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Employee EngagementDecember 14, 2021

The Future of Work and Workplace Culture with NELLIE HAYAT

Nellie Hayat

In this video series, we sit down with People Leaders and HR Experts to talk about the future of work – and how to build workplaces where people thrive. Today's guest is... drum roll... Nellie Hayat!

Having worked in more than ten countries as an engineer, it was when Nellie landed in Silicon Valley that she discovered a new way of looking at the workplace. That's when she made it her personal mission to help make the world a better place – by building amazing workplaces around the world.

Nellie Hayat is a thought leader in the Future of Work movement and has worked with some of the most innovative companies in the world to help design their employee experiences. Today, she is Head of Workplace Innovation at Density.io, a platform that measures how people use space, so companies can right-size their portfolios and build better workplaces.

In this episode, Nellie shares some of her thoughts on what it takes to create great employee experiences in both the virtual and the physical workplace, and talks about why community will be a key success factor in the future.

"Technology helps us build better workplaces"

Nellie: I feel like I've reinvented myself a couple of times already, but about 10 years ago I made the shift to the workplace industry. It was out of coincidence and serendipity, but I was an engineer and I had worked and lived in a lot of different countries but when I landed in Silicon Valley I fell in love with this mentality of making the world a better place, changing the world, disrupting old industries.

I was meeting people who loved their job, their company, who loved working. And it was actually very original. I had lived and worked in about 10 countries by that time and had never found this healthy relationship with work and with your employer.

So I became so passionate about this, and through networking, I found out about the workplace industry. I joined the workplace team at Stripe, and I start designing and building offices all around the world. And my personal goal was that by building amazing offices outside of Silicon Valley we were also bringing a little bit of that mindset, that work shouldn't hurt, work shouldn't be suffering. That you should love what you do, that you should aim to make the world a better place through your work.

And so I became very very driven by this and then the pandemic hit. I had just left Stripe, and suddenly it fell on me that a lot of companies were coming to me for advice, for consulting, for designing a new North Star for thinking about the new ways of working. And so I started advising companies, I launched my podcast, I got recognised in a lot of different place as an influential voice advocating for the future of work. 

And recently I joined Density, which is a team that I love, and we are very aligned on our goals. We want to make the world a better place by designing better cities, better buildings, better workplaces, and that's where I fit today.

Nina: So, doing that, is that through technology mostly, with Density, like IoT and so on? 

Nellie: So, Density offers workplace technology, or basically, it can be used in any building, any space, that gives you data. And from that data you can draw conclusions, you identify patterns or trends. And that's something that was missing before. I remember at Stripe when we were designing offices, we had very little feedback on our design, on our choices, on the progression of the utilisation of the space. So we were designing almost in the dark.

That's why, when I was at Stripe about 4 years ago, I started playing with technology. And Density was one of my vendors. To understand what can we do with technology to fill this hole that we have, to do things better to understand how we can reallocate space and maybe change different amenities and keep up with the new trends that employees are used to accessing at their local coffee shop, at the co-working space, at the airport.

I mean, we don't live in a siloed environment. We actually live in an interconnected ecosystem and so there are trends, the same way there are trends in hospitality, restaurants, and coffee shops. Our workplaces need to stay aligned with what is up-and-coming – what do people want, what are people doing?

We're talking a lot about the creators' movement, for example, and so those creators they need a podcast recording studio, a photographic studio, and so on. Our workplaces should deliver on this if they want to empower those creators to continue nourishing their audience.

So that's a trend that we were missing without technology, and where technology can give us data and insight so we can continue to iterate and build better.

"The workplace should empower the employees to create and innovate"

Nina: I love that you say the workplace environment should empower the people who are there. So, can you give some examples – you mentioned the creator movement and enabling creativity – can you give some more examples on empowering the people within the workplace?

Nellie: One striking example is that even before the pandemic we knew that a lot of people were not spending time at their desks, because they could do work from home. They could work from anywhere, but when they were coming to the office that was for socialising, collaborating, innovating. And yet they had very little space. Because desks were taking so much of our square footage.

So we were witnessing that people couldn't really control their environment. They were coming to an experience that was already pre-designed in which they could bring no changes. So that is very much a model that we want to move away from. We want to give control to our employees, we want to allow them to book a space beforehand, we want them to move furniture and rearrange the space, the same way that they do at their home: that's a piece that was missing. Employees never felt that workplaces were designed for them. They never felt that they were owning their experience in the workplace. They were just coming to an experience that was pre-designed for them in which you could bring no change. That is very much changing in the future.

Nina: Maybe some employers are a bit scared to let go and lose control. What is your experience with that?

Nellie:  Yes, this is a real anxiety for employers. I think we have to be gentle about it. I think, obviously, it's our human nature, our instinct, to stay in the comfort zone, that's where we feel safe, and we're social animals so we're looking for a safe place, a safe environment, a safe network around us. And obviously, in a time of change, there will be resistance. Also, none of us know what the future will hold. 

However, coming from Silicon Valley, I'm very convinced that we need to shape the future – it's not going to design itself. Like, other people will curate what it will look like, so even though we have fear and some employers are not sure that the future will be better than the past – I think we need to embrace what is happening. 

There's no going back to what we had, a lot of people have established a new routine in the last 3 years and we need to understand that people are different. They've been living through something very traumatic over the last years and the goal is not that we just forget. The goal is that, ok, we learn how to bring in these changes in how we socialise, how we interact, how we work, into the workplace, because again, workplaces are here to support employees.

"Workplace Innovation is a new area of work, and there is an abundance of new titles"

Nina:  Speaking of this, this is like a whole new area of work, almost: workplace innovation. You were the first work Workplace Innovation Lead, right? Is that your title with Density?

Nellie: It's my recent title. You know it's one of the silver linings of the pandemic, that there is a blossoming of new titles: I was Head of Workplace Transformation, and now I'm Workplace Innovation lead, some people call me a leader in remote work.

All of these titles are very fluid now which is healthy. I think for a long time we were stuck in these buckets and yet they were not really defining the work that we were doing. Commercial real estate and workplace teams were doing a lot of culture and people, and yet, those teams were reporting to different buckets in the organisation.

Now we're able to acknowledge the strong link that there is between people and places and this is why, by merging, we see a lot of different new titles which I find fascinating and I also encourage it because we need to write new job descriptions. We need to come up with new titles, because we need different leaders to create the future of work.

When you have Head of People and Remote Work you understand right then that is company allows for remote workers. So that was the case before the pandemic; no one was responsible for the experience of remote workers. Because they were not in the workplace, they were not under the umbrella of workplace and real estate teams. And because they were already employees but they were not going through any employee milestones, they were not under the people team. So that's one example of how people were in between the cracks and were not being served to the potential that they could be served. That's what we're trying to break today. Like, if we were to merge these two teams? 

And the IT component is big also! So, IT and Technology. We're seeing a lot of companies who are trying to merge people and places to make sure that each and every employee, even before they become an employee, so when they are at the level of a candidate and after being an employee, when they like an alumn, an alumni, is being covered.

"At Atlassian, they have rebranded the People and Places team to Workplace Journeys"

This is why I really love that, for instance, at Atlassian, they decided to rebrand their team to Workplace Journeys, to show that our job, as people and workplace teams, is to really cover the journey of an employee and make sure that at every moment and any given time they know where to access information, they know what experience they're going to live and they can provide feedback. So that's what I'm seeing.

I really encourage this fusion. It's going to create massive people and places teams within organisations, but people and places have always been the two biggest cost centres. And where we trying to get in the future is to stop looking. at them as cost centres but rather as growth generators. Because the people and the places are also at the most nourishing elements of a successful company.

So once we merge these two and we understand that people is your biggest asset. And the experience that they're going to live in the virtual or the physical workplace is going to influence the quality of the work, the quality of their engagement, their motivation. Then companies will be ready to really transition to that fusion and empower the leaders in this group to design amazing experiences for employees.

Nina: Yes, I couldn't agree more, I think that's sort of dawning on more and more companies that your product is not that's not your differentiator, that's not your competitive edge. It's your people. Because your product will get old and other companies will catch up, but it's your people that will help you innovate and stay relevant. So you have to provide the conditions for them to do that.

Nellie: Exactly, and something new that companies are trying to grapple with is that your best ambassadors are your customers, but even more so, your employees. And when you have tens of thousands of employees, they're going to be your strongest ambassadors – or your worst enemies, if they're having a bad experience. So, it's really important that the employee experience is well designed the same way that we design the customer experience, because employees have been inside the organisation, they know a lot about the company, and they can be the ones who can make a difference in the conversation. 

Nina: And as you say, also, the alumni can be a really powerful asset that many companies tend to forget. So, can I ask, because I think this is where many companies right now are struggling. How do you create a great employee experience for people who are remote? Let's say you have a beautiful, wonderful office with a lot of creativity brewing and then you have all the people who are distributed. How do you make everyone feel as a whole, and how do you make everyone feel like they belong?

"How can we build inclusive, engaging, and creative workplaces when employees are remote?"

Nellie: That's a very good question. And it's interesting because a few months ago I had an aha moment on that question. Because I come from designing workplaces, I thought that designing workplaces was the way to create this amazing employee experience. And with the pandemic, I started being seen as a remote leader and remote advocate. And so, I was like, how do I connect these two concepts?

Because I'm supposed to design workplaces, but at the same time, I'm promoting work from anywhere, flexibility, so, what's the bridge between them? And for me, the way that I was able to reconcile these two ideas, is that I don't think that the future will be in a way that people will be at home and only connect to virtual offices. 

People are people and they have neighbours, and they have coffee shops, and they have their favourite flower shop, and they go out in the street and are always willing to meet people. So the future is not that work should only belong in the home. If it doesn't belong in the home we still need to design other places. So, we could decide that co-working spaces are doing a good job, so as an employer we don't need to design offices. Or, if we think that co-working spaces are great, but they're not curated for our brand, they're not created around our mission – then we ought to design our own spaces. That's one way I reconciled.

So the future is not just going to be in the home. It's going to be in other places, and employers have the power to create the space. The second element to reconcile these two concepts is that, I believe that if people are having a traumatic remote experience or a very challenging one where they're feeling like they're being micromanaged or even spied on, we've heard the terrible stories. Then there is no chance they will ever leave their home and want to meet the co-workers in the office. If you are having a very difficult relationship with your manager or with your colleagues, because the remote experience is not well designed, you will never on your own leave your home to meet them in an office. So, actually, we need to design an amazing remote experience if we want to bring people back to the office. 

And it's only when we'll have this amazing experience that people will find their own rhythm: what it is that I like doing in the virtual workplace, and what it is that I like doing in person. And you don't have to mandate it. None of us have been given a playbook on when we should shop online and when we should shop in the office. None of us have been given a playbook on what we should watch on Netflix at our home and what we should watch in the theatre. We all find our rhythm. We should trust that it's going to be the same in the office. People will find out what they want to do in the virtual and what they want to do in the physical.

Nina: I'm having open here an article you wrote for Density with "10 predictions for the future of work". And you wrote that "offices in the future will be a mix of the best restaurants, the most inspiring learning campuses, the most engaging community hubs, and the most serene retreat centres." That really spoke to me, I love that! Is that something you want to elaborate a little on? Because it does sound very much like Silicon Valley, and, you know, I can imagine a lot of company leaders saying "yeah, right!". You know, especially if you have a smaller company and limited budget and so on.

Nellie: You know, you brought up a very interesting point, which is that each company at different stages of maturity should define an original employee experience. You cannot compete with Google when you have 10 employees. And even if you have as many people as Google and Facebook or Amazon, your experience should be curated because of the originality of your brand, of your mission, and of your audience. Each company should try to design something that is authentic to them. Obviously, you can get inspired by others. 

What I wanted to say with this catchy prediction is that there is going to be some elements that are very important to every employee in the virtual and digital workplace. The first one is: community. Today, we are lucky to live in a world where we can work for any company almost from anywhere in the world. So, people will stick for the mission, for the mission for their manager, and for the community.

Unfortunately, if they don't feel like they're members of the community, even these two won't be strong enough to keep them.

So, it's very important that companies turn their hubs, virtual and physical, into community centres. And WeWork understood this already 10 years ago. They were able to attract freelancers and solo entrepreneurs who had nothing in common, and nothing to do with each other to a space because they were looking for community. So now, that's what companies need to do.

The second one is well-being. The pandemic has put in the front of our eyes that if you're not healthy, you cannot deliver in your work. And if you're not healthy, and you try to work through burnout, through exhaustion, through illness, your work wouldn't be worth your time. You better take time off and heal and then come back.

"There's a strong emphasis on wellbeing in the workplace, and that will only continue to increase"

Companies for the last 5 years have put a lot of emphasis on having a fitness club or gym or giving allowances to their employees to go to the yoga studio or whatever they need. This is a trend that is going to continue increasing. A lot more companies are going to either offer allowances to employees for use outside of the work environment, or bring these experiences inside as a way to attract people in again.

So those are two elements, and the last one is looking at "how do we bring intentionality?" When you can work from home, what is it that you're going to do in person? Is it work, or is it sharing presence with each other? Looking into each other's eyes, building relationships. That's something that we were not doing enough before. We could spend 8 hours in meetings and feel like our relationships were very superficial.

That's why we want to bring more engaging and intentional workplaces, to allow people to bond. Because it goes back to the first point: you'll stick around because you have friends.

And it's been amazing to see, recently, that in most surveys of employees, we've identified this pattern, and it was something that they shared recently at Facebook, also. That people state that their number one factor of retention is whether they have a friend in the company or not.

Those are the elements that should be incorporated, either both in physical and virtual, or, in a healthy mix of both, where people know where to find which element in the workplace.

Nina: I think you really hit the nail there, and I think that companies are beginning to realise that these things are very closely tied to actual numbers, you know, on the bottom line. Like, employee retention; if you have a friend you stick around, so – how can we enable friendships? I wonder how many how many HR teams has that on the agenda, how do we enable friendships at work? I don't know, something to think about, for sure!

Nellie: That's really why technology is playing a big role in the future of work and without this data we won't be able to overcome the challenges of creating a hybrid model. Now, it's even more critical that we realise that data is bringing power to leaders. And when leaders become more fluent in reading that and understanding the insights, they can design a more authentic experience. 

"Employee data and workplace data is showing us our blind spots"

The second element is that data is always showing us our blindspots. Even though we thought we were doing good the studies today reveal that women would rather continue working from home because there was a lot of harassment and sexual aggression happening in the workplace. That a lot of minorities would rather continue working from home because they never felt that they could bring their best self to the workplace.

They had to actually blend in or remove their differences. So, today the blind spots are in the spotlight and we cannot continue saying "oh, but we were doing fine before." No! A lot of people were not having this amazing employee experience, and so it's time that we design for diversity, for inclusion, and for belonging.

Nina: Could you give some examples of the data that you're working with? What kinds of data you're talking about?

Nellie: So, as we talked about before there is a fusion of HR and workplace teams going on. We need to get to the point where we have about the same fusion between HR data and workplace data. For now, these two technology buckets are working removed from each other and the strain is on the leaders, who are trying to compile this different data to bring a fuller picture. I'm really hoping for a near future where we can bring those two data together.

One example: with our Density data it's really amazing because we can tell employers how many people are coming into the office, when are they visiting, we can combine this with whatever activities or events were happening in the office and show them what is successful, and what is less successful.

We can show them what corners are attracting people, so they get a picture of "Oh, in this office in New York a lot more people come for socialising, they rarely sit at their desk or come to do ‘quiet corner’ ” because maybe they already built for themselves a quiet place at home. Once you have that data, there is a possibility for you to maybe reinvent the quiet corner and change it into something that would be more of value to the employees.

"There is also an important sustainability aspect to workplace data"

That's the bridge that a lot of leaders have to make: "If I were to include homes inside my portfolio, what would I decide to create in the homes when we're creating these collective spaces?" That's something that we were not doing before the pandemic. And when we look at the unused space in our workplaces, which was about 60% of workplaces, that was unused before the pandemic. If we were to account for our homes, they were 100% unoccupied. We have to be smarter in the way we utilise all spaces, also because we all have an invested interest in making sure our planet can support our growth. And so this technology that can tell you who was coming, what kind of people, and who's going to be your audience in the future. We should be aiming to also make sure we use what we have, before we continue building, because at some point, we'll get to a dead-end of what we can continue building on this planet.

Nina: Yes, that sustainability perspective is also super interesting when it comes to collecting workplace data. If you would choose your favourite trends or predictions, what do you see that is happening right now that's really new out there and really inspiring?

Nellie: One example that I've been very inspired by is Spotify. Throughout the pandemic they’ve disrupted “ the best possible”. And they were some of the first ones to engage in "work from anywhere", knowing that they would encounter challenges with tax and legal aspects But they were like "we know we're gonna make it so we're gonna break this old traditional system and find a way around it.”

Their last example is for me the apotheosis of the future of work in the sense that it really brings community and authenticity together. So, recently, they announced that they're going to open popup destinations for the employees. And I find it really inspiring. Because, if we're honest, we know that a lot of people have embarked on a digital nomad lifestyle, and so they can be anywhere at any given time. But they're also looking for community. By bringing employees together in an amazing place for a few months, you allow people to build relationships and make friends. You allow people to live in a curated environment that is designed for community.

Not just for individuals, but for community, and you allow them to really integrate their life and their work. And that's something that is very new.

I think the millennials and the Gen Z are even more sensitive to this. I think that long gone are the days when work was work and life was happening after work. It's not enough. It's not what we want. We want our work to serve our life purpose and that our life is imbued in our work.

Because, if we have a doctor's appointment, or if our kid is ill, we don't want to come to the manager and say "Oh, I'm sorry can I please take a day off?" Obviously, I'm going to take a day off, my kid is ill! So, we're really trying to move away from the separation of work and life, and integrate them together. I think this experience that Spotify is going to offer to their employees is really also aiming to allow people to find the self-discipline to know when to work, when to socialise, when to disconnect and to integrate life and work together, and be part of a community. And I find it very inspiring. 

Nina: It's super inspiring. And I really like what you said about that we need a purpose for what we're doing and we're not just going to sit and take directions. But I think this new way of working, it also creates a new set of challenges for the individual: you will be required to self-lead in a new way. Is that something the workplace, the physical or digital workplace, can enable and support?

Nellie: That's a very interesting question and something that we don't talk enough about. Like, we read in the headlines and we hear from employers that they’re scared about the future of work but actually, employees have the same fear. Like, do I know when to disconnect? Do I need to put boundaries, do I know how to own my calendar and define times? Because what we've seen during the beginning of the pandemic is that a lot of people were going into burn-out. Because there was just nothing to else do so they were working. So, supposedly the productivity just got right up because people were working more hours. 

"Employers and employees – we are all learning on this journey"

Actually, we are all learning in this journey, and it's not just that the employees have figured it all out and employers need to get on the page. We are all learning together.  But employers who are owning the framework are influencing for the positive or for the negative. And so, it’s definitely my role, and role of leaders in the future of work movement, to help employers create the movement and frameworks that allow employees to find out what's their rhythm is.

GitLab is an amazing example: as part of their training on creating a remote-first company, they have an entire portion on how to help individuals become self-disciplined and find their rhythm. And that's a journey that we all need to take together.

Maybe, to end on a note, we could look at optimism. I think there is a very striking element that attracts me to leaders in the space and also to the leaders I invited to my podcast. And it's that those people who are aiming to build the future, are very optimistic. And people who are actually resisting the change are most often pessimistic. Where lies the difference? The difference is in the action. If you every day strive towards a better future, you know it's going to happen because you're putting so much effort into it, and you'll find a tribe of other people who are doing the same.

So, I want to tell the audience that, very much, we need to be in action. Because time is passing, people are quitting and we're seeing this Great Resignation happening when there's no action and there's no communication. And so I would every company to try out and start somewhere. Hire someone with a title to give a signal that you're working on this. Communicate with your employees, make experiments. Everybody's experimenting! 

Open communication channels, so you can get a feedback loop from your employees if you don't know where to start. And know that if you speak with an open heart and a positive mindset you're going to be part of the shapers of the future of work and you gonna own what it looks like in the future. 

If you just wait, then you can only be subject to the change that other people are making and not own it. So that's how I would like to end. Because there are millions of employees who are suffering from the lack of communication, the lack of action, the lack of support from their employers, and we can just look at the Great Resignation. And we can also look at the burden and pain of people who are living with mental health issues, or psychological and emotional issues from work and that's hurting all of us as a society.

Nina: Thank you so much, Nellie Hayat, it was a pleasure talking to you!

Nellie: Thank you, it was a pleasure to be with you!

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