A conversation with Brian Elliott. Executive Leader, Future Forum & SVP at Slack | Author, How the Future Works.
“There’s this old phrase, ‘Culture eats strategy for breakfast.’ I’m a firm believer in that one. I learned it the hard way. When I first started my career, I was a consultant. When I jumped off into startups, I honestly really struggled. The first couple years were pretty bad, because I was not a very good manager. It took a while to realize that the needs of people from different backgrounds and different skill sets, even different functions, were vastly different, and that if I wanted my startup to survive and thrive, during some really hard times, it was going to be all about whether or not I could not only get of buy in on the direction we were going, but I could get people understanding why this was beneficial for them and find ways to help people see and understand each other better so that we can make the trade offs we need to make together as a team. That’s what builds real loyalty to an organization, but it’s also what builds better outcomes. Honestly, it makes people’s lives better.” – Brian Elliott
In this episode of Control the Room, I had the pleasure of speaking with Brian Elliott about his career as an Executive and Future Of Work thought leader. He starts with reflections on how he’d like to influence the future of work. Later, Brian discusses the importance of building a source of understanding between people. We also discuss how somewhere in every organization there’s a pocket of people doing things differently and getting better results. Listen in for insights like why we should look at the principles by which we’d like to behave and start from there before change redesign.
[1:50] How Brian Got His Start As A Future Of Work Leader.
[12:30] Why Teams Should Figure Out Their Own Schedules And SOPs.
[24:35] How To Redesign How We Look At Behavior Change.
[33:41] The Importance Of Transparency At Work.
[44:50] How Flexible Schedules Make Work More Inclusive And Productive.
Links | Resources
Brian Elliott on LinkedIn
Brian Elliott on Twitter
Future Forum Website
How the Future Works Book
About the Guest
BRIAN ELLIOTT is Executive Leader of Future Forum. He has spent three decades leading teams and building companies as a startup CEO, as a product leader at Google, and now at Slack where he is a Senior VP. Brian started his career at Boston Consulting Group, and earned his MBA from Harvard Business School. His work has been published in Harvard Business Review, Fortune, and The Economist, and he is a proud father of two young men. He is the coauthor of How the Future Works: Leading Flexible Teams to Do the Best Work of Their Lives (Wiley; May 2022) with Sheela Subramanian and Helen Kupp.
About Voltage Control
Voltage Control is a change agency that helps enterprises sustain innovation and teams work better together with custom-designed meetings and workshops, both in-person and virtual. Our master facilitators offer trusted guidance and custom coaching to companies who want to transform ineffective meetings, reignite stalled projects, and cut through assumptions. Based in Austin, Voltage Control designs and leads public and private workshops that range from small meetings to large conference-style gatherings.
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Douglas: Welcome to the Control The Room Podcast, a series devoted to the exploration of meeting culture and uncovering cures to the common meeting. Some meetings have tight control and others are loose. To control the room means achieving outcomes, while striking a balance between imposing and removing structure, asserting and distributing power, leaning in and leaning out, all in the service of having a truly magical meeting.
Thanks for listening. If you’d like to join us live for a session sometime you can join our weekly Control The Room Facilitation Lab. It’s a free event to meet fellow facilitators and explore new techniques so you can apply the things you learn in the podcast in real time with other facilitators. Sign up today at voltagecontrol.com/facilitation-lab. If you’d like to learn more about my book, Magical Meetings, you can download the Magical Meetings Quick Start Guide, a free PDF reference with some of the most important pieces of advice from the book. Download a copy today at magicalmeetings.com.
Today, I’m with Brian Elliott executive director at Future Forum, a consortium backed by Slack. He’s also the SVP at Slack and a co-author of the book, How The Future Works. Welcome to the show, Brian.
Brian: Thanks, Douglas. Great to be here.
Douglas: Oh, it’s so good to have you. I got to say, I’m really excited about this episode of the podcast and this conversation we’re about to have, because as I was reading the book and thinking about the great research that you all are uncovering, it’s just so relevant to the work we’re doing at Voltage Control and really what drove me to create the podcast in the first place.
Brian: No, it’s actually great to keep finding people that have really similar takes on the future of work and how we can make it better for people and for organizations. Thrilled to be here.
Douglas: Excellent. Well, let’s get started. I always start with origin stories. I’m really curious, let’s hear about the Future Forum and how it got started.
Brian: Future Forum is a think tank backed by Slack, along with our partners at Boston Consulting Group, MillerKnoll, who brings a great orientation around space and a group called Management Leadership For Tomorrow, they’re a nonprofit focused on advancing the careers of black and Hispanic Latinx employees in the US in particular.
The real reason why we did this and the origin goes back to myself and my co-authors of the book, How The Future Works, Sheela Subramanian and Helen Kupp. It was the three of us that had known each other for years, but hadn’t really worked together, but we knew each other from Slack. At the beginning of the pandemic, we had this moment where all of us realized that the world of work had this potential to change, that all of a sudden we were being forced into these situations nobody ever expected to be forced into, where a lot of the preconceived notions about how work got done, the in the office 9:00 to 5:00, five days a week, types of ways of working were being sort of blown up.
Each of us brought a different personal perspective to this, about why that mattered to us personally. For me, it was about the fact that I’d spent two decades leading and building teams as a CEO, at a startup, at Google, at Slack. And one of the things that I found is that people on my team, if I wanted to get them enthusiastic and revved up and moving forward, I also had to think about how their personal lives weaved in with their work life. I had to give them the flexibility they needed to be effective in their jobs. Suddenly, we had this much broader conversation that we could have about what was working and what wasn’t for people, not just organizations. It was an opportunity for all of us to lean in and build something together.
Rooted in research, we do a quarterly pulse survey of over 10,000 knowledge workers around the globe that sort of is the basis for a lot of our work, but also to get into conversations with a lot of companies and executives whose minds were suddenly much more open to rethinking those decades old preconceived notions of work, to really find ways to make it better for everybody. It was just one of those moments where our own personal desires about what we wanted to do next, how we wanted to influence the world of work, coincided with this moment that was both horrifying, in a lot of ways, but also a real opportunity to reset that equation in ways that actually made people’s lives better. Loved every moment of it. It’s been the best job I’ve ever had.
Douglas: The thing that jumps out to me is this kind of awareness around the need to connect to the person. So often, when people are embarking on change, whether it’s responding to a pandemic or any kind of change in an organization, we kind of lose sight of the people. I would say the individuals that are doing a decent job of this, are applying kind of design thinking principles and stuff, but you’re talking about something even a layer deeper. What are these intrinsic motivators for everyone? How is my personal life kind of bumping up against the edges of this change and these things we’re trying to do?
Brian: Yeah. There’s this old phrase, ‘Culture eats strategy for breakfast.’ I’m a firm believer in that one. I learned it the hard way. When I first started my career, I was a consultant. When I jumped off into startups, I honestly really struggled. The first couple years were pretty bad, because I was not a very good manager. It took a while to realize that the needs of people from different backgrounds and different skill sets, even different functions, were vastly different, and that if I wanted my startup to survive and thrive, during some really hard times, it was going to be all about whether or not I could not only get of buy in on the direction we were going, but I could get people understanding why this was beneficial for them and find ways to help people see and understand each other better so that we can make the trade offs we need to make together as a team. That’s what builds real loyalty to an organization, but it’s also what builds better outcomes. Honestly, it makes people’s lives better.
Those early learnings were hard because I’ve learned them mostly through mistake, not through having good habits and practices, but it sort of changed my own personal orientation about what makes for good business outcomes, which seldom has to do with pointing in the right direction. Much more often has to do with whether or not you can align a talented group of people, that actually have some different thoughts on the way to get there and work together to achieve the goals that you’ve set. But that requires a lot of investment in understanding people as human beings.
Douglas: I just want to double stitch on that, understanding them as human beings, because the idea of shared values is so critical here. I think a lot of people get hung up on values being these words that we come up with as a company, and it’s less informed by, “Hey. It’s really important to me that I can spend some time with my two year old daughter in the afternoon.”
Douglas: How do we uncover what people really value and how do we support that?
Brian: Yeah. Part of that is you’ve got to build trust and you’ve got to build ways in which people feel … The term is psychological safety, but it’s really about whether or not they feel like they trust, you as a leader in an organization. There are habits and practices that we talk about in the book that you can use to get there. Things as simple as one of my favorites, which is the personal user manual. There’s a template in the book that helps people understand, but it’s basically my own personal strengths, weaknesses, my background, my habits, how to communicate with me, how to work with me. The line I usually have is, “Leaders, it’s your job to go first on something like that, because it’s a bit of revelatory information about yourself,” just so people understand you deeper and can feel that sense of connection.
The other is thinking about how you allow people the space to get to know one another and to share what’s working for them and what’s not. The simplest examples are things like, how do you make sure that you’ve got the icebreaker at the beginning of a weekly staff meeting? When we talk about meetings, people often think that that icebreaker at the beginning, that’s a waste of time because it’s 10, 15 minutes talking about things like what’s the worst job you ever had or what kind of winter Olympian would you want to be? But that 10 to 15 minutes builds a sense of understanding of one another as human beings and people, where you came from, where you’re headed, that is really important, especially when times get tough, especially when you’re in a heated conversation about something or when the business results aren’t what you’re expecting. Because what you’re really doing is you’re building shared understanding of each other and trust in one another.
Douglas: I was liking it to relational capital. If we build up that capital, then it’ll come in handy someday. Also, I think the advice I have for people that struggle with, “Oh, is the icebreaker wasting our time?” I always recommend they reframe it and think about, well, what’s the purpose. We’ll get to purpose and principles in a second. That’ll be a nice segue, but what is the purpose of that? You mentioned connection, you mentioned understanding each other. If we’re really not trying to break the ice, maybe just honoring the fact that we’re going to spend some time connecting at the beginning of the meeting and just call it that.
Brian: Exactly. If you think about where we are today, where we sit in the world, with all the debates about return to office and everything else, that’s going on, one of the core concerns that a lot of executives express is around connection. Do people feel connected? Connection isn’t because you see a slogan on the wall, as you walk around an office. Connection is because you get to know somebody. You find a best friend at work, that you actually get to know your team, that you feel like you have a sense of trust with them and those habits and practices. We should talk about flexibility and inclusion as well as connection. But those three areas are the most important aspects, we find in our research, for building more effective teams, as well as better ways of working for individuals.
Douglas: You mentioned flexibility. I definitely want to talk about that. The thing that jumped out to me big time in the book was the faux flex. It’s the people that are saying, “Oh, well you get to work from home two days a week,” or whatever. What is real flexibility about?
Brian: Real flexibility is a couple of things. It’s not just where we work. It’s critically when we work, because it turns out schedule flexibility and how we use our time is even more important, both to people and to teams and their outcomes, than location. So much of this conversation keeps getting wrapped up around hybrid work, which in itself is not the world’s greatest term, because when people say hybrid work, what they’re thinking about is just back to, “Well, we’ll let you work from home one or two days a week, as long as it’s not Mondays or Fridays.” That’s not real flexibility, that’s centered on just one aspect of it. Even that decision, you can work from home one or two days a week, just never on Mondays or Fridays, betrays the sense of trust in your people. What it’s saying is we don’t trust you not to just take off the weekend and do something that doesn’t work.
Faux flexibility is saying things like that to people, or as a leader saying, “We’ll allow you flexibility to work from home, but the leadership itself is going to show up in the office five days a week. We are going to reward people who also show up five days a week with new opportunities and advancement and careers,” as opposed to rewarding people on the basis of outcomes. That’s where we see real challenges, because what employees are looking for is, I spent the last two years proving to you that I can drive outcomes, give me freedom to choose what works best for me. At the same time, people are also saying, “I do want to come together with my team. I want to come together for relationship building, for belonging, for the big project kickoff, but don’t use a top down, one size fits all mandate when that doesn’t work for me and my team.” People are, understandably, resistant to those sorts of policies.
Douglas: It also reminds me about just how we work and being flexible there as well, because I remember … I spent years as a CTO, so very familiar with software teams and topologies and how software gets made. Oftentimes, there’s this allure for team leaders and business owners to standardize things and say, “Oh. This is the way we work. This is the way we’re going to accomplish this thing. This is the SOP.” When we do that, we remove the autonomy of the team to figure out how to go about their work. Kind of a nod to the software development universe, maybe the team should be more decoupled and maybe they have a lot of cohesion within the team, but how do we allow them to make their own decisions and develop their own ways to do things so that there’s even flex within that.
Brian: The place we usually start is, any given organization passed a certain size and complexity, there’s no one size fits all because the needs of a product design and engineering team is different from a sales organization, is different from … In the book. We talk about Genentech, for example, which has R&D folks that need to work in labs, they have manufacturing operations where someone has to be there five days a week to run the operation. They have finance people, they have sales people. All of those teams have very different needs, in terms of how they work. If you’re thinking about flexibility, it’s what, it’s where, and it’s importantly how people work together. The right starting place is in policies, the right starting place is principles. From our perspective, the important principles are around things like flexibility, creates benefits for people and organizations. How do we enable it, but at the same time, put in place guardrails that make sense for the organization?
We did this at Slack and had a lot of long conversations within the executive team about it. That flexibility guideline, that principle, was really essential, but it came along with a couple of guardrails. One of which was the executive team itself was going to lead by example. They weren’t going to come into the office more than three days a week. But on the other end of the spectrum, we also have an expectation that teams should come together, because we believe,` we’ll get into digital first, but digital first doesn’t mean never together. We believe that there’s an essential ingredient to people coming together to build relationships. The guardrail is that we expect teams to come together at least four times a year.
There’s a wide span between that, that then teams can operate in between, are you in three days a week, or are you coming together four times a year? Then it becomes, how do you think about what you do as a business unit or a functional team? That’s where team level agreements play a really essential role. A lot of our product design and engineering teams have figured out, if we’re going to come together, we are going to do it once a quarter or even some teams once a month. A lot of sales teams are saying, “Hey, look, the leader’s going to be in the office on Tuesdays, that’s when I’ll run my staff meeting. If people can make it in Tuesdays and maybe Wednesdays are going to be our days of the week to come together.” But letting teams figure that out, because they know what their rhythms look like, is a much more successful model than trying to dictate to a 10,000 person organization, top down, the rules of the road.
Douglas: I think that is really powerful. Certainly, the purpose and principles section and the section around team level agreements resonated wholeheartedly. It’s how we approach change. Always start with that ‘why’, that purpose and try to detail what are the driving principles that allow us to get to that purpose and be honest about it so we’re not letting go of any of our values that are important. To your point, these TLAs just really quite powerful to give folks a scaffolding to say, “Hey. Let’s come together and make these agreements together.” I think one critical point that really jumped out to me was this notion that they’re an evolving document and so encouraging people on a cadence to continuously review them.
Brian: Our own team level agreement within Future Forum gets into that frequency of getting together issue, which is honestly, it’s probably the most minor part of the document. We continue to build on top of that and talk more about how do we use our time together? What’s the purpose behind meetings? How do we think about the hours in which people need to be available to work together? Importantly, things like decision making. What are our norms around how we make decisions about how we operate together and how we continue to grow as an organization?
What we do, for example, is we have this agreement it’s laid out, it’s several pages long now. We’ll pull an element out of that agreement on almost a weekly basis, put it in front of the team and say, “Is this working? Are we still doing this? Is this something that we need to edit or revise?” Especially as the team grows from the three of us that started this to 10 people, to 15 people, to 20 people adjacent to it, you’ve got to continue to reflect on whether or not the habits and practices you had at an earlier stage are still working for you today. That ongoing evolution is really important from a team health and cohesion perspective.
Douglas: 100%. It always makes me think about the vestigial organs that we’re all that we’re carrying around that no longer serve us.
Brian: Yeah, absolutely.
Douglas: I just want to point out that there’s a lot of stuff in the book that people could just pull out, even if they are not in a leadership role or not at a company that is ready to start leaning into digital first, because it’s just really great advice.
Brian: Yeah. I know you’ve done a lot of this work also. Be kind of interested to see if this resonates with you, but what we’ve found is a lot of these concepts, doing them across the entire organization all at once, is always a challenge. Like any of the kind of change management facilitation, almost every organization we talk with though has some team within their company that’s already doing aspects of what we’re talking about. Even for us, when we were building this, it wasn’t like the entirety of Slack or Salesforce was doing what we were talking about. We had things we were doing within our team. There was a team in our product design and engineering group that was doing a different set of things that was adjacent to it. There was another group within our customer experience team that was doing something else that was different. It was the power of bringing those pieces together, along with some great external practices that got us where we are.
We find the same thing when we go and talk with other organizations. In the book, we talk about Royal bank of Canada. We talk about Levi Strauss and company, we talk about IBM. All very different organizations, industries, challenges, but each of them found that that was accurate, that somewhere within their organization was a pocket of people who were building something that was different, that actually worked really well. That team was more successful. It’s an opportunity to make them into champions and build on top of that success.
Douglas: Yeah. There’s two things there, one is you can start creating that pocket today, as an individual. Bring these team level agreements into your team. Start thinking about the norms of how to improve your work or how to make this initiative you’re working on more clear and more sound and more principled. But also, if you’re a leader and you’re wanting to enact change, go look for those pockets, because they’re probably there.
Brian: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. I love that. That’s fantastic.
Douglas: So cool. Want to go back to digital first, because you hinted on that and I think it’s really important to, I don’t know, anchor in on that a bit because you were really intentional about creating that word and owning that as a descriptor of how you think about how Slack works. I’d love to hear a little bit more about that.
Brian: Yeah. If you think back to some of the challenges just around the word hybrid itself, because hybrid always just connotes one aspect of flexibility, which is location. Honestly, that is the lesser part because location is important, we see it in our data. 70% of people, if they’re unhappy with the flexibility they’ve got, are open to new jobs. It along with compensation now is typically one and two in terms of people’s consideration. It unlocks productivity for people. We’ve seen that in our research and other people proven it too. But time flexibility is actually an even bigger driver of wellbeing, of stress management, of productivity gains. If you say you’re hybrid, you’re missing half or more of the challenge.
Digital first is the term we like to use because it’s really reflecting a change that’s already started 20 years ago, that’s only accelerated in the past couple of years. If you dial back, and by the way I can, because I’m in my mid fifties, I started my career when basically you’re pre-internet, pre email, certainly pre-messaging apps as a way of communicating. Nobody’s saying, let’s go back to people stringing together eight voicemails in order to communicate with one another.
In the same way that we’ve already been adopting these things, do the following thought exercise. If two years ago, people had said, “Instead of losing access to the office, you’re going to lose access to software.” Business would’ve ground to a halt on a global scale, in ways that are almost unimaginable, because the pandemic changed one aspect of doing work, which is where we work, but it didn’t change the fact that distributed teams that already existed, the global teams who were able to work together because the advances of technology, broadband access into people’s homes, the consumerization of IT, meant that we were already doing a lot of things together, we just hadn’t taken some of the steps because we didn’t believe it was possible.
Digital first is a recognition that this was already happening, that the essential parts of how teams collaborate, get work done, are productive and connect are actually digital. Instead of spending all of our time as leaders thinking about office layouts and how many days a week somebody needs to be in the office, why not spend that time redesigning how we work and thinking about the role that digital experiences play in that and layer on top this fantastic tool called shared space, for times when it’s appropriate, for building relationships, for formation of a new teams, for kicking off a project. That’s what it’s about.
Digital first is a change in mindset. It’s not saying that digital is the be all, end all of all the experience, but it is saying you got to start there first and we need to shift our investment mindset away from the office as the center for where work gets done, to digital is the place where the majority of that activity occurs today. Don’t neglect those investments.
Douglas: Was it Mike from the book that had a really heartfelt story? I think he referred to Slack as the new headquarters.
Brian: Yeah. Mike Bevort. Mike was an engineering partner of mine out of the Denver office. Mike made 23 trips to San Francisco from Denver in 2019 pre pandemic. He made those 23 trips to be in the room where it happens, because we’ve all had the problem of hybrid meetings, I’ve had that problem for 20 years, where you have a hard time getting a word in edgewise, or if you’re not in the room, you don’t feel like you got the same influence on the outcome. If there was some session with Stewart Butterfield, our CEO, or Cal Henderson, our CTO, or Tamar Yehoshua, our CPO, Mike would get on a plane. Mike’s got five kids. That was kind of ridiculous in a bunch of different ways.
Fast forward to May of 2020, we’re two months into the pandemic and we’re having discussions about where this is headed and what it’s unlocked for us as a company, because Slack itself was usually office centric. Mike’s the first one that coined the phrase, Slack is our headquarters. It wasn’t some [inaudible 00:22:57] marketing saying it was Mike saying, “For me, this has changed my life, my lifestyle. It’s also done something really important for the company.” Mike was no longer thinking about the limits to his career, because he lived in Denver.
I’ve been in organizations that are huge, where proximity to headquarters was a massive advantage or disadvantaged depending on where you live. Almost every organization out there that’s global faces this, which is if you’re not in New York, Seattle, San Francisco, Mountain View, your career aspirations are limited, unless you’d want to pack up your family and move. From Mike’s perspective, that changed. All of a sudden he felt like he was on a level playing field with everybody else. By the way, our team members in New York, in Vancouver, in Pune, India in Melbourne, in Dublin all said the same thing, which is, “I feel like it’s no longer the San Francisco headquartered centric organization. Can we keep this? Please, help us keep this.” That’s what really changed a lot of our own orientation around this and why we actually even talked about executive behaviors and how we come out of this in a way that says that’s our primary focus, not the office as our headquarters.
Douglas: Such an amazing story. It also makes me think, as I’m hearing you share that live, is this notion that the limitations that get removed is a form of flex. If leaders are scratching their heads thinking, “How do I create more flexibility?” Look at the limitations, look at the artificial constraints that are there and think about how might I think of this from a perspective of it being elastic.
Brian: I think that’s completely accurate. I think part of it is, our leaders actually having that conversation though and thinking that way. I’m seeing organizations do two things. Everybody two years ago had to make this massive lift and shift. All of a sudden everything that we did in an office was being done at home. But then we started seeing this bifurcation.
Some organizations did a retrofit. They had the existing foundation of work and how it worked and they kept on using the same tools. Unfortunately, in a lot of cases, what happened is the 30 minute video meeting became the hammer for every nail. It became the thing that would solve every possible problem. That resulted in this massive growth in video meetings and Zoom fatigue. If you look at Microsoft’s data, 252% growth in video meetings, which if you’re selling a video conferencing product is great, but if you’re a recipient of that, you feel dragged down.
A lot of other organizations said, “Hey. Look, what I need to do is step back and think about a bunch of these classic assumptions about process and think about are there ways in which we can peel this back, where we can redesign how we work that actually gives people more flexibility in time as well as space that actually put some constraints around that meetings problem.” Those are the organizations, as you think about things like your onboarding process, the purpose behind meetings, how you do innovation, that have sat there coming out of this going, “We’re not going back. We’re actually going to keep doing what we’re doing now. Matter of fact, we’re going to build on top of it and keep on innovating and driving change.”
But I think what you’re seeing now in headlines is the difference between organizations that have made those investments, which are investments in changing and redesigning how they work, versus those that are like, “Ah, this is just too painful. I’m going backwards.”
Douglas: I get that all the time. People will come to us and say, “Can you teach us how to run virtual meetings?” Or, “Can you help us adapt to this new hybrid world?” Or whatever. I always anchor it back to, well, how well were you doing in the first place?
Douglas: We need to go back to fundamentals, and to your language, we’ve got to look at the principles by which we want to behave and then we can design from there. Because if we just try to shove these behaviors that we had previously into some new tool, then that’s not going to serve us very well.
Brian: Yeah. I’d love to hear if this resonates with you, but meetings were a problem pre pandemic also. Almost every organization, I’ve got to believe given your work, you hear this all the time. It’s not like back in 2019 everybody said, “Oh. Meetings are great.”
Douglas: In fact, there’s a doodle of research that we referenced quite often that something like $53 billion wasted in ineffective meetings. There’s so much amazing research out there. In fact, you quoted some interesting stuff in the book even. Perhaps, maybe the one that I always love to gravitate to is the 79% of them. 79% of people say that their meetings are great, or they inflate the ratings of their meeting. Whereas, 56% say that most meetings are poorly run. How does that work? Your meetings are great, but everyone else’s are bad.
Brian: I won’t name the executive, but one of our execs said that without knowing the data behind it, but he said … We’re having this discussion about how do we even peel this back and deal with this ourselves within Slack, which we should get into. But one of these execs said, “The problem is my meetings are fantastic. It’s everybody else’s that are the problem.” He was sort of joking about it, but there’s some truth to that, which is we all create this problem. Schedules are a big challenge. Where do you start is always a challenge. I know you’ve got Voltage Control some frameworks that you use for this too.
A couple things that we talk about are the four D’s for meetings. If it’s not a debate, a decision to be made, a discussion that’s better had live or importantly personal development, then it’s not really a meeting that you need to do live and synchronously. If it’s a status update, please use technology and tools to do that. Use whatever your project management software is, lay down a process for people to do it, figure out how you drive escalations. Please don’t add yet another status check meeting into somebody’s calendar.
On those four DS, there’s a lot of that discussion that I think, today, the problem is people default to Sheela and I, my co-author, need to have a discussion because we can’t quite sort out a problem. Chat’s not going to be an effective way to do it. The classic thing that happens these days is I look at her calendar, I block 30 minutes of time. It’s next week, it’s got a Zoom call attached to it. A week goes by before we even get to it, as opposed are you available right now. Let’s talk. The five minute phone call or huddle inside of Slack is often a much more effective way just to do that. We need to make space for that.
That’s the other problem. Our calendars have become so jam packed of meetings that nobody has the time. We’ve got to put some constraints around it. We have a practice called core collaboration hours. For our team, 9:00 AM until 1:00 PM Pacific is our time for one-on-ones, team meetings, cross-functional meetings, you name it. It requires some discipline. It requires continued reinforcement. It requires working with your partners to get it inside of that. By the way, it doesn’t mean that we don’t have the occasional meeting at four o’clock in the afternoon, but it means we ask permission first before we do it, we check with people to see whether or not they’re okay with doing it, especially because part of our team is on the east coast, part of our teams on the west coast. That kind of core collaboration hour concept works. By the way, Dropbox we talk about in our book. Dropbox did this around the globe. It’s not like you can’t do it in a larger organization. They’ve got 5,000 plus people that now have this as a practice on a global organization.
We’ve also done some more experimentation iteration since the book even came out. This is a maker week at Slack. It’s one of my favorite weeks of the quarter. We’ve started this practice in one part of the organization and grew it over time. It’s another example of change management. Maker week is cancel all of your recurring meetings for the week. All your project meetings, all your staff meetings, all your cross functional meetings, all the rest of it. It does a couple of things. One, it helps you build up asynchronous habits. How are you going to run that cross functional meeting? Do you really need it every week, but also can you just do it asynchronously?
Second is, it’s an opportunity to step back and say, “Do we need all those meetings? Do we need to run it the way we run it today? That meeting used to have eight people and it’s now got 24. How do we peel back?” That type of activity is really important. I had a CIO at a large company the other day that we were talking about meetings with. We got into this and every executive rises to the occasion on this one, almost without exception. What she said was, “We had one of those meetings where it was a kickoff for a project the other day. It sort of described the purpose of the project. How many people do you think were in it?”
I’m like, “Must have been ridiculous. I’ll go with 50.” Someone else says 75. Someone goes, “Well, I know you’re pretty constrained on the [inaudible 00:31:27] 25.” 228. 228 people in a kickoff meeting. I guarantee you that’s 223 people who didn’t need to be there live watching that meeting. We know this is a problem. We know as executives and individuals, it’s a challenge.
We need to lean in here, because it does a couple things. If we can put some constraints around that, it helps people find time to do their individual work in a more focused fashion. That’s really what it’s all about. From an individual perspective, you get much more flexibility and freedom to whether it’s, “I’ve got to go pick up the kids from school after three o’clock in the afternoon,” or, “I’m a morning person. I’m much better off trying to get some work done early on in the day,” to do that without being exhausted, because you’ve already spent nine hours in and out, in and out of meetings.
Douglas: I think in the book you referred to it as meeting bankruptcy, which I thought was fun. We have an activity we call What Meeting Are We Having? Which is a conversation. It’s funny. People always talk about meetings about meetings or bad. I always tell people, “Hey, if we’re having an intentional meeting about our meeting culture and reflecting on meetings, the meeting about the meeting is not so bad. We just don’t want it to be habitual, just stringing things along.”
The other thing that jumped out to me is this idea of meeting FOMO. That’s why people glom on. That’s why you had 200 plus people in that meeting.
Brian: That’s right.
Douglas: I would argue that when organizations are faced with those kinds of situations, it’s usually indicative of the fact that there’s not enough storytelling. Post that meeting or post meetings like that in the past, there might not have been enough storytelling about what happened in the meeting or documenting it and sharing it and celebrating it. I think if organizations focused there more, then people would be less likely to want to dial in and just be in it, almost presenteeism.
Brian: Yeah. Absolutely. It requires a couple things though. It requires some work on the part of the people who are running the meeting, because you have to share back out not just the decision that got made, but the rationale behind it. You’ve got to be able to encapsulate and share that out. The other is it requires transparency. Transparency is really essential, by the way. We get into this in our research. People that believe that their organization is transparent with them, are far more likely to stick around and they’re far more likely to be satisfied with their work. Those that don’t, are much more likely to believe.
That transparency means that you’re sharing more of your work in public within your company. You’re opening yourself up to questions. For a lot of leaders, it’s understandable that that can make you nervous, because there’s a long history of leadership, and I suffer from this myself, which is you’re expected to have all the answers. Part of making this future of work more flexible work is saying, “I don’t have all the answers.” If you’re going to solve that problem of decision making in public and sharing and debating that, you’re opening yourself up to questions and you’ve got to be willing to do that, but it takes some new muscles and some new learning to make that possible.
Douglas: I would argue that’s what real cultural transformations about, not are we having fun little get togethers once a month where we’re doing escape rooms or whatever. Are we really shifting how we’re behaving around mistakes? Are we willing to share that we don’t know things? That’s what creates a learning culture.
Brian: Yeah. Absolutely. By the way, we did a piece on innovation last year, a piece of research around what drove team creativity and innovation and no correlation to location, none whatsoever. Whether you were fully remote, whether you’re in the office, whether you’re hybrid, exact same. The thing that drove it, was two questions. One, is your team safe taking risks? Is your team willing to take risks? The second one is, can you ask questions? Do you feel like you can ask questions? Both of those are indicators of psychological safety. Both of those had a 50 to 70% boost on whether or not your team was more innovative, more creative.
The other was shifting your thinking about what innovation even is in the first place and how you do it. Because the classic brainstorming where you put everybody in a room with a whiteboard, particularly with a moderator who may or may not be good at it, usually results in group think. There’s far better ways to do that through concepts like brain writing. Asking people to write down their ideas or share their observations before you get together, keep it to themselves and then pile them all in at the beginning of the meeting. What you get out of that is a broader range of interesting ideas, [inaudible 00:35:59] ideas, but you get rid of the group thinking the pre-filtering that most people do before they’re willing to raise their hands and say something in a room that’s commandeered by somebody with a pen at the whiteboard.
Douglas: Absolutely. Even when we’re inventing new methods, we’re big fans of the solo work combined with the group work. Whether it’s brain writing or anything, let people do a little solo work before we start co-mingling the ideas, because we don’t want to start looking at the intersectionality of ideas until everyone’s ideas have had a moment to kind of gestate.
Brian: Yeah. You do a lot of this in terms of helping organizations process that degree of change. What have you found is most important in making those changes successful?
Douglas: There’s a lot which I probably don’t have time to get into per se. But I think specifically, in those moments, honestly, that would be my number one go-to tactic in the moment of harvesting ideas, is giving people the opportunity to have some solo time and group time. Then you couple that with this idea of curiosity and running experiments and you build muscle around that and consistency around it. It’s almost like anything becomes possible.
Douglas: Right. We got to get people away from this idea of best practices, because people are so hung up on, “Hey. What do I need to do? What tool do I need to have?” Instead, the future is within you. You just need to reveal it.
Brian: Exactly. Experiment and iterate. Get people to raise their hands, especially those that think something is really hard to do or challenging. Get them to help you. Get them to run an experiment or two, because that’s the best way to change minds, also.
Douglas: You talk about transparency being so important and I had written this down, so I wanted to bring it up. In the book you had mentioned in your research, you had found that two thirds of executives thought they were being transparent, but less than half of the employees said they were.
Brian: Yes. Yeah. That’s scary for a couple reasons. Number one, that gap of transparency means a lot of those employees are much more likely to leave their organization, because if an employee doesn’t believe their organization’s transparent, especially about their future of work plans, they’re 3.4 times more likely to tell us they’re definitely looking for a new job. That’s not good. The second is the core cause of it. Two thirds of executives think they’re being transparent. Two thirds of executives also tell us that their employees had little or no direct input into their future of work planning process. If the employees aren’t directly engaged, even through some sort of representative task force, which is how we recommend people do this, it’s not surprising that even if you think you’re being transparent, your employees don’t believe you, because you’ve not engaged them in the conversation. The top down passage of policy that doesn’t reflect a two way street of communication, just isn’t trustworthy, unfortunately.
The thing that you’ve got to do as an executive is be willing to say, “I don’t have all the answers, but I want to engage you because we hire smart people, capable people to help us figure it out.” We do that a lot through thinking through what’s a task force approach here, that brings together people from a broad range of functions, broad range of geographies and critically a broad range of demographics to help figure out what’s going to work for your organization.
Douglas: It comes back to the thing we’re talking about a little bit ago around storytelling. I think it’s important to anchor in on this idea that we can start to tell the story even before it’s complete. We don’t have to have all the answers. That will go a long way into people realizing that there’s some transparency. I think in the book you talked about the taskforce is waiting until the plans are all laid out. It sends the signal that like, “Hey. We’re over here figuring out your future. We’ll let you know when it’s ready.”
Brian: Yeah. We talked about it in the book in terms of not only what we did at Slack, but what other companies have done to make this happen. Those task forces also need to go around. Use your employee resource groups as signing boards also, by the way, because they’ll have different perspectives in this. That’s a way to also build up buy-in and habits. Use the teams that have been champions in the past, of different ways of working, as people that are out there advocating and find ways to raise the voices of the people.
We have plenty of people, even in Slack that were like, “Hey. We need to get back in the office.” Let’s listen to them. Let’s talk about it. Let’s see why they’re thinking that. Let’s get into sort of root causes. If you’re not having those kinds of exercises, you’re not really bringing your team along with you. That lack of buy-in is costly. Even if you just put aside the risk to people leaving your organization, it’s costly, because then people are spending their time worrying about that, thinking about it, having side conversations, as opposed to getting back to the basics of what you want them to be working on.
Douglas: Yeah. It’s super important. You also talked about giving people opportunity to share amongst themselves. It doesn’t have to be led from the steering committee or the task force. I think you mentioned the laptop stands in the meetings. If someone’s got a cool tweak on that or something else that might help, they can raise it and try it and share it.
Brian: Yeah. The example you’re talking about, Douglas, is a great one. I’ve led distributed teams for a couple of decades. When I was at Google, I had a team that was distributed across North America pretty heavily and hybrid meetings were just horrible. You had all of the problems of 12 people in a room in Mountain View and eight different people plugged in from eight different locations. They couldn’t figure out was going on or hear each other, anything else. There’s a couple practices that we talk about now that glean from stuff that I did then, it’s what we found out works. One of which is have a hybrid meeting moderator, someone who’s assigned to be that liaison between the two.
Another one was this concept of one screen per person. One dials in, all dial in. Everybody open up your laptop. That got all kinds of out uproar from certain people like, “It’ll never work. The AV system’s not set up for it.” That’s true. But what we did is we got people to experiment with what worked and what didn’t like 6, 8, 10 different iterations. What folks found is, open up all your laptops, use the in room puck for audio because that works pretty well and people can hear each other. If your laptop is open, then what you do is you get access to the screen, the visuals, the documents, the chat, whole nine yards. People actually enjoy that.
Now, how do you make that stick? Laptop stands. It turns out that if you’re sitting in a conference room doing that and you’re laptop is open you get neck strain. By accident, somebody figured out, I’m just going to grab a laptop stand. I’m going to put it in the conference room. That laptop stand helps neck strain. But it also does a really key thing. It’s a signal. When you walk into the conference room and you see a couple laptop stands sitting on a conference table, you’re like, “Oh. I should try that.” That kind of little thing would never have come up if we were just writing out a policy. It came from experimentation, iteration, learning and seeing what worked. Then we just sort of said, “Hey, it’s a great human-centered design thing that we can do, that makes life easier for people too.” We started putting them in all the conference rooms.
Douglas: I love that story. It also comes to a point that’s passionate for me. You mentioned hybrid the word being problematic. I also find it problematic for another reason, which is a lot of people think of hybrid and they think when I’m in the office versus when I’m not, but there are hybrid gatherings and hybrid meetings, which is actually what this laptop stand solves for. I don’t think enough people are thinking about that. I remember the days of the poly com. I think you mentioned it earlier. You can’t get your words in. Mike’s having to travel to San Francisco all the time.
The thing that I focused on around thinking about good hybrid meeting design or hybrid gathering design was what is the point of connection? If we don’t create a point of connection for everyone, then people are left out. When everyone’s dialed in on one thing in one meeting room, so they look like there’s a surveillance camera looking thing, is this great connection? Also, are we all going to be in the Slack together? Or are we going to be on a mural? Where are we doing the work together? Because a whiteboard over here in the room is not creating connection for someone else remotely.
Brian: That’s right. That’s where a lot of digital tools are actually super helpful too, because it actually is something that you can use regardless of where you are. Everyone’s got access to it. They’re on a level playing field. The other really critical part is archival value. It doesn’t disappear when the meeting disappears. You don’t lose all of it as soon as you dial back out, or you don’t lose it after somebody takes a picture of a whiteboard and puts it someplace. We all know. We’ve all had that experience. Somebody did it and they took the picture and the odds that anyone goes back and looks at that again later on is really low.
Douglas: Definitely not searchable.
Douglas: I realize we’re kind of running short on time and I want to make sure that we shift here. I want to just give you an opportunity to maybe share a little bit about where you think this is headed. What does it make possible, this work that you’re doing with the Future Forum? We been talking about a lot of the change that people can make, but if we keep doing this, what does that unlock for the world?
Brian: From a Future Forum perspective, one of the things that we haven’t touched on, that’s really essential in our research, comes back to the impacts on diversity, equity and inclusion efforts inside of organizations. This change in the way we work, this flexible approach, redesigning how work gets done, is definitely better for organizations in terms of their outputs, which we can all start looking at and pointing at and getting to. The really critical part is it has disproportionate benefits for people from diverse groups. We’ve seen this for two years running now, in our research.
People who are black, Hispanic, Latinx, Asian American [inaudible 00:45:29] workers have greater benefits from flexibility than their white colleagues. We saw this at the beginning of the pandemic. Sense of belonging actually rose for those groups, while it fell for the white colleagues initially. We dug into it with some academics, code switching and microaggressions at work were really sort of the root cause behind it. It’s not that flexibility changes those underlying problems, but gives people a break. It’s the ability to step out and then step back in. That type of ability to recharge your batteries is really important to those groups. It shows up on our research time and again.
It’s also why we’re seeing people who are coming back from the office more often being white, male, non-caregivers, which is the other part of this. Especially in the US and the UK women with children need flexibility more than non caregivers and more than men with children. They bear disproportionate brunt of the responsibilities for childcare and elder care. We have a growing elder care challenge we’re all going to face generationally here. If we’re not thinking about schedule flexibility, as well as location flexibility, for those groups, they’re going to not only look for other companies that have opportunities that are more flexible, but they’ll simply not be able to work. That’s been what’s really scary in the past couple of years.
Taking a more flexible approach really is an unlock. It creates more inclusive ways of working for those people. It also does something really essential, which is, it forces all of us to move away from management by walking around, management by watching whether or not Joe shows up at 8:00 AM and leaves at 8:00 PM, so therefore Joe should be rewarded with a promotion. To Joe just crushed his Q2 goals. He’s crushed it for three quarters in a row. Joe deserves a promotion. Outcomes driven management is essential to making flexible models work. Outcomes driven management is also a level playing field.
If we pull these things together, flexibility in where, and when people work, redesigning how we work, moving to an outcomes-driven way of working is a huge unlock for diversity, equity and inclusion inside of organizations. That’s why it’s better for people from all backgrounds, as well as better for organizations. If we lean into that, we can actually make outcomes better, broadly, for everyone. That’s why this work, at the end of the day, is what I love doing.
Douglas: It reminds me of the curb cut effect too. If we design for folks that have a less desirable experience, it actually ends up impacting us all better. I just love this idea that maybe we can just have a more joyful work environment and everyone can lean into the flex in ways that just unlocks so much more in ourselves and in our companies and even our families, because that flex affords this time be with our loved ones, if we’re caregivers, or just spend our time how we want.
Brian: Absolutely. Absolutely. That’s a huge advantage for people. It turns out it’s a huge advantage for organizations as well. Let’s bring them together.
Douglas: Excellent. Well, in order to wrap here, I’d love to invite you to leave our listeners with a final thought.
Brian: At the end of the day, the reason why myself, Sheela and Helen, my co-authors on How The Future Works, love doing our work is because what we love about it is seeing people actually pick up some of our recommendations, some of the playbooks, some of the actions that we recommend. Douglas, I loved your point, which is, this doesn’t have to happen in the top of your organization. There’s so much of our book and our work that you, as an individual team manager, can actually pick up and use. You as an individual team member can recommend to your team.
The book itself is on sale. It’s a Wall Street Journal bestseller. You can find it on Amazon: How The Future Works. You can also go to futureforum.com and get all of our research. There are playbooks based on the book. There are how to guides. There are great case studies and examples from a wide range of companies. Please, use the material. Please give us feedback. Please engage with us on it. We welcome everybody’s usage of it and feedback on it.
Douglas: Excellent. I highly encourage folks to do that. I really enjoyed reading the book and lots of great stuff on the website as well. We’re going to put those in the show notes to make it easy for people to get access to them.
Brian, it’s been a pleasure chatting. I hope we can continue the conversation into the future.
Brian: Absolutely. Douglas, thank you very much. This has been great.
Douglas: Thanks for joining me for another episode of Control The Room. Don’t forget to subscribe to receive updates when new episodes are released. If you want to know more head over to our blog, where I post weekly articles and resources about radical inclusion, team health and working better, voltagecontrol.com.