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Podcast: Adam Grant reimagines work after COVID

Podcast: Adam Grant reimagines work after COVID

TRANSCRIPT: Adam Grant reimagines work after COVID

Adam Grant:

We're an outlier on the world stage when it comes to the primacy of work in our lives, and I think we do it at our own peril. We're seeing extraordinary levels of burnout in workplaces across the US. Just expecting people to be engaged in the job if they don't have quality of life feels like something you would've expected maybe half a century ago. It's about time that our leaders catch up.

Ian Bremmer:

Hello and welcome to the GZERO World podcast. That's right. Here, you'll find extended versions of the interviews from my show on public television. I'm Ian Bremmer, and today, we're going to talk about work, how much fun, and how it has been forever changed by the experience of the past 18 months. Whether you spent the pandemic working from your living room couch or you didn't have that option because you were an essential worker, or none of the above because your company was shut down, things feel very differently for you today and they may be for a long time to come. What will the new normal mean for society, the economy, politics? I'll ask one of the best organizational psychologists out there, Adam Grant. Let's get to it.

Announcer:

The GZERO World Podcast is brought to you by our founding sponsor, First Republic. First Republic, a private bank and wealth management company, understands the value of service, safety and stability in today's uncertain world. Visit firstrepublic.com to learn more.

This podcast is also brought to you by Walmart. Walmart is committed to supporting jobs in the communities we serve. That's why we're investing an additional $350 billion in products made, grown or assembled in the United States, supporting 750,000 new jobs. Learn more at walmart.com/america.

Ian Bremmer:

Adam Grant, the book is Think Again, and when we talk about the pandemic, thinking again about the way we work seems to be the one experience that pretty much everyone is going through right now. How do you start to think about that issue?

Adam Grant:

Well, I'm amazed at how slow many leaders were to rethink how and where we work. In the winter of 2018, I went to a bunch of CEOs and startup founders and I told them, "We already have extensive evidence that as long as people are in the office half the week, if you let them work from anywhere the other half, they're more productive, more satisfied, and less likely to quit. There's no discernible cost to relationships or collaboration, so why don't we do a remote Friday experiment," and they all bucked. "We can't open Pandora's box. Everyone's going to procrastinate, our culture's going to fall apart. That's not the way we've always done things." Fast-forward two years, there's a global pandemic. Some of those leaders have now decided to be remote-first companies indefinitely, and most of the others have gone to hybrid.

One of the things that drives me crazy looking back is they were stuck thinking like preachers, basically defending their existing views or they went into prosecutor mode and they attacked my data instead of thinking like scientists and saying, "I've got to look for reasons why I might be wrong, not just reasons why I must be right. I need to run more experiments to test and learn." I don't know that now is the time that we ought to be making a permanent commitment when it comes to how and where we work, but it is the ideal moment to think more like a scientist, run more experiments and test and learn to figure out what might work for your organization, your people, or your culture. I will tell you though, Ian, I am sorely disappointed in the number of CEOs who are coming out and saying, "You are not engaged if you're not in the office and we can't really get things done unless we're all physically in the same place."

Last time I checked, and we've been studying this for over half a century. Productivity is about the purpose and the process that you bring to your job. It's not about the place you happen to be doing it in, and of course, if you're in a manufacturing job, it's not that easy to work from home. I don't think you want your ER physicians and nurses trying to work from home 24/7, but most Americans work in service jobs and knowledge jobs and so many of those jobs can be done effectively, efficiently, even creatively from home. I think that leaders who are insisting that everybody has to be in the office all the time are probably in danger of becoming obsolete, and I think maybe the layer that I would add to this is it's not like every job should be permanently virtual.

In organizational psychology in my world, we study interdependence and I'm going to do something that I'm normally reluctant to do. I'm about to use a sports metaphor for work. If your job or your company is an individual sport like gymnastics. Go remote. Be remote first. Everybody is going to do their own vault, their own bars, their own floor routine, and I don't need Simone Biles to be hanging out with a bunch of her teammates all the time in order for her to be at her best. The whole will be roughly the sum of the parts, but if your work or if your culture is more about relay races or assembly lines, you better make sure the person who's handing off the baton is in communication with the person who's receiving it and also the person who's starting the race is on the same page as the person who's finishing it.

Where I think we really need to move to, either being in the same room or the same Zoom, is if we're playing a true team sport like basketball or soccer. If I pass the ball to you, you send it back to me, I send it to someone else, then it goes to you again, then it comes to me and to you again, if we need everybody's knowledge and skill at multiple phases of a project, that's when we need synchronous communication and we either need our place or our time to be aligned. I just don't see that level of nuance being brought to this conversation. How many leaders have you seen say, "Well, what is our culture and what are our jobs like? Are we individual sport, relay sport or team sport?"

Ian Bremmer:

Where do you think you're going to see, as a consequence, business being the most disrupted as a result of that kind of thinking if companies were willing to move on it?

Adam Grant:

I think we'd see the most disruption to jobs where there are real multiplier effects from collaboration. Look at creative industries. How much of Hollywood freaked out when they realized we're not going to have a bunch of writers in a writer's room or we're not going to have a bunch of designers, if you're in the tech world, who are all sitting together. I think that there's a huge opportunity to reimagine that and say, "Maybe your people don't even all have to live in the same place. Maybe you let them work from anywhere, and then once a month, you have a retreat where people come together and they blitz for two or three days and then they divide and conquer again."

Ian Bremmer:

Now Adam, when you are in a hybrid situation, you've got 10 people that actually are part of a team and 6 of them are in the same location and 4 of them are remote. How do you organize a meeting? Does the fact that it's half-and-half basically mean that everyone goes remote or do you try to put those six people in one room and they're all talking to four screens?

Adam Grant:

That is an experiment waiting to be run. I haven't seen the data. Would love to. My hunch right now is we should probably all be in Zoom because inevitably, the people who are in the room together are going to end up dominating the conversation or it's going to end up becoming too stilted as we try to draw in the virtual people. I think if we can move into a hologram world, it would be completely different. If we all have our Oculus headsets on and we can feel like we're physically walking around the room, I think we start to treat the virtual people a little bit more like they're in the room. We are nowhere near that right now.

Ian Bremmer:

So if that is true, and actually, my sensibilities in very limited data around this are close to your hunch, that implies that actually, we're going to end up much longer virtual and Zoom irrespective of what the office place ends up looking like.

Adam Grant:

I think that's probably true. I think a lot of people are going to experience Zoom fatigue as we have been already for the past 16 months, but I think we're going to get smarter about battling that fatigue. Jeremy Bailenson at Stanford did a great analysis of what's causing Zoom fatigue, and he says it's not always the technology itself, it's the way that we use it, just like any technology. It's exhausting to sit in the same chair for nine hours, whereas if we were face-to-face, we'd probably get up, we'd move around more, so we need to do that. You don't often, in real life, have to stare at your own image, so turn off the self view. You're also not used to dealing with a giant virtual head where most people's first instinct is to flinch when they see that on the screen. If you could sit twice as far away, you'd be better off. I hate to say this. We might reinvent the conference call.

Ian Bremmer:

That is a horrible idea, Adam, but thank you for bringing it up.

Adam Grant:

Wait. Wait, hold on. Hear me out. Hear me out. I have to make the case.

Ian Bremmer:

Why? Why? Why?

Adam Grant:

The coordination complexity gets too high when you have eight or nine people or more in a group, but if we're just talking about a 2, 3, 4 person conversation, empirically, we're better at reading other people's emotions if the cameras are off. Tone of voice is a pure and clearer signal of what people are thinking and feeling than seeing their random facial expressions and body language. There's extra cognitive load from trying to read all of those over a glitchy Zoom screen.

Also, Anita Woolley's just published some research which shows that if you are in a pair and you have cameras off, you actually have more even balance of talk time, that there's something about just hearing somebody's voice that makes you sensitive to making sure that they get brought into the conversation, whereas if you're looking at the other person, it's easier to end up dominating all the airtime. We don't want to be in conference calls all the time, of course, but we ought to have cameras-off zones and some meetings where that's a norm.

There's been a bunch of research on what happens when we go to Zoom for job interviews, which I think are the opposite of knowing someone well. You're meeting a complete stranger. It's an artificial interaction. The stakes feel very high and judgements of somebody's future job performance are not any more accurate if you see the person over Zoom as compared to if you'd done a traditional phone call. I think that one of the things we're going to see happen pretty quickly is as the world reopens or does whatever version of that we're now expecting to happen, we're going to see that power shifts much more toward talented people.

Temporarily, a lot of people were hanging onto their jobs for dear life just trying to get to the end of the pandemic, and now that everybody who is highly marketable, has lots of options, the companies that refuse to be flexible, that refuse to give people the kind of freedom that they've had a taste of now are really going to struggle with attracting and recruiting very impressive people. Over time, I think that might precipitate a shift where more and more organizations say, "You know what? We weren't that excited about remote, but we at least need some kind of hybrid system." Otherwise, a lot of people in the creative economy are just going to become entrepreneurs or freelancers.

Ian Bremmer:

Leaving the creative economy and talking about essential workers for a moment, it has to be one of the most extraordinary misnomers of the pandemic. The people that, in principle, we truly rely on in the front lines, who have the least flexibility in terms of how they work when they work, whether they work and are also completely not remunerated, as if that work is essential to the way we live our lives. Do you see us doing anything about that?

Adam Grant:

I don't know. I think this is a moment where we ought to be rethinking our national policy on essential work. I think about hazard pay and how much that's been a norm in dangerous occupations for decades. Well, where was hazard pay for all the teachers, for all the medical professionals, for all the warehouse workers who put their lives at risk to keep the world running and to try to keep the economy alive as well? I think we need a conversation about that. I don't know what it looks like yet, but I sure welcome it.

Ian Bremmer:

Do you think principle takeaway from the pandemic in terms of workplace is actually more inequality of opportunity?

Adam Grant:

I'm afraid that you might be right. I think the amount of opportunity net is going up, but I don't think it's going to be distributed evenly, and I think that the people who have flexibility, to your point, the knowledge workers, the creative workers, the people doing white collar, high-end professional services are going to be the ones who benefit from most of that flexibility and opportunity. That could probably... In some cases, will amplify the divisions that already exist in our radically unequal world. Ian, I know you know these data. They're a little dated at this point, but about a decade ago, Dan Ariely and Mike Norton showed that the average American thought that from an economic inequality perspective, that we live in Sweden, and not only that, they wanted to live in Sweden when it came to how equal things were. I think we're just moving further and further away from that right now.

Ian Bremmer:

Do you think that the Protestant work ethic such as it has been mythologized in the West is something we actively need to get rid of? Do human beings, in your view, need to be seeking so much purpose in their employment?

Adam Grant:

I don't think so, and I think those who do end up sorely disappointed. Let's say a couple of things about the Protestant work ethic. The first one is there's some evidence that shows that it's not actually the Protestant ethic that seemed to drive the rise of American capitalism. It's that with Protestantism came literacy, that people had to learn to read in order to be able to read the Bible, and we know that literacy is associated with all sorts of other benefits when it comes to economic development and innovation, so I don't think we should necessarily associate that with the work ethic per se.

I think a lot of people, they misattribute the success of America to that work ethic as opposed to saying, "No, it's about making sure that people are educated and able to solve problems and continue educating themselves." We're an outlier on the world stage when it comes to the primacy of work in our lives. I think we do it at our own peril. We're just seeing extraordinary levels of burnout in workplaces across the US. We're seeing some people burn out because they're being forced to work extraordinary hours or faced unreasonable demands by their employers.

We're seeing other people burn out because they are workaholics. Not the healthy engaged kind, but the chronic compulsive kind where you feel guilty if you're not working and you're stressed that you're going to fall behind or lose your job, and over time, we know that undermines the quality of work you do. I think that just expecting people to be engaged in the job if they don't have quality of life feels like something you would've expected maybe half a century ago. It's about time that our leaders catch up.

Ian Bremmer:

It's a very sensible and humanist perspective that you offer. If I'm looking top down, my response to you is the outliers in terms of the places where individual work ethic is the most intense, forced upon it by society and driven by the individual are China, the United States and Japan, the three largest economies in the world. If anything, you would think given that lineup, it is going to be really hard to address. Sweden is not driving an awful lot of the global conversation right now.

Adam Grant:

No, not at the moment, but I think we're confusing the number of hours you work with the importance and quality of work that you do. Empirically, if you look at the data, I don't know that many people who can focus and do their best work more than five to six hours a day, and even those who can, you start to see their productivity trail off. You start to see them make more errors. The data on physicians are terrifying on this, where we see that if you work an 80 or 90 hour week, often your error rate will double or triple. We're talking about medical errors.

You could amputate the wrong leg. You could give someone a drug that's supposed to save their lives and they're allergic to it. If we drop people down to working 60, 65, 55 hours a week, that error rate plummets. Why do we still believe that you have to be hazed? I think this is a lot of what goes on here. "I had to walk six miles uphill in the snow barefoot in order to make it through residency, and therefore you have to suffer too." I think if we can kill that kind of fraternity and sorority hazing, we might actually discover that we do our best work when we are not obsessed with work every waking hour of the day.

Ian Bremmer:

So there's plenty of talk about people having burnout, Zoom burnout, sick of remote burnout, lockdown burnout. You write about something else. You say that the real problem is that people are languishing in their jobs. What did you mean by that?

Adam Grant:

I have never seen people more excited to talk about their lack of excitement. Languishing is a term that was coined by a sociologist, which captures the void right in between depression and flourishing. It's basically the absence of wellbeing. You feel like you have a sense of emptiness and stagnation. You're not burned out because you still have energy. You're not depressed because you still have hope. You just feel a little bit joyless and a little bit aimless, and I think a lot of us have been languishing because the world around us is standing still.

That's the bad news. I think the good news is that the opposite of languishing is progress. There's evidence that the single biggest driver of daily energy and joy is just a sense of forward movement. It doesn't have to be a big triumph. It could be a small win and just a little moment of mastery, a jolt of connection. Even just a sense that I helped one person today seems to help people move from languishing toward flourishing. I think we could all use more of those moments right now.

Ian Bremmer:

Okay, so lightning round. I'll give you a bunch of quick questions. You tell me first thing that comes to your mind. It should be amusing that way. Start off, since it's connected to what you just said, how do you disconnect from work?

Adam Grant:

I play Words with Friends and I go on water slides with our kids whenever possible.

Ian Bremmer:

Do you think happy hours make employees happier?

Adam Grant:

No, and during the pandemic, I think happy hours made people extremely sad because we're all still a little bit isolated. Now it's yet another thing to add to what was already a two or three hour longer workday.

Ian Bremmer:

How do you bring back fun that's not mandatory in the workspace?

Adam Grant:

I love the distinction between deep fun and shallow fun. Shallow fun is the happy hour. Deep fun is, "I'm working on a meaningful problem with people who make me better," and I think we need those kinds of problems to solve.

Ian Bremmer:

When's the last time you accidentally replied all to a work email?

Adam Grant:

I think it was about three months ago.

Ian Bremmer:

Was it super embarrassing?

Adam Grant:

No, it was an inside joke that no one else got.

Ian Bremmer:

When people say things like circle back, close the loop, hard stop, can we kill those things now that we're killing the regular work environment?

Adam Grant:

Let's kill them. My colleague Bob Sutton calls them jargon monoxide, which I think is a great way to describe them, and I don't know why we need these buzzwords. They don't seem to help anyone. There's some hilarious research by Zach Brown which shows that people use that kind of jargon because they're insecure and they want to sound smart.

Ian Bremmer:

Could we have done this interview by email?

Adam Grant:

Probably.

Ian Bremmer:

Adam Grant, the book is Think Again. It's something he does all the time, even a bit in this interview. Good to see you, my friend.

Adam Grant:

You too. Thanks, Ian.

Announcer 2:

That's it for today's edition of the GZERO World Podcast. Like what you've heard? Come check us out at gzeromedia.com and sign up for our newsletter Signal.

Announcer 1:

The GZERO World podcast is brought to you by our founding sponsor, First Republic. First Republic, a private bank and wealth management company, understands the value of service, safety and stability in today's uncertain world. Visit firstrepublic.com to learn more. This podcast is also brought to you by Walmart. Walmart is committed to supporting jobs in the communities we serve. That's why we're investing an additional $350 billion in products made, grown, or assembled in the United States, supporting 750,000 new jobs. Learn more at walmart.com/america.

Subscribe to the GZERO World Podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or your preferred podcast platform to receive new episodes as soon as they're published.

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