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October 11th, 2021

Your Brain At Work LIVE – S6:E03 – The Science of Keeping Teams Connected During Chaos

Employers have continued to fluctuate between work policies, throughout the pandemic. Repeatedly shifting strategic courses and still lacking clarity on how to effectively approach change for their teams. Many organizations, like some of you listening, have not physically seen each other in up to 22 months. Considering this isolation paired with the heightened frequency of current events taking place, it can feel chaotic.


This places a large amount of onus on leaders to take responsibility for the well-being of their teams. How do they keep teams connected when they are physically distanced? What’s the science behind connection? Why do we crave it so much? How valuable are stories in the new manager-employee contract? 


That’s the focus of Season 6, Episode 3 of Your Brain At Work: How can we keep teams and people connected in times of chaos?

Episode Transcript





[00:00:03] SW: Welcome back to season six, episode three of Your Brain at Work podcast. Employers have continued to fluctuate between work policies throughout the pandemic, repeatedly shifting strategic courses and still lacking clarity on how to effectively approach change for their teams. Many organizations, like some of you listening, have not physically seen each other in up to 22 months. Considering this isolation paired with the heightened frequency of current events taking place, it can feel chaotic. This places a large amount of onus on leaders to take responsibility for the well-being of their teams. How do they keep teams connected when they are physically distanced? What’s the science behind connection? Why do we crave it so much? How valuable are stories in the new manager-employee contract? Last week we discussed the shift from surveilling employees to outcome focus management. Think of this episode as a deeper layer into the interpersonal expectations set for leaders during this time. How can managers drive and foster connection? What opportunities are possible to strengthen the interconnectedness of teams? We will discuss that in this episode. 


I’m Shelby Wilburn, 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. This week our panel consists of Dr. David Rock, CEO and co-founder of the NeuroLeadership Institute; Camille Inge, researcher and consultant at the NeuroLeadership Institute; and Jeff Salters, facilitator at the NeuroLeadership Institute. Enjoy.




[00:01:34] SW: Good morning, good afternoon and good evening wherever you’re joining us from, and welcome to Your Brain at Work Live. I’m your host, Shelby Wilburn. Thanks for kicking off a new month with us. And joining today’s session, Manage the Movement: The Science of Keeping Teams Connected During Chaos. Welcome to the party. For some context, it’s the title of one of the best-selling books by our CEO and co-founder, Dr. David Rock, and it’s also the name of our blog and podcast. 


Our first guest has been a key contributor for seven years to NLI’s perpetual reimagining of how we work. She holds a bachelor’s in linguistics with a focus in sociolinguistics and psychology from Barnard College. She has played a pivotal role in co-designing some of NLI’s distributed learning solutions and contributed to 13 journal papers. Camille, so great to have you here today. 


[00:02:25] CI: Thanks, Shelby. Good to be here.


[00:02:26] SW: Great. Our next guest has over 25 years of experience in leadership development. He received his MBA in organizational behavior and development from the George Washington University and a degree in business administration from Howard University. He has been involved in delivering NLI’s insights into fortune 500 for four years and delivers NLI’s flagship brain-based coaching certificate. Please welcome Senior NLI Facilitator, Jeff Salters. Jeff, so great to have you here today.


[00:02:58] JS: Thank you very much, Shelby. I’m delighted to be here.


[00:02:59] SW: Wonderful. And our leader for today’s discussion, an Aussie turned New Yorker who coined the term NeuroLeadership, and he co-founded NLI over two decades ago. With a professional doctorate, and four successful books under his name, and a multitude of bylines ranging from the Harvard Business Review, The Wall Street Journal, and 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. 


[00:03:26] DR: Thank you very much. Thanks, Shelby. Thanks for your welcome. So great to be here with everyone again. So at NLI, if you follow us, we experiment a lot. Actually, one of our mantras is follow the science, experiment, follow the data. And we experiment with formats, all sorts of things. And recently as we’ve been kind of doing a lot of thinking about this hybrid world especially, we’ve been experimenting with building new models and building new tools, and also kind of a slightly different format for a few sessions. And what I’m going to do today is I’ll probably share quite a bit of the research. And then two of our really fabulous practitioners who work with organizations and the research are going to kind of fill in the blanks and also look at your comments and questions. It’s quite interesting doing both. So Jeff and Camille will really contribute kind of as we go through each chapter. 


So let’s dig in. I mean, just crazy times. I think for those of you new to us, it’s been a 23-year journey. And we make organizations more human through science. And it’s been quite an 18 months when suddenly companies realize they have to care about humans. Whether they do or don’t, they’re going to have to. And kind of a lot of people started to care about science partially because they had to. So it’s been an incredible 18 months for us, although we’ve been here for 23 years working with over half the fortune 100. But the last year and a half has been quite remarkable. It’s been an incredible opportunity to be researching like on the fly best practices and link that to the science and all that. It’s been quite an incredible time. 


I wanted to start off the conversation with a bit of a chapter for maybe 10 minutes or so of just kind of a compilation of our thoughts on kind of where we are now and just kind of anchor us in the moment a little bit. And kind of from there we’re going to look at what does it really mean to be connected from a brain perspective. How does that work? and then we’ll spend a good chunk of time on how do we actually stay connected. 


But just starting off with kind of where we are now, we’ve been talking about this since last March. We’ll be moving through these three stages, the shock stage, high adrenaline, kind of go-go-go. That was like March-April, into May last year. The pain stage kicked in. We all thought we were coming out of that sort of this summer and then we went back into it a bit. Now it feels like maybe we really are slowly going into the rehabilitation stage, although that’s going to take quite some time, maybe years to kind of embed and integrate the new ways of working. So it’s been quite a journey. 


Right from the start we’ve said that the right approach mentally to this is not to get over optimistic and feel like it’s going to end soon. Right from March last year we said this will probably take years, and it’s best not to imagine it finishing soon. But to imagine it’s going to take a long time and be painful for a long time, but eventually work out, and then get to work to do things a little better. And that’s a concept called the Stockdale Paradox popularized by Jim Collins in Good to Great. It’s much important now actually, maybe even more important now than it was 18 months ago with people kind of freaking out, impatient. Like when’s this going to end? What’s going on? All the uncertainty. You’ve got to kind of get this quiet sense of it’s going to work out eventually, but it’s still going to be a while and still going to be difficult. And then be delighted when it happened. So it’s a really important mindset. It’s become increasingly important to kind of stay calm with that.


And we’re at this really interesting point where, generally, CEOs and leadership teams have kind of made decisions now. Some of them have said we want to bring everyone back to the office. And some of those folks, and I’ve interviewed a number of them have said, “If people don’t want to come to the office, they’re probably not committed. Or maybe they’re not the right people for us.” I don’t personally ascribe to that, but I think the jury’s out, it’s too early to say what’s the real effect on an organization’s performance to kind of bring everyone back the office. 


I do think the reflex – There’s a lot of reflex action in it of CEOs looking at retention numbers and culture concerns and saying, “If everyone was at the office, they’d feel more connected and it would be better.” I’m not sure that’s actually the solve at this time given what we’ve been through. But a lot of people making that decision, all back to the office. Many companies saying we’re going to mix it up. Many companies saying actually we’re going to let people largely work from home. And then some kind of doing that. We get a quick poll. I think we’ve got a poll on this. Let’s see what your organizations. 


I want to disclose my agenda of what I think from personal experience, and I’m pretty sure the research is supporting this. We think that the right way forward at this time is that fourth option, is letting people decide for themselves. Now there’s a disclaimer. As much as possible if you’ve got people working in a factory, or a lab, or a hospital, obviously they can’t just you know work from home. What you’ve got to do in that case is find really creative powerful ways to give them a perception of more autonomy than they used to have for the pandemic in other ways. We’re going to dig into why that’s important, but essentially autonomy is a huge stress reduction mechanism. Turns up the reward networks, turns down the threat networks, really helpful when things are kind of chaotic. 


But ideally, aside from those people in the lab, or by the way, if you’re managing trillions of dollars of assets and seconds count, you might want people back in the room, or for security purposes you might. But most companies are not like that. Generally, you’ve got at least some functions where you can let people decide for themselves. 


Now we call that full hybrid. So everyone’s got different words. In a few years the language will settle. We think of hybrid and full hybrid. Hybrid might be mixing it up. Full hybrid is people can decide whatever model they want. So there’s an interesting distinction between the organizations saying, “Hey, everyone’s going to spend two days a week.” Versus, “Hey, you guys decide what you want to do if you want to be in the office, or you want to mix it up, or you want to stay at home.” So full hybrid versus hybrid, interesting distinction. 


Now we went hybrid a few years before the pandemic. And I want to distinguish why we did it. And I’ll slow down here a bit and tell you some of the stories. It’s really interesting. Some of these stuff’s really non-obvious. And then I’ll share some of the science. I’ll share sort of from personal experience, which of course is an N of 1. So who cares really? But I’ll also share the science. But we feel passionately about it. 


We went hybrid several years before. Now what we meant by that is we had offices. Lots of people came to them. Lots of people never came to them. And lots of people came to them when they felt like it. And it was really up to people. And sometimes the team would agree on it, but it was really up to the individual to work that out and to work wherever they work best. Now why we did that, we sort of came onto it by accident to be honest. It wasn’t to save money we had just as many as much real estate. We did it because we had a lot of clients who were very spread out. We work with you know half the fortune 100. Many of them are everywhere around the world. And we’re working on a program on inclusion, for example, and the company wants people from 10 different countries to contribute to the program design. 


And so we ended up spending a lot of time on platforms as long as like five six, seven years ago where we’d meet with a team over time virtually every week for maybe three months. And what we found after sort of getting over the fact that we went in-person, what we found is if you’re really thoughtful about platforms you can actually make them very, very powerful. If you do the work in between just right and prepare to maximize that hour, it can be really quite remarkable. 


And what we found is that we did much better work, for example, spending four one-hour sessions with a client over a month than we did spending a whole day, which was twice as many hours, or even two days to be honest, two whole days together. We would get more. We would get further, deeper, faster, wider in four to six sessions one a week than we would in one or two days. So we did better work is what we found. And then we experimented on that in our internal meetings and what we found is, yes, you had to be more intentional, but we just did better work. So like why would we not always be on platforms?


So what we found is that we were almost always on platforms. Every single meeting, really, had a platform. Sometimes people were together, but we had some really whiz-bang technology and habits to make that work. But there was always a platform for every meeting. What we also found when we loosened up to the structure is that we hired much, much better. And I think of our leadership team who are all over the country now. We’ve got someone in North Carolina. We’ve got someone on the West Coast. We’ve got a few people around New York, but not in New York. So we hired really differently, more diversely, and just the right people, not the right people an hour away from the office. 


We also found we don’t have data on this, but we did notice anecdotally people able to stay longer, people more flexible, people able to move around. And it certainly felt like retention went up. This was pre-pandemic. So for a bunch of reasons, we went hybrid before. Now, obviously, when the pandemic hit, we had an advantage. We hit the ground running completely. We didn’t have to change anything. But it was not about the pandemic for us. It was actually about better work, better hiring and better retention. And those three things are pretty valuable. And you know what? You could measure those things. You could actually measure those things with real numbers if you put your mind to it. Not that hard. And that’s one of the problems right now is people are not measuring the benefits of hybrid. All they’re anchoring on is kind of the feeling of this doesn’t feel as good, and this feels hard, and this feels really difficult. But they’re not actually calculating what those benefits might be. 


Camille, you want to weigh in there? Camille, Jeff, any thoughts reflections you want to weigh in and comment there? 


[00:12:43] CI: Can you define better work? And I can give some examples here of how we did hybrid well. And it’s a mix of habits and practices that you can apply. As one of the biggest obstacles to hybrid work is one of the core cognitive biases, distance bias, right? That we pay more attention to what’s right in front of us, what’s visible, what’s tangible than that which is further away. So when you have people in a room and people joining virtually, it can be very easy to just focus on the people in the room and ignore the people who are online, right? 


So one of the simple practices you may have heard before that David really embedded to mitigate distance bias is if you’re in a hybrid meeting, go to the people on the phone first. Go to people joining virtually first to make sure that we’re optimizing the benefit of hybrid work, which is we can have people join from anywhere. That’s one thing that really helps people feel included. It keeps them in a towards state and has their voices be heard. 


And then the practice that I know you’ve talked about a lot David of parallel processing, which is having some sort of live digital document like Google Docs and not sponsored, where everyone can put in their input if you’re brainstorming or collecting ideas or trying to find a solution at the same time and you can all see it live. And so you’re actually optimizing the time you have together and hearing everybody’s voices. And there are little techniques within there to even mitigate bias further by keeping it relatively anonymous. So things like that wind up including more diverse perspectives and therefore coming to sounder conclusions. 


[00:14:20] DR: Yeah. Thanks, Camille. Basically, the work was just higher quality, more creative, more thoughtful, more innovative. Probably showed up in innovation, probably a function of being more inclusive, everyone really was speaking up. Platforms enable more inclusion, greater inclusion if you use them. My favorite question is if you’re in this meeting I want to hear from you or you wouldn’t be here. So I want everyone to put a comment in the chat right now about such and such. We just presented something. I want everyone to give me three points on why this is a good idea. I’m going to give two quiet minutes to do that. 


So there’s all this stuff that you could do. We just found more creative, more inclusive and the work was better. Jeff, do you want to comment on any reflections you have on this or any comments, any questions in the chat?


[00:15:01] JS: Yeah, I appreciate it David. I delighted to see the four percent of people, only four percent were, I think, making sure that everyone was back in the office. Anecdotally, I’ve run into several people who talked about how their leaders really felt strongly that everyone should be back in the office even at the extent of losing top talent and insisted that occur. And one of the questions we often get, David, I’d love to hear your response to this, is how do you control what’s actually going on? How do we know what people are doing? And that’s one of the reasons why people insist on having folks come back to the office. 


[00:15:37] DR: There’s this thing that happens that when you give employees more autonomy, more control over their time, you’re kind of taking a feeling of control away from managers, right? So employees get more autonomy. Managers feel less autonomy, right? Control kind of a bit of a see-saw like that. And some managers will react because they experience a threat response. They feel like uncertain, uncomfortable, out of control. What we react is trying to regain control. 


We did a whole session on this last week, but we talked about last week outcome versus surveillance mindset. And definitely one of the challenges is some leaders really kind of clamp down and say, “Hey, copy me on every email. Give me a daily summary of everything that happens. I want an hour meeting every week where you walk through everything you did.” And it’s really exhausting for people. They feel micromanaged. And tell me if you’re going for a walk to walk your dog, I need to know. This kind of stuff could happen and it’s kind of a scary path. 


But let’s stay a little bit on this journey, because I want to give you – I want to make sure we get to some of the central things. But one of the challenges with hybrid is sort of in behind this riddle. Here’s a riddle. What are exercise studying diverse teams and hybrid work potentially will have in common? What do you think that is? 


We think that actually they’re all really good for you, but don’t feel that way. Exercise is really good for you. Actually it hurts for quite a while. It might hurt for months before you start to really, really feel the benefit. Certainly, you’re going to be a month or two sort of exercise regime before you feel like your returns outweigh the effort. It’s a lot of effort. Studying might be years of effort. You don’t see the return necessarily for years, right? Interesting diverse teams, people report feeling less confident in their work when they’re in a diverse team, but they’re actually performing better. People report feeling like they have to work harder and they have to actually think harder, work harder, but they’re actually not as comfortable and as confident in their work itself. So all of these things essentially have a fluency issue. Someone says stretching, which is true. 


They also have a fluency issue, which is like you have to work at it. It doesn’t come easy. And what happens in the world is anything that’s not fluent we steer away from. And we try to steer towards things that are fluent. And fluent literally means the cognitive effort in understanding something. So it feels difficult. It feels effortful. And there’s no data on the benefits here. We don’t know if the benefits are going to come in a week, or a month, or a quarter, or if at all. And really, I encourage you to think a lot about how you might measure the upside of hybrid in your hiring, in your retention, but even in the quality of work and the speed of work. Not just in the real estate savings, which could be zero or a lot, but it’s not the point. It’s more the real productivity benefit. 


So we think that there are big benefits. The research on this is really interesting. One of the challenges with hybrid with this whole area, and we call it the one-third problem, is that people are pretty evenly split. And this is not one specific study. Roughly, this data has showed up in about six different studies we’ve looked at and it seems to all anchor on about this number. So it’s an approximation. But it’s a meta-analysis of a bunch of different studies. But about a third of people are really passionate about going back to the office. They really want to be there. And they feel like being told they can’t be there even for a day or two is like why are you sending me to my least productive place and telling me to work, to output more? You’re telling me to perform better and yet taking away my ability to perform. They’re pretty annoyed. So a third of people really want to be in the office. A third of people really want to be at home. They also feel really passionately. And about a third want to mix it up. 


Now, I do not ascribe to the third of people who want to be at home being people who just want balance and not work too hard and all that at all. Personally, I find folks who work at home work probably harder, more hours. I don’t think they’re in any way less committed. You of course going to have a few people who loaf, but you have that in the office as well. And in some ways it’s just as easy. So it’s an interesting challenge. 


Now, the variable here that you’ve got to understand is it’s not where they work so much. It’s also the way they get to choose. So this is an interesting study. People were given the choice to continue to work from home or return to the office. And what we found is that both groups actually increase productivity, 22%. So whether you went to the office or went to the home, if you had the ability to choose, your productivity went up. So this is a statement about people are really different and people who are allowed to choose do better. It’s kind of both. People are really different. People allowed to choose do better. It’s hard to pull out the effect of both of those. It would be really interesting study to try and pull that apart. 


Camille, we can think about that later. But there’s another study also. There’s a few of these. This is kind of crazy. People allowed to dress-up their cubicle increased productivity 25%, kind of similar number. So what we’re seeing is the basic kind of effect of autonomy itself is pretty high. And then you’ve got the productivity effect. 


So at NLI we think the autonomy factor is really, really key in making this whole thing really, really sustainable. And it’s showing up in lots of different data. A new study from Microsoft just came out. Camille, do you want to explain it maybe? We were reading the study earlier. It’s not very fluent. No offense to Microsoft.


[00:20:52] CI: Yeah, basically that you know there’s a split between who wants to work from home and who wants to work from the office. But the reasoning for their choices is that they want to make the best choice for what makes them do the best work. So there’re individual variants in people’s home life situations in what they’re doing at work. And so there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. But at the end of the day everyone wants to make the most out of where they work and the quality of the work that they do. 


[00:21:24] DR: And doing it to be more productive. They’re making the choice to be more productive, not because of work-life balance or social life. They’re literally saying I want to do this because this is where I’m most productive. So that’s an interesting finding. 


All right, let’s continue. I just want to kind of give a bit of a lay of the land. We’ve gone a bit long on that. So we’ll continue. A little bit about what does connection mean? What is the science of connection here and how does it really work? Firstly, if you know our work, you know SCARF, connection is really the relatedness part of SCARF. It’s the sense of literally being in an in-group with people. It’s interesting, in the brain, when you classify someone as in-group, you start all these different processes that are similar to that person being you.0 Like you actually process their thoughts and inputs in a similar way that you process your own thoughts and inputs. 


So when you’re dealing with someone who’s in your in-group, when you feel – Which happens when you feel connected with them, collaboration’s much easier. There’re fewer misunderstandings. There’re all sorts of things that happen. So part of like connecting is in-group, but it’s also some other things. And we’ll dig into what that is. 


So one of the things to think about with connection is just kind of how central it is to people. And there’s a whole book on this. John Cacioppo wrote this. He passed away a couple of years ago. He wrote a book called Loneliness. And he explained how loneliness is like hunger that it’s the brain’s response to dangerously low resources. And if you don’t think the social resources are critical for survival, you haven’t lived through a disaster or real difficulties, because we really need other people in a crisis in particular. And the brain and body knows that. And a lack of connectedness literally feels like we could be in danger. 


And this isn’t just a metaphor. It activates the threat network. And in fact there’re studies showing taking Tylenol when you’re feeling lonely can actually reduce the loneliness, because it really is a pain response. So this lack of connection isn’t just something sort of a light issue. It’s like everyone’s in pain. What we see is that social isolation is actually more dangerous than smoking as a variable, prolonged disconnection increases stress, impacts sleep quality, executive function, major health risk. It’s really unhelpful, really unhealthy to have that social isolation. 


Now, of course the introverts here are quietly saying, “I don’t need too much social.” But they need a certain amount, and it’s a different amount to the extroverts. But whatever that amount is, if you don’t get that amount, you’ve got a problem. So we do need varying amounts, but we need that amount to literally feed us in many, many ways. What we also see is that you know isolation doesn’t just kind of feel bad. It really activates us biologically. It impacts our sleep. It releases stress hormones. 


A really scary factor, which I discovered earlier in the pandemic is it doesn’t just reduce immunity. It reduces immunity particularly for viruses, by the way. You get a little bit of effect for bacteria, but you have even less immunity for viruses, which is a little ironic, or diminished impulse control, all sorts of other things. So it’s this sense of danger that is not helpful. So you know what I would say to companies who are saying we’re really concerned about how little connected people are. I’d say good for you. Be concerned about it. We’ve got to do something about it. 


However, that do something about it doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve got to bring everyone back to the office. You can bring everyone back to the office and they still feel very disconnected. Also, you can get people together like not every day and they can feel quite connected. So it’s important to really understand the mechanisms. But essentially, a feeling of connectedness is a primary human need. And that need has kind of hijacked the existing networks for literally pain and pleasure in the brain. It’s called a primary threat network. 


Camille, Jeff anything you want to add there or any questions? I won’t spend a lot of time on the research, but we’ve kind of seen this. But I mean the big takeaway here is that leaders need to double down on creating inclusive teams where people really feel connected. 




[00:25:30] SW: If you enjoy this podcast, you’re going to love our annual conference. The NeuroLeadership Summit coming to you virtually on February 15th through 16th, 2022. We’ll bring business leaders, academics and visionaries from around the globe to an incredible virtual gathering where we’ll zero-in on powerful insights, trends and breakthroughs, as well as the principles of NeuroLeadership all to help leaders and teams adapt faster in a transforming world. Join us online, February 15th through 16th, 2022 and attend sessions available across the globe. You can watch sessions live, participate in breakout rooms, interact with other members of the NLI community, or access content on demand. No matter how you prefer to engage, we promise you won’t want to miss it. To learn more and to save the date, visit summit.neuroleadership.com.




[00:26:27] DR: Jeff, anything you want to add in there? 


[00:26:30] JS: Yeah. David, you probably know, I’ve been delivering a lot of the include programs for NLI. And one of the things I’ve heard consistently is how impactful it is when a manager or a colleague checks in on someone who is isolated during the pandemic. Some people have significant others at home, and pets, and children, and some people don’t. And to your point, the loneliness has really been challenging for many people. And just to have someone check on them or to hold meetings and one-on-ones, we’ve been encouraging more of those kind of things to mitigate the loneliness that people have felt.


[00:27:02] DR: Yeah, it’s a real thing, and it does need to be managed. And bringing people, bringing everyone back to the office is going to really, really annoy a third of your company and make them much less productive. And even another third of the company are going to be much less productive, and they’re not going to have a choice. So what you really want to do is say folks who really want to be back in the office be back in the office. Then you’re getting the connectedness benefits and the autonomy benefits, right? If you’re messing with their autonomy in order to give them relatedness, I don’t think it’s going to work. Camille, what are your reflections there? 


[00:27:32] CI: How the value of connection fluently coexists with diverse and uncomfortable teams? And I know we’ll talk a bit about this later. But to call out that, that diverse teams are less comfortable that’s why they perform better. The discomfort of diverse teams can be significantly mitigated with inclusive teams. So the discomfort comes when you’re not actually valuing everyone’s perspective, when you’re not treating everybody as if they belong there. But when you mix a diverse team with inclusive practices on that team, that’s where you can actually foster that connection despite any sort of superficial or assumed differences.


[00:28:15] DR: Yeah. I think that’s correct. I think, also, what we see is that – And we wrote a piece about this, that the mechanism of discomfort is the effort of having to think harder, so in having to work harder to explain your ideas and understand other people’s ideas. So there’s a degree of discomfort in that it feels less fluent. It feels like harder work. What you should have is people really, really connected while they’re challenging each other and making each other work hard. 


And that’s a great segue to this final kind of piece here. Where you get related is from is three things. And it’s kind of a light medium and robust from left to right. So shared time, where you’re just spending time with someone, it does a little bit, gives you a little bit of relatedness. Shared experiences where you’re actually doing something together and you’re experiencing activity or some kind of thing together gives you much more relatedness. The strongest form of relatedness is shared goals. And there’s quite a lot of research on this. We’ve talked about it a lot over the years. Shared goals really create strong in-group. 


And so, ideally, with a diverse team, what you want is people to actually challenge each other to actually be working harder to be uncomfortable that way, but to have a strong sense of connectedness in terms of the goals that they’re working on and everyone being on board with that. So that’s another way to think about it. Very good. 


I think we’ll get to the closing chapter, because that’s kind of the guts of today’s session. I think there’re some really important insights in here. The cliff notes to summarize, I think, is connection really, really matters. And particularly in a crisis where things are uncertain, we don’t feel a lot of control. Feeling connected to your organization is going to be really, really important. Let’s dig in and challenge that. How do we stay connected to people? 


So first of all, we have a big growth mindset practice working with some incredible organizations on activating this across their business. And I really started to notice fixed and growth mindset in people’s beliefs about connecting people. And I definitely heard like a lot of people’s pining for the old days for in-person work saying, “If only we were together, we could be connected. This is terrible. These meetings are perfunctory. It just feels like no one’s there. It’s just not the same,” right? But I hear a real fixed mindset in that. Versus, “You know what? Platforms are here to stay. If even 10% or 20% of your company are working from home, you need to be on platforms a lot. So how about we work out the upside of platforms and really, really leverage those and make those really work for us?” 


And this is, again, one of those things where it doesn’t necessarily feel better. Like being on platforms all the time might feel like harder work, but actually it’s probably really good for you. With an exception, there’s nothing wrong with getting a group of leaders together to spend a day or two days really going deep on a strategy once a year. There’s no question that certain times we’re going to go really, really deep with a small group of people, but you’re not doing that every week all the time. But developing strategy, looking for those breakthroughs, some of those things might be better in person when you can in small groups. But on the whole, most people working virtually might be really good for the organization but won’t feel that way, right? Like the exercise and studying before. But I think it’s really important that you start with the growth mindset. 


Now, what are the upsides of a platform? We’ve been thinking about this for a while. And we’ve got kind of our first presentation on this, first hypothesis. We think that there are four upsides for pretty non-obvious upsides. Maybe the first one is, that digital platforms have over meeting in person. And that these – If you really understand these and put them together, you can do some incredible things that will make your culture is even better. And makes your people feel really, really connected. 


So we don’t think that a platform world is destiny that the culture diminishes at all or that connection diminishes. We think if you manage these, you can get it right. First one, I think we’ve all experienced this. If everyone’s on a platform, you can connect with anyone anywhere, right? And now this is amazing. If your company has people across the state or across the country or across the world, you can bring folks together that would never normally come together, and that’s really powerful. It’s not just inclusive. Now you can bring together a bunch of customers with a bunch of R&D people, with a bunch of marketing people and have like little customer events to kind of take apart different concepts. You could never do that. it’s too much work, right? But you can do that for an hour now once a month and see what happens. 


So you can really include a lot more people. I think you’ve all noticed this one. What you may not have sort of dug into as much is the frequency thing. The benefit of virtual, especially if you’re scheduling like 15, 25-minute meetings, 50 if you have to, but these shorter meetings especially 15, 25, you can actually check, like connect with those wide connections quite frequently, right? So briefly and frequently. For example, in this case, if you’re on boarding people, you might get a group of folks together that spend 15 minutes twice a week. Maybe a Monday and a Friday, a small group of people who are all on boarding at the same time get together with a facilitator who knows the company and they set their goals for the week and they debrief, but it’s just 15 minutes. They happen to be all over the country. You can’t do that in person. It’s really, really hard to do. So you can connect anyone and you can do it frequently and quickly. 


Now the third thing is the efficiency as well. So you can do it very efficiently. You can bring people together quickly, get them out quickly. If you use parallel processing, you can actually move through a lot more in 25 minutes than you can in 25 minutes in person, a lot more. Again, a good, a well-prepared platform is much more efficient minute to minute. If it’s well-prepared and the leader is facilitating even decently, minute for a minute, it’s a lot more efficient. 


Obviously, across from people has its advantages, but there’s some advantages to being able to see 20, 30, 40 50 people on a screen also and see everyone’s face at once, see people’s reactions. There’s some advantages to being feeling watched by 10 people at once. You certainly pay attention. All of that goes away if most people are off camera. So if we go back to a world where most people are off camera most the time, we’re going to have terrible problems. Attention is terrible. So you do want to have a principle of most people on camera most the time and people are allowed to go off to manage things or for personal reasons. But you can get good attention in certain ways. 


And I want to give away a secret. We ran workshops since like 1998 on how to transform your coaching skills through understanding the brain and really generating insight. So I used to run most of our programs. We’ve got 20,000 something graduates of our big brain-based coaching program, which Jeff is one of the facilitators of now. But anyway, over years and years and years when I was running programs, for us and for companies, I was fascinated with the question of what’s the right number of people to have around a table to maximize the learning experience? 


And I experimented over and over and over and over and over with different numbers and came to a really, really strong conclusion about this. And what I found is that you need people like really focusing, like it happens one-on-one. When you’re one-on-one with person, you can’t like just check your phone. It’s really rude. You’ve got to pay attention. So I want that real focus. But I also want diversity of ideas in case you sort the conversation’s not as interesting with one person. You want lots of different perspectives to see patterns to be able to see themes if you’re asking for feedback or if you’re unpacking an idea. So sort of this balance, how do we get a good amount of perspectives, but also have good attention? 


And what we found is that there’s a magic at four, that when you have four people in a conversation, everyone really focuses. Like you can’t actually goof off. Everyone’s got to really pay attention. It’s a good diversity of inputs, and it can actually still be quite personal. You’re still willing to share really personal things. I find you get to like six, seven people, they’re much more kind of guarded, less open. If it’s just one or two people or sort of two or three people, there’s less kind of interesting conversation and it’s sort of less engaging. 


So this is an interesting number. You can maximize attention if you keep groups low. So everyone who’s talking about onboarding, for example, put groups of people together into fours, maybe three new graduates and a facilitator meet regularly. You’ll have really rich personal conversations where everyone’s really paying attention. But we think that there are these tremendous upsides to digital platforms that people are not kind of focus on. 


Jeff, anything coming up for you you want to um weigh in there? 


[00:36:48] JS: I will simply say, as someone who delivers virtual programs all the time, I try to make sure my breakouts are around for people for the reasons that you suggest and always more effective. If we add more, we get the free rider effect and all those other things that happen. So much more productive.


[00:37:04] DR: Yeah, absolutely.


[00:37:05] CI: Yeah, a few things coming up. It’s something I personally relate to especially as a Leo who just loves like mirrors of any form. That having your video on while you’re in a meeting can be very taxing. It can be distracting. One, for the self-monitoring of it, watching yourself in real time is very unnatural. And so embedding practices where people can go off camera for a few minutes as needed. 


[00:37:33] DR: [inaudible 00:37:33]. Hide self-view. You just hide self-view. 


[00:37:37] CI: Or hide self-view, which I did not know was a feature. So something new every day. 


[00:37:43] DR: Yeah, it’s amazing. Let’s teach everyone right now. Let’s teach 389 people right now. Scroll over your picture. I didn’t mean to interrupt you, Camille. I just got so excited. 


[00:37:50] CI: No. Go for it. 


[00:37:51] DR: Because I just I don’t want to encourage like go off camera. It’s really, really different when people are off camera. I agree. It can feel exhausting. I would say make your meetings shorter and get your facilitators of those meetings trained to make the time much more useful. And be on camera most the time, but hide your self-view, for sure, because it is exhausting.


The other thing I want to say about that is if you just leave 40 hours open in your calendar for meetings, it will get filled with virtual meetings, and that’s actually not healthy. My recommendation is leave Monday open minimal, meeting Mondays. Leave Monday open to do your own work. Leave mornings open, minimum meeting mornings. So really do your own work, your own focus work. You’ll get a whole lot done. So if you’re spending the whole week on Zooms, your brain’s just not built for that, that amount of likes. It’s socially exhausting. 


25 and 50-minute meetings, and after three virtual meetings take a break and do your own work as well. So we’ve got to sort of get into some of those habits, but certainly feeling like you’re being watched by 10, 20, 30 people. Take some cognitive load. So don’t try and schedule 100 meetings a week as well. 


Jeff, Camille, anything else coming up for you? I’ll see if I can interrupt you again. It’d be perfect. 


[00:39:03] CI: I love it. I’ll still stand beside the autonomy benefit of feeling like you’re able to if you need to just relax that attentive listening face, if you need to stretch, go off video for 60 seconds, come back on. If you feel stuck, that’s going to be taxing. But we can fight that out later. 


[00:39:23] DR: Coming back to this, let’s actually get – Let’s do some work. First of all, I just want to say that we have a point of view on this, but we wrote a piece in Forbes. It’s called one awful sounding idea that will fix many of the flaws of hybrid work. It’s one virtual or virtual. So we actually think that if anyone is on a platform, then everyone should be on a platform. And so what this means is if you’ve got any model, you’re pretty much going to be on platforms a lot going forward. If we’re right about this that everyone on the platform is better, then you’re going to want to get platforms right because you’re going to be in a lot of platforms going forward. It’s just going to be the way meetings happen, unless everyone’s in the office. If everyone’s in the office, great. But it won’t happen. 


So let’s brainstorm. There are three big concerns. Let’s spend a good five minutes on this. And I’d love your input in the chat. I threw in an idea. And let’s brainstorm as a group. But everyone’s concerned about onboarding, about keeping people, about culture. Those seem to show up in studies from the conference board and others and from our own as the three biggest issues that people are having right now about hybrid. And the sort of reflex action is bring people back in or part-time. We think that messes with autonomy. 


And what would be better is leverage the upside of platforms. But what do you think – What are some of the ideas we have? Let’s start with onboarding. What are some of the ideas? How could we leverage the fact that you can connect with anyone regularly really efficiently with good attention? How do we leverage that for onboarding? Jeff, Camille, any ideas that you guys have? 


[00:40:52] CI: Well, one tiny thing that you and I were talking about earlier is simply when you’re having virtual meetings, you have the ability to record them, which means you have this treasure trove that you can then provide to others for onboarding. So that’s just a very small tactical thing that’s really useful to be able to share past meetings, for example, with new employees. One small thing. 


[00:41:18] DR: Great. Screen sharing with the new hire is really powerful. People can literally see what you’re doing. One of the things that this gives you the ability to do is you can stay to an employee. I want you to shadow this top performing employee to every meeting they go in for the next week. And you can literally join on a Zoom every single meeting someone has because everyone’s on platforms, right? And that person could be across the country or across the world. 


Right now you can go and join a completely different person who also performs well but has a whole different approach. You’re going to join all their meetings for a week. And after three weeks of doing that, three weeks watching the top performers and exactly how they do things, you’re going to be unbelievably well-trained. And you couldn’t have done any of that in the old world. 


So my hypothesis is if you think about, say, onboarding, you actually can onboard people better if you leverage some of these upsides. Right. Right. I like the comment here. Slow down information overload by staggering orientation. I remember when I was in India at one point they showed me the amount of content that they took people through over 14 days straight, no weekend. 14 days, they took people through what should be like a year of content. It was overwhelming. Like how do people like retain or process any of that? 


So the fact that you can meet regularly and quickly, you could do three times a week, Monday, Wednesday, Friday, you could have a 25 minute interaction to really dive deep and then have people go off and study things and come back, debrief, etc. 


So I think onboarding there’s a lot you can do. Bradley is saying virtual onboarding has allowed people to engage with colleagues in different parts of the world. So you actually can create much more of a uniform culture if everyone’s on platforms. And I think we all saw that when the first year of the pandemic when we all were at home. But I think some of the benefits of that can be maintained through this time. And it’s a one virtual all virtual rule. 


What about retention or culture? We can put those two together. What ideas do we have for retention or culture? How do we leverage the upside of these platforms for retention or culture? How do we leverage the upside of these platforms for attention or culture? I mean, one thing I know companies are doing is the all hands meeting weekly. Many companies are getting the senior leadership team on video every week for an hour to the whole company. And that was unheard of, not to mention impossible in the past. But in terms of people feeling connected to the company and the culture thing, to have the whole leadership team accessible, available to really hear directly from them, you really get a sense of connection to them. It’s almost like secure attachment. You couldn’t do that in the past. You could do that for 25 minutes, a quick check in with a leadership team. What’s happening? How’s it going? And so you can really stay connected that way. It’s going to help with retention and culture.


[00:43:55] JS: Retention and increase in autonomy when given the choice of how you work best. So coming full circle there. You’re more likely to keep people if you give them choice. 


[00:44:06] DR: Yeah. It’s the autonomy thing, right? I want to do a T-shirt, it’s autonomy stupid. It’s people having the choice in many ways. Remember that culture is shared everyday habits. Culture is how a leader deals with an employee who’s in crisis and whether they really show care or not, right? Culture is how a leader deals with an unhappy customer. Culture is literally shared everyday habits. How do we learn those habits, mostly unconsciously? And guess how we do it. It’s by watching faces. So if we’re on camera interacting with people lots, our face watching hours have gone up a lot, right? So we’re back to making sure we can see people clearly, hear people clearly. And I think Sally’s saying that the listening circles. It’s almost time to do those. Listening circles again that happened when the racial crisis really hit last year. We got quite involved in those. It might be time again to do this listing. So it was like how do we create sustainable workplaces now? How do we really make that happen? We’re going to talk more about that next week as well. 


Camille, what’s coming up for you?


[00:45:07] CI: Yeah. What it comes back to is valuing the human. And so creating really intentional moments to get to know each other to be able to share what your passions are. I learned one of my co-workers is a professional video gamer. That never would have come up otherwise. That’s awesome. And I absolutely want to learn more. We have opera singers and wrestlers here. I want to see pictures of your kids. I want to see what’s behind your computer screen. Like really connecting to each other as human beings with the chaos that’s going on in the world, there’s a lot of opportunities to intentionally create those human-centric spaces, whether it’s coffee, or trivia, or DJ-ing. I think that’s really important for making people feel like they belong and like they’re enjoying their work. 


[00:45:59] DR: We had a really fun session last year. We had it online. We had a talent show where people –Virtual talent show where people put together the most incredible performances and presentations, all sorts of things. And I was blown away with some of the things that people did and some of the hobbies and stuff was amazing. We got really, really connected. So really connecting on a human level, you can do it on a platform. It’s really surprising. 


There is some training involved. It’s the little things, like you finish a module. And you don’t say is everyone ready to move on? Because no one knows how to answer that. You say is anyone not ready to move on you? Does anyone need more time? And then whoever’s not ready can say something, right? So it’s these little things that help. And using hand signals for I’m good, I’m sort of good. I’m not good. Using the chat, that’s a great hand signal. So all these little skills, micro skills as well as some bigger skills around how you actually facilitate that are actually quite trainable. And we do have a program for that called flex where a third of that program is literally the tactical skills for how to do that. 


I think there’re a lot of great ideas. I want to close with one big question, and it’s kind of a question I don’t have an answer to, but we know that seeing each other does feel good. There’s no question. I want to go and play band again in the office, right? I want to go and personally spend time there hang out with folks. It feels great, right? What we don’t have is any evidence that actually improves performance. And the real question is do we get that by meeting monthly? Do we get that by getting small teams to go for dinner together outside an office, right? Give them a budget for that. Every month, or two months, or every two weeks. Do we give them a lunch budget every two weeks to hang out for two hours and brainstorm together? 


So it’s an effect size conundrum or sort of a dosing conundrum. How much dose do we really need to get that positive feeling? Because there’s no evidence that forcing everyone back into the office or even forcing people part-time back to the office is good for the business. The evidence points from autonomy that letting people choose the model is good. But then what you’ve got to do is make sure people do stay connected. And that’s the big idea from today. As we move into this new world, we’re going to have to be intentional about keeping people connected so that we don’t get into this world of cameras off and people feeling absolutely lost. So lots to say there. Jeff and Camille, thanks for your contribution. Reach out to us if you’re interested in some of this work that could scale really fast to your whole company. 


All right. Well, let’s wrap up. I’m going to uh to hand back. But just next week, we are going to dig into the great resignation, beyond the great resignation. Exploring the science of discontent, and we’re going to dig into slightly different directions on the burnout and what we can do and some other really interesting things. So thanks, Colleen. You did the flex training. You want more? We’ve definitely got some more for you. Take care of yourselves, look after each other and keep doing what matters. 


[00:48:49] CI: Thanks, everyone.




[00:48:54] 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, Daniel Kirschenblatt, Ted Bower, Shadé Olasimbo, and me, Shelby Wilburn. Original music is by Grant Zubritzki. And logo design is by Catch Wear. We’ll see you here next time for a discussion about the great discontent, which is a naturally extension of the great resignation. In that episode, we’ll unpack the driving forces behind the great discontent and share specific strategies leaders can deploy to combat employee burnout, retain talent, and set a foundation for organization success. 



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