Crafting the Future of Work: Shuli Steele, Impec Group

The modern workplace is facing a host of new challenges, from figuring out how to use office space effectively to understanding the changing needs of employees.

One expert in the field of workplace strategies is Shuli Steele, Vice President of Workplace Strategies at Impec Group, who highlights the importance of data-driven decision making in addressing these challenges.
In this interview, we explore the key issues facing companies today, including historical assumptions about space, measuring the value of place and trusting employees.

We also take a look at Shuli's approach to finding solutions that balance the needs of employees and the business, and how her focus on data helps organizations create a more efficient and satisfying work environment.

Can you explain what you do?

I help clients collect and assess quantitative and qualitative data to better understand the resource needs of employees. This guides leaders in making workplace choices that support individual employee needs as well as the needs of the business.

What’s your title? Or what do you call yourself?

My title is Vice President Workplace Strategies but typically I don't use it and here's why: We are all Workplace Strategists because we each know what we need to do our jobs. I think of myself more as a data and design strategist in that I guide clients through discovery to seek comprehensive and valuable data to develop good solutions that have longevity.

What are the top three challenges that your clients are facing right now?

  1. Historical assumptions regarding space
  2. How to measure the value of place
  3. How to trust employees

How can organizations best support different cohorts of people, given that everyone has different needs in terms of work life, harmony, productivity and hybrid work?

I don’t use the "H word" as its root definition is the offspring of two plants or animals. If we use that term, we are continually focusing on two zones, two places, home vs. work which makes it easier for leadership to say, “Come back to the office.”

Work-life balance and harmony have two very different approaches:

  • On the harmony side, going to start with an odd precept: Why should leadership have to solve for work life balance and harmony if they've never had to solve for it before? Why is it part of their bottom line? It's not. 

But if we look at education, we see that although bullying was never part of academics (the three Rs: reading, writing and arithmetic), it had a dramatic impact on how students learn, the quality of education, and culture of place including the playground. So bullying, or micro-aggressions, have little relationship to the bottom line but have a huge impact on employee culture, comfort, and productivity. It does impact work.

  • Several studies show that if you have meetings back to back in the office, we have little privacy, freedom, or downtime. If we go meeting to meeting at home, we can take a five minute break to pet a dog, grab something to eat, step outside - do things that we don't or can’t typically do at the office. We have more agency at home. That's why I think the work-life balance impacts our productivity.

How are you navigating the disparities in thinking between the ‘old guard’ and those who want to ‘reimagine work?’ What role does data play in that?

Data plays a huge role. And that's where I think we go back to the quantitative and qualitative discussion. 

As we look at what reimagined work and workplaces look like, lots of people have said you have to start with surveying employees. I disagree and here's why.

We have to remember that leadership has paradigms and parameters, many of which do not acknowledge the agency employees have gained in the past couple of years. Without understanding those guardrails and what is acceptable to leadership - at least in the beginning - we send out surveys to employees asking what they want, often with arbitrary notions of office-first, home-first, hybrid-first. It’s meaningless without leadership’s support, and it sets us up for failure. Because if an employee says I want to come in three days a week and leadership says no, you have to be in four days, trust is broken.

So I think we start at the beginning, with leaders:

  • What is our existing culture, what's absolutely critical to continue?
  • What are the more malleable areas, things we're willing to change?

Then go to the employees, and say, “Here's what leadership said”:

  • Are you okay with this? How do you feel about this?
  • What are your preferences? What would be your ideal scenario?
  • What resources do you need to accomplish your project work?

We can bring these two together by creating parameters first, defining existing paradigms, and then asking employees for their input to find common ground. The result is employees who can produce results for the company as well as themselves. Foundational paradigms and culture of a business are crucial because ultimately leaders are still accountable to shareholders, revenue projections, profit margins, p&l ratios, etc.

Read here about how Café's comprehensive data analyzes how people gather, use space, and how to optimize experiences.

What metrics or other indicators will you recommend be used to measure how your clients’ new work models are performing?

I think we have to allow employees to identify the resources they need to complete work, and respond with those resources as long as they’re reasonable. Place is now one of those resources, one of several, and not the first one we choose. We start with skills, data, and technologies, and then identify the best place to bring these together. 

  • Do employees have the skills, education, and talent needed as individuals or within their team to complete the work for which they are responsible
  • Are we giving employees access and authority to the data and technology they need to do their work? 
  • Where is the best place to bring these resources together?

That's the new model. Then, if they indicate that by giving them these resources, they can produce the work, we now have a measurable objective.

At what level are those decisions being made?

In the past, these decisions were made by managers predicated on job descriptions. Today we talk about bringing HR, IT and FM (Facility Management) together. How do we bring them together when they don't speak a common language?

We allow employees to define their resource needs (skills, data, and technology) and then choose an ideal place to work with these needed resources. HR can now lead the talent, skills, and education development conversation with the employees, IT understands what sorts of technologies and data are needed by project, and FM can create workspaces that optimize bringing these together.

Do your clients have teams within their organizations that have different space, cultural or organizational needs? And if so, can you provide insight into managing these?

Most organizations are advancing space and governance, and more specifically policy around  how to define and use new space types.  With culture, we acknowledge that by nature, culture exists anytime people are brought together. The challenge is reshaping or nudging culture to best support our new modes of work. This often requires a new role in HR that leads workplace culture including DEI. I wouldn't say there's a standard yet, or well-defined roles as I think the type and the size of an organization defines these emerging responsibilities. We need to ask, “What would help our organization” and think of ourselves as peers. Whether we're managing the space, the culture or the organization, we've got to come together as peers and say, “This is what I can contribute to the employee experience.”

With this notion of ‘Culture doesn't belong to one team anymore,’ do you agree with that? How do you recommend managing that?

Culture is not created. Culture exists. Culture is individuals coming together and finding common ground, where they might clash, and how they learn from each other. Culture is a creative entity that can be influenced and shaped over time. I don’t think you can just build a culture or flat out change one because every person's story is going to influence that organization's culture. 

What is the office going to look like in the next five years?

In 2018, the World Economic Forum forecasted that by 2025, machines will perform more current work tasks than humans. That's computers, AI, mechanical devices, etc. So I think in five years, there will be a sea change in synergy between human contributions and technical contributions to work. I think that will be one of the greatest influences on workplace design since these bots will need specialized areas, mechanical shop floors, special equipment, or might reside in the cloud. 

As far as the office itself, it’s going to be a very fractured concept. I think it’s no longer an individual entity, but four separate things that each person will need a component of, depending on work; they won't necessarily need all of them:

  • Seating: We each have ergonomic needs as well as preferences. I'm sitting at a small table in my home office with a heater since it’s cold outside. When it’s warmer, I'll probably move to a different room, closer to the windows. It's a freedom that I have.
  • Surfaces: Tables of different heights and sizes are already the norm in many offices. Prototyping options for employees will continue. 
  • Stores: Files and file drawers have for the most part have gone digital, though some departments still require paper trails. This will continue as storage and retention regulations shift. 
  • Screens: We each have screen preferences of various sizes and qualities.

Imagine someday being able to travel with only your interfaces (keyboard, mouse) and as you near a computer you are authenticated and your personal applications and data appear for you. Not only do you have ease with which to choose a place for work, you can test different settings until you find your ideal office and can  use the elements that you need to produce work given at any time. 

Employees want the authority to engage in contracts: if given the skills, data, technology and place needed to do the job, they will produce valuable work. Success won’t come from managing where work takes place. It will come from supplying the right resources to support the work that produces results. Leadership might not feel they have to dictate place if they can advance from managing processes to contracting for results.

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Danielle Farage

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