Complexity is the defining business and leadership challenge of our time. But it has never felt more urgent than this moment, with the coronavirus upending life and business as we know it. For the next few weeks, we’ll be talking to leaders about what it takes to lead through the most complex and confounding problems, and about Brody Moments (from Jaws’ Police Chief Brody and his famous line “you’re going to need a bigger boat”) related to the coronavirus.
Today we talk with David Burkus, whose forward-thinking ideas and bestselling books are changing how companies approach innovation, collaboration, and productivity. Burkus is a former professor at Oral Roberts University and has delivered keynote speeches and workshops for Fortune 500 companies such as Microsoft, Google, and Stryker, and governmental and military leaders at the US Naval Academy and Naval Postgraduate School. His award-winning books have been translated into more than a dozen languages, and his articles have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Harvard Business Review, USA Today, Fast Company, and more.
David and David: What do you think are some of the Brody Moments leaders are experiencing today?
Burkus: In my book, Under New Management, I argue that it’s crucial to trust your people when they’re not in front of you. The right work environment changes based on the type of work you’re asking people to do, and for many, that includes occasional solitude when they need to be productive. We’ve needed to eliminate this false connection between presence and productivity for a long time, but most organizations have not been willing to do it, despite the fact that the technology has been in place to facilitate video meetings and remote work since the early 2000s. I hate that it took the pandemic to force people to realize that it can work.
I don’t believe we’re going back to a place where you’re expected to be in the office from 8 to 4 or 9 to 5. We’re going to have more trust in people to balance the flexibility of home and office and be less suspicious when we don’t see them doing their work in front of us.
David and David: What about creativity and collaboration in a remote work environment?
Burkus: Creativity is a team sport and that doesn’t stop being true just because those teams are remote. It’s always been a blend of coming up with ideas and executing, and there’s been this open office space myth that it somehow increases collaboration and creativity when, in fact, it’s been proven to have huge downsides (including increased stress and absenteeism). I believe that’s because the open office environment isn’t conducive to the execution of work that requires solitude. You need a blend of collaborative spaces and places people can go when they’re doing the deep work requiring solo time, including their home.
I do think physical presence still matters. I haven’t seen any research to back this up, but I’m skeptical that a Zoom brainstorming session can work as well as an in-person one. That’s because the facilitator can give teams a big edge when it comes to ideation, and it’s much easier to be a good facilitator when you’re in the room and you can see who is being shouted over, who’s introverted, who’s being dominated and who’s dominating.
David and David: What do you see ahead? With respect to a “new normal” after the crisis is over?
Burkus: The really exciting thing might be that instead of seeing salaried work as a way to get a certain number of hours out of people, we have this grand realization that people are paid to get important work done, and it takes whatever time is necessary. Maybe people will be able to achieve their objectives in a flexible number of hours every week, and rather than others feeling like that’s unfair, they seek to learn how to do that too. Some people are seeing an example of that right now - wondering why their kid is at school for seven hours a day when they’re seeing first-hand that they only need maybe a few hours of focused time to do the work.
All that said, I worry that I’m wrong about presence and productivity, and flexible work hours, and that we will revert to old norms out of our desire to get back to the way things were.
David and David: Any other advice you can offer?
Burkus: For 20 years, we’ve used terms like mission, vision, purpose and values and made them empty and vague. We’ve acted as if work-life balance is an equation of time. We’ve allowed work to infect people’s home life, almost to the point where they feel the need to sanitize after a day at the office.
But over the last few months, we’ve asked people to dramatically shift how they work, or whether they work, for a large global purpose. We’ve made joining a Zoom meeting a purposeful act of helping your community. We’ve proven that purpose motivates people when they understand what the stakes are if they fail. This crisis has shown leaders how to get people to align their job to mission and purpose.
Let’s not go back to the way things were. Instead, let’s use the lessons of this crisis to create a place where work doesn’t suck. Let’s give people work that matters. Let’s give them purpose. Let’s go beyond core values to sacred values - values people will fight for when jeopardized.
Original article posted in Forbes on June 25, 2020
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