitchen table with a homemade smoothie? On the couch and your favorite pair of sweats? At the park with your dog? Or at the office? There’s no right or wrong answer of course, but we’re willing to bet that in the past year you’ve experimented with where you work. And if you’re like most people, you’ve have probably enjoyed some of the unexpected benefits and the increased autonomy of remote work. Now, offices are opening up again, and organizations are calling on their people to return to the workplace. But over the course of a global year-long work from home experiment, you’ve learned that way or people connect, collaborate, and do their best work isn’t necessarily a physical place. In other words, that your culture is never your building. So organizations around the world are reimagining and redefining the workplace emphasis on the place.

To discuss, we invited leaders at two organizations in the midst of this migration. They explain how anchoring on some fundamental beliefs and embedding some critical habits has helped them to sustain, even improve their cultures in a hybrid world. They unpack research and look at data from the past year to debunk myths around virtual work. And they offer insight in our organizations can use science to accelerate their culture and empower their people. I’m Cliff David, and you’re listening to Your Brain at Work from the NeuroLeadership Institute.

We continue to draw our episodes from a weekly webinar series that NLI has been hosting every Friday. This week, our panel consists of Marshall Bergman, Senior Vice President of Corporate Solutions at The NeuroLeadership Institute; Lisa McGregor, the Global Lead of Workplace Space Strategies at Jacobs; and Perry Matthews, the manager of Culture Transformation and Change at Blue Cross Blue Shield, North Carolina. Enjoy.

MB: Let’s just get right into it. So three chapters to our presentation today. Lisa will be leading kind of the first session with me facilitating on why culture isn’t just about the location. Then Perry and I will be digging into how did Blue Cross Blue Shield North Carolina create a culture that sticks? And how are they adapting that strategy now that they’ve had to adapt to a hybrid world? And then we’re going to take a look at some data and think about open questions around what’s next? What’s the data telling us and what organizations need to be thinking about going forward?

So why don’t we get right into it? So why culture isn’t location. So Lisa, at Jacobs, I know you do some amazing work. So for those who aren’t familiar with Jacobs. They’re a multibillion dollar organization that does everything from consulting with organizations like Blue Cross Blue Shield North Carolina on how to design office space to support their growing needs, to putting landers on the moon. So all sorts of amazing work. So Lisa, when you all think about work, and how to make work people-centric, what are some of the things that you think about? And how do you advise your clients?

[00:07:37] LM: Sure, Marshall. One thing that we always start with is purpose. No matter what business or industry or market sector a particular client is in, their business is people’s top of mind challenge today is its people-centric, it’s talent-based. Even with digital transformation, talent is really – If you can get everybody aligned behind a common purpose and the why, that really is what is driving the core business of any business. Then we look at, as far as culture, it’s the why, the how people work. And that’s what we think how work gets done is how we often define culture. And we challenge organizations when we meet with them. That could be something that’s deliberate in alignment with your aspirations, or it’s something that if you don’t influence it, we refer to it as an adhoccracy at times. Again, the way work gets done, we’ve heard people say it is not many organizations invest in purpose-driven value statements, yet they fail to actually define the mindsets and behaviors that are associated with achieving those aspirations. And that’s what’s really, really critical.

And then when we think about how people connect within an organization to really embody those values and realize those aspirations even before COVID, people were working in multinational companies and companies of all different sizes in many different ways. So we think of placemaking as a combination of an ecosystem, really, a virtual and physical work environments, in which people connect, to do their best work. And we look at that in as far as work processes and workflows. And again, with many organizations and the acceleration of digital transformation, those processes and workflows are what’s rapidly changing. And so people’s specific roles on their teams and their tasks has been shifting.

We offer to many organizations that anything, if you need explicit social strategies, really, to connect people for common purpose and to those organizational values and a framework for prioritizing the value of different activities and where, how, and how those activities should occur is really important. It enables people to have clear and explicit understanding of what the expectations are, again, for how that particular organization values for the use of the physical workspace.

[00:10:17] MB: Thanks, Lisa, that’s really fantastic. I want to drill down a little bit into this idea about culture or how work gets done, because that’s a lot of the work that we do here at NLI. And surprisingly, very similar in how we think about it. So when you’re advising organizations on how – Let’s say you have an organization that they know their culture. So we’ll use the Microsoft example, create clarity, generate energy, deliver success. If you’re thinking about space from that perspective, how do you advise them to consider space and consider the mindsets and the behaviors from your perspective, from a consulting perspective coming from, “Hey, these are the sort of spaces you need?” How would you approach that question?

[00:10:58] LM:  That’s a great question, Marshall. Because, again, sometimes those organizational purpose and values are quite abstract. Then we need to correlate them to what are the mindsets within the organization that are needed to support that. And then more specifically, what are the behaviors that are needed to realize those goals. And we do a lot of work with organizations, again, in different sectors, as you referenced across life science, and tech, and aerospace, all different industries, and looking at activities and workflows and processes and seeing how those mindsets and behaviors need to be woven into the everyday activities that each individual contributor, contributing to their team, the performance of that team, realizing a common goal, and its contribution within the organization. That’s really how we tried to break that down.

When I explained to people my role in how we work, I say, it doesn’t matter what type of facility it is, whether it’s an always-on facility, like a data center, or a research and development facility, or many roles. You’re connecting people to a common goal. Many organizations are wanting to address speed to market. Innovation has been proven to be improved with diverse thinking and cross-functional teams. So we’ve been for years talking with organizations about how do you really tap into your talent network, which is often global and not location specific.

So we see now with the recent rapid adoption that everyone had to get comfortable with working virtually as a positive sort of a silver lining, if you will, of COVID, that people realize they could work differently. They could have a broader reach to what resources they tapped into. And even more importantly, I think there’s even more opportunity for talent to be assigned to different teams and opportunities to build their skills and careers within organizations and contribute. So from an inclusion and diversity and equity standpoint, there’s even more opportunity to build your talent network. So, again, it all gets back to how you’re going to get everyone going in the common direction through their mindset and behavior.

[00:13:18] MB: Right. Again, coming back to sort of the NLI focus, which has always been culture is shared everyday habits. If you haven’t defined what those habits or those behaviors are, your space plan, whether it’s virtual, hybrid, or not, probably won’t be able to be effective, because you won’t have a Northstar to build that plan towards.

[00:13:39] LM: Exactly. And when we deal with change management related to new environments, because space can influence people’s behavior in a positive way or a negative way. You need to address changing behaviors. How space should be used? New protocols.

One of the big topics with the idea that we want equitable participation when some people might be in the physical place for a meeting and some are participating virtually is that there really needs to be explicit protocols about how meetings are going to be facilitated so that everyone is included at an even playing field. And there really is parity and experience.

[00:14:18] MB: Lisa, that’s great. I’m going to actually jump to Perri for just a second. Can you give an example of a behavior? So Perri, maybe I’ll jump ahead. I know we’re going to be talking about the behaviors for your organization specifically, but maybe we can give an example there. But before that, Lisa, you just brought up the meeting protocols thing, and there’s a funny story that David Rock tells. We’ve always been a hybrid organization at NLI. And for us to build our meeting room that had the perfect setup that people who were in the room versus on video could hear each other perfectly, participate in conversations, took a lot of work, but it actually didn’t work unless we had the protocols of, “Hey, if you’re in the room, ask the people who are virtual first to participate.” That was a protocol plus a technology that then led to shape shared behaviors and culture. So great, great example there. Perri, anything you want to share about maybe what an example of a behavior is for some of our folks here so they can sort of make that a little bit more concrete for them?

[00:15:11] PM: Yeah, Marshall, I love that. In fact, I was thinking, the first one that popped to my mind was the one that you said was – But I want to reinforce that idea of mindset, something we’re playing with right now. Because we’ve had been able to work virtually for some time, and some folks from our workforce I’ve worked virtually their whole time at the company. But we realized that just because we now have all been home for over a year, our mindset hasn’t necessarily changed. So that idea of who’s in the room may have that sort of that distance bias, right? Who’s in the room gets to speak first. These are the kinds of things that we’re going to have consistently start thinking through.

I think another thing that we’re thinking about as it relates to behavior is just consistently asking ourselves what is it that’s going to enable us to come together, that sort of energetic come together, when we’re not physically together. We happen to be a company that has largely been in one state for many years. So it’s not a global company. So we’ve didn’t had the luxury of being able to physically come together. And now we’re thinking about the behaviors that happened virtually that signal that coming together that may not be a physical space. So creating water cooler tech moments, having coffee channels.

So some of that – So less about the meeting structure, which we’re looking at all of that as well. But some of the things that we think can only happen when we’re physically together, what are we thinking?  How do we do that virtually? Like an activity.

[00:16:35] LM: Perri, that’s great. We actually speak to organizations about the macro culture, and then those micro cultures. You can attract talent for the macro culture and purpose of an organization. But the retention really comes with those micro cultures, people sense of belonging to an organization, and they feel that they’re really contributing.

[00:16:56] PM: 100%. To that point, Lisa, and I’ll interject this, we just recently did a survey not too long ago to say, “Okay, of our workforce, what’s your preference in coming back or not coming back to the office? And how many days working remotely in some other location or not?” And what we found that was very interesting is if you want to come back to the office for some reason, what’s the key purpose? And it came down to those micro cultures, that sense of belonging, that connectivity. Yes, collaboration, but very specifically, that kind of connectivity and collaboration. So that sense of belonging stood out to us. That’s not something you necessarily see. But it is something that’s experienced and felt, and it’s what keeps people with great companies.

[00:17:37] MB: Well, so on that moment then, what I’m going to do is I’m going to go ahead and I’m going to just go to the definition of what we’ve been talking about earlier how NLI defines culture. So we define culture as shared everyday habit. So fundamentally, what we’re trying to do here is define what those shared everyday habits are going to be for an organization that will drive the results you’re looking for and then build a space strategy and system strategy that’s going to support it. And just to give you a sense of what our research is showing around culture these days, is that we actually see that culture is improving, not diminishing in the virtual environment that we’ve been forced into due to COVID.

So many organizations that we’re researching right now recognize that culture is not where you work, but it’s how you work and how you interact with each other. We don’t pick up the culture from the color of the walls in our office. We pick up the culture by the way our boss speaks to us in a meeting, or the way that we talk to a client, or the way that we respond to an email. And many organizations are saying their culture has not decreased, it’s actually increased and it’s become more evenly distributed. So more and more people in the organization across the globe are actually adopting more and more of the same habits. And one of the reasons why we say that is if you actually look at the data, there’s some amazing data showing you about how much more time we’re actually spending with our coworkers. So just imagine a scenario where you went into the office regularly for three hours a day, you ran into four or five people and you did that for 55 days a week.  You might run into 60 people per hours per week. But if you’re virtual, online for eight hours a day interacting with 10 different people five days a week, you’re actually seeing 400 hours of people’s behavior. That is more and more opportunities for you to observe other people in the office, for you to observe how they behave and how they interact with each other, and how you participate. So what is really fascinating about that is this hybrid work world that we’re coming to may actually be a culture accelerator, not a culture detractor, and there are strategies that you can adopt in order to make it a culture accelerator as opposed to a culture detractor. I think that’s what some of the really interesting work that Lisa and her team have been doing.

What I want to do now though is talk to Perri a little bit, and let’s find out what’s going on in the real world of an organization like Blue Cross Blue Shield North Carolina as they go from an organization where, like she said, Blue Cross Blue Shield North Carolina, 4000-ish. Correct me if I got it wrong. All based in North Carolina headquarters. I think designed by the folks on Lisa’s team over there at Jacobs. So had made a big commitment to real estate.

And just by way of a little story, we started working with Blue Cross Blue Shield North Carolina around two and a half years ago. And they came to us and they said, “We need help activating our culture principles. And they had five of them. And our team looked at them, we said, “Well, we’d love to help you activate them, but we might want to change them. And Perri and her team said, “Well, that’s a nice idea. But they’re literally painted on the walls. So we can’t really change them. But we love your help activating them.”

And so what we did is we followed our research on culture and leadership principles, which basically says most times when organizations try to drive culture, they make things overly complicated. They don’t make them align with business. And they focus on too many behaviors. So for those of you in your organizations who have these massive competency maps of the 15 or 20 different things that leaders want to do or need to do in order to be successful, the science says that doesn’t work. The science says it doesn’t work for a few reasons. Science says it doesn’t work because it’s not sticky.  You need to be able to remember these things. It’s not meaningful. It needs to be aligned with the overall structure. And it needs to be coherent. It needs to be connected to other parts of the business. So a strategy that says, “We’re a company that does X, but the business does Y.” It won’t work.

So that’s the work that we did with Perri and her team. And fundamentally, the question that we asked all of our clients in this sort of situation is what do your leaders need reminding of the most? What are the things that when the pressure hits and things are going wrong, what are the three or four things that you want every leader to cling to and think of when they make decisions every day? And so, Perri, talk to us a little bit about your journey and a little bit about how it helped you get through the last 18 months.

[00:22:06] PM: Yeah, absolutely. Thanks, Marshall. And it was a funny story, two things about working with NLI. Had we been partnering with you all before, we probably would have had a three instead of five values so admittedly. However, we’d had couple chances to revise that, and they’ve been serving as well. So we’ve kept all five. But it’s been an incredible partnership. And here’s what I’d say first. I’m going to cover three key points that I think have helped us have culture be sticky. One, I want to say I came into this organization, and they were already ahead of the game and thinking about physical space. So while we were co-located primarily at the time, already thinking ahead about mobile and flex workspace.

So in the five years that I’ve been at Blue Cross, not including this last year, the four years I was mainly on site. I couldn’t tell you a week that I sat at the same desk. So the mindset was already moving, which helped us. But three things that helped make it ultra-sticky. One, have a clear focus. I’ll cover all three, and then I’ll go deeper on each one. Have a clear focus. Make the implicit explicit, number two. And number three, what we’re learning everyday right now as we’re moving through hybrid and applying this to all the work strategic and otherwise is set context and apply it to real life. So I’ll just start here with the trust piece. And that was that we did – We had an opportunity to say how are we going to have our culture working for us in the flow for our people, but also in service of our business? And what we said was we had to know what it is in our culture we’re focused on. And we found that it was trust. Trust was an opportunity area being an 80 plus year old company when I joined the organization, already strong culture, already strong values, in fact, but it was what is it going to take us to the next level and where are opportunity areas? Trust is a big word. So we had to figure out what does that mean to us.

The things that started to emerge are, gosh, we have each other’s back on the day-to-day, and we’re playing to our strengths, right? We’re different. And that’s great. And so let’s bring the strengths to the table. We create shared values, which was an interesting one I’ll talk about. And that we take shared responsibility for our success. So that helped us get clear on what’s the what that we’re focusing on. Have a clear focus about the culture. And so we said, we want to be a high-trust culture that feels performance and service of our customers and communities.

So let’s get busy about what that means explicitly, right? So the values started to emerge out of a big body of research and exploration that I’ll dive deep with anyone who wants to talk with me about that. But for today’s sake, I’ll say what emerged were these five values. And what was really important about them, two things about making them sticky. One is the implicit. Okay, great. These are nice words that came data-backed. But what do they mean?

And what was great about our values in the past, which had a good stronghold in the organization, people loved them. And I even thought, “Oh my God. How are we going to get rid of the values that everyone loves?” Well, what we really realized if we didn’t have to get rid of them. We need to bring the best of them over. And then the next thing we did is we said, “Okay, what are these values in service of?” They’re in service of accelerating the company, which is in service of our customers. So we very intentionally looked at values that were going to mind the gap between who we are and who we’re becoming. Okay, again, great. The word sound nice. How are you going to do that every day? And that’s entering the relationship with NLI.

A couple things that we knew instinctively, I’m quoting a team member here, they said, “These are our new values.” And I will tell you. I won’t go deep into all of them, but each of them have a signal. So to your point, if we were one of those companies with competency maps, and behaviors, and principles, and you name it, and we still make a tendency to make things complex, but, Shadé, I’ll tell you, we keep working to hone these and make them as crisp as possible. So the mindset behind these, for example, people-first. I think about my influence. If you don’t remember anything else about people-first, remember that it’s about thinking about your influence. So that’s an example of keeping it really clear, every customer matters perspective taking.

So grit is about embracing uncertainty and change with a growth mindset. And data is about intentionally looking for blind spots and breaking bias. Innovate to elevate, creating new thinking in myself and others. So at the very end of the day, there’s a shorthand for each of these. And we’re still practicing that shorthand. But one of our teammates said, “We need these to jump off the wall and walk down the hall.” So we would say things like they need to be in our bones. They need to be in our DNA. But how do we do that? And that’s entering the relationship, like I said, with NLI, which was breaking them into habits, the SCARF, the SEEDS, growth mindset. How do we practice that? How do we get good at if-then plans, even if we’re not calling it that? Really, that kind of thinking, right?

And then the other thing that we knew instinctively, but didn’t quite know how to do that really has helped us is that priorities, habits and systems, that it needed to live in the flow of work. And then that’s what I would really say is the next sort of third sticky part is that set context. Set context and apply the values and apply the culture to real life. And that’s what we’re learning now. We’re practicing it. So we really have operationalized these values and apply them into systems like performance, leadership, the way we’re looking at DE&I, and of course the way we’re looking at hybrid work. They are infused in the way we think about navigating change.

Often team members will say it’s like a pair of goggles we’re putting on. If I’m going to put on a pair of goggles that are people-first and I’m thinking about my impact. In any solution, or any scenario, or any business problem we’re trying to solve, what does that look like? And so, again, that’s where the real life practice is happening for us today, Marshall, is that we still have to keep practicing. And we use that word very intentionally that we’re practicing. We’re not the best yet. And that’s okay, because there’s always going to be room to grow here.

I think what I will celebrate in the idea of stickiness is we just recently went through another strategic direction refresh where we were looking at things like mission, vision, purpose, etc. And the one thing that didn’t take any tweak was our values, because they still are helping us mind that gap. Now the gap is more about hybrid work, and competitive marketplaces, and things will continue to change, but the values and the culture continue to serve us.


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[00:28:40] MB: I’ve got a couple of questions here. Maybe one for Perri, you first, and then I’ll follow up with Lisa. But I’ll prepare you, Lisa, because we didn’t practice this in our prep. Lisa, I’m curious for you to think about, when I come back to you, looking at these value, seeing Perri as a potential client. Like how would you use some of your thinking to help build virtual or hybrid spaces that would help support these? And then Perri, my question goes to you is, so 18 months ago, things shifted. You had to have hybrid work. You had some people at home. I know you have call centers. Maybe they were in the office. I don’t know the exact details. But was there anything specifically that you did to keep them alive? Or was it because they were already so embedded in the behaviors that they were already on autopilot? Talk to me a little bit about any changes you had to make?

[00:29:29] PM: Gosh. What I will say some of the – I think it’s a little bit of both and, right. So I think some of it is already in the way that we work and behave together. So I always think of culture in three ways. There’s the being, there’s the doing, and there’s the space. And when I say the space, it could be virtual or physical. It’s the container that we’re building to do all that being and doing. So yeah, the walls, the values being painted on the walls mattered. It was a reminder. So one of the things when we came for those that that worked in the building at the time, and for one of the things that we did that was very tactical was, okay, our marketing and coms team got together and they made sure that our background now had all our values on our on our laptops. Or they were suddenly starting to show up and in other places.

We’ve also upped our communication and our storytelling. So having our leaders out front and then helping them connect, or helping having them help us connect the work back to the mindsets that we need to bring. So fearless mindset, fearless behavior, fearless leadership is one of the internal terms for our values. And so how are they everyday living fearless? And how are they every day having these values show up? So that was already happening. But there’s been a very intentional increase in that storytelling, and then very intentional connecting the dots back to.

For example, I work with a team that also looks at enterprise change across the company. It’s very easy to come in with our change tools, and our change management plans, and our protocols, and just run the change. We have to very intentionally say, “Yeah, there’s a technical part of this change. But there’s also an adaptive and behavioral part of this change.” So how do we intentionally bring the values in? So it’s more of that happening, I would say, in the virtual world.

[00:31:11] MB: Interesting. Thanks so much, Perri. And so, Lisa, do you feel good about answering that sort of question I tee’d up for you?

[00:31:16] LM: Well, sure. I mean, when we think about – For example, every company we work with when we do visioning innovation, right? How do we drive innovation is always one of them. And you have to say, “Well, what does that mean to you? Is that speed to market? Cross-functional teams? Part of that speed to market might be we’ve got people in site specific, site essential lab that need to be connected to people that are doing data analytics, or people that are doing product marketing, or regulatory compliance. And so how we incorporate physical environments that support the work of connection with people that may be halfway around the world in another lab, or they may be doing data analytics, and they actually do work well at home or just work from anywhere, right? Where if they do highly concentrated work, having an individual place to do that, it doesn’t really necessarily matter where that is. So it’s about looking at those virtual and physical environments as one big ecosystem that needs to be self-supportive and bring people together.

And lastly, I would say even to things like people matter. If you write words on the wall, it’s not something. But we do have a lot of organizations that like to have through electronics, or imagery and that sort of thing, do have things in life science and whatnot, where there are pictures of people and we’re stating people’s vision. So there’s actual imagery of that. And it does help remind people of, really, the common purpose and goal.

[00:32:50] MB: Awesome. I think just getting to one of the things that we think about in NLI as well and I think kind of wraps this whole conversation up. And there’s a lot of talk from leaders saying, “We need to be back in the office.” We’ve got all sorts of research, we can talk a little bit about why that. But, also, I’d love to hear from organizations from both Perri and Lisa, what you’re handling there. And then also, there’s some lack of comfort. Some people have asked some questions in the chat as well around how do we feel comfortable if our place is at home and we have our other colleagues who are getting to look more professional be in the office every day, right? So there’re some challenges that people are feeling as well that we want to get to. So we’ll try to tackle those in chapter three when we get there in just a moment.

One of the things that I’d like to wrap up this whole idea around this fundamental challenge that all organizations are facing is like Perri and Lisa said, this is a change management problem. Organizations have been going through a significant amount of change over the last 10 years. In the last 18 months, it’s been accelerated by an unexpected pandemic that really unlocked all sorts of innovation and all sorts of, frankly, discomfort and disruption as well. But it has allowed people the space to really rethink how they work. And no matter how you’re thinking about work, one of the things that you need to understand is really how the brain processes change.

And so at NLI, when we talk about behavior change, we talk about three key things that all organizations should keep in mind. Number one, is you need people to understand the priority or why. Why are we doing something? Lisa shared that as well. How people work? Why they work? Perri talked about it. Why do we care about our customers? What’s our mission? Etc.

Key thing that an organization need to do is they need to make this new way of working a priority. Then you need to develop the specific habits or behaviors that make up your culture. Remember, culture equals shared everyday habits. And last but not least, where we’ve been focusing on this, the environment or the systems where work and change gets done. The funny thing about the challenge we’re all facing right now as human capital professionals is we kind of thought about that a little bit, but frankly, kind of left it up to facilities. Like, “Hey, I’m going to get my people in the work. I’ll control the culture. As long as you have a desk, and a computer, and a nice break room, or ping pong, whatever it is, I’m going to worry about that.”

So really the environment where work and change is getting done has been blown up, and blown up in a metaphorical way, not in a physical way, but really isn’t. So that’s a question now that we as talent professional leaders really need to think differently about. And I guess the final question before we go on to the next chapter is, I’ll go to you first, Perri, have you really thought about the environment and work and change gets done? I liked how you talked about the container. But anything specific or any ways that you’re maybe think about this way? Are there different mindsets that you and your team have been approaching this problem with that might help some of our listeners here?

[00:35:43] PM: Yeah, absolutely. And culture gets accelerated in a virtual world. And I would say that’s absolutely true. We’ve seen that. I think the trick is what parts of your culture get accelerated, right? So we’re having to be incredibly intentional about what parts of our culture are getting accelerated. And so in terms of a mindset, the one that jumps to my mind a little bit is, and again, quoting another one of my amazing team members here, was this idea of, “We have to rethink about what work means, like what the workplace means,” because we had a very physical construct, many of us, for that. And we do love our painted walls. And we have an incredibly gorgeous canvas. So there’re so many things about that that are allure.

And frankly, we are thinking about how do we use that to our advantage in the future and create destination type spaces that are pulling people into the office for very specific reasons. There’s an example of a mindset shift. Not coming because that’s just where work gets done, but coming because I’m coming to do something specific. I’m coming to take advantage of an amenity, or to collaborate, or to do a certain type of collaboration, synchronous. We’re talking about synchronous versus asynchronous. Thinking about our mindset about does everything have to happen in the same box of time? Or can we work in different boxes at a time and get specific about when those come together in terms of we’re working on a project together?

Marshall, do you and I have to be stuck in a room for – Or not room, or virtual room, for three hours to get work done? No. We could probably do some of that asynchronous. So those are some of the things that we’re thinking about. And I think the other thing that I’d say is I love. This was my team member quote, and I won’t get it right, but it’s something to the effect of like work is not where we sit. It’s about our culture, who we are, and our collective impact. Meaning our external impact, right? So that’s what we need to think of when we think of the workplace, is who we are, and our collective impact. And then like, “Man, I’m not as powerful.” So that’s, again, thinking about – When I think about, “Oh, I’m at work.” I want to think about what am I up to and what’s my collective impact? Not I’m at work, because I’m sitting in building 600 in Durham, North Carolina. That’s not it.

[00:37:46] MB: Yeah, I love that. How can we challenge leaders who keep using language like return to work, which covertly sends the wrong message that being in the office is the only place where work gets done, right? So that’s transforming the mindset there. So Lisa, anything to add on that topic?

[00:38:01] LM: Sure. We actually are calling it return to work place, because it’s the physical place. And as Perri said, work is your mindset wherever you are. People were working – We’re really talking about internal and external mobility. And that’s where the article that we had in work design magazine about redefining the future of work and the purpose of place. We actually create a structure, a framework, for thinking about what – With intentionality, what are the activities that you do want to with a very intentional planful cadence bring people together? You mentioned we have done – We’ve implemented a pilot for an activity-based work environment for Blue Cross Blue Shield North Carolina in 2015. And it was a significant shift. So as Perri mentioned, they were sort of ahead of the curve, because they were already working in an unassigned system.

And how people might see their physical environment on a campus change is that there really would be probably more of those collective co-creation, ideation. There were spaces called things like the living room, the park. They were branded to give people an idea of come here to hang out, like the park. Come here to decompress. And there may be many less individual settings. And even those were a variety so people could choose what individual setting was best for them if they needed very-focused work, that sort of thing. So that’s how we’re seeing the actual physical environment shift. We’re not saying don’t come back. We’re saying come back with intent. And really, again, it’s going to be different for each organization.

[00:39:34] MB: Wonderful. Thanks so much. So let’s talk a little bit about how organizations addressing the challenges. And I saw, again, a couple of interesting quotes. I saw Ellen mentioned, the question they’re focusing on and their organization, which I like. It’s very similar to what you said. What is the new purpose of the office? What is its value now? And I think that that’s a question that all of us should be asking as leaders, not just as talent leaders, not just as leaders of teams. But, fundamentally, if you think of the office as a shared resource, how do you best utilize it, right? Because I think in the past, it was just sort of this resource that was there. No one really accounted for the cost. It was on someone else’s part of the P&L. But if you have to actually say, “I need my office or my team for this purpose,” it becomes a much more useful way to – And I need this virtual space, or I need these virtual technologies for these purposes as well. It’s a much more thoughtful way to think about work.

And that gets to this next data point that I want to share with you here, which is there’s a survey out by Stanford. They basically asked a question. In 2021, this was during COVID. So they asked, “In 2021 plus, after COVID, how often would you like to have paid workdays at home?” And fundamentally, this may not even be the best question to ask. But it really revealed some really interesting data, which basically the data shows 30% of people wanted to have paid workdays at home four to five days a week to be home all the time. 31% wanted to be home one to three times. And 39% said, “I don’t really need to be at home at all. I want to be in the office.”

The way we read this data, and I assume, Perri and Lisa, you see it the same way, is if you try to pick one solution, you’re going to piss off, sorry for my language, two-thirds of your workforce, right? And so if that’s the case and if that’s the reality of the situation we’re in, what are the right strategies to use? Now, at NLI, we’ve been saying the most important driver of success here is to give people choice. We’ve done a ton of research. And if you’ve seen some of our writing, or you saw David’s webinar last week, there’s a huge amount of power in giving people choice or autonomy in making the decisions about when and where they’re in an office, they’re working at home, what types of work they’re doing, etc., etc. So there’s a lot of power in that. But that’s our frame that we’ve been focused on. Perri, have you been thinking about that question differently? Any advice you would share with our audience around how you’ve been thinking about this fundamental conundrum of one size definitely does not fit all now?

[00:42:04] PM: Yeah. I think, of course, what’s interesting about culture is one size never fits all. It’s just becoming more clearer than ever, like so many things in the last year. It’s always been there. It’s just clear than it ever was. One thing I’ll probably just say out of the gate. I think I’ve mentioned, roughly 30% or so of our folks offset already. 70 or so on site, and very much like lumping in a few buildings even, a few – Not even very far away. Couple cities, that’s it.

So we were very much physical. But now what’s interesting is our numbers are even higher than this tilted towards wanting to have even more time away from the office in terms of remote work or work from home. So we’re absolutely going to wrestle with the conundrum and the one size doesn’t fit all. I think the thing that comes up for me, and I have to give it some more thought too, Marshall, is that the thing that pops up for me right away is that both there has to come in through so many different access points. And I think that’s why I do, not to over anchor back on the priority habits insistence, but I do think that’s what it comes back to, right? Like the culture does have to come through in so many different ways. And I think this last year, and going forward, is making that even more clear for us.

I will tell you, though, having more or less colocation and more of a dispersed workforce, it is having us think about very tactical things. Like how do we run an effective meeting? And how do we make sure that that effective meeting is meeting multiple needs? So that idea of choice. We just, this week, and I’m sure in many weeks to come, have wrestled with the video on, video off. Because we know video on helps with all those social cues. You mentioned earlier in the topic. We also know that there’s fatigue, and then there’s other reasons why folks may or may not need to be on video any given time. So we’re trying to think about what would be a cultural norm around video. We know it’s a benefit. We also know it can have some downsides. And so where can we create choice in that? And where can we be explicit about that choice?

I mean, I did it the other day – Just trying to practice here. But I’m normally on camera, and I couldn’t be on camera. And I’m like, “Guys, I am trying to eat my lunch. So I just wanted to let you know, I’m off camera. I’ll be back on in a few minutes.” But that was a way for me to take care of myself and not feeling like I was having to rush, but I could pay attention. I could be in the meeting. My brain was calmer. But I wanted to signal to them why I wasn’t on camera, because that was a different behavior. So that I think is the kind of thing we’re trying to think about. How do we make that more of our practice? Because we just lifted and shifted when we all went from sort of in-person to not in-person, but get real explicit about the most basic of things.

[00:44:44] MB: Wonderful.

[00:44:44] PM: Does that help?

[00:44:45] MB: Yeah. Yeah. Super helpful. Yeah. I mean, first of all, just the fact that you bring it back to the culture story and making the connection that culture is being communicated in many different ways than we thought of, right. I think that’s a really, really interesting problem for us to focus on is that, before, there might have been two or three channels, and you’ve had a lot of control over them. They’re happening in the office. They’re happening in in-person meetings, etc. Now they’re happening in a Slack chat, right? Like how do you convey culture through a Slack group chat? Well, that’s the problems that we need to think about right now. And I think that that’s fascinating. Lisa, anything to add to that?

[00:45:19] LM: I think it’s challenging when people try to – Organizations try to simplify days of the week. We like to think of things, again, really look at the root of the business of what are the workflows and processes? What’s the percentage of time associated with activities that are valued for in-person or in-place?

The other thing I’ll say is that since this has been protracted almost a year and a half now, the pendulum has really swung so far to one side. People are just so tired of being home. I think we’ve seen some surveys shift where things were fine. And now people are exhausted with just being at their house. And really what we’re talking about is work from anywhere and external and internal mobility. So, again, I think there’s this immediate, “Let’s connect,” and people want to go back, but it’ll end up balancing out somewhere in the middle. But, again, it should be with intention and with a clear mind forward of we have a whole set of new tools with an organization of how we’re working together, both for learning. I mean, there really are many silver linings that have come out of this to offer talent, opportunities to grow within the organization through having a culture of continuous learning, connecting to more resources in a more broader manner. And then even the way we recognize talent, you had that show grit and things like that as sort of celebrating successes. We’ve come up with platforms we never had before, because we’re wanting to be like really be focused on talent. And how do we do that in an electronic platform, rather than through physical place?

[00:46:53] MB: Excellent. Thank you. And we’re going to wrap up things in here in just the next couple of minutes. But I did see someone wanted to highlight a question. So I’m going to go through that. And I also wanted to address some of the myths or pushback that leaders are giving or some leaders are giving around this whole idea of remote work, hybrid work, work wherever you might want to work. And so we’ve got on the left here some of these myths. So one of the myths is employees are less productive outside of the office. Fundamentally, the research actually shows that’s not the case, not only because they may work longer hours, because they’re not commuting, but actually have higher levels of engagement and higher levels of discretionary effort going in and getting up to 20% higher productivity. So the research shows that an office does just not guarantee productivity.

Now, if you’re a manager, it may feel very good to you to see your workers clicking away on a keyboard because you think they’re being productive. But going back to something Perri said earlier, we have a saying at NLI, measure results, not activity. Managers need to focus on results, not activity. And that’s a fundamentally scary thing for managers to actually have to know if their people are achieving the results that the organization needs, right. So then we also have to monitor and measure what employees are doing. Sure. We need to hit metrics. We need to hit goals. But the fact is employees thrive with given autonomy within certain frameworks. And anytime you can give employees some level of autonomy or even the perception of some autonomy, they’re more engaged. There’s a whole of piece of research on that we can share.

And last but not least, this has been – We’ve been talking about right now, is we need in-person contact to sustain culture. No. We need contact to sustain culture. There’s nothing that says I need to be in the same room as Perri in order for me to understand what the culture is at Blue Cross Blue Shield North Carolina. She will demonstrate it every day to me whether we’re on the phone, whether we’re communicating with email, and she’ll do it in the ways that the organization expects her to, because they built those behaviors and those shared habits, etc.

So those are some of the myths that we see with leaders in organizations and that we’ve been sort of battling against. And going back to Lisa’s point as well. I agree. One of the ways that we’re trying to get organizations to think about this is not days in the office, but it’s about how does work get done. And so one of the things we’ve been encouraging managers to think about, because it opens up their creativity a little bit is, “Alright, so location might be a question. What percentage of the team do we need in an office space at any particular time during the day?” Or availability, “When is our team going to be available to our customers at certain hours? What percentage of people on the team need to be available between nine to five, or 10 to four?” whatever the case may be.

And then Lisa also mentioned too, synchronous versus asynchronous. Maybe there’s just times that the whole team needs to be online so we can do work together. But maybe there’s times when we need that quiet time to be more innovative and be more thoughtful. So these are the sorts of frameworks and ideas that we’re encouraging organization use as well as Lisa and Perri as well. So I think these are some of the ways that you can think about these questions differently and get your leaders to think about these problems differently as well.

[00:50:07] PM: You know, the thing that just jumped out to me in what you were talking about Marshall is something you said earlier, is us all remembering that this is a massive change. And whenever there’s change – We talked about on our team, there’s a certainty threat, right? So these things that we want to do, like it’s easier to count people than impact. That’s a certainty threat, because maybe we’ve been rewarded in the past for doing something a certain way. So that’s all. I’ll just put a little grace for all of us, that we are going through a massive change. And so just to be watching out for where we might be clinging to certainty, versus being able to walk into something that’s a little less certain. Yeah.

[00:50:39] MB: Wonderful Thanks, Perri. And Lisa, anything from you?

[00:50:42] LM: Well, again, just to amplify this last topic that you’re talking about, is I know, again, a lot of the research is about individual autonomy and performance. And I think that’s where large organizations are like Jacobs with 55,000 people. You can’t manage for every individual preference, right? So how do you not only talk about individual autonomy and performance, but team autonomy and performance? And, again, focus on the results? Because there’s a lot of data out there now trying to measure how many times people met. How many times – Similar to attendance, that does not equate to quality or productivity. Again, what are the new measures of results? And there just need to be explicit and clear ways that performance is going to be measured and that needs to be agreed upon. And that’s where, again, I think, employer and employee can start to feel more common ground.

[00:51:37] MB: The question was, “How are we going to deal with the biases that managers, or leaders, or the organization might have for the people who they see in the office if they’re in the office every day for those who might choose different work styles?” We agree. That’s a fundamental problem. And, actually, going back to Perri’s point, we think that organizations need new processes and systems in place in order to avoid that bias. There is a bias called distance bias as our brains value things that are closer to us in time and space. So it is a real thing. And you’re going to need to put real if-then plans, to use one of the terms that we use in at NLI, and Perri’s familiar with that for the work of Blue Cross Blue Shield North Carolina, to interrupt that bias thinking and say, “Hey, I’ve got a new project to assign someone.” Instead of looking around the room and saying, “Oh, it’s Bob’s project. Or that should be Shadé’s project.” We say, “Hmm, let me look at my virtual team map and see who is out there. Oh! Susan would be fantastic for this. She’s remote. I haven’t seen her in two months, but I picked the right person, because she’s got the right skill set.” So, again, that is a fundamental big challenge that leaders and organizations need to come to grips with. And there is work that needs to be done there. So thank you for that question. And thank you, Shadé, for minding me three times about it. Now, we’ll back to your final announcements.

[00:52:54] SO: You’re very welcome. So thank you to Perri and Lisa for joining us, and to Marshall for leading the session. I’m also going to have our team put up a hole for you for those of you who are still here to see how that we can best help you at NLI in your journey to your leadership and developing your culture and anything of that nature. As well, I want to thank everyone who attended today for staying engaged, sharing your questions, and your thoughts, and your insights. We can’t have these conversations without you. And if you’re still hanging on, we would love to have a feedback. We also are going to pop a survey into the chat for you as well.

And I also want to let you know about some upcoming events. I want to let you know about our next episode. We are doing a special Thursday edition of Your Brain at Work Live in honor of Juneteenth. So please join us. It’s called Juneteenth Towards a New Perspective. Our panel will take you to the past, present and future of the holiday and what it means to honor and celebrate it. The link register should be coming to your chat shortly, and we sincerely hope you join us.

And as much as everyone says, subscribe to my podcast. We do hope you do. Because if you enjoyed today’s conversation, you’ll love the show. You can hear past webinars on demand. So look for Your Brain at Work on Apple podcast, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you enjoy listening to them. So this is where we officially bid you farewell. We’ll give you two minutes back in your day. So on behalf of the NLI team, and our panelists, thank you for joining us. Have a wonderful weekend and rest of your Friday. And we hope to see you here again on Thursday, June 17, for our next webinar. Bye for now everyone.


[00:54:29] CD: Your Brain at Work is produced by the NeuroLeadership Institute. You can help us in making organizations more human by rating, reviewing and subscribing wherever you get your podcasts. Our producers are Matt Holidack and Danielle Kirschenblatt, Shadé Olasimbo, and me, Cliff David. Original music is by Grant Zubritsky, and logo design is by Catch Wear. We’ll see you next time.


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