S 1 E6

September 16th, 2019

EPISODE 6: How Do Humans Fit into the Future of Work? With Lynda Gratton and Dr. David Rock

Lynda Gratton believes the human experience is fundamentally shifting. It’s moving away from the three-stage life of education, career, and retirement, and instead moving into what she calls a “multi-stage life,” whereby people learn, work, and relax over many decades, well into old age. On this episode, discover how Lynda sees the future playing out in discussion with NLI’s Co-Founder and CEO, Dr. David Rock.

You can learn more about Lynda’s work on her website.

Episode Transcript

Chris Weller (Intro) 00:04

When you think about your working life, you probably can divide it into three clean chapters: your education, your career, and your retirement. And when you’re in one of these three stages, you’re devoting the bulk of your time and energy to doing it full-time. You go to school full-time so you can work full-time, so you can retire full-time.

Lynda Gratton, Professor of Management at the London Business School, has for the past several years been questioning these long-held truths, asking will it always be this way? What if humans began living what Lynda calls a multi-stage life, where education, career, and retirement are all blended into one? What might organizations look like in that future?

I’m Chris Weller, and you’re listening to Your Brain at Work, from the NeuroLeadership Institute.

In today’s episode, I’m joined by Lynda Gratton, Professor of Management at the London Business School, and Dr. David Rock, Co-Founder and CEO of the NeuroLeadership Institute.

Our discussion covers a range of issues related to the future of work, such as the effects of an aging workforce, the need for continuous learning, and whether employees of the future will take their cues more from brain science or computer science.

Chris Weller: 1:15 Linda and David, thanks for joining me.
David Rock: 1:17 Thanks, Chris. Good to be here.
Lynda Gratton: 1:18 Great to be here, Chris.

Chris Weller: 1:20 Okay. So, Linda, NLI runs a research institute around making organizations better for humans through science. And I know that you run a research Institute around the future of work, among other things. Can you tell us a little bit about what you study and how you study it?
Lynda Gratton: 1:35 Well, for the last 10 years, The Future of Work Research Consortium has really partnered with companies all around the world to really take a look at how they’re preparing for the future, and some of the most important aspects that they see shaping their organization, but also the everyday work of employees.

I think the things that are really exciting are this extraordinary sort of configuration between three of the major trends that are shaping work. One, of course is technology; machine learning, robots are all changing how work is done, and how we interface with technology. The second is my own area of interest. I wrote…the book, The 100-Year Life, which is that we’re living longer, and that means that we’re working longer, probably into our 70s, and so we have to think about redesigning our lives. But, thirdly, I’m also interested in social trends, particularly family structures, and how people are working together in families to really support the sort of lives they want. And the configuration of those three trends is leading to some really fascinating outcomes, both in terms of how people prepare for the future, and, indeed, what they are going to be really focusing on.

Chris Weller: 2:54 So, when it comes to that preparation, I mean, are people prepared? Are organizations prepared?

Lynda Gratton: 3:00 Well, in my view, there are two questions that everybody should ask of a company. One is, is this place going to help me stay healthy? And secondly, is this place going to help me learn? Because we believe, and we being my coauthor Andrew Scott, believe that we’re moving from a design of life, which is the three-stage life, full-time education, full-time work, full-time retirement, to something that’s much more flexible. We call it the multi-stage life. And really, to live that life and to be working into your 70s, you need to be healthy, right the way through your life, but you also need to be constantly learning.

David Rock: 3:42 Yeah, I think, Linda, what you’re seeing correlates with what we’re seeing in organizations, which is this passionate desire to create a learning culture. And they’re often thinking about it through the lens of employees having a growth mindset, right? They want to have a growth mindset culture. They want everyone to be passionate about learning. And Microsoft’s CEO, Satya Nadella, talks about being learn-at-all rather than a know-it-all. companies are set up to scale, and do repeated things that then can be codified, more so than constantly changing. And so, it’s an interesting challenge.

Lynda Gratton: 4:17 Well, I think, can I just push back on that for a moment, David?
David Rock: 4:19 Yeah.

Lynda Gratton: 4:19 I totally agree with you about that. But one thing that we know about the brain, and, of course, you know very well is, it’s very ignited by curiosity. And I think that that’s the way through, really, is how do you help people be curious about their world, and curious about how it’s going to change, and therefore, curious about what they do to prepare for that change? It might be that you’re using amazing technology to really help people to learn. It might be that you’re really coaching, as Microsoft is, so that you’re really coaching, you’re using your managers to coach people to learn. It could be that you’re setting up communities of interest, and communities of learning as Tata Consultancy Services is. I mean, I think it really depends on your own unique culture. But I would say that if you can help your employees be curious about themselves, about the future, that, for me, is a really good start.

David Rock: 5:17 Yeah, no, curiosity is the first step to reflection and insight, and paying attention differently. And I agree with you, it really all starts with curiosity.

Chris Weller: 5:27 Yeah, I would say that there’s probably a distinction to be made also in, I mean, you’re curious when you’re in the right frame of mind, you’re in a toward state, you want to embrace new things, as opposed to being in this fearful state where you are shying away, and you’re less curious, and more just fearful, and you don’t really care about what’s new. If anything, you care about it to a negative extent.
Lynda Gratton: 5:46 Chris, I agree. And I think one of the challenges is…that, in terms of technological change, quite a high proportion of employees are very concerned about that. And so, their concern, as you rightly say, reduces their curiosity. So, how can we help people be curious about how they can act around technology.

how does an organization create an environment where people are sufficiently relaxed, and sufficiently curious that they’re able to embrace some of the changes that we know will be taking place in terms of technology, but also in terms of longevity, living longer? We think that it’s really important that people experiment, become pioneers. And that’s really, for me, one of the essentials for the future. Learning to be a pioneer.

David Rock: 6:38 We think of changes that companies are trying to make in three phases: Setting priorities; building the right habits; and developing the right systems. And the systems kind of define the culture, define the environment.
But I think a lot of what companies overlook is the everyday habits that people follow. And by that I mean, how do you have a one-on-one conversation? How do you set goals? How do you interact at a weekly meeting? How do you follow up on projects with people? How do you run virtual meetings? The sort of stuff that’s mostly become unconscious and habitual. We think there’s a lot of positive improvement available through isolating specific habits that organizations are following, and then shifting them to more positive habits.

When you follow up with someone on a project, don’t just say, ‘How did you go?’ Say, ‘How did you go, and what did you learn?'” And that tiny little addition, of just adding in the learning question to a general check-in, is a habit. And when you scale that to thousands of people, and they all start actually asking about learning, that’s where you start to see it. So I think it’s the systems and the environmental stuff is important, but we think the habits work maybe even more significant in terms of faster change.

Lynda Gratton: 7:45 Yeah, I agree. And one of the really interesting ways of thinking about that is to use technology to do that. For example, virtual reality, where an individual is confronted with an issue like, how do you talk to somebody about their performance? And you have an opportunity to practice saying, “Tell me about what you’ve learned.” Because the interesting thing about habits is, they don’t just happen in one circumstance. Habits need to be developed across a range of situations. And so, the more that you can help people engage with those situations, and rehearse in those situations, the more likely you are to build habits.

David Rock: 8:24 Yeah, I know. That’s true. There’s some really interesting technology that’s starting to come out that are facilitating that. And I think we’re in an era we’re gonna see huge change in how people think about learning and development, which is great, because learning’s incredibly inefficient.
[CUT TO BREAK] 8:36 We’re going to take a quick break, but more with Lynda and David and the importance of feeling in control, in just a moment. Stay with us.

Chris Weller: 9:09 One thing that’s coming up for me is, there’s this interesting line between using technology to help people learn and improve, and then also, David, to, I think more of what you’re saying, using these small conversational kind of tweaks, saying, “What did you learn?”
And there’s an interesting, I think, dichotomy there, with the technology versus, just, the conversation. And I’m curious…what role does technology play in shaping this new learning and adapting? I’m sure it’s a balance of some sort, but is it 90/10, 50/50?

David Rock: 9:45 … I think the challenge right now, from my perspective, and, Linda, you and I have a different view, but one of my perspectives on this is, I think we don’t have any good first principles, particularly when it comes to learning, and adult learning. We don’t have good first principles, like, what are we really solving for? And in the absence of first principles, you can just do anything, and we’ve been trying to look at this from a brain perspective, and say, “What are the necessary conditions for learning, the minimum viable product? And how do you do that at scale, and test it, and all that?”
Lynda Gratton: 10:20 I think that your point about first principles, David, is absolutely right. And it’s so useful when we design something. I would add to that that another first principle could be that you have an opportunity to work through that habit, or that behavior, in multiple situations.

David Rock: 10:41 Right.
Lynda Gratton: 10:42 I think that’s another principle is that, the more that you generalize from this particular to broader sets of circumstances, the more likely you are to learn. So, but I totally agree with you, that having some agreements about first principles is enormously helpful. And the three that you’ve described sound absolutely great.

David Rock: 11:04 They’re a hypothesis for us at the moment, and we’re doing many, in a sense, experiments using them. But the data we’re getting back is incredible. When you just kinda solve for this, and you say, “Hey, how can we get people to have insights with others, one at a time, over time? What are some creative ways of doing that?” And when you just sort of ask that question, you come up with these massively scalable ways of working

Lynda Gratton: 11:27 You know, David, what I really like about what you’re talking about, and indeed what you do with the institute, is that you run experiments. And I speak as an academic, and academics, in general, set up hypotheses, and then run experiments and decide which of them is most likely. And I think in organizations, people don’t really do that very much. They run a pilot, but they don’t really want an experiment. And I think that if we really want to learn more about how adults learn, and how do you build a learning environment, you do need a null hypothesis as well, which says, “Here’s a group that we’re doing something else with. What then happens?” Because I think those are the really big insights, when you’re comparing different groups who are going through different situations.

David Rock: 12:19 Yeah, it’s really important. Control groups-
Lynda Gratton: 12:21 Yeah.

David Rock: 12:22 … And seeing differences happening is super important. It’s hard to get organizations onboard with doing it sometimes, but when we can do it it’s so important, and helpful, insightful, and often surprising.
Chris Weller: 12:32 So Linda, something you mentioned earlier. You asked two questions… Is it work that helps me learn, and does it help me stay healthy? So, you spoke a little bit about why those are important. Can you maybe help us understand what happens when those are missing, and what it means to get them back?
Lynda Gratton: 12:49 Well, in quite a lot of places it is missing, so we know what that is. So, that work that doesn’t help me stay healthy tends to be work where the design of jobs is very stressful, or the actual physical design of the job is stressful. People aren’t sitting comfortably, they don’t have access to decent air quality, and so on. But it could also be the psychological design of work. And that’s why if you take a look at wellbeing, and the data on stress, stress levels are very high right around the world right now. And so, it’s not that most places are healthy. I think quite a lot of places aren’t healthy. And that seems to me to be a real focus right now.Actually one of the variables that seems to impact healthy workplaces is the level of autonomy that people have. So, actually, some Uber drivers, for example, anybody working the gig economy, sometimes people say that’s bad work, but actually, in general, because people have more autonomy and more freedom, it means they can manage their stress a little bit easier.
So, it isn’t just as simple as saying, “Is it a manual job, or is it a cognitive job?” Actually, some manual jobs, if people have control over when and where they work, that’s a really good thing. And some cognitive jobs are very stressful, because people have very little autonomy.

David Rock: 14:26 Yeah, the autonomy issue comes up a lot. In fact, there’s a couple of really interesting studies on that. One was they let people have a couple of choices about their office. They’re all getting cubes, and they’re all getting roughly the same cube, but they’re allowed to choose … I can’t remember exactly, but maybe it was the color, or a particular shape, or what they had in there, and you saw a huge increase in productivity. I don’t remember the exact number, but it was definitely a large increase in productivity against the control group. Just giving people a few choices. And there’s another study some decades ago, actually a similar kind of study, but done in a retirement home, and they actually gave people on one floor, I think, again, it was three, I’m not 100% sure, but I think there were three options, like what kind of plant, what kind of art, something else. And what they found, actually, was the death rate halved in that group, which was incredible when you think about it. So, there’s a lot of studies like this showing that that people feeling like they have control is an enormous stress factor. In fact, it’s the difference between what feels like controllable stress, and uncontrollable stress, is the sense that you have, maybe that sounds obvious, but more out-of-control stress than stress that you feel is manageable, may be a better way to describe it. But-

Lynda Gratton: 15:36 And I think, David, just following on from that comment, suddenly the choices you make gives you autonomy. But I think the other major source of autonomy is autonomy over your time.
David Rock: 15:49 … Yeah.

Lynda Gratton: 15:50 So, do you have some flexibility of time? And, actually, in my own work with companies now, if they say, “What are the two or three things we should be focusing on,” one of them is certainly flexibility, so that people have a chance to build their relationships with their family and friends. They have a chance to do some training. They have a chance to be explorers, to be curious about the world. That for me, the autonomy of time, is really central.

Chris Weller: 16:22 So, you mentioned a little bit, Linda, that you are seeing … the positive answers to your questions are missing in a lot of companies. Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future of work? Maybe in certain regards, maybe it’s not so black and white.

Lynda Gratton: 16:36 Chris, I’m not really optimistic or pessimistic. I think I’m sort of realistic, really. We’ve been studying the future of work. We started the consortium 10 years ago. And what I would say in general is that it’s pretty straightforward to predict the next five years, but very difficult to predict beyond five years. So, we personally don’t do that, but I know there are some who do, but that’s not what we do. But I think you know what’s coming down is, with regard to technology, just much more sophisticated work-based technologies are going to be developing very, very quickly. And that means that some of those are going to augment the way that we work. Some of them are going to replace them. So, there’s a big upskilling and reskilling agenda. And I think, secondly, we’re working longer. The average age of populations is much older than it was. That population is aging. And so, we also have to really confront our stereotypes about what it is to be 40, and 50, and 60, and 70, and 80. But I think there are things that companies can do. I mean, David’s made some really good suggestions, which is the habits of talking about learning as part of everyday life. I think there’s also role-modeling. So, senior executives, if they’re seen to be taking time out to learn new things, or to talk to people about what they’ve learned, that’s really impressive.
And there are some wonderful technologies. So, for example, some of the companies we work with have got really good technology-based platforms which really push interesting learning to people, but also engage them in a learning community. Tata Consultancy Services, for example. 450,000 people are really connected to each other, learning from each other. And that’s really the joy of technology. AT&T are doing some wonderful work to really put time and effort into upskilling a work force that has to be totally upskilled, as indeed did Microsoft did a decade ago. So, there are businesses where the business model is totally transforming, and there has to be real focus on reskilling people, often to move into customer-orientated jobs. And that’s been the AT&T move. And, indeed, it was Microsoft moves. But take a look, for example, at Westpac in Australia, where cashiers are now doing different types of work, because quite a lot of the simple aspects of their job is now done by a machine. So, they’ve really got to migrate up to providing a much higher level of customer interaction, customer service. Again, they’ve built a really fabulous platform that helps people to do that, to interact with each other, to learn from each other. People post learnings, they post ideas. So, I mean what we’re seeing is, some companies become not just individual learners, but whole communities of learners.
And that’s been absolutely fascinating, because it really is about behaviors. And when you understand what those behaviors are because you hear people talking about them, that can be incredibly powerful.

Chris Weller: 19:50 Linda I love that and I think that’s a great place for us to wrap up. I wanted to thank you and david for joining me today.
Lynda Gratton: 19:56 Thanks, Chris. I really appreciate — And it’s lovely to hear your voice, David.
David Rock: 20:00 Yes, I know. Likewise. It’s great to finally connect.


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