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Making Hybrid Working Work


In this podcast Shane Hastie, Lead Editor for Culture & Methods, spoke to Nick Iovacchini of Kettle about making hybrid working work in the post-pandemic world and the ability to put people space and time together in ways that create successful experiences for employees and organisations.

Key Takeaways

  • Hybrid is every model that's going to be something other than everybody back in the office five days a week – there is no one-size-fits-all
  • It’s not just in-office or at home, there are many options around third places and short-term travel
  • Tech departments and tech companies are generally ahead of the curve for hybrid working
  • Finding the right balance of in-person and remote work will be different for every team and every organisation
  • Office space needs will change as firms adopt hybrid approaches


Shane Hastie: Good day, folks. This is Shane Hastie for the InfoQ Engineering Culture Podcast. I'm sitting down today with Nick Iovacchini from Kettle. Nick, welcome. Thanks for taking the time to talk to us today.

Nick Iovacchini: Awesome to be here. Thanks for having me.

Shane Hastie: Who's Nick?

Introductions [00:34]

Nick Iovacchini: Good question. Nick's originally from North Carolina in the United States, moved to New York when I started my first company, which had nothing to do with what I'm doing now. Started a few companies since. I have two daughters, seven and eight. I live in the outskirts of New York city, in the burbs, very beautiful place. And I am a serial founder who enjoys paying.

Shane Hastie: Alright. And tell us a little bit about Kettle.

Nick Iovacchini: Yeah. So Kettle is a company that's been pioneering hybrid work for the last five years, kind of go through the story in a bit, but where we started and where we now are fairly different businesses. We were impacted by the pandemic quite a bit, but in an essence where we are now is we're supplying leaders and employees with a platform to help them return to office and sort of re-define new work models coming on the other side of COVID and help folks where there's really no playbook, operationalize some of these new complexities communicate them and effectively make them better over time.

Shane Hastie: You mentioned when we were chatting before we started that, you've had an interesting pandemic journey yourself, tell us what happened.

The impact of COVID-19 on Kettle [01:38]

Nick Iovacchini: Sure. It might be entertaining for some, it was sort of challenging to live through to say the least, but the reality is we were all going through challenges as a global community. So, I feel like we take it all in stride, but yeah, effectively, we were one of those businesses that has a before, during and after story. Fortunately, we have an after story.

Prior to COVID, our company was called KettleSpace and we were running an innovative workspace business where we were partnering with hotels, restaurants, retail spaces that had excess capacity. And we were using our technology and our operational expertise to sort of enable them to become lightweight coworking spaces. So somewhere between like [inaudible 00:02:15] and a coffee shop, price point of a coffee shop, but a 10 times better experience and a way for people to find a local place near where they live to get outside the house and get to work, meet friends and be productive.

So that business was doing really well, pre COVID, it was growing, had a great clip. And we had several thousand members here in New York about 20 workspace locations and March 13th, that was the business and March 16th was the Monday when COVID hit New York. And we had a lot overnight. I mean, everybody went through their and jarring experience as COVID came into their areas. But for us, it meant really thinking quickly and needing to lean into the fact that we had this asset light model that wasn't sort of traditional in that we had leases and we owned or operated spaces, we were more enabling existing space to provide these services.

So we worked with our investors and compressed our business and really got as lean as we could in a matter of 24 to 48 hours. We had a strong continuity plan, fortunately going into the pandemic, had the place written up that didn't really imagine having to run them, but we ran them.

And as we step back, having just completely lost what was a thriving business, we collected ourselves and decided we could do two things. We could become a software company. We had always been a workspace company with some tech and we had wanted to become a software company, but it was hard given the way that we had started. And then the other thing we decided that we could do in this period of events, certainty or hibernation, was to get as close to the future of work and where it might land as we could. So that led us on a research initiative to talk to several thousand at this point, leaders in tech, HR facilities, real estate, C-suite you name it?

We talk to as many people as would get onto Zoom or get on a call with us. What's keeping you on up at night, what's your employee base saying, what's your leadership team saying, what do you see as the future? When are you going back? How are you going back? All of it. And that really led us to this conclusion about a year ago that the future was hybrid.

I didn't really know what that meant at the time. It just kept coming through. It was loud and clear through the pattern recognition of that point, several hundred of these conversations. And so we heard the signal and we said, "Okay, we can place a bet here and we can bet that in a different way." We can leverage what we were doing in this insights that we had gleaned through this research to reinvent our business and build software around that.

Tackling hybrid work environments [04:34]

Nick Iovacchini: So we started out on that path and ended up hooking up with a credible large university. It was going hybrid and we helped them through some of the new complexities. They were sort of tip of the spear on a lot of this stuff and between kind of our legacy expertise and our software competencies and our willingness to run really quickly at throwing tech into the market on new problem sets, it led to pretty rapid iteration and insights and really our understanding that this is a pretty loaded, complex set of problems.

And all of that story has led us to develop the software solution KLOS a platform that was a genesis of our prior experience pre-COVID at research and endeavoring to be early in hybrid solutioning. So hope that makes sense. It has been a wild ride.

Shane Hastie: Sounds like it. So let's dig into some of that research. First of all, what is hybrid?

Exploring what hybrid means [05:25]

Nick Iovacchini: It's a good question. So I define hybrid as every model that's going to be something other than everybody back in the office five days a week. So it's definitely not going to be one size fits all. I can tell you that. I mean, people are endeavoring to do this very differently. Some people it's way... There's a couple different dimensions of it, but I think hybrid will ultimately be the elegant coexistence of in the office with purpose for certain activities with certain people from home, because we've all done some of that.

And that's worked as in some ways, but it's been tested and then some near home, some third space, some localized alternative workspaces. And I think constructing that thoughtfully and bringing those three location optionality together is sort of what will become hybrid.

And then the other piece of this is what are the policies around? What's a rule, what's a choice, who makes it, is it the C-suite? Is it the team leaders, the individual and what's the balance between a rule and a choice and employee freedom if you will, versus governance from the org saying, you need to do this. I think those equilibriums will be established over time and it'll be a lot of test and learn in the interim, as it settles into future steady state.

Shane Hastie: There's a lot in there.

Nick Iovacchini: There's a lot in there. Yeah.

Shane Hastie: Can we unpack and maybe look at some of that research or some of the things that you've learned. What's happening with tech organizations or the tech area within companies for instance.

Tech departments and tech companies are generally ahead of the curve [06:53]

Nick Iovacchini: I think tech is ahead in a lot of ways, if you took like tech on the one hand financial services, on the other hand, one's more forward thinking, progressive always been rooted, the deep innovation is in the DNA and then you've got other institutional orgs that have been doing things a certain way for in some instances, hundreds of years. So from a cultural standpoint, the tech industry is definitely more on the spectrum of progressing towards a more thoughtful hybrid model. And I think a lot of that is hybrid will come down to not two things.

Like you said, there's a lot of things, but one is really what we've seen is, I like to say the age old power dynamics between worker and boss have changed. It's like for a long time, boss showed worker where to be and worker showed up or get another job. But now we've all lived in a different reality for a year and a half where that construct if you have to be in the office has now been proven in most cases that that's just no longer a truth.

So the talented the worker now has a little bit more say where they want to be working and how they want to be working. So I think that in technology, in particular, where we have knowledge based workers who are accustomed to doing a lot asynchronously and using tools like Slack and collaborating without being in person, it predisposes the tech community and, or the tech departments within orgs to be skewing more towards the hybrid appropriate or hybrid ready teams and orgs.

Whereas, other types of teams like creative teams tend to really want to be together more in person and their collaborative creative process tends to exist more on a whiteboard and through sessions. They're generally speaking, we'll spend more time together, but those are generalizations it's really, every company is different and has to put this puzzle back together for what makes sense for their talent.

Shane Hastie: How do we do that in a way that does make sense for the company and for the people?

Finding the balance that works for the people and the company [08:42]

Nick Iovacchini: Well, I think it's a combination of a couple of things. First of all, to do this most effectively. I think it's a willingness for leadership to come to the conversation with a level of transparency and co-authorship. I think we've seen the top down dictatorship model not be received so well. Even if you look at what happened with Apple said, "Everybody back three days a week."

That's not all that unreasonable, if we'd all pre pandemic been offered three days a week in the office and two at home we'd have been doing cartwheels, but the way it was delivered, which is like, this is the way it's going to be, I think was part of the reason it failed. And I think that CEOs and leaders have an opportunity to be heroes right now and say, look, there's no playbook.

We need to reconstruct this thing. Let's do it together. Personally, I think that approach is going to be more successful than like this is the law. I also think we need a tool. This is where I'll give you a plug for our product and our platform, but whether it's our product and platform or another really utilizing a technology tool to operationalize these complexities is really important.

And it's not a one dimensional solution set it's part communications because you have to communicate leaders have to communicate to the team like what's going on and what the new policies are, what they need to expect and how to modify behaviors accordingly. That's a big part of it. The other part is, like I said, having a thoughtful program that's designed end to end where you go, this is a rule and this is a choice. This is a schedule.

And this is who calls it, a lot of the hybrid right now kind of lives in this ambiguous, yeah, we're going to do a two and three. What's that really mean like who's in the office on what days and who needs to be with whom and why are they in the office on these days and not those days. And how do they know that?

Hybrid is hard and needs significant coordination [10:18]

Nick Iovacchini: Without a pretty intelligent way of stitching that together and making it clear to everyone what's going on, it's a mess. I mean, some of the research on hybrid is everybody back in the office is simple. We all get it. Everybody remote is simple, we all get it, but bringing the best to both worlds, I truly think is the best both worlds, but it requires a lot more coordination and a tool is definitely required. And then I think it's the willingness to accept the fact that nobody's getting this right out of the gate.

This is too big of a change. It's too new. And it's really about gathering the right data. Again, hopefully with a tool that's helping gather that data and then using it to layer it across other KPIs that companies care about, whether it's engagement or productivity or revenue growth, whatever.

And looking through the lens of is this hybrid model that we've chosen working and being willing and able and having the data to allow for iteration. Because I think over time hybrid will get right sized and it'll settle in and by right size I mean, there's two big things is what's the mix of in-office versus remote and rules and choices, which will impact the talent and those that get it right, are going to attract the talent and those that don't are going to lose the talent.

The need to put people space and time for successful experiences

And then the other piece is what's that office space need to look like, where is it located? What activities does it need to support? How big does it need to be? And as leases roll off, and that's the other part of this whole change, this size, shape, and purpose of the office will be changing. So understanding that and having the right data to inform office design going forward think is important to be considered.

Shane Hastie: Can we dig into that data, but what are some of the important data points that are going to inform us as we like these decisions?

Nick Iovacchini: In our stack and in our technology infrastructure, we look at our core Lego blocks of technology componentry as people space and time, and the ability to put people space and time together in ways that create successful experiences. And those experiences need to be successful for leaders who are trying to figure this out. And also employees who are trying to determine whether they like this and want to stay with this company or go somewhere else.

And so the data that we gather for example is really granular people, space and time and utilization data. And I think that utilization data together with qualitative feedback is really going to be the linchpin figuring out how to make this smoother, better and optimize it over time. As I was talking about earlier, there's sort of four perspectives that are represented in figuring out hybrid, and it's often a task force of leadership you've got, let's just call them CEO, CFO, CHRO, and then tech. And real estate and facilities to me lives under CFO.

The four perspectives that need to collaborate [12:55]

Nick Iovacchini: And some of it lives under tech, but those four perspectives can give you what I think they care about. So I think CEO cares about keeping talent. Number one, we're in the great resignation right now. People have changed the way they value their time and their commuting and all that. So it's like got to keep talent. Also got to get this right. You need to lead from the front and be an inspiring leader and a challenging new situation.

And you also care about culture and serendipity or the ability to build bonds and connections, because that's an incredibly important part of having a thriving team. And then you've got CHRO and the CHRO is going, oh my God, this just landed in my lap. It's complex. I care about health. I care about risk. I care about acknowledging that not every team is created the same and there's going to be, need to be equality yet acknowledging differences.

And how I communicate this because it's messy. And then you've got tech, who's like, alright, we don't need another system, we need this to plug into everything that we've already got. We've got tooling for online collaboration. Now we've got office systems, we've got calendars, we've got access so we got all this stuff and how do I make sure that I get end to end and include this new paradigm without disrupting everything else I have going on? And there's data and security concerns, which are top of mind for everyone.

And then you've got CFO. Who's going okay, everybody around the table's telling me hybrid's the way to go, I get it. Now I know I'm sitting on all this real estate and it's one of my biggest fixed cost centers, how do I make more efficient spending decisions through this? As I have flexibility and I do have choice coming up, what am I doing with all this real estate?

And so I think it all blends together and it's about putting functional solutions where every stakeholder can go, yeah, that works for me. But I'm convinced that technology is the through line to stitch all this together. I think the office experience of the future definitely takes into consideration office design, a technology solution to enable these things and the ability for people, time and space to be elegantly put together in successful ways, but tech just runs through the whole thing.

Shane Hastie: Thinking my own situation, I'm a remote worker in another country, so time zones become an issue, but not too bad because it also gives us coverage across multiple time zones.

Nick Iovacchini: 24/7.

Shane Hastie: 24/7. So yeah, follow the sun type service and support with this more dispersed workforce. How do we retain culture?

Retaining culture in dispersed organisations [15:12]

Nick Iovacchini: It's a big question. I think the whole hybrid, as we were talking a little bit about earlier becomes this progression where it's like the first problem is we're still dealing with COVID at least in our country and it's not going away. We sort of missed that boat it seems. So we're dealing with that, we've got our existing office space and we've got everybody at home and we need to communicate what we're doing. So that's like problem one it's right in front of us.

A next problem becomes, how do we compete for talent? What's our competition doing? Are we tilting the wrong way to lose talent or game talent, problem three, what's our office space need to look like problem four culture collaboration and not necessarily in that order. I mean, this is all happening in parallel, but I think that's going to be one of the most important pieces of the equation.

And I think it's just starting to get talked about, but it's a little bit buried in the dialogue because I got to take care of problem one first, but we're big fans of the science behind human connection. In fact, in our workspace business, it was a big part of our thesis. We were really interested in the work of Vivek Murthy and others who have been studying, whether you look at it as the loneliness epidemic or the need to be connected, like whatever side of the coin you're on there, it was becoming a real thing before the pandemic and under the radar where it's just really interesting research out where we have these shallow connections where we're all more connected than ever before, but we're also from a human to human standpoint, more disconnected than we've ever been before.

And I think COVID will ultimately, when we all pick our heads up a little bit from it, we'll ultimately have exacerbated that because a lot of the human connection we were getting was with the people we were working with.

I don't have a perfect answer, but I think thoughtfully designing when and where people are together and giving that a purpose, I can rattle off all this research if you want to hear it. But one thing's clear, nobody wants to go back in the office five days a week, but most people also don't want to be at home five days a week. So how people come together, I think to create culture, it'll be a mix of this, what we're doing and the in-person stuff and the in-person stuff just really has to matter. In my opinion, it's got to count.

Shane Hastie: How do we make the best of that in-person time? Because you're right. We don't want to be in there, we've figured out that the five days a week in the office, the three hours a day in commuting that barely works for anyone and we're in the privileged position, most of us in the knowledge worker environment that we don't have to do that, but how do we get the most out of that face time?

Getting the most out of time spent in-person [17:42]

Nick Iovacchini: It's a good question. I think it's one that is going to be explored for the next few years really, we're in this uncharted territory. I think it starts to get really complicated because there's different personal preferences, you've got introverts, you've got extroverts. There's different at home situations, you've got, I have a big home office and I love working from home; and I have four roommates and I'm like literally working from my couch or in a closet.

And then you've got people at different levels. You have kids, you want to be with your kids more. You're a young adult, you want to be more social and then you have different job functions, right? It's like a lot of our tech team has never even met in person. We're spread out all over the place. And they're happy to work on Slack consistently and have a Zoom standup, but more of our client facing folks are very eager and our growth team it's very eager to be together.

I mean, that's just a lot of diversity thrown up on the wall to begin with. And I personally think and this is an attribute of our platform that I have a lot of heart for is it's really important to allow for programmatic collaboration, like we need to be in a meeting because we're better balanced with some self organization and allowing people to find each other and get together. Get that beer after work or, "Hey, you got a choice day, I got a choice day, let's work shoulder to shoulder."

Even if we don't work together, my wife has a group of four or five girls that she's friends with and they all have completely different jobs within the company, but socially they're a circle together. And when they go back, they're excited to kind of plan the days that they can be in the office so they can grab lunch.

I think it's probably a balance of some top down really thoughtful design as well as some organic;  because one thing I've heard consistently is people are fatigued with all of the compliance and the formality of when they do go back, it's like I got to make a reservation. And then, I got to do this and to help that testation is just, we all inherited a lot of extra tech steps and extra just friction to do what we would normally do. So removing some of that, but also guiding people to be together. That's the best answer I can give you right now.

Shane Hastie: Can I ask you to polish up a crystal ball?

Nick Iovacchini: Sure.

Shane Hastie: What's work going to be like in a year's time and in three years time.

Looking to the future – what will work be like? [19:20]

Nick Iovacchini: So our CTO and I, we have a joke. And the joke is the only thing that's certain is we're dealing with known uncertainty. So I think it's really going to depend on the geo and the type of company. I think and who the hell knows. I mean, I feel silly even like taking a stab at this, but I think it's likely, you'll see a divide where it's like the early adopters are just going to embrace this because it makes sense. And it could have happened five years ago with the advancements in tech that construct never had a reason to be questioned and now it's questioned nobody can unsee it.

It's like nope, not going back.  And then you're going to have a group that are like, "Yeah, COVID is over, let's go back to the office." And I think you'll see two camps and I think you'll see talent tip towards the progressive camp and the more traditional camp will ultimately have no choice, but to catch up to it.

And so I think you'll see a divide for sure. And then in three years, I think a lot of this stuff that we're talking about, this could be a choice. This could be a rule, this could be a that. I think you'll have some prevailing programs that companies run. It's like we run a three and two and when we're hiring you, you know what a three and two is, and I know what a three and two is, and there'll be some shared understanding of the work models.

And I don't think it's going to be one, I think you'll have different full flavors, but it won't be thousands of different flavors. It'll regress into the mean thing, you're going to have a few models fully remote all in person and hybrid ABC, something like that. I would imagine. Otherwise, it's just going to get too nebulous and people do need to understand it, even this I don't know in New Zealand, but in the federal government just came out with a mandate for requiring vaccinations or proof of negative COVID tests, which was a big stance by the federal government here.

And we work with a partner and we help companies do that as part of their return to office capability. And it's now become really topical. But what's interesting about that, is it's the first time in a year and a half that anything has been clear. It's like, you need to do this. And we're seeing companies move differently simply because of that one thing being clarified and it was okay, taking some of the guesswork out of how do I manage the health policy?

The government's saying I'm required to do this. I just now need to go do it. And I think it's indicative of once the options become clearer, then it'll be easier for companies to act on those. We're just in this really unique period of anything and everything's a possibility, but I see that sort of being distilled down as we go forward.

Shane Hastie: Nick, some really interesting points here. If people want to continue the conversation, where do they find you?

Nick Iovacchini: I'm would love to chat with anybody. I love talking about stuff. I mean the only reason that I've acquired the perspectives I've acquired is because I've had conversations like this and had the benefit of listening to a lot of people. So I love to listen and happy to exchange ideas and feedback, if I can be helpful to anyone, this is interesting and complex at the same time.

Shane Hastie: Thank you so much.

Nick Iovacchini: Thanks for having me Shane, this was fun.


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