Courtesy Lynda Gratton

Prior to the pandemic, the ways that most companies operated were fairly “frozen,” according to Lynda Gratton, professor of management practice at London Business School. They’re more likely now to be “unfrozen” and reassessing basic assumptions about work, management, and workplaces. But they’ll “refreeze” again, Gratton has written, as new practices and systems solidify.

To better understand how this could work and how businesses can best navigate it, I recently spoke with Gratton, who also founded the HSM consulting practice, leads the Future of Work Research Consortium, and has written numerous books and articles. Here is a transcript of our conversation, edited for clarity:

How quickly will things refreeze, and what do organizations need to tackle before they do?

Companies are beginning to put in place some of the basic infrastructure of what's going to happen next. There's going to be quite a process of iteration, in part because when we think about what it is we want, we're comparing it with now. And actually, it's not going to be the same as now. So there's going to be still quite a lot of learning going on and quite a lot of habits. But certainly you can see that companies are beginning to say, 'These are our basic principles. This is what's important to us. This is what we value.' Part of what I'm studying is a bunch of companies to see—and none of them is right or wrong. They're each finding their own way. The question really is, is this aligned to what it is you feel will build value in your company and will support the employees?

Are there any best practices for organizations to structure experimentation in terms of how they're returning to the workplace?

We know what experimental best practice looks like, which is that you have an initial situation with condition A and condition B. You measure at the beginning, you run these together, and you measure at the end. The company that I've talked about is British Telecom, who did that with home-working some years ago. Of course, Nick Bloom's research was that.

I don't see any of what I would call pure experiments taking place at the moment. Companies are going through a trial and error. We're seeing much more trial and error than we are pure play experimentation, which is a shame in a way, because I think that what both Nick and BT found was that it took quite a bit of time for things to settle in.

If you try something and it doesn't work, and if you haven't said, 'It's an experiment, we're going to run it for a year,' then you just start panicking. So we're going to see a lot of iteration, when in fact it would have probably been smarter for people to experiment.

Are you saying it’s better practice to assign different cohorts of workers, ideally randomly selected, to different approaches?

That's very difficult for companies to do. What I liked about Nick Bloom's work at Stanford is that it was really the only proper experimental analysis of home-working. When Covid came, everybody wanted to talk to Nick about that piece of work.

You're talking about Bloom’s research on CTrip, right?

Yes. What was really interesting is you found that people wanted to come back. But what people missed about that piece of work, and Nick has tried to explain this, is that what he was looking at was call center workers. What we don't know very much about is knowledge workers. There's very little real research on knowledge workers. We're not clear about how it's going to play out.

The freeze, the unfreeze, the refreeze—we're in the stage of the slush. Nobody really quite knows what's going on; people are making different views.

Goldman Sachs is getting a lot of footage saying everyone's got to get back. We're working with companies which are not dissimilar to Goldman Sachs, but they've made a completely different point of view about what they want. What I find really interesting is this notion of variety: once you bring in choice, that choice itself creates variety. You're going to see a lot more variety in organizations, and the point that I'm making—I wrote a piece on signature processes for MIT Sloan, years and years ago. I'm using that as a concept at the moment, which is to say, 'What's your signature?' I don't think Goldman is doing the wrong thing, but there are trade-offs associated with that.

What do you mean by signature?

By signature I mean what makes you unique. What is it that you do? In fact, when I wrote the piece on signature processes, Goldman Sachs was one of the examples. I wrote a case on them years ago, which unfortunately they pulled and I was never allowed to publish. It was pretty annoying, because it was an HBR-type case, so I'd done a lot of interviews. Their signature process at that stage, I thought, was the whole way they recruited people. It was an incredibly complex recruitment process. I don't know if that's still working. So the signature would be what is it you do that brings you value? What I'm trying to work out at the moment is what is it that Goldman thinks is it's signature? I think I have a view of what that is. So it's not so much that there's a right or wrong, it's simply a question of the choice you've made.

There's speculation that we might see workers choosing companies based on approaches to work…

I totally agree with that. What we're going to see is a lot of variety, and people will choose. If you look at a two-by-two, which has the need to which you want flexibility and how brilliant you are, then what Goldman is doing is fishing in a very small talent pool—people who are really brilliant and don't want any flexibility. But there are other people who are fishing in another talent pool, which is the people who are really brilliant and do want flexibility. The question that Goldman has to ask is, are there enough in that top right-hand corner? Actually, I think there are. So they don't care. That's fine, but there are going to be a bunch of other people—with McKinsey, there are all sorts of people who've left to build smaller businesses that are like McKinsey, but flexible. That's fine, and people join them. I agree what you're going to see is a much clearer distinguishing. That's what I call signatures, what distinguishes you from everybody else.

In some ways Silicon Valley and Wall Street have been heading in that direction for years. Wall Street has has had more traditional work approaches and Silicon Valley has been more on-site massages and bring your dog to work.

But actually, the bring your dog to work and the on-site massages—that was never a fundamental shift. They were superficial. I don't think that's the right word, but they weren't changing the actual bedrock of the place.

You've written that companies need to pay attention to individual employees' preferences, but it strikes me that it makes it even more challenging to ensure fairness. While respecting individual employees' preferences, what are the best practices for ensuring fairness, including across race and gender lines?

That's a really important point. I wrote a piece for London Business School about three months ago where I said what I'd seen happening, and then predicted what I thought were the three things that were going to come out. One of them was about fairness. Fujitsu, for example, have said publicly that they're really pleased to have moved away from the office culture that they had, because it means that women and mothers have got more of a chance. Because even though we've got more flexibility, during the pandemic women did more work in the home than men did.

I was very disappointed about that. Actually, that was one thing I got wrong. I said at the very beginning, 'Isn't this great? You'll get more of a balancing act between men and women.' We didn't. When mothers and fathers were at home, mothers did even more than the normal. That was disappointing. I've had to have a go at all my MBA students and my sons for that. So it didn't get any fairer, but what we're saying in terms of justice and fairness is that it's about communication. It's about listening. It's really more about the processes, but also realizing that the dimensions on flexibility aren't just about place. They're also about time.

One of the clients that we're advising has said, 'There's a whole bunch of people we can't give any flexibility about place. They've got to be there. But can we do something more about time?' That's going to be an important part of it. You have to confront it and then be really creative about what the options are. But I agree, it's a mistake, if you just think about reset as being about knowledge workers

What does your research indicate are the key best practices for hybrid work, if you had to summarize?

They're really rather more about process than anything else. They're not about the outcome. What I'm realizing is because there's so much variety, it's not one size fits all. So how do you decide what it is you want? You've got to understand what it is that drives performance in your organization. Is it about focus or cooperation or collaboration or coordination? You've got to understand the sort of people you employ and what it is they want. Then you've got to ask yourself, on that two-by-two of time and place, where is it that you want to play? Are you like Goldman Sachs, where you say we have no flexibility of time and no flexibility of place?

Are you like one of the big pension companies we're working with, where they've said you can actually live wherever you want in the world for three months a year. Completely opposite, but they're fishing in the same talent pool.

The best practice is a process; it's not an outcome. Now, I'm sure if I wrote that down, I'd have to make it sound a bit more straightforward. But because we're still in the slush, it's very difficult to know what best practices are actually. I was just looking at how some are saying that if people can come into the office whenever they want with hybrid, then they'll all come in on Wednesday and Thursday. What happens on Monday and Friday? So you could say that there's a best practice, which is about scheduling. Actually, it's to the point that Nick Bloom's made that maybe you've got to tell people that it's all at the level of the team. Honestly, I feel it's a little bit early to say what's best practice.

Are there any obvious pitfalls for organizations?

The pitfalls are to move too quickly, saying 'This is what we're going to do,' and not going through any trial and error. I think that's the number one pitfall—companies are rushing into saying that everybody's got to be in the office, or everybody's got to be at home, when in fact we haven't worked that through yet.

The second pitfall is not being imaginative enough about what could be possible. That's why it is important that we actually show companies what others are doing. One of the companies I'm showcasing is entirely virtual and always has been. You'd say, 'How does that work?' They make it work perfectly fine.

And then the third would something about not aligning with the organization, in the sense of not really understanding where the organization is. In my book, which is sadly out of print, Living Strategy, I talked about complex systems and unwritten rules of the game. An unwritten rule of the game, which is going to be really important during Covid, is 'I've got to see you to promote you.’ If that stays as the unwritten rule, then people will begin to realize that and will start coming back into the office, even though it might not be the best thing for them.

We just did a survey recently of decision makers responsible for the return to workplace, and their number one concern was training and support for managers. And we know from Gallup data and other things that ultimately the success of a company and definitely whether employees thrive or not hinges very much on their individual manager. If you were advising a company about training and support for managers now and over the next few months specifically, what would you suggest they do?

Managers are crucial. In fact, Diane Gherson, who stood down as CHRO of IBM last year, and I have written an article on managers, because we feel exactly the same way. It's a huge issue. What we came up with was that the manager's role is pivotal, and it's changed. It's highly fragmented, and we have to think about the structure of the job so that we give them more time to do the things we now want them to do. Actually, IBM has been amazing at using technology to support that. They do lots of chat bot stuff, as you'd imagine.

The second thing I've done, which is on my own, is I have a consulting practice for advising companies. We're building what we're calling playbooks to help. And they've got things like personas—one of the things we're doing is we're building these pictures of people and saying, 'Here's Haley, she's 35 years old.' This is what she does. This is what she thinks. How would you approach this issue so that they can start empathizing with that and also talking to each other? We've got a whole process where we use hackathons and God-knows-what for managers to start to think about what they need to do.

At the same time, we've also said that the organization needs to set in place its principles. I don't think it's a good idea to let every manager just decide what they're going to do. At the very beginning of Covid, one of the banks that we worked with said, 'No, it's fine. We've just told managers to get on with it.' But you're going to build problems of injustice and unfairness, because one manager will do one thing and so on. There has to be an overarching set of principles. We've been working a lot at the level of the manager, and training is part of that.

You've done a lot of work on best practices for collaboration, including the tools companies use to structure that. Do you have any recommendations for collaboration tools or practices at companies taking hybrid approaches?

The best companies tend to be the technology companies. I've always written a lot about Tata Consulting Services (TCS), because I know them very well. What they've done is they use the agile methodology to structure teams, to do stand-ups. That seems to work really well with hybrid. In the case of TCS, they'd always had virtual work and so the work then moves into hybrid. What I'm also realizing and seeing, and I spoke about this in the HBR article, is that face-to-face collaboration is really precious. A company like Arup, which is very innovative and very face-to-face, is thinking a lot about what it takes for us to maximize what we get out of face-to-face collaboration.

What do you think we'll be talking about one year from now?

I said that actually this time last year—it's just very difficult, because we don't know enough about what's going to happen to the pandemic. I look back at my diary volume one, which started on March the 23rd last year, and none of us predicted this was going to take so long. I was talking to my council members at WEF who were ministers and CEOs. I talked to them recently and said, 'You realize, all of us got this wrong.' One of them said, 'Oh I didn't. I said it was going to take at least a year.' And I replied, 'I've got my diary notes in front of me. You didn't.' So do you know what I'm feeling?

Honestly, I don't know. Currently my brain, which is a systems brain, is just trying to work out what the hell is going on now. That's why I decided to write a book, because I'd written all these bits but hadn't really pulled it all together. It takes a book to pull it together. I don't know where we'll be in a year's time. I think that we'll see more variety, like we were saying earlier. At the moment what we're doing, and I can see this with journalists, is they're just looking from one to another but haven't really modeled it yet. I've got to spend a bit of time modeling it. All I've done is to do that two-by-two of place and time, but I think there's something much more than that going on.

There'll be a clearer sense of what's happening. Issues of fairness and justice are going to come to the fore. Someone was talking about how there are going to be a lot of court cases.

What could the promises be? I know what I would like to see, but I got it wrong last time. I thought that men would do more in the home. They didn't.

What are the promises this time?

These are my promises, what I call the wishlist. There is a whole thing about whether we could sort out email overload—in a sense, if we're going to reset work, couldn't we reset time as part of that? It's a mistake just to focus on place. There's an opportunity here to do something about time as well. That would be one of them.

The second wishlist would be about diversity The third is about families. And the fourth is about neighborhoods, which I've been rabbiting on about.

I've been rabbiting on about communities in about three of my last books, not getting anywhere really. When you write with an economist, they always talk about the Industrial Revolution—economists always start with that. Certainly British economists always talk about the Industrial revolution and what they say is that of course, we had this amazing life. We all lived in the countryside and had families and, and then the industrial revolution broke all that. It brought everybody into factories. I've done this in two of my books and my Japanese fans say, 'Lynda, why do you keep talking about the Industrial Revolution?' They're completely bewildered. But somehow we find ourselves in a more human place, with our neighbors, with our community. I've talked about it endlessly and nothing's happened on that one.

So the current pitfalls I've got, or the hurdles to jump, are socializing young people; creating serendipity, all that bloody networking stuff; fairness and justice. Those are the three that I think are the big hurdles right now.

And socializing young people is basically initiating them into workplace culture?

I've called it the observed and the observing. The point I'm making is that young people learn through observing, but one of the potential scenarios is that the offices are full of young people because they don't want to work from their crowded apartments. Whereas people like me and others, who've got lovely homes, want to stay in our home. So they're all there waiting to observe. There are lots of observers, but nobody to observe.

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