August 16th, 2021
EPISODE 9: New Frontiers For Leadership: Navigating The Hybrid World
Many companies were ready for a hybrid work model to start up this summer and fall. There were still big questions, but we were headed that way. Then a few variants emerged, and we entered into a larger vaccination discussion, and now some of these dates have been pushed back, often into January 2022 for some big brands. But — this is good news for leaders! It gives you more time to navigate the landscape. In this podcast, three NLI experts talk about how to navigate the world of hybrid work, including how to account for your real estate position.
[00:00:04] SO: Remember how a few months ago, it seemed like people were heading back to offices in various combinations and models. From 100% on-site, 100% remote and then hybrid. A mix of in-office and remote or work from home seem to be the dominant model emerging. Then, new COVID variance emerged. There were heated discussions on vaccines, plans were pushed back, companies that have been aiming for September are now holding, maybe October or November. Now, discussing 2022. Well, it might be even later than that, but there’s good news here for leaders though. It gives you more time to figure out a plan.
In this episode, we have three NLI experts; David Rock, Joy VerPlanck, and John Edwards, discussing the big themes of hybrid work and return to work approaches. We talk about what managers need to do and the mindsets needed for these changes. We discussed how companies can evaluate their office leases and think about physical space in the future. We go through de-escalating potentially heated office environments. Think of this episode as a roadmap to your plan for return.
I’m Shadé Olasimbo and you’re listening to Your Brain at Work from the NeuroLeadership Institute. We continue to draw our episodes from a weekly webinar series that NLI has been hosting every Friday. You can find this and all of our episodes on our YouTube channel at youtube.com/neuroleadershipinstitute.
For this episode, our panel consists of NLI’s CEO and co-founder, Dr. David Rock, Dr. Joy VerPlanck, NLI’s senior insight strategist and a senior client strategist and keynote speaker at the NeuroLeadership Institute, John Edwards. Enjoy.
[00:02:01] DR: Thanks, John and Joy for the work that you’ve been doing in partnership with all of us on really helping people navigate this very rapid and very unexpected phenomena. This has probably been the biggest change in how to manage humans, maybe in recorded history in terms of the speed of it. Maybe a hundred years ago in the last pandemic, it was pretty intense. But given how organized and structured companies are, having to change all that so quickly and so globally, it’s been a fascinating journey. Thanks for being partners with us on that journey.
We put this session up to kind of revisit some of the things that we think are important that have now become even more important since we first talked about them, but also to hear what’s happening out there and for us to learn and for all of us to learn from each other about what’s happening as we navigate this hybrid workplace world or – as you work globally, it’s really interesting to see, it’s a different world in North America than it might be in Singapore, than it might be in Australia, than it might be in London, but there’s some common challenges everywhere. We’re going to focus a little bit on those.
What I wanted to do, first of all, there are three questions that we’re hearing a lot. Myself, John and Joy and many others are doing executive briefings with leadership teams a lot every week, quite a few times a week. We’re briefing leadership teams on what the science is saying about hybrid. We’re seeing some really common questions coming out, but also really keen to hear from you kind of what you’re stuck. Again, we’re going to dig into some of those questions. John has been working heavily on the hybrid work solution we’ve built. He’ll walk us through briefly kind of how we’re seeing that and he’s got some hot off the press data on what’s been really working as well. Then Joy is going to take us into, what our thinking is on de-escalation and why that’s suddenly a thing everywhere and actually the neuroscience of that.
It should be really interesting, but let’s dig in. Firstly, three questions that we’re hearing a lot and we’ll dig into these one at a time. The first one is, a conundrum. It’s a really interesting conundrum. You probably experienced this. People are going back to the office, more people are working at home than ever. Certainly, some companies are still full work from home, some are very much at the office. But the majority of companies are doing some form of hybrid, so some at the office and some at home. The big question that comes up is, what do we do with meetings now. It’s an interesting challenge, because essentially, there are no great options. there are only options that seem bad. When we have two bad options, we kind of spin our wheels psychologically.
People study this. In fact, it’s been a philosophical construct for hundreds of years. They call it Buridan’s ass. I can’t explain to you here why it’s called that. But in everyday term, it’s the lesser of two evils. Right now, what we’re looking at is, what do we do? Do we go back to the old world of people in a meeting room, and some people on speakerphone, or maybe some people on camera, but everyone in the meeting room? Or do we maybe put everyone individually on a platform. But both of these have upsides and downsides. We’ve been thinking about this a lot and we do have a perspective on it. The reason we have a perspective on this is that we’ve tried both and that we actually went hybrid at NLI quite a few years before the pandemic. It’s a really interesting phenomenon.
What we found is, with all the technology in the world in a conference room. there are some really deeply ingrained human habits that need constant attention if you’re going to change them. Like so much attention that you literally – it’s really hard to even focus on the meeting. Because when you’re in a room with, let’s say John, and Joy, and myself and three others, we’re in a room and maybe two people are online. It’s such an automatic thing to just turn to John and say, “Hey! What do you think about that?” Then watch Joy’s face and say, “What do you think?” We watch each other’s faces in the room much more than we’ll see on camera. It’s so tempting to interact in the room and it’s so disorienting to people out of the room to do that.
The cognitive load to like not talk to people in the room is very, very high. Secondly, you’ve got to keep remembering to actually speak slowly and clearly enough that people can hear you. In our conference rooms, it was literally six inches. We measured it. We got measuring tape out. We said. six inches is the distance from the microphone that actually is optimal. If you’re like eight to ten, it’s actually, people can’t hear you properly. That takes cognitive load, and then there was all this cognitive load of just trying to see people who are not in the room, hear them clearly. Then of course, there was people feeling left out on the other end of all of this.
When we added that up and we looked at the upsides and downsides, we realized, the greatest technology in the world won’t help the cognitive load problem and that it’s just easier to agree that if you have people not in the room that actually everyone should be on their own platform and not in a room together. I know that’s counterintuitive, but the downsides to the alternative are much worse meetings, people not included and your worst fears about hybrid perhaps coming true, which is people who are not in the office. Not just feeling left out, but actually being left out.
We think that there’s a principle. It’s not a rule. There’s a principle that’s really important, which is one virtual, all virtual. We just saw a piece at the New York Times talking about this trend, but in our briefings, we’ve heard dozens of CEOs actually come to this insight themselves. No one likes it. No one likes the thought of a lot more time on a Zoom or Teams calls. But if you’re going to have people in the office and people at home, that ends up being the least bad option and it’s the least bad option because the quality of the interaction is much higher. It doesn’t mean you necessarily feel as good about it and this is an interesting phenomenon. Many things in people process is that, don’t feel as good but are actually better.
Virtual meetings run well are probably better than in-person meetings. Faster, more inclusive, more dynamic. They don’t necessarily feel like that. It’s similar with learning, like learning where you really, really learn stuff. People don’t like it. Learning where they just have fun, they actually rate higher and think they’ll learn more. There’s a lot of things we get wrong. Diversity is another one. People actually feel like they’re being more effective when they don’t have diversity. They actually feel more productive, and effective and confident in their work if they don’t have diversity. But it turns out when they have diversity in their team, they’re actually more effective. They’re literally doing their work. There’s a whole lot of things that we get wrong and I think that virtual meetings is in the category, but it doesn’t feel as good, but it actually performs better.
Now, of course, there’s some qualifiers. You got to make sure you’re not just doing very perfunctory work that you leverage the strength of virtual, which is, it can be more intimate, more inclusive using the chat. But we have a piece coming out on that. It’s called One Virtual, All Virtual, that kind of walks through the pluses and the minuses. We think overall, most companies will get to this at some point if they don’t want to infuriate their people.
John, anything you want to add? I know you were introducing this to a lot of folks. What’s been people’s reaction when we’ve been kind of training them in this and the upsides and downsides?
[00:08:55] JE: The initial reaction is probably similar to the one that I had, which is, “Boy, I’m just not sure that’s going to work.” But then when you spend some time looking at the data, I was looking at some recent research that indicated specifically for underrepresented groups, they actually have a greater sense of belonging now that we’re in a hybrid environment. The cognitive biases that normally made them feel uncomfortable or somewhat mitigated because the hybrid environment has created a sense of neutrality, so they feel more comfortable being themselves, being included in a meeting when everyone is virtual. As you’ve so aptly indicated, we as leaders can easily create an environment where people really feel excluded when I turn and make a comment to the person sitting next to me and the folks who are virtual can’t hear that. It’s not that every meeting has to be a virtual meeting, but the data does really support the fact that we run a high risk of having those virtual folks feel excluded, especially if they’re in an underrepresented group. When we have some in the room and some that are virtual. It’s something for leaders to really start considering.
[00:09:56] DR: Yeah. That’s great. Thanks, John. What about everyone who’s in the conference room, but they’ve got their own laptop there? You actually still have the problem of a side conversations, of not speaking clearly enough, of people feeling left out. It’s really hard. The cognitive load to not have side conversations and not create this kind of us and them is really, really high. Then you have an additional problem of people forgetting to mute their microphone, and the echoes and all that. It just ends up being a lot of cognitive load. I mean, experiment with it, but collects data, like ask people to rate how pleasant the meeting was, but also how effective it was, how quick it was is an interesting one.
One of the things I love about virtual meetings is the way you can use chat, if you use it thoughtfully, you can speed up work and make it more inclusive. You can ask parallel comments from everyone. My favorite comment is, “If you’re here, I value your opinion. I actually want everyone who’s on this call to put something in the chat right now about what we just presented.” It ends up being very inclusive in ways you can’t do in person. You can have faster meetings, less bias and more inclusive with this.
But it brings up this interesting question, so what do we do in the office then? Why do you even go to the office? There are some companies that are really experimenting with this. We’re a couple of months into this hybrid world. Wat we’re seeing is that, when people have a back-to-back day of just meetings, given a lot of them are virtual, they’re maybe not going to the office. When they’re going into the office, they’re scheduling more relationship building time, more time one-on-one with people, more time to brainstorm and kind of think bigger thoughts. It’s more relationship building.
Now, you can do great relationship building on Zooms if you’re one-to-one. It’s actually a very intimate platform if you’re beaming into people’s homes. It’s very personal. It doesn’t mean if you’re not in there, you’re left out, but I think people are doing more kind of big picture things, more relationship building and kind of more fun things, more social things than otherwise. John, anything that you’re seeing there on that question from the sessions you’ve been doing?
[00:11:58] JE: Yeah. As we’ll talk about a little bit later, one of the modules in our FLEX program is how to have better, shorter, more effective meetings. The number of individuals who within one week of taking the training course have found this to be an effective way of reducing meetings. Recent numbers are really, really powerful. Ninety-five percent of the leaders that have gone through the training so far have within one week started to institute a way of doing more effective meetings, still building relationships, still getting work done, but it’s really been one of those revolutionary ideas for folks to wrap their minds around and they’ve been putting it into practice.
[00:12:35] DR: Yeah, great. We’ll dig into that as we go on. Just to wrap this up quickly. I mean, what we’re seeing as a trend and this is not so much research, but just trend is that, people are repurposing quite a bit of cubicle space for more open space, for more collaboration space, because you’re needing fewer cubicles because fewer people are coming in to work privately, quietly. You need more open space for collaboration. If you’re coming in, you probably want to see people. You’re not trying to necessarily focus on your own, so more coffee areas and informal meeting spaces. It’s definitely seeing a trend to more of that happening. We think the ideal thing is letting people choose if they want to be mostly at home or mostly in the office or mix it up. That maximizes for autonomy.
Now, of course, it brings some complexity. What you got to do is at a team level, have some guidelines and make some decisions at a team level. Give people some guidelines, make some decisions at a team level. That seems to be the best thing overall. Just keep in mind, about a third of people desperately want to be back in the office full-time. About a third of people want someone else to feed them every day, please. They want to commute. They want the downtime to catch up on podcast and just kind of have a gap between work and home. They’re really craving being back. I overhear this in restaurants. As I’m eating, like I hear people say, “Oh my God, I’m desperate to be back.”
About a third of people never want to set foot in the office again. Maybe they’ve moved away or they’ve just got a great set of disciplines at home now. It’s really helped their productivity and their balance and they’re like, “Why would I mess with that? Why would I be less productive and less balanced to go back to the office?” It’s really hard to nudge either of those people off that position. About a third of people are really clear that they want to mix it up. Ideally, what you want to do is rather than kind of force people into anything, which doesn’t tend to do well is ideally work out the structures behind the scene to let people choose from these and have managers trained to be able to think about that. That’s what we’re seeing overall.
Let’s dig in to kind of chapter two here. This has been as I mentioned one of the biggest changes in how managers manage, especially at this speed, maybe ever. There’s a bunch of skills that managers need and we’ve been rapidly innovating and evolving in this area. Although it’s been really fascinating to us that a lot of the things we were teaching five years ago, for example, how to have a really good conversation when things are difficult. A lot of things we’ve been teaching for a long time actually at front and center now. Except, now they’re not kind of nice to have. They are have to have. Like how to have a difficult conversation when someone has a strong baseline of threat level? That was always kind of important. Now, it’s essential.
John, talk us through the managers, like the skills that we need. Maybe I’ll just mention briefly. Growth mindset is such a foundation and we’ve been working on that for years, but it continues to be a really critical foundation for being able to be a hybrid manager. You’ve got to really change how you think. We’ve published a lot of pieces on this. John, take us through kind of the evolution of, the solution that we’ve developed. I know you’ve been involved in quite a few deliveries. What have you learned? What are some of the data that you have? Take us through the FLEX journey a bit.
[00:15:39] JE: Yeah, absolutely. Well, it’s broken down into three primary areas, where we’re helping leaders to develop a new mindset. Basically, the principle here is, the old mindset that we had yesterday in the old normal is going to be challenged in the new “normal,” which is continuously ever-changing environment. I’m telling you what you already know, just basically what we need, a new mindset in this shifted variable economy in order to be successful. How do we do that, especially at a time when things are so heated around talent?
We go through a conversation around how fundamental and foundational growth mindset is. Then when we ask leaders a week later, how is that working for you, but we have remarkable numbers. So far, 89% of folks are saying, “I am actively participating in developing an agile, more optimistic learning orientation.” You can imagine how powerful that is for a leader in this volatile environment.” They’re putting that into play. We talk about solving for autonomy and managing for fairness as well as this becomes significantly important. There’s quite a bit of science around that. We talk about goal settings. What do meetings need to look like today? We hinted at this earlier, but this is where we get into that conversation about shorter, fewer, better meetings. Folks are coming back and telling us, “Hey! We think we can reduce the amount of meetings we’re having by about 30% and do so effectively. It’s not just about reducing the meetings, it’s actually making the meeting time more valuable, more engaging, actually better between you and the relationship with your employees.
Then we wrap up by talking about how do we maximize time, which is when we get into the conversation about fewer, shorter meetings. Then of course, it’s so easy for us to exercise accidentally. exercise bias in a situation like this, where we don’t see everyone as we normally do. There does need to be a conversation there around mitigating bias and people practices. Then we jump to the end, where we talk about what does optimal inclusion look like. How do we make sure that we are including all of the voices in the way that we’re running and organizing our meetings in day-to-day business activity?
It ends up being a much more comprehensive, effective way of doing hybrid work that allows leaders to have the skills necessary to have the new mindset in a new environment to maintain and drive employee engagement.
[00:17:53] DR: John, what’s some of the data that you’re able to pull from the work we’ve done so far? I know you mentioned that earlier.
[00:17:58] JE: Yeah, absolutely. When we think about, is this really being effective? Almost 100% of our managers are talking about utilizing the communications, competencies that we talk about. so it’s not just running fewer, shorter, better meetings. They’re actually improving the way they’re doing goal-setting conversations, check-in conversations and are much more efficient and effective. They’re getting very practical tools that can be implemented immediately and they’re doing that almost 100%. I’m thinking, boy. that’s just a big number and it exceeded my expectations. When we think about managing for autonomy and also solving for autonomy and managing for fairness, we’ve got almost 60% of leaders being able to apply that immediately within the first week. Doing it multiple times per week and the science around how that drives employee engagement and performance is just remarkable.
We’ve got a lot of really powerful numbers showing us that these particular pieces are really emerging. I would have told you that I thought autonomy was probably the biggest, but we looked at the numbers and it’s really about the communications. I guess that’s no surprise, because in a hybrid environment. how we’re communicating, how frequently we’re communicating, the quality of our communications and goal-setting conversations is now more important than it’s ever been before. I think that’s probably why leaders have latched on to that one and are performing so highly in that particular area.
[00:19:22] DR: Yeah, interesting. There’s a temptation because it’s virtual to schedule back-to-back, there’s a 30-minute gap, it just gets filled up by someone. I think we’ve got to be a lot more disciplined to allow people’s brains to unwind and focus on other things other than meetings. There are couple of things that we teach in the FLEX program. One is like minimal meeting mornings, where you have very few meetings if any in the morning so people can actually do their creative time. Also, minimal meeting Mondays. So after a rest, your brain is at its best for doing deeper thinking and creative thinking. If you leave Mondays and mornings open, for example, you’re going to find the fantastic bump in output for people, especially creative output, like original thinking, whether it’s writing, or coding, or strategizing. People are able to really focus.
If we’re going to have a lot of meetings, leave the mornings open to do your focus work, because that’s when you’ll do your best focus work. Our research has shown that over the years. There are couple of tweaks. Yes, we could be in a lot of meetings if they’re all virtual. Twenty-five and 50-minute meetings has to be a pretty strong principle, almost a rule. But it’s really, really important that you get into that habit. It will take a while. There are a few interesting things like that that need to become habits to work this, but there are some bad habits everyone got into, where everything becomes a meeting, and everything becomes an hour meeting. There are some new habits to build and we go we go into this. Joy, do you want to comment on any of that?
[00:20:44] JV: Sure. I think that people are correct. We have needed fewer, shorter meetings for a long time and this is not different just because we’re hybrid now. We provide some very tactical skills for that. You can say, “We need a shorter meeting” but unless you prepare for it correctly, and provide clear objectives, and give advance notice for instance and tell people what to expect, then meetings can tend to go off the rails. Preparation is really significant in helping to accomplish something that’s needed to happen for a long time.
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[00:21:43] DR: You’ve got to be more intentional about meetings and I think that that’s a really big piece here. It’s interesting, so I want to riff a little bit on the comment about trust has decreased. It’s an thing. Platforms have this double-edged sword. On the one hand if you’re not careful, you could end up just doing kind of surface level things and never going deep with teams on virtual meetings, especially if you have a bunch of people not on camera and you’re scheduled back-to-back and no time to think and prepare for them. You could have a lot of virtual meetings where you’re just skating on the surface of things.
But actually, with a little bit of thinking and preparation, virtual meetings can be more challenging, more deep and more even insight rich if you do them right. They don’t have to be just a surface level. They can actually be deeper, particularly with using the chat and giving people some quiet minutes to reflect and put things in the chat. It’s almost like, we got to keep talking the whole time, but giving people some quiet time in the meeting to make some notes and think about something and then put in the chat, really lifts the quality of interaction as one example.
The other thing about the virtual world is, you’re beaming into someone’s home directly into each other’s faces. It’s actually very intimate if there’s not a lot of people. The challenge is when there’s a lot of people, like five is already a lot. Four is quite a lot. Two people you actually can be very personal, and build trust and build relationships really well one-on-one. You’re actually very close to someone in a lot of ways, conceptually. We’re going to make sure that there’s this good one-on-one time and that not everything is a team meeting. If you work with a team of six people, you’re going to need some one-on-one time with your people. If not every week, then every two weeks to maintain that relationship and build that trust. Make sure that doesn’t go out the window. There’s a lot of stuff in here.
What we’ve done is, you can see the word FLEX on screen as we’ve launched a three-module solution that can be run virtually. We’ve been doing virtual delivery well before the pandemic. It was more than three quarters of our work before the pandemic, so we’re pretty good at the architecture in this format. But essentially, one week for three weeks and it makes it a month of learning. If you’re interested in that, we’ll poll you at the end, but you can also just put the word FLEX in the chat now if you’re interested in learning more about our FLEX solution. Just put the word FLEX in the chat. Someone will follow up with you. Then also fill in the poll later on. But we’ve got a really nice solution now and we can kind of walk you through the details of it. It’s now scaling to thousands of people in organizations.
One of the ideas in FLEX that’s kind of underpinning in the second module around conversations is an interesting philosophy that a number of people struggle with. Going back to the trust question that I said I’d riff on, there’s this thing that needs to happen. Is that you need to shift from a surveillance mindset to an outcomes mindset. It’s something that’s been written about for a while. Surveillance mindset is often accidental. People don’t even know they have it. A surveillance mindset is kind of, you’re used to as a manager, you’re used to seeing your people. If they’re at work, you feel good that they’re working and you can see what they’re working, you might bump into them every day or every few days, see what they’re working on. You get to feel a sense of certainty and a sense of control by two of the five big things from the SCARF profile.
Feeling positive about your people, you feel like you know what’s going on. But you may have unconsciously developed a surveillance mindset, which is, if you see people working, then you they’re doing things. As a result of that, you don’t need to necessarily lift up and think about what should they be working on, you just feel good that they’re working, they’re busy. But you’re not forced to kind of think about what should they be doing. When you go to virtual or you’re not seeing each other constantly, now you’re not seeing them all the time. The first thing that happens is you feel less certain and less in control.
A lot of managers in that situation literally feel uncomfortable, and the reaction to that is interesting. They’ll either clamp down more or sort of say, “I need a daily update” or “I need to check in with you every day. Hear what you’ve done” which makes team members actually feel not great. It’s more like micromanaging. Certainly, if it’s a brand-new person, they need a lot of guidance, great. But when you get to this moment of, “Oh! I feel uncomfortable as a manager not seeing people.” You’re either going to allow double down now and try to really monitor everything or you’re going to say, “Well, I guess we better work out what you’re supposed to be doing.” Maybe even, “We should work out what great looks like, because if I’m not going to be there on the court with you every day, and I’m only kind of watching the game like at the end of the week, you’re going to need to self-manage more. I’m going to need to be more of a coach that’s watching the game at the end of the week on television than I am a coach who’s in the game with you or on the sidelines.”
In that transition, you’ve got to take this mindset shift from, I’m going to see everything that’s happening, so I’m going to help you identify what great looks like. This principle underpins how to have great conversations about goal setting, how to check in, how to debrief. It’s kind of different to just a growth mindset. A growth mindset is also really important, so you’re actually growing people. But it is trusting people and it is a theory Y versus theory X construct. You’re trusting people, but at the same time, you’re being really clear what great looks like. Hauling them up if they’re not hitting great, you’ve got to identify that gap and close it.
It’s a really interesting and powerful construct from surveillance mindset to outcome mindset. We’re talking about that now in FLEX as well and it’s an important distinction or kind of a philosophy to unpack. We’ve got some writing, we’ve got some new writing coming out on this as well. Joy or John, anything you want to say before we’re going to jump into chapter three.
Let’s get into chapter three. Joy, I’ll let you take this. This has been your expertise and we’re so happy that you joined us in the last six months or so to help us understand this space and also your great insight design work across all our work has been really a great contribution. I know you are working in de-escalation in police forces and other for quite some time before joining us, but tell us what we’ve been seeing around de-escalation.
[00:27:39] JV: Thank you. Yes, it’s been quite a transition watching the data change over the last six months as well. Not just my focus on how de-escalation can affect workplaces but how different types of people need this skill. One of the things that’s been emerging lately is related to hybrid actually. We’re realizing that we’re all first responders now. We have an article that’s publishing today, I believe, that can help people understand why, why we say that we’re all first responders. A lot of that has to do within a hybrid setting. The people who may be trained expertly in conflict resolution may be the ones who have the affordance of hybrid work and may not be available when you need them to be their managers and human resources professionals. Also depending on the size of your organization or the location, or if people are dispersed remotely, they may not have access to people to call.
But also, we do tend to talk a little bit about the downstream effect of workplace aggression and when people come back to the office, how those feelings of stress can impact places in really unexpected ways because this is where we’re noticing workplace conflict increasing. Deteriorated social skills, that’s happening because our brains, our brains are used to different patterns now, so we don’t have the same social familiarity that we once did. The people we’re interacting with is different and the ways we’re interacting. Also, there’s some big divisions that are emerging and those are changing, those are very dynamic depending on what’s happening in the news, depending on what’s happening in the world.
Organizations, no matter what they’re doing, especially as they shift to different hybrid work models are having to learn new systems, and those can cause people to have some different cognitive load issues. There’s just reduced staffing of who’s available to call for help.
[00:29:35] DR: Yeah. There’s a lot going on. I know we’ve published a lot of pieces on this. As Joy was saying, it’s almost like everyone is a first responder now if you’re in the workplace, not just because your trained people might not be there, but just because the level of tension is so high. To Joy’s question, what do you think is driving conflict in your organization? And then Joy, you can talk about kind of how we’re thinking about this conceptually.
[00:29:58] JV: We’ll talk a little bit about the science behind it. The reason we say our default reaction is to accidentally escalate it, is because that’s the way our brains are built, is to constantly scan for threat. We’re actually looking for trouble to protect ourselves from it. Those kinds of things can put us in a position where our brains are somewhat primed for an escalated activity. When we see it, we’re like, “Oh! This is what we’re looking for. It’s time to go at it.” It does take an effort. You have to actively assess your own brain processes and identify when you’re looking for trouble, and then calm yourself down. That’s really something that has to happen quite fast so that you can assess and look for where those other triggers are happening in people.
[00:30:43] DR: It’s an interesting comment, the vax versus no vax feels like, a little bit of a train wreck in slow motion that we’re watching. There’s a lot of conflict around that. It’s probably going to get bigger, which is not to make anyone overly anxious. But I think that’s going to get bigger, and bigger, and bigger. But there are some subtle things also, the tension, the fairness tension between those allowed to work at home versus not. That’s in there, the inconsistent leadership behavior. I mean. I think the deteriorating social skills is such an issue. People are just much less able to interact socially in the right ways, plus the high baseline of threat and kind of what’s causing conflict.
Joy, take us through a little bit of the neuroscience, the underpinning neuroscience, like these two pieces. I think they’re important.
[00:31:26] JV: Sure. Once you’ve identified the conflict within your own brain and you’re able to reduce your own internal threat, that helps your dove cognitive ability to identify what’s triggering other people. Having those clear markers of what’s happening makes it really easy. You have to practice that though, because it is unnatural to us, because of that default setting. We talk about the SCARF model and a lot of our audience is very familiar with this, but this becomes something really sticky and easy to identify once you learn it. Once you can do that, you can quickly target that and focus your attention on it, and reduce the threat in the other person, but you can’t think through that if you’re also threatened. It really comes back to that first step of calming yourself down, and then taking a look at the markers.
[00:32:17] DR: Yeah. Some interesting question [inaudible 00:32:20], is this a form of introception training? In essence, yes, I remember when we taught this to the police. We were training police in de-escalation, which is slightly different to what we’re doing with workplace now. But they literally did not have language or constructs at all for different levels of threat. For them, it was just go in and make sure no one is physically hurt, but they didn’t notice that people already at very high arousal don’t listen well, don’t hear well and they just sort of treat everyone homogeneously. But when we taught them about three levels of threat, level one two and three and the different ways of interacting with people at different levels, it was really helpful. They were like, “Oh! If someone’s already really high, I should probably turn it down, versus escalate more. But also, if I’m feeling really incredibly threatened, if I’m feeling really high up, I’ve also got to manage that internally. So some internal management and external management.
I think it’s really important to remember that our default reaction to seeing conflict even if people are arguing over vaccine, our default reaction is to actually make it worse accidentally. We’ve got to learn how to turn it down, really takes effort. It takes significant effort and people have to kind of practice some scenarios in a safe situation, to actually build those muscles.
[00:33:40] JV: I think Dan, that’s a good point and that’s why we included it in our solution, is perspective taking is very important. It creates neural connections with the person that you’re communicating with. That helps both the listener and the other person that you’re talking to. But also, that has a cognitive load burden to it. That’s also another thing to consider, is that when you’re having to remove what you think is happening in order to pay attention to what’s actually happening for someone else, that takes practice as well. We really have to train for that.
[00:34:14] DR: Yes. I’ve been saying since March last year, that we’ve all actually been suffering acute distress disorder, which is psychological trauma. Pretty much, not everyone, some people have had a positive experience if they’re not watching the media and if bunker down other things. But most people have had equivalent of a physical trauma, like a car accident, physical trauma, but psychologically. The level of change in our lives, the level of uncertainty, the lack of control, the lack of connectiveness with others has been really an overwhelmingly traumatic situation for people.
There’s going to be scars from this – in two generations, we’re going to see the effects of this, just like we see the effects of the great depression like 100 years ago or so. We see the effects of that in people’s habits now in retired folks’ habits now in different ways. We’re going to see the effects. It’s a very, very strong experience and our hypothesis is, people have a baseline of trauma. How do we de-escalate folks when they have that baseline of trauma? What are the things that we actually need to do? Let’s assume they’ve got a really high baseline and how do we interact when we see conflict happening as a result. It’s called acute distress order, I call it psychological trauma and most people had it.
The other thing to think about is that we’re going through these three stages. We’ve also been talking about this for a while, but we went through shock. which was kind of running on adrenaline, not yet feeling pain, like March, April last year. Then we went to the second stage, which was which was feeling pain, which was never ending and that was kind of March, April through til – sort of April, May through to recently. Start of the summer, we all got excited and thought we’re coming out of the pain and we started to picture ourselves rehabilitating. Shock, pain, rehabilitation are sort of the stages.
Now, for a bunch of reasons, it feels like we might be going back to the pain. We might have hurt ourselves a little more and we could be going back at stage, which is making everyone really uncertain and uncomfortable. Hopefully we’ll come back to the stage of rehabilitation, because we really have moved out of that major pain stage. But we’re kind of going through these different stages and knowing where people are at psychologically, I think is a really important piece of this as well.
Any other questions you want to address there Joy before we go to broader questions?
[00:36:20] JV: I’ll address an earlier on about virtual. Somebody envisions people attending virtually from their office and some people attending virtual from home. Some of us may have an experience bias where we think of the workplace as a small building and you just walk down the hall to go to a meeting room. But if you think of a larger organization, you’re actually saving a lot of time going to a meeting room if it’s on another floor or in another building across campus. We’re talking about productivity issues with going back to the one virtual, all virtual as well.
[00:36:51] DR: Yeah. There’s an interesting question, do we think hybrid is permanent? There are certainly types of work where being together is beneficial or kind of necessary. I was talking with a major hedge fund yesterday and they’ve got enormous sums of money. They said, “For security purposes, we actually need people in a room together with a supervisor.” That’s understandable. You can totally get that. If you’re in a training room and you’ve got people where seconds count and they’re trying to collaborate, you’ve got lots of brains collaborating, really fractions of a second count, you’re going to want people together in a room. When you got hospitals, you obviously got retail.
There are many different kinds of environments where it will make sense for folks to be in person together, and maybe some folks behind the scenes. But then there are huge parts of the economy where it’s not necessary for people to be in the office. Again, I think it’s really hard to make one hard and fast rule, and I think, what would be sustainable over time. I think what we’ll see what was going to be sustainable over time is allowing as much as possible, allowing people to make that choice. “Oh! I want to be in the office full-time. Oh! I want to be at home. Oh! I want to mix it up.” Like the more we can give people the support to do that, the better.
Now, we were just talking with the CEO of Zoom and Palo Alto Networks. I interviewed them a couple of weeks ago as part of the FlexWork.Life consortium that’s really interesting. Both Zoom, and Palo Alto Networks, and Splunk, and Uber, and Box, and Pinterest, number of technology firms have actually made the commitment to that level of flexibility. They’ve said, “You know what, most people in our companies can be anywhere, so we’re going to let them decide.”
The CEO of Palo Alto Network said, “You know what, if people want to come to the office, we’ll support that. We’ll put in areas where they can connect. We’ll change the configuration, so it’s more social. If people want to stay at home and work and that’s where they’re most productive, great, let’s let them do that.” There are a bunch of CEOs that are kind of getting this perspective. It’s quite technology heavy, but many, many industries can do this across insurance and obviously professional services of many sorts. All sorts of places. The work can be done just as effectively, maybe even better. Long answer to a short question.
I think we’ll see hybrid here for a long time. I think we’re going to see a much greater proportion of people working from home across the economy than we ever have. I think that should be a healthy thing for everyone. John, what’s your perspective?
[00:39:08] JE: David, I’ll just build on that and agree with you there. Laleo asked a question about, “Hey! What are we seeing relative to why folks are leaving their jobs?” We know it has a lot to do with a number of different things, but just look at some recent work that Gallup has done and Yahoo Finance and Harris Poll have released. Basically looking at large numbers of people who are either currently looking for a new role or already actively transitioning out of the role. As you look at the list of reasons across a multitude of polls, you usually find in the top five in the case of the Yahoo, Harris Poll, it was I think number three. It’s all about a better work-life balance and it’s usually among the top three to five reasons why. This concept of, will a hybrid environment stay? I’d agree with David there. I think employees have had a taste of this, their personal situations have changed. There’s a variety of reasons, but given the job market right now, organizations are having to take a serious look at how they’re going to successfully do this kind of work.
[00:40:08] DR: They’re calling it the great resignation. There’s the largest number of people changing jobs in pretty much recorded history. There are two reasons for that. One is the tight labor market, so people know that they actually will get a job, right? But the biggest factor we think is, it’s one of the few ways to gain the biggest bump in your sense of autonomy or control of your life. Autonomy is something that really declines, right? We felt like we had no control in life, which is a very painful experience, literally activating pain networks. Whereas, activating a sense of control activates reward networks. It feels great. A lot of people are saying, “Look, I can have the most control over my life now if I actually get a job. By the way, there’s lots of jobs now.
Then as a third factor is, people have a lot of time to think about their values, what they really wanted to do. A lot of people had the opportunity to really reflect and life’s big questions kind of hit us a lot harder when we’re at home isolated, et cetera. For a lot of reasons, there is a big trend in people moving around. Again, lots of people do want a lot of flexibility. If you’re forcing people back into the office, you will lose a bunch of those people, but you still have a third of people really want to be in the office.
I’ll just say this one closing thing and then we’ll wrap up. At NLI, we went hybrid years before the pandemic. We actually did it for some quirky reasons. The first reason we did it was to do better work. What we found was, in our work, which is thinking work. Is that meeting with exactly the right people for a short amount of time regularly was far better than meeting with a few people for a long time. We do some consulting. We’d meet with three or four stakeholders for two or three days in a room that was just nowhere near as good as meeting five or six people from a client and doing it every week for an hour over a month. We get a lot better quality thinking happening by iterating, by including people across the country or across the world and by doing things in small bites and coming back.
I guess it’s the difference between coaching and training, like coaching is over time, time to reflect, time to apply in a similar way. What we found is that, we transitioned 100 of our consulting well before the pandemic to virtual, because the work was drastically better. Now, what happened as a result of that is we were able to hire differently and we found ourselves massively expanding where we hired from. Now, when we’re looking for a manager, for a customer experience, we weren’t saying they have to be outside within an hour of New York. It was like, they could be anywhere in North America. We’re actually hiring the best possible person, not the best possible person within an hour of an office. You ended up hiring completely differently, completely differently.
There are actual productivity benefits to the quality of work, hiring benefits. Also, you should see diversity benefits because you’re not hiring within expensive postcodes necessarily. Again, you’re hiring more Harris broadly. You also see sustainability benefits because lots of people can manage their lives better, well-being benefits, as well as creativity benefits. You actually see benefits to people being able to innovate, because they can have quiet time more at home.
We went hybrid years before because we just found it a much better business model. We’re losing our New York office at the moment. I don’t want to. I want to keep one, but just like two or three people were going in there. It’s a space for 150. We will put another one in, we’re going to open another one up when we kind of get a sense of the numbers who actually want to be there. We just found we didn’t need a physical space to do the quality of work that we needed. We’ve written a lot about this, definitely creativity should go up in a hybrid world, productivity should go up. You do have to manage for making sure people are still building trust, which can be done. You do have to manage for onboarding people thoughtfully, which can be done and you do have to manage for bias. To be honest, the one virtual all virtual rule can address a number of those things in some good ways.
Let’s wrap up. Joy, John, any closing comments before we wrap up on hybrid and the opportunity ahead.
[00:44:05] JE: I think the great takeaway is, a lot of leaders don’t know what they don’t know and they don’t understand what’s going on with their cognitive load until they start thinking about it. That’s when this becomes even that much more effective.
[00:44:16] DR: Let us know if you need help convincing your leaders that forcing everyone back to the office is the worst idea ever. I mean, it might make sense if you want to shake up a big chunk of your employees and there’s positives, you’ve got plenty of people who want those jobs. There could be some benefits. It’s not necessarily the worst idea ever, but in many instances, there are going to be better options. If you need any help convincing you leaders of the whole science, we’re doing a lot of executive briefings on what the science really says. It’s a hard thing to think about and your gut says, “Bring everyone back in.” That’s an experience bias. It’s probably not the best idea. We’ve written a lot about this, but feel free to reach out to us for an executive briefing to your top team on kind of how to think about the decision and all the science. Thanks very much.
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[00:45:01] SO: Your Brain at Work is produced by the NeuroLeadership Institute. You can help us in making organizations more human by rating, reviewing and subscribing wherever you get your podcasts. Our producers are Matt Holodak, Danielle Kirshenblat, Ted Bower and me, Shadé Olasimbo. Original music is by Grant Zubritsky, and logo design is by Katch Wehr. We’ll see you here next time.