Episode 428

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Remote and hybrid work environments are here to stay. While some agencies have successfully returned to the office full-time, and some may have never even left, many agencies are still struggling to crack the code on hybrid work without upsetting their employees.

It’s a difficult balance, but it has become ever-important as these demands begin cementing into our work culture. And if you’re working with creatives, the conversation around a hybrid workplace has probably been even louder.

So this week, we’re joined by Felice Ekelman and Julie Kantor, authors of Thrive With a Hybrid Workplace: Step-by-step Guidance From the Experts, to teach us how to approach these conversations and transitions from a legal and psychological point-of-view.

We all know that as agency owners, there’s nothing more expensive or as valuable as our employees, and we just want them to be happy working with us. So tune in to learn how to have these conversations and set expectations around hybrid work environments so we can all have a better agency together.

A big thank you to our podcast’s presenting sponsor, White Label IQ. They’re an amazing resource for agencies who want to outsource their design, dev, or PPC work at wholesale prices. Check out their special offer (10 free hours!) for podcast listeners here.

hybrid work environment

What You Will Learn in This Episode:

  • The making of the Thrive With a Hybrid Workplace book
  • The shifts and trends of hybrid and remote work post-covid
  • Creating a balance in a hybrid work environment
  • The challenges for agency leaders in creating a collaborative hybrid work environment and maintaining communication
  • What type of training agency leaders need to build a thriving hybrid work culture
  • How to develop productivity benchmarks without the ability to observe in person
  • Getting agency leaders out of the fear mindset and setting appropriate boundaries with agency employees

“This is an opportunity to make meaningful decisions so that time in the office is meaningful, and time away provides employees with flexibility so that they can achieve work-life balance.” - Felice Ekelman Share on X
“The need for connection doesn't change. What has to change is how employees are connecting.” - Julie Kantor Share on X
“People can work remotely. People can work in an office. It's up to leaders to make sure that people provide their best work wherever they are.” - Felice Ekelman Share on X
“Leaders need training on how to measure how people are being productive and then coaching them on how to live in this hybrid world or the remote world.” - Julie Kantor Share on X
“You're not making coming into the office a punishment. It's just a fact. These are office days. These are work-from-home days.” - Julie Kantor Share on X

Ways to contact Felice and Julie:


Hey, before we get to the show, I just wanna remind you that we have created a private Facebook group just for you, our podcast listeners. There are almost 1500 agencies, agency owners, inside that Facebook group every day talking about what’s going on inside their shop, asking for resources, gut checking decisions, talking about everything from pricing to hiring, to biz dev. All kinds of things are happening there. We’re starting conversations. You guys are starting conversations. What I love about it is the community’s coming together and sharing resources, encouraging each other, and just sort of having a safe place to talk about what it’s like to own an agency. So all you have to do is head over to Facebook, search for a Build, a Better, Agency Podcast Group, or Build, a Better, Agency Podcast.

And you’ll find the group. You have to answer three questions. If you don’t answer the questions, we can’t let you in. But they’re simple. It’s, do you own an agency or do you work at an agency? And if so, what’s the URL? What are you trying to get out of the group? And will you behave, basically? So come join us. If you haven’t been there for a while, come on back. If you haven’t joined, join in to the conversation. I think you’re gonna find it really helpful. All right, let’s get to the show.

Welcome to the Agency Management Institute community, where you’ll learn how to grow and scale your business, attract and retain the best talent, make more money, and keep more of the money you make. The Build a Better Agency Podcast, presented by a White Label IQ is packed with insights on how small to mid-size agencies are getting things done, bringing his 25 years of experience as both an agency owner and agency consultant. Please welcome your host, Drew McLellan.

Hey everybody. Drew McLellan here with, yep, you guessed it. Another episode of Build a Better Agency. Welcome back if you’re a regular listener, And, if you are new, we are happy to have you with us. So today’s topic is really a great one, and I’m excited to introduce you to our guests and for us to learn from them. But before I do that, I wanna remind you that we have two different offerings that we make available to you every month. First one is what I call, what is a MI. And it’s basically an hour where I present for about 10 minutes about sort of how agencies can engage with a MI, be more a part of the community, learn more about the work we do, how we work with agencies, both for free and for fee, and all those sort of things.

Learn about the peer groups and all the, that sort of thing. And then I spend 50 minutes just answering questions. So all you have to do is show up that the next one is January 11th at 3:00 PM Mountain Time. So again, the what is a MI, so learn more about how you can tap into a MI and get even more resources and help is January 11th at 3:00 PM Mountain. So if you’re interested in that, just shoot me an email and I’ll give you the Zoom link or go into the Facebook group and you’ll see the Zoom link. And then on January 12th, so the very next day we do a live, once a month, we do a live q and a where you can come and ask anything you want, and I, or we, if Danielle’s with me, will answer your questions.

So that one is January 12th at 10:00 AM Mountain. So an open mic, q and a, whatever you want to talk about, we’re there just to answer your questions and kick ideas around or whatever we can do to be helpful. So again, what is a MI, January 11th, 3:00 PM Mountain, and a AMI q and a open mic, January 12th at 10:00 AM Mountain. So put those on your calendar. Love to see you there. Today’s guest is actually guests, so co-authors of a book called Thrive With, a Hybrid Workplace step-by step, Guidance From. the Experts just came out earlier in this year in 2023. And the authors are Felice Eckelman and Julie Kantor.

So Felice is an employment attorney, and Julie is a business psychologist and executive coach. And so it’s an interesting story about how they ended up writing this book together, which I will let them tell you. But they come at the idea of Hybrid work, obviously from their perspective and their subject matter expertise. So the law, and then just the psychology of business and business coaching. And so we’re gonna talk to them about some best practices of how to create a really productive Hybrid work environment and what that looks like today, the trends they’re seeing, what they think is coming down the pike for us in the future, and how we can show up as leaders to create an environment that really serves the agency, the clients, and the employees.

So I’m excited to introduce them to you and for us to learn from them. So let’s, let’s get to it. Felice Julie, welcome to the show. Super glad to have you guys with us. Thanks for joining us today.

Great to be here.

So tell the listeners a little bit about both of you and how you came together and wrote the book and have the expertise that you have.

Okay, I’ll, I’ll lead it off. I’m Felice Ekelman. I am in my office in New York City right now. I’m a management side labor and employment lawyer. I represent companies in all aspects of workplace law. That means I provide training, litigate defense of cases, help employers whose employees are represented by unions, and essentially help clients who are employers stay out of trouble. I’ve known Julie for several decades. She’s actually somebody I turn to when clients need some executive coaching and leadership skills training.

And we have worked in together in that regard. So while we’ve worked sort of on parallel tracks until this book, we’ve never really worked together on a project, although we know each other. As I said a moment ago, from many decades, I should mention that the law firm I am with is called Jackson Lewis. And while I’m in New York, we have offices throughout the United States, and all of my colleagues are employment lawyers. And we all work on management side Julie.

And I am a business psychologist. I have a boutique, boutique culting consulting department. I’m actually working from home today with my blurred background, which is notable in the book. I talk actually. And yeah, so we, I serve clients on leadership development, executive coaching, both individual teams, helping them be effective leaders. The one thing I would say relationship to hybrid is that I had a job prior to hybrid, and now it’s Hybrid. I have a job on steroids, I bet. So, of taking the next step of Felice and I coming together.

We have a, a common colleague who is in HR at a publishing company. And she had reached out to us during the lockdown where we were truly in lockdown. You were New York City streets, it was a ghost town. And her boss was looking to write a book on work from home. We started writing it, and he ended up pulling the project. And honestly, he should have pulled the project because fact is, is we were not gonna be staying 100% remote. And in the conversations with her, this concept of hybrid, I mean we’re talking, June of 2020 was just beginning to come out.

We didn’t know how it was looking. Felice and I started talking together and realized that we had two different approaches. I don’t mean in terms of what our clients were coming to us, that sometimes either literally or figuratively the same client was coming to us, but Felice, as she said, helping them stay out of trouble. Whereas my clients were saying, okay, we got this problem. Let’s help grow and figure out how to, you know, get out of this and make this all work. And so the book came together when we were talking this, and we sort of came up with, she said this, well, you know, I help clients. I’ve spent my career helping clients avoid risk.

And I’ve said, I’ve spent my co spent my career helping clients grow. And so we wrote the book, by the way, through covid. We didn’t see each other through the entire time of writing the book, which is of note. And we wrote the book as a, as a, a real re almost a reference book. So for PE people who read it, we suggest, you don’t have to start at chapter one, you can start at chapter three. You can start at chapter two. It’s very, it’s a very thorough or detailed table of contents. It’s easy to peruse into your te your subject of interest and go into it.

So now that the, now that the world has gone back to air quotes normal, and people are sort of trying to figure out how post covid to come together, as we were talking about before we hit the record button in agencies, we have an interesting mix. We have agencies that are truly remote that they might get together once a year or twice a year for a retreat or something like that. But truly everybody’s working from wherever they live. And then we have a large portion of agencies that are doing some version of hybrid, but there’s lots of versions of hybrid within that. And then we have some agencies, actually we have a few agencies depending on the state they lived in here in the states that never left the office that worked five days a week all through Covid and, and or did go leave the office during the lockdown, but are back to five days a week.

So for you, as you’re looking at sort of this new, this new normal, one of the things that I’m seeing is that agencies that were hybrid, maybe a day or two a week, most of them are now moving. They’re adding a day in the office. So they’re moving to more in the office than out of the office. Are you seeing that trend as well on the, on a broader scope,

Julie, I, let me start and we can go from there. We are seeing all kinds of arrangements and when, when I talk to employers who are wrestling with what is the right approach, given that, you know, hybrid is the new normal, right? I can’t say this is the rule that every employer should take. To the contrary, every organization is different. And this provides leaders with great opportunity. It’s an opportunity to figure out what works best for their organization, given their culture, given the way that they work and given the needs of their staff to have flexibility.

And it’s a really great opportunity, as I said, to carve out a niche as, as an employer that really understands how work is getting done and how to support employees to make sure that the organization and its workers are doing the best work and are as engaged as possible in doing that work in a collaborative basis. So one of the things Julie and I have been consistent about in talking to businesses is, you know, there is, this is not a war of days. This is not a five, a three versus two or one versus four.

This is an opportunity to make meaningful decision so that time in the office is meaningful and time away from the office provides employees with as much flexibility as possible so that they can achieve this thing we call work life balance.

Yeah, and what I would say in terms of, I mean, the simple answer to your first question is, are employers coming, expecting people to come into the office more than one day a week or just more? The answer is yes. And I think what shifted, and as Fleece said, in terms of understanding the purpose, that initially the conversations were basically this sort of tit for tat conversation about, you know, I don’t wanna come in the office. Well, you have to come in the office one, you know, three days. It was only like, you know, a negotiation based on just numbers, right? It was not, you know, the, the policies were, is it three day? It was three, two, it was three, two was more common than one four.

But those are the conversations. It was just about the numbers. And in terms of them working, what employers started feeling is that there are things in terms of productivity that are, that are going down because of people not being in the office. Especially in something like marketing where there’s a lot of creativity. You know, you’re not, there’s a, not, you know, employee, you know, computer programmers who are just working individually, that there’s synergy. And especially when you get into any of the creativity realm of things, right? The synergy that happens face to face, right? And so What Felice was saying in terms of what we found in terms of the coaching that employers are needing is start looking for the purpose.

That it’s not just a tit for tat Yeah, I’m being mean and I want you to come in. And so it’s helping the employers shift the language. But there’s no doubt that one day a week is, we’re not seeing that at all for the most part.

Right. And are you seeing that if whatever the combination is that it’s everybody’s doing the same thing on the same days, do you find that’s more effective than, for example, saying, Hey, everybody’s gonna be in the office a day or two a week, you pick the day.

Well, you don’t want folks coming to an office and realizing that they’re the only ones in their team or unit or division who were there. So there needs to be, as we refer to it in the book, some intentionality about scheduling, but more importantly, there needs to be some intentionality about what happens on the days when folks are in the office. And so, you know, you don’t wanna have a situation where someone’s sitting at a screen all day and could have done that at home. You do wanna have a situation where you’ve maximized the opportunity for interaction and team building and collaboration. And what we talk about in the book is that this requires leaders, again, to be more intentional and spend the time planning to make sure that you haven’t asked people to get dressed and commute for no reason.

Yeah. And I mean, I think, and tied to that, it, it’s an issue of them to defining the act, what are in-house activities, what are at home activities? And like I said, I had a job before Covid. And so this is just another layer that employers have to think about, right? What are individual activities that you should be alone where you put down and you’re working on a crate creative piece, or you’re working on, you know, some, some new approach to accounting, or they’re deciding what program they’re working with you on, right? Yep. This could be one-on-one activity versus the activities where you want the syner synergy or they’re walking past each other in the hall.

And so employers not only need to think about what, but they need to think about the quantity, right? And people, organizations, the way that what they’re doing is more on the cr, you know, the creator end, which marketing sits in that bucket, large scale architects, any of those, they’re looking towards me being in the office less than, than organizations where there’s not that necessarily creative way. That nonetheless, one of the other main themes throughout the book is this concept of connections. And based on the location, the need for connection doesn’t change.

What has to change is how they are connecting. Hmm. But as Felice said, we don’t recommend people come in and out. You have a tracking issue. Not that we are recommending everybody become Big brother, but people just coming in and out. We, we, you end up being in a place where the employee is gaining a hundred percent employee flexibility, but the end of the day it’s a job that this work to be done.

And, and setting ground rules is really important. Both when, when folks work remotely or on a hybrid schedule. And one of the chapters talked about setting ground rules for communication so that everyone is in the same place in knowing when they should communicate by chat, by email, by text, by telephone, by meeting, depending on the nature of the situation. So that, you know, folks aren’t talking past one another and people aren’t wasting time. So in, in the look in the creative fields, flexibility is really important.

Yeah. And, and most of the employees are listeners are not punching a time clock. You know, they’re working of course during business hours, but they’re probably working more than ordinary business hours. And employers have to trust that work is getting done and that they’re working effectively and efficiently. And, and that’s really important because, you know, there’s a lot of concern on the part of some leaders that out of sight means not working. Right. And we all know that’s not true. There have been a lot of reports and anecdotally we can talk amongst ourselves, you know, are we productive when we’re not in the office?

Are we more productive? Are we less productive? I think it depends on the dead, you know, and,

And, and probably the person and the, probably the work, right?

Totally. Yeah. Yeah. Totally. And so, you know, it’s not really fair. And, and by the way, the literature that’s coming out in surveys, you know, is completely all over the place with respect to are people more or less effective in an office or working remotely? And I think it’s ’cause it just depends. There are too many outside influences, right? As you just noted, Drew, right? So, you know, people can work remotely, people, people can work in an office. And it’s up to leaders to make sure that people provide their best work wherever they are.

So for, for managers who are, who have been managing for a while, managing pre covid, and for a lot of the agency owners listening, you know, they’re used to everybody in the office every day bump into each other in the hallway, you know, I see you and I go, oh, I forgot to tell you this happened in the meeting. Or you overhear me saying something to someone else, which means you jump in. And so I think one of the challenges for the managers is, is they’re really struggling. A how do I manage people in this environment? And B, how do I create a connected culture where collaboration is infectious? So, you know, I’ve had a lot of agency owners say, you know, it’s so hard because now when you wanna just have a five minute conversation with someone, you have to schedule it or you have to slack them, or you have to, it is just it, that getting up and just walking to somebody’s office or bumping into them in the, in the break room if you will, is sort of more challenging.

So how are you helping, and how in the book did you sort of suggest that we rethink about culture and those sort of water cooler moments that are, have been such a part of our work for, for many of us, for most of our career?

Yeah. I mean, I, I think there are actually two different points that you’re raising. One is culture and the other is the serendipity of getting work done.


Serendipity of getting work done is difficult. There’s, the good news is there’s technology to help us, right? Sure. Anything, you know, from huddle rooms, you know, there are, you know, places where they’re not having that, where they’re literally have periods of time where they keep an open, you know, room, whether it’s Zoom or WebEx or whatnot, that your, that your program needs to be open. Your screen should be probably dark. And then if I have a quick question for you, I pinging you, ’cause everybody doesn’t want their video and their audio all the time, right? If I have a question for you, I pinging you and the the, because the message is, is I’m working on individual work, but I’m around.

And so it may be you spend the whole time where you and I are gonna chitchat and then we’re gonna say, Hey, we need Felice in this and we ping Felice because she’s committed to having that, in essence, what we talked about in college, which were office hours, right? Right. Where investor was sitting there and you know, you could stop by. So that’s one way that we have technology that is trying to benefit and help through this sort of ad hoc, the other piece on just, you know, sort of small, it’s like remind people that, you know, these things called cell phones. The first word is, second word is phone. And especially generational where, you know, probably under 35 the concept of you and I talking on a phone or me calling you, you know, without planning is just a foreign concept.

Is teaching people that you can do it. And if the person can’t pick up, the person can’t pick up. But the sense of teaching people A, to use it and B, pick it up, right? Whereas tendency, and this is a generational thing where your older folks will pick it up where tendency of younger folks is, if you call them, they will let it go to voicemail, right? ’cause they really don’t wanna talk to you. So, so there’s really an education piece there. Felice ment