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April 21st, 2022

Your Brain At Work LIVE – S7:E04 – Hybrid Work Update: Navigating the Pitfalls of “Back to the Office”

Over the past few years, we’ve learned that downtime is a necessity for avoiding burnout. But there are several factors that make prioritizing our downtime difficult. Key areas that don’t get enough focus are deeply held unconscious biases about gender, race, and identity that affect us all.

In this episode, we look at how these biases and expectations impact our ability to get the rest we need. We discuss how organizations can create more inclusive cultures and practices that take these unique challenges into consideration.

Episode Transcript





[00:00:03] SW: Welcome back to season seven, episode four of Your Brain at Work podcast. As COVID-19 cases drop in the US, many leaders are itching to get people back into the office, but should they? In this episode, we’ll share the latest data and insights on the remote, hybrid and in-office situations. If your organization is on the path to going hybrid or back to the office full-time, join us for an engaging interview with Dr. David Rock as we follow the science on how to do it well. 


Could there be downstream impacts on employee recruitment and retention? How might a return to the office impact equity and inclusion? How am I going back affect women in the workplace or parents that have acclimated to working from home? We’ll touch on these topics, answer your burning questions and more. 


I’m Shelby Wilburn, and you’re listening to Your Brain at Work from the NeuroLeadership Institute. We continue to draw episodes from our weekly Friday webinar series. This week, our show is a conversation between Dr. David Rock, CEO and Co-Founder of the NeuroLeadership Institute, and Alyssa Akbowitz, Vice President of Content at the NeuroLeadership Institute. Enjoy. 




[00:01:07] SW: Hello, welcome back to another week of Your Brain at Work Live. I’m your host, Shelby Wilburn. As spring approaches, there’s energy around returning back to the office. And today we’re going to connect back to a popular focus from last season discussing hybrid work and how to navigate that process. 


Now, before we get started, we’re sending a big hello, as always, to our friends on our streaming platforms. For our regulars, welcome back. But for those of you that are new to Your Brain at Work Live, welcome to the party. For some context, it is the title of one of the bestselling books by our CEO and Co-Founder, Dr. David Rock, and it’s also the name of our blog and podcast. 


As always, we suggest putting your phones away, closing out your emails, quitting your messaging apps, really give yourself the time to have the most out of today’s discussion. So as we get ready to kick off, grab some water, grab some coffee, stretch, do whatever you need, as we settle in for the hour to talk more about hybrid work practices. 


Now, before we get started, we’re going to introduce today’s guest. So our first guest is a graduate of Emory University, where she studied anthropology and journalism and has a master’s from Columbia University. Prior to NLI, she was an editor for more than a decade at the Wall Street Journal and a Head of Content for Korn Ferry. Her work has also appeared in The New York Times, Bloomberg Businessweek and Fortune Magazine. She now leads the content team at NLI. Please join me in welcoming the Head of Content, Alyssa Abkowitz. Alyssa, it’s great to have you here today.


[00:02:35] AA: Thanks so much, Shelby. It’s wonderful to be back.


[00:02:37] SW: And our leader for today’s discussion, an Aussie turned New Yorker who coined the term NeuroLeadership when he Co-Founded NLI over two decades ago. With a professional doctorate, four for successful books under his name, and a multitude of bylines ranging from Harvard Business Review, to the New York Times, and many more, a warm welcome as I pass the virtual mic to Co-Founder and CEO of the NeuroLeadership Institute, Dr. David Rock. Off to you, David.


[00:03:01] DR: Thanks, Shelby. Thank you so much for the warm welcome. Great to be here with you all. And such an important topic. Such a big topic, especially as people are kind of almost over rotating back to kind of let’s get everyone back to the office, because it could all be great. It could all be over. It’s such an important thing to make the right decisions now. But, Alyssa, great to be here with you.


[00:03:21] AA: Yeah. So I want to start with something that both of you and Shelby touched on, is everyone is really excited about potentially going back. So what do we need to take into account in terms of people’s mindsets right now as we start to think through this process? 


[00:03:34] DR: Yeah, people are in quite different places. So you’ve got some people who it’s like they’re dancing in the streets, right? They feel like, “Oh, my God! I can finally get out of my bedroom.” And they’re so excited to have someone else feed them, and see their friends again, and be able to go out after work. I mean, they’re really excited of this like, “Let’s get back to the office.” And, “Please, can everyone else come back so I don’t have to do any more Zooms and all that.” And then you got the other end of the spectrum, and people are saying, “I mean, if I’m required to go back more than a little bit, I’m changing jobs. Like it’s the worst thing in the world for me to be back in the office. Not only am I not productive. I’m much more stressed. I sleep less. I don’t see my kids. It’s a terrible thing to me.” And it’s such a polarity around this. 


Now, on top of that, or underneath that, is the kind of trauma that we’re still working through. And I wrote about this in HBR a couple of weeks ago, that we have to sort of cut ourselves some slack because we’re all still in rehab, and not drug rehab, but rehab for breaking a leg or something. We’re all still kind of just like coming out of deep, deep trauma and pain. And a lot of people are quite psychologically scarred by the last few years. And in both cases, people are exuberant are on top of this kind of deep scarring, so they’re really sensitive. And people who are really anxious, it’s on top of some deep scarring. So they’re also – So everyone’s in this place. 


And I think we went from shock, to pain, to rehab. I mean, it feels like we’re in the latter half of rehab. But then these world events started and everyone’s having huge psychological responses to these saying, “Oh my God! There’s something else terrible that’s happened.” So people are sort of feeling like they could go all the way back to a deep pain. 


So it’s a really difficult time. And I think, as you make any decision, you want to realize you’ve got people out of polarity who are all kind of – At either end of the polarity. They have kind of frayed nerves. So you got to just be a lot thoughtful along. I say a little thoughtful. A lot of thoughtful, and a lot caring, not a little caring, as you got to make these decisions.


[00:05:41] AA: As you’re mentioning that polarity, David, it reminds me of this 1/3 problem with hybrid work that you talked about in the past and still have been talking about. I’m curious if you can tell our listeners a little bit about this 1/3 problem with hybrid work, and how that relates to this polarity that we’re seeing today.


[00:05:56] DR: Yeah. Yeah, it’s such a fascinating thing. And I was really blown away by how neatly people kind of divide it into these three camps. And it’s a combination of factors. It’s if you’re extroverted or introverted. It’s your situation at home. It’s your colleagues at work. Do you like them or not? There’re all sorts of factors, right? But basically, the 1/3 problem is about a third of people just love being in the office. And what’s interesting is that they say they love it because they’re most productive there. Not just that they’re seeing their friends or this, but they actually say, “Look, I’m most –”


I was talking with a colleague recently, some people were ringing as consultants, and this guy said, just as an aside, like, “I can’t work at home. There’re just way too many distractions. I need to get to the office. I try and work at home, I get nothing done. I need to get to the office. I need to structure.” There are plenty people like to. And it turns out to be about a third of people that just really a much more productive and happier. 


Another third of people and much more productive and much happier working at home. And about a third of people are much happier if they can mix it up, if they can be around people for a while, and then maybe get their own work done right? And then be around people and they get – Like they know that that’s by far the most productive place with them. That’s that 1/3. 


And what’s interesting about all of them is it’s not just that they’re happy. It’s that each of them is significantly more productive in that space. And I think to ignore that is king of crazy. And just to say, “Yeah, you’re all coming back to the office,” is a terrible idea. Because, literally, two-thirds of people are going to be not only less productive, but also more annoyed. 


The other thing I’ll say about this is that there’s a really fascinating confound in the research, which is that there’s separately a big productivity bump from just being able to choose which one of those you have independent of the productivity of the when you choose. So people feeling like they have the choice to be fully at home, fully at the office, or mix it up. Those people are getting something like a day a week more productivity separate to like which choice they make. So if you put all that together and you say, “Oh my gosh! We’ve completely misunderstood the workplace.” And, actually, the pandemic has given us a huge opportunity to get massive increases in wellness, sustainability, productivity from people, but we’re going to have to really rethink a lot of practices. So the 1/3 problem kind of is this anchor of kind of a philosophy of build everything around the fact that people are motivated by very different things, and are especially motivated by having options.


[00:08:26] AA: So speaking about motivation, as we look at a critical part of the workplace, which is learning in the workplace, can you tell us a little bit about what you found and talked about with people in terms of like what’s really good to do in-person? Like what do we really need to come back to the office for versus what can we leave to this Zoom virtual world that, like it or not, we’re really, really used to now?


[00:08:51] DR: Yeah. So this is something that we’ve been thinking about a lot for the last year. And we’ve also done a lot of experiments in this space. And if you’ve been following us for a while, you’ve heard me say this a lot. But in NLI, we went hybrid several years before the pandemic, not because we thought a pandemic was coming. But because we found that the work was better. We could hire much better. We could hire more diversity. And people were more sustainable, more engaged. And plenty people were still in the office. We had offices. Plenty of people were working at home. Plenty people were mixing it up. It’s about a third. And we just found it really, really helpful to give people this option across the board. 


So for about two years before the pandemic, we’ve been experimenting with, “Oh, how should we bring people together? Why would we bring people together? What’s that about?” And it turns out that bringing people together feels great. It makes people happy. We love to see each other. It’s a wonderful feeling. But that shouldn’t necessarily be confused with or conflated with people are going to be more productive or stay with the company. 


So it does feel good. And it can generate some helpful insights. And there’s certain kinds of work that are clearly easier when you’re all together. But the vast majority already of work and kind of learning activities end up actually being far more productive in either a hybrid or even a fully work from home environment.


[00:10:09] AA: So what’s an example of something that is better in-person versus in a hybrid environment?


[00:10:14] DR: Yeah. Better in-person. I mean, a deep conversation with a small group of people. So like you’re trying to like design the five-year strategy for your company, and you’ve got six people, and you want to do some really deep thinking, insight thinking, reflective thinking. Like doing that where you will spend like two days together somewhere and have all these sorts of random conversations, and have meals, and take walks together. Don’t just sit in a room. But like a deep conversation where you do that. 


Also, when you’re trying to like really negotiate something really complicated. If you’re selling $100 million submarine, you might want to be on site with people.


[00:10:54] AA: And look people in the eye.


[00:10:56] DR: Right. And show them the submarine, right? And maybe even take them for a dive. So there are certain things that are just better experienced in three dimensions, products, selling of very complex products, complex negotiations, right? Deep relationship, building deep trust building. Some of those things. 


So depending on the team, if you’re forming a new team, you might say, “Look, it’d be amazing to get everyone together for two days to get to know each other. We’ll work together.” And then do that every quarter, for example. Get the real work done in a hybrid structure or fully offline, out of the office. 


So I think there’s a few things that are done better in the office. But there’s only a few. And the vast majority of the other things, like general creativity, productivity, working on stuff, all this other stuff, the majority of things. And I’d say it’s probably 90% to 95% of work is going to be more productive and effective if people are either hybrid or work from home.


[00:11:49] AA: David, are you surprised by this momentum in companies bringing people back to the office despite the research and the prediction that the hybrid world really is the new reality?


[00:11:58] DR: Yeah, I’m not that surprised that it’s happening, because it’s a little bit of a whiplash. I mean, one of the experiences of this pandemic has been a feeling of – It’s sort of be two things. One is that dropping our ability to predict anything. Like I recently planned a vacation like two weeks ahead. It was amazing. It’s like the world events started to change. It’s like, “Oh, maybe I need to think about just the week again,” right? 


So we all had this big plummet in our ability to predict things, certainty. And we also have this even bigger drop in our ability to feel in control of our lives, which is autonomy. With certainty and autonomy, and all the big things that drive behavior, we can’t help ourselves, but try to balance out the pain. It’s a reflex response. If you have uncertainty, you’re going to try to regain control. If you have lack of control, you’re going to try to gain control or do something. Because lack of control literally feels like pain. It feels something is wrong. Something is wrong. You have to fix it. And unconsciously, you’ll just be doing all these things to try to fix it. 


And like two things that people could do easiest during the pandemic was changed jobs and change houses. And both of those things give you a really big sense of control without a lot of downside, and with possible upside, right? So if you think about the huge movement in real estate and the huge movement in jobs, a lot of that is just people trying to gain a sense of control in their lives again. 


And so for senior leaders also feeling out of control, this really helps them like regain a sense of control. Like, suddenly, they can see their people again, right? Suddenly, they can walk around and see what’s going on. For a senior executive, or leader, or even just a team manager, a team leader, one of the challenges of work from home or even hybrid is feeling less control, generally. 


So you sort of put that on top of the broad feeling of, “Oh, maybe the pandemic is over.” And like, “Oh, my gosh, I just want to feel better.” And it’s this one thing you can do that sort of unilaterally will make you feel better. And you won’t notice the impact necessarily, because it’s not as kind of tangible. So I think that’s kind of the mechanism of what’s going on. 


And then I think, like, additionally, it’s a certainty thing. Like they’re also trying to create a sense of certainty for everyone. Like, “Oh, we’re going to have structure. We’re going to have meetings.” Hybrid takes some intentionality. It takes some cognitive effort. It’s more uncertain. Whereas just bring everyone back in is much more certain. So this is reflex reaction that increases a sense of certainty and autonomy for leaders despite the data. And I think a lot of people will vote with their feet. A good percentage of the 1/3 really, really don’t want to be in the office. And a percentage of the people who want to mix it up, a good percentage of those will vote with their feet. And I think companies will be challenged by that.


[00:14:37] AA: I’m curious what your thoughts are from a diversity and inclusion perspective mandating return to in person office work. I mean, will there be an impact on advances in DEI or a problem if people are like, “Yes, you must go back to the office.” And what made me think about this, David, was I know that we’ve talked about in the past, there was a shockingly low statistic that 3% of black professionals want to return to the workplace. So I’m curious what your thoughts are from a DE&I perspective of what going back to the office may mean?


[00:15:05] DR: Yeah, we probably should unpack this really thoughtfully, because I’ll share some first thoughts. But we may want to really unpack this and dig deep and kind of come up with a conclusion, because it’s sort of noise on both sides of the argument. What I can say is that when people have the option of full work from home, or mix it up, or come to the office, you hire more women, and you hire more diversely if you’re intentional about it. And the reason you hire more diversely is that you don’t have to hire from within an hour of your office. And most offices are in quite expensive real estate areas. And you’re now hiring from across the socio-economic spectrum much more. 


And so when you’re hiring for the best possible person for a role, not the best possible person within an area of your office, you basically get up with a more diverse slate, diverse in every sense. So from a hiring perspective, you’re going to have more women, more diverse employees. In terms of retention, there are good benefits to DEI from people being able to choose from those things. But again, be careful of assuming everyone who might be in that category who wants to work from home. There’ll be plenty people who want to be in the office, although the research said 3% of black professionals, which is scary and jarring. 


So I think there’s definitely some positives to hybrid. On the flip side, what you’ve got to do is make sure they’re good practices so that people who are out of the office, which might be more women, right? So if you say you could choose where you want to be, you’ll probably end up with more women than men working from home, because women generally – Sorry to generalize. But generally, on average, is slightly more than men, the caretaker of children. And in that structure, you’re going to have more women than men at home. 


And if a company is not intentional about minimizing bias, particularly distance bias, you could have all kinds of diverse populations passed up for promotions. So one of the ways to address this, we’ve been talking about this for a year, is the one virtual, all virtual rule. That if people are out of the office, they shouldn’t be penalized for not being there. Everyone should be in a platform if there’s what we call a mixed meeting. If there’s a meeting of some people in the office, some people at home, there should be a virtual meeting so that everyone can see everyone. Everyone can contribute equally. 


And we actually helped plenty of companies before the pandemic put that rule in, because it was just better for bias, and inclusion, and retention. So it’s actually a great practice to have. When anyone’s out of the office, have everyone on a platform, on an individual laptop. Not in a room together. It’s actually a really good practice with great benefits. So I think there are ways to do it, but you got to be intentional. 


As I said, there are kind of positives and negatives. You might hire better. But if you’re not intentional about making sure people who were out of the office have good profile, you could end up with those people not being promoted. So we need to think about effect size and impact size. So sort of respond to that more thoughtfully. Yeah.


[00:17:50] AA: No. I’m curious. So that’s obviously a really, really tangled, nuanced question. I’m curious what other things are tangled in terms of like what are the biggest mistakes that companies may be making as they’re looking to come back that are unintentional, or that they need to sort of see around the corners for? What else do you see sort of cropping up along those lines?


[00:18:10] DR: Yeah. Yeah. No. Thanks for asking this. Actually, kind of there’s a lot of things on my mind. So this session itself came up a few weeks ago when I just saw the number of companies that were saying, “Hey, we love all this virtual learning. But we want to go back to doing workshops.” Not a groundswell of them, but enough that I was concerned. And one of the mistakes that people make is that learning is better when people are in a room. 


And the trouble is people report feeling happier being in a room than learning online. They report they would prefer it. They even believe that they learned better. And so if you say to people, “Would you rather spend four one-hour virtual sessions a week for a month? Or would you rather spend eight hours in a classroom?” Just that everyone chooses the eight hours in the classroom? Especially if you say, “Which one will you learn better from? Which one is better for you and learning?” Pretty much everyone says the classroom. But they’re categorically wrong. And we bet our entire organization on that fact. And it’s a bet that’s proven the right bet in six years so far. 


So the reason it feels better, it’s called the masking effect, is that we think that when we learn in a block, that it’s better for us, because we can sort of get our head around the schema. We can sort of remember the day. It’s a whole phenomenon called the masking effect. It literally feels like you’ll remember it more if you learn it in a block. But the reality is, in the brain, information is not stored like a computer. We grow memories. 


And coming back to re-water a memory, like reactivating it like a plant that’s watered. Like coming back to reanimate a network is a really important part of growing that memory. And we don’t store them. We grow memories. And they require attention. And it turns out, they’re coming back to things and having to remember everything that that effort pays huge dividends for long-term memory. That’s called the Spacing Effect. We’ve talked about it for a long time. So the Spacing Effect has this really big dividend, but it’s basically the opposite of what people think it is. So people think from the massive effect that it’d be better to learn in a block. 


So there’s no question people say they’re really happy learning with their peers in the classroom. It’s also a lovely thing. You get to like be social, have a nice meal together, and be in a classroom, change things up. So there are all sorts of reasons to bring people together. But if you’re really, really passionate about bringing people together, bring them together to kick off an experience, and then do the real learning online. 


And the reason I say that is that we’ve literally compared the exact same content in a workshop, like that’s in a workshop, the exact same content in three one-hour sessions, and online. And the three one-hour sessions kills the workshop. Absolutely kills. 


In fact, I’ll give you – I don’t know the exact percentages, but we measure the number of people now activating a habit like about two to four weeks later after the event. Workshops, you’re about 50% to 55% of people. So about half the group. Just a bit about half the group actually formed a habit. Three one-hour sessions, it’s almost 90% of people have formed the habit that you were trying to teach them in the workshop. So it’s a big difference. 


So if you’re a thousand employees, only 500 of them are going to have the habit you want them to have to put them in a workshop. And like 850 to 900 of them are going to have it if you it virtually. And the crazy thing is the workshops are radically more expensive, radically harder to schedule, right? 


And the other thing that’s really interesting is, and this is a hypothesis we’ve had for a while that we’re getting more data on, but when you’re doing anything really important, like trying to make your company more inclusive, or create a culture of speaking up, or anything that you’re trying to like do a culture change around, the biggest variable of whether it’s successful or not turns out to be everyone thinking everyone else is doing it. 


I’ll say that again. It’s such an important thing. If you’re trying to like create real culture change, the biggest factor as to why these 10,000 employees will change is because they think that everyone else of the 10,000 boys is changing. And it’s a really big outlier in terms of whether people change. And the trouble with workshops is the friction, and work, and cost is such that you never get 100% of your company involved. You never actually get like 90%. You never get 80. Like with turnover with the work, it takes you forever to get people through. You never end up with like more than 70%, 75% of an entire company. And it costs you millions and millions of dollars and takes you a year or two. 


Whereas, we’ve been really excited about the Boeing case study. I know we had them on in the last few weeks. So Boeing wanted to create a culture of speaking up. We worked with them. We rolled out a completely digital virtual experience to 140,000 employees. This was rolled out literally in 30 days. 140,000 people went through a digital virtual experience. And you might think virtual digital stuff, you don’t get much upside. We got 96% of the company engaged in the program. 96% of 140,000 people. And the average touch point was 20 times. So the average touch point – Obviously, some people was more, some people was less. The average touch point was 20 times they engaged with the content over this month. 


So how do you impact 140,000 people with workshops? The answer is you don’t. It never happens. You end up taking two years to get the top 1000 leaders through programs that cost you millions and millions more than it cost Boeing, and you never get the critical mass. So this is the biggest mistake. If you try to do culture change, we have this wonderful window of opportunity where learning and habit activation, especially habit activation, has to be done over time, has to be done in small bites, and works just beautifully in a virtual environment. And so let’s not lose that. 


So, great. Do workshops to develop your strategy. Do workshops to brainstorm some creative things. Do workshops to build relationships. But don’t go back to doing workshops for like teaching people to be better managers, or for creative inclusive cultures or for DE&I work, or for any of that. And by the way, that Boeing data, that was a completely non-compulsory, non-mandatory program. That was like people choosing to participate. 


And we’ve seen similar results. The last time, we measured a really big one. We got 94% of 5000 leaders into an experience that was actually a bigger experience, three one-hour sessions over three weeks. We got 93% or 94% across a couple of years back. So make things compelling, not mandatory. So I think culture change and all of learning, particularly soft skills learning, we have an opportunity to do it better, do it faster, do it cheaper, and have a bigger impact through this time. And we really don’t want to throw that out. So you can tell I’ve got some passion around that.


[00:24:54] AA: I can. I can. No. It’s great. 


[00:24:54] DR: It’s really important. 


[00:24:55] AA: David, there’s a lot coming up about the idea of resentment and fairness in terms of who can actually perform their duties at home versus people who may have to be on site. And wanting to create this role and this together type idea, when that isn’t really the reality. So can you tell us how should leaders and employees be looking at this fairness aspect and resentment in this very challenging time?


[00:25:19] DR: No. It’s a really important question. And so we launched this program called FLEX a few months ago, with the critical habits people need to manage in a hybrid world. And we spent a long time thinking about what are those really critical habits. And one of the first ones is you got to have a growth mindset. You’re going to have to let go of trying to look good and just like try to get better, experiment and try things, right? So to be a hybrid leader, you’ve literally got to free up your fixed way of thinking and activate a growth mindset. It’s a critical foundation. 


But a close second is kind of two things. The mantra we have is solve for autonomy, manage for fairness. Solve for autonomy, manage for fairness. Now, the reason we say solve for autonomy is it comes back to the 1/3 problem, right? If you tell people what they’ve got to do, mess with a third or two- thirds of people. And there’s such a performance bump in productivity bum and engagement bump in people having autonomy over things. Now, the management fairness is important, because if you let people do whatever they want, you’re going to have issues of fairness between people. 


But one of the ways to think about this, it’s a little bit of a nuance, but it’s an important nuance, is autonomy doesn’t mean people could do whatever they want. Autonomy doesn’t mean that everyone can work from home necessarily. Autonomy is a feeling of control. And the variable that makes a really big difference in feeling motivated is not that you’ve got a ton of autonomy or do whatever. It’s that you got a little more autonomy than you expected. So you’ve got a little more control than you thought you were going to have. And even that little bump, even if it seems insignificant, ends up being really powerful. 


So let me now answer the question. So that’s sort of a big backdrop, right? Now, kind of answer questions. Because we talk to a lot of companies about this. They’re like, “Look, we’ve got 12,000 employees, but 10,000 of them are in our factories, and 2000 of them can work from anywhere. Like, what do we do?” And the answer is find creative ways to give people the perception, although it should be real, but the perception of more autonomy than they had before. 


And I’ll give you some examples. And you got to think a little creatively. But like, think about it with flexible work. Like if people are required to work five days a week, maybe now you can say, “Folks, you can choose to work like six days a week for three weeks and then take five days off if that’s what works for you,” right? That’s a model that we’re comfortable with. Or we’re happy with you working – Coming in Monday to Thursday and doing 8am to 7pm and taking Friday’s off and still being paid the same amount, or whatever it is like. Or if you need to leave earlier, we’re flexible with your lunch hour. And I can’t tell you exactly what to do. But you’ve got to get creative and think about what are some choices that you’re willing to let people have that give them a greater sense of control over things. 


Now, we did some research on this control over where you work is really motivating. Control over when you work is even more motivating. So where you work is motivating. But when you work is even more motivating. But even more motivating was who you work with and what you work on.


[00:28:26] AA: Interesting. So in some ways, this whole on site versus in a cubicle or in an office somewhere is least important. And what matters most is when people work and who they work with.


[00:28:38] DR: Yeah, yeah. So if you sort of build on that, you could say, “Hey, folks who have to be in the office or in the factory, we’re going to let you have more control than you ever had over which teams you’re part of, which projects you’re in, who you work with, this kind of thing.” And we’re not giving that to the people who are working at home, because we want to give you something. So it means you have to come in.” So solve for autonomy, manage for fairness. 


And it is important that you create principles, not rules. So you want to create principles and sort of like zones of acceptability. Like it’s probably not acceptable to have someone work seven days a week, because it’s probably illegal for a month straight and then take two weeks off, right? So you got to work out sort of the zone of acceptability and then let teams really choose what works. So have principles, have zones or guidelines. Like, principles, guidelines, and then let teams choose. That’s going to be the right way to do it. So solve for autonomy, manage for fairness. That’s kind of one of the really big things in the whole flex solution. That’s really important. 


They might give you the option. Might give you the autonomy. Do you want to talk to someone? Or do you want to see some digital resources? And we can get you someone to talk to you pretty quickly or give you some stuff to look through on your own.


[00:29:46] AA: Thanks. One other thing that I want to dig into, David. So the data is pretty clear that you can be extremely productive working from home. What also we’ve seen emerge is that so is burnout. I mean without the boundaries of a commute, and work, and life, it’s becomes really complicated. I mean, you’re working where you sleep, and where you eat, and where your kids run around. So how can we make hybrid more sustainable in this way so that, yes, you can maybe work in your pajamas. But it also doesn’t mean that you’re working 24/7?


[00:30:14] DR: It’s really important. And our human habits often really trail developments to technology, or practices out in the world often trail. And there’s a lot of human habits that we need to build to make this sustainable. 


I mean, I’ve been talking about this for a while. I’ll give you a summary of some of the things that we think are really important. Again, these needs to be principles. They can be organization-wide principles. They can’t be rules, because you need some flexibility. But firstly, the 15, 25 and 50-minute meeting is critical. That’s like a hygiene factor. That should be a rule. Sometimes it needs to vary. But you know, you don’t automatically make everything a 30 or 60. It’s 15, 25, or 50-minute meeting. Minimum meeting morning. Minimum meeting Mondays. So you’re leaving the time that people are most productive open for people to do their own work. That makes a huge difference. I know that can be harder in some global firms. But leaving space so that you can’t fill everything with meetings. 


And a team level, you should decide how many hours a week of meetings are realistic for us. Is it 10? Is it 20? Is it 30? It can’t be 40? How many hours a week should we have? And then the question becomes how do we make those meetings like as effective as possible? And we do a lot of work – In fact, we teach this in the FLEX program. We teach what we call parallel processing, which radically speeds up meetings by using the chat. It’s a really clever way. And using shared documents. We sort of take the Amazon approach of let people read something first and take it a lot further and kind of get people into shared documents and moving much faster through difficult decisions and stuff. So there’s some ways that you can make meetings faster. So I think that’s part of it. 


We opened the summit with a really kind of intentionally controversial session about sort of the way forward for organizations. And I want to challenge us on a word that we use, which was sustainable. We opened the summit recently with a conversation about kind of the four ways that we can interact with any kind of system. Companies are a system. A farm is a system. A building is a system. A whole city is a system. So there are four ways you can interact with that system. There’s exploitative, which is you’re sort of just taking everything out, leaving it much worse. 


Most organizations are depletive in their practices, which is one-up from exploitive. So kind of legislation stopping you just been fully exploitative of resources, and people, and capital, but you’re still depletive, which is basically you’re getting slightly worse every year. Sustainable is where you cross the line so things are neutralized. So sustainable means you can keep doing what you’re doing. But I think it’s really important to shoot past that and think about regenerative. 


And so regenerative means that every year, things get better. So let me take this with a farm, right? If you had an exploitative mindset with a farm, you would just be using a ton of pesticides, and chemicals, and all sorts of fertilizers and stuff without any care about the year after even. You just want to get the maximum out of this quarter or this year. If you’re depletive, you still got a very short-term perspective. But every year, the land is getting worse. You’re noticing fewer and fewer nutrients, right? 


If you develop sustainable practices, then you’ve leveled off the nutrient level in the soil. Maybe you’re growing fewer crops. Maybe over the longer term, you’re doing better. But regenerative means that every year that soil is actually getting richer. The land is getting healthier. And even the employees¸ and your finances, everything else is making steady – Even small but steady forward progress. 


So regenerative is such an interesting construct. I think we’ll have a session just on this concept on a Friday in the next month or two with one of the world’s experts in this. But I think as we look at a hybrid, we should set our sights above like sustainable and set our sights on regenerative. 


One of the things coming up is the four-day workweek. 


[00:33:54] DR: Yeah. Yeah, let’s talk about that. 


[00:33:56] AA: Yeah, yeah. I mean, the four-day workweek is potentially a really regenerative practice. And if you talk to the companies to put it in place, they’ll tell you it’s really, really helping them. And interestingly, people are not just more healthy and engaged, but actually, over time, they’re literally more productive working less.


[00:34:14] AA: I want to ask you about that though. Because, okay, in theory, the four-day workweek seems great and regenerative. But in practice, it could be depletive if you’re working four 10-hour days to make up that time, versus four, eight-hour days, or some other – Getting back to your point about autonomy and flexibility, some other way to put it together. And there was a stat from summit that has been sticking with me, David. It was Andrew Barnes, founder of the four-day workweek, who said, “Really, everyone is only truly productive for about three hours a day.” So how do you sort of look at all this? Because I agree with you, on the surface, four-day workweek sounds super regenerative. But in practice, it could actually be depleted. So how should people be thinking about it if they’re looking to possibly implement it?


[00:34:56] DR: Yeah. look, I have to disclose that I’m at the early stages of getting my own head around it as a CEO. We just presented at the summit some of the best aggregated data on the four-day workweek. And honestly, I have to watch that session still. I was watching another one. And I have to get my head around the data. Because as a CEO, I feel my own tension like, “Oh, my gosh, are we going to just like send our clients crazy? Are we going to send everyone crazy? Is it going to end up costing us more?” I don’t know yet. I haven’t formed my own opinion. I think I have a safety bias if I had to guess, and definitely an experienced bias around I can’t picture yet what the alternative is. 


But I do know, if we do it, if we do it, we’d have to do it very thoughtfully and not do it in a way where people feel guilty and anxious. So I got to dig in and dig into the real science. I looked at three or four case studies in the last couple of years. It’s really interesting case studies. But I want to look into the real data and what’s driving the effect. 


If I had to guess, it might be a big autonomy factor. People have a lot more control over their life having four days. And if giving people control of the cubicle makes them a day a week more productive, then giving people control for a day a week might make them a cubicle more productive. I don’t’ know. So I just had to understand the mechanisms a bit more. And then I think we need to sort of do it really intentionally. And we’d love to do an experiment and live with it. But you’re right, you got to be careful of just like people feeling guilty, people doing a huge amount of work over four days to take that, and then exhausted that fifth day. There’s a bunch of factors. 


Personally, I do a lot of things. People ask me what I do. I think I talk. I write. When I write, I really can’t write very many hours of the week anything half decent. Like I know that I write at the quality that I need to write when I first wake up in the morning, or I come back from some intense exercise, or had a long break. And it lasts for, honestly, an hour, two hours. Like if my job was a writer – 


[00:36:50] AA: Max. Yeah. 


[00:36:51] DR: Yeah, maximum. If I was a writer, I’d be like, “I can write good quality work three hours a day. Maybe four hours a day. I could do two hours in the morning, go up and do other things, and come back and do two hours in the afternoon. I could probably do four hours a week of really high-quality writing, if I was being honest. Because for me, that process is really – It requires real deep thinking, focus, and a super clear mind. It took me five years to write Your Brain at Work, because I needed to find 1000 of those hours. And I rewrote it – Like threw it out and rewrote it four times. It was driving me crazy. 


So I agree. I mean, it depends on the work. If you’re doing like deep coding work, people aren’t being super productive for more than probably three, four hours a day. So yeah, I mean, it’s a deep insight. People aren’t being all that productive, like really doing good work for that much time, which is another reason why letting people choose where they work is such a great idea, because you’ll get the best from them. Yeah.


[00:37:49] AA: David, I want to hear a little bit more. I mean, you mentioned, personally, how you do writing and productivity. I’m curious, what are you planning to do with NLI? How are you thinking of us in the hybrid world? I mean, obviously, we were hybrid before hybrid was even a thing. But sort of where’s your brain at in terms of where we may be headed?


[00:38:09] DR: Yeah, that’s a good question. I mean, I do want to do some experiments with the four-day workweek. You’ve got that recorded now. So I want to really dig into the data and look at how we do it. I’m super excited about a level four insight about studying this with a whole bunch of companies who are doing it. We’d love to get some working groups. So I’m excited to do that. 


I think we over rotated a little bit on virtual work. And I want to put some rituals in where we do bring people back together. But I’m talking about like once a quarter for a day, and maybe once a year gathering. And so not requiring people to be back in the office all together. But I want to just think about the frequency over the year of kind of bringing certain teams back together. 


Our senior leadership team just got together recently for something. And I was like, “Oh, my God, we definitely should be doing this probably every second month. We should have like a whole day.” So I think we over-rotated a little bit just because we’re so used to the virtual working that we forgot about some of those things that are better in-person, like building trust, and deeper thinking and stuff like that. But those things aren’t that often. So I get to do that every week. 


I think we’re going to push the envelope on recruiting even more. So we want to recruit people who only want to work three days a week. And that’s what they’re going to work. And they want to work for us, but permanent part-time, in a sense. And we’re going to recruit people who only want to work four days a week and people who want to do five days. So I think we’re going to push your own envelope on different kinds of teams. And depends on the role. We can’t do that for every roll. And also, locations. We’re trying to open up a lot more locations, and recruiting from different parts of the world. 


We also have a big North American operation. But a really big European operation covering all of EEMEA, and a big APAC operation covering all of Asia Pacific. We have some pretty big teams there. So kind of expanding the hiring right across those regions. I’d love to hire a bunch of people from – This isn’t tacky. But from the Ukraine. Like hire from there to help people as the settle down, and hopefully will be helpful. I love that Airbnb thing that happens where people were just sending money to folks who had Airbnb’s. So I don’t know. I mean, it’s an aside. But I think we always want to challenge ourselves. And I look forward to continuing to challenge ourselves to find the best ways to kind of work as a team ourselves.


[00:40:20] AA: Yeah, those are great aspirations. And I’m excited to be here for that. Oh, gosh! I got to tell you, when I came to NLI, having meetings end five minutes before the half hour or hour has changed my life in terms of being able to get up and drink some water, take a quick walk outside. Let’s say, four-day workweek. These are great. This is wonderful. 


David, any final thoughts before we turn it back over to Shelby? This has been fabulous conversation.


[00:40:47] DR: Yeah. Yeah, just a couple of things. A couple of things I want to mention. But I’m having an insight. And one of things I love about these Fridays is I often have insights from these conversations, and all sorts of things come out of them. But I’m just having an insight. One of the things that I think is going to be really important so that these practices become very embedded and very real is continuing to look at the business impact of these things. So it’s not just let’s do a four-day workweek. It’s let’s do a four-day work week pilot for three months with 100 people and collect really solid data about the effects of this on all business, all different aspects of business. It’s going to be really, really important that we’re thoughtful. I know people will be happy. But let’s also make sure we’ve got hard data about the impacts on their creativity, on their output, on their collaboration, on their career growth, all these kinds of things. So I think that’s going to be really important. And if we see positives in this, then we can really escalate this kind of practice and tweak and improve it. Absolutely. So that’s a big thing. 


The other thing, just more of an announcement than anything else. Just, we love these sessions. And the other thing, just an announcement. We’ve been mentioning this for the last few weeks. I was super psyched about it. I’ve been trying to launch a masterclass for practitioners for three years. And we finally got going. And we’ve launched a masterclass for diversity, equity and inclusion practitioners to help people essentially understand our research and understand how to apply it. And it’s across like diversity, equity and inclusion. And it’s across how you make things a priority, how build habits and install systems. 


So we launched the DEI masterclass. There’s a pilot intake coming up in June. And then we’ll have a big rollout after that. But we’re looking for people to join the pilot program. If you’re interested in that, we’ll come back to, or DEI master class, the master class. The program is literally giving you an opportunity to dive much deeper into the real science and apply this work in organizations. So there’s a couple of announcements that we’re pretty excited about. 


And the DEI masterclass is starting. Pretty shortly after that, we’re going to launch a performance masterclass for people who are involved in performance management and the related things. It will be performance management and coaching. So people kind of manage coaching programs or performance management frameworks. And then we’ll also do one on learning and leadership development. But those have not launched yet. Don’t ask for that just yet. But those are coming. So we’re going to have at least three different masterclass series for people to learn with peers and be able to really dive into the research. So we’re excited about that. So I think that’s it for me. Just thanks for the opportunity to share all this with you, Alyssa, for all the great questions. And hope to see many of you back over the next few weeks.


[00:43:21] AA: Yeah. Thanks so much, David. Shelby, back over to you.


[00:43:23] SW: Great. Thank you, guys, so much. This was such an amazing conversation. I think, as we said before, there’s a lot of energy around it. So definitely stay in contact with us. We’d love to hear from you as always. We’d love to hear your feedback even more. So if you would be willing to also share in a survey, that would be amazing. We’ll drop that link as well. Reiterating what David said specifically for insider exchange, if you’re interested in that and you’re with an organization, we would love to have you reach out to see if you can join us for roundtable discussions and just learning more about what we’re doing on the inside of NLI, and having conversations around that. 


We’re also hiring. So if you are looking to join a team, visit neuroleadership.com/careers and check out the open positions that we have. And if you enjoyed today’s conversation, make sure that you check that out, Your Brain at Work Live, wherever you enjoy listening to your podcast. 


So this is where we officially say farewell. Happy Friday to all of you. Thanks again for joining us. And we’ll be back next week when we talk about workplace woes and wins, and do a Women’s History Month wrap up. So have a great weekend. And we will talk to you soon. 




[00:44:33] SW: Your Brain at Work is produced by the NeuroLeadership Institute. You can help us make organizations more human by rating, reviewing and subscribing wherever you listen to your podcast. Our producers are Matt Holidack, Mary Kelly, and me, Shelby Wilburn. Original music is by Grant Zubritsky. And logo design is by Catch Wear. Thanks for joining us. And we’ll see you next week.



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