The future of work with Brian Elliott @ Future Forum
“What will my work look like now?” This is a question nearly all of us are asking.
For some answers, I turned to Brian Elliott, who leads Future Forum - a think tank that is re-imagining work through data (research) and dialogue (forums with those leading post-covid organizations). Future Forum is supported by an alliance of forward-looking organizations including Slack, BCG, MillerKnoll and MLT.
Brian is uniquely-suited to lead this work. He has spent three decades leading teams and building companies as a startup CEO, as a product leader at Google, and now as SVP at Slack. Brian is also one of the best managers I’ve ever worked for.
Last month, Brian co-authored “How the Future Works,” a book full of stories and useful insights into how leaders at a wide range of companies in different sectors are figuring out how to lead flexible, diverse, high-performing teams.
And this week, the book ranked #2 on the Wall Street Journal’s bestseller list.
My favorite quote from my conversation with Brian:
“What the last two years really changed is people’s perceptions about what is possible.”
What has surprised you most from the research you've been conducting at Forum Forum?
Probably the stuff that people find most surprising is how tied-in future of work and return-to-work is with a company’s diversity and inclusion goals.
We’ve been doing this research for two years now. And early on in the pandemic, when we first shifted to remote work in the summer 2020, we got the first round of results back from our research. And we saw that “sense of belonging” dropped. Now, that wasn’t too surprising because people were saying “I don’t feel as tight with my team.” This metric dropped for white office workers. But black office workers’ sense of belonging actually rose. The same was true for Hispanic and Asian-American employees. But Black knowledge workers’ sense of belonging rose the most. I was surprised by that. And we saw it two quarters in a row.
So we enlisted some academics to help us understand the data. Professor Brian Lowery at Stanford explained that this is code switching. For him personally, even on Stanford’s campus, five days a week in-person from 9 to 5 is taxing. So even if it's just the ability to work a couple of days a week from home or the ability to come in and out of the work context during the day, that’s an opportunity to recharge.
That’s not to say those groups want to be fully remote. They don’t. They want a flexible setup. But they are least likely to say they want five days a week in the office.
Second most surprising insight is probably that schedule flexibility is actually more important than location flexibility. We pay a lot of attention to issues like how many days a week people need to be in the office, which people definitely important. 79% of people want some form of location flexibility.
But 94% of people want schedule flexibility. And it’s not that they want a free-for-all. They just want something that is less than 9-to-5 jam packed full of meetings. So that then you end up doing your “day job” after dinner or putting the kids in bed. And schedule flexibility has been a bigger boost for productivity, and work-life balance.
In a growing economy employers are eager to show how flexible they are to recruit talent. But in a downturn, employers have more leverage. What gives you confidence that more flexible work is a permanent change and not just a temporary trend?
So first it is important to say the group we are talking about here is office workers - knowledge workers - which is already a bit of a privileged class.
When you think about recessions and downturns, the first people that will typically get hit are those in the sector that already cannot employ people fast enough. There will be some rebalancing that happens in retail and service sectors and among hourly employees and others.
But when it comes to knowledge workers, the demand for great marketers, engineers, sales people - it doesn't matter if the market is up or down. If you're competing then you’re competing for the most talented people out there.
I've been building teams for 25 years now. I've been through three downturns of the tech sector. Hiring and retaining talented people is still the hardest problem.
There are times when inflation is a problem. There are times when the real estate sector or the tech sector gets hit. But if you didn't have talented people, you aren’t going to get anywhere.
And those talented people have now had their eyes open to different ways of working and they are telling us - they're demonstrating - that they'll vote with their feet.
What has Future Forum’s research indicated about building trusted partnerships within a remote or hybrid company. How do you build trust internally when you can’t necessarily sit beside your colleagues.
I think that the little bit of mythology around sitting with your internal partners being the only way to build trust.
Here’s what we’ve seen - internally trust means transparency.
The most effective way of building trust is being in the conversation, the thread, the channel, the email alias. Wherever the work is actually getting done.
That's why it’s important to think about tools that default to open. Those tools do two things. They make you more effective because you’re spending less time searching for information. And they also build trust. It means you’re doing your work out in the open.
If you’ve got that internal trusted relationship, where you're in the loop, you're having an active conversation where the Partnership team is being proactive about what they need to know and they’re being clear about what they will share externally. Then you're showing that you're deserving of that trust and of being on the inside loop where the work is being done.
I read Future Forum’s research around the risk of proximity bias within an organization … but is proximity bias an asset that a company can use to their advantage? Can a company create proximity bias by traveling to meet more in-person than their competitors?
When we talk about proximity bias what we are sweating is the senior executive team that says to their people “you can be fully flexible” but they themselves are actually showing up five days in the C-Suite. The risk is that they go back to rewarding presenteeism and that proximity bias in particular impacts the careers of those who most value flexibility – notably historically underrepresented groups and caregivers.
From a partnerships perspective, I think it's figuring out what the right blend is. There is value in deciding on certain in-person moments. What's the kickoff? What are the “getting to know you” moments?
At Slack we now joke that ‘the onsite is the new offsite.’ The office now primarily serves to host teams that are coming together to do some work. But that work often involves meals together, ice breakers, exercise to build and create trust.
The great thing about that is once you’ve started building that trust in-person, the upkeep digitally becomes a lot easier. You're not as focused on scheduling next month’s in person meeting. You can be more focused on making sure that you’re following up with the action items and what's coming up next. Small wins build trust.
I've always believed that being as transparent as you can be with your partner is the best way to build that trust. You need to know what your negotiating position is, you know where you want to land, and what your give and takes are. But the more that you can say, “hey, look, here's how I think we can shape something that's mutually beneficial to us.” If you can do that you’re going to get to clarity a lot faster than if you keep your cards close to your chest.
What historical moments do you think offer useful lessons for understanding the transition that we are going through at work as a result of the pandemic?
Part of this is just a major acceleration of stuff that was there already. I think you already had greater needs for agility, you already had people who were figuring out there were more flexible ways to work.
What the last two years really changed is people’s perceptions about what is possible.
Slack was less than three percent remote pre-pandemic. A lot of people were very concerned with what would happen. I think we've all had our eyes open pretty dramatically.
What we've had our eyes opened to is changes enabled by changes in technology - like broadband access and SaaS tools - but also the needs of a much more diverse workforce. People who leaders bluntly had been ignoring for decades, in a lot of respects. You’ve now got this different calculus of what you can do because we’ve had to make more radical changes than many thought possible.
I think it's kind of similar to it's thinking about the how you operate as an organization with as much intention as you think about the products you develop for your customer … and how would you take advantage of what you what, you've learned new technologies, new capabilities, Too often that gets the internal stuff gets less attention while you focus on delivering for the customer.
At the end of the day, almost every industry that is a growth industry is all about talent. Can I attract retaining and engaged talent productively? And so it's about turning that lens to the inside. How do I reinvent? How do we take any given process at work - how do we leverage what we've learned for the past two years to do it better?
There's no single check-the-box moment here. This is continuous evolution. You’re much better off thinking about this from an iteration and experimentation perspective than a top down mandate of how the future is going to work.
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