The Intelligent Workplace

Education Series

Who benefits most from a remote workforce?

When COVID-19 hit, businesses around the globe implemented remote working strategies, and the work from home revolution began. With restrictions being lifted in some parts of the world, businesses are faced with the decision of either continuing to embrace remote working, or send everyone back into the office.

Over the last few decades, working models and the office environment have significantly changed. We have gone from working in cubicles, to open plan, to embracing a sense of fun with a focus on work life balance, and now thanks to technology, many of us can work from anywhere.

Joining me in this conversation about the changing landscape of the office environment is Dave Hassett, managing director of the Hassett group, a leading Australian boutique executive search and recruitment firm.

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David:

Thank you very much, Chris. Looking forward to having a good chat.

Chris:

Very excited to hear what you’ve got to say on this topic. As usual, if you’ve been to one of those before you would know that we’re trying to run these as a bit less of a lecture and a death by PowerPoint and more of a conversation. We’ll continue along those lines today. If you have any questions during the session, feel free to post them and I’ll do my best to ask them of David.

What are we going to go through today? Well, we’re taking a look at how working models have changed. Not just recently but over the last few decades. We’re going to talk about the work from home revolution in depth. We’re going to talk about … Which is something that David has got some opinions on, is finding talent post-COVID. Has the way that we recruit talent into our businesses changed, now that we’ve got this remote workforce starting to dominate? And then we’ll take a bit of a look at some of the cultural effects that working from home does. Let’s get into it. Dave, let’s talk about the changing landscape of the office environment. What did your first ever workplace look like?

David:

My first … I started my career, Chris, at Ernst & Young. I was pretty fortunate to have a pretty cracking building in 120 Colin Street in Melbourne, level 34 [inaudible 00:00:03:07]. Pretty great surrounds. That said, it was that really traditional work layout with the pods. We had four pods together, spanned around the office. It was clearly a very hierarchal set up as well. You have the partners and the directors on the outside of the office building with beautiful views across the bay and …

Chris:

Yeah.

David:

[inaudible 00:03:30] punters close to the door and the bathrooms and the like. It was a … Not quite [inaudible 00:03:37] from the office but yeah, [inaudible 00:03:40] in that respect.

Chris:

Sounds very familiar. It sounds a little bit better than mine. And as I was saying to you off camera earlier, I started my life as a bank teller. My life was very structured. Start your day at 8:30AM and count your cash drawer. You got a break at 10:15AM for five minutes. Then your lunch hour scheduled, your afternoon break was scheduled. Then you went home after you counted your cash drawer again. And yeah, there was no flexibility whatsoever. And for me, who likes to work flexibly now, back then I looked back and I think, “How did I even survive?”

David:

Yes, it’s pretty Eastern European, 1960s stuff, isn’t it?

Chris:

Yeah, yeah. Things have certainly changed and look, somewhere in the 2000s, I’m not exactly sure when but the open plan office became popular. Now, there are two sides to this. Some people hated that because they loved that structure but others just flourished. Where did you sit on this idea?

David:

Yeah. I guess probably not too dissimilar to yourself, Chris. I’m a pretty social being. The open plan really facilitated the ad hoc chat and the small talk that … Talking about the footy or what you did on the weekend and what you going to be doing on the weekend. I guess my personal style appealed to that but I think from a productivity perspective, I think it really deteriorated the ability for offices to be as productive as they possibly could be. Where I worked from Ernst & Young, I went to Grant Thornton, which is another big accounting firm. And you’d find that lots of the time, people would be talking during the day and then when it came to 5:30PM, six o’clock, they would then start working. And the optics of that was that they were the hardest working people in the building and the partners would see them grinding away at six o’clock at night, when their [inaudible 00:05:29] or efficiency during the day has been pretty poor. They often became a bit of a political scenario but good game plan, perhaps.

Chris:

Yeah. I remember those days where you’d be sitting at your desk waiting for the boss to leave so that he thought you were working long hours. Absolutely.

David:

[inaudible 00:05:47] pretty sweet. We’d walk around with Penske files or allocate an email to be sent 10:30PM at night. Boss thought he was the hardest working bloke in the building.

Chris:

I love it. I love it. And then of course, we had co-office working spaces becoming popular and then the IT startups took over and turned the office into a playground in some ways. Do you feel like the 2000s took things a little bit too far and turned the office into more of a playground with your table tennis tables and your bars and that sort of thing, than a workplace?

David:

I think that … Obviously, the extraordinary success of Google and Facebook was setting the path and they really were the trailblazers on those types of working environment. I think that other tech businesses saw what they were doing, what the great people or the great businesses were doing and wanted to emulate that as much as they possibly could. They thought that was part of their key to success, not the fact that they had an incredible idea and probably the biggest brains at Google and [inaudible 00:06:52] table tennis table or ride a skateboard through my office, is going to lead to great success. And I think … Yeah, so I think it probably did go too far, Chris. And I think often, to emerging businesses, perhaps it felt obliged to invest money that they probably didn’t have.

Chris:

Yes.

David:

… into these things. I’ve seen offices that have got golf stimulators in them and they’re 50, 70, 80 grand pieces of equipment. There’s offices that have got slides connecting floors, one floor to the next floor. Yeah, I think it possibly did go too far, to be the cool kids on the block.

Chris:

Yeah. I often get called boomer in my office because I’m the oldest in my office. And even some of the little things like having a computer game in the corner or a table tennis table, I sometimes say to the younger people, “You don’t know how good you got it.”

Think to me back in the day as a bank teller, it’s come such a long way. And I say, “You’ve got to appreciate this stuff because it’s not always going to be this way.”

David:

Agreed. And then that’s it, I’ve been to the LiveTiles off the scene in New York. That is quite an extraordinary setup there.

Chris:

It’s a great little place, for sure. Did you get to play on the swings, did you?

David:

I didn’t play on the swings but I managed to sit around the bar and have a couple of Diplomaticos after hours of course, Chris.

Chris:

Of course, of course but on that whole idea, I guess that the idea of making work more enjoyable helped to blur the lines between work and play and maybe the whole concept of work-life balanced just became life. How do you feel about that? And what about your clients? How do they feel?

David:

Yeah, I certainly think that that’s a great point to your earlier point, Chris, that back in the day, it was very regiment [inaudible 00:08:35] work environment. You had to do certain things at certain times, the clock on, clock off mentality. And obviously, technology has provided a scenario or an environment where maximum flexibility can be adopted to suit your own working style and your own I guess, personal life as well. And I think we’ll probably get to this later but good businesses are entrusting their people to do the right thing when they want to do it. It becomes more about activity and output, not just those optics that I spoke of earlier. If you want to get up at 6:30AM and do your work and maybe go and play golf for a couple of hours or have a game of tennis during the day, as long as they bring the outcome, that’s what it’s starting to become focused on, I think.

Chris:

Yeah, absolutely. I’ve got to say that my two Labradors are enjoying this from me because I can take those breaks during the day and take them for their walks. They’re loving it. And still get the job done. And then look, of course, corona hit and all of the work-life balance, the co-working, the fun spaces, the snack machines, the nap corners, they turned into kitchens, lounge rooms and home offices like this. Has corona killed the work vibe?

David:

It hasn’t killed it, I don’t think but it’s certainly damaged it. I think it’s just making it so much more difficult to keep that genuine vibe. We’re such social beings, us people and when you don’t have the interaction on a daily basis, it’s hard to build that rapport and obviously businesses and sport and successful sporting clubs spend fortunes on team building exercises because they know that the closer you feel to your colleague, the more you’re going to work, the harder you going to work for them. You’re going to [inaudible 00:10:17] them. You’re going to go that extra mile and go into battle for them. It hasn’t killed it but it’s making it really difficult to maintain that, I think.

Chris:

Yeah. And of course, we’re trying our best to keep some of those elements. We’ve all been working hard at having some fun and creating comradery with Zoom calls and meetings where you’re wearing your silly hats or your clothes. You had Friday virtual drinks but is it working and is this really a longterm play for companies?

David:

I think it’s like everything at this unique time, is that we’re all thinking on our feet, we’re all doing the best that we possibly can in these unprecedented times. I think it’s working for the time being. I think that honeymoon period has been … It’s been a bit exciting. It’s been a bit new for everyone but I do have concerns. I don’t think it’s sustainable for successful thriving businesses to be working solely remotely and digitally for extended periods of time. I think we’re starting to get a bit battle weary from Zooms and I think [inaudible 00:11:20] really [crosstalk 00:11:21].

Chris:

I feel a bit the same too. And I’m just wondering whether if maybe at some stage, we turned our backs on these things that sometimes feel a little bit contrived and just accept that our new normal working arrangement, doesn’t have as much face to face fun in it.

David:

That’s right. Yeah. I think it’s … Yeah, the fun piece I guess, is something that you probably thrive or crave rather, when you’re younger, in your early 20s and [inaudible 00:11:49].

Chris:

Not like us old blokes.

David:

Yes, that’s right. Again, in Grant Thornton, where [inaudible 00:11:55] started my career, as I said, in early stages in recruitment. And it was all about the fun, the party and the Friday night drink. I think as your career evolves and as your life stages change, it doesn’t have to be about fun, Chris. It’s about being engaged and giving a sense of contribution and just being productive and being a part of a winning team. It doesn’t have to be about [inaudible 00:12:18] fun.

Chris:

Yeah. No, I get you. That whole idea of working within an achievement type culture and achieving together and the sense of comradery of a team. I think for me, as I get old, that’s probably more about what I’m chasing as opposed to the Friday night drink. I’m pretty happy just to get home and throw on my slippers and watch a game of the AFL when it starts.

David:

Definitely, yes.

Chris:

And what about for employers? Is the remote working model something that you think is attractive to an employer long term? Is it something they can sell as a benefit perhaps? Or do you think maybe it’s actually a must? They need to offer this now.

David:

Yeah I think … Again, as everything is evolving from that clock on, clock off mentality that you spoke about earlier, to now becoming, “We might offer a bit of working from home if you have to occasionally.”

To now, this has really accelerated the evolution or that revolution, to now it has to … I think it has to be an option. I live an hour and 15 minutes from my office and I was driving in five days a week and that was quite draining. I didn’t realize how draining it was. Now I’ve got the benefit of waking up in the morning and walking downstairs. I’m seeing that it can be [inaudible 00:13:28]. I think it’s becoming a case … And I think it was often not really encouraged too much by bosses. They didn’t trust their people, didn’t trust their staff perhaps. And I think that [inaudible 00:13:41]. The staff really fed off that. To now see that we can deliver from our homes, from around the corner shops and coffee shops and the like, I think that’s given a lot of confidence to press on in this trend.

Chris:

Is that a really important consideration for businesses to look to move to trusting, over a surveillance culture?

David:

Absolutely. Yeah. If you don’t trust your people, get rid of them. They’re not the right person for you.

Chris:

For sure.

David:

I think that’s absolutely fundamental to successful businesses, is entrusting. Yeah.

Chris:

Any other key considerations that you think that people … Businesses need to take into account?

David:

I think you need to find the balance between the remote working and the in-person scenario.

Chris:

Sure.

David:

I think solely working from home’s not … As I said earlier, not sustainable but I think we need to find that blend but it also … It comes down to luck. All things in relationships and life, Chris, it comes down to managing expectations and it’s all about that appointment time. If you’re expecting one thing and you go in and see another thing, both from the employer’s perspective and also the employee, it’s not going to work. It won’t be sustainable. It’s really important to be clear on at the appointment time, “This is what the landscape is going to look like. This is what we expect from you.”

And then ensuring that we can deliver on those expectations. That is a key factor.

Chris:

And one final thing, what do you think is the true story here? Is this really about flexibility for employees or cost savings for employers?

David:

I think it’s … I hope it’s the former. I hope it is the flexibility piece. That said, I do know that there’re probably quite a few businesses that are taking the opportunity to slash costs and undoubtedly get rid of some dead wood. That’s happening out there. There are going to be … Like in all things again, opportunistic people but I do think fast forwarding 12 months, 18 months from now, I think the workplace will be a far more balanced environment. It’ll be more sustainable for people. I think environmentally, it’s going to be good. Less cars on the road, less commute times. I think it’s going to be a positive. I think we’ll hopefully see some really good positives out of the back of this.

Chris:

Do you feel that this is maybe the end of the co-working space companies, offering one office within a greater floor?

David:

In terms of multiple businesses working on the same floor.

Chris:

Yeah, I don’t want to say any brand names but those companies that rent out an office within a floor and then there’s a shared working space or a place where you go and make your lunch and all that sort of thing.

David:

Yeah. I think the people who’ve invested in that business that you may be referring to, hoping [inaudible 00:16:32] some ridiculous valuations that have come off the back of that.

Chris:

Yes.

David:

No, I think those environments are still really great for the … Again, for the right person and the right business at that time in its evolution. They’re great meetings of mind, you can share ideas. The energy in the room is fantastic compared to two blokes sitting in a garage somewhere. I think you can get a benefit from that. You get access to some great facilities that you otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford. I think they serve their purpose. I think they’re also great for businesses but I’m uncertain what their trajectory’s going to be like. It might be three staff today, 10 staff in two months time. You don’t have to sign up to a lease and hope you get it right. And significant costs off the back of that. I think there’s still a place for them because they are good environments.

Chris:

Just got a bit of a question here from Allison Goss. She said she’s curious about the thought not sustainable for remote work. There are examples of organizations or ways of working that are fully remote, “Are there insights from these organizations about how to make it work?”

Allison, I’m sure that there are insights from these companies that are fully remote, probably. We didn’t look to go that deep into that here today but I’m sure we can probably help find some answers for you around that if that’s what you’re interested in. We can probably take that one offline but thank you very much for your question there, Alison.

We might move on to … This is something that really interests me, finding talent post-COVID. Look, one of the things I’ve been reading a lot about lately, is the idea of business worldwide embracing the remote workforce. And what it might do when you’re trying to find your talent. In the old model, when you were looking for staff, businesses might be able to attract people from state to state but most of the time, you’re looking for the best person in your local area, pretty much. Or your state perhaps. Theoretically, with remote working, you can cast your net much farther and wider. Do you think this might become a bit of a reality now?

David:

Certainly in theory, it’s possible, Chris. For certain types of roles where you’re not client interfacing, you might be hardcore coders that typically don’t like talking to people anyway. It can be … We’ve seen that many times, I think even perhaps that LiveTiles have had quite a broad geographical spread of the developers and the … For certain skill sets, it’s absolutely achievable but again, I don’t think that … You’re not going to build a … If an overwhelming majority of your staff are spread out and not seeing each other on a semi-regular basis, I think the ability to build a thriving culture will be really challenged. It’s got to be good for the contractors, I think. You’ve got a three month contractor, it doesn’t matter when that person comes because it’s quite a transient arrangement. I think it’s achievable for certain scenarios but it has to be again, for shorter periods of time I think.

Chris:

Could it be risky to hire someone and then immediately say to them, “Okay, you’re working from home.”

David:

Well, yes. Absolutely it can be. Again, they don’t get the opportunity or the benefit to assimilate and get a sense of the culture of the business. What are their standards? They’re not learning from better people around them but hearing people on the phones and in meetings. You don’t get that access quite as much from a remote working scenario.

I think just perhaps also, there are a lot of risks around perhaps sourcing staff from around the globe. You don’t know … The accreditation’s may not be the same. There’s going to be different attitudes towards things like religion and sexuality perhaps. These are big issues that we just take for granted in a country like Australia as being the norm but if you’re coming from different parts of the globe, that’s not going to be a given, I think.

And then we’ve got scenarios like Doctor Patel, I don’t know if you know that case, if you recall Doctor Jayant Patel, who was Dr. Death. Quite an extreme example, of course but he was trained as a doctor in India, moved to the US. Did some training there, lost accreditation in a given area of the US, then moved to Oregon where we’d had no licensing but continued to practice certain surgeries. And then there was quite a few deaths that resulted from his activities over there but then the Bundaberg Hospital still recruited him because they were so desperately in need of a surgeon. He was able to source a couple of references from the US, who gave him a positive reference. And the rest is history. I think that there’s a lot more moving parts around sourcing people globally, there’s a lot more risks. I think tread warily, it can be done but just be cautious.

Chris:

Yeah. It’s funny. When I was preparing all of my notes for this … I love sneakers and I love my Nike Air Max’s. And my young daughter was reading through some of my notes and stuff said, “Oh, daddy. That means you can go and work for Nike one day>.

I was like, “Ah, yeah. Maybe I could.”

But perhaps the grass isn’t always greener. And then I was talking about it with my wife. I said, “Look, if you went and worked for an American company, you then take on all of their employee situations.”

We’ve got it pretty good here in Australia, with the way that our employees are treated with workplace relations and stuff but you go to another country and you might not get four weeks annual leave or you might be able to get fired on the spot and things like that. There’s those considerations. It sounds like a great idea to be able to take your skills worldwide but maybe there are a few more things to consider in all of this.

David:

Yeah, I think so. There’s also additional costs around accounting fees, administration costs. Tax laws are going to be so significantly different across the board as well. Obviously, there’s the outsourcing model of if you want to source people from around the globe, you go through these BPOs that are emerging quite prevalently at the moment. Are you familiar with that model, Chris?

Chris:

Yes. Yeah, yeah. Yep.

David:

Yeah. They’re there obviously for cost savings and there’s lots of them in I think, the Philippines and parts of India and other regions.

Chris:

Yeah. Let’s chat a little bit about the cultural effects of this whole work from home revolution. If we’re heading towards this idea, there has to be a fixed corporate culture. I think you mentioned before, that if you don’t see each other face to face semi-regularly, how do you build a culture?

David:

It’s tough. Again, it probably comes back to that managing expectations. If you’re going into it thinking or knowing that you’re not going to have that interaction with people on a day to day basis, you’re probably going to be quite comfortable in that scenario. And that’s what you’ve signed up for but I guess you’ve got the intranet, you’ve got to have … Because I suppose the building of culture becomes getting to know each other better and [inaudible 00:23:43] all about you know what your colleague’s kids are doing, you share each other’s journeys on a daily basis. And you enjoy the wins with them, you share the hard times with them as well. If you’re wanting to go down a strongly digital or remote working module … Or sorry, scenario, you just need to have mechanisms in place that allow you to communicate regularly. Really agile platforms, perhaps LiveTiles deliver similar technology that [crosstalk 00:24:13] there, Chris.

Chris:

Absolutely, yeah. I think we touched on earlier about really this whole working from home culture does lose that human connection. Some would say it doesn’t matter but I would say if you’ve ever worked in a culture where that human connection is very strong and you’ve achieved together and had great times, you would say you definitely would miss that with remote working.

David:

Oh, I couldn’t agree more. Yeah. I think you go to work to obviously be fulfilled and contribute but it’s all about enjoying the wins together. We have a good patch at work. At my business, we love going out for a long lunch and having a few extra wines and just getting to know each other on that informal basis. Again, it’s going to be pretty challenging to get that genuine rapport. The energy in the room is so important, for me anyway. I’m sure it’s probably similar for most people out there. It definitely comes with complexity, to have a genuine rapport.

Chris:

Could it potentially be a generational thing, that this change that we’re seeing now, that maybe the next generation, the one after that, looks at this at a completely different way? I think of my kids, who are all on their devices, they couldn’t care less about seeing a person face to face, potentially. Is it the fact that us, the old boomers, that we need to get used that this might be the new way of working, the new way of building a culture and that people coming after us are quite okay with it?

David:

I think that’s quite possible. Yeah. I’ve always argued that I think that dinner parties are digressing somewhat but you might [inaudible 00:25:55] 10, 15 years time but virtual reality will allow us to sit at a couch in our house and have a dinner party with 10 or 12 other people. You get Uber Eats, you all get the same meal. You don’t have to worry about and drink driving issues or you can have a few beers or wines at home. That is unfathomable to me, who’s pretty old school, pretty traditional. And certainly, the prospect of never working in an office with other people is so foreign to me and I’m sure it to yourself as well but …

Chris:

Yeah.

David:

Never say never, Chris. I think it’s a moving target for sure.

Chris:

I know here in our Hobart office, we’re slowly moving back into our workspace just little bit by a little bit. We had a day this week where there’s a half a dozen of us back in there and “Oh, wow.”

Just being able to talk to someone, have a casual conversation from two meters away we were because we’ve got social distancing obviously but just be able to have that casual conversation as you’re working away. It was like, “Oh, I’ve really missed this. This is what it’s all about.”

David:

Yes, definitely. Yeah. Yes. Fantastic. How many have you got down there in Hobart?

Chris:

There’s about 15 in the office but we’re coming back just a few at a time, just on a bit of a rotating basis. looking forward to one day, getting us all back in there because I think personally, from a mental health perspective, which was going to be my next question … Look, for me, it’s important to get back there, to look after my mental health but do you think remote working could really create that problem of mental health issues?

David:

Oh, I think it’s an absolute given and we’ve seen, so many resources being put into organizations like Beyond Blue, in anticipation of this isolation. Again, we are social beings and this is really creating a real problem of isolation. I think absolutely, it’s going to lead to proliferation of increased mental health issues. And we need to be conscious of that. We need to be … If you’re an introvert, as you say, you’re probably loving your work. Or if you’re 22, you’re loving it because you don’t have to worry about these conversations with people face to face but for those who are extroverts, it’s really taking its toll on them. And it’s incumbent on each of us to reach out to our colleagues and check in with them, make sure they’re going okay. And not on work issues, just on the personal side of things.

Chris:

Yeah.

David:

We have to work harder to maintain that mental health at the moment. It’s really a big issue.

Chris:

Yeah. On that topic, I didn’t have a slide in to throw in here on this. I’d spoken a little bit about it last week but we’ve been working on this great little solution at LiveTiles, called LiveTiles Vibe, which is basically a check in mechanism for staff. We were going to be surfacing it through Microsoft Teams and potentially in other ways but if you’re interested in this, jump onto our website, livetiles.nyc and look under the solutions page for LiveTiles Vibe. It’s a very quick little in the minute, in the moment survey, where a question will pop up and say, “How are you feeling today?”

And you click one of the faces, from a frowny face through to a smiley face. And then that data is collated in the background so that we can check in on people and make sure that they are okay when they’re working remotely. We strongly believe that this little piece of software is something that we really, really need right now in this new environment and will really provide some benefit. If anybody is interested in that, you can contact me through the channels here or jump onto the LiveTiles website and check it out because I think it’s going to be a bit of a game changer for us. Yeah. Thanks for that beautiful little segway there, mate. It was great.

David:

[inaudible 00:29:32].

Chris:

Let’s quickly just touch on what might the future hold. Look into your crystal ball, Dave. Where are we heading with this? Is it going to be traditional, work from home or some hybrid model?

David:

I think for me, it’s pretty clear. It has to be a hybrid modal, Chris. I think enforcing being in the office every day, is not the reality any longer. It’s not the expectation but for the reasons we’ve already spoken about, being much of a remote setup, won’t allow for businesses to create a [inaudible 00:30:06] culture that’s so critical. I think it has to be a hybrid, “Let’s make it work for you. We expect to see you here. We want you to contribute to the culture of our business but we understand that your personal scenario is very different to the person you sit next to in the office.”

Like football clubs these days. Back in the day, everyone had to do exactly the same training. You have to do your crazy runs and intense weight sessions and all the rest of it but now they’re tailoring that to suit each individual. What does that individual need? And we’re seeing it in all walks of life. It’s about becoming a more bespoke and I guess, tailored solution for the individual.

Chris:

Sounds good, mate. Sounds good. Sounds like a really nice way to wrap this chapter. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed chatting with you. Thank you for jumping on today and sharing your insights around this. I know people will really get some benefit out of this because this is an issue that is facing every single business right now. David Hassett, thank you for joining me. It’s been an absolute pleasure.

David:

Thank you so much.

Chris:

Cheers. I’ll just quickly flick onto our plans for next week, before we let you all go. Next week, I’m actually inviting back our chief product officer, Simon Tyrrell. He presented at a Microsoft 365 online event about a fortnight ago. And the response to that session was really, really positive. I’ve invited him back into this arena next week at a slightly later time of 9:30 Australian Standard Time. And he’s going to take us through his insights on what we’re calling Teams phase 2. From video conferencing to a thriving hub of productivity.

Teams right now, is a very hot topic and a lot of people are just using it for things like this here today, where we’re having video calls. And we’re going to talk in depth about some of the other things that you can do with that, including a few little mini demonstrations of a few pieces of LiveTiles tech that really augment the Microsoft Teams experience. Look out for that one and Dave, mate, thank you very much for joining me again today. It’s been an absolute pleasure.

David:

Stay warm.

Chris:

Yeah, you stay warm too. It’s freezing down here today. Thanks very much for your time today, mate.

David:

Good to see you. Thanks, Chris.

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