Tuesday, October 26, 2021

Microsoft's Study on Remote Work and Collaboration

Source: geeksforgeeks.org

Stanford Professor Bob Sutton recently posted a link to a fascinating piece of research by Microsoft regarding the shift to remote work. The article is titled, "The effects of remote work on collaboration among information workers," and it is authored by Longqi Yang, David Holtz, and a team of other researchers. This study examined emails, calendars, instant messages, video/audio calls and hours worked for more than 60,000 employees from December 2019 to June 2020 (covering both pre-pandemic work and several months after the shift to remote work). Here is what Microsoft discovered:

Overall, we found that the shift to remote work caused the formal business groups and informal communities within Microsoft to become less interconnected and more siloed. Remote work caused the share of collaboration time employees spent with cross-group connections to drop by about 25% of the pre-pandemic level. Furthermore, firm-wide remote work caused separate groups to become more intraconnected by adding more connections within themselves. The shift to remote work also caused the organizational structure at Microsoft to become less dynamic; Microsoft employees added fewer new collaborators and shed fewer existing ones.

The researchers do point out that the entire study took place with US workers at one company, Microsoft. That's clearly a limitation of the study. Moreover, they only studied the first few months of the pandemic. Companies clearly invested heavily in technology to support remote work and virtual collaboration as the pandemic persisted. Employees may have become more adept at working remotely and collaborating remotely as well. On the other hand, the scholars point out that these workers could "leverage existing network connections, many of which were built in person. This may not be possible if firm-wide remote work were implemented long-term." More work clearly needs to be done, but this research shines a spotlight on the potential downsides of remote work for large numbers of employees in a complex organization.

Friday, October 08, 2021

Changing Your Mindset About Stress

Source: Stanford University

All of us have found ourselves overwhelmed at times by high levels of stress and anxiety. For some, these feelings and emotions can become debilitating. Our performance in a challenging situation suffers greatly. However, the consequences do not always have to be so dire. I recently listened to a fascinating podcast featuring Stanford psychology professor Alia Crum. She's the principal investigator in Stanford's Mind and Body Lab.

Crum has been examining how and why many of us have come to assume that stress should and will be debilitating. In fact, she argues that well-intentioned public health communications tend to reinforce this negative perception about stress. However, her work has explored how our mindset matters. Looking at stress with a different perspective can help us persevere through adversity and actually elevate our performance in very challenging situations. Here's an excerpt from the podcast:

The nature of a challenging situation or a demand in our life. That’s what we been focused on. And what we’ve found is that, if you kinda go back into those core assumptions, what you realize is that, most people have the mindset that stressful situations are inherently debilitating. They’re going to ultimately make us sick, make us struggle, make us crumble under pressure. And when you look at the truth about stress which is like most things very complicated, you realise that that is a simplified assumption. It’s not necessarily wrong, but it’s only one way of viewing stress and you start to realize that the true nature of stress is more complex.

And in fact, there’s a whole other side of stress that reveals to us that the body’s stress response, the mind stress response, was not designed to be debilitating, but instead designed to help us elevate our performance and behavior to meet the demands we’re facing. There’s a whole side of stress that shows that it can have enhancing qualities on our cognitive functioning, our physical health and on how we behave and interact with others. And so, our work is not necessarily to find out the truth of stress, what it is or what isn’t. But to look at how our mindsets, the core assumptions we make about it shape how we respond in stressful situations. And what we’ve shown is that if we can get people to open their minds to this notion that stress can be enhancing. That stress can help you rise to a new level of understanding, can deepen your connection with others, can make us even physiologically grow tougher and stronger. Having that focus shifts our attention and behaviors in ways that make that mindset more true.

Tuesday, October 05, 2021

Authentic Leadership

Source: Business Wire

When we transition to a different leadership role, we can and should think carefully about the new skills and behaviors that will be required to succeed in that new position.  For instance, as people shift from a role as a functional expert to being leader of a cross-functional team, they need to consider how much more important their team formation and building skills will be, as opposed to their particular expertise about certain subject matter.  Similarly, when a C-suite executive becomes promoted to CEO, they need to consider how many more outward-facing activities in which they will need to engage, including investor relations, major customer relationship management, outreach to public officials, and the like. 

Having said that, one cannot fundamentally change their leadership style.  Attempts to do so often cause others to perceive leaders as inauthentic.  You are who you are.  You can't and shouldn't try to adapt your style simply because you have a new role.  Naturally, you should be engaging in self-reflection and adapting based on what you learn from experience.  However, you can't alter your DNA as a leader. Lauren Hobart, the new CEO at Dick's Sporting Goods, articulated this challenge well in a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal. She said,

In this case, Ed (her predecessor) and the board tapped me. When they came and said, “You’re the person,” immediately my thoughts were that I had to change my entire management style. I have been a person who is extremely open. I write letters. In my time as chief marketing officer, I wrote weekly emails to the marketing team, and I would tell them stories about my kids, or about my mom, or a fight I had, or this or that realization about the business. It was always very nonpresidential, in my opinion. I did say to Ed, “Now I’m going to have to change absolutely everything. I can’t be posting selfies in emails to the whole group and to the whole company.” He disagreed and said, “What got Lauren Hobart to be in this position is Lauren Hobart, and we don’t want Lauren Hobart to change.” And so, I haven’t held back at all.

Friday, September 17, 2021

What Builds Trust in Organizations?

Source: www.openaccessgovernment.org

PwC has recently conducted an extensive research study on the topic of trust in organizations.  They asked consumers, employees, and executives about the factors that enhance trust in a business.  Among consumers and employees, the top three factors that build trust were:

1.  Accountable to customers and employees

2.  Clear communications

3.  Admits to mistakes

I found #3 particularly interesting, and of course, it relates directly to the top item in the survey responses (accountability).  Every organization will make mistakes.  How does that firm respond in those situations? Do they own the mistakes, apologize to customers and/or employees, and work diligently and transparently to rectify the situation?  All too often, executives don't own up to mistakes in a timely fashion, if at all.  Or, they try to blame external conditions or uncontrollable factors for lower-than-expected performance.   Customers and employees see right through such unsatisfactory explanations.  Employees also come to believe that a double standard exists.  They are held accountable for errors, but executives are not.  Leaders need to create a safe environment where everyone, including the people at the top, can talk candidly about errors so that learning and improvement can take place.  

Wednesday, September 01, 2021

Self-Reflection: How Am I Spending My Time?


Many people complain about their daily or weekly schedule.  Too many meetings.   Too much time spent fighting fires.  Not enough opportunities to interact with customers and other external constituents.  While these complaints may be justified, many of us don't take the opportunity to periodically engage in serious self-reflection about how we allocate our time.  Leaders at all levels should make it a regular habit to examine their calendar and ask themselves a few questions:

  1. What types of activities are taking up most of my time?
  2. Are there some important activities that are not receiving sufficient attention?
  3. Who in the organization or outside the organization should I be spending more time with in the coming weeks and months?
  4. How can I build in some time into my calendar for broader strategic and long term thinking/planning?
  5. What activities do I need to reduce or even eliminate so as to make time for other important matters?
  6. Where in my schedule will I build in an opportunity for systematic, routine self-reflection, not just about the allocation of my time, but about other important aspects of my professional and personal life?

In short, let's all stop complaining about our schedule and start doing something about it.  Carve out the time needed to conduct critical work.   Question 5, though, will be the most difficult one.  We can't make time for crucial activities without taking some things off our plate.  We have to give up some activities to make time for others.  

Wednesday, August 25, 2021

The Right Way to Set the Bar High


Successful leaders set high expectations for their team members and challenge them to tackle lofty goals, much like effective teachers and coaches do. How you set and raise the bar matters a great deal, though. To get it right, leaders can learn a lot from what the most effective teachers and professors do... Check out my latest article (The Right Way to Set the Bar High), published by Chief Learning Officer, to learn more about this topic.

Thursday, August 12, 2021

Companies are Copycats; Customers crave Novelty

Source: Glenn Francis
(via Wikimedia) 
In Unlocking Creativity, I described how benchmarking practices tend to lead to copycat behavior.  Firms imitate, rather than innovate, after studying their rivals closely.   Many reasons exist for this phenomenon.  I focused on the considerable body of research in psychology regarding fixation.  Specifically, we know that human beings "become attached to a specific mental set – a way of thinking about a problem based on solutions that have worked in the past... Mental sets can facilitate problem-solving at times, but becoming fixated on an inappropriate solution from past experience can inhibit creativity."    One glaring example of herd behavior within a prominent industry:  broadcast network television's approach to primetime programming.   Time and again, after a new genre gained popularity, copying became rampant.  The original Hawaii Five-O, for instance, spurred a wave of imitation that vaulted police dramas from 1% of the primetime schedule in the mid-1960s to nearly a third of the programming by the mid-1970s.  In the late 1970s, the sudden popularity of the CBS drama Dallas spawned a wave of copycats in the primetime soap opera category.  

Interestingly, we have mounting evidence that consumers prefer novelty over imitation.  A new neuroscience study has examined consumer preferences in music.  This research demonstrates that customers love novelty.   Robert Hackett and Declan Harty reported on this work in Fortune:    

A new study in the scientific journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience finds that, over the decades, people tend to prefer newness and variety in music. In an analysis of Billboard top hits spanning from 1958 to 2019, researchers determined that the trend holds true not just for individuals over a lifetime, but population-wide over generations. People crave constant novelty, in other words. Chart-topping tracks tend to demonstrate more “harmonic surprise” over time, the authors say.

Robert Kennedy's research regarding the television networks demonstrates a similar result. While the networks love to copy one another, ratings tend to be higher for novel programs.  Of course, novelty brings with it increased variability.  Perhaps copycat behavior is the safer choice:  low risk, low return.  Managers in many industries have strong reasons to prefer the safer choice; career concerns may compel them to avoid high variability strategies.  

Still, we have to take these findings seriously as we consider our decisions about new products and services.  Doing what's best for our managerial careers may not be what's best for our customers.  How can companies help managers get more comfortable pursuing strategies of novelty rather than herd behavior?