Adapting To The Post-Pandemic Physical Office Environment With Maryanne Spatola

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The COVID-19 pandemic pushed people away from their physical office spaces to work from their own homes. Now that many restrictions have been lifted, a lot of businesses are coming back to their old face-to-face setups. But for award-winning human resource executive Maryanne Spatola, there is no going back to the office environment we were used to. Joining Tony Martignetti, the CEO and Founder of C3 Talent Strategies discusses how traditional physical offices will have to undergo significant evolution to cope with the changing times, as she discusses in her book, The Office is Dead, Now What? Maryanne explains how business executives can actively build better organizations that provide a fulfilling workplace experience instead of simply forcing employees to report to their respective offices.


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Adapting To The Post-Pandemic Physical Office Environment With Maryanne Spatola

It is my honor to introduce you to my guest, Maryanne Spatola. Maryanne is the CEO and Founder of C3 Talent Strategies. She's an award-winning human resource executive with extensive experience in the human capital arena, including talent management, executive coaching, leadership, and organizational development.

She's at the forefront of rapidly evolving workplace trends and founded Leadership Incubator as a way to help leaders and organizations quickly apply timely and innovative solutions for sustainable results in the new world of work. Maryanne is an assistant adjunct professor in the Human Capital Management Graduate Program at NYU. For those who don't know it, NYU is New York University.

She enjoys getting on her soapbox about the future of work and the need to transform organizations and leadership to align with their new realities. She's the author of the bestselling new book, The Office is Dead, Now What? which is a brilliant book. I have a copy here. I am so thrilled and honored to welcome you to the show, Maryanne.

Thank you. That was a very kind introduction. It's so awesome to be here with you. I appreciate having the opportunity to chat with you.

Me, too. Since I have gotten the chance to get to know you, I have been impressed by all that you do and the impact that you are having. I'm so excited and interested to learn more about the journey that got you to this place where you are making an impact in the world. That's what we are going to do on the show. We will talk about your book, but that's not what we are going to rush into.

We are in the mutual admiration society. I feel the same way about you and have been very grateful to have been introduced to you and to follow the work you are doing, especially on this show. You bring such great guests and such great conversation. I'm honored to be part of that.

Thank you so much. It means a lot to me. Here's what we are going to do. We are going to reveal the story of your journey to getting to where you are through what we call flashpoints. These flashpoints are moments that have revealed your gifts to the world. You can start wherever you'd like. As you are telling your moments, let's pause along the way and see what themes are showing up. Feel free to share what you are called to share. Don't feel like it needs to go in order. Whatever you feel comfortable with.

I'd love this notion of doing a life review at those inflection points and thinking about what shaped who we are now and how we show up in life and work. I would say one of the earliest ones for me, I was a generation baby, so my parents were quite a bit older and very old school. As you can imagine, my dad was the old European model, very strict, but they were also very prejudiced, to be honest.

My dad was not favorable to people that didn't look like him. I remember distinctly having a Black female friend in sixth grade and I wasn't permitted to go to her house. For me, it was one of those moments where it's the first time I can recall recognizing that made no sense to me. I didn't understand why he wouldn't allow me to do that. It couldn't make sense of it all.

For me, it was the beginning of what still holds true to me, where I'm a big advocate proponent. I have done it. I worked in this field for my whole career around DE&I because it's not right. I never understood it. I'm still a recovering computer programmer, but I worked in male-dominated professions and industries. Plenty of times, I was the only female in the room. To come up against the barriers that many women still face now just reinforced that whole innate response to, “This isn't right.” It shouldn't be this hard for people to be valued and understood for who they are and what they bring to the world.

I love that you started there and honestly, it gave me a bit of a chill when I heard you say that because although we have parents that we honor and respect, their mindsets come from different times and very different places, and it's hard for us to deal with that. Luckily, we can evolve our own understanding of the world, and that's a beautiful thing. The thing that lands with me most about this is a sense of, “This isn't right,” and fighting for what's right is important.

That's another point from a career standpoint that I always felt. Another flashpoint, I went to college right out of high school like most people do, who are able to do that. I spent my first year in school. I loved it. Great grades, it was terrific, but again, my parents did not have a lot. They scraped and scrapped to get where they were.

Dad dropped out of high school in eleventh grade because his father died and my grandmother had eight kids, and my mother dropped out in ninth grade. They were largely uneducated and made their way into the world, but they didn't have much. When I came to college, I was the last of four. My three siblings before me didn't have any nickel for college. It wasn't likely I was going to get any, but didn't recognize the impact of that until I finished my first year of school.

Here comes my tuition bill. I looked at it and I went to do some quick math times four, what would I ever do to pay that back? I got scared and dropped out. This was the early '80s. It was a time when you could go get a job without a college education and make a decent living. I had a friend who was working at a large insurance company and she helped me get a job there.

Life was great and I marched along. I never finished college until I had made several promotions along the way, but then there was this one leader job I applied for and I didn't get it. It was the first time I had applied for one and I didn't get it. My boss pulled me aside. She was very kind and said, “Until you get your degree, you are not going to go much further.” I went, “How about that?”

Here I am married with 3 young kids and 2 elderly parents now that I'm the main caregiver for, and I went back to school. Again, it fitted in that category of, “That's not right. Why would that hold me back?” I need to go fix that. I spent the next four and a half years finishing that undergrad degree. I was on that treadmill and I said, “I'm going to go get my Master’s. I'm still going to go. I'm already there. I'm going to keep going,” and I graduated my undergrad the same year my oldest son finished undergrad. It was a very special moment, and when I went up to get my diploma, Anthony had gotten his, and I said into the microphone, “I raised you for your Master’s.” That was a fun thing.

That's how I ended up at NYU. That's where I did my Master’s. I finished that in four years. I was pretty friendly with the dean at the time and I said to Dennis, “How do you teach here? I had been teaching throughout my career and loved it.” He said, “When can you start?” That's been thirteen years of doing that, but that was the trajectory there. That impetus was when my boss said, “You are not going to go any further. You need to go get your degree.” I'm like, “I'm on it. Off I go.”

I want to speak about that. It’s the tough feedback you receive. Sometimes, we say to be kind in your feedback and make sure that you don't say things that are going to offend. Sometimes you need to get that tough, real, and honest feedback from people to say, “This is what you need to hear,” and it can propel you to a place that moves you to propel forward.

No question. It hurt. I looked at the candidate who got the job and I'm like, “I'm better than that. Why would I let a degree get in my way?” I was always ambitious about my career and that was the way to do it. I had a great relationship with that boss who was kind enough to tell me that like you said. Many people just wouldn't. “You didn't get the job. Too bad,” and you don't know what you need to know to improve.

I'm sure that's a lesson you have learned and used as you went forward to say like, “I'm going to give people the feedback they need to hear so that they can grow through that learning and do what's necessary to move forward.”

I believe it's a disservice not to give people feedback. How can you do anything about it if you are unaware? That's not fair to people. It's not right. It underpins my life and then it shows up again for me in HR. I started my career on the business side of the equation. I didn't start in HR. I had senior line jobs on the business side before I fell into and fell in love with HR.

It's a disservice not to give people feedback. They cannot improve if they are unaware of what they are doing right or wrong.

A lot of my passion around being in HR and what led me to be the CHRO was, “There's a better way to do this. It shouldn't be this hard. We should be all in the same spirit of building great organizations and leaders. We shouldn't be at odds with each other to try and do that.” I spent a whole career working with executives and leaders, helping them be the best version of themselves so that we can get to that place and build great organizations where people want to and for leaders, they want to work for and work with and great teams.

What were some of the principles that you stood by as you were in the role of a CHRO that you want to share? I bet they are probably part of your book too, but what are some of the key principles that you use in that role?

There are three things that are important honestly in any leadership role but were tremendously important for me in HR. One was that you have to be a good change leader. Everything we do in HR brings change. It's not change management, which is all necessary. It's all the tools, training, and things that go along with it, but the change leadership component where you can craft a vision and help people understand where you are trying to take them and get their buy-in to come along on the ride with you and not impose it on people.

There are lots of co-creation where you can do that because that lets people feel like they are part of it. The other mindset that has served me well is that of a consultant. I'm not here to tell you what to do. I'm here to educate and inform you, identify the risks and implications, and then help you make the best decision you can make.

In the world of HR, unless it's unethical or illegal, I'm not going to put my foot down, but I want to be an influencer. I want to be your sounding board and your thought partner to help you make the best decision for the business for new people, and then lastly, it's about being a coach. Same ideas that I don't have the answers to.

We are coaches. People have that answer within them. My job is to help you surface that. Introduce new perspectives, help you think about things, introduce some different ideas that you might consider, and help you work through it on your own, but those three things have guided who I am as a leader and how I showed up as an HR leader.

I'm so glad I asked that question because what you shared was master-level insight. Thank you.

You are right. It does show up in the book. The book is written from a lens of a coach because we had a front-row seat to everything that went on with the pandemic. We watched our clients go through all the challenges and upheaval and having their world turned upside down and trying to way through uncharted water.

We had no idea what we were doing and we’re helping them figure that out. The book is written in a field guide format to help them answer those questions. Its intention was to have people who read the book feel like they are sitting with a coach. There are coaching questions at the end of each chapter and a call to action at the end like we close out a coaching session. What are you going to do?

VCP 203 Maryanne Spatola | Physical Office

You took the words right out of my mouth. Tell me what was that next flashpoint? The flashpoint is around this navigating the pandemic which led to these insights in the book. Let's dive a little deeper into this and talk about the impetus for writing the book and your experience of the pandemic.

It rolls back to my role at teaching at NYU. My academic director had asked me back in 2015 or 2016 to write a new course called The Future of HR. I was like, “I love that topic. I have always been a strategist.” That's cool. I started diving into all my research and what was happening. As I mentioned before, I have always had this slant around alignment with the business, and the jobs we are in to create healthy and sustainable organizations. That's why we are there.

I was always on this topic, trying to mold the minds of HR grad students to think about HR in the future state, improve the way we operate, what we do, and who we serve, and then the pandemic hits. The whole world turns upside down, especially for HR leaders. They ended up being on the frontline trying to wreck organizations how work got done using technology in new ways some companies never even had before.

The whole thing went in a 180 flip. HR found themselves on the front lines trying to navigate it all. I had to rewrite my entire course because of it. We did that three years in a row because of the pandemic, and then what I noticed, and this was the flashpoint. As the pandemic started to wane, we saw these iconic CEOs. David Solomon was the first at Goldman Sachs to say, “Everybody, back in.”

He referred to it. It was in Wall Street Journal article as the pandemic was an apparition that remote work was a necessity to get us through a period, but it doesn't work. I'm like, “Really?” For three years, we have told people, “You are doing a great job. Keep going. Thanks for keeping our business running.” Now all of a sudden, it's like, “I was kidding. Everybody, back in,” and I went.

It was an interesting journey. I started talking to people about that and they were like, “This is going to be a real blunder trying to figure out because now you have got this chasm.” Executives are trying to pull everybody back in and you got a workforce whose whole expectation has changed about what life and work are. They figured out how to work differently and make it work for the last few years. Now you are telling me, “Forget that. Come back into the office.” As soon as I started talking to people about it, I'm like, “This office is dead. The office that we knew no longer exists.” It will evolve and become something else, but the office as we knew it is dead.

I started interviewing people and pulling all my research together. Before it was like, “This could be a book. Here we go.” That was my journey for a year. What's interesting, in July of 2022, I had to land on my title. You come into the process with the working title, which was The Office is Dead, Now What? I had a bunch of people that said to me, “By the time your book gets published, won't we all be back in the office?” I said to myself, “That’s not going to happen that quickly if it happens at all.”

VCP 203 Maryanne Spatola | Physical Office

In my gut, I said, “That's not where we are going to be in January.” I stuck with it and I said, “I will take my chances, but this is what is going to happen, and here we are.” The book came out in January 2023. This is the hottest topic in the market. Organizations are polarized around in the office and remote work. Which way do we go? Can we do both? The challenge very much like we saw with COVID is there's no one right answer.

My hope is my book will help people get to a place where they can move in a positive direction and figure out what the answer is for their organization. What does it mean for you as a leader? In the book, five leadership practices emerged from all the people who were being successful during this time. These are the lessons we need to bring forward to help us build better organizations going forward. Organizations that people want to work for and are not forced to come back into an office.

First of all, you are right. It's still very much top of mind. I was in a meeting with a few CEOs in a council meeting and the topic came up. It was like, “I go in the office and even though we are supposed to be in the office a few days a week, it's like a ghost town.” The office is dead. It's truly still relevant that this is happening. One of the things that we move towards is how we make it so that it's more of a magnet than a mandate. What you are saying is now the old office is dead, but there's a new office potentially that could emerge that makes it more meaningful to be there.

The best example I have in my book is from Lego. Lego's headquarters in Denmark basically repurposed their whole headquarters building. They have about 2,000 employees in that location, and they turned it into a WeWork setup. They have a single phone booth where people can come in and do individual quiet work.

They have huddle rooms for teams to get together. They have large open spaces where people can hang out and an open-space kitchen. You can be with other people. What I have found is people will gather. It's not that they are opposed to coming to an office, but it has to be for a purpose. If the only reason you say, “I have to be in his office because you said so,” is not going to fly, and that's what people are resisting. We have learned new ways to work. Nobody wants to pick up a two-hour commute again because the boss says so.

In the Lego example, the beauty of what they did, as you described, they made it a magnet and not a mandate. They didn't impose it on anybody, but what they said was, “We'd love to see you 2 to 3 times a week. Check-in, see how your teammates are doing, and come socialize a little bit. Let us know how things are going.” It’s an invitation as opposed to a mandate, and then they allow the teams to drive. When do you want to be in? What's the reason we want to be together? They let it be autonomous. They give them agency over the work, how, where, and when they do it and it's working.

You hit all the sweet spots there. This sense of giving people control over how and when, but not making it so that they are forced into the office. Instead, it's like, “Maybe I do want to come into the office and create some deeper connections with people that I don't often see.” There's a part that makes it important. The connection part is key.

One of the things that I want to come back to because it's also part of your journey too, which is to say this fighting for fairness. Fighting for fairness is something that's important to you if you make it so that all groups are represented. If it's, for example, a lot of mothers who are saying, “It's hard for me to get in the office now because I have got a different setup here. That doesn't make it easy for me to get to the office every day because now I don't have childcare like I used to.

There are a lot of factors. Let's be honest. There were a lot of people that remote work didn't work for them. They need that interaction. They like the routine. Maybe they didn't have a two-hour commute, whatever that might be. It's not to say the office will never be there, but exactly like you described. It's being repurposed for different reasons and being used in different ways. That's what a lot of these executives are getting stuck in, but they want to go back to what was comfortable and what they knew. They are not willing to take those lessons forward and help to evolve the workplace.

Many business executives are getting stuck in doing things they are comfortable doing. They are not willing to take new lessons to evolve their workplaces.

Before we get too far ahead, I want to make sure that I checked to see. Were there any other flashpoints that you wanted to bring up? We jumped to the pandemic, but were there any moments that you wanted to share along your journey?

We hit most of them. On a personal level, as most people who have children would say certainly has been a flashpoint for me. When I think back to that period where I went back to school, I had 3 young boys of my own and 2 elderly parents that I had to care for. The other defining point for me has been being that generation baby. There were almost twenty years between me and my older sibling, which is a big gap.

What's happened in my lifetime, and it's where I am at this moment, is they have all passed away. My parents are gone, all of my aunts and uncles are gone, and my last sibling died. I'm the last mammoth from Ray Romano, remember the Ice Age, but it's an interesting place to be in life. I have always been the carpe diem girl because I experienced death so early in my life.

When I was 16, I had 4 cousins my age who passed away. David died at thirteen from muscular dystrophy. Helen committed suicide. She was 21. Vincent, who was my age at the time, seventeen, got caught in a stolen car incident and jumped off a bridge. He didn't survive it. The two other kids survived it. He did not, and then one cousin overdosed.

I knew from those moments, life is fleeting. You never know what's going to happen, and I recognize that because of my hierarchy in the family, it was likely I was going to bury all these people. For me, it became part of my risk appetite. It became part of, “Don't wait. This is the day. What are you waiting for?” It was part of the impetus that drove me out of corporate.

I always knew I'd like organizations better from the outside in and do my own thing, but what was I waiting for? I was at a great point in my life. Kids were through college and married. My husband and I were sitting and looking at this big house in New Jersey going, “Why are we here?” We pulled the plug and we relocated. I built a virtual business. I stepped out on my own, but it all is in this spirit of seizing the day. This is the day. Take every opportunity that comes your way because it may not come again.

When I think about what you shared, it also has this connection to the thoughts that went through a lot of people's minds through the pandemic, but I don't want to go there immediately. It's a weird thing because seize the day has this feeling of, “Move fast and go.” It's also about slowing down and appreciating the moments that you have. It's fast and slow at the same time.

I do describe it often as building my intentional life. That's the other part of life. It often happens to us. We don't always take that pause to think about, “What do I want?” What is the life that gives me fulfillment and meaning and does the work that I do make an impact? It leaves an impression on the world. To your point, that's exactly what happened during the pandemic.

Do you remember 9/11? It’s a one-day event that was tremendously significant. Even then, in the organization I worked, we had people who walk off their jobs. “It's not what I want to do anymore. I'm not going to take that risk going into the city anymore.” All of that was output. Think about the pandemic. People had three years to think about that. People have relocated. People are recognizing the disconnects they have with their family from work and no life balance. All of those things are factors now coming out of this pandemic that you are seeing this resistance to coming back to the office because I'm not doing that anymore. I don't live near your office anymore. I'm not doing that.

VCP 203 Maryanne Spatola | Physical Office

You bring up something that there's a sense of collective movement that there's collective trauma and also collective change. The reality is, if you are one person going through a change, I'm not trying to diminish that because any change or transition you go through is challenging. When you magnify that as a collective, it gets even more challenging. You can't move a massive number of people to a new place and do it overnight.

Only the pandemic could do that.

Yeah, but then undoing it is the thing that I'm speaking to. It’s a sense of a massive moment like 9/11, the pandemic, or any number of traumatic events that we have had throughout the eons that we have been through. The thought is that once those moments happen, you have to respect and honor them and then understand how do we live through them, not move past them.

Correct, and it won't be the last time. How do we learn to be resilient, to not retract back to the way we were because it's comfortable, but rather embrace where we are and find a new path forward?

We have gone to some different interesting places here. I appreciate that. As we come closer to the end of our time together, I want to ask one more question about your book. We covered a lot of ground, but is there anything in the book that you feel you want people to know that we haven't already talked about?

The most important element of this book is for people to consider these five leadership practices. It's a helpful way to understand how we can be successful and what changes are required to be successful in the future. As I mentioned before, the book is written in a field guide format to help you wrestle your way through some tough questions about thinking about those things. At the end of it, we need to make some positive changes. You can read the book end to end. You can dive into a particular topic that's of interest to you, but once you are through it, the goal is to have people do something about it. Walk away making a positive change that helps us all be better.

Speaking of change, I want to capture some of the key lessons that you have learned about yourself that you haven't already shared that you want to share. What are some things you have learned that sometimes can be very vulnerable to share that you want to share for other people to learn from?

One of the things I learned early on has been a struggle for me. People will find this counterintuitive when they hear it come out of my mouth, but working on relationships never came easy to me. My Twitter handle is @NetworkingDiva2. It tells you I have been working on that. People who know me well will be surprised to hear me say that because I do think of myself as a good networker. I like to think of it as building community, how we support one another, not just networking per se. It's never been easy for me. It's always something I have had to work at and work on. It’s one of those things that you always pay attention to. That's one of them for me.

I appreciate you sharing that, and it connects with how do we do it with more intention. The lessons we most needed to learn are the ones that we can be great at teaching. Anything or any other lessons that you want to share?

The other thing for me is that I am a leadership assessment junkie. I have probably taken every assessment known to man and my poor children have been subjected to them all. I do think that's an important way to understand who you are and how you show up in the world. The value has been, no matter what instrument I use, it comes back with the same story, and that's the important piece.

It's internal awareness and then there's external awareness. What I believe to be true about me is how I land on other people, and they would agree, or you run the risk of becoming a legend in your own mind. I have found over the years, having those kinds of inventories is helpful as a way to understand who you are, and then you have to own it.

Who you are is the place to start. It's always the basis of understanding and any change you may need to make. It's also not a weapon or a shield. I can't bull people over because I happen to be direct. Other people aren't so much. I have to learn how to adapt and adjust, and that's another life lesson I learned pretty early on. I was pretty good at bumping into walls, but you learn from that.

Who you are is the place to start. It's always the basis of understanding and any change you may need to make.

You find ways to learn from that and people who will help you along that journey. It goes back and ties into my community piece. Your community is filled with challengers. People who are going to call my BS, people who are my advocates, who are supporters, and people who are the realist and they go, “Is that what you want to do? You might want to think about that.” I surround myself with people who think differently than I do, but because I have had a strong soaking and trying to understand who I am and what I bring to the world.

I love what you are saying, and it connects with something I always say. That awareness is the gateway to intentional connection. I can talk with you for hours but I got to come to a close soon. I have one last question that I ask every guest, and I'm always intrigued by this one. What are 1 or 2 books that have had an impact on you and why?

Related to my relationship piece, it will probably make a lot of sense to you around the principles I talked about in my career and how I've been successful. One of the most impactful ones was called The Trusted Advisor by Charles Green, and Andrea Howe. They have a newsletter that I still get to stay up to date with what they are thinking. We go back to those three Cs being the Coach, Consultant, and Change leader.

VCP 203 Maryanne Spatola | Physical Office

If you are not viewed as a trusted advisor to the people you work with or the people who you have relationships with, none of those things are going to work. It has to be from a basis of trust in the relationship, and that was an impactful book that I like. The version of it that I have is a field guide. It was also informative when I was scoping out what format I wanted for my book. I'm like, “I'm going to go back and look at my trusted advisor book because you did it so well. It shaped me there as well.”

On the leadership side, one of the most impactful books I ever read and then used in leadership development, particularly with senior leaders is called Why Should Anyone Be Led by You? by Goffee and Jones. I love that book, and they use something called their case methodology to make it very practical and relevant in ways you can implement it.

We did work with one organization I was in with BlessingWhite at the time. They are now GP Strategies. We brought that program in-house and it was great because I go back to my influencing skills. The executives were like, “That's good. We will support you.” I'm like, “No. You are going to take it first and see how we go.” This CEO went through that program with his executive team. They did one of the most powerful pieces of learning.

Why Should Anyone Be Led by You? is learning how to be a good listener, and they did this one activity where they weren't allowed to talk. They asked for feedback and the only thing they could say back was thank you. The CEO told me, “I literally had to sit on my hands to keep quiet but it was an impactful program.” The concepts in that book were powerful and they are practical at the same time. It helps to move people in different directions. It had a tremendous impact.

My mind is blown. I love both of those books. I love what you brought. This is not about the books. It's about how you described it and so grateful for that. I don't even know where to begin. I will start by saying thank you so much for everything you brought into the space. This is a beautiful conversation.

I appreciate. I agree. I enjoy listening to you as well and having you be a partner in a conversation. It's not a monologue. It's an opportunity to have a conversation and discuss things that are important in the world and meaningful to people. Hopefully, it gives some people some insight and some ideas to consider along their leadership journey. I thank you for bringing this virtual campfire out to the world. You have helped so many people in that way with all the conversations that were over 200 now, which is awesome. Congratulations on that, but you are doing great work. I'm so grateful to have been part of your journey.

Thank you so much. I can't thank you enough. This is so amazing. It goes without saying people need to go out and grab your book. Your book is fantastic. I haven't finished it yet, but I'm making my way through and it’s a gem. How else can people find you? What's the best place to reach out if they want to learn more about you?

My website is That's an obvious place they can go to check things out. Check the book and check about our programs. We do have a Future-Ready Leader program in my incubator suite that is aligned with the book and the five practices. You can find me on LinkedIn. It's my favorite social media hangout. Also, out there on Twitter on @NetworkingDiva2. Those are the main hubs you will find. Insta is @AnneSpatola5 I think.

It's interesting how there are all these. I have the same problem. There's another Tony Martignetti out there and he took the I and I had to go with 1.

There you go. We got to find our ways.

Thank you so much. Thanks to readers for coming on the journey and that is a wrap.

Thank you so much.

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