Sheela Subramanian, co-founder of Future Forum, VP of Slack, author of "How The Future Works: Leading Flexible Teams to Do the Best Work of Their Lives"

Get Reworked Podcast: Why Flexibility and Trust Define the New World of Work

September 27, 2022 Employee Experience
Siobhan Fagan
By Siobhan Fagan

Sheela Subramanian, co-founder of Future Forum and VP at Slack, Get Reworked Episode #41
The ongoing debate between return to office or work from home misses the point. The question isn't where we work, but how.

Over the last two and a half years white collar workers have taken part in a grand experiment which upended many of the long-held norms of the workday. Business leaders now have the choice of what to do next: embrace this new way of work or try to return to how things were in 2019.   

In this kickoff episode to Season 3, Sheela Submramanian, co-founder of Future Forum and VP at Slack, and co-author of "How The Future Works: Leading Flexible Teams to Do the Best Work of Their Lives" shares why leaders need to move past the debate around physical location of work to embrace a much more flexible approach to how work gets done.

Listen: Get Reworked Full Episode List

"It's really critical for leaders to think about flexibility when it comes to choice in both where and when people work, rather than setting mandates in terms of the number of days they need to come back into the office," Subramanian said. "There's an opportunity for us to shift the conversation from power to trust, because power reflects the command and control model that we had for so long."

Highlights of the conversation include:

  • The dangers of confusing presenteeism for performance.
  • The outdated ideas around professionalism we've shed in the last few years (and the ones we still should lose).
  • Why working from home increased a sense of belonging in employees of color.  
  • Why the future of work comes down to two things: flexibility and trust.
  • What leaders' top concern today should be.

Plus, co-hosts Siobhan Fagan and Mike Prokopeak talk with Sheela about why we should all be in touch with our inner two-year-olds, why we need alternate career paths outside of management and where to find the best bagel in Oakland. Listen in for more.

Have a suggestion, comment or topic for a future episode? Drop us a line at [email protected].

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Show Notes

Episode Transcript

Note: This transcript has been edited for space and clarity.

Sheela Subramanian: Fifty-five percent of employees are open to looking for a new job in the next year. But if they're dissatisfied with their current levels of flexibility, that number increases to 70%. So your talent, your employees, are your competitive edge. It's critical that you meet them where they are, and listen to their feedback in order to stay relevant.

Mike Prokopeak: You just heard from Sheela Subramanian, vice president and co-founder of Future Forum and our guest on the podcast today.

Siobhan, tell us a little bit about Sheela.

Siobhan Fagan: Absolutely, Mike. So aside from being the co-founder of Future Forum, she is also the co-author of a book that came out this spring, "How the Future Works: Leading Flexible Teams to Do the Best Work of Their Lives."

She's got over 20 years of experience working in organizations such as Google, Slack and startups, building high-growth global teams, and she is just really, really passionate about this topic. So we are so excited to have her on today.

Mike: All right, let's get into it. Let's get Reworked.

Siobhan: Welcome to the podcast Sheela.

Sheela: Thanks so much for having me. It's great to be here.

Siobhan: So we invited you here today for a couple of reasons, partially because you have a book that came out in the spring, "How the Future Works," part because of where that book came from, which is your work with the Future Forum. And we're just really looking forward to having this conversation today.

So we just wanted to start with kind of a level set, which is, can you explain a little bit what the Future Forum is, and how and why you started it?

Sheela: Absolutely. So the Future Forum was founded in 2020. And it's a consortium that's backed by Slack with founding partners like Boston Consulting Group, Management Leadership for Tomorrow, as well as MillerKnoll.

And we found that in 2020, after we saw organizations make bigger changes than they ever thought were possible, and how people worked. But what we were seeing was that organizations were simply doing the lift and shift. They were lifting office-based practices, and they were shifting them into people's living rooms. And rather than retrofitting office based practices into this new distributed way of working, we saw an opportunity to redesign what work looked like from the ground up.

So our focus is conducting research, as well as executive dialogue. And we focus on three key themes. The first is flexibility, then it's inclusion, and then it's building connection, because we believe that the future of work needs to shift from being CEO-centric and office first, to people-centric and digital first. And there's a lot of work that needs to go into that. But that's the beauty of the work that we're doing every single day, is figuring out how to help organizations redesign from the ground up.

Siobhan: So I love that you said that you're taking a people-centric approach, because it was something I have been looking at some of the research that you come out with, you come out with a quarterly pulse survey every quarter. And what I noticed, first of all, aside from the data, which is very interesting, is that you're always reflecting the employee sentiment.

And I was wondering what drove the choice to go with that sort of point of view over that of the leaders who we often hear from?

Sheela: Yes, so the Future Forum policy is a survey of over 10,000 desk workers globally. And when we first started the survey in 2020, 100% of the people we were talking to are oftentimes the employees and since then we've also phased in the executive perspective, really to understand the policies, the principles that our executives are setting, but then how is that reflecting in terms of employee sentiment?

Now to your question of why did we focus on the employee experience, what we saw, especially in the early days of the pandemic, was just how inequitable the work experience was. And since then, we've seen that in a number of trends, whether it's the she-cession, where millions of women are leaving the workforce or downshifting their careers, the YOLO economy, where many people are leaving their desk jobs for more fulfilling opportunities, and also the great resignation.

What we're seeing from our research is that 58% of people are looking for a new opportunity in the next year. And one big part of being people-centric is making work work for all types of employees, rather than the select few. And that's why we study you know, what is the experience of employees of color? What is the experience of working parents, namely working moms or other caregivers?

We segment out our research to give a more holistic view of what preferences are across employees rather than kind of perpetuating the monoculture that has been the corporate world for so long.

Rethinking Outdated Ideas of Professionalism

Siobhan: I want to dig a little deeper into this monoculture. Because I love doing homework before these podcasts, I listened to a few interviews that you gave. And in a couple of them, you mentioned this idea that a lot of companies are operating with an outdated idea of professionalism. And I was hoping that you could just elaborate a little bit on what you mean there, and what the consequences are if companies continue to hold on to those outdated ideas?

Sheela: Oh, my gosh, I, how much time do we have today?

So I think the first thing, as we shift to a more flexible way of working, we need to think about, our leaders need to think about, how they're measuring performance of their employees.

So early in my career, it was 'Sheela, you're doing a great job, because you're the first in, the last to leave, or you're responding to my message or my email at midnight,' that wasn't necessarily me being results-driven or outcome-driven. That was my performance being evaluated on the activities at the presenteeism that I was exhibiting as an employee.

And what we're seeing from our research is that proximity bias is a top concern for executives, as they think about flexible work. Now, proximity bias is favoritism towards an employee because they're proximate or located in the office. And with the hybrid work model, the risk we run is that those who want to go back into the office full-time tend to be executives, male employees, white employees in the US, whereas those who want more flexible work schedules tend to be working parents, namely working moms, women, as well as employees of color.

And if we continue to base performance on presenteeism, on activity, we run the risk of erasing the gains in terms of inclusion and equity, that flexibility has offered us over the last two years.

So it's really critical for leaders when they're evaluating their employees, whether it's during performance review season, or during promotion time to look at the outcomes, the results, the impact that their employees are making, rather than reverting back to the old norms of, I know, this person is doing great because they're a hard worker, and they're always in the office, or they're always online.

So I'd say that that's one outdated norm of professionalism that we really do have to abandon in the name of creating more inclusive and equitable work cultures.

Siobhan: Did we see some other areas and they're a bit more superficial perhaps, were these norms have kind of loosened up? And I'm thinking about, everybody brings up the viral BBC announcer whose children and wife came in in the background. And this was before all of us experienced that first-hand.

So have we seen some ideas around what a professional looks like loosen up, where the clothing, your whole home is on view for everybody? Has that also gone out the window?

Sheela: Yeah, I wish I could say it's gone out the window. But I'm just going to a meeting with a customer. And I think that we're still in the world where a lot of executives are relying on well, this is how I used to do it, so this is the way it should be. Or this is how I mobilized in my career, so I'm expecting others to do the same.

And I think that there's a lot of progress that's been made over the last couple years from our data, what we're seeing is that actually sense of belonging and relationships with coworkers has improved among employees of color in the US over the last couple of years.

And when we first saw that data in 2020, we thought: How was this possible? Like we're not in the office every day. So how are people feeling a stronger sense of belonging. And turns out, as we've dug deeper in the data, what we saw was that employees of color don't need to code switch every day, they don't need to change the way they dress, the way they talk the way that they behave, in order to fit into the office base norm.

And working flexibly enables them to bring more of their whole selves to work, and focus on the work at hand, rather than trying to fit into a lot of these outdated norms.

That said, I think that we've seen a lot of progress. I had to frankly say, though, I am in conversations, oftentimes, where it's, is it professional, that people aren't wearing hard pants every day? Is it professional, that people are picking up their kids from school? And my answer is yes. Because again, if you focus on the outcomes, and the results that your employees are driving, that's the number one important piece, because where our society has shifted, where our conversation has shifted, has been from, how is my life going to fit into my work, which is very much the 2019 mentality, to now is how is my work going to fit into my life and we're seeing that results are manifest in terms of the numbers even when it comes to the great resignation.

People are looking for environments where they can bring more of their whole selves to work and feel like they can be more authentic to who they are versus what they're pressured to be.

It's Not About Power, It's About Trust

Mike: So Sheela, I'm gonna jump in here for a second because I've had this image in my head for probably like the last year of the executive, the CEO, the boss, just sitting there biting their tongue, literally, you know, recognizing the moment wanting to say something, but also recognizing that it's not the right time. And I think we're starting to see that happen now with this return to office debate. They're saying, you know, come back or else in some cases, or, you know, starting to see that sense that perhaps the economic times are, you know, swinging the pendulum of power back in their favor.

My question, I guess, is for the employee, when that pendulum is swinging, when you see, hey, flexible work is an option, I'm gonna explore this, but then it starts to swing back. Are there actions that you recommend that the employee leveled when leadership maybe never really quite bought in, but just kind of went along for the ride for a little while?

Sheela: So I want to push on the leadership not being totally bought in over the last couple years, this experiment that we've been in, we've seen everything from, you need to return back into the office five days a week, these top-down policies, we've seen the hybrid model in terms of we need you back at least 24 hours every single week in the office, you can pick the days, we've seen a variety of methods.

And what we've seen as a result is employees asking why, or not reacting to that, or saying I'm going to find an opportunity elsewhere. What we see from our research is that 70% of those who are not happy with their current levels of flexibility, are open to looking for a new opportunity in the next year.

And what we also see is that flexibility ranks second only behind compensation when it comes to determining job satisfaction. So when executives are biting their tongues, or they're saying not really bought into this, what I encourage them to take a look at is what their employee engagement scores are. And also how are their retention numbers doing?

Because what's top of mind, right now for CEOs across every survey, every interview is talent. Yes, there's economic uncertainty in play, but the US unemployment at 3.6%, we're experiencing a global labor shortage. And so what the top priority is for CEOs is recruiting and retaining talent, and that needs to come back to trust, trust your employees to work in ways that they see best fit for their lives. And you know, define what those outcomes are for them, rather than instilling these top-down mandates that assume that work is one-size-fits-all.

You asked me about employees and how employees can encourage this. One thing that we talked a lot about in the book is leaders need to set like their principles and their guardrails in terms of what kind of behaviors they want to see on an executive level. But then they should empower their team-level managers to figure out what works best for their specific team. And this helps in many ways.

The first is we see in the data that middle managers are struggling, they're trying to translate top down mandates and also listen to their direct employees, they need to be empowered and skilled in order to lead in this distributed world. So that's one area that we encourage leaders as well as employees to figure out.

The second is being able to talk to your own experience and point to the outcomes that your team is able to deliver, regardless of where and when they work, being able to bring it back to the business is a critical way of also showing leaders that this is an effective way of leading an operations team. But in my opinion, a lot of it comes back to intention on behalf of leadership, and realizing that in order to retain their talent they need to trust.

Mike: All right, you brought up the book, which is, "How the Future Works: Leading Flexible Teams to Do The Best Work of Their Lives." Obviously, it's right there in the title, flexibility is the future of work. In the book, you're arguing for flexibility of when you work, and that being more important than where you work. So can you talk about why that is more important than the where?

Sheela: So much of the conversation today is about how many days are you expecting employees to come back into the office every week or every quarter? That's the beginning of the conversation, sure. But what we're seeing from our research is that yes, 80% of desk workers globally would like flexibility in where they work. But a whopping 94% want flexibility around when they work.

And the response I oftentimes get is like, well, I need to have meetings and we need to have synchronous work. Flexibility and when you work is not just a free-for-all like you can work whenever you want. Rather, what we're seeing is two thirds of employees surveyed want flexibility within a framework. They want something like core team work hours, where they're set hours every day where the teams come together, to meet to have one-on-ones to make decisions on critical topics to work synchronously. But outside of those core team work hours, people can do their focus work wherever they see fit.

In order for this to actually be successful organizations also need to reevaluate the role of meetings in their culture. All the research shows that most meetings are a waste of time and are unproductive. And what we encourage leaders to reevaluate when they're setting their principles and guardrails for the organization, is the role of meetings.

What we recommend is meeting should be to discuss a specific topic, debate, make a decision, decide or develop your employee, everything else can be brought into a digital channel. And you ask the question, why is it more important for employees? So we measure employee experience across eight different elements in our in our research, including work-life balance, satisfaction with working arrangement, ability to focus, and feeling good about stress and anxiety. And what we see is that people who have flexibility in when they work, score higher when it comes to their overall employee experience.

And so it's really critical for leaders to think about flexibility when it comes to choice in both where and when people work, rather than setting mandates in terms of the number of days they need to come back into the office.

Mike: It's about giving up some of that power to the employees, empowering them to make some of those choices, rather than telling them, here's the rules you can play with. Here's the outlines of the field.

Sheela: Yeah, you know, I think power comes up a lot in the conversations I have. And I think there's an opportunity for us to shift the conversation from power to trust, because power reflects the command and control model that we had for so long.

Mike: Somebody loses in the power struggle, right?

Sheela: Yeah, and in this new way of working, there's an opportunity to trust your employees to do what works best for them, but also for the business. And what we're seeing from the data is that people want to be treated that way, for not be treated that way for so long.

Beyond Where and When You Work, How Many Hours Should You Work?

Mike: All right, so we've talked about the when and the where and I guess the other question I have for you that has to do with the how long? You know, we're seeing some movements around companies doing experiments with a four-day work week, with giving employees control over how long they work within a week.

So is there any data or is there any sort of insight you have into whether it's worth mandating that employees work, for example, 40 hours a week or eight hours a day?

Sheela: Yeah, you know, it's interesting the history behind that the hour-based way of working and with the advent of new technology and new ways of working, how we've continued to stick to the 9 to 5, five days a week.

Now, here are my thoughts on the how long or even the four-day workweek question. More specifically, the four-day workweek will only be successful if leaders are actually intentional about changing the way that their teams work. Otherwise, it's going to be this counterproductive experiment that causes more stress than actual balance.

So as an example, we talked about meetings a few minutes ago, if you operate in a meeting heavy culture, you can't cram five days worth of meetings in four days, that's just going to burn your team out. Instead, this is an opportunity to declare calendar bankruptcy on an executive level back to the guardrails, set the behavioral guardrails that meetings should only be to debate, discuss, design or develop your employee, everything else can happen with your digital tools.

In addition, the four day workweek is not going to work if leaders don't set the tone from the top. If the execs are using their day off to get feedback, ask questions, have their own meetings, everyone else is going to follow. So leaders need to set that tone to embrace this new way of working, model it and also get feedback on it.

Now back to your question in terms of how long, the benefit of reduced work week or even thinking about the hours of in terms of employee expectations and delivery, is that it helps managers prioritize the outcomes that they're expecting their employees to deliver against rather than presenteeism.

That said it's embracing forms of schedule flexibility, including core team work hours, and also re-scaling managers to focus on the value that's being created, rather than the perceived activity of working hard.

So in my opinion, we need to shift the conversation from hours work to actual outcomes delivered. And that's a great opportunity to jettison some of these outdated norms by which we've been working, including five days a week in the office 40 hours on the clock, the 9 to 5 and ultimately is about trust and giving your employees more choice and how and when they work.

Why You Should Keep Asking Why

Siobhan: So Sheela, I think that one thing that we should probably clarify is that in the book and with the Future Forum, you're not arguing against people ever meeting face-to-face, correct?

Sheela: Oh, absolutely. I am here in the office today, meeting my colleagues face-to-face.

Being digital first does not mean that the office is dead. Instead, it's taking on a new meaning. Like what we're seeing is that 76% of those surveyed want to come together periodically to build connection, also foster camaraderie collaborate, but they don't want to come in the office every single day to show that they're working.

And so if you build a culture focused on outcomes rather than presenteeism, people don't need to come into the office to do solo focus work and prove that they're working and dedicated to the company.

Siobhan: What would you say to the companies who argue that a full-time or one of those, you know, two days in at home and three days in the office, is necessary in order to create or to boost corporate culture? Do you think that's the case?

Sheela: It definitely depends on the type of team you're working on and working for. I would say that the top down mandates of 'everybody needs to do this,' my response would be why? What are you looking to develop and instill within your culture to require people to do this.

As an example, if you work on a sales team, and you want people to come into the office two days a week to help account executives onboard, or you want to build camaraderie across the team, then leaders need to be really intentional about what people are doing when they come into the office. Whereas, if I'm a developer, and there's no reason for me to come into the office, beyond maybe once a month, then empower your team level managers to actually incorporate that into the way that they work.

So my response to the company that says, 'We need people here, because it will help develop culture,' is empower your managers ask why. And also be intentional about what you're expecting people to do, when they come into the office, otherwise, they're going to be commuting into the office, they're going to take an hour to set their computers up. And what we're going to be seeing is that people are more disenchanted with having been forced to be in the office versus be productive and and focusing on the outcomes that they're expected to deliver against.

Siobhan: I kind of love it, because you're basically saying that we all need to return to our two-year-old selves, where whenever we come up against something that seems absurd, or that we don't understand, we just have to keep asking the question why?

Sheela: I wish that that was just two-year-olds, I have a four- and a six-year-old and I still get the question. 

Mike: Well, usually it turns in not just why it then turns into, no. Which actually isn't a bad technique in the workplace, either.

The Elephant in the Room: Not Everyone Should Be a Manager

Mike: Are there specific tips that you would offer up to companies or specific managers that they can help to get themselves ready to thrive in this flexible working environment?

Sheela: Yes, it's really interesting to see the data in terms of how managers are performing in this new world of working. What we're seeing is that they're struggling, they score lower than executives across all aspects of the employee experience, and considerably lower when it comes to stress and anxiety and satisfaction with work.

And what's more interesting to see is that their negative experience has been felt by their teams. So individual contributors have the lowest employee experience scores of all groups, and the lower an employee is in the org chart, the worse their scores are. But that's not an opportunity to just bring all junior members back into the office full time, what we're seeing from the data is the need to rescale managers.

So in our book, we talk a lot about the need to invest in coaching, feedback and tools to help managers make the shift from gatekeepers to the coaches that they need to be. Other ways that we've talked about in the book is setting the principles on an executive level, but giving team-level autonomy, and encouraging your managers to embrace a learning mindset.

In addition, it's helping them set team-level agreements in terms of what are the norms, the practices, as well as even just the ways in which they discuss and rumble and create psychological safety within their teams. So that's super important for them to just formalize that with their organization and to help them build trust.

And I think leaders also need to just show what good looks like we're the managers that are thriving within your organization. How can you show what they're doing well, to the broader set of aspiring managers? That's an important way to just show what a model a prototype could look like for other managers within the organization.

There's also just the elephant in the room of not everyone's equipped to be a manager, not everyone wants to be a manager. But the traditional corporate ladder has been, hey, you are a certain level now, in order to be promoted to the next level, you need to start leading a team. But what we're seeing is that just because you're good at your day to day job does not mean you're going to be an effective manager.

So leaders also just need to create individual contributor tracks for those who don't want management to be part of their day-to-day so that they can still see a future promotion ahead of them, but they don't necessarily need to take on an additional responsibility that they may not want. So that needs to be part of the conversation as well, like what is career mobility look like if you don't want to lead a team, or be a manager in the future?

Mike: What does it look like? Because you know, you mentioned like their alternative tracks next to the management track. So, you know, I've been in my job for a few years, I'm ready for promotion, I'm ready for more pay, ready for responsibility, but I don't want to manage a team. What are other tracks that that companies can take?

Sheela: You can continue to be a star individual contributor, and that maybe have more responsibility when it comes to the scope of your role, with regards to functional expertise. But you don't necessarily have to have a team behind you to do that.

I have vacillated in my career, I have had teams of 40 to 50. And I've been an individual contributor. And that's because of the choice that I made based on what was going on with my life, being a new mom, versus when I was ready to just accelerate my career.

But giving people the opportunity to figure out when they want to press on the gas pedal, and maybe when they want to put on the brakes a bit, is going to help you with retention. And you shouldn't have to lose an employee because they don't want to necessarily take a predetermined track that's the only option within an organization.

It's ultimately back to choice and giving your employees choice in terms of how they want to build their careers and develop their careers in a way that works best for them.

To answer your question, I think also, it's it depends on the type of work that you do, you can be a senior-level engineer, you can be a senior-level marketer, and not have to have a large team behind you in order to thrive. But it's about the intentionality that leaders need to put into that career ladder process, up to give people multiple options.

Mike: 'Up is not the only way,' to quote one of our other guests, Beverly Kay, who actually wrote a book called that. But I was thinking it's sort of like, as we talked about the need to share information across teams and promote ties, another track could be, you're a subject matter expert, you know, that means you're not necessarily responsible for managing, you know, a team, but you're perhaps responsible for managing a content area or an expertise or an area of the company, that information should be spread around more widely around the company. So yeah, I like that idea.

Sheela: I think it's an important one as we think about the new role of the manager, because there are a lot of new bullets in terms of the job description for the manager in this new distributed world of work.

Siobhan: And I think it's also goes back to just your basic premise of this is an opportunity to rethink so many ways that we have been working, and why does this have to be the career path? And why can't this be a more fluid career path where people like you have had times where yes, management is great for me, and this is going to work well, and other times where I'm going to be the best individual contributor that I can be. So I really do love that we got into that.

Sheela: To touch on that, just from a personal experience, you know, in 2018, I had two kids under two, I was working for a high-growth company, and I was exhausted, and I had a chance to meet with one of our board members. And she said, we need you in the workforce, because you need to show that it can be done. And there's a lot of pressure to that statement.

But then I realized what she was saying was, success is not about your title. It's not about the size of your team, even though it's traditionally been evaluated that way, success is living the life that you want to lead, on your terms. And the minute we can shift from successes, checking all these boxes, to giving employees more choice in terms of what makes them happy and what makes them thrive, the better our businesses will be in terms of the impact that employees are going to make for organizations.

I think we're too rooted in traditional ways of seeing what success and thriving look like, that doesn't necessarily work for this new generation of employees.

Siobhan: I think just listening to your response right now Sheela, it makes me think of how the book hit me when I was reading it, in that it is this very practical and helpful guide for companies that are looking to explore this new way of work, but at the same time, it is deeply felt.

And all of you share different parts of your lives and how you reach these conclusions, which I think made the arguments that you're making that much more powerful.

Underrated | Overrated With Sheela Subramanian

Siobhan: So we're going to take a little break here if you don't mind and play a game if you're up for it. And it's a game that we call underrated/overrated. And what we do is we throw out a few topics and you respond if you think that the topic is underrated or overrated. A lot of times people just throw out the game altogether and say neither of those apply. So are you willing to play along Sheela?

Sheela: I am always willing to play yes.

Siobhan: Excellent. Excellent. So here is your first one and underrated/overrated and that is emojis as communication methods is that underrated or overrated.

Sheela: It is underrated. And a way of getting feedback effectively from groups of people. What is overrated is using an emoji as a replacement for a word. You got to talk about what you're saying you can use emojis as a nice compliment, but they're not a replacement.

Mike: I gotta admit, though, there is a lot of satisfaction in finding the perfect emoji for a response to something, it's no it's no replacement for words, but there is just something about that image that just just captures it all.

Sheela: I remember, you know, throughout my career, you're on a long email chain. And everybody is responding with like, great job or thanks and it goes from like an announcement email to like 200 people participating with single words. The beauty of an emoji and what we call it's like a reacji is you can get that momentum without the disruption of having to open every single email.

Mike: We definitely had to ask emoji questions since with your experience with Slack so, all right, question two for underrated, overrated. burning the candle at both ends, is that underrated or overrated?

Sheela: Completely overrated. It was a piece of advice I got last week when I was in grad school, was burn the candle at both ends till you're 50 years old. And then reacquaint yourself with your friends and family and I and I realized at that point, that that was not the life that I wanted to live. So this is a this is definitely overrated. I know I'm not alone there.

Siobhan: All right. This next one might be the most controversial question of our underrated overrated section. And that is: Oakland bagels underrated or overrated?

Sheela: So there's, I don't know if you realize just how much history there is with this question.

Mike: Siobhan knows, Siobhan knows, believe me.

Sheela: I lived in New York, I'm a big fan of New York bagels, moved back to California in 2016, and could not find myself a good bagel. And in my view, a good bagel has a tension. It has like the crisp exterior and the nice chewy interior. And so I learned how to make my own bagels. I go through the whole three-day process of making bagels and then having people over to taste test different flavors. And I have a competitor in Oakland down the street from my house called Boichik Bagels, which always has a line around the corner and was recently named by the New York Times as one of the best bagels in America. So I would say that the Oakland bagel, outside of my home, is overrated. But the Sheela Subramanian bagel is underrated.

Siobhan: I had no idea how deep a well I was touching by bringing up the Oakland bagels, because I had heard you mentioned the New York Times the review of the bagels, but you're making your own that is a serious commitment to bagel love.

Sheela: That was a pandemic hobby that was picked up pretty early on.

Siobhan: Excellent.

Mike: So some people went sourdough you went you said I'm just gonna go for bagels. That's where I'm going.

Sheela: Yep, yep, it's gonna have my own starter and spend many hours doing it. It's been it's been really fulfilling.

Mike: All right, our last question for you in the underrated overrated has to do with working as a congressional intern, you spent some time about four months back in 2001 working as a congressional intern was that experience overrated or underrated?

Sheela: It was a very interesting time actually makes me feel very old those 21 years ago, very interesting time, I spent the summer of 2001 working as an intern in Congress. And then that fall during September 11, that was actually an intern in the House of Commons. And I learned so much during both of those experiences. So I would say it's underrated, mainly because people imagine that you're just stuffing envelopes, but I learned how to write and communicate my thoughts in a really concise manner, in a way that I still use today.

Siobhan: Well, thank you for playing with us, Sheela.

Leader's Top Concern Should Be Their Talent

Siobhan: So to wrap up this conversation, I just want to look at all of these lessons that we've talked about that businesses have learned from the last two years that they may or may not be taking to heart, and a dynamic that we're currently seeing in the world, which is companies that are doing budget cuts, they are, as Mike mentioned earlier, some of them are demanding this return to the office. And there's a general feeling of, I would say, anxiousness, going around on many fronts. And I'm wondering if you share that concern that potentially what we're seeing these dynamics worldwide, will tip the scales back to what work was in 2019.

Sheela: I think we need to shift thinking from flexibility is a perk to flexibility is a core expectation for employees. It ranks second only behind compensation when it comes to determining job satisfaction.

So during an economic downturn, talent is a competitive advantage. And leaders need to focus on actually retaining their employees rather than ignoring their needs and wants.

And I think that leading with trust actually becomes doubly important when we talked about the great resignation, as well as the global labor shortage that's currently in play.

So do I think that this is all going to be rolled back? I don't think so. Because I think that employees are ready for the conversation to shift from one about power to trust, and they're voting with their feet.

Mike: What's your strongest argument to a leader who doesn't find that that's enough for them, you know that that all feels very abstract. I've got to meet quarterly results, or I've got this very specific thing that I'm trying to achieve. And we're going to drive as hard as we can to get there. What's your strongest argument to say, you know, that's just not enough anymore?

Sheela: Your top of mind concern as a leader is your talent. And what we're seeing from our research is that 55% of employees are open to looking for a new job in the next year. But if they're dissatisfied with their current levels of flexibility, that number increases to 70% of employees.

So your talent, your employees, are your competitive edge, it's critical that you meet them where they are, and listen to their feedback in order to stay relevant, or else your going to risk losing your employees, and you're gonna be spending a lot of your time and energy trying to recruit new ones. And that's going to be actually even harder than it's ever been.

I think we're gonna see like a bifurcation in terms of companies who are willing to embrace this new way of working, and how they're performing, versus those who want to revert back to 2019, and the results they're going to see with regards to employers.

An Opportunity to Create a More Inclusive Workplace

Mike: So we've talked about sort of the current state here and where things are at, as you look ahead to the future, what is the thing that you're most excited about? Like, if you look five, 10 years down the line, if companies are taking the steps that you have laid out in your book, what are you most excited about the outcome being? Where do you see the thing that is, you're gonna know it, we've hit a new way of working, we've merged into a new state, how do you know that we've got there?

Sheela: We’re in the beginning of this massive experiment around how we work. What we saw back in 2019, though, was that the way that we worked benefited a select few, rather than all types of employees. And that's been reflected even in terms of the monoculture that's been built on an executive level and on a managerial level.

And I had an epiphany, you know, back in 2018, I read the book, "How to Be an Antiracist" by Ibram X. Kendi. And my epiphany was that my whole career, all I had been doing was trying to assimilate into the prevailing norm, versus working in environments that were inclusive to the way that I worked. And so my hope is that five, seven, 10 years from now, what we're going to see is just increased diversity, increased equity, as well as representation in our workforce in a way that we never thought was possible, because we're giving employees more choice, we're leading with more trust. And so we see higher retention within our employee base.

Over the last two years, I have felt a stronger sense of belonging as a leader, and as a mother, a wife, a daughter of elderly parents, and neighbor. And my hope is that if we redesign how work is being done, that others will feel the same way as well. And that's what keeps me really passionate about the work that I'm doing every single day.

Siobhan: Sheela, I think that we would love to have you back on the podcast in five, 10 years, whatever this timeframe is, to follow up and discuss how much more humane these workplaces are. So thank you so much for joining us today.

If our audience wants to find you know a little bit more about you, where can they find you online?

Sheela: Yes, so you can follow Future Forum on Twitter, as well as LinkedIn. We also have a website And you are more than welcome to follow me on LinkedIn, as well as Twitter. And I tend to share a lot of that research and insights that we collect. So excited to hear what people think about data about the book. And if you have specific questions on the way that you work day to day.

Siobhan: Thanks again, Sheela, thank you for joining us.

Sheela: Thanks for having me. Speak to you in 2032.

Siobhan: Sounds perfect.

Mike: We encourage you to drop us a line at [email protected]. If you have a suggestion or a topic for a future conversation, we are all ears. Additionally, if you like what you hear, please post a review on Apple Podcasts or wherever you may be listening. And be sure to share Get Reworked with anyone that you think might benefit from these types of conversations. And then finally, be sure to follow us at Get Reworked on Twitter as well.

Editor's Note: This episode marks Mike Prokopeak's final Get Reworked podcast episode. Fare thee well Mike!


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